Plus - Appreciations

Wonderful memories of a great and genial violinist-cum-teacher

Eileen Prins

The passing away of Mrs. Eileen Prins last week, at the age of 94, brought back myriad memories of violin lessons under her in the mid-Seventies. Showing some early promise on the piano, and a second instrument being deemed necessary to pursue a professional musical career, I was carted off for violin lessons at the fairly late age of 11 years.

My father, who also learnt the violin under the same teacher as Mrs. Prins – Rupert Wagn – was simply amazed at her patience and tolerance. If you play a wrong note on the piano, it is still an in-tune note; with the violin, if you place your finger a fraction of a millimetre off the correct spot on the string, you can create a very painful sound on the ear. My violin playing was liberally sprinkled with such sounds, but Mrs. Prins would only smile and say, “Ah ha ha, let’s try again to place your finger on the correct spot”! This is my most vivid recollection of her.

Mrs. Prins was the first recipient of a Government Scholarship in Music to the Royal Academy of Music, in London, in 1939. It is said that she arrived in London two weeks before the start of World War II, and that she would practise on her violin while German bombs fell close by.

Although we did not hear her as a soloist, senior members of the orchestra remember what a fine and sensitive violinist she was. She was the founder Leader of the Symphony Orchestra of Colombo, and held that position for 27 years.

Being the foremost violin teacher of her era, she had a galaxy of students who regularly either won prizes at the prize winners’ concerts of the Royal College of Music, London examinations, or performed with the Symphony Orchestra of Colombo as young soloists. The most outstanding of them all was Michael Siva Prakasam, now a doctor residing in the USA. After one of his exams, the examiner himself came out and spoke to Mrs. Prins and his parents about his playing and future career. Michael’s sister Naomi too learnt the violin under Mrs. Prins, and played in the Symphony Orchestra until marriage and migration. Dr. Hans Wijesuriya, head of Dialog, was another prodigy, who started violin lessons at the age of four. Mrs. Prins would fondly recall how little Hans would come for his violin lessons armed with his teddy bear, which was kept on top of the piano, and how Hans, during brief breaks in the lesson, would conduct a “dialog” with his teddy!

And there was Suparni Gunasekera, who had a simply outstanding tone on her violin, and was a regular prize winner on the violin, clarinet and piano; the Halpe siblings – Guy, Hasini and little Aparna, who used to eagerly bring along her 1/8th size violin in the hope of being able to start lessons like her older siblings; Ramesh Rambukwelle, who developed such a passion for the violin that he pursued it further in the States; Ruchira and Jayantha Fernando; John and Julie Aloysius; Anusha and Druvi Attygalle; Sharmila Nikapota; Sulochana Premaratne; Thiru and Mohana Vanniasinkam; Lishanthi Wijewardhena; Dilini Fonseka, who moved from the violin to play the trumpet in the orchestra; and Sashi Nadana Siva, who from the viola moved to play the bassoon in the Symphony Orchestra.
As the Leader of the Symphony Orchestra, Mrs. Prins felt a responsibility to ensure the required quota of instrumentalists. All of the aforementioned students played in the orchestra, many beginning on the violin and later switching to other instruments.

Playing occasionally with the Symphony Orchestra in various capacities gave me an opportunity to watch Mrs. Prins in action there, under the baton of Dr. Earle de Fonseka.

Mrs. Prins was a very social being, and at orchestra practice she was relaxed, and revelled in sharing a joke with her co-chair, good friend and fellow teacher, Mary Billimoria, while making music together. Firmly entrenched in their roles as Conductor and Leader of the Orchestra, there was much banter, as well as tense moments, between Uncle Earle and Aunty Eileen. It is said that on one particularly feisty occasion, Aunty Eileen so goaded Uncle Earle that he stepped down from the podium and walked out of the practice! We youngsters thrived on all this counterpoint and contrapuntal interplay and eagerly awaited each Sunday morning practice for the developing sequels!

Examination time was a hive of activity, with all these busy multi-talented youngsters having to fit in to the schedules of teacher and accompanist; we began with Mrs. Lynn Senanayake for the lower grades, progressed to Michael Siva Prakasam (depending on his medical faculty schedule), and did the higher grades with Mrs. Bridget Halpe, who also helped out with the viva section of the examination, and in analysing the movements of the pieces. I am grateful to Mrs. Halpe for her value addition as accompanist. I got a distinction on the violin whenever she accompanied me!

