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An artist who believed in ‘different strokes’ Appreciation on Jagath Kodithuwakku

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Appreciation on Jagath Kodithuwakku

An art


Artist Jagath Kodithuwakku’s passing away on February 19 (Saturday) created a huge void in the arts scene in Sri Lanka. He was 56 years old at the time of death and was being taken care of by medical experts in a home for mentally challenged people, in Negombo. Family sources said that Jagath was put in a mental home because that would enable him to take his medicines at the proper time.

Artist Jagath Kodithuwakku

Jagath poses with one of his arts which portrays the life events of a foreigner 

Jagath was a seasoned traveler, nature lover painter and martial artist and believed in planning the day with activities around art. He often set aside the evenings to taste his preferred fermented beverage and converse with people whose ideas mattered to him.

People initially knew him as an artist with strings attached to newspapers. He cut his teeth in journalism by finding employment in the Divaina and Vathmana newspapers as an artist and later took to layout and design. Jagath told this writer that when the LTTE terrorists attacked the Airport in 2001 he had visited the place and then put his findings into an info graphic; this piece of work finding the appreciation of editors and superiors. Artist Lalith Senanayake who worked with Jagath had this to say about his former colleague, “His graphics were on par with artists like Wasantha Siriwardene. His mode was abstract art and his art was different. His pastel art was commendable. It seemed that he didn’t think much when drawing figures, but his art was sought after by editors when they needed a visual to support for poems. He was a self-made artist,” said Senanayake.

But being sensitive and his lion heart making him extend an open arm to anyone in need weren’t qualities that helped him have a long career in newspapers. Soon he was out of newspapers and began work as a freelance artist. The present Editor of the daily ‘Divaina’ Narada Nissanka said that Jagath was a dedicated worker and never a clock watcher. “He was a lover of nature and had a liking for the study of artifacts. And most importantly he was able to put into drawings the information he gathered during these visits outside Colombo. I can remember during the time of the war when he used to accompany other reporters on challenging rounds because an editor made such a request. He was a great human being. His art underscored the depth of human life, but sadly the life he led didn’t reflect the same because he took life very lightly. If he didn’t do this may be he would have lived much longer,” said Nissanka.

But fate had it so that he had to be institutionalized. Depressed in life he started receiving treatment at the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in Angoda. There he slowly picked up the pieces of a shattered life thanks to caring doctors and other occupational therapists. He recovery was commendable and when he stepped out into society again he was in a position to draw art for a living.

He was a great human being. His art underscored the depth of human life, but sadly the life he led didn’t reflect the same because he took life very lightly. If he didn’t do this may be he would have lived much longer
– Narada Nissanka Editor Daily Divaina

He worked closely with the NIMH and attended their functions and events. Some of his arts were put up for display at the NIMH and one found its way to the office of the Red Cross Society at a function which was graced by someone not less than Dr. Firdosi Mehta, a senior adviser in public health who had a stint in Sri Lanka as the county representative of the World Health Organization from 2009 to 2014. At the function one of the paintings done by Jagath was purchased by Dr. Mehta and hung up at this institute. Jagath once told this writer, “I don’t believe in Gods up in heaven. I believe in living gods like Dr.Mehta who can cure the ill”.   

He was a regular at the NIMH and helped in the unit where art is used as a therapy for mentally challenged people. There he met so many foreigners who worked voluntarily. Jagath used to listen to their life stories-which were often quite depressing- and draw an art which encompasses most of those challenges. He earned his daily expenses that way for a while. Soft toys designerDilani de Silva who worked with him at the NIMH said that Jagath was a person with much patience. His paintings portraying the life story of mentally disturbed people were amazing. When I told my life story he drew some twisted trees and they indicated the challenging times I had in life. Despite all his talents he was a humble guy and even used to share his lunch with less affluent people; even a beggar,” said De Siva who claims that she is the only Sri Lankan who had the opportunity to get her life story described in art form by this great artist.   

His association with liquor took its toll on Jagath’s body. He became severely diabetic and it affected his eyes. He had to be institutionalized again because his penchant for extensive travelling made him neglect his daily dosage of medicines. He was a regular traveler to Adam’s Peak (sometimes doing more than one trip each year). During some of the visits there he would present the head priest there with a painting done by him.   

Firdosi Mehta (Centre) and Jayan Mendis

Jagath (Right) pictured with Doctors Firdosi Mehta (Centre) and Jayan Mendis

Jagath was a regular at most of the pubs in Colombo 3 area. He used to even sit on the pavements in this area, in the night, and complete his paintings; during times when he was forced to meet the deadline set by a foreign client who was flying to his country of birth that day. When Jagath used to draw the tuk tuk drivers in the area made sure that no one disturbed him and even supplied him with tea and refreshments. Some even offered him free rides to his aunt’s (Sudu Amma) home in Athurugiriya on days he was broke. Jagath lived for the day and never thought of a tomorrow.   

Jagath’s arts are scattered all over the places where he frequented. Some are there where he grew up in Pilimatalawa and other places where he took refuge for short periods during his gypsy life. He also had collections of cameras, knives and other valuable ornaments because he was a keen collector of such items. He also read extensively and his collection of books includes important publications that shaped the minds of thinking men. If someone visits the places where he lived the inquirer might find enough literature to pen a book about his collections and the man Jagath was. He left behind enough matter that can be included in a little gallery that best describes the man. In latter years Jagath was talking about becoming spiritual and also penning his autobiography. But he ran out of fuel. Go well my friend. Thanks for the art and memories you have left behind for posterity. 
Ravi Nagahawatte

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