Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Givantha Arthasad story

In 1979, a man called Premaranjith Tilakaratne went to the Anusha Theatre in Maharagama to watch a film. That feature film, the first by its director, was an animated and novel retelling of the story of Dutugemunu. Given that cartoons weren’t in the vogue then, a great many people had naturally shown interest in it, and had thronged halls and theatres by the dozen to watch it for themselves.

By the time Premaranjith had gone to Maharagama, however, Dutugemunu had been banned. Recalling this to me many, many decades later, he had only one comment to offer: “They (the authorities) banned it for stupid, misconceived, and unjustifiable reasons.” Before we come to what those reasons were, though, we should examine the story of the man behind the cartoon.

Most of us acquired a love for stories as children. Stories, however, of a different order, certainly superior to what they have become now. In the process we also acquired a love for animation, the moving image, and in our first few attempts at understanding the cinema, we grew up loving Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and everything else that Walt Disney and (for later generations) the likes of Don Bluth and Miyazaki conjured up for us. Sri Lanka, strange as it may seem, was no stranger to such visionaries. The only thing they lacked, however, was the necessary willpower to move ahead. In this respect, one name stands apart from the rest. Givantha Arthasad.

Givantha Arthasad came to us in the late sixties. He gave us a cartoon industry that, though in shambles today, we no doubt are thankful for. He projected an image of himself which, I believe fervently, survives his work to date. Sporting a long, sagacious beard that at once taps into his formidable and creative sensibilities, he appears (as he pretty much is) larger than life. Ever since he began his career, he has specialised in eight different aesthetic fields, an unparalleled achievement on its own count. Before I move on to all that, however, I will go through his story.

He was born to a religiously devout mother and father. From an early age, he was exposed to the arts, something he clearly seems to have inherited from his family. His father, who taught and became headmaster and later principal at Methodist College in Katunayake (which Givantha briefly attended), used to bring students to their house and teach them scouting. His mother, a teacher, did the same to teach them the arts, or more specifically handwork. “All this, of course, was before the tuition culture invaded our schools,” he remembers, “My mother taught village children how to make toys, how to sculpt, and how to decorate walls, for free.” That inevitably spilt over to him.

And it wasn’t just scouting and handwork: his father would get him to read newspapers at the age of four, going so far as to teach him to read them upside down at the age of five. Recalling this for me, he says with a chortle, “My father was always teaching unusual but useful things to his students. Naturally, he took the trouble of teaching them to me.” Apart from reading, his father got him to read aloud. “I learnt about dramatised reading, which is really nothing more than reading into the emotions and the nuances of a particular passage. To this end, he made me listen to the radio and in particular, to the news read by the likes of Cyril Rajapakse and Karunaratne Abeysekera.”

As I mentioned before, he attended Methodist College Katunayake, though only for one year. He then entered Second Grade at Wesley College in 1960, to be taught by none other than the formidable yet soft-spoken thespian-to-be, Cyril Wickramage. Like many of his teachers (and associates), Cyril figures significantly in Givantha’s memory. “I was 20 years younger than him. He used to comment on his students and their abilities. Now I was a stickler for drawing from an early age. By the time I got to Wesley, I could draw rather well for my age. One day, when Wickramage saw me drawing, he observed what I drew. He then commented rather cryptically, ‘You shouldn’t have been born here.’ I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but in later years, I did.”

After he entered Grade Three, he moved into the College hostel. His class teacher, Miss Ivy Marasinghe (Professor Walter Marasinghe’s aunt), was as receptive to young Givantha’s abilities as Cyril had been. “In addition to being receptive, she was also a good artiste herself. After lunch and after school, she conducted some art classes where we helped her draw and craft. We were given an opportunity to watch 16mm cartoon films during the weekend, standard fare like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” Needless to say, the artiste in Givantha was aroused, if not enthralled, by these (cartoons were unheard of in Sri Lanka, except for one or two films which had animated opening credits). They compelled him to ask her about the art of cartoon films.

What happened next? “Miss Marasinghe did something very few teachers would do today. She told me to wait, referred up some books at the British Council, returned, and patiently explained to me about the nuts, bolts, and other niceties of cartoon films.” I ask him as to whether his interest in the subject developed from that point, and he agrees: “I was always moved by the moving image.” In fact, he adds, it would be safe to say that his aspirations for the media (which he excelled at, though that chapter of his life is yet to come here) were rooted then and there with Miss Marasinghe. Not surprisingly, he says he owes much of his interest in his field to her enthusiasm.

For someone who ended up retelling the Dutugemunu story through cartoon strips, Givantha surprisingly opted for Science at school. Unlike today (when subjects are cordoned off from each other and barriers have been erected to make students specialise), however, there was a clear, if not subtle, connection between science and his love for the arts. “As we moved up in school, we graduated from geometry to mechanical drawing to physics. We didn’t abandon our love for the arts. Still, I personally felt that I ought to have opted more for the latter.” This latter sentiment, coincidentally, was shared by the Principal at Wesley College. Givantha explains how.

