She took on the challenge and saw it through

Nelum Gamage reflects on the Founder Principal of Devi Balika Vidyalaya, the Late Deshamanya Dr. Wimala de Silva

Dr. Wimala de Silva was an educationist par excellence who was selected in 1953 to head the newly established Government Girls’ College, Colombo 8 (which later was renamed Devi Balika Vidyalaya).
The thinking behind the establishment of this new school was on a recommendation of the then Director of Education, H. W. Howes “to ensure that ability has an equal chance of being discovered and developed whatever may be the economic and social environment of the individual”.

The structure of the school was to be a collegiate one with the school being confined to classes above standard 8 and provided with a variety of courses in Science, Arts and Domestic Science. When the idea of establishing a school incorporating the above ideals was mooted, Dr. Wimala de Silva who was the principal of Government Girls’ College, Maliyadeva was the obvious choice of the Director of Education and the others in education circles, to head the new school.

The challenge to Mrs. de Silva as Principal of this school in her own words was “that this government girls’ school should be able to hold its own, if nor surpass the best private schools in the country”. To her this challenge was “an exhilarating one”. The expectations were high and human resources so limited. But undaunted with all these obstacles she with a capable and committed band of teachers surpassed the expectations of all.

Devi Balika Vidyalaya today: The success story of Dr. Wimala de Silva

The present generation who complain of the lack of this or that to carry out any task could learn many a lesson from the manner this capable lady resolved problems confronting her on a day-to-day basis.

To begin with the buildings of the school had much to be desired. The buildings had been originally built for a Boys’ Junior School and lacked special necessities to cater for adolescent girls! But these defects were somehow overlooked without harassing parents as is the current practice. There was no proper hall/stage for the annual school concert. She was keen to resolve this problem by getting an open air theatre built in the school grounds. The open air theatre was an idea of Mrs. de Silva and Ms. Jezima Ahamed (now Ismail).

But the school works engineer could not understand the idea of an open air theatre. Mrs. de Silva somehow located an engineer L.I. de Silva in the Irrigation Department through the then Deputy Director of Irrigation Mr. Ahamed who happened to be the father of Ms. Ahamed. Engineer Mr. de Silva worked closely with her and made the dream of having an open air theatre a reality in quick time and at a minimum cost! The first production to be staged had been ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ trained by Jezima Ahamed and Rhona Candappa.It is indeed a wonder how Mrs. de Silva tackled all her problems without ever raising her voice but in a very firm manner.

A story that is oft repeated is how she tackled the “kasippu gang leader” in the area! She has vividly described this in her memoirs ‘Those Phoenix Days’. The gang leader - a red-eyed burly man had called over at her office in the late evening to confront her as to why the shramadana students had destroyed his “kasippu” bottles that were hidden in the rain-water drain running through the school premises. He had warned her that ‘they’ would make life impossible for her. But she had calmly and spontaneously answered him, “ tell them (the kasippu brewing men) that my husband is from Balapitiya”! The man had made a quick exit.

In fact when the school opened on January 15, 1953, the school lacked a Science lab and also teachers for Physics and Chemistry. Without lamenting on these practical deficiencies or waiting for the problems to be resolved, she in her usual calm manner discussed the issue with her husband Dr. S.L. de Silva, then Director of Technical Education and Training. Permission was obtained through the proper channels and arrangements were made for the students to use the Technical College Lab at Maradana and also for two experienced teachers from the Technical College to tutor the students in Physics and Chemistry.

Amidst all the practical difficulties relating to teachers, buildings etc, Dr. Wimala de Silva gave equal importance to extra curricular activities from the very beginning of the establishment of the school. In this respect she was able to get the services of Sesha Palihakkara for oriental dancing. The foundation laid by Sesha Palihakkara continued in the years to come. He continued with his classes until a permanent teacher was appointed. This quality of facing challenges and resolving them immediately shows the characteristic of Mrs. de Silva who never waited for ‘things to happen’ but adopted measures to resolve problems without burdening parents or students.

