The lives of Keyt
In memory of the 106th birth anniversary of George
by Tissa Devendra
George Percival Sproule Keyt was born on 17th April 1901 into a
distinguished Burgher family of Dutch ancestry (which George
imaginatively attributes to an Indian ancestor in the Dutch employ!)
Ninety years later, Keyt is anchored firmly in the bedrock of
Buddhist and Hindu tradition, as its one unchallenged colossus,
light-years removed from the stolid Victorian milieu of his birth.
Keyt's was a glorious childhood. One memorable morning his ayah Biso
Menike, homesick for her people, smuggled baby George out of the Keyt
residence and away to her village home.
To this day he remembers the aroma of cooking and woodsmoke and the
affectionate cuddling. He remembers galloping around the Keyt garden on
the sturdy shoulders of the Indian gardener, clinging on to his turban
and yelling with joy.
He remembers his father presiding solemnly at family dinners. He
remembers a tearful governess being dismissed for being too familiar
with his uncle. And he can never forget his Uncle Vere, the Casanova of
the clan, having trysts with village maids with young George an
Trinity College could never confine George and, after a few years, he
refused to enter a classroom. Strangely enough he was yet allowed the
free run of the library, where he read voraciously. He recollects
sketching scenes of the 1915 riots for Principal Fraser.
And he yet remembers his first ever sale - of a Biblical picture - to
Mrs. Dias. His only formal education he received was his tutoring by the
redoubtable N.E. Weerasooriya, then a young law student from Kandy.
Young Keyt's reading turned his vision towards India and away from
his western milieu. Rabindranath Tagore's writings overwhelmed him and,
on his own, he wrote to Viswa Bharati seeking admission - and was
accepted! When George diffidently approached his father for his
approval, old Henry guffawed loud and chided him "not to be a silly
Keyt's adolescent years were a ferment of new ideas and artistic
The tremendous vitality of the Buddhist revival, in the early
decades, had a great impact on Keyt. He frequented Buddhist temples and
moved around with the monks. It was in Malwatta Vihara, not far from his
home, that he met his mentor the Venerable Pinnawela Dheerananda who
spoke of the Buddha's doctrine and the simple beauty of the Sinhala
Keyt confessed a longing to join the Sangha but Dheerananda detecting
his questing spirit, gently dissuaded him. Young George was a zealous
Buddhist, and this zeal led to a classic encounter.
Keyt (Senior) returning from a field trip properly accoutred in pith
helmet, safari jacket, puttees and boots had his car held up by a large
crowd at the Kandy market place listening raptly to a speaker. He
dismounted and discovered that the orator was his son George clad in
white 'Ariya Sinhala' costume holding forth on Buddhist doctrine - in
English! - to a rather bemused audience of 'natives'.
Almost everything that Keyt wrote and drew during this period was
influenced by Buddhism. Many poems, stories, articles and drawings were
regularly published in W.E. Bastian's Buddhist Annual, the main popular
Buddhist publication in English. The titles show the range he covered -
'The Arahan a poem', 'Buddhism and Ethics', 'Jayamangala Gatha - a
translation', 'Migara - a tale of old Ceylon'.
The Annual also published his first line drawings of the Life of the
Buddha which later illustrated Bhikkhu Silacara's 'A young people's life
of the Buddha' in 1927. Two decades later the same fount of inspiration
led him to paint the magnificent murals of the Gotami Vihara.
Malwatte Vihara was the focus of several of his finest paintings -
the Vihara itself, its worshippers, the humanity of the Kandyan peasants
at Pirith, monks bathing and the austere mien of his guru Dheerananda.
Under the monk's guidance Keyt published his Poetry from the
Sinhalese to introduce its variety - from the classics to folk songs,
lullabies and the modern poetry of Munidasa Kumaranatunga - "to those
readers who still exercise the colonial habit of comparison with
During these years he climbed the precarious ladder to the frescoes
of Sigiriya and experienced the blinding vision which transformed his
art and yet inspires it. Keyt painted without cease - landscapes, still
life, village and temple scenes - ever seeking his own artistic idiom.
He had also discovered a magic circle of like-minded friends -
aesthetes, writers, musicians, poets and painters - brilliant sparks
brightening the cultural twilight of colonial Colombo. Harry Pieris,
Geoff Beling, L.C. Van Geyzel, Hilda Naidoo, Justin Deraniyagala were
some of those in this circle whose guiding spirit was the incomparable
Lionel Wendt - photographer of Genius, remarkable pianist, perceptive
critic and generous patron.
