George Keyt, Sri Lanka’s most celebrated painter, died 30 years ago in 1993. During his life and after his death, he became the subject of several studies by Sri Lankan and foreign scholars. Today, his paintings have found their way to some of the biggest art collections in his country, as well as to places like Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Taken together, these paintings represent some of the finest examples of modern art in Sri Lanka, South Asia, and Asia. They have also become national symbols.

Keyt, who established himself as Sri Lanka’s leading national painter, followed a remarkable artistic trajectory. His travels in and his connections with India as well as their influence on him have been greatly studied – but a full portrait of the artist remains as elusive as ever. However, extensive new research has uncovered aspects of his early life, which shed light on his later career.

The research has uncovered little studied links between the modern art movements of Sri Lanka and India, and Sri Lanka’s contribution to cultural modernism in South Asia and Asia. As Keyt’s artistic journey illustrates, his early career, which was largely influenced by Buddhism, remains as distinctive as the years in which he was influenced by the larger artistic and cultural landscape of India.

Born in 1901 in the mountainous region of Kandy, around 120 km from the country’s capital, Colombo, Keyt hailed from a middle-class family that had become thoroughly Westernised and Anglicised. They belonged to the Burgher community, an ethnic group that traces its descent from the Portuguese and the Dutch.

By the 20th century, the Burghers had acquired a distinct identity and were dominating professions such as law and medicine. They occupied an intermediate social position: historian Michael Roberts describes them as “people in-between”.

Keyt chose to reject this inheritance. Turning away from his Christian and Westernised upbringing, he embraced Buddhism and learnt Sinhalese, the language of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority, along with Pali and possibly Sanskrit, from Buddhist monks. Refusing to conform to the lifestyle of his peers, he immersed himself in the culture of his land.

Chapel, Trinity College Kandy. Credit: Uditha Devapriya.

Keyt attended Trinity College, the leading elite school in Kandy that had been founded by Anglican missionaries in the 19th century. At Trinity he acquired a somewhat notorious reputation. He found lessons boring and was constantly punished by his teachers for not paying attention.

Yet, he read widely and was encouraged by the principal of Trinity College, Alexander Garden Fraser. Fraser, an Anglican missionary, was something of a revolutionary, a nonconformist who had enacted several reforms at Trinity. He took a personal interest in Keyt and allowed him to visit the library. His interventions moulded Keyt.

In 1917, Keyt wrote an essay to the Trinity College Magazine, reviewing a painting by the 19th century artist Briton Rivière. The painting, Phoebus Apollo, shows the Greek god charioteering among a pack of lions. Keyt’s essay displays a clear grasp and love for the subject. He exhibits a love if not admiration for the divine, and hails Apollo as the God “of life… of beauty, strength, and all noble endeavours”. This love for the divine was to persist in his life and is also likely to have influenced his decision to convert to Buddhism and Hinduism.

AG Fraser. Courtesy Trinity College Archives.

In the 1920s and 1930s, he built up a reputation as a writer and a poet. He began to write to a number of journals and magazines. Crucially, this was a period of much cultural and religious revival in Ceylon, a revival that would have a profound influence on him.

In 1908, seven years after Keyt was born, the renowned Oriental scholar Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy had published his work on Kandyan culture, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art. Keyt read Coomaraswamy’s book and was profoundly moved by his insights on Kandyan art and craft. He made it a point to visit the temples of Kandy and to observe their murals.

Dismissed as inferior until then, in Coomaraswamy’s view these murals exemplified the patterns and beliefs of a simple people. For Keyt, too, they acquired a living relevance. Not surprisingly, in his first few essays and drawings, he focused on Buddhist themes.

Detail from tableau of a Thousand Buddhas, Ridi Vihare, Kurunegala, Sri Lanka. Credit: Yaswan Dissanayaka.

By the 1940s, Keyt had established himself as a leading national painter. He had moved away from the classicism of his early work and immersed himself in Modernism, the art of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger. He was experimenting and defying the conventions of his day. By now had joined and become a leading light in the 43 Group, Sri Lanka’s and Asia’s first modern art movement, founded by his close friend the photographer Lionel Wendt.

