Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Daniel" by Angelo Pereira

Angelo Pereira always loved plays. He was never an actor or director of any sort, but grabbed every chance to see theatrical productions.

“I learnt a lot by watching,” he says. “I learnt a lot about plots, and about acting and directing.”
It is not a surprise, then, that into his twenties, whenever he re-read a familiar story from the bible, play-scripts just seemed to present themselves to Pereira. He took one of his completed scripts to his good friend Dominic Kellar from Pussweddilla fame, in 2011. And in December of that year, they produced “Star of Wonder” based on the story of the magi who were at Christ’s birth.

At the first staging, glancing through the audience, Pereira was surprised to realize that most of the spectators were “people not from the church and not [his] friends”. Word had got out and the play made a small hit.

And now, the events might just be about to repeat themselves. Albeit on a much grander scale.
Although “Daniel” is only the first major theatrical production of a work by young playwright Angelo Pereira, the enthusiasm behind the (literal and figurative) scenes signals much more than that. Pereira has well-known names like Jerome de Silva, Domini Kellar and Dhanan Senathirajah backing him up on a maiden project that could be the beginnings of a legacy.

The story of the play begins with Dhanan Senathirajah. Head of Finance and Planning at NDB by day, he is bible teacher on the weekends. And by night he writes. Bringing his father’s love for history, his mother’s love of God and 30 years of bible-teaching experience together, Senathirajah wrote “Daniel out of His Comfort Zone” in 2011. The book contextualizes, historically and psychologically, the biblical tale of Daniel who was thrown in the lion’s den.

Pereira had heard of Senathirajah long before 2011, so on a whim, he decided to go for the launch of “Daniel out of His Comfort Zone”.

“It was completely random,” Pereira says, “I had decided not to go, but ultimately went and even got myself a book.”

From there, the history and psychology had him hooked.

“Even while he was reading the book, [Pereira] would call me after finishing each chapter and tell me he was inspired and touched by it,” Senathirajah says.

So when, after finishing the book, Pereira suggested a play based on it, Senathirajah was ready to go. The author calls the playwright “quite brilliant”, and true to the compliment, Pereira finished the first draft of “Daniel” in what Senethirajah says was “a matter of days”.

Senethirajah was so excited to see the text of the play that he read and edited it while walking through airport terminals. And then a bigger idea started whispering.

Another pleasant surprise on Senathirajah’s list of diverse commitments is the Christian Arts Foundation (CHRAFT). And of course, he is good pals with Jerome de Silva. Here is possibly the highest accomplished English theatre director in Sri Lanka to date, and a fresh script by a passionate young writer. The rest is probably history.

Jerome de Silva “jumped at the idea” of producing Pereira’s script, Senathirajah says.

“There is so much of drama in the Bible!” de Silva enthuses. “I find it fascinating, the process of turning a bible story in to a drama.”

De Silva was, in fact, still in that very process with “Jesus Christ Superstar” when Senathirajah told him about “Daniel”. He was familiar with the story, and had already directed a musical version of it, so he took the project on with no hesitation, knowing what energy and potential it held.

From that point forward, it has been a revelatory experience for Pereira.

“Jerome is phenomenal,” the playwright says. “When I finished editing the script, I handed it over to him and told him now it’s his turn, my work is done.”

Pereira, in what appears to be a characteristically unassuming fashion, is now caught up in the production just as any other spectator would be. His eyes light up as he describes his emotions at seeing what de Silva is doing with his script, with literal showers of Nebuchadnezzar’s gold, and silent sinister smiles that say so much more than just the words on the page.

“There are elements of horror in the story which I never foresaw,” Pereira continues in disbelief. “But when I see the actors...” he trails off, lost for words.

The four main roles in the production are all played by Muslim actors, a fact that may come as a surprise to some. But for Pereira it is an encouraging opportunity to “learn from each other” and grow together, discovering that despite coming from different backgrounds, they are “on the same page”.

