Painter scholar of rare calibre
Written By Tissa HEWAVITARANA to Daily News
The temple paintings of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are some of Sri Lankan greatest national art treasures. They contribute a rich and distinctive authentic Sri Lankan contribution to the art of Asia. Many Buddhist temples and shrines with brightly painted interiors still exist throughout the country. These paintings narrative and decorative represent the phase of Sri Lankan tradition of mural paintings that is over 200 years old. It is only in recent years that the extraordinary artistic and historical value of these murals has become widely recognised among the art lovers.

L. T. P. Manjusri scholar, and lover of our national art and culture was  one of a handful of pioneering  Sri Lankan artists who took an interest in studying and publicising these late period paintings. Early in the 1930s Manjusri has devoted himself to studying and copying these murals. He has gathered a vast and invaluable unique collection of material which consists of copies and tracings sketches and drawings. Manjusri’s illustrations and his valuable writings on these subjects throughout the years are familiar to the Sri Lankan people. These copies are today prize exhibits in numerous and other collections both here and abroad.

L. T. P. Manjusri was born in 1902 in the small town of Alutgama midway between Colombo and Galle, South-West coast. His formal schooling did not take him far. He set out to discover the world for himself when he was only 11 years old. This man dreamed a greater number of dreams in a vast variety of fields and turned them into reality. First he became an apprentice to a carpenter then as a companion to one of his uncles who was a ballad singer, and finally as an assistant in a small shop owned by a cousin in Beruwala.
It was while working in this shop that he saw with fascination, bhikkhus and samaneras – Buddhist monks draped in Saffron (Yellow) robes walking in procession or going about their daily mendicant round. He was deeply moved by Buddhist traditions as his grandfather Kovis Gurunanse had been a Buddhist monk in his youth.

Manjusri himself was ordained as a Samanera at the age of 13. He began his studies at the Mangala Pirivena at Beruwala as a pupil of two famous scholars living at that time Ven. Telvatta Ariyawansa and Ven. Talwatta Amarawansa. Before he was 20 he had already become a reputed scholar. He studied Pali, Sanskrit and Bengali instead and went to Shantiniketan and learnt Chinese translation of Buddhist texts. At. Shantiniketan he met Nandalal Bose who introduced him to painting. After studying in India for a short period, on his return to Sri Lanka in 1934 Manjusri started to make copies of Buddhist temple murals.

Later these were taken back with him to Shantiniketan where they were exhibited together with some of Ravindranath Tagore’s own work. Manjusri later travelled to the slopes of Himalayas to study Tibetan iconography where he met Uchima the artist of the Tashima Lama.

Manjusri 3
Manjusri returned to Sri Lanka in 1937 and started making copies of temple murals while producing his own original work as well. He favoured the use of water-colours which he used meticulously. His association and his friendship with Harry Pieris led him to become one of the founder members of the ’43 Group.

The artist Manjusri (far left) with Minister Kalugalle (centre) and
Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike (right) admiring the works

At the end of 1947 Manjusri went to England and in 1948 held an exhibition in London of mural copies and original paintings. The same year he visited Austria where he exhibited in Vienna. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1949 and gave up robes and became a laymen to become henceforth L.T. Pieris, but he retained the monastic name Manjusri and from there onwards known as L.T.P. Manjusri.

He served as a journalist in several leading newspapers of the day. He first worked at Lankadeepa newspaper and later joined the Lake House group of newspapers and worked in the Janatha, Silumina and Daily News Paper as a leading feature writer. In 1981 he was awarded an honourary doctorate by the Peradeniya University and Ramon Magsay say prize in 1979. He married in 1955 and has a son and a daughter who have followed in their father’s footsteps. Manjusri’s work as a painter was outstanding. His pictures were great because they came out of the goodness of his heart. He studied and copied and absorbed into his very lifeblood the classical master pieces of the temple murals.

Majusri’s work has been acquired by the New York Public Library, the Horniman Museum, the Vienna Museum and by numerous other private collectors, the most notable being that of Ann Mitchell in London.

He was commissioned by the Steuben Glass Factory New York to execute a design of a classical figure of Maya the personification of illusion in Hindu mythology which was engraved for a crystel vas to be exhibited in ‘Asian Artists in crystle’ in 1956.

L.T.P. Manjusri was born on 28 October 1902 and died on 16 June 1982.Manjusri is best remembered for his singular contribution to art and especially preserving temple paintings for posterity.His daughter Manjista Manjusri and son Kusan Manjusri are not only preserving the proud tradition of their legendary father but also they are artists on their own right. They are as talented as their celebrated father and have a thorough grasp of the unique style of LTP Manjusri