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21st June 1998

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D.R. Wijewardene memorial award

"Traditions and customs inspired me to write" says winner

By Roshan Peiris

John Cecil Perera Samasinghe SiriwardhanaJohn Cecil Perera Samasinghe Siriwardhana, the winner of the fourteenth D.R.Wijewardene Memorial Award for the best Sinhala novel in manuscript form is a man born and bred in the village Ambanvita near the Attanagalla Oya which "inspired me by its very beauty to write from the age of fifteen.''

Dressed simply in black trousers and white striped shirt the prize winning author's face lit up as he said, ''I am very happy and in fact full of joy to win this prestigious Award, given in memory of D.R.Wijewardene, a man who held steadfastly to the many customs, language and traditions of our country when the British ruled over us.

"My father was a simple school teacher but a man who took pride in our old customs, our language and our traditions which greatly inspired me at the end to write ''Pambaya'', this prize winning novel.

"Today we forget to honour our traditions and customs and the mores of our people, which I must say is often reflected in some of the modern novels.''

Siriwardhana in saying this throws out a challenge which is implicit, even more perhaps than explicit.

Forty-eight years old, a Public Health Officer attached to the M.O.H.Office at Gampaha, he with his keen lively face and an appearance of quiet assurance will possibly find a rewarding place in Sinhala novel writing. His worth though is still open to assessment, through the years.

Siriwardhana makes no apology that he started school at the Gampaha Kirindivita Buddhist Boys School and went onto the Ruwanwella Rajasinghe Central College.

"I am qualified only in the GCE 'O' Level but I took to writing as a school boy after my studies were over, in the stillness of the night.

"Even now, I still write at night and I base my stories when possible in the context of the old world values which we are heir to, and of which we could all be proud.

"I was highly commended in 1993 at this same Award Ceremony for the book "Devata Dige" about children and then again in 1994 for the story Thaksalava. It was a story after my own heart, where a poor boy Sudu Banda worked hard to achieve much, but could not, since he was after all a goviya's son''

Siriwardhana good-naturedly stated, ''I wrote Pambaya (the "scarecrow'') that you find in fields to keep away birds. It was symbolic of the tenant landlord Sirimande, who made immense profit from the field while trying to cut down on Appanis the goviya who wanted to make the fields more fertile with input.

The landlord, said Siriwardhana, was like the "Pambaya keeping away the fruitful ideas and the incentives of the farmer and blocking his work. He was harrassed just as the pambayas kept away and harassed the birds.''

It is obvious that the author has tremendous empathy with nature and an imaginative flair to express his ideas.

"The farmer's son Seeladasa got a Degree from the Peradeniya University and though jobless was not keen to become a farmer, though he did help his father while marking time.

"This shows the deterioration of worthy old world values of a son who should be proud to follow in his father's footsteps."

Siriwardhana writes and illustrates children's books for which he has won prizes from the Book Development Board. He paid a heartfelt tribute to his wife Padmini Kanthie. "She encourages me and gives me the much needed incentive often to complete my books.'' The couple have a teenage daughter

Siriwardhana is flexible and open to ideas while jealously guarding the values and traditions inculcated by his father in his growing years.

Neville de Alwis - a dedication

By Upali Salgado.

In a typicallyThomian way of showing grati tude, an interesting and lively musical evening of song, dance and poetry, supported by a playlet which was from excerpts of the "Blood Brothers", was presented on 14 June 1998. It was a "Dedication to the retiring Warden of S. Thomas' College, Mount, Lavinia, Neville de Alwis, at the College Hall. Neville de Alwis who has held a stewardship as Warden of the great school for fifteen years, saw the fruits of his labour ripen on stage, when talented young old Thomians and College students, entertained for two and a half hours, an invited audience of distinguished old Thomians and parents of students, with what the Warden always wanted - "Nothing but the best".

Mr. Neville de AlwisA recital of Henry Newbolt's celebrated poem, "The Best School Of All" was the forerunner to a sentimental journey of a popular medley of songs presented by the Lower School having the theme "I'll Never Let You Go". Calypso musical hits, "Island In The Sun" and "A Jamaican Farewell", backed up by an old favourite "Daisy Daisy", brought life to the show. The music was ably directed by Vinod Senadheera and assisted by the pianist Mrs. Ranji Abeynaike, and supported by the schools Chamber Orchestra in a continuous manner as a backdrop to the entertainment. A duet "Amigos Parasiempre" sung by Rohan de Lanerolle and Dayan Fernando, two Drama Society members of yesteryear, was highly appreciated, whilst the Warden's son, Nimantha de Alwis stole the show with his inspired solo, "My Way".