The verandah adjoining Mrs. Prins’ music room in her School Lane, Kollupitiya residence would be filled with fond mothers and violin cases. There would be the feverish application of rosin on bows, while chairs would be brought in from the dining room to seat the students awaiting their turn with the accompanist. A devout Roman Catholic, Mrs. Prins would bring a sacred medal to the examination centre, which she would pin on each candidate in turn before they went in for their exam.

In order to give her students confidence in playing before an audience, Mrs. Prins would hold house concerts at the end of the year. I remember playing at three such concerts: once at the Old Bullers Road home of Anton Wickremasinghe; once in the hall of the Good Shepherd Church, Thimbirigasyaya, and once at the Elibank Road home of Uncle Earle.

Mrs. Prins was very house proud and kept a tidy home. She began her lessons at 2.30 p.m. each day. Five minutes before your lesson, you would hear her pottering around in the adjoining bedroom before she came into the music room. On the piano was a framed autographed photograph of her Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, in London.

She spoke with equal pride of her three sons – Jan, with his doctorate in sports medicine in Hawaii, Stephen the journalist and Paul the mathematician. When her first granddaughter was born, we heard regular reports of her progress. I understand that she has two granddaughters, one now in medical school.

I am grateful for the wonderful memories I have of learning the violin under Mrs. Prins, with no pressure to excel, but only to give of one’s best, musically.

“Her music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.”

Shanthi Dias (née Thambar)

St. Philip Neri’s beloved priest is nearer to the heart of God

Fr. Alfred Alexander

The remains of a distinguished son of Jaffna, affectionately known as Fr. Alex to many, will be sent back to Sri Lanka from Australia, where he passed away. It is significant and providential that his remains will be brought to St. Philip Neri’s Church, where Fr. Alex spent the greater part of his life, proclaiming God’s love for humanity. We heard that the Church of St. Francis, in Melbourne, where his remains were, was packed to capacity with priests and other clergy, and there was not a dry eye during the sermon and the oration.

In Sri Lanka, too, people and clergy from all religious denominations and all walks of life will celebrate this gentleman priest’s life, rather than mourn his death. As a Christian, he would have died many a time to live for Christ in serving those who crossed his path, at the same time internalising the spirituality of the Cross: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Fr. Alex often spoke those words, and he lived them.

God bestowed an abundance of gifts on Fr. Alex. If you went to St. Philip Neri’s for Mass after his death, invariably the young celebrant would say, “I am standing before you today because of Fr. Alex.” I, myself, was blessed to be associated with the Blessed Sacrament Congregation and can, therefore, say with conviction that Fr. Alex nurtured and shepherded the young men who were under his tutelage. And how proud he was of every one of them.

I have a vivid memory of Fr. Alex breaking down at the ordination of some young priests – his joy knew no bounds! He effortlessly moved on from being the Regional Superior (twice or thrice) to the President of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors. Various other responsibilities were showered on him. The mantle of power sat lightly on this Man of God as he humbly viewed every opportunity as an additional instrument to serve God.

Fr. Alex was always happy in his community, but more so when he was walking that extra mile doing something beautiful for God. There was radiance in his smile. In this ocean of suffering on earth, Fr. Alex was indeed a drop of mercy. He never let “self” intrude, and went out of his way to be close to anyone who needed him. Those who knew him well knew he was a solid rock, with his loving reassuring presence, sadly now gone.

Fr. Alex was in this world, but he was not of this world. The news of his death was a shock to all. Reading “Our Daily Bread’, as I do every morning, I was struck by the strange coincidence that last Sunday was the feast of ‘The Body and Blood of Christ’ -- the feast of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation and the reading contained the most beautiful verse I have read in a long time. The devotional for the day was by Anne Cetas and in it she has given us the words of a hymn by Cleland B. McAfee – “Near To The Heart Of God”. I cannot think of anything more beautifully appropriate with which to end this tribute:

There is a place of quiet rest
Near to the Heart of God
A place where sin cannot molest
Near to the Heart of God
O Jesus blest Redeemer
Sent from the Heart of God
Hold Father Alex who waits before Thee now
Near to the Heart of God

Rest now dear Fr. near to the Heart of the God you loved so much.


Like bubbles and butterflies she has flitted away

Shafraza Muzammil

There are friends who enter our lives and as distance, responsibilities and life catch up, drift away. While that has been the case with many of my friends, Shafraza Muzammil, remained my best friend even though we were oceans apart and our friendship was tested by China’s discommoding need to block email providers and social networks from time to time. But we stayed in touch. She had to go through the hassle of frequently changing her email address but she would never fail to keep her close friends updated with her latest account. Her last email-handle was ‘bubblesandbutterflies’.

