After 41 years the story that Lev Kerbel related has become a reality
By Udeni Saman Kumara
The Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo was declared open, recently. This massive luxury hotel rises above everything, facing the Indian Ocean. Shangri-La is the 5-star hotel that was built in the city of Colombo after 30 years. Shangri-La has brought all the luxurious things of the modern world to the city of Colombo. There are six restaurants and bars, 500 rooms, a number of eating venues of various types.
Reception halls, conference halls, swimming pools, gymnasiums which tend to increase physical health and everything else at international level are included at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.
What we are trying to relate is not about the Shangri-La Hotel which has risen up on the Colombo skyline. It is about the biggest statue in Colombo, of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike which has all of a sudden turned into a dwarf in the face of the giant Shangri-La Hotel which rises into the clouds. What can we say about it? It was there and remains there today, too. Nothing has happened to it. You may say all of this at once. You will be correct; that is the truth. However, there is a wonderful story behind this statue that you are not aware of which has been hidden so far. This is an attempt to relate that story to you.
Professor Lev Efimovich Kerbel was an eminent sculptor of Soviet realist works in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Russia. He was a professor at the Moscow Art Institute in Russia. Lev Kerbel's creations including the Statue of Karl Marx in Germany and the statue of V. I. Lenin in Havana, Cuba as well as the massive statues in Russia are reigning sky high in a number of cities in the world. The statue of Prime Minister Bandaranaike at Galle Face is one of his sculptures. It is the only sculpture in Sri Lanka created by Kerbel. Now, probably the question that springs to your mind would be what the relationship between the 5-star Shangri-La Hotel and the statue of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, is. Now let us talk about that.
Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike passed away on 26 September 1959. Subsequent to his demise, both in 1960 and in 1970 his wife Madame Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over the post of Prime Minister in this country. It was in the year 1957 that diplomatic relations were established between the USSR and Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Bandaranaike. From 21-31 October in the year 1963, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike engaged in an official tour of Russia. It was in 1973 that Russia decided to create a statue of Premier Bandaranaike to express their gratitude. It was brought to Sri Lanka from Russia in an Aeroflot aircraft and put up at Galle Face in the year 1976.
Professor Kerbel arrived in Sri Lanka to help put up the statue. He was extremely happy that he was able to put up the statue on the premises facing the great ocean with the massive space of the sky behind. However, he had mentioned that there was a small problem.
'If someday a hotel is constructed behind the statue, it would seem as if Bandaranaike is coming out of the hotel after a meal," Professor Kerbel had said. The people who were there had told the professor that such a thing would never happen. However, 41 years later what Lev Kerbel said has become a reality. Now, if you pass Galle Face you can see the statue of Premier Bandaranaike appearing to come out of the Shangri-La Hotel. We have living evidence to confirm this story. That is none other than Vice Chancellor of the Aesthetic University Professor Sarath Chandrajeewa. He has studied at the Moscow Art Institute and is a student of Kerbel.
Professor Sarath Chandrajeewa had this to say:
'I entered the Government College of Fine Arts in the year 1973 as a student. There was a huge poster pasted on one of its doors. The picture showed someone creating a statue while stamping it out with something similar to a paddle. The teacher in charge of our Sculpture Course was A. K. D. Wijesekera. I asked him who was in the poster. He said he did not know the name but that it was a Russian poster. He said it must be some Russian sculptor who appears in the picture. I wrote down the characters that were on the poster in my note book.
One day, I showed this to a Russian lady who taught the Russian Language at the Russian Centre. I asked her what the letters said. She was Potheshkova. She wrote it down for me. It was the name of Lev Efimovich Kerbel. Three years after that in a newspaper there was an article that a creation done in Soviet Russia, Prime Minister Bandaranaike's Statue had been put up at Galle Face.
And it stated that the statue had been created by Lev Efimovich Kerbel.
It was also stated in the article that Lev Kerbel was in Sri Lanka to help set up the statue he created. Then I remembered that it was the name of the sculptor I had written down. One day I went to Galle Face to see him. What I saw was a group of people carrying a tall image on a cardboard with a pole being carried from place to place. An individual wearing a white hat dressed in a pair of shorts, in slippers was giving orders. That was the extraordinary sculptor Kerbel. He was trying to decide on where to place the statue.
At that time the Secretary of our Students' Union was Upali M. Herath and the President was D. J. Kumarasinghe. I told them as well and proposed to the head of our academic section that we will bring Kerbel and hold a workshop. Accordingly Lev Kerbel came to our Aesthetic institute and held a workshop. Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara Thera accompanied him. In one hour, Kerbel created a sculpture of Vipulasara Thera in the presence of all of us. I was in the Art Section. I decided on that day to join the Sculpture Division.
Several years after that, I went to Russia and obtained my Doctorate under Kerbel. In 1994 I held an exhibition. Kerbel who came for that later got me down to Russia. When he came to Sri Lanka in 1994 Kerbel went with me to see the Bandaranaike Statue at Galle Face. He regretted the fact that no conservation had been carried out after it was set up in the year 1976. It was in a dirty state. As I had studied bronze sculptures (the technique of casting and moulding) the task of conserving this statue was assigned to me. On that day, as if jokingly he said, "If some day a hotel is built here, it may seem as if Bandaranaike is coming out of the hotel." I said, "No I am sure that will not happen. There is an Army Camp here. I do not know whether the Parliament will be built here some day." Anyway finally what was built was what Kerbel suspected, a hotel!
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