The rest of the cast of “Daniel” is a combination of new as well as familiar faces. Some of the actors, like Niren Ranasinghe (playing Nebuchadnezzar), are those who have already been a part of major theatrical productions. Senathirajah, the author of “Daniel out of His Comfort Zone”, the book on which the play is based, is also part of the cast. Many others are products of the Annual Interschool Shakespeare Drama Competition, and people that the director, de Silva, has been looking forward to working with.

Such a cast, under the guidance of Jerome de Silva, is bringing to life the horror and glamour of Daniel’s story. A story written with the simple and earnest pen of a young writer, Angelo Pereira, reflecting Senathirajah’s love of God and history. “Daniel” could be an unforgettable moment in Sri Lanka’s history of English theatre.

Don’t miss it!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Johannus Ecclesia at St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia

Link up to published version

“Hosa-nna in the high-est!” the young tenor sings, pouring his life into a rounded note that swells and cascades from the balcony, reverberating through the chapel hall. Behind and beneath his voice, pushing higher, higher, rises the sound of the organ, painting, as the vocalist falls back, New Jerusalem, from the depths of its twelve foundations to the height of its radiant citadel, in all its sparkling extravagance.

And then, as Neranjan de Silva takes his fingers off the keyboard, there is a sudden silence. The kind of silence that pierces and fills the soul to bursting.

The chapel at St. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia is now home to a five-million-rupee digital church organ. The old instrument is on its way out and sub warden Rev. Marc Billimoria and consultant Neranjan de Silva want to be prepared for when it sings its last. But this investment is not just about being practical.  And it’s more than even simply maintaining a tradition. It’s about giving new life to a unique gift that the prestigious school is already endowed with, and helping the next generation dream bigger.

When de Silva first wanted to learn to play the organ in the 1980s, there was no instrument for him to practice on. Now, as one of the most accomplished sound engineers and organ experts in the country, he wants to make certain that those who come after him will not have the same issue. As coordinator for Johannus Organs, one of the world’s top organ manufacturers, he was instrumental in helping pick the right instrument for St. Thomas’s.

But this is no ordinary organ. The Johannus “Ecclesia” D570 is the largest standard church organ in its range, and at STC is amplified by 21 state-of-the-art speakers. If you’re close enough when the three massive subwoofers are put to work on the lower pitches, you can feel it on your skin. The sound literally shakes the church. To the expert ear though, it is much more than just the decibel output of the instrument.

“If the sound is awful, then that will be coming out of 21 speakers,” points out well known organist Denham Pereira. As he sees (or rather, hears,) it, the improved technology creates a rounder sound, much closer to that of a real pipe organ than he has yet heard produced by a digital organ in Sri Lanka. The final effect? “Wow!”

Sound quality was the first reason de Silva went for a Johannus, but it wasn’t the only reason. The previous (now older) organ at STC is also a Johannus (albeit an older model), and when it first started giving trouble, the manufacturers were exceptionally helpful with putting things right.

De Silva claims that the proximity of the school to the sea, humidity, rats, and even the magnetic fields in the area affect the state of the organ at St. Thomas’s. Repairing it is sometimes “like surgery,” he says, “soldering and taping cables together”. When he finally gave up trying to fix it and shipped the instrument back to Johannus they did the needful free of charge. But the process takes time. Even when having spare parts shipped in, de Silva says, there is a downtime of around a week.

“One day, in the middle of the service, the old one just stopped,” the sub warden chuckles, “and the organist had to come down and start playing on the piano.”

But if a similar situation were to occur, say around December, there would not be much occasion for laughter.

“Here, the highlight of the year is the carol service,” Rev. Billimoria continues. “If the organ goes off, then it’s like Christmas without the Christmas pudding, you know?”

But if it only a practical measure, why such an impressive instrument, with four manuals and 80 voices, you may ask?

As Rev. Mark points out, “this is a living congregation, this is not a performing choir. For the worship that goes on here, we want the best, because we want to offer the best in worship.”

