Friday, June 19, 2015


He told the story of this country and its people his way

Tribute to Nihal Fernando
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Barbara Sansoni wrote a beautiful piece on Nihal Fernando in ‘The Wild, The Free’, The Beautiful’. “What is this man with his small band of disciple photographers from Studio Times? His work tells us he is an explorer, a naturalist, endlessly patient and impervious to the discomfort of mosquitoes and heat, a sensuous man., passionate about beauty, but equally passionate for things wild, primitive and free, recording their images with great love, not for study, or commerce, or intellectualism or political use but in the only way artists act – spontaneously. Nihal Fernando is an artist, a great photographer.”
He was indeed!
“A man of few words Nihal always prefers to listen to what others say. When he does talk, his words are full of meaning. He is a keen observer, his photographs being the best testimony”. This is what I wrote a few years ago in Kala Korner after enjoying yet another Studio Times exhibition at the Lionel Wendt.
Nihal Fernando, passed away a few days ago.
The moment I heard the sad news (through an e-mail his daughter Anu sent me) my mind flashed back to the mid-1960s. That’s when I came to know Nihal and his mate, Pat Dekker. I was then with the Observer working in the news desk along with Manik de Silva, today’s senior-most active journalist. Those were the days the Observer was a popular evening daily, in addition to the Sunday edition. There were no mobile phones, no websites then to check on news flashes. We started work early and by 7 we had done our bit for the first edition of the paper and then virtually every morning we went to YMCA, Fort for breakfast. And there we invariably met Nihal and Pat who also came in early to open their office which was then housed in the Times building. After a good stringhopper feed we moved over to Studio Times for a chat. I was always with Manik and chief sub-editor Clarence Perera.
When I left Lake House and joined Levers, I had a lot to do with Studio Times. Levers’ advertising agency, Thompson Associates used Studio Times for Levers’ work. As Product Manager for toilet soaps, I had to work with the agency to prepare advertising and promotional material. Lux was then the ‘Beauty soap of filmstars’. We used popular local film stars for the Sinhala and Tamil ads. Photography was done either by Nihal or Pat.
My contact with them increased after joining Ceylon Tobacco (CTC).We used Studio Times exclusively for photographs for CTC publications. The Annual Report always carried a feature mainly on CTC activities that had diversified into other agriculture, apart from tobacco. I went all over, to Mahiyangana, Soragune off Haldumulla and to the H9 in the Mahaweli with either Nihal or Pat. Both being nature lovers, they enjoyed the work. Often we spent the night at CTC circuit bungalows in remote places particularly in the hill country. With field managers we would chat late into the night. At the crack of dawn we were out to catch pack-bulls bringing tobacco to the depots or to take photographs of farmers starting work.
Our professional association turned into a close friendship because both were fine human beings. In later years, after Studio Times moved to Skelton Road, Nihal and I would sit and discuss the tragedy surrounding the environment. He lamented over the destruction that was taking place and did whatever he could to arrest it.
Through the Studio Times publications, Nihal has left behind a treasure for generations to enjoy, learn, and absorb. As I write this column, ‘Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller’ is within my reach. I refer to it so often. I cherish the 1974 copy autographed by both Nihal and Pat.
The publications initiated by Nihal – ‘The Wild, The Free, The Beautiful’ (1986) to ‘Eloquence in Stone’ (2008) through’Sri Lanka: Immortal Isle’ (1997) with Luxmanan Nadaraja, ‘Sri Lanka: A Personal Odyssey, ‘ (1991) and ‘With the Dawn’ (2004) with text by Herbert Keuneman based on Wild Life’73 exhibition occupy a special place in my little library. What a treat they are!
“This is the dream I have had for the last fifteen years. I want to tell the story of this country and its people. I want to make people think about our past and what we are doing to it before it’s too late,” Nihal wrote in two lines in ‘Eloquence’. He had done just that for posterity.
The Sunday Times was always open to write about Nihal’s creative efforts. I preserve the Kala Korner columns through which I tried, in my own small way, to write about a talented individual.
As I write, I picture Nihal in his long-sleeved bush shirt and off white tussore trousers (I can’t remember ever seeing him in a short-sleeved shirt or bright coloured trousers) seated with me on the cane settee at the Studio having a chat. He was feeling quite free because daughter Anu had taken over the responsibility of running the firm.
We have lost yet another gifted professional, genuine environmentalist, devoted family man and fine human being.
I shall never forget such a wonderful individual.
Sunday Times, April 26, 2015

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