Modernism, Decolonization and Reinvention in Ceylon. The Life and Work of George Keyt (1901 – 1993)
Modernism, Decolonization and Reinvention in Ceylon. The Life and Work of George Keyt (1901 – 1993)

Born a year after the turn of the 20th century, George Keyt was one of the leading figures of European modernism in Asia. Fusing the influences of Modernism and Cubism with his own unique idiom, Keyt became one of the most important Asian artists of his time and the most celebrated Sri Lankan painter of the twentieth century.

George Percival Sproule Keyt was born in 1901, the year that the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, later King George V and Queen Mary, visited the Crown Colony of Ceylon. Ceylon was at the height of its prosperity and was considered one of the jewels in the imperial crown. Riding this wave of affluence was a diverse and cosmopolitan élite. Often described as “Ceylonese,” it was bound together by Western values and a deeply Anglicized lifestyle.

Keyt’s parents were Eurasians, an ethnically diverse community of European and Asian origin which had grown up during three waves of conquest and colonialism by the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British. Known as Burghers, during the British era, they became an integral part of the colonial structure. They were employed by the British to staff the government service and people the legal, educational and medical professions. English was their mother tongue and Christianity their religion.

The Jansz and Keyt families at the wedding of George Keyt and Ruth Jansz, 1930 Collection: Diana Keyt. Courtesy Taprobane Collection. Standing left to right: Harry Wendt, George Percival Sproule Keyt, Karl Herbert Jansz, H.B. Keyt and Peggy Keyt. Sitting from left to right: Noeline Jansz, Mary Jansz, Gladys Ruth Jansz, Constance Evelyn Sproule, and Margarette Harriette Jansz.

This wedding photograph depicts George Keyt at 29, on the day of his marriage with his family and in laws. European in appearance, fair skinned, fair-haired, they are all dressed in Western style. The Burghers were regarded as the loyal servants of empire and accorded a privileged position amongst the other communities. They prided themselves on their European identity and their service to the British Empire. Pillars of respectability and morality, they saw themselves as a God fearing community with a strong code of values and decency.

The Burghers of Ceylon shall be universally recognized as the legitimate worthy descendants of wellborn Europeans who made their home in Ceylon during Dutch rule. They shall …. be known throughout the Empire as the most loyal and worthy subjects of their king. Every Burgher child shall receive a good education, every Burgher man and woman shall be cultured and refined.. We shall be his people and He shall be our God.
Anonymous, The Lees of Lanka (for Private Circulation, Colombo 1934) 1

This was the community into which George Keyt was born, a Christian, English speaking world founded on a completely Westernized way of life.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Kandy 1800s. Taprobane Collection.

Keyt however was born and grew up in Kandy in the central highlands. This was a very different world to the Europeanized atmosphere of Colombo. The highland realm of Kandy was the last stronghold of the Sinhalese kings. A natural fortress, surrounded by rugged mountains and impassable tropical jungles, the Kandyan Kingdom had held would be conquerors at bay since the 16th century. Although Kandy finally fell to the English in 1815, it remained deeply grounded in its beliefs and traditions. At it the very heart of this culture was worship of the Buddha.

Keyt was sent to Trinity College, Kandy, was one of the island’s leading schools. Founded during the heyday of empire, Trinity College was a public school on British lines. Established in 1872 by the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS), it sought to provide a Western and Christian education which would mould the young people of the newly conquered Kandyan highlands. From the very outset however, Keyt showed that he had no interest in Western education and no intention of being moulded into anything. Although he read widely and voraciously, Keyt refused to learn or study and left Trinity without passing any exams.

After Trinity, Keyt found himself drawn to the Buddhist temples and monasteries which dominated Kandy. The last bastion of Sinhalese culture, Kandy was heir to a civilization going back thousands of years. This rich, multi-layered inheritance captured Keyt’s imagination and appealed to his mind. This heritage was kept alive by the two great monastic orders, the Malwatte and the Asgiriya, which had centuries had been repositories of Sinhala lore and learning.

