14th December 1997


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Tributum: that farewell gift of creativity

By Ramani Gunatilaka

On October 18, Ladies’ College put on a show quite different from the plays and musicals of earlier years. This time the English Literary and Debating Society staged a poignant farewell tribute to Mrs. Sirancee Gunawardana, who retires at the end of this year after having completed 28 years of service to the school as principal. As introduced by Shehara de Silva, in Tributum, a ‘family unbroken’ of Ladies College girls who had passed through her hands, came together to present a ‘Gift of Creativity’ to their mentor and friend.

And it was a fitting tribute. A mix of poetry, drama and song, the items in the programme were remarkable for their originality, creativity and professional eye for detail. These, to my mind , have been the hallmarks of the dramatic tradition established in Ladies’ College under the guidance of Mrs. Gunawardana, and encouraged by her staff members.

The two plays in the programme were in dramatic contrast to each other. They were cleverly directed by Romany Parakrama, an old Ladies’ College hand at extracting a highly professional final performance from a disastrous dress-rehearsal; so much so that, a successful dress rehearsal is regarded as the harbinger of a calamity on the final night. The first play, The Darkness, was set against the stark blackness of Jith Peiris’ minimalist set, and written by Marlene Maurice, a year 12 student. It developed through the monologues of five women imprisoned for a variety of crimes.

Manique Wijewardene’s representation of an elite woman opting for socialistic martyrdom in an orgy of intellectual self-gratification was an ironic dig at some members of Sri Lanka’s middle-class, while Sabina Mohideen, Indika Senanayake acted as perfect foils and created the black comedy; the one imprisoned for ‘disciplining’ (i.e murdering) her servant, and the other, a prostitute, who regarded her sentence as a rest from having to earn her living. The sombre themes, displaying an acute awareness of contemporary social problems, no less the remarkably mature acting, could not have been further from the frivolity with which Ladies’ College is often, and perhaps unfairly, associated with.

If any criticism must be made, then it must be that the play was somewhat too long and was hauled though the troughs only by the players’ dramatic talent. One felt that the script could have benefited from some judicious editing.

If The Darkness was somewhat heavy, then Manuka Wijesinghe’s The Mad Cow was a delightful contrast. The comic skit roller-coastered along on its witty dialogue and cameo roles, and was laced with that typically Sri Lankan characteristic of being to laugh at oneself. Ishani Bandaranayake’s portrayal of the Indian Minister of Hindu Affairs was almost faultless, right down to accent and mannerisms. The Mad Cow was the professional incarnation of the traditional end of-year skit, put on by countless generations of Ladies’ College girls, and at which their Principal has been the unofficial Chief Guest.

It is a credit to Mrs. Gunawardana’s sense of fun that these skits have often caricatured herself, at which she has laughed with as much enjoyment as anybody else in the audience.

The programme also featured the original poems of Romany Parakrama, Madhubhashini Disanayaka and Marlene Maurice. Unfortunately, Parakrama’s for the Youngling and Maurice’s The Face of a Generation (read by the authors themselves), were delivered rather fast, and at times left the audience stranded. But Disanayaka’s poetic tribute to Mrs. Gunawardana was in her characteristic, simple language, to which Indika Senanayake’s emotive reading did ample justice. The poem captured the essence of Mrs. Gunawardana’s inimitable style of stewardship, putting into words the feelings of her students past and present, and evoking a sense of their own transience. Teruni de Alwis’ loss of voice and graceful apology met with a sympathetic audience, but she redeemed herself when she led the soaring ’Our Tribute’ in what was probably the most moving part of the entire evening. This followed Dhara Wijayatilake’s incisive Encomium of Mrs. Gunawardana, which sketched her unique contribution to the character and traditions of the school.

‘Tributum’ encapsulated Mrs. Gunawardana’s inimitable contribution to the traditions of Ladies’ College. May these traditions of Liberalism, creativity and originality continue to enrich the school.

‘They reap not where they laboured,

We reap what they have sown;

Our harvest may be garnered

By ages yet unknown’.