More crucially, Keyt had discovered the art and culture of India. At the height of World War II, he travelled to India. He visited the shrines of Bhubaneswar and Konark, among other places, and forged connections with Indian artists, including the novelist Mulk Raj Anand and the painter MF Husain.

It is this latter phase of his career that has occupied scholars today. At first glance, their interest is understandable. Keyt was not just moulded by the ancient heritage of India, he figured in many contemporary cultural and intellectual circles there.

Moreover, in the 1930s, he developed and nurtured a love for Hindu mythology. In 1946 he illustrated an edition of Gita Govinda, the 12th century Hindu poem which dwells on the love between Radha, Krishna and gopis or female cowherds. The romance between Radha and Krishna would form a constant motif in Keyt’s later work.

In his country, Keyt remained renowned to his last. He lived to see three highly acclaimed studies on him. In 1950, his close friend Martin Russell wrote George Keyt. It was published by Marg, the art and architecture magazine founded by Mulk Raj Anand. In 1989, another close friend, Sri Lankan bibliographer and librarian HAI Goonetileke, published George Keyt: A Life In Art. Goonetileke’s book is concise, and it refers to Keyt’s earliest paintings, including a series of drawings on the life of the Buddha. Then, in 1991, two years before his death, anthropologist Sunil Goonesekera wrote a monograph on him, Interpretations, published by the Institute of Fundamental Studies in Kandy.

Russell, Goonetileke and Goonesekera all had the chance to meet and converse with Keyt. So did Albert Dharmasiri, a painter-scholar who authored the most recent study of the man, George Keyt: A Portrait of the Artist (National Trust of Sri Lanka, Colombo 2020). Yet, perhaps, the most comprehensive study on him was written by someone who never met him. In 2017, Indian scholar and art historian Yashodhara Dalmia wrote Buddha to Krishna: Life and Times of George Keyt. Published by Routledge, it remains one of the best guides to Keyt, mainly on account of the author’s access to the archives of Keyt’s close friend Martin Russell.

Illustrations by George Keyt, published in the Buddhist Annual of Ceylon. Courtesy JR Jayewardene Centre.

Impeccably researched as these studies are, there is much about Keyt yet to be found out. In Sri Lanka, fortunately, there is always something new to discover about important cultural figures. Packed away in libraries and warehouses, research material invariably gets forgotten, if not neglected. As a result, researching on a person like Keyt becomes part of a journey, a series of discoveries that never seem to end.

It was in the middle of a pandemic and a brewing economic crisis that I received a rather unexpected call. This was in June 2021. The country had recovered from its first pandemic wave, only to be hurtled into a second and a third. Lockdowns and curfews had become the order of the day, a depressing reality from which escape seemed impossible.

Moreover, in 2020 I had resigned from a rather lucrative job as an advertising copywriter. I had resumed my education but did not know what to do next. By then I had been writing to newspapers for close to eight years and assumed this would keep me going.

The pandemic put an end to these hopes. Overnight, newspapers ceased publication. My articles were published less frequently and payments began getting delayed. I had nothing to do apart from my studies, no other job to hang on to.

It was against this backdrop that I received a call from Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda. A historian and art historian, a scholar of much renown, Tammita-Delgoda had written extensively on art and culture, and on other subjects. We had met before, but only once.

At the time of his call, he was working on his latest project, a book on George Keyt. He required an assistant, someone he could entrust research work to. Somehow, I had appeared on his radar.

He explained what needed to be done. “Will you accept?” he asked me.

I hesitated before replying.

“Yes, I would like to.”

If I did not appreciate the enormity of the task at that moment, it is because I had never regarded historical research as a serious venture. That may have had to do with the fact that in Sri Lanka, research is almost never taken seriously, by anyone.

Not surprisingly, I was clueless those first few days. Although I admired his work, I quickly realised there was a lot I did not know about Keyt. The book focused on his early life, his upbringing, his engagement with Buddhism. There was much research to engage with. But there was a pandemic all around and one archive library after another had been shut down. Until they reopened, we would have to rely on the internet.