‘Bubbles and butterflies’ is an ideal description of her. She had a bubbly and affable personality, and that’s largely why she was loved by everyone who was blessed to have met her. But in stark contradiction to her delicate nature, she was one of the most determined and independent people I’ve known. While we were from the same alma mater, I truly got to know her when we studied journalism together at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. Fluency in spoken Sinhala is something we both lacked, but Shafraza wouldn’t let that faze her desire to become a journalist. She learnt the language and joined the Sunday Times after obtaining a diploma in print journalism.

About a year later, she married Rimzan Ameen and joined him in China. She was still passionate about writing, so her loving husband organised the starting up of a monthly magazine of which she would be the editor. He encouraged her to learn Mandarin. She was highly excited about it and would consult me regarding a name for the magazine, finding writers and what sort of content would be best. Everything was in full swing, Shafraza was delighted, but her time had come to return to Allah (swt).

On June 5, just a month before she turned 24 years, Shafraza took her leave of this world. Though she is no longer a physical part of our world, her close group of friends, Aamina Nizar, Heba Husain, Nazeeha Muhammad Ali, Shazna Refai, Humaira Thalayan, Manal Haque and I will keep her alive in our thoughts. She inspired all of us in some way. For me, it was her encouragement not to deviate from Islam; to seek Allah (swt)’s guidance and strive to be a better Muslim.

May Allah (swt) grant her Jennathul Firdouse.

Megara Tegal

A life cheerfully dedicated to helping others

Hemamali Abeysiriwardena

It is with a heavy heart that I write these few lines on Hemamali Abeysiriwardena, the energetic and dynamic Secretary of the Nepal Friendship Society for 20 years. She passed away on May 7. She rendered a remarkable service to the society during her tenure of office.

Hemamali was the livewire of the society. Her ability, efficiency and untiring efforts helped us to achieve good results in all the projects launched.

She was gentle in every sense of the word, understanding, endowed with wisdom and great vision which she demonstrated on many occasions. She hated to be idle and always looked for new ventures in life. She had a great personality. The unique aspect of her life and career was that she took an interest in religious, social and cultural activities, based on the principle that faith without work was dead.

She was always prepared to give generously, not only material possessions but also her advice, encouragement and companionship. She had a cheerful countenance and was very hospitable. She lived a simple, modest and unassuming life, extending a helping hand to many a worthy cause. She was the embodiment of kindness and simplicity. She had many friends from all communities and walks of life.

Her pleasant demeanour and sense of humour helped her in her social activities. She had a charming personality which pleased everyone with whom she came in contact and a radiant and winsome smile that reflected a calm, composed and tranquil mind. Though that eloquent and calm voice has been stilled, it will continue to reverberate in the ears of most of her friends. She will live in the hearts of the poor people, whom she helped quietly.

The cruel hand of death snatched away a lovable, cheerful and understanding person. Her untimely death is an irreparable loss to her beloved and devoted husband, Hector, relations, friends, associates and acquaintances.

Our friendship dates back to our student days at Musaeus. I admired her noble qualities, which brought her close to me. The friendship developed steadily, blossoming to a bond lasting until her demise. I have lost a dear and precious friend.

She lived a full life with kindness to all and malice to none.
May she attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana.

Memories are treasures
No one can steal
Death leaves deep heartaches
No one can ever heal
Time may heal the edge of grief
But golden memories turn back every leaf.

Ratna Goonetilleka. Past Vice-President, Nepal Friendship Society

‘Still loved, still missed, and very dear’

Kanisha Dissanayake

I met Kanisha for the first time on Vesak day 1975. She was lighting lanterns with her father. She was 12 years old and I was 13. Little did I know at the time that she would become my best friend and sister-in-law and that our friendship would last through thick and thin.

As little girls and teenagers the two of us got up to all sorts of mischief. As young women we shared the experience of becoming mothers for the first time, when our girls were born a few weeks apart. So many memories of all the things we used to do always keep coming back to my mind.

A year has gone by since you left us but the pain in my heart still lingers as I did not get to tell you how much I loved you or how much I cherished our friendship or thank you for all the times you were there for me when I needed a friend. I miss all the things we shared, the quiet times, the smiles, the laughter. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of you.

“Those we love don’t go away
They walk beside us everyday
Unseen, unheard but always near
Still loved, still missed, and very dear.”
I will always love you Kani. You will always be in my heart.

Sadly missed and fondly remembered by your brother Ravi, sister-in-law Mano and nieces Avanthi & Anisha Senaratne

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