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By Uditha Devapriya

On August 29, 1943, the 43 Group was formed in Lionel Wendt’s house at 18 Guildford Crescent, Cinnamon Gardens. There are conflicting accounts of who took part in the first meeting and who did not. Lester James Peries remembered seeing George Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala, Geoffrey Beling, and Manjusri, while Richard Gabriel remembered coming across Daraniyagala, Beling, Lester Peries, Harry Pieris, and Ivan Peries. The minutes of the meeting, however, do not mention Keyt, Daraniyagala, Beling, and Manjusri, while Gabriel pointedly denied seeing Manjusri there.

Citing official records, Neville Weeraratne records that seven people attended the meeting: Ivan and Lester Peries, Aubrey Collette, George Claessen, Richard Gabriel, Harry Pieris, and Lionel Wendt. The meeting formed a committee, consisting of Wendt, Ivan Peries, Collette, and Gabriel, while it “co-opted W. J. G. Beling, Ralph Claessen, Justin Daraniyagala, S. R. Kanakasabai, George Keyt, and Manjusri Thero.” Harry Pieries was appointed as Secretary, and George Claessen became Treasurer. The committee decreed that membership would be open to “all artists”, at a subscription of Rs 5 a year “or part of a year.”

The meeting was an event of enormous importance, for the country and for the founders personally. It proved to be the sequel to a struggle they had waged against the cultural establishment of the day. The latter revolved around the Ceylon Society of Arts, which had been founded by the government in 1887. Established along the lines of the British Royal Academy, the Ceylon Society of Arts pandered to colonial middle-class tastes and promoted a decidedly Academic approach to art. It not only decreed the artistic codes of the day, but also defined the dominant, prevalent artistic tastes. Naturally it came into conflict with those whose ideas of painting, and art in general, differed from theirs.

Tissa Abeysekara

The founders of the 43 Group sought an artistic idiom far removed from the confines of the colonial middle-classes. Since most of them hailed from the latter group, their defiance stung the establishment. The leader and shaper of the Group, Lionel Wendt, took particular offence at what he saw as the imitativeness of the Society of Arts: “[t]he Society,” he once observed, “exclusively follows the English School of water colour painters. It does not even attempt to profit by a study of the art of the modern European Schools.” One of the leaders of the Society, Mudliyar A. C. G. S. Amarasekara, shot back at Wendt, describing him, in jest, as “a modern Moses leading the elect out of the land of the Philistines.”

In their personal lives, too, the 43 Group reflected and reiterated their defiance. Though most of them hailed from a colonial middle-class and some, like Wendt and Daraniyagala, came from the upper echelons of this milieu, at school and elsewhere they hardly fitted in with the rest of their peers. While some achieved brilliant results at school, others became iconoclasts, preferring to spend time at libraries, learning on their own. In certain cases, the institutions they found themselves in encouraged this habit; in other cases, they did not. George Keyt stood in the middle: at Trinity College he flaunted his teachers’ orders, earning their wrath and frequently being punished, but he also benefitted from the guidance of Trinity’s greatest headmaster, A. G. Fraser, who encouraged his iconoclasm and allowed him to return to the College library even after he had left.

It could be argued that their family wealth and inheritance paradoxically liberated them from the conformist culture in which their peers and colleagues had ensconced themselves. It could also be argued that their wealth was their ultimate source of creativity, that when combined with their defiance of the views, tastes, and decrees of the establishment, they were able to gain the kind of agency to do what they wanted, as they willed, which others could not do. Daraniyagala, for instance, who stood alongside Wendt and Harry Pieris as the wealthiest of the members of the 43 Group, did not paint for profit. He slowly retreated to a world of his own, painting what he felt, thought, and perceived.

A common thread running through the lives and careers of these artists was their constant call for the need to reclaim a long lost, dormant, and implicitly superior artistic heritage. In a radio talk given on August 17, 1980, for instance, Harry Pieris passionately argued for the preservation of Sri Lanka’s cultural monuments. This task, he clarified, should not fall on the State alone: “Should not our creative talent,” he asked, “be supported and encouraged by the wealthy businessmen of this country, so that art too could pay big dividends and bring into the country much needed foreign exchange?” Reflecting on Ananda Coomaraswamy’s critique of the establishment’s neglect of the country’s monuments and artistic works, in particular Kandyan temples, Pieris adds that between Coomaraswamy’s time and Sri Lanka’s post-independence period, nothing much has changed.

The 43 Group

“There is a society called the Ananda Coomaraswamy Society. Every year they celebrate either his birth or death anniversary with a public meeting. Speaker after speaker extols his greatness. Year in and year out they repeat the same platitudes over and over again, how his father married an Englishwoman and how the son was educated in England and what great contributions he made in writing about the art of Asia and Sri Lanka. But nothing is being done to carry out his ideas and preserve for posterity the ancient buildings and paintings of which he spoke with so much feeling.”

In devoting their lives to the task of reclaiming Sri Lanka’s heritage, the members of the 43 Group, at least most of them, often staked their careers. This was their ultimate show of defiance, and in many cases, particularly in the case of iconoclasts like George Keyt, that defiance lost them the prestige that had, by dint of their position in the colonial era, been considered due to them. In another time and place, Devar Surya Sena, recalling a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall for an audience which included his father, Sir James Peiris, wistfully wrote that proud though his parents were about the career he had carved for himself in music, they nevertheless remained upset that he had given up a promising career in law. The price of such defiance was not always ostracism, but to compromise on one’s class carried the risk of being alienated from polite society.

And yet, if that defiance, and that refusal to conform, became their source of creativity, did the 43 Group realise their potential? In later years the Group would be critiqued for not being in touch with the culture and society they sought to depict, for being too Anglicised, too Westernised, to be able to depict anything other than a superficial view of that culture. Among the critics of the Group here were H. A. I. Goonetileke and Tissa Abeysekera. “The verve and enthusiasm of the forties,” Goonetileke observed, “petered out, perhaps because they were insufficiently grounded in the bedrock of the cultural patterns of Sri Lanka”, while the Group’s “choice of a medium which transcended language,” Abeysekera noted, remained “a handicap imposed upon them by socio-political circumstances.”

These lead one to all sorts of observations, which may not necessarily align with each other. One can, for instance, argue that the 43 Group’s later failures in terms of the nature of the colonial bourgeoisie, from which they hailed. Despite their open and sincere defiance of that elite, as Goonetileke suggested the enthusiasm that marked out their initial years could not survive the pressures of the postcolonial order. Indeed, for all their rejection of the colonial elite, they remained attached to it. They could not escape it.

The task of committing the postcolonial order to art would therefore fall on a different generation of auteurs, hailing from a bilingual milieu. This generation did not necessarily reject the 43 Group, at least not to the same extent that the Group rejected the Ceylon Society of Arts. Regardless of their sincerity in breaching it, of course, the 43 Group were constrained by their background to fully break up the colonial artistic order. Still, it cannot be denied that, in defying the codes of their day, they paved the way for a revival of a more indigenised art. While recognising their limits, I thus feel it is imperative that we recognise this achievement – in my view the most seminal that the 43 Group made.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

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