Neglect, decay and sometimes desecration
of cultural monuments to Asia's past are among the major tragedies of this
age. For all of their feudal ways, rulers of antiquity did truly patronize
the arts. Religious architecture, sculpture, painting and monumental
construction often were created in part with corvée labor. Taxes that
supported the artisans frequently were onerous for the peasants. However,
religious faith, combined with leaders' desire of leaving an enduring
heritage, inspired the finest artistic expressions of these ancient
Secular societies now seem especially prone to forget their origins, and
mass communications cater to the least common denominator of taste. Artists
are left seeking a constituency among the small minority who take time to
cultivate appreciation. Often today they are helpless to prevent the
plastering of old church frescoes and weathered temple paintings in the name
Born 77 years ago to poor parents in the fishing village of Alutgama in then
Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, MANJUSRI had to borrow a shirt to attend school.
After apprenticing as a carpenter, he joined the Buddhist sangha (monkhood)
as a novice at the age of 13. He was fortunate in studying under two famous
teachers at the Mangala Pirivena in Beruwala, learning Buddhist philosophy
and four languages: Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit and Bengali.
MANJUSRI's artistic sense was awakened in 1932 when he went to study at
Santiniketan Ashram of Rabindranath Tagore in eastem India. He was inspired
after two years to retum to begin copying the old temple paintings in Sri
Lanka, which work, by 1936, had won the admiration of the scholars at
Santiniketan. After further study of the Lamaist sect of Buddhism and
Buddhist artistic traditions in Sikkim and the Himalayan heights, the gifted
monk turned his talents to his life work.
In 1943 he inspired the organization of an association of young artists
known as the "43 group" that has now become one of Asia's more important art
schools. After his own original paintings were exhibited in Colombo,
together with his reproductions of temple art, MANJUSRI was invited to
London and Vienna where this wealth of the Buddhist artistic tradition began
to be appreciated.
Taking off the robes of a Buddhist monk, MANJUSRI in 1950 turned his full
attention to art and writing. Over the past 29 years he has published 155
serious articles in Sinhala and 55 in English, bringing to public ken the
ancient and medieval art of Sri Lanka. Visiting hundreds of viharas, or
temples, sometimes living on wild fruits from the jungle, he systematically
documented, and copied or traced, thousands of neglected and fast
disappearing mural paintings. In between he translated world
classics—including poems by Tagore—into Sinhala.
Marrying late in life, MANJUSRI now is assisted by a devoted wife, Mangala,
an artistic son and two daughters. They and the Archaeological Society of
Sri Lanka helped him prepare for publication on his 75th birthday his book,
Design Elements from Sri Lankan Temple Paintings, complete with 159 plates
of designs from 75 temples. In their modest flat he and his family have
created a haven where other artists now gather to cooperate in preserving
Sri Lanka's rich artistic tradition.
In electing LOKUKAMKANAMGE THOMAS PEIRIS MANJUSRI to receive the 1979 Rarnon
Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts,
the Board of Trustees recognizes his preserving for the people of Sri Lanka
and the world the 2,000-year-old tradition of classical art found in their
great Buddhist temples.