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'Sketches of Ceylon'

by Baron Eugene De Ransonnet

Reprinted by Sarathi Ltd

Available at Lake House Book shop , Hyde Park Corner and other leading bookshops.

Reviewed by Carol Aloysius

A striking portrait of a young Sinhala boy. Note the manner in which the artist has captured the expression of his eyes which he describes as , “soft and timid like that of a gazelle”.

Nature loving visitors to our picturesque island have over the years, have come to regard it as a veritable treasure trove of wild life, unique plant life and aquatic life.

Some of them have been so entranced by the luscious vegetation and exotic beauty of this country and her people that they have left behind their impressions in the form of sketches, writings, photographs and paintings which have given the present day reader a rare glimpse into the life, customs and people of yesteryear Ceylon..

One such visitor was a Belgium artist, Baron Eugene De Ransonnet who during his brief stay in Ceylon in the late 19th century, was inspired to make a series of sketches of the inhabitants, animal life and vegetation as well as underwater life based on his own actual encounters and close observations.

The sketches , which cover both the lowlands and high mountainous regions of the country as well as the coastal areas , although not originally not intended for publishing due to the shortness of the writer's stay in Ceylon ( from November 1864 to February 1865) and the bad weather conditions prevailing at the time, were however eventually put together in the form of a book which stands out as one of the most invaluable legacies left behind by any foreign visitor to 19th century Ceylon.

Two young Tamil estate workers in their attractive costume , formed of one single shawl enhanced by bracelets, chains , nose rings and earrings.

"Sketches of the Inhabitants, Animal Life and Vegetation of the Lowlands and High Mountains of Ceylon as well as of the Submarine Scenery Near the coast taken in a Diving Bell" ,by Baron Eugene De Ransonnet was first printed for the author in Vienna in 1867, two years after he left Ceylon, and was dedicated to no less a person than His Majesty Leopold 11, King of Belgium.

Now, after 135 years almost to the date of its first publication, Sarathi Ltd, Lake House Printers and Publishers, who are currently engaged in the commendable and challenging task of reprinting rare books on Ceylon that have long gone out of print in their original format , have recently released a faithful reproduction in limited edition of Baron Eugene De Ransonnet's tribute to Ceylon.

Containing some twenty six plates in black and white as well as in colour, lithographed by the author himself, so that he could personally, " "answer for their correctness" , the sketches offer a unique opportunity for present day readers to get a rare glimpse of 19th century Ceylon at a time when her rich forest cover , luxuriant vegetation and plant life, her towns, roads and people had not yet succumbed to the vicissitudes of commercialisation and modern civilisation.

While none of the plates which appear in this volume claims to be a photographic replica of the author's observations, it is to the author's credit that all of them manage to strike an even balance between photographic accuracy and aesthetic licence. Each sketch reveals an artist of obvious talent with a keen eye for detail.His sketches which are accompanied by several useful notes on the opposite page,show him to be a historian and sociologist in his own right.

Entrance to the botanical garden in Peradeniya.

In these notes,written often in lyrical language, the author gives the reader invaluable bits of information on what life was like in late 19th century Ceylon, and his own comments on the fauna, flora, people and customs of this country.

Each of the scenes depicted in his book which incidentally is subtitled in three different languages, evokes a sense of the richness of that past. The illustration which opens the book, titled `Banyan Tree Near Colombo' for example, takes us back in time to a leisurely era when bullock carts and stage coaches were the main mode of transport.

The dominant feature of this tranquil scene sketched in black and white is the striking image of an oversized banyan tree silhouetted against a serene background of long winding roads and single bullock carts driven by two men. The tree, according to the author's accompanying note , is one of the largest of the many banyan trees that travellers from Galle to Colombo pass by during their long journey. Its gigantic size is reflected in the oversized roots,the upper branches of which fall gracefully on both sides of the road to form a natural gateway or arch for the traveller.

Baron De Ronsonnet is not only a landscape painter. He excells equally in portrait sketches and his sketches of the people of 19th century Ceylon are no less intriguing and fascinating. Many of his portraits include simple country folk such as the women picking coffee, plantation workers,and labourers. Like his landscapes, these sketches stand out for their visual beauty and eye for detail.

To those unfamiliar with our culture and history, the pictures also offer a social comment on the habits, dress and life of these simple folk. Take the sketch of a low caste Sinhala girl and a baby. Not only does the author capture the natural beauty of his subject , a young girl of 13 years employed as an ayah , standing as she does half nude , his explanatory note on the opposite page gives us an insight into the caste system that prevailed even then existing among the Sinhalese, when women of lower castes were not allowed to wear any clothes on the upper half of their bodies.

Other portraits that stand out for their close attention to fine detail and his ability to make his characters spring to life on canvas include a group of Sinhalese women picking coffee at a warehouse in Colombo dressed in their traditional cambayas and long sleeved jackets edged with beeralu lace', two young Malabar (Tamil) girls decked up in their finery with bangles and nose rings to match,a group of `Sinhala Coolies' setting out to work, and a very striking portrait of a handsome `Sinhalese boy 'whose features and dress have been sketched imaginatively and in great detail.

Perhaps the most unique and intriguing pictures found in this volume are his underwater scenes,( the only illustrations in colour) which stand out for their visual beauty and authentic colours. Here ,, the artist depicts in colour the breathtaking beauty of the underwater world complete with its fine coral beds and multi coloured fish, all of which he has personally witnessed and sketched while inside a diving bell, making him a pioneer in the field.

As he says in his foreword, " The views of coral banks taken in a diving bell are as far as I know novelties. The only submarine views existing hitherto ... were my own sketches in the Red Sea taken without the use of a diving bell..."

The fish , sketched close up are seen in their favourite positions and true shapes and colours,because the artist has sketched them while they were alive. Fish normally change colours immediately after death, he writes in hiss foreword.

In his very readable and interesting explanatory note accompanying his illustration of "Submarine Rocks with Green Corals",Baron Ransonnet has also taken the trouble to make a sketch of the diving bell in which he travelled to the depths of the sea, complete with windows, weights, air tube , bell etc. with specific details for the benefit of the readers.

'Sketches of Ceylon' is a Collector's item to be cherished. This rare reprint with its chocolate brown hard cover and reasonably priced at Rs. 2,500 is available at the Lake House Bookshop , Hyde Park Corner and other leading bookshops