Keyt was fascinated by the rhythms of the temple and the life of the monks, who introduced him to the teachings and the texts of Theravada Buddhism. This opened his eyes to a whole new world of knowledge and a completely different way of life. Keyt began to understand the Sinhala language and study the history, the literature and folklore of the land. He proved himself an eager and attentive student. Immersing himself in Buddhism and Sinhala culture, he read widely and deeply. Like many “Ceylonese” of his era, Keyt had been completely ignorant of the culture and the heritage of his own country This was the first real education that he had ever had. It provided him with a structure, giving him a direction and purpose which he had been lacking.

The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon, Volume II, No. IV, 1926
The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon, Volume III, No. 1927

The early 20th century witnessed a gathering tide of Buddhist consciousness. During the last century, British policies had gradually whittled away the place of Buddhism in society.

Although it remained the religion of the vast majority, it had been marginalized by the growth of Christian schools, Western education and the rise of the Anglicized élite. With the dawn of the 20th century, there was an upsurge of religious and cultural sentiments throughout the colony. The stirrings of anti-colonial resistance combined with the beginnings of a renaissance in Buddhism. Keyt was swept up in this new fervor and he published a series of articles on Buddhist subjects for a publication known as the Buddhist Annual. Designed to bridge the gap between two worlds, it featured essays, poems, short stories and illustrations by Buddhists residing in the West and the East. Grounding himself in the teachings of the Buddha, Keyt built up a thorough understanding of its doctrines and practices. He also acquired a knowledge of Sinhala and Pali and produced translations of Buddhist texts.

George Keyt, The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon (1929), Volume III, No. 3

A photograph published in 1929 shows Keyt in his twenties. Dapper in a suit and tie with his   hair beautifully combed, he had matured into an earnest and serious minded young man.The rebellious youth who had refused to learn at Trinity had found a cause he was passionate about. He devoted an enormous amount of time and effort to reading and writing, thinking and learning and finally he began to draw. In 1925 Keyt produced a series of line drawings for the Buddhist Annual, relating episodes from the Life of the Buddha.These drawings mark the beginning of his career as an artist.

4) The Buddha and His First Disciples, George Keyt, The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon (1925) Volume II, No. 3
5) The Enlightenment, George Keyt, The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon (1925), Volume II, No. 3

In 1938 George Keyt published his first major literary work, Poetry from the Sinhalese. In his youth Keyt had steeped himself in Romantic and Victorian poetry; he now imbibed the world of Sinhala verse in all its many forms. During the colonial regime Sinhala poetry had fallen into decay. Keyt was very conscious that he was exploring a world which seemed “ foreign” to many of his countrymen, revealing what was then almost alien and unknown.

If Sinhala poetry has fallen into neglect, it is due to the unfamiliarity of its languages, and I feel that put it into a modern tongue, it must become accessible to many.2

Completed when he was nearly 40, this work shows how far Keyt had moved away from his colonial inheritance. The sheer depth and variety of knowledge that it unveils suggests how much Keyt had grown and how deeply he had immersed himself in Sinhala culture. It had enabled him learn, understand and interpret, empowering him to lay down the bedrock of a new identity.

Keyt’s early paintings depicted the landscape and people of Kandy. Naturalistic and representative, they are very carefully structured and solidly organized. Everything is correctly planned and the form is very clear. Serene and tranquil they reflect the calm, ordered stability of his world. The foundation of this life was his wife. Also a Burgher, Ruth Janz was beautiful, educated and a trained teacher. On the face of it, she and her husband had much in common. Both were from the same community and hailed from families with professional backgrounds. Keyt however, felt trapped and hemmed, lost and drifting, confused and unsure.

