Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kumar de Silva's art of life

Pen-portraits are not easy to draw. What they sum up hardly goes by way of encapsulating a person's life and character in their entirety, and all too often the writer loses in substance what he tries to sketch as summary. The true worth or essence of a man, therefore, can only be caught through the eyes of the biographer.

Ethel Mannin, in her collection "Confessions and Impressions", says it best: "Greater than all art, more important than all the talking of art and life, this welter of sterile intellectuality which is the dry-rot of civilisation, is the art of life." It is life, and not the talking of it, that encapsulates a man. Biographers, in their rush to sum up and insert frill, never seem to notice this.

The point is that Kumar de Silva is a book that's been planned out, sketched, revised, and abridged. There are countless writers who've written on the events he has organised, the books he has authored, and of course his life-long association with France. Very few however would try to understand the man behind the show, free of frill and any predilection or bias the author has towards him. Mannin, I suspect, would have known this better than anyone else, were she alive today.

People dictate terms on their lives. They live as philosophers and intellectualise whatever experience they face. Kumar is a (mild) exception to that rule, I believe. True, he has until now demonstrated an abiding interest in orderliness, charting every nicety of his life to the last jot. As we conversed on a Sunday evening however, I felt at ease with a man who has come to symbolise a passionate and yet reflective attitude to achievement, indeed someone who has endorsed the notion that philosophising on life will get you only that far. He has, to my mind, several chapters that have not been looked into, by both critic and writer.

He is known for "Bonsoir". Many, even those who haven't watched it, will tell you that the show and the presenter went together. Kumar of course is far too modest to attribute it to himself, and anyone who buys and reads a copy of his Bonsoir Diaries will come away realising the collective effort that went into all those years. I suspect there's something more to him, though, something that defines what he has become. Getting to the essence of any man is not easy, after all, so I try to infer what it may be.

First and foremost, Kumar has always shown that he's a man who refrains from frill and show, who to the best of his ability remains both minimalistic and utilitarian. "I never opt for decor," he says, and by way of illustration he shows me his "garden", nested comfortably atop where he lives in Kohuwela. There's hardly any decor there. Everything he has grown and is tending to there, pithily put, has some utility and purpose, whether as food or medicine. "I judge almost everything on the basis of their use," he confesses.

Minimalism is notoriously hard to define, but seeing the way he has organised his life, I can say this much: there's nothing he takes in that he does not want later. "That explains why I'm not a passionate book collector," he explains to me. I am surprised, so he hastily elaborates: "That doesn't mean I'm not a reader. But if there's a book I haven't touched in five years, I give it away." Kumar privileges space. In a world that is getting fuller and fuller, that is rare.

This hasn't kept him back from pursuing different tastes, and it's to his credit that his eclecticism has dominated the better part of his career. He is a follower of the cinema ("Truffaut is among my favourites") and classical music, and he admits that while his "knowledge" in both may not be at its peak, he is still ardent enough not to be swayed by superficial allure. "I am at peace with nature and Art, and be it a van Gough painting that moved me when I had my first heart attack some years back or Truffaut's Antoine Doinel trilogy that refreshed my outlook on French life, I've tried to wed both in my life."

"Cultured" is another undefinable term. Again, it's to Kumar's credit that he has, time and time again, demonstrated what it should embody. In this respect, both Sri Lanka and France has left a deep impression on him. He has kept his feet in both countries ("My roots are in Ambalangoda, and I am an unabashed Francophile," he confesses) and he has to the best of his ability refrained from tilting to either side. Not everyone can bridge the gulf between van Gogh and Sarlis, but Kumar can.

And to me, that's what best sums the man. He presents a curious "contradiction", oscillating between the land of his birth and his "surrogate motherland" (I mean no insult of course, and I use that term candidly). On closer scrutiny however, this "contradiction" is not really a contradiction: he simply has varied interests, and he has wedded those with his life.

Not everyone can move with such ease and sureness as Kumar, and I guess that is what and everyone who has had the occasion to meet and be associated with him has been most taken in by the man. As if this wasn't enough, he himself offers comment: "Truth be told, it is my wish to be cremated here, and it is my wish to be scattered there." It's left to biographers to distill a man in his own words, but Kumar himself has done the job. Just like that.

There haven't been many interviews done of him, to be honest. Perhaps that's what has shrouded him in enigma. He has always given the impression that there's much more to him than meets the eye. He is correct. Interviewers indulge in sketches. Not in portraits. To me, everything that needs to be said about Kumar can be done so, not through clinical reflections, but through deep involvement with him. He at once betrays friendliness in its most simplified form, a quality almost never to be met with in others of his calibre.

Perhaps it's to do with his upbringing (Kumar's late mother, who taught me, testifies to this thesis: he himself credits his mother and father for allowing the unorthodox in him spring out, when he became the only student to offer French, German, and English for his A/Levels at Wesley). Perhaps it's to do with the career he managed to sustain for three decades: fulfilling and never in want of anything. Or perhaps it's to do with the kind of people he has hobnobbed with. We may never know.

Time doesn't permit these observations to end, unfortunately. Our most fervent wish, therefore, is that Kumar will stay on, enriching our cultural firmament (he has authored books on many leading artistes here, and we are grateful), whether from the sidelines or at the epicentre, and thereby adding to what we can look forward to, both as a community and as a nation. Rooted in one land and connected by spirit to another, he is a virtual cultural ambassador. The truth worth of the man, therefore, needs to be looked into. Until then, we shall have to wait.

That wait won't be long, we hope.

Written for: Sunday Island LIFESTYLE, December 27 2015