And when de Silva literally pulls out all the stops to demonstrate, there is not likely to be much argument on the definition of “best”. The hip-hop, trance and metal listening generation at St. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia, has been presented with the kind of sound that can finally battle the boom-kat coming out of their headphones.

“We were so excited when we saw the speakers,” gleams 18 year-old choir leader Ashwin Shaffter. He believes the choir “worked really hard” to be able to afford the instrument, and is genuinely honoured to be their leader on this occasion.

It is this excitement, this sense of pride among the choristers that de Silva and Rev. Billimoria are most interested in. They hope to shatter the stereotypical image of the old count at his instrument and put in his seat, the tech savvy teenager instead.

“Unless the boys hear that sound and develop an interest for it,” de Silva says, the interest in organ and Anglican choral music will die down. As both he and Rev. Billimoria see it, St. Thomas’s is among the few institutions that continue the Anglican choral tradition, and they have a great responsibility to encourage it.

As the last notes of Michael Maybrick’s The Holy City fade away, the singer, Niran de Mel, catches his breath. It is only the first time he has sung a solo accompanied on this instrument, and in the sparkle of his eyes leaps the little boy from the adage, who after knowing only sticks and mud, was finally shown the seashore.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Garrison Cemetery

On the North end of the Bogambara lake is the hot-bed of Kandyan history. The Sri Dalada Maligawa, the old Courts Complex, St. Paul’s Church, the museum and the Queen’s Hotel all lie clustered together here. And in their midst, nestled against a hillside, lies the British Garrison Cemetery, almost forgotten.

From its establishment in 1822, this cemetery was the designated final resting place of many British and European greats from Sri Lanka’s colonial era. Despite the 1873 ban on burials within the municipal limits, special provision were made to allow relatives of those already laid there to be buried in the 3/4 acre plot. Then after Annie Fritz’s burial in 1951, even death seems to have died to the Garrison cemetery.

But Charles Carmichael, the 62 year-old caretaker at the grounds for the last 16-plus years, still lives.  And he lives to tell it’s tale to any and all who give ear, be it a simple gardener or the crown prince of the United Kingdom.

Carmichael was working on a building site at Primrose Hill in 1997. The site happened to be the home of Durand Goonetilleke's brother. Goonetilleke was (and still is) a trustee at St. Paul's Church in Kandy, which is the custodian of the British Garrison Cemetery. At the time, schools, businesses and local government were preparing with great enthusiasm to celebrate Sri Lanka's 50th independence anniversary, and the arrival of Prince Charles of Wales for the occasion. On the prince's itinerary was a visit to the old commonwealth burial grounds.

Unfortunately, the cemetery wasn't exactly a pleasing sight.

"It was like a big jungle," Carmichael is unmoved at the memory. "Everything was down, graves were broken. I think during the perahera time elephants had also been kept here."

Archived images of the pre-restoration cemetery hang in the caretaker's office, telling a ghastly story of disrepair. Gravestones and monuments lie in bits and pieces, all over the grounds, stealthily but violently taken over by weeds and mana. The cemetery's British origins probably made it a favorite site of grave robbers. And if the scores of monkeys rioting on the premises even with four or five gardeners and a backhoe making a commotion are any indicator in 2013, their ancestors have left them a legacy and heritage here too.

Goonetilleke signed Carmichael on to undo the damage. It took a whole year with 20 people working day in and day out to restore the place. The broken gravestones had to be pieced back together, the demolished marble and granite replaced with bricks and mortar. But they made do. On what date? the restoration project was completed and celebrated in the presence of British parliamentarians, and arrangements were finalized for Prince Charles' visit.

On January 25, 1998, days before the celebrations, a bomb-blast shook Kandy's relative isolation from LTTE activity, causing damage to some of the city's best known historic sites. Prince Charles never arrived, but Charles Carmichael had found a permanent job as caretaker of the cemetery.

"There were no people around, and it was difficult," Carmichael remembers his first few months of work. "But I started taking walks in the area, and I got used to it."