The Walk in the Rain, George Keyt, Ceylon Observer Annual(1936)

In 1938 Keyt published an illustrated short story, entitled The Walk in the Rain. 3 The illustration depicts a figure stumbling through a stark, modernist landscape. The eye is drawn to a darkened figure in silhouette, trying to find his way through a storm of wind, rain and imagined fear. During this time Keyt published two volumes of poetry. The Darkness Disrobed (1937) and Image in Absence (1937). These two works suggest that he stood on the threshold of a great change. His poem, The Path , begins with these words, “It is solid things I renounce. ”4 The last two lines end as follows, “And I travel where discernment and blind eyes fear to go, Or feel it is foolish to travel.”5 During this time, he embarked on a passionate relationship with his children’s ayah, Lucia. Abandoning Ruth and his two young daughters, Keyt went to live with Lucia in her village. A critical moment in his life, it caused a huge scandal in the society of the time, and Keyt was ostracized by the circles to which he had belonged.

Keyt was to all intents and purposes adopting a new way of life and embracing a new culture. To most English educated, urban “Ceylonese” of the colonial era, Sinhala culture symbolized a strange, alien, rather inferior way of life. Whereas many men of Keyt’s background had relationships with village women, few would have left their family and their home. In this as in so much else, Keyt proved the exception. Scandalizing the social norms of the day, he showed complete contempt for the colonial middle classes and their conventions.

Wedding Photograph of George Keyt and Ruth Jansz, Taprobane Collection: Diana Keyt. Courtesy Taprobane Collection

To many of his contemporaries, Keyt’s decision to abandon his wife was inexplicable. Ruth was attractive, educated and socially acceptable. She came from the same background as her husband’s family and belonged to the same Anglicized social class as his friends. Lucia however, was none of these. Whereas the Eurasian or “Burgher” community identified themselves with the West, Lucia represented a completely different world, one which was often disparaged as backward and outlandish by the colonial bourgeoisie. In Keyt’s eyes, psychologically and philosophically Lucia may have represented the “other.” This provides the context for the fascination with dark skinned women which is so evident in his early work. The symbolism seems very clear. Strange and different though they appeared, they were also exotic and enticing. In Radha and Krishna (1951), Krishna reaches down to embrace his lover, who sprawls wantonly before him, twisting her hips slightly in anticipation. Like Keyt himself, Krishna is very fair, a thin, angular figure. Radha is dark and voluptuous. As Lucia became Keyt’s personal muse and lover, she also became the subject and inspiration of his paintings.

Radha and Krishna (1951), George Keyt, Oil on Canvas, 84.5 x 102 cm Taprobane Collection

Retreating from town life, Keyt began a new life with Lucia in the hills and valleys of the Kandyan countryside. Keyt found himself in the midst of a rural farming community, a world close to nature, governed by the sun and the needs of daily life. Turning his back on the life which he had lived, Keyt immersed himself in this new reality. This new environment opened his eyes to a totally different way of looking at the world, giving him a depth and an originality which sharpened his creativity.

Leum of Bullocks. Taprobane Collection

The inhabitants of Colombo were inclined to regard the Kandyans as primitive. This opinion was widespread amongst the colonial bourgeoisie which dominated the society of the time. Although Keyt himself came from a Westernized, deeply colonized background, he was able to understand and appreciate this world for what it was. As he moved further and further away from colonial convention, he was able to see more deeply.

No telephone bells rang in the Kandyan village. Oil lamps lit the evening. The smallest glimmerings of dawn began this day. The affairs of the village regulated the conversation. But this conversation was not so limited as some would suppose. The art was the great art of Kandyan dancing. The religion was the grand, humane, intellectual, inexhaustible Buddhist faith. The history was the continuous history of 186 kings recorded by Buddhist priests in the Pali chronicles. Sinhalese poetry, almost dead in the towns, still flourished in the country. 6

As he saw, he was able to create. In changing his world, Keyt had discovered an identity and a foundation. This gave him the confidence and the direction to evolve and explore. Keyt had not only changed his religion, he had changed his lifestyle, had left his wife and his home toadapt to a new a way of living. In doing so, he set about creating his own style of painting. Breaking with the dead end of colonial culture, Keyt was able to identify with a national heritage and an indigenous consciousness.

Modernism appealed to Keyt’s temperament, liberating him as a man and an artist. Confined and stifled by the morals and conventions of the day, he had already broken with its social codes. Modern art and its innovation opened up a new path for him. Enabling him to be free, to be different and to be himself, it gave him the tools to interpret the new world and the new life had carved out for himself.

A revolutionary painter is one who wantonly breaks rules in order to liberate his expression from the bonds of academic art. Why must they do this? In order to create new forms… 7
George Keyt, Modern Art and the East, Ceylon Observer, 9 June 19638

The discovery of Picasso and Braque revolutionized Keyt’s thinking and his painting. Adopting the tenets of Cubism to reshape and reassemble nature, he began to distort form and shape.

Ploughing (1953). George Keyt. Oil on Board. 92 x 123 cm Taprobane Collection

Breaking up the body, Keyt simplified it into basic geometric forms. Rearranging its appearance, he highlights sharp edges and curvilinear forms to produce multiple intersecting views. Combining cutting lines, sinuous curves and jagged angles, Keyt created his own idea of perspective. Many of Keyt’s figures have the elongated, angular faces of

Picasso’s forms and they possess the same expressive, staring eyes. Like Picasso, Keyt combined distortion with bold outline. Using crisp, heavy lines, he made the continuing line a defining feature, merging and fusing figures together. Embracing the Cubist formula, Keyt created oval faces with sharp profiles, often bisecting and dissecting them at the same time.

It is perfectly legitimate to resort to dislocation and rearranged disintegration of things and beings represented. Things and beings represented in any true art are never represented as things in themselves.
George Keyt, Aphorisms on Art (1946)8

Woman With Bundle (1945), George Keyt, Oil on Canvas, 49 x 49 cm, Taprobane Collection

The innovations of modern art made a profound impression in the Ceylon of the 1930s. Its originality, its iconoclasm and its sheer vitality appealed to an emerging generation who were starting to break away from the traditional forms of painting. In 1887 the British administration established the Ceylon Society of Arts. Modelled along the lines of the Royal Academy, it was designed to cater to the wealthy urban and commercial classes who had established themselves during the 19th century. Intended for a group whose social and cultural standards were of the West, the aim of the Society was to “encourage pictorial art” in the colony.

During nearly four centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British occupation, Ceylonese culture was in eclipse, and the old aristocracy was replaced by a rich urban class whose social and cultural standards were of the West. Colonial education introduced alien standards of art until, in the 19th century, the worst kind of Victorian naturalism became the goal of artistic
William Graham, The Studio Magazine (1954) 9

Dominated by wealthy and influential families who had proved themselves loyal and useful to the British Crown, the Ceylon Society of Arts was a product of the Victorian era, steeped in the conventions of naturalism and representation. Deeply conservative in its attitudes to art, its style reflected the tastes and ideals of the English middle class at the time. The Society had little interest in the artistic traditions of the country and was actively opposed to the developments taking place in contemporary art. All artists had to paint in the style of the reigning British aesthetic. Those who did not were seen as misfits and non- conformists and were rejected .

By the end of the 1920s the atmosphere in Ceylon had begun to change. In 1929 only four per cent of the population of the colony had the right to vote. In 1931 however, a new constitution, the Donoughmore Constitution, was passed. This granted every man and woman in Ceylon the vote. Enacted with a view toward eventual self-rule, this gave the colony a large measure of self government. Independence was on the horizon and there was a general understanding that this would be granted after the end of World War II On 29th August 1943, five years before Independence a new, independent group of artists was founded. It was composed of all those who had been excluded by the Ceylon Society of Arts. Known as the 43 Group, it became Asia’s first modern art movement. The 43 Group sought to portray the country’s life, values and traditions in a modern idiom. Inspired by European modernism and the traditional arts of India and Ceylon, the artists agreed to work in their own respective styles, creating, experimenting and interpreting as they saw fit.

The first 43 Group exhibition took place in November 1943. The first artistic movement of its kind in Asia, it had evolved at a time when both Ceylon and India were still colonies. At a time when modernism was closely associated with change, anti-colonialism and nationalism, the 43 Group generated widespread interest and attention. It also led the way on the Indian subcontinent, where it became the first modernist movement to establish itself.