Selestina and Visakha

The story of Selestina Dias, Buddhist female philanthrophist and educationist, by Manel Tampoe

Published by the Social Scientists Association

Reviewed by Mallika Wanigasundara

Selestina Dias (nee Patthinihennadige Warnadeepthia Kurukulasuriya Rodrigo), wife of Jeremias Dias of Panadura, the remarkable woman who founded Visakha Vidyalaya, Bambalapitiya, the premier Buddhist School for girls in Sri Lanka, was certainly not typical of women of her era.

In her extraordinary determination to found a superior Buddhist School for girls she showed a confidence and single-mindedness characteristic of the manner in which she lived her life as a widow since 1902. She resembled, not a woman of her age and time, but the more enlightened, vibrant energetic activists of the 20th century’s feminist movements.

Selestina was born in 1858. It was an era when a woman’s worth and virtue were measured by her domestic competence. She was tied to home territory - husband, children, kitchen (ambul thiyal, kos polos), family weddings, funerals, alms-givings and the temple in almost all Buddhist families.

Selestina would have none of it. After she was widowed, she inherited her husband’s massive fortune and became a business woman. ‘Renda nona’ she was called and she strode her husband’s arrack and plantation empire as if she was born to rule it. She is said to have shown no housewifely inclinations, but she managed her household staff with firmness and efficiency.

The foundations of her later philanthropy were laid quite early.

But this book is not merely a biography of an unusual woman, very much in advance of her time. It is an insightful, carefully researched, well documented history of people, of a place and an era. Written lucidly and readably, Manel Tampoe presents a kaleidoscopic panorama of people and events in a somewhat contradictory age.

Selestina founded Buddhist Girls College (which later became Visakha Vidyalaya) in 1917 in an old house in Turret Road (Dharmapala Mawatha), Kollupitiya, called ‘The Firs’ in memory of her son Edmund Wilson. Not a college for boys as you would expect.

She took the first step of creating two Trusts appointing W.A. de Silva first and later D.B. Jayatilaka, D.S. Senanayake and her son-in-law Thomas de Silva as Trustees.

Rs. 100,000 from her Good Hope estate, a valuable rubber property was set side for the school. Selestina’s contribution to the school amounted to Rs. 450,000, a staggering sum in those days, out of a total of some Rs. 2 million given by her to charity.

It was not too propitious a time to start a Buddhist school for girls. Parents were still enamoured by the denominational schools and were wary about taking them out of these schools. Besides, Buddhist Girls College started off in the least flamboyant fashion. The house provided hostel accommodation (the done thing was to send your children to boarding school) for students and teachers. The classrooms were in old stables, garages, outhouses and cadjan sheds at the back. Hardly enticing, one would think.

Manel draws a picture of life in the school in those times culling from the memories of the few old students who are still living. It was compulsory to speak English in school, and the emphasis seemed to be to prepare the girls for genteel society in a kind of Victorian way at the beginning.

They learnt to play the piano, tennis in the evenings, art, drawing, clay modelling, embroidery, deportment, table manners. Physical exercise, games and dancing was also encouraged. All this tended somewhat to alienate the girls from traditional life styles in Ceylon and soon this was corrected. The going was never easy. There were financial deficits, and there was the need for a strict control of expenditure. D.B. Jayatilaka did just that. The only comic relief in those years of worry was the two feet long and three feet wide hostel accounts book which was lugged to D.B. Jayatilaka’s residence every morning.

As time went on the situation improved, examination results were good and the school expanded rapidly.

Selestina is remembered visiting the school in her crisp cloth and ‘kabakuruththu’ jacket with sweets for the hostellers. It is important to record that in her later years, she distanced herself from the arrack business on the advice of Arthur Dias, temperance worker.

The book presents a fascinating profile of Panadura, its inhabitants, their origins, their economic expansion. You will find plenty of good reading about the Buddhist revival, the building of temples and other Buddhist activities. All this has to go with an analytical account of the entrepreneurs of the Karawe community dealing in arrack. How they monopolised the business and secured the structure by a web of interlocked family connections; how kith and kin themselves under control, kept outsiders out; how syndicates and incipient cartels functioned in the manner of modern private business and similarly diversified into plantations industry.

This was so long ago. They were new to business, but they were sharp.

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