Alfred House was where things should have begun- with Harold Peiris and Peggy Keyt entertaining all Colombo that counts – with ‘naughty’ music hall numbers from Drury Lane on the piano; or it could have begun at the Wendt family residence at Guildford Crescent- where a young colossus called Lionel was contributing greatly to shaping [...]


Tales of Lionel and Harold

A tribute evening for Lionel Wendt and Harold Peiris sees many memories shared

Remembering the greats: (from left) Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Channa Daswatte, Jerome de Silva and Lionel Peiris. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Alfred House was where things should have begun- with Harold Peiris and Peggy Keyt entertaining all Colombo that counts – with ‘naughty’ music hall numbers from Drury Lane on the piano; or it could have begun at the Wendt family residence at Guildford Crescent- where a young colossus called Lionel was contributing greatly to shaping Modern Ceylon.

But these mansions stand no longer- two lost icons of Colpetty and Cinnamon Gardens- and so the tribute evening for Lionel Wendt and Harold Peiris begins with Lakmahal- the Wijesinha house, with a re-screening of Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past is Another Country- the classic TV programme from 2014 where he interviewed Lionel Peiris- Harold’s son.

On December 19, we were at the Lionel Wendt Theatre to mark the 75th Death Anniversary of Lionel Wendt, the great photographer and also his close friend, Harold Peiris- an evening organized by the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund & the ESME Trust.

On the screen Rajiva- who happens to be the grandson of the dowager of Lakmahal, Esme Wickremesinghe- went down memory lane with Lionel- who was his neighbour- for Lakmahal stood next to Alfred House before the latter was pulled down to make way for six villas.

Those parties at Alfred House, once Colombo’s grandest residence styled on the classic English manor- were legendary- with brilliant and colourful men and women sharing ideas and thoughts “from the sublime to the ridiculous”.

It was an ethos of contemporary Western spirit- “Royal or S. Thomas’; Oxford or Cambridge”. It would seem ironical, then, that from such a milieu would spring the anti-colonial movement of Ceylon, led by Lionel Wendt.

But this is exactly what transpired.

Lionel Peiris explains that this was not really a paradox. The ‘indigenization’ of Wendt was not just inculturation. “Lionel critiqued and facilitated people to come out with what was indigenous to them personally”- “just be yourself”- a slogan thought up by ad copy writers much later.

Wendt wanted people to embrace their true sexuality and gender- as evident in his homoerotic photos of young men. As a leader of a movement he believed each one of us should go on a quest- and in the process if they made mistakes- he “critiqued but encouraged”.

Authenticity does not mean going back to an idyllic ‘pure’ past. When Bertie Peiris nativized into Devar Surya Sena or Maurice Dias transmuted into Chitrasena, Harold and Lionel had ‘a bit of a chortle’.

They were concerned that, by harking back to an ‘immaculate’ North Indian ‘Aryan’ roots, these Ceylonese were overlooking the strong South Indian Dravidian streak of our culture.

They believed that merely following Tagore and Shantiniketan was inutile- “that we must not take Tagore’s findings- but rather his methodology- and apply it here”- that “there was a need for a real grappling with our history- and the diversity of our own country”.

Peiris says nothing demonstrates Wendt’s warm appreciation of and oneness with the villager than “Song of Ceylon”- Basil Wright’s documentary where Wendt with his soft warm voice was narrator.

Against the devil dancing, rural temples, paddy fields, ruined cities and wildlife, Wendt voiced passages he culled from Robert Knox- poetic and portentous.

But another anecdote is more illustrative. “Once a Ratwatte was addressing Surumba (the Kandyan dance maestro) in the old feudal radala manner- tho, thepi and so forth- and Wendt at once slapped (the aristocrat). He said ““how dare you speak like that to this man who is far above you? He is a true artist and you are just an ignorant little pup”. He demanded that the Ratwatte apologize to Surumba. And the Ratwatte did.”

An inheritance in images

Yet what was Wendt’s true artistic legacy? Leading architect Channa Daswatte says that the first picture of Wendt he saw was the ‘street lamp cleaner’ when aged ten, in a magazine. Taken from the ground, with the man’s sarong lifted by the breeze, against a looming sky, this was a classic.

Channa singles out some images of Sinhalese men- with those classic coppery features which illustrate George Bernard Shaw’s enthusing “Ceylon is the cradle of the human race because everyone there looks an original”.

For visual shock, Channa gives us two Ivan Peiris’ beachscape paintings which are exactly like two of Wendt’s photos: too close to be coincidental.

Yet it is on the architectural image that Channa naturally lingers. “Wendt never objectified buildings- he observed the shadows and textures of old buildings, evoking something different”.

Whether natural images or montages, his appraisal of buildings was subtly but stunningly atmospheric- whether they were ancient palaces or modern slum alleys in Colombo. And this love of old buildings comes a long way- up to now and beyond.

He inspired Andrew Boyd to ‘collect’ old buildings; Boyd it was who went on to build the ‘first modern house of Sri Lanka” above the Kandy lake.

Subsequently Minette de Silva would go on to imbibe her native Kandyan architecture- including the Lankatilleke- incorporating its spirit into houses and hotels.

Ulrik Plesner who was Minette’s assistant would later join Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo office- and the legacy would come full circle.

In a more direct manner, Bawa would inspire Barbara Sansoni to collect buildings for a quaint column in the Ceylon Daily Mirror in the ‘60s, whose penchant for local viharas and verandas proved to be a very fertile obsession- inspiring so much and so many.

Of gas lamps and gantry ghosts

Who but Jerome de Silva to leaven the somewhat scholastic (though fascinating) overtones of this tribute evening with sheer puckishness?

Having been part of the Lionel Wendt Theatre for nearly 50 years, Jerome is best suited to look back on the institution’s heyday. He has a shimmering repertoire, from rehearsing for The Boyfriend under Petromax lamps in 1969 to playing in a 1977 production of My Fair Lady, where Christine Tambimuttu was Eliza Doolittle and he was Freddy Eynsford-Hill- “white socks, white shirt- don’t ask me what else was white- purple waistcoat to match the curtain, face, white smile.”He remembers rehearsing at Alfred House- with its grand staircase’s first landing over which hung a massive Keyt (George Keyt being Harold’s brother-in-law). But Harold always avoided the young actors- being by all accounts painfully shy.

Jerome’s reminiscences come rich with rum and plums, down to the takaran sheet which did for thunder in an age when sound effects could not be simply downloaded.

Jerome chose to end his raconteuring with the ‘theatre spooks’.

The most sinister was the Les Misérables spectre. At the 1996 production of the musical by the Workshop Players, during rehearsals the only person in the audience- a mother of two actresses- would complain of a person always breezing in and occupying a corner seat.

Jerome, without scaring his cast, requested one seat in the audience to be kept empty on show days (even though they had completely sold out).

“But no one noticed that the chair was empty because every night it was full.”

“Someone was sitting there.”

Finally, the ‘Gantry Ghost’ was memorable for nearly paralyzing a nun. Holy Family Convent was doing Smike, and Jerome was pointing out the lights to the Sister in charge, when the wrong lights would flash, and then all of them eerily together. Jerome would scream for the operator, who quite innocently was behind him.

“We went up, and there turned out to be no one up there at all!”

One feels a warm affection for the Wendt- this grand old theatre- but more for the two visionaries who cared not to be commemorated- but did their bit to ensure Colonial Ceylon would transition with grace to modern Sri Lanka which Wendt for one was not alive to see.

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