It is interesting to note that drama has for long years been associated with S. Thomas'. For many a well known actor (Gamini Fonseka, Richard de Zoysa to mention two names), the College Drama Society has been the Kindergarten and school for acting. The writer recalls that, during the bleak World War years 1939-1945, when the College went into exile to Getambe, Kandy, despite being handicapped without an auditorium, stage props, musical instruments and lighting the College masters and students jointly staged on makeshift boards in 1943, Androcles And The Lion. A senior classics teacher C.H. Davidson (who later became a Warden of the College, played a major role on stage, whilst his colleague on the Tutorial Staff Brookie d Silva played the part of the lion, sporting a long mane. He did roar like a real lion! A few years previously, when the Dram-Soc staged The Merchant Of Venice at the College Hall, C.H. Davidson who was a young teacher took part as Basanio and the role played as Portia was by a charming lady of the Tutorial Staff, who later became his wife. The romance had begun on the stage! The Dramatic Society activities which has had the fullest encouragement from Warden de Alwis has staged eleven Shakespearean school drama contests, winning seven. This itself is a tribute to a wonderful leader of a large school, which he himself attended as a young boy and later as a teacher at a time when Warden Canon de Saram was Head of the College.

As the curtain fell, a tribute to Warden de Alwis was sung by the students sentimentally:

"You'll always remember
Wherever you may be
The school of your boyhood
The school by the sea;

And you will always remember
The friendships fine and free
That you made at STC
The school by the sea."

In a fitting finale, Vinod Senadheera, a Dram-Soc live wire of yesteryear eloquently said, "Warden Neville de Alwis brought about a renaissance in the history of the school; upheld age old traditions, yet had a new vision. He could rightly be remembered as a great "builder or developer" like Warden McPhearson. He managed well all departments of the College - be it at studies as reflected by this splendid achievements at examinations, or in sports (Cricket, Rugby, Rowing or Swimming). May he live long to see the fruits of his labour blossom out in beauty and may the College grow from strength to strength, "Esto Perpetua'.

"Moods and Modes" mark 50 years of independence

Two hundred paintings filled the two wings at the Kala Bhavana (Art Gallery) in Moods and Modes, an exhibition of paintings to mark 50 years of Sri Lankan painting.

They had been selected from among the work of over 130 artists and it was significant that more than half of them were from outside Colombo and its suburbs.

The exhibition, organised and co-ordinated by the George Keyt Foundation in connection with the Golden Jubilee of Sri Lanka's Independence also marked the completion of ten years of service in the promotion of the arts by the Foundation. "Drawing from the inspiration and contribution of a man - George Keyt (1901-1993) whose life spanned almost the whole of this century - and as a painter, poet and writer was a legend in his lifetime, the George Keyt Foundation has in these ten years made a major contribution to promote the Arts, and in a way revived it from the end of the last decade", says the Foundation's President, Cedric de Silva. No one will disagree with him.

The ten years saw at least 50 presentations by the Foundation - exhibitions of Sri Lankan painters, month long exhibitions of four or five painters, individual exhibitions of Sri Lankan and overseas painters, SAARC painters and modern Sri Lankan painters.

The Foundation's efforts in promoting Nava Kalakaruwo, the emerging new artists under 40 years, had borne fruit judging from the vast amount of their work at 'Moods and Modes'. It is indeed consoling to see that a new breed of painters is emerging, a most welcome sign for the future.

The Foundation with the assistance of Ceylon Tobacco Company had been sponsoring an exhibition by these artists every year for the past five years. They have also got exposure from the Kala Pola held once a year (since 1992). This open air fair is a much sought after event where many turn up to purchase works of art.

