Plus - Appreciation

He broke into the private sector at a time when the British held sway

Somadasa Bandarage

My father, Devapriya Somadasa Bandarage was born on October 10, 1919 in the beautiful village of Kaikawala, Induruwa. His family was of modest means, but, his lineage was rich in wisdom, talent and compassion. Father's grandfather was a village doctor renowned for his ayurvedic treatments. Father's father, Bandarage Don Baron Gunawardena was educated at St. Benedict's College, Colombo.

Resisting pressures to convert to Christianity, he later became a fiery orator and an ardent champion for independence from British rule. He was a close associate of Walisinghe Harishchandra and the movement against British imperialism. His father having died young, my father was raised by his two paternal uncles, Ariyadasa, a school teacher and Dharmadasa, a clerk in the colonial government.
At age ten, my father won the Fifth Standard competitive examination receiving the coveted ‘Valencia Rupasinghe Scholarship’ for the most outstanding student in the Southern Province, to attend Ananda College, Colombo.

There were few English language schools in the Southern Province (compared to the Northern Province) and bright students from the South had to be boarded in Colombo requiring great sacrifices on the part of their families. Despite great financial hardship, my father excelled in his academic activities.

He mastered both Sinhala and English developing unmatched facility with the spoken and written word and penmanship in both languages. His dynamic personality, academic achievements and commitment to social service won him the affection and admiration of his teachers at Ananda, such as, the Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya and L.H.Mettananda and Principal, P. de S. Kularatne.

Having completed his studies at Ananda, father entered the University College, Colombo planning to obtain a degree in Pali and Oriental Studies. But both his uncles passed away suddenly and he had no one to support him financially. He gave up higher education for the time being and began to work to support his mother and family. Over the decades, father held a range of challenging jobs in the state and private sectors. Among these were his positions as the first Personnel Manager of Air Ceylon in the early 1950s and the Chairman of the Ceylon Textile Cooperation during the height of the JVP insurrection in the early 1970s. The latter position was offered to him by the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike government on the merit of his work on labor relations. One of my father’s noteworthy contributions in the mid 60s was the Sri Lankan Government’s implementation of the 5-day week.

At a time when the private sector was dominated by the British, father was one of the first ‘locals' from the Sinhala Buddhist community to rise to the senior executive levels of Sri Lanka’s corporate world. He had an illustrious career as the Personnel Manager both at the Shell Company and at Lever Brothers. These were watershed appointments in the Sri Lankan Corporate sector when a native born Sri Lankan was selected to head the Personnel Departments of these companies. He had a long sojourn at Levers, working with tremendous dedication, where he helped make Levers a leading multinational company in Sri Lanka.

His demanding job interviews and uncanny ability to recruit the best and brightest applicants to Levers became legendary. Some of the people he recruited to Levers later became Sri Lanka’s top corporate executives, including former Chairmen of Levers. My father helped diversify private sector employment by providing opportunities for talented young people from all the ethnic and religious communities in the country. 'Lever Pavula', the company magazine that he founded and edited helped create a unique sense of community and company tradition. ‘Lever Pavula’ was an interesting read not only for the Lever staff, but to outsiders as well. It set high literary and professional standards of excellence that came to be emulated by others. As Personal Consultant to Upali Wijewardena, whom he recruited for Levers as a Management trainee, father was also instrumental in the establishment and development of the Upali Group, including Upali Newspapers Ltd.

My father continued his studies in the field of human resource management throughout his life becoming the pioneer of personnel management in Sri Lanka. He combined his vast practical experience with study and research abroad including work at Cambridge University and research institutes in Japan, India, and South East Asia.

My father has left a unique body of writing on human resource management in English and Sinhala which adapts western concepts and theories to local circumstances. Personnel Management, A Handbook for Ceylon which he compiled and edited in 1962 in collaboration with the ILO and the Asia Foundation remains the classic in the field as are his many interesting writings on case study method giving stories and anecdotes from his long and rich life as a manager and teacher in the human resources field. He wrote books both titled “Administrative Management” and “Case Methods in Administration” which were very popular among students who sat for the Civil Service Examinations (he wrote these books in Sinhala too). He finished his last book in the Sinhala version in 2004.

Father established Sudharshan Limited, one of the first Management Consultancy firms in Sri Lanka. Through courses he taught at Sudharshan and at the University of Colombo, he prepared several generations of students to take up leadership and management of the government and state sectors. His vision and dedication also led him to establish and sustain the Institute for Personnel Management in Sri Lanka, a reflection of his contribution to the betterment of labor relations and human resource management in the country. Father was also actively engaged in numerous other professional organizations, such as, CSIR and the Sri Lanka Institute for the Advancement of Science. In recognition of his great contribution to the field, he was conferred an honorary doctorate in human resource management by his peers in the academic community.

Father held executive offices and worked closely with innumerable national and local social service organizations throughout his life. These included, the charter presidency of Colombo North Lions Club, and committee positions in Colombo Jaycees and Midtown Rotary Club.

Throughout his life he was involved with Buddhist organizations such as the YMBA and the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress and attended a number of international conferences representing the Sinhala Buddhists, including the World Fellowship of Buddhists. He was a pioneer in establishing the Sinhala Buddhist organizations in the eighties such as Sinhala Bala Mandalaya, Mawubima Surakeeme Sanvidhanayawa etc . He was the founder President of the Sinhala Sanvardana Sanvidanaya. He organized activities to assist people in marginal villages who were threatened by terrorism. In this context, assistance he rendered to the late Dimbulagala Thera was noteworthy.

Father was a cosmopolitan and a bon vivant who enjoyed foreign travel, the attributes of modern western life and the company and friendship of individuals from diverse ethnic and religious groups. Yet, he never forgot his roots. He never felt that he had to hide or be ashamed of his humble village origin. He had to pay a high price for his freedom to speak and live by his beliefs. But, he maintained his dignity and integrity until the end inspiring others of us to continue his example.

My father’s compassion and ‘maithri’ to others were enormous. So many people from varied backgrounds came to him seeking advice and wisdom on many matters, which he freely made available to them. He provided tutoring to students of management studies until recently, free of charge, at his residence at 7 Ohulms Place, Colombo 8 – where the doors were freely open to all at any time of the day.

May my father attain Nibbana.

Prof. Asoka Bandarage, Author of Colonialism in Sri Lanka, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka and many other publications.

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