JR Jayewardene Centre Library. Credit: Official website.

Fortunately, a few weeks into my stint, they began to reopen. By now, we knew that in order to explore Keyt’s early life, his evolution as an artist, we had to access the journals he wrote to in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of these publications and journals had never been assessed or evaluated fully. Many studies of Keyt referred to them in passing, as if they did not matter in the wider context of his career.

Among these journals and magazines was the Buddhist Annual of Ceylon. Published in the early 20th century, the Buddhist Annual of Ceylon formed an intersection between Sri Lanka and the wider Buddhist world. In the 1920s, Keyt started contributing to the Annual. He wrote poems and essays on Buddhist themes and drew episodes from the life of the Buddha. Yet, these had hardly been examined. The National Archives had copies of the Annual, but it was still closed. Fortunately, there was another archive nearby.

This was the JR Jayewardene Centre. Founded in 1988, named after one of Sri Lanka’s presidents, and located in his childhood home, the JRJ, as it is popularly known, contained a smaller but still important collection of historical publications.

Happily for us, these included the Buddhist Annual. Over two days, thus, we travelled back and forth, bookmarking the pages we wanted and getting them scanned.

It is difficult to exaggerate the quality of these drawings. They exhibit a dazzling range, an astonishing attention to detail, a deeply rooted awareness of their subject-matter. Keyt’s writings display these same qualities. Some of them are short stories, works of fiction which blend his knowledge of Buddhism with his penchant for storytelling.

Reading through them, I noticed how well they had been designed. The Buddhist Annual began at the heyday of a religious revival in Sri Lanka. It targeted local as much as Western readers. As a result, its publishers ensured the best quality for them.

Indeed, such journals constitute some of the best-preserved sources for early 20th century Sri Lanka. Their relevance in that sense lies beyond Keyt, though they are an indispensable reference for his early life and career. Beautifully designed and meticulously edited, they are a stark contrast to Sri Lanka’s messy publishing world today.

In any case, these findings helped us form a picture of Keyt. We supplemented them with various interviews. I was entrusted with several of them, connecting to people who had known Keyt well. They included his daughter Diana, scholar Sarath Amunugama and American anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake.

Malwatte Vihare Kandy. Credit: Uditha Devapriya.

Our interviews and research work eventually took us to Kandy, Keyt’s hometown. In the course of my travels there, I spoke with the monks of Malwatte Viharaya. One of the two leading Buddhist monastic orders in Sri Lanka, Malwatte Viharaya formed an important part of Keyt’s growing up. It was here that he studied and learnt Buddhism, Sinhalese, and Pali. Under the tutelage of a monk, the venerable Pinnawala Dheerananda, he immersed himself in the literature and culture of his land.

Kandy was also home to some of the oldest surviving art forms in Sri Lanka. These included udarata natum or traditional dance. Patronised by the kings of Kandy, udarata natum occupied an important place in Sri Lanka. The region was home to the country’s leading hereditary dance families. Keyt associated with them and went out of his way to help them.

Among the most talented of these dancers was Amunugama Suramba. On September 5, 1949, Suramba, with the help of Keyt and his friends, opened an academy, the Madhyama Lanka Nritiya Mandalaya or the Dance Institute of Central Ceylon, to train young people and revive udarata natum. While in Kandy, I met Suramba’s daughter, Waidyawathie Rajapakse, who runs the school today, and talked with her about her encounters with Keyt and his contemporaries.

Untitled (Musicians), Undated, Pencil, ink and gouache on paper, 39.5cm x 30.5 cm, Taprobane Collection.

Once these interviews were done, we began work on the book. This was not easy. The scope of the research had widened, new chapters had to be written, and they required more research. Moreover, at this point the country had entered a crisis, culminating in protests that forced out a sitting president.

Once the storm had settled, however, the first drafts of the chapters were ready. After this, we embarked on the final stage: preparing the appendices, including the bibliography and index.