The exhibition had its fair share of work by well-known artists and these were presented decade wise. The 1950s collection had the work of Stanley Abeysinghe, Justin Deraniyagala, Aubrey Collette, G. S. Fernando, Sushila Fernando, J. D. A. Perera, George Keyt, Tudor Rajapakse, Donald Ramanayake and Saraswathy Rockwood. Work in the 1960s included paintings by Ivan Peries, Ashley Halpe, Stanley Kirinde, David Paynter, Harry Pieris, Gamini Warnasooriya and Neville Weeraratne. More names kept on adding every decade with the 1990s seeing a host of young contemporaries.

The catalogue issued to mark the exhibition is a fitting souvenir outlining the progress of the art in Sri Lanka and well illustrated with 140 of the 200 paintings seen at the exhibition - exquisitely printed in colour by Aitken Spence Printing. It provides interesting reading and is a 'must' in any art lover's library.

Martin Russel takes one back to the 1940s and discusses how he, as a British army man came in contact with the early painters. A good collector of paintings, he mentions how he met George Keyt at the opening of the first exhibition of the '43 Group in November 1943, "a great occasion", with Harry Pieris present as the Secretary of the Group and a principal exhibitor. "At that time I did not quite understand Keyt's work, because it was so non-European, but another member of the '43 Group, George Classen, now living in London, pointed out to me that Keyt's work had a 'poetic' quality. The word 'poetic' used by Classen has been embedded in my memory ever since. I bought all Keyts in the show, except one, The Journey, which I was told Lionel Wendt himself wanted to buy", Russel recalls.

Discussing 'Moods and modes of art in the 1970s', Ellen Dissanayake says how in the l970s, the official visual art scene belonged largely to the privileged colonialized elite, those with the means to purchase paintings and the leisure to learn to appreciate them. Among the exceptions were Manjusri, who had been a Buddhist monk, and a few artists from humble origins but all well educated enough to support themselves with white collar employment. "No one in the l970s Sri Lanka thought of popular art as 'art', nor did we question the European idea of art as something that belonged in a museum. We knew that from the beginning of time people had made 'religious art' - who in South Asia could be unaware of its magnificent rock carvings and temple paintings? But the political and social aspects of art production and reception remained for later decades to describe", the article says.

Referring to 'Independence's step-children looking beyond post modernism, S. B. Dissanayake shows how in the '90s a personal commitment on the part of the artist and a desire to change social policy and promote a particular cause in their work began to come to the fore in Sri Lankan painting. But, at first, these works suffered from too much obscurity and baffled most viewers. Even today, after nearly ten years of seeing such works, when such works have become a familiar sight at Colombo's Galleries, they are still looked upon with some suspicion. But their cryptic meanings are debated more and more, a sign of progress surely; but I think the debate will continue until some of these works end up in the graveyard of a museum and finally succumb to post modernist deconstruction," he says.

Looking at 'Painters, Patriots and the Public', Nihal Rodrigo says that today, a 'market' for paintings is being steadily built up by a curiously enabling mix of state, private, commercial and diplomatic factors. 'State patronage for contemporary painting now extends beyond ceremonial openings of exhibitions by Cabinet Ministers and Heads of State and commemorative issues of postage stamps. A committee appointed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is actively building up a long overdue national collection of paintings, which would include works of established as well as younger painters. The private corporate sector has been generous with extensive sponsorships being granted. The painters of pandals and movie hoardings had always managed their livelihood however precarious. Sri Lanka's 'open economy', now sustains many painters as commercial artists and illustrators who at least do not now need to worry about their bread and butter, or rather their rice and curry".

Pointing out that an affluent art buying public has emerged as another result of the open economy, Rodrigo says that an adequately attractive work by a painter with what the Americans call "name recognition" could now fetch the equivalent of three months salary of a senior Public Servant! Like publicly quoted shares, market prices are being set for contemporary painters even though the price of a painting is perhaps better appreciated than its value.

"What is noteworthy in Sri Lanka today is that the painter is not alone. Paintings have become not merely 'nice things' to hang, in the living room over the antique kavichiya (couch), but also marketable, tradeable commodities, social symbols ('art for arts sake') nationalist emblems, modes of protest and affirmations of beliefs. All this is healthy in the long run", Rodrigo concludes.

Book Shelf

Yet another...

The award winning writer K.G.Karunatilleka now presents the Sinhala reader with the second edition of the collection of short stories by internationally acknowledged literary figures he wrote 23 years ago.

Titled Dandana Kandawura, it features ten short stories by Russian author Ivan Bunin, Nobel Prize winner German writer Thomas Mann, Irish novelist James Joyce, German language writer Frank Kafka, influential US novelist Ernest Hemingway, French novelists Jean Paul Satre, Albert Camus & Alain Robbe-Grillet and Italian novelist Alberto Moravia.

The publisher, Dayawansa Jayakody & Company is confident that this work would be a novel experience to the Sinhala reader who will find it fascinating.

Karunatilleka's creations have won recognition at the State Literary Awards presentation for best translation on four occasions and is acknowledged as Sri Lanka's foremost translator.

Kala Corner

How to beat the queue?

A keen student of cin ema makes a quality film. It gets a high rating and is selected for screening at the prestigious Fifth Circuit, which comprises the so called 'better' cinemas. The film gets into the queue. Meanwhile, it gets selected for screening at a film festival abroad. The film is rated 'good'. It gets 'invited' to other festivals and does the round.

This is exactly what has happened to films made by the 'outstanding film director', Prasanna Vithanage. Not one film, but two and very soon a third will join the queue.

Anantha Rathriya, the second film made by Prasanna (the first was Sisila Gini Ganee) was approved by the Censor Board in December 1995. It had its world premiere at the Fukoka non-competitive Festival. It is yet to be released locally.

Prasanna's third film, the much talked about Pavuru Valalu will be screened at two more festivals (it was first shown at the Singapore Festival where Nita Fernando won the Best Actress award) - at the Young Cinema Forum at the Berlin Festival and a festival in France.

Meanwhile, Prasanna was invited by NHK of Japan to make a film. He was one of four Asian directors (others were from Uzbeckhistan, Malaysia and Taiwan) selected under NHK's programme of getting Asian directors to do films once every two years. How did NHK select him?

"On the strength of my effort in Anantha Rathriya. They were impressed after seeing the film," Prasanna says. ''And I am deeply indebted to Mr Lester James Pieris who paved the way for me to send the film to the Fukoka Festival".

The film he made for NHK, Purahanda Kaluwara is an insight into the effects of the ongoing war on the average rural family.

"I observed that a lot of young men from the dry zone decide to join the army because life is so tough. Families in areas outside the Mahaweli zones suffer due to lack of water. They are unable

to do their farming. Sons decide to join the army and earn for the family. What happens when he gets killed in the war? The family is faced with untold hardship," Prasanna explains. Joe Abeywickrema leads the cast.

The film had its premiere in Tokyo and was shown on NHK's high definition channel. Now it is being screened over the normal channel. On Augist 27th it will be screened at the Montreal Film Festival followed by another festival in Korea.

The big question is when do we get to see these films? Your guess is as good as mine.

An unusual happening

Samanyayen Asamanya Deyak (Usually, an unusual thing or happening). The three-word poster could not be missed. It kept everyone guessing. A few days later the logo 'Sirasa TV' appeared on the poster. It took a few days for everyone to realise that one of the two MTV channels had changed its name to ' Sirasa TV' .

Five years ago, a new radio channel, ' Sirasa' was born. It was a novel experience to listeners and instantly became popular. The programmes had a new look. The presentations were totally different to what the listeners were used to. Programmes were novel and innovative.

The man behind its success, Nimal Laxapathiarachchi has now taken up the challenge of making Sirasa TV a success. He is determined to do something different once again. He will try out new programmes for about three months and judge the viewer response and then decide how the new channel should go forward.

Sirasa TV will devote three and a half hours for Sinhala programmes, same duration for Tamil and one and a half hours for English. English progammes will be sub-titled in Sinhala.

And what about the unusual happening? Launching the new channel without a fuss when everybody expected a big song and dance!

After a long lapse

He created quite a stir with his maiden attempt at writing poetry. That was way back in 1956 when he wrote Mas Le Nethi Eta. a collection of blank verse. Since then Dr. Siri Gunasinghe has written two other poetry books - Abinikmaana and Ratu Kekula.

The fourth has just been released. It is titled Alakamandava. It is an attempt to focus on the problems faced by the Sinhala and Tamil communities.

Best known for his award winning cinematic creation, Sath Samudura, Dr. Gunasinghe's recent effort in presenting the Guttila Kavya on television did not create any excitement. He released a novel - Mandarama - too around the same time a few months back.

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