The birth of Sri Lanka’s most outstanding literary figure of the 20th century, Martin Wickramasingha occurred on May 29, 1890. He was born in the village of Koggala in the Southern Province close to Galle. On one side of the village was the sea and on the other a large lake, Koggala Oya. The beautiful flora and fauna, the lake, the sea and the simple life of the people were captured by him in the novels and short stories he wrote.
When he was five years old he started learning his first letters from Andiris Gurunnanase and two years later, from the monks in the village temple. By 1903 when he was just 13 years, while under the tutelage of a relative monk, Koggala Dheerananda Thera studying Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit, he wrote ‘Balopadeshaya.’ Two years at Buonavista in Galle and another two years at the Sinhala school in Ahangama was all the formal education he had before going off to Batticaloa to be a shop clerk. After one year he joined John & Company, a commission agency.
Wickramasingha’s first novel, ‘Leela’ was published in 1914 and having come to Colombo the following year to work at Cornelis Silva’s shop, he started writing a column to the ‘Dinamina’ under the pen name ‘Hetuvadi.’ In 1920 he joined the editorial staff of the ‘Dinamina’ and served for seven years before joining another Sinhalese newspaper, ‘Lakmina.’ He began writing as ‘Mayurapada’ around 1930 and in 1931 he was back at Lake House as editor of ‘Silumina;the Sinhalese weekly and a year later he was appointed editor of the ‘Dinamina.’ He moved out in 1946 and devoted full time to writing. By this time he had written seven novels including ‘Gamperaliya’ (1944), the first of the trilogy – the other two being ‘Yuganthaya’ (1948) and ‘Kali Yugaya’ (1957) and all three were made into films by Sri Lanka’s leading filmmaker Lester James Peries. ‘Gamperaliya’ was later made into a teledrama.
When his novel ‘Viragaya’ (1956) won the Don Pedrick Award in the following year, the cash was donated to a student from Karandeniya studying for the university entrance examination. ‘Viragaya; regarded by many as the finest work of fiction in Sinhala, was turned into a memorable film by Tissa Abeysekera. The popular novel, ‘Madol Doova’ (1947) was the other novel to be made into a film and a teledrama. Several of his short stories were adapted as teledramas.
Wickramasingha travelled widely on invitation by various countries and was honoured with awards and titles on numerous occasions. He received the title M B E (Member of the British Empire) in 1953 when Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was in the annual honours list of the British monarch. The Vidyodaya University recognised him with a D Litt in 1960. The President’s Award he received in 1974 was immediately given over to be used as a university scholarship. He died on July 23, 1976.
Martin Wickramasingha’s home – his birth-place at Koggala
Wickramasingha published 14 novels and 104 short stories in eight collections, in Sinhalese and 40 books of non-fiction prose writing, some in English. These covered a wide range including Buddhism, art, literary criticism, philosophy, cultural anthropology and history. Some led to intense debate. Some of his novels have been translated into many languages – Tamil, English, Chinese, Russian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Dutch, French and Japanese.
His keen interest and love for folk culture made his family (three sons and three daughters) set up a Folk Museum at his birth-place in Koggala which has become a very popular place for visitors, particularly school children. The Martin Wickramasingha Trust maintains the museum and holds seminars in schools on a regular basis offering prizes for competitions among school children. A publishing firm, ‘Sarasa” has been established to publish his books which are priced moderately as an incentive to promote the reading habit.