I was given the task of compiling and finalising these sections. At one level, this proved to be as exhaustive as the writing of the book. Keeping track of where the sources appeared, what page and from what book, the year of publication, the names of authors, then checking the material and rechecking them, proved to be a massive undertaking. It required concentration and focus: hardly an easy task, since we were coordinating this remotely, via email.

The index proved to be just as challenging, especially finding the right words which were relevant not just to Keyt’s life, but also to the larger themes of the publication. Computers have advanced from what they used to be, and tracing page numbers for the entries was easy enough. But once we traced them, we had to recheck and verify. This took time.

Yet somehow, the pieces fell into place. The results have been astounding. In its present form, the book contains arguably the most comprehensive list of sources on Keyt. They contain not just books and essays, but also oral-video sources. As comprehensive is the list of illustrations. Many of the images and paintings in the book have never been published before. They fill an important research gap, thereby addressing a glaring omission.

It has been more than two years since I began researching Sri Lanka’s most renowned artist and one of South Asia’s most renowned painters. The picture we have built of him is a rich and complex one.

As an artist, Keyt embodied many contradictory tendencies. As critic Qadri Ismail has pointed out, the 43 Group, to which Keyt belonged, exhibited a dualism of style and temperament, veering between radical and conservative conceptions of art. This calls into question such diverse problems as the state of art and the nature of cultural modernism in mid-20th century South Asia.

Given the research already done on him, though, the question can be posed: Why another book on George Keyt? Keyt is not just the most renowned Sri Lankan painter, he is also the most written about Sri Lankan artist. Is there space for more research?

The answer to that is yes, there is. The latest study, in that regard, sheds light on four areas.

Lionel Wendt. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

First, in charting Keyt’s evolution as an artist, it stresses his early life, framing it not as a prelude to his later career but as a distinct phase in his whole career. The book also studies in great detail and depth his friendship with photographer and critic Lionel Wendt. Hailing from the Burgher community, Lionel Wendt became the pioneering avant-garde artist of modern Sri Lanka. He was vital in introducing to Keyt the latest artistic trends of Europe and the West, just as Keyt was vital in introducing Wendt – who was born and raised in Colombo – to the culture, the society, and the ethos of Kandy.

Second, it features paintings that have never been featured before. Much of Keyt’s work have found their way to the biggest art collections in the country. They belong to top corporate heads, academics and some of Keyt’s own friends. Searching for them was a challenge, especially since we had to focus on unpublished works.

Third, it sheds light on certain themes that have yet to be assessed properly. This includes the links between Sri Lanka’s and India’s modern art movement and Sri Lanka’s contribution to cultural modernism in South Asia and Asia. The 43 Group, in which Keyt played a pivotal role, celebrated its 80th anniversary this year. Yet apart from a few studies, nothing much has been written about why it is so important and relevant. Keyt stood at the crossroads of these developments. Tammita-Delgoda’s upcoming study attempts to examine them.

Rasa Lila/Oil on Canvas / 1936 / 59.5 x 102 cm / Taprobane Collection

Fourth, it includes and examines several publications that have gone out of print or have never been assessed in the context of Keyt’s career. One of the most important in this regard is The Story of India. Published in 1949, the book was illustrated by Keyt in collaboration with the novelist Mulk Raj Anand. Despite it being an Indian subject, Anand chose to entrust the more than 50 drawings in the book to Keyt rather than to an Indian artist. This underlies Keyt’s connections with India, the friendships he cultivated there, and how he was received by the literary and artistic community in Bombay and Calcutta.

Published by the Taprobane Collection, one of Sri Lanka’s “most extensive gathering of paintings and art works”, the latest study is titled George Keyt: Absence of a Desired Image. The title is by no means inapt: it suggests that we have more, much more, to discover about the life and work of Sri Lanka’s most renowned artist. The book, and the research that has been undertaken for it, provides a pathway for further research, enabling us to discover more, and in doing so, to fill in the gaps. Working onboard it, thus, has been not so much a labour of love, as a baptism of fire.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He is the Chief International Relations Analyst at Factum, an Asia-Pacific focused think-tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His email address is