Wendt guided and encouraged the self-taught Keyt in every way,
sharing his understanding of the latest European art derived from the
latest journals. The influences of Matisse, Braque and Picasso can be
detected in some of Keyt's work during this formative phase.
On the fringes of this group was Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean
poet, exiled as his country's consul to Colombo. He admired Keyt's
paintings and gave him the courage and encouragement to paint nudes from
The first was "Govindamma", a nautch temple dancer, which became both
a scandal and a rallying cry for the progressives when it was hung on
the staid walls of the Ceylon Society of Arts. Keyt's nudes of this
period, drawn from life, have a solid voluptuousness.
Chivalry veils the identify of the society ladies who discreetly
bared all to be immortalised on Keyt's canvasses.
For a few years the householder's life claimed Keyt. In 1930 he
married Gladys Ruth Jansz at St. Mary's Church, Kegalle where the Keyts
owned their estate. They made their home in Kandy and had two daughters,
Diana and Flavia, whom Keyt entertained with delightful cartoons and
word magic in his wryly funny Rhymes without Tears about the naughty
"Who ate up his sister, Seedevi Dapple
Mistaking her cheeks for a Japanese apple"!
Keyt bubbled with a creative vitality which sought expression in both
painting and poetry. His two books of poems Darkness Disrobed and Images
in Absence were as different from parlour verse as his paintings were
from the staid academics.
"Beneath flowering branches
You sit relaxed like the twilight
With the blue sky and the yellow sun on either side of you
Resting your cheek on your arms
Bare arms like waterfalls..."
Hindu mythology gradually came to dominate the thought and works of
Keyt. Carnatic music and dance fascinated him. The sublime eroticism of
the Krishna legend provided him the perfect mythic setting for his
celebration of life and love.
In 1940 he published his version of the Hindu love epic, Jayadeva's
Gita Govinda - a work central to the understanding of the Keyt opus.
Harold Pieris, the Sanskrit scholar from Oxford, married to Keyt's
sister Peggy, made this venture possible as Keyt had little Sanskrit.But
painting was his one true love and a jealous mistress who demanded
Domesticity was a sad distraction. After anguished introspection he
renounced home and family to seek refuge in the green valley of
Harispattuwa to pursue his vocation, inspired by Menike his Kandyan
model and muse. A theme he has returned to, time and again, in his
paintings is the Great Renunciation with which he identifies - in his
As a scion of the De Soysa family Harold Pieris was the hereditary
custodian of a little temple in suburban Borella which was in need of
restoration. In a flash of inspiration he commissioned Keyt to paint the
Life of the Buddha on the inner walls of the Vihara. And thus it was
that Gotami Vihara became a landmark in Sri Lanka's art, almost on a par
with the ancient masterpieces of Sigiriya and Degaldoruwa.
For six months Keyt travelled down from Kandy to live in the temple
and work unceasingly at this labour of devotion. The figures were of
heroic proportions and filled the wall space available. Lionel Wendt
came to watch the work in progress and was so impressed by the sketched
outlines that he attempted to persuade Keyt to leave it at that.
But Keyt worked in the tradition of the temple painters of old "for
the serene joy and emotion of the pious" not for unalloyed aesthetic
The murals are a magnificent progress from the birth of Siddartha to
the attainment of Buddhahood. And in a rare tribute to his patron Keyt
portrayed the Viharadipathi, the scholarly Telwatte Amarawansa, as a
disciple at the feet of the Buddha. The Gotami murals are Keyt's true
masterpiece and dower to the nation, open to all - unlike his other
paintings squirrelled away in private homes and secluded galleries.
Time's cruel hand has not been kind to this masterwork. Hairline
cracks and seepage endanger the paintings. However the George Keyt
Foundation and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau have now
commenced the renovation of the Vihara to restore the murals for
After the Gotami murals Keyt withdrew to his beloved Kandyan
countryside, first to Harispattuwa and then to Sirimalwatta - to paint,
to think, to write, absorbed in the gentle perennial rhythms of peasant
life. This period saw the finest flowering of his art - a great
outpouring of lyrical paintings on the beauty of woman, love and
fulfilment.Outside this pocket of peace the world war raged, and a
deeply concerned and humance Keyt responded to its reverberations in his
His powerful paintings of Bhima and Jarasundha, mythical giants
grappling in mortal combat, depicted the struggle of good against evil.
He also published, on contemporary and perennial themes, essays, stories
and sketches in Kesari, a bright radical journal published in Jaffna by
K. Nesiah - often voicing his concern for the war-torn world.
1943 was a seminal year for art in Sri Lanka as well as for Keyt.