To Mrs. de Silva her primary objective was for her students not only to achieve excellence in academia but also to be well equipped to fit society in all aspects when they left school. Emphasis was laid for domestic science for the girls as well as current affairs to widen the horizon of the students. A mock election held prior to the general election of 1956 was the highlight of the activities related to current affairs. Classroom study of the need for elections and the policies of the mock major political parties preceded the conduct of this election. Candidates were chosen. Parts of the school grounds marked out for meetings and named Galle Face Green, Hyde Park, Campbell Park. This was to introduce the children to adult life that was to follow in a few years time.

This mock election was followed by another in the sixties. Mrs. de Silva was always assisted by her husband and both of them looked into the needs of deserving students who did not come from affluent backgrounds. During her years as Principal of Devi she did not hold a single school prize-giving. To her a student who does satisfactory work amidst difficult circumstances had to be given more recognition than another from an affluent background who would fare better. This analysis may or may not be acceptable but it reflects her concern and humane nature to deserving students.

To Mrs. de Silva honesty and integrity in her staff and her students was a priority. Family influence of students never had an effect on her. There was no ‘gift-giving’ to teachers. The greatest gift the students could give the teachers was to become good citizens of Mother Lanka! It is to this end that Mrs. de Silva moulded her students from the day she took office as Principal of this fledgling school.

According to Mrs. Silva during those early years in the 1950’s ‘female empowerment “was not a catch phrase. Nevertheless this concept had been instilled in her during her school days at Newstead College, Negombo that girls’ schools had a responsibility to equip young people for their role in life. She was conscious of her responsibility of this aspect towards her students and invited eminent women of that era Ezlyn Deraniyagala, Dr. (Mrs.) Mary Ratnam, Sylvia Fernando amongst others to speak to her girls. To impart value education to her students as well as the personality development of her students was important to her as much as their academic development.

To get to know ‘others’ and other ‘cultures’ were equally important as academic studies and extra curricular activities. She took about fifty students by train on a trip to Jaffna in the mid sixties. On the journey to Jaffna a couple of days were spent in Anuradhapura and the journey continued by train to Jaffna. The students were lucky to participate at a traditional wedding ceremony of a past Devi student from Jaffna. The trip was made to coincide with her nuptials.

Her activities outside Devi are too numerous to mention But a few of them are highlighted to emphasize her contribution to sectors other than Devi. She was first woman to be Sectional (Social Science) President of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, President of the Sri Lanka Federation of University Women and Council Member of the International Federation of University Women. She created history by becoming the first woman to be appointed as a Chancellor of a University in Sri Lanka-Sri Jayawardenepura University. She was proud of this appointment as her work was recognized and she had proved herself.

After her early retirement in 1968 she willed herself to complete her PhD study which she had commenced way back in 1950. She was very happy at having completed an ‘unfinished task’. She started her memoirs at age 80 and it was published after three years in 2004 when she was 83. Lessons for all of us!

In concluding this it is only apt to quote one of the early students of Devi, Myrtle Perera in a letter to Mrs. de Silva, who has been quoted by Mrs. de Silva in her memoirs. This was with reference to ‘sil’ days at Devi.

“Sil days were important not only to Buddhists but also for non-Buddhists, a mix of Christian, Hindu and Muslim students. These students had to provide “upasthana” to those observing sil. In between the upasthana duties the non Buddhists exchanged religious knowledge and religious practices. The Christians sang well known hymns. The camaraderie had been incredible. All these activities had taken place under the wide spread jam tree at the furthest end of the school premises so as not to disturb the meditation going on inside the school hall.”

Myrtle Perera ends her story at Devi with these concluding remarks, “We at Devi learned not only to tolerate differences but also to appreciate them. Thus our lives were enriched.”

Myrtle questions herself… “ am I fantasising in my old age dreaming of a Utopia or did these things really take place? But when I meet teachers of that day and their ability still to advise, I realize I am not speaking of a dream world but of what did take place.”

To the present day Devi students as well as students and teachers of the present generation…..It is in each of us to learn from this lady of yesteryear and not only dream of but try to create a Utopia!

(References: Those Phoenix Days by Wimala de Silva and to the numerous conversations of the writer with Mrs. de Silva and also to life at Devi of the writer in the mid sixties)

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