Carmichael's regular days are easy going. He opens up the gates at the end of the long windy road past the Cultural Triangle Office, at 8am, and gets to whatever maintenance work must be done. Then he must employ himself until late in the evening, around 6pm, when he closes up and makes his way home to his wife, children and grandchildren. In between, he's got himself JP Lewis’s 'List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon’ to keep him occupied. Over the years, Carmichael has read, learnt, filled the gaps in, and internalized the stories of those long gone, who travelled thousands of miles over weeks and months, lived a hard life in an alien environment, and died far from home.

Now when visitors arrive at the British Garrison Cemetery, Carmichael gives them an insider's tour of the nearly 200 graves. When Prince Charles of Wales finally visited the British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy, on November 16, 2013, 15 years after the original tour date, he did it again.

"I consider him a regular tourist," Carmichael shrugs, "except I had change the words a bit, add a 'Your Majesty' or a 'Your Highness' here and there!"

Captain James McGlashan was the first dead person the prince was introduced to.

McGlashan, Carmichael says, was a distinguished soldier who made a name for himself in many battles. There are question about who this McGlashan really was and where he really fought, but one thing is for sure; he was somewhat reckless. The story goes that, confident of his physical prowess, McGlashan accepted a wager, and walked from Trincomalee to Kandy. On the way, he was drenched continuously in the tropical rains, and four days after his arrival in the city, forced to accept his fate at the hands of a violent fever.

"He won the bet, but he lost his life," Carmichael shrugs, bemused.

If the records are correct, McGlashan was 26 when he died. And if the records are correct, many others of those buried here died that young.

Alice Higgs, wife of Francis Wharton Le Marchand, died on January 24, 1859, giving birth to her first child. She was 20. A brochure printed by the Friends of the British Garrison Cemetery says John Robertson was the seventh and last recorded European to be killed by a wild elephant in then Ceylon. Robertson was 33 years old, possibly out hunting, when the elephant gave chase. Reports are divided but he was either killed by the creature or all the running caused sunstroke that led to his death.

Having dwelt in these stories for years, Carmichael has earned some license with them, and guesses that "maybe he was fat" and just almost laughs as he says it.

Others have died at 35, 30, 27 and a William Sydney Smith "21 years and 9 months" as one inscription reads. It hints at a bittersweet awareness that one pays in some way or the other for the privileges of a colonial life in the tropics.

William Elleray, surgeon, died at 33. "How could the others have survived?" Carmichael asks, half joking, but evidently stumped.

Worse still is a memorial stone erected in the memory of the "five infant sons" of "G and M Wait." But Carmichael knows the story is not as sad as it seems; there were 14 children in that family, he says.

And in the stillness of the midday sun, the weathered caretaker still has stories left to tell, all heart-filling in some way.

Margaret Griegson knew at 69 that she didn't have much time left. She was determined to see her son, serving on the forces in Ceylon, one last time before she quit the earth. So she boarded a ship at London, survived the trip to the tropics, and after three or four blissful months spent living her final wish, died where her child was.

Not much is known of Oteline Rudd except that she died at 37 years, and that she was the wife of William Rudd, a wealthy merchant. Carmichael says our own Robin Hood, the well-known Saradiyel once decided Rudd's treasure was extravagant enough to deserve his attention and plunder. He imagines the robbery "didn't even touch Rudd" who, it is said, owned whole mountain ranges and provinces in India and Sri Lanka. But as many great men have fallen, it is also said of him that he was ultimately not left with a chair in his name to sit on.

It is hard, very hard indeed, to imagine the richness of the history that lies buried in the grounds of the British Garrison Cemetery. Some are tales of simple folk, some of such greats as John D’Oyly, John Frasier and Lady Elizabeth Gregory. Carmichael loves telling their stories, and teaches them to 22 year-old Harsha who he believes will take his place when it comes his turn to live on the other side of the grass. But not many venture their way.

As the sun sets on the hills, Charles Carmichael locks up the small wrought-iron gate, closes up the caretaker’s office and prepares to leave. He walks down the windy road, freshly-tarred for Prince Charles’ visit, making a wish: “that more people will come tomorrow.”