“We used to submit our drawings to various exhibitions around the country. For that, we needed the signature of the Principal, certifying that what was submitted was by us and from Wesley College. I think I must have visited the man several times, as I submitted a great many such drawings, because during one such visit, he told me point-blank, ‘Givantha putha, meka hari yanne naha, oya art karoth eeta vada hondayi.’ He then directed a Prefect to bring to his office the teacher in charge of the Arts section, Jayantha Premachandra.”

Not long afterwards, he was shifted away from the Science section, with Premachandra winding up as his third important figure of destiny at school. “I used to bike to his house on weekends, to learn from him. More than his lessons, it was what he taught me about what he could teach me that stayed: he told me bluntly that he could only explain to me the techniques of drawing, painting, and what-not, not the art itself. I found that to be immensely useful in later years, as I taught myself to go beyond the foundation he laid for me and as I myself became a teacher for aspiring artistes.” After Premachandra, Givantha counts in another such figure of destiny from school: Felix Premawardhana, who taught literature.

By the time young Givantha completed his O Levels, his father, who had envisioned a life as a parson for him, abandoned the idea and let him continue with what he wanted, something he highlights for me in our conversation. “The problem for me, however, was that there was no real institute or University for me to go and study what I wanted. The closest that came to such a place was Heywood, which taught music, but I felt soon enough that it would limit me. So I decided to venture out on my own and teach myself.”

Given the tendency of most youngsters today to label themselves as professionals after a mere and brief perusal of their “professions” online, it’s a tad refreshing to hear how Givantha laboured on assiduously (in keeping with his Wesleyan, thrift-oriented religious upbringing) and taught himself, leaving no stone unturned. I suspect that there is more, much more, to follow even before we get to his flowering as a feature film director on his own right. As I listen and wade on with the conversation, my suspicions are confirmed.

His first encounter as such had been with Dissanayake Studios. Leenus Dissanayake, who headed it, had earlier produced Siri Gunasinghe’s Sath Samudura. Givantha managed to borrow a camera through him, after which (in 1971) he directed his first film, a hilarious and animated take on the story of Andare. “The Film Critics and Journalists Association nominated it for their annual Short Film Festival in Colombo. I remember contending against the likes of Sunil Ariyaratne (Sara Gee) and Dharmasena Pathiraja (Sathuro) and I remember meeting D. B. Nihalsinghe, who’d later wind up as the Chairman of the Film Corporation.”

Ever the inquisitive dabbler, this hadn’t prevented Givantha from pursuing other fields. His next interest had been in makeup. Through Freddie Silva, a personal friend and a veritable star at the time, he had gone to Ceylon Studios, where after being introduced to the formidable but kindly Derrick Fernando had met up with Titus Thotawatte. “He taught me a lot about films and filmmaking,” Givantha reflects, “and through him, I ended up learning about cinematography with his most frequently opted for cameraman, Andrew Jayamanne.” The end-result was that thanks to these encounters, he was able to clinch awards for his third cartoon film, made at the age of 20.

Given that I more or less know his film credits, I ask him as to how cartoon films were made at the time. “Not through digital means, of course!” he chortles, explaining that as a virtual one-man team he had to insert India ink on every frame he was provided with. Given that over a thousand such frames were used in his first two cartoons, the process would doubtless have been lengthy, time-consuming, arduous, and demanding of a high technical proficiency. Needless to say, Givantha was able to put up with all three. “I was told later that a man in Canada called Normal McLaren did a similar thing with his cartoons. You can imagine how surprised I was when I was also told that this process was considered an art there!”

In the meantime, the awards kept on rolling, including one in 1976 for Best Makeup given at a Catholic Festival held at the Palm Grove in Galle Face Hotel. This was of course three years before he released his first feature-length film, Dutugemunu, but before that there are two other personal landmarks Givantha recounts for me.

The first was his foray into screen-printing after making his own camera. The second was his making the first optical printer in Sri Lankan upon the request of Lester James Peries (the latter machine, incidentally, would be used by Titus Thotawatte for his Maruwa Samaga Wasaya). In addition to this, he began a separate career as a cartoonist in 1971, working at Aththa, as well as a stamp designer (I notice his work on display at his humble abode, among them a stamp released on eve of the opening of the Victoria Dam).

The eighties proved to be a tumultuous decade (it generally was, for reasons that warrant another article) for Givantha. Before delving into that, however, I must delve into Dutugemunu.

