By Ravi Thilakawardana, Secretary, W A Silva Foundation
The first ever language and literature museum of Sri Lanka was declared open recently, presenting a novel and unique experience for the literary enthusiasts. The first of its kind in Sri Lanka, the language and literature museum is dedicated to the legacy of one of the country’s outstanding writers – Sahithya Keerthi W A Silva (1890-1957). “Silvermere House”, the abode which provided dwelling for W A Silva for a long period and where he completed majority of his literary works has been transformed into the museum. It is tucked away amidst the hustle and bustle of the Colombo city just off W A Silva Mawatha, Wellawatte, also named after the illustrious writer.
Among many museums scattered across the island, dedicated for numerous subject domains, the newly established W A Silva museum dedicated for language and literature would no doubt achieve a prominent place as it endeavours to enliven and extend the glory of the past to the present generation.
The museum is rich with informative displays and fascinating exhibits mapping the life of W A Silva through various media, and visitors are bound to be enthralled by manuscripts and first editions, collections of rare books and original tools of the printing trade, among other artefacts.
The first chamber in the museum is the space (room) used by W A Silva for his creations, and exhibits some of the personal implements including his writing desk and chair. An armoire in the second chamber offers manuscripts of some of Silva’s novels, and rare copies of the first or early editions of his novels, printed at that time using letter press printing technique. Also displayed here is some of the elegant antique furniture belonging to the “Silvermere House”.
The next chamber showcases the writer’s links to the broadcasting (radio) field, displaying some related artefacts of historic value. In this chamber, the large library that was once owned by W A Silva is recreated using a collection of ancient books that have been preserved.
It is common knowledge that W A Silva’s name is inseparably linked with the Sinhala cinema, and it is only fitting that the museum has dedicated a chamber to recognize his contributions to the movie industry. This chamber awaits a collection of photographs and other interesting material related to movies based on Silva’s novels.
In the W A Silva museum, visitors would also discover a traditional printing press (letter press) that contributed immensely for the progress of Sinhala literature at the time, restored to its former glory. Many components of a traditional letter press printing press such as wooden and lead letter templates, composing stick, binding press, proof machine, wiring machine, printing machine, manual paper cutter, etc are on display.
When discussing about literature museums, the book titled “Sahithya lipi gonna” (collection of literature articles) by Dr. K. D. P. Wickaramsinghe, published in 1966 provides some interesting insights on literature museums, in the section titled ‘Literary museums that we need’ (Apata awashya sahithya kauthukagara).
“Sri Lanka does not have the capacity and the resources to establish literature museums dedicated to individual writers, nor can the country boast of more than a handful of writers that deserve such recognition bestowed upon them. In such context, it would be a fitting tribute to all our literature luminaries of the past if a common literature museum dedicated to all of them could be established in a central location where every citizen can visit”.
There is no doubt that the well-known ‘Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum’ in Koggala is one such great memento.
The article “Querying Chekhov’s visit to Lanka” (Chekhovgé Lanka gamana prashna karamu) by Lal Sarath Kumara on the great Russian writer Chekhov’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1890, forwards the following facts.
“In a grand gesture of honour and recognition, the Grand Oriental Hotel has made a special dedication in memory of Chekhov’s historical visit to Sri Lanka. They have named the suite 304 after this great personality as “Anton Chekhov Suite” and preserved the furniture that was used by him”.
Sarath Kumara in his article on museums around the world further discusses that mementos of this nature are common in countries such as Russia. He states that “the great writers from the era before the October Revolution is much respected and fondly remembered by the nation even at present, due to the recognition given to them by the state. Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky have become remarkable among them. Their residences, temporary dwellings and personal belongings have been well persevered to be presented to future generations. Even today, a person visiting Moscow would sight many such memoranda scripted in stone or brass plaques. In the local context, same can be said about W A Silva. In addition to his residence at the “Silvermere House”, Wellawatte, he has spent his days at many other locations in Pamankada, Bambalapitiya and even Bandarawela, compiling his many literary works. His most renowned work, “Kele Handa” was completed at his Calidonia Tea Estate in Bandarawela”.
While honouring an extraordinary writer from yesteryear, who has made indelible contributions to the field of Sinhala literature, it is envisioned that the newly launched W A Silva Language and Literature Museum would also serve to renew and secure the love of literature among readers, and inspire contemporary writers and future generations to explore new horizons in literature!