3rd February 2002

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Four women on individual journeys of expression

New talents can be discovered at the group exhibition which opens at the Havelock Gallery on February 6. Four young women from the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Colombo who have a lot to express will exhibit their work. They are individual in their art and there's no attempt to copy any other artist in Sri Lanka - they don't need to. Each of them has found her own style. They create their oils and sculptures and their themes go deep beyond the surface of the canvas.

Madhu Kumari paints and sculpts what concerns her most at present: Her forthcoming arranged marriage. "It is not a problem," she says, laughing. It is about dreams, romantic moments, details of the other person's life in the past and in the future. A wedding ring not only on the finger, but also surrounding the whole person. A sculpture of a woman with a compressed head. "You know why this head is so flat?" she asks. "There is a lot of pressure on her." She has sent pictures of her work to her well-known sister Sujeewa and brother-in-law Sanjeewa Kumara who are both working on their art in Holland. You are good, they say, continue.

Some people break under hardship. Some become artists. Darshanee Vathsala is one of the latter. She lost both parents to cancer and has no brothers and sisters. Her paintings are for real. The scenes in hospital and at her empty home send goose pimples up my spine. "Now I am ok," she says, very softly. She has added two more paintings, where she leaves the darkness behind and walks into the light. I'm impressed.

Namali Priyadarshanee paints in a rainbow of cheerful colours. Her theme is the working woman. But hers are not the paddy field and water carrying scenes. She is a modern girl, and she depicts women ironing in a laundry shop, or as housewives clearing up while the husband reads the papers.... Let us hope that she will be successful enough with her paintings to afford a houseboy.

Yulanie Jayasena has found a symbol for the war - the crutch. "War disables society," she accuses, "it dispossesses man of everything belonging to him." Yes, we have heard it before, but we will hear it again and again until it is over. Although the theme is not new, her way certainly is. Her bright red oils are almost surrealistic and great pieces of contemporary art. One day her paintings will be witnesses of the past. The exhibition will continue until March 19 at the Havelock Place Bungalow, 6 and 8 Havelock Place, Colombo 5. - Pia

Kala Korner - by Dee Cee

An unusual man and an unusual happening

Usually at a book launch, several speeches are made (very often the speakers praise the writer rather than evaluate the book), interspersed with songs intended to ensure that the audience would not go away if they get bored.

Last week's launch of seasoned journalist Merril Perera's 'Divaine Visi Vasak' (Twenty years on the 'Divaina') was different.

As compere, Merril's colleague Narada Nissanka told me just before the proceedings began at a crowded Public Library auditorium, even he was not quite sure what Merril wanted him to do. Anyway it turned out to be an interesting evening. After the chairperson, directors and editors of most Upali publications were invited on stage, three senior journalists from the 'Divaina' - Gamini Sumanasekera, Nandadasa Sooriyarachchi and Narada himself - sat at a table in one corner and began discussing the book. "We have been given strict instructions by Merril not to talk about him," Gamini said at the outset. So they had no choice but to discuss what has been written.

Obviously they had read the book and knew exactly where the interesting anecdotes were. The discussion was thus, informative and interesting.

Sharp at six in the evening, Merril walked up to the stage and reminded the panel that they should end the proceedings. He had promised everyone that the 'do' would last just one hour.

Merril's is a commendable effort to narrate the 20 year history of the 'Divaina'. He has done it in a most readable way. The presentation, in short chapters, is in Merril's own style. The cover too is different. He has picked a photograph taken by a Divaina photographer on the way to Nuwara Eliya a few years ago. In the back cover, which normally would have carried something about the author, is the wedding photograph of Merril's parents and a short blurb about them!

Another unusual feature is the publication of photographs of the entire editorial staffs of both the daily and Sunday Divaina. A full list of everyone involved in the publication of Upali Newspapers including the provincial correspondents is also included in the book.