A novel take on a key chapter of our history, Dutugemunu was nevertheless not a strictly historical retelling. I think the man describes it best: “It had to do with a cat which takes its kittens to Anuradhapura after telling them that, in a past life, it was Dutugemunu’s purohithaya. The story itself was loosely based on The Magnificent Seven, charting the attempts of the king to find the yodayas for his Army. That was what appealed to children and that was what I opted for, more than just the history.” His two gurus from Wesley had been taken to provide their voices, furthermore: Cyril Wickramage as Dutugemunu and Felix Premawardhana as Nandimitra. In addition, Henry Jayasena had voiced Kavantissa while Givantha himself had voiced several other characters.

Given the huge success such an endeavour would have pulled off, why was it banned? “In 1977 the UNP came to power promising ethnic harmony and coexistence. Certain educationists thought that the story of Dutugemunu, with his ultimate triumph over Elara, was not amenable to that ethnic harmony. That is why the Education Ministry eventually put a ban on propagating the Dutugemunu legend in whatever form, and that is why I was forced to take out my film from theatres.” I was not of course born at the time, so I can’t comment on the wisdom of the ban, but I wonder: wouldn’t we have had an opportunity to view our history in caricature, enough for our children to enjoy it?

Not wont to anger or sadness in the face of such obstacles though, Givantha gradually waded on to the eighties. In 1980, two years before Rupavahini was begun, he was sent to Berlin to study television. Upon his return, he was initially put into the Animation Division of the SLRC but, upon a personal request by Anandatissa de Alwis and Sarath Amunugama, was engaged in three other Divisions as well. In 1982 he was selected as one of 10 top outstanding personalities in the film industry, while five years later the OCIC bestowed him and 18 other people with awards in recognition for their technical contributions to the cinema.

Between those two years, however, tragedy had struck the man. In 1985 he’d organised an exhibition titled “Tricks and Effects” where, long before the advent of computers, he manipulated and (for the lack of a better word) “photoshopped” everyday images. While being engaged in the exhibition, he had begun seeing black patches with whatever he was looking at. Diagnosing it as having to do with his retina, he admitted himself to the Eye Hospital and, after convincing his doctors and nurses that something was wrong, discovered that he was slowly but surely going blind.

Givantha explains what happened next. “I was immediately sent to meet Dr Upali Mendis, the then Head of the Eye Hospital. He performed a surgery on my left eye and told me that I would quite possibly not see properly for some time. Praying to God, I let him take off the bandages for me to see for myself whether the treatment had worked. When the bandages were finally taken away, I opened my eyes. What did I see? The same black patches I’d seen before.”

Needless to say, the operation had not been a success, which compelled an ominous but sad comment from Dr Mendis: “He basically told me that they had done everything they could for me, using what was available in the country. Because it had not worked, he said, I would have to live with God for the rest of my life.” What he meant there, of course, was that he would have to let his life be governed by God and, if push came to shove, accept being blind.

How did he take to the news? “I immediately tendered my resignation from Rupavahini. M. J. Perera asked me why and told me to stay. I explained what had happened. That is when he accepted my resignation. Before going away though, I helped Henry Jayasena with a TV adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s book on Siddhartha Gautama.” A quirk of destiny perhaps, because with it he received an award that, in later months, compelled him to do something about the state of photo journalists and cartoon journalists.

“While I felt that my time for reckoning with God had come, I also felt that I had to start an awards ceremony for these maligned, understated illustrators. So I began the Jathika Janamadya Madyarupa Sammana (or the National Media Graphics Awards), which I funded for about five years before letting it go.” And his health? Given his state today, I can surmise that Dr Mendis had not been entirely correct about how he’d turn out eventually. Thankfully for us, the diagnosis had been wrong. “I still see those black patches, and my eyesight is still not 100% well. I don’t complain.”

Today, Givantha Arthasad teaches. He lectures Media at Sri Jayewardenepura University and teaches the same subject thrice a week at St Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa. While he is not entirely happy about the way children are being brought up to appreciate his subject (“We have sacrificed quality for commercialism, reflected in the kind of TV shows they watch”), he has much room for optimism (“We still have a bunch of dedicated youngsters clamouring for more”). While I am not a doomsday predictor to say that things are all going downhill, I do agree with his view that children are being forced to study subjects which are artificially cordoned off from each other.

I mentioned at the beginning that the man has specialised in eight aesthetic fields. I assume that, having read my piece on him, you’d know what they are. For purposes of clarification though, I will conclude by listing them out: graphic designing, painting, photography, drama, cinema, television, broadcasting, and journalism. In a context where lesser people inflate themselves as self-taught professionals, it’s refreshing to see that this almost otherworldly, kindly man (the Mahadanamuththa of the animated feature he directed in 2002, the fist digital film in Sri Lanka by the way) claims no credentials higher than what he’s achieved thus far. His journey ahead, I believe fervently, should receive our collective blessings.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 18 and 25 2017