Sunday, December 25, 2011

“Doing” Christmas

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With just a week to go, it’s impossible not to be infected with the ‘Christmas Cheer’. Or is it? Through the years it seems the competitiveness and pressure, as with every other aspect of life, has come to weigh down a season traditionally considered one for celebrating the birth of a man who set all of mankind free. Though some continue the traditional festivities, for many people from all walks of life, the celebration of Christmas, whether by intention or otherwise, has become something else.

Prof. Ashley Halpe, now nearly in his eightieth year, recalls from the Christmas of his childhood, first and foremost the midnight mass. “We never omitted the spiritual element” he reassures, recalling how Jesus’ “extraordinary self-sacrifice” was a constant example for his life, the “shattering challenge” he wrote of in ‘Waiting for the Bells’. But another integral part of Christmas was “the fun of coming back from mass to see what Santa Clause had brought for us”, and the joy of unwrapping presents. He remembers the Christmas cakes, rich and fruity, made at home, and all the “goodies and savouries” and the “feasting and merry-making” during the season. “We still do as much of it as we can” he continues, describing the decorations and ornaments that come out of their boxes each year in December, “but it depends on what’s possible at that time”, which part of the family is in which part of the globe and what their schedules are like.

A time when Christmas was not hectic was “a long, long time ago!” in his childhood, laughs Jerome de Silva. He describes in vivid detail the Christmas carols “a must in every home, church and institution”, the Santa Clauses everywhere with their rolling “ho-ho-ho” and the “large, towering Christmas trees everywhere!” from Colombo over half a century ago. “It used to be beautiful” he reminisces nostalgically, “a lovely era and so jolly!” The whole extended family would get together “for the chicken curry, the turkey, the smoked beef, the corned beef, the ham and all the other lovely things my mother made” he shares enthusiastically, proudly. Jerome’s stories of the month-long preparation of Christmas cake, the Milk Wine after midnight mass, the breakfast next morning of German breads, Edam cheese and “vast quantities of strawberry jam”, the walnuts, marzipan-filled dates and macaroons are simply mouth-watering. “In the evening we would bring in Jolly Bombs, sit around and light the thing up in the room and it would go BOOM and shower us with little presents and trinkets!” he laughs again.

A few years behind Jerome is Kanthini Fernando who has similar memories of extravagant Christmas meals and (literal) explosions in the living room. She also recalls, enthusiastically, “all these exotic fireworks!” the waterfalls, rockets and Catherine Wheels that “twirl, twirl, twirl” around the pol gaha. She laughs remembering visiting with “fascinating” aunts who wore their traditional Dutch Sunday-best with pearls and “entertained” them with cakes and tea, and standing in line to kiss their grandfather as he pressed money to their hands.

Chithrangani Wanigasooriya remembers growing up about the same time in one of the very few Christian families in the village of Eheliyagoda. “We couldn’t afford a very extravagant celebration, but we did the best we could” she shares, describing how the chips in the walls were repaired and the house repainted as the season turned the corner. After the morning service, the five children would walk the village distributing kevili as is traditionally done for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. “Everybody came over on Christmas day, and the house was continuously streaming with people!” Chithrangani recalls, almost in awe. Though the distribution of kevili has slowly been dropped, her family home is still open to all for the Christmas meal, after the morning service that the extended family continues to attend together.

But unlike for Prof. Halpe, the changes are more pronounced for the generation after his. With the rush of work and her children’s commitments, the trip from Kandy to Eheliyagoda combined with last-minute shopping is a hassle for Chithrangani. In contrast to the joy of his childhood memories, the rat-racing and busyness of modern times inevitably leave him “absolutely exhausted by Christmas morning” as Jerome says – tired of the celebrations before they begin.

Rukshan Perera too remembers Christmases of feasting, family get-togethers and good times in general, but has made it something different for himself and his family, by choice. “We try to use the time to do things for people who need help” he says simply, describing carolling sessions at elders’ homes and the cancer hospital. The festivities still prevail, “but now we’re much more focussed on helping people who are unable to enjoy the season so well”.

The community-centred-Christmas has trickled down to the generation after Rukshan’s as well. Ranjan Josiah (47), once bassist for Flame and currently involved in community development, takes a similar perspective on Christmas. While his family still enjoys the festivities, they also spend more time looking for ways to make life easier for families not as comfortable as they. “When I was young, the highpoint was Santa Clause. Now, even when you go to a supermarket you can’t help but notice the despair on people’s faces”, and he finds it difficult not to want to change that.

For Savithri Sumanthiran, General Secretary of FOCUS (Fