For most of us, museums are connected with the past, reminding us that whatever the future holds will be determined by that which has gone by. They are a fixed point, on which everything is to be assessed. Gordon de Silva runs something I would call a museum. I have trouble calling him a curator or archivist though. He is much more than that. His is a story that hasn’t been done justice to. Not yet. A passionate lover of cinema, he lays bare his heart to me. The true worth of the man can only be judged with a book. It hasn’t come out yet, but I can try something close to it.
This is his story.
Gordon de Silva was born in 1964 in Colombo. His father, Sanath de Silva, was a manager of a printing press; he had been involved with Sinhala Jathiya (later published as Swadeshi Printers). From an early age, Gordon had been in his father’s world. “When I had nothing to do, I would enter and explore the press.”
He also had been fascinated by constructing things. “I loved to play with toys at that age,” he tells me, “But my father never bought them for me. What he did was to make me build my own toys. Father would buy the basic items to make them.”
Most children would take to putting things together and building something out of them, which is what happened to young Gordon. His mother apparently wanted him to be a carpenter, and he admits that as time went by, he himself began to entertain this idea. This had been the case even at his school. His mother even wrote “Carpentry” as her preferred line of trade for him.
He was educated at Mahanama College, Colombo 3, where he managed to develop his love. “I always wanted to build something new, out of the ordinary, so that I could stand out,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. No doubt he had a childhood which never denied him materials for his talent. Time and destiny would prove him. Eventually.
Gordon explains here why his mother had wanted him to take to carpentry, which in his day had been looked down upon as a less than desirable job. “Carpentry is a shilpaya (craft) which one must have a firm grip on. My mother wanted me to be my own master.”
His father on the other hand provided him with a set of tools, encouraging his talent even more. This was complemented by another fact. His father, Gordon tells me, was an avid photographer. I ask him to explain whether that had any bearing on his later life, and he does so readily.
“He was a madcap over photography. One of his students had been Wilson Hegoda, who later founded the National Photographic Art Society. My father would take me to various meetings of photographic societies, where I experienced firsthand what it meant to be in that field.” He had come into contact with cameras and other photography tools, and this had sparked an interest in the trade in him. “Needless to say, I wanted to become a photographer,” he smiles.
Photography and carpentry of course don’t seem to go hand in hand, but as Gordon explains I begin to realise how much his career was influenced by the two meeting together.
“I would take photos constantly. In fact it very nearly became an obsession. I learnt about photography while keeping my interest in carpentry. There were other factors that weighed in as well.
“It so happened that we had a slide projector at home. That’s one thing. The other thing was that my father would take us to see English films once every two weeks. I don’t remember the plot of every film I watched, but they were almost always big-budget epics like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra.” It is perhaps a sign of how hyped they were in their time, but Gordon admits that they remained in his mind long after he watched them.
His mother on the other hand loved Sinhala films. “It was mother who took us to see them, because my father didn’t have a soft spot where Sinhala cinema was concerned.” It was a bilingual celluloid world that Gordon resided in, no doubt, and this would have opened to him the best of both worlds. And this could have meant just one thing. “I decided to make a slide projector on my own.” He was 11 at the time. Hardly an age for such a thing. Still, young Gordon would have been very precocious.
He learnt the basic principle of projectors: pictures rushing through at 24 frames a second for a feature film. “With that principle in mind, I decided to build a cinema hall in my house. The problem was that I couldn’t use wood to make a projector. I had to build it from matchboxes.” He is grateful at this point to all those who helped him, because he believes that it was here where his career really began.
“My family encouraged me. Wholeheartedly. I wanted to experiment, and all they did was to lend me a helping hand. I will always appreciate that.” At a time when families and in particular close relatives try to decide what is best for a child, no doubt this was a blessing for young Gordon. The projector would eventually be made by the time he turned 16, five years later.
Making the projector didn’t satisfy him. I suspect that Gordon would have been inquisitive when young, and I may not be wrong in this. In any case, it didn’t take long for him to obsess over something else. “I watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when I was quite small. Cartoons are a different kettle of fish from feature films. My next target, therefore, was to make my own animated film.” His had been a problem unfortunately, because making an animated film wasn’t going to be as easy as running 24 frames every second.
Fate plays its tricks. One thing led to another. It so happened that around this time, Sri Lanka’s first cartoon film was released. This was Dutugemunu, directed by a person Gordon describes as one of his figures of destiny, Givantha Arthasad. “I wanted to meet the man,” he remembers, “and through my contacts, I got down his address. Hoping and praying for a reply, I wrote to him on his birthday (October 15), asking whether he could teach me his craft at his leisure.” The letter never got a reply, but things would move fast thereafter.
1982 came. Rupavahini was started and Sri Lanka began its love affair with television. Gordon found himself at this time in the Institute of Television Technology, the country’s first TV school. “The man who taught us there wanted us to come forward and introduce ourselves,” he remembers, “My turn came eventually. I got up and began the icebreaker. The moment I mentioned my name, the teacher cut me short. He came up-to me and asked ‘Are you that fellow who wrote to me?’ Lo and behold, it was the great Givantha Arthasad himself!”
He tells me here that he had remembered him even long after that letter had been posted, which could have meant just one thing: “He wanted to meet me.” During the interval, he reminded Arthasad about what he had written in his letter. “‘Alright, let’s make a camera then!’ was his prompt reply,” Gordon tells me, smiling. But first, he was asked to make a particular device. Seeing it after some time, Arthasad had given his student some words of advice: “Learn about television. It will help you greatly in what you want to become.”
Gordon took these words to heart. “I joined Rupavahini, ending whatever commitment I had with my father’s printing press. This was in March 1983. I became a Graphic Animation Letter Artist. I am on a more senior level now, with the same post. My thirst for cinema never died down. I read and learnt much.
“Eventually, Sri Lanka’s first-ever state-sponsored television academy was set up: the Sri Lanka Television Training Institute (SLTTI). I managed to meet up with two people who were instrumental in setting it up, Rainer and Nilly Welzel.”
They would shape Gordon’s destiny as well, when through them and their institute, he won a scholarship to Malaysia to study 3D animation. Scholarships to Canada and India would follow. Soon enough, he would move into the next phase of his career.
So how did Gordon the film fan became Gordon the archivist? “As I said before, I was an obsessive collector. I was archiving what I collected of course, but back then I wasn’t really interested in exhibiting them to the outside world.”
All this changed when he got the opportunity to visit the Visvasvaraya Museum in Bangalore. “What was interesting about that museum was that it had two sections to it, one for the Indian cinema and the other for world cinema.” Apparently it had everything or almost everything a film buff could ever hope to see, and this ignited something in his head.
He next visited a museum as different to the one he had seen as it could be. This was in Koggala. The Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum, Gordon tells me, was quite unlike anything he had come across. “It was, as the title said, a folk museum.”
These two visits had moved him tremendously. “I sought to incorporate the best of both places into something I could call my own,” he tells me. Unconsciously perhaps, he drove on with his obsession over collecting items, for no reason at the time, until in 2009 he would finally get to vindicate himself.
“I started my own archive. The idea for such a thing came from my students. I was teaching at the time, as some of those I taught wanted to see what I had collected. They were the ones who really put the idea into my head, especially because some of the items I had couldn’t be found in the country.” So on a quiet, uneventful day in November (on his birthday moreover), and with the blessings of everyone he had talked to, he opened the Museum Cinemaya. Sumitra Peries was the Chief Guest that day.
We move on to his love for archiving at this stage. He tells me that his museum reflects practically every stage the cinema had to go through. “Films didn’t fall from the sky. The camera was the precursor to them. I hence added photography to my collection. Then came the silent movies. That was followed by the talkies. So I began a radio collection. To promote talkies, a printing industry was begun. That was why I added a printing section. Films were later supplanted and even uprooted by television. I devoted a section in my museum for that too.”
It wouldn’t be wrong to say or to assume that the Museum Cinemaya is more than just your regular archive; its ambition seems to be to be a historical biography of cinema itself. No mean feat, that.
I ask him what exactly it was that made him want to build an archive like this. He replies to this by saying that since he was born a Sri Lankan, he wanted to contribute something to his country. “We have a cinema culture to be proud of. It’s sad that we don’t have a proper archive to collect and collate it. I decided to go ahead by myself and do something for my country’s film industry through Cinemaya.” From the looks of it, it seems quite feasible that the goals he has set for himself are monumental, even megalomaniac.
He tells me the underlying principle of any good archive. “The cinema is still developing. It’s the youngest of all art-forms. Sensitive to change. We are entering the digital age now. Costs are reducing, and because of that the quantity of films made the world over is increasing. I don’t know where Sri Lanka figures in all this, but the way I see it, it won’t take long for our cinema to be digitised.
“For instance, nowadays it’s the trend to use computers to edit. There’s no need for Moviolas. But what happens to them? Do we allow them to rot away, or do we preserve them for generations to come? I’ve been grappling with that question too, and I think that we should opt for preservation.” The West has gone beyond preservation now, though, and has moved into restoration. That’s a sign of how far behind we still are.
He mentions another point here. “Every art-form needs a solid foundation. It’s basically this argument: to spurn convention, you must know convention. Films don’t subsist always on what directors from the past said. They change. The grammar and syntax of cinema are always being revised. But without a foundation for that change, we can’t hope to grow.”
He will doubtless agree here that while there have been directors who have deliberately twisted and disobeyed the traditional rules of cinema, one needs a solid grasp of the principles of filmmaking if one is to direct films at all. This seems to be a guiding principle in Cinemaya.
So what has been his biggest problem in this? “For any archivist, the first big obstacle would obviously be sourcing what he archives. This isn’t really a problem at first glance. But when you delve into it, you will realise the pitfalls you have to avoid. The Museum Cinemaya has every film carefully detailed from 1925 onwards. We are talking about more than a thousand films here. That’s a lot of work.” I ask him here whether he has taken any precaution against this, and he happily says that he has.
“I am always careful whenever I give out information. That is why I have categorised my entire archive based on the sources each film has. The first category of films has information which is absolutely correct and beyond any doubt. The second category has information collected from other people. This I can’t guarantee, so I rarely give them to people. If I do, I always caution the person I am giving it to against relying on it too much. The third category, which I never divulge to people, is as yet un-sourced. Those films have no references. I am still finding information on them.
“Let me give you an example. Suppose you want to know whether a particular actress took part in a film. I would have to go through every source related to that film, and based on what category I used, I will affirm whether she did act in it. It’s even harder when music is involved. As you know, lyrics can be changed. And they are. So if you want to refer to a song in a film, I would have to delve deep and find out the original, unaltered version of that song in a songbook. That’s no easy task. But the end result of it all, which I very much appreciate, is that I give information to the public which can be relied on, though not 100%.”
I jokingly put it to him that nothing in this world can ever be proved 100%, and he agrees. “That’s why I can never publish a book on what I have archived. Film details never stay the same.” Inevitable. He tells me however that there can be inter-category shifts, and with films listed in the second category becoming 100% verifiable and moving to the first. Happily for him, even films in the third category are moving upwards.
There is always a question I put to people like Mr Gordon. “Why do you do it?” would of course be useless to ask here, but I ask it nonetheless. He is cautious when answering this. “There are two ways you can look at what I am doing. You can praise it, thinking that it’s needed in a world where the old is fading away thanks to the new. The cinema cannot be restored the same way other art-forms can. You cannot republish films. You cannot rebuild old equipment.
“But you can also shrug off what I am doing, thinking that it’s unnecessary in a world that is embracing the new. I subscribe to neither line of thinking. What I do is what I love. It’s as simple as that. It may not be palatable to many, but at the end of the day, I feel that I have contributed my share to this country.”
The Museum Cinemaya is in Kottawa. That’s where its founder lives. It hasn’t been completely digitised yet, and it won’t be until he manages to get every little nugget of information verified. Not easy, you must admit. It’s almost always a nightmare for the archivist. But Gordon de Silva loves what he does. He always will. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. And we are all the happier for it.
You can contact Gordon de Silva through email at email@example.com