Woman with a Mirror (1946) George Keyt, Oil on Canvas, 85.5 x 62 cm, Taprobane Collection

In 1944, as World War II was reaching its final stages, the British appointed the Soulbury Commission to develop a new constitution for Ceylon. As the country neared independence, the 43 Group showed that Ceylon’s life, values and ancient roots could be portrayed in a twentieth century manner. The country had discovered an artistic identity of its own, one that was both modern and independent. In 1947 the Ceylon Independence Act conferred dominion status on the colony and in August 1947 the country held its first parliamentary elections. On 4 February 1948 the Crown Colony of Ceylon became an independent nation.

The formal ceremony marking the start of self-rule. 2 October 1947. Government of Ceylon and UK. Wikimedia Commons

In the years which followed Independence, the 43 Group held a series of regular exhibitions which gradually established modern art in Sri Lanka. By the early fifties, the 43 Group was winning international acclaim and showing its work in Europe. The 43 Group’s synthesis of traditional forms with modern Western influence attracted widespread praise and comment. In February 1954, William Graham, writing in The Studio, London’s leading magazine of contemporary art, described the 43 Group as “The most significant movement in Eastern Art today.”10 The 43 Group’s first international exhibition at the Imperial Institute in London in 1952 was introduced by painter, essayist, thinker, novelist and film maker, John Berger, one of the most influential cultural figures of the time.

Untitled. Oil on Canvas.1964. 49 x 44cm. Taprobane Collection
Exhibition Catalogue. The 43 Group. Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Ceylon. 13 November – 21 December.Petit Palais, Paris 1953. Courtesy Taprobane Collection.

A year later the 43 Group exhibited in Paris. The show was a resounding success and was visited by nearly 10,000 people. It attracted the attention of the French collector, critic and art historian George Besson (1882-1971). One of the great authorities of his time, Besson and his wife had moved closely with the pre-eminent artists of the day and Besson had his portrait painted by Matisse. For Besson, the 43 Group was an original and authentic voice, which provided “a new vision of living beings and of their country.”11

Breaking with the colonial past, modernism offered a new way of thinking and painting, providing George Keyt with a series of stepping stones, it gave him the opportunity to explore and to experiment, to innovate and to re-invent. Keyt did not avoid these stepping stones. For him, they were merely markers, which enabled him to learn and to grow, to formulate his own visual language and go his own way. Although Keyt had adopted modernism to reinterpret the human form, he did not allow it to dominate or diminish his interpretation. Whereas Braque and Picasso dispensed with line and form, Keyt retained his love of line and outline, maintaining his feeling for the human form.

Breaking with the colonial past, modernism offered a new way of thinking and painting, providing George Keyt with a series of stepping stones, it gave him the opportunity to explore and to experiment, to innovate and to re-invent. Keyt did not avoid these stepping stones. For him, they were merely markers, which enabled him to learn and to grow, to formulate his own visual language and go his own way. Although Keyt had adopted modernism to reinterpret the human form, he did not allow it to dominate or diminish his interpretation. Whereas Braque and Picasso dispensed with line and form, Keyt retained his love of line and outline, maintaining his feeling for the human form.

Shri Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda.The Loves of Krishna and Radha. George Keyt. 1st Edition. Kutub Publishers, Bombay. 1947 Taprobane Collection

Once Keyt had rejected Christianity, Buddhism and then Hinduism provided him with an alternative set of beliefs and a way of life. This grounded him in the cultural context of South Asia. In Keyt’s eyes, South Asia possessed what Europe lacked – an ancient creative history and a spiritual tradition of its own. He was too embedded in this reality to allow any set of theories or canons to dominate his vision.