Wendt organised the "43 Group" exhibition of modern artists who were to
make an unforgettable impact on art in this country. Keyt supported them
and hung his paintings alongside theirs.
It was here that Martin Russell was astounded by his first vision of
Keyt's work, a native genius who had evolved his own idiom. Russel was a
British intelligence officer of breeding with a fine artistic taste.
His war-time role seems to have been to mingle with the local
intelligentsia, a task he performed with dedication. Keyt held Russell
in thrall and he became a great friend, patron and frequent visitor to
Keyt and Menike' s simple cottage at Sirimalwatta.
With kindred souls Barbara Buchanan, C.A.W. Abeywardena and a few
others they 'tired the sun with talking' of life and art, of cabbages
and kings. Menike gave Keyt two sons, Prem and Sachin, whose
full-cheeked infancy often figured in his Mother and Child paintings.
When the war was over Keyt travelled to India, his beloved spiritual
home, where he travelled widely, lived and worked for some years. Martin
Russell was in Bombay, ensconced in the heart of its intellectual elite
in his inimitable way. Post-war Bombay was home to an exciting world of
art in ferment. It took Keyt to heart as a true original.
He was lionised by society hostesses and artiste. He held many
exhibitions in Bombay, Delhi and Madras and also illustrated several
The effusive Mulk Raj Anand took him to his heart and gave him
considerable coverage in his magnificent art journal Marg.
Martin Russell's, now justly famous, book on Keyt was also published
by Marg and brought fame to both artist and author. Meanwhile Russell
had gathered together an unsurpassed collection of early Keyts which
accompanied him to London, where I had the rare privilege of viewing
them and listening to Russell on Keyt.
After his Indian interlude Keyt's life began to change, imperceptibly
but qualitatively. The original circle of art lovers disintegrated with
the tragically untimely death of its presiding genius, Lionel Wendt.
Russell's book and many articles in popular journals, such as the
Illustrated Weekly of India, gained Keyt a far wider popularity and
acclaim than earlier. He had many exhibitions.
The world beat a path to Sirimalwatta. Art lovers, professors,
dilettantes, journalists, students and hero-worshippers from the world
over came for a 'darshan', to shower him with admiration, overwhelm him
with passion and to buy his paintings. Keyt basked in this adulation.
His output was prolific and everything he painted was snapped up.
There was a qualitative shift in the nature of his patrons. No longer
were they only lovers of art. Owning "a Keyt" became both a social
cachet and a gilt-edged investment.
International acclaim and official patronage all came his way. More
exhibitions of his paintings were held in India and Europe. Scholarly
disquisitions on his art, poetry and writings appeared in learned
journals. He designed a magnificent stained glass wall as the
centrepiece of the Expo 67 Sri Lanka Pavilion in Montreal. Sri Lanka
could not afford to ship this masterpiece home and, to this day, it
remains in forgotten storage in the Montreal Public Library. Neither
Keyt not his countrymen have ever seen it in its glory.
Another life was receding. Sirimalwatta's simple heartbeat could no
longer anchor Keyt. He had outgrown the need to live among its terraced
fields, its thatched huts and its lithe brown girls who adorned his life
and paintings. The flame of their inspiration he carried within himself
but now enriched by his Indian experience.
Another muse, Kusum from Bombay, now took over his life. His love for
her was celebrate in an outpouring of passionate paintings immortalising
her chiselled features and lissome figure. Since then he has never lived
long in any one place. They even travelled to London to visit, at long
last, its famous galleries and his many friends. But Keyt remains
anchored to the land of his birth.
Kusum and Keyt have had many homes. Their restless spirit once led
them to live in Galle. Another time they both went back to Sirimalwatta
where Menike, greatheartedly opened her doors to them.
Keyt spent a creative interlude there during which Tissa Liyanasuriya
and I made a film to honour his eightieth birthday. Keyt was painting as
vigorously as ever. It was an unforgettable experience to sit at his
feet and listen to him - whether on miniature Rajput paintings or a sly
yarn on the peccadilloes of the famous.
Honours have flowed his way. The University of Peradeniya awarded him
a Doctorate 'honoris causa'. He once declined the British Queen's offer
of an Imperial title but he proudly accepted the Kala Suri award from
the President of the Republic.
The George Keyt Foundation has now been established to preserve and
perpetuate his work and to establish a Centre to assist aspiring
George Keyt, today, is almost ninety and believes, like Tennyson's
Ulysses, that -
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are; We
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Keyt died in 1993, two years after this article.