In a note to Merril's book, Island Editor Gamini Weerakoon reminds readers that the eighties (when the 'Divaina' & the 'Island' were started) were critical times. Terrorism was threatening to tear the country apart and after the 1983 communal riots, anti-Sinhalese elements attempted to portray the Sinhalese and Sri Lankans as rabid chauvinists. "In this context the voice of the Sinhalas were muted and it was left to the 'Divaina' to rise to the defence of the Sinhala people and their interests," he says.

Referring to the 'fearless leadership' of 'Divaina's founder editor Edmund Ranasinghe, Mr.Weerakoon says he was ably assisted by his Deputy Editor Dayasena Gunasinghe and the then Chief Sub-Editor Merril Perera, who has now risen to the position of Associate Editor. (He continues as Chief Sub having pioneered a new style in sub editing particularly on the first page).

Amaris Aiya

Amaris Aiya is an extremely popular character that well- known comedian Samuel Rodrigo introduced through his radio programme 'Vinoda Samaya' nearly 40 years ago. By the time of his death four years ago, he had compiled a book of selected episodes featuring Amaris Aiya. It is being launched as a Dayawansa Jayakody publication on Tuesday, February 5 at the Public Library auditorium.

The 'Vinoda Samaya' team comprised Samuel Rodrigo, Annesley Dias and Bertie Gunatilleka who became unforgettable household names over the years. They will be there at the launch along with other veterans Alfred Perera, Dharmasiri Munasinghe, H D Wijedasa and Mercy Edirisinghe to pay tribute to Amaris Aiya.

Dynamic sounds lost on music lovers

By Lalanath de Silva

The Ensemble Resonanz from Germany, consisting of some 18 string players gave a concert at the Hilton Grand Ballroom on Tuesday, January 22. The Goethe Institut Inter Nationes, YATV and the Hilton sponsored the event.

The banner behind the elevated stage announced the Ensemble as "The Young Stars from Germany". They performed to a star-studded audience, consisting largely of the expatriate and diplomatic community. I looked around and saw only a handful of the regular concert-going public. Though there were many children, I had to look hard to find Sri Lankan kids among them. Unfortunately, the audience applauded between the movements of the very first work, signifying to all their relative ignorance of current concert practice! But more of this later.

The Ensemble Resonanz gave a satisfying performance, opening with the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto. Wisely, the group had one player each to the 10-part work that Bach wrote. In comparison with the rest of the concert, the rendition of this work could have done with greater precision. There were several untidy passages and the speed on the first movement was, for me, a tad too fast. It was clear that the Ensemble was not comfortable with Baroque period music, which has today acquired specialized performance techniques on account of historic research.

The Ensemble was more at home in the Zimmermann Concerto for Strings, demonstrating dynamic contrasts that were quite thrilling. The group brought great diversity of tone, colour and effect to bear in this work. The pulsating rhythms were delivered with precision and good ensemble. The rich full-blooded string tone was a treat to the ear, though acoustics did not help. Yet, the young group has a long way to go to achieve the gorgeous string sound that the better-known chamber groups produce.

The final piece before the intermission was one of the many String Symphonies written by Felix Mendelssohn. Again the Ensemble was brilliant in its rendition though as compositions, not all of Mendelssohn's String Symphonies are satisfying. The Allegro was taken at a speed that allowed it to shine. Again the precision and good ensemble were evident.

After the Intermission came one of Beethoven's masterpieces, the String Quartet in C Sharp minor Op. 131. The Ensemble performed a string orchestra version with added Double Bass. The work is in seven linked movements defying the usual sonata form in many places. The opening fugetta was delivered with sensitive string playing. The opening phrase with its ending sforzandi repeated itself through the different voices of the ensemble with telling beauty. The central variation movement forms the heart of the work. What wonderfully sensitive string playing - coupled with perfect execution of florid passages, a good dynamic range and great precision. The standing ovation that followed the brilliant and rousing final presto was well deserved. Bravo! Ensemble Resonanz - perhaps you can prepare an encore next time!