One of the most perceptive analysts of Keyt’s assimilation of modernism was the British civil servant, art historian and curator W.G. Archer (1907-1979). Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1949-1959, Archer was one of the most prominent authorities on Indian art of the time. He came to know Keyt well and featured him in his seminal study India and Modern Art (1959).12

Archer was aware that the reproductions of Braque and Picasso had an invigorating effect on Keyt. All of a sudden Keyt realized that he had a “whole new series of idioms ready to hand for conscious adoption.”13 According to Archer, the example of Picasso helped Keyt discover his own inner consciousness and develop his own style. It offered him a new way of thinking and painting which opened up a way forward. For Keyt, modernism was merely an instrument. “ What Europe provided was but a tool, a method.” 14

The product of a deeply urbanized and colonized culture, Keyt turned his back on the society that he knew. Rejecting the secure, established path he had been destined to follow he embraced the language, art and culture of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist civilization, carving out a new identity and life for himself. In the same way that he abandoned the security and stability of his upbringing, Keyt broke with the artistic traditions of his day. In the dying years of the empire, Keyt borrowed, learned and innovated to create anew. Fusing several traditions together, he drew on many cultures and many art forms to evolve a distinct art form of his own. In living the life of his paintings, he transformed himself, as a man and an artist.

A version of this article was first delivered at Third Karachi Biennale KB22 on 6th November 2022. The material for this article has been drawn from the forthcoming publication- George Keyt. The Absence of a Desired Image’ by SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda
(Taprobane Collection, Sri Lanka 2023) and published with the permission of the Taprobane Collection, Sri Lanka


  1. Anonymous, The Lees of Lanka (Colombo Examiner Press for Private Circulation, Colombo, 1934), cited in Roberts, Raheem and Colin-Thomé, People Inbetween, p. 127
  2. George Keyt, Poetry from the Sinhalese (Colombo Apothecaries Co. Ltd., 1938), p.VII
  3. George Keyt, The Walk in the Rain, Ceylon Observer Annual (1936), pp. 568-573
  4. George Keyt, The Darkness Disrobed (Kandy, 1937), p. 33
  5. Ibid.
  6. Martin Russell, George Keyt (Marg Publications, Bombay, 1950), p. 52
  7. George Keyt, Modern Art and the East, Ceylon Observer, June 9, 1963, in George Keyt Centennial Anthology, pp. 130-131
  8. George Keyt, Aphorisms on Art (Bombay, 1946), Reprinted in George Keyt. Felicitation Volume, p. 81
  9. William Graham, Painting in Ceylon: The 43 Group, The Studio. The Leading Magazine of Contemporary Art, February 1954, p. 46
  10. William Graham, Painting in Ceylon: The 43 Group, The Studio. The Leading Magazine of Contemporary Art, February 1954, p. 46
  11. Neville Weereratne, 43 Group: A Chronicle of Fifty Years In the Art of Sri Lanka (Melbourne, 1993), p. 30
  12. W.G. Archer, India and Modern Art (Macmillan, London, 1959)
  13. W.G. Archer, The Early Phase, George Keyt. A Centennial Anthology (George Keyt Foundation, Colombo, 2001), p. 23
  14. Archer, India and Modern Art, p. 121

Historian, Academic, Writer, Art Historian, and Film Director, Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda is a leading authority on the art, history and culture of Sri Lanka. His 1st book was A Travellers History of India (UK, USA, 1994), is now in its 5th edition worldwide. Since then he has authored several major works on the art and heritage of Sri Lanka- The World of Stanley Kirinde (2005), Ridi Vihare. The Flowering of Kandyan Art (2007) and Eloquence in Stone. The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka (2008). His 1st film, In Search of the Malwatu Oya (2019) has won 5 international awards.

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  • I discovered the remarkable world of the of the well known artist and painter through the appreciative eyes of the writer, Sinha Raja Tammita Delgoda. Although I had heard of George Keyt and read snippets about him and seen some of his work, a true appreciation of the artist, his life and the contribution made by him to modern Sri Lankan art was only realized by reading Sinha Raja’s essay which covered the life and work of this special person who came from a western European background to completely move into the local Sinhala Buddhist way of life and thinking which he depicted in his artwork. He has given the better part of his adult life to portray the simple ways of the local inhabitants who strived to follow the noble philosophy of the Buddha who showed the way to ultimate freedom from the sorrows and travails of this samsaric world bound by the karmic actions of every day life in this world.


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