Tuesday, June 09, 2009

REVIEW OF SRI LANKA - A PERSONAL ODYSSEY BY NIHAL FERNANDO. Lament for a Lovely Isle by Tharuka Dissanaike. The Sunday Times, 27 July 1997

Lament for a lovely isle
'Sri Lanka was meant to be Eden,' says veteran photographer Nihal Fernando and the book 'A Personal Odyssey' is his tribute to the land he loves so well
By Tharuka Dissanaike

Don't take photo graphs of me," Nihal Fernando said quietly but firmly. With a gentle shake of his head he banished all hope of catching on film a portrait of this rare man, whose life was dedicated to photographing this lusciously beautiful country. Then he pushed the chair back and stood up. "I will give you a good photograph of me." So saying he walked upto a cabinet and pulled out one snap shot. It turned out to be a picture of a silhouette of a person- we were told it's him- against a backdrop of fading light, dunes and sea. Nihal Fernando was grinnning to himself, enjoying his little joke. "That's me," he said.

For many decades Nihal Fernando has been a giant among photographers. His work, focusing on wildlife, people and nature all over the island, has given immense pleasure to the public, providing glimpses of lifestyles and exotic places that people rarely see or experience. In a few weeks his seventh ( and last?) book will be launched. Called ' Sri Lanka: A Personal Odyssey' the book is a haunting nostalgic work. A lament by the photographer for the beautiful land that he once knew which today is irreversibly changed.

"This is a collection of a lifetimes work," Fernando said. "That is how I have got those rare pictures of Jaffna and the Nuwara Eliya Lake in 1960."

"There are also a lot of pictures of women bathing- in wells, streams and rivers, in this book."

Saturday morning after Mass, there used to be enacted, in some Paskus, the scene of the devils being let loose. The village boys blacken their faces and run amok, looting vendors and playing havoc among the people. Then comes Lucifer, heralded by the sound of loud gongs, and all the devils concentrate into one of the side stages. Here Lucifer questions them about their doings and the devils begin to reveal all the clandestine affairs and private intrigues of the village folk, each confessing to his having been responsible for a certain number of evils. The boys took this opportunity of revealing village gossip and scandal, and altercations of a serious sort often resulted. On account of this, the scene with Lucifer and the devils was banned from Passion Plays.

The book, 312 pages in all contains some 475 pictures. They have not been distributed haphazardly but organized into 10 captivating chapters. The pictures are accompanied with quotations, from religion, art and history. "In this book I have managed to put together some very rare writings of Sri Lanka," he said. Helped by friends, Nihal Fernando has spent long hours digging up suitable wordings for his photographs. In some chapters he has illustrated poems, articles and in Creation ( the first chapter ) paragraphs of the Book of Genesis, in the Bible.

"This book is more than photography," he muses. "It is the kind of book one can keep and read over and over again because of its writings. It makes you reflect and think and not merely flip the pages."

For the last one and a half years the production of this book has been top on his list of priorities. With six other books behind him, that wealth of experience would have helped Fernando through the long hours of gathering the quotations, editing and deciding on the page spreads. Now he sits at home with the final proofs of the pages spread before him, urging us to go through the proofs in greater detail. Two pet dogs nose us from under the table in a friendly fashion. Shy and retiring in manner he was most reluctant to give a formal interview. " How can I talk about my own work ?" he asked.

Is this really going to be his final attempt at producing a book ?

He smiled, vaguely mysteriously. "I hope so....."

Born in 1927, at Marawila, Nihal Fernando grew up in a village atmosphere by the Chilaw sea and acquired a love and reverence for the outdoors very early in life. He came to Colombo for schooling at St. Peter's College. His photographic career took off when he joined the Times of Ceylon as a reporter and photographer. Later, when the publisher was on the verge of closing down the lab section, Fernando bought it over. His first book, Handbook for the Ceylon Farmer was published in 1965. Among his photographic publications is the much acclaimed 'Wild, Free and Beautiful'. Today his work place, Studio Times adjoins his house on Skelton road, homely and shaded by trees and vines, devoid of sophistication.

Nihal Fernando's love for nature and wildlife is manifest outside his photographic skills as well. He is a keen environmentalist, a strong lobbyist in issues concerning the protection of forests and wildlife. A long standing member of the Wild Life and Nature Protection Society, he frankly admits that his many skirmishes with the state and beauracracy to keep the island wild free and beautiful have failed. He grieves for the coming generations, which he predicts, will not see butterflies, grasshoppers or elephants in the wilds.

To Nihal Fernando, who with his backpack and camera has explored the nooks and corners of this country, Sri Lanka is his vision of paradise on earth. To quote from his preface to the book, " The pictures...... are meant to evoke poetic and haunting glimpses of a beloved land."

"If this book saves an elephant, fosters a tree, or evokes a reverence for what I have revealed, my task has been justified. I have tried to give back something in return for what I have received- the pleasure of being born in this Eden, once upon a time."



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