Now let me turn to a more mundane yet important matter. The Goethe Institut is perhaps the primary German institution for carrying its culture to the world. That it should choose a venue such as the Hilton Grand Ballroom with the lowest tickets priced at Rs. 200/= undermines its high objectives. I was at the concert by virtue of a complimentary ticket, for which I remain grateful. The Ballroom is heavily carpeted and though one could live with the acoustics, it lacks resonance and depth. The inner voice Violas were somewhat lost and the lower voice Celli sacrificed clarity on this account.

As stated earlier, the music-loving public was noticeable by their absence. The Lionel Wendt Theatre, which is in Colombo's "cultural district" would have served as a much better venue. Sadly, accommodation deals with 5 star hotels, for visiting artistes come with a heavy price. The Ensemble did not hold any workshops with Sri Lankan musicians and the musicians invited to the preceding day's reception to meet the Ensemble were also small in number.

The overall benefit to the music loving public and musicians of this country was therefore at best, questionable. I urge the Goethe Institut to reconsider its policy on these matters. There are happier alternatives that it can examine, without sacrificing quality.

Pain of fitting in

By Chandani Kirinde

Walls' is the story of Sri Lankans who migrate to foreign lands seeking greener pastures, not knowing what awaits them there. It gives an inside look into the home and lives of the Abeywickrema family who move to Australia only to find there that the streets are not paved with gold.

Author Channa Wickremasekera who has lived in Australia since 1990 knows first-hand the uphill struggle of his fellow countrymen trying to come to terms with the vastly different society they are suddenly confronted with, while still clinging to their Sri Lankan values and traditions.

When the story unfolds, the Abeywickremas have been living in Australia for 10 years. Their tiny family unit comprises Mr. Abeywickrema, his wife Shiranee and their eight-year-old daughter, Ishara. Their reasons for leaving their homeland could easily be the same as those of thousands of others: "looking for stability, a bit more money ........and a more promising future for their daughter". Their departure from Sri Lanka's shores is during the bloody insurrection, with the Abeywickremas seeking a desperate escape from the innocent queries of their little daughter such as "why people were being burnt on the roadsides and not in the cemeteries".

This was the time when thousands of Sri Lankans fled the country in fear. The author himself left the country in 1990 at the height of those dark days. "In writing I relied heavily on my experiences within the Sri Lankan community in Melbourne," Wickremasekera says. The characters are, however, wholly fictional.

For the Abeywickremas, leaving their motherland is a tough decision to make for they have to say good-bye to their kith and kin and longtime friends. For Mr.Abeywickrema, it also means the end of long Sundays under the shade of the mango tree sipping arrack with his friends relating the same old stories over and over again.

After a few months living on the dole, he manages to find work though far below his expectations and qualifications. He has an engineering degree but the first job he gets is that of a cleaner. After a few years, he graduates to being a taxi driver. But, naturally, his work cleaning toilets and mopping floors is kept well hidden from his friends and relatives in Colombo and on their holidays to Sri Lanka, there is only talk of how good life is in their adopted land. After all, how many Sri Lankans would understand a man holding a degree in engineering, driving a taxi or cleaning toilets? Maybe the man is holding a Phd ( pigan hodana degree?).

The couple find much of their joy in their daughter Ishara who does well in school and enters university. And just when they begin to feel their life in Australia is more meaningful, their daughter drops a bombshell. Her confession that she is a lesbian leads to a crisis in the family and results in her leaving home and going off to live in Africa.

Wickremasekera writes with nostalgia about the country of his birth and the familiar things about the place one misses when living miles away.

His characters also have a sarcastic sense of humour but one drawback is that the author sticks with Sri Lankan stereotypes. This is amply illustrated when Mr. and Mrs.Abeywickrema visit a counsellor after discovering their daughter is a lesbian, telling the psychiatrist, "We never hear of that sort of thing in our culture....", reflecting the favourite pastime of some Sri Lankans who blame the West for all their ills.

Most of the Sri Lankan characters with the exception of Ishara, are typified by their narrow minded, frog-in-the-well attitudes. So, their integration into a different society requires a very difficult balancing act as this book amply illustrates, making interesting reading.

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