Gift by USSR:
Sculpting SWRD 'larger than life'
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike stands stall, looking into the ocean beyond, a
determined and stoic expression carved into his face set in bronze. His
statue, larger than life yields an overwhelming shadow over all those
who pass Galle Face Green, 57 years after he was assassinated.
The unveiling of the statue
of SWRD Bandaranaike
This iconic statue sculpted by famed Soviet sculptor realist works,
Lev Kerbel was gifted by the USSR government to Sri Lanka in 1976, in
remembrance of the late Prime MInister who had played a key role in
establishing diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and the Soviet Union
With the demise of Bandaranaike in 1959, his wife Sirimavo
Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960 and she carried forward the
policies of Bandaranaike which also included a close friendship with the
Soviet Union. Despite Bandaranaike's close relationship with the Soviet
Union, he did not have the opportunity to undertake an official visit to
the country and it was Sirimavo who developed the relationship further
with two official visits to the Soviet Union; the first in 1963 and then
again in 1974. It was during her second visit, that the idea of an SWRD
statue came up.
At that time, the Soviet Union used the gifting of statues to Third
World countries and to countries in the Soviet Bloc as an effective
diplomatic tool to further strengthen their influence in the region.
The immense task of the statue was given to the then Soviet Minister
of Culture, and he in turn commissioned Lev Kerbel, who was the official
sculptor of the Soviet Union to accomplish the task. Sri Lankan
architect, Suren Wickremasinghe who had previously studied for his
degree in the Soviet Union, was also assigned to the project. With his
assistance, Kerbel started to sculpt SWRD Bandaranaike's bronze statue
in Moscow. Their goal was to make Bandaranaike appear larger than life,
in order to symbolize his fiery spirit and foresightedness.
The biggest challenge Kerbel faced at the time was that his
government had promised to deliver the statue to Sri Lanka in time for
the 5th Non-aligned Conference which was scheduled to take place at the
end of 1976 in Colombo. They were racing against time but given Kerbel's
skill, they managed to finish it within a record time of two years.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike at
the unveiling ceremony
Renowned Sri Lankan sculptor and Dean of the Faculty of Graduate
Studies, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Prof Sarath
Chandrajeewa, the only Sri Lankan to apprentice with Kerbel recalled
that he first met Kerbel when he gave a lecture at the Government
College of Fine Arts during his 1976 visit. "I was so moved by his
lecture, that I immediately switched my major from painting to
sculpting", he said.
According to Prof Chandrajeewa, a panel consisting of Sunethra
Bandaranaike, Kumar Rupasinghe and Ven Dr Mapalagama Wipulasara was
appointed to oversee the project and they made visits to the Soviet
Union at the time to approve of the mini sculpture Kerbel had made of
Bandaranaike, initially. They also had provided Kerbel pictures of
Bandaranaike, based on which he modelled his statue. "The final model
was then made in three sections; front, middle and lower parts. Then
they were brought to Sri Lanka on a Russian Antonov plane and welded
together here", said Prof Chandrajeewa. The statue was unveiled at an
official ceremony at Galle Face Green on 17 July 1976. President William
Gopallawa, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Speaker Stanley
Tilakaratne, Cabinet Ministers, Soviet Union Minister V.I Stukalin, Lev
Kerbel, Soviet Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Rafeek Nishanov and other
diplomats were present at the unveiling.
President Gopallawa who made a speech on the occasion thanked the
Soviet Union and Lev Kerbel for the statue in memory of SWRD
Bandaranaike who had done much to the country. Soviet Minister Stukalin
who also spoke said, the people and government of the Soviet Union
gifted the statue to commemorate SWRD who took the first step to fight
for peace, freedom, democracy, social progress and for having sacrificed
his life in the struggle. They also remembered him for having done much
to strengthen the relationship between Sri Lanka and the Soviet Union.
Lev Kerbel was presented with a special memento by President Gopallawa
for the statue.
Kerbel, like Bandaranaike, was a controversial character during his
lifetime. Born on the day of the Russian Revolution, 7 November 1917, to
a Russian Jewish family in the village of Semyonovka in Chernigov
(present Ukraine), Kerbel's art would revolve mostly around the Soviet
Union. Kerbel's family moved to the Russian Smolensk region, where he
began sculpting as a child and in 1934 won an award from the
Komsomol(Young Communist League) for a plaque of Lenin.
During World War II, Kerbel helped build the defences for the Battle
of Moscow, then served in the Northern Fleet, gaining fame as a military
artist. His other monumental statues include, the bust of Karl Marx in
Chemnitz, Germany, Lenin Monument in Parque Lenin, Havana, Cuba, The "Kursk"
submarine crew memorial, statue of Yuri Gagarin, a statue of two Chinese
workers hand in hand in Shanghai which was later torn down when
relations between the Soviet Union and China floundered. Similarly, many
of Kerbel's artwork around the world were destroyed with the fall of the
Soviet Union. Kerbel himself has been recorded to have said that he was
always more interested in the art than the politics behind it.
In August 2014,restoration work was undertaken on the statue. This
cemented the position of Bandaranaike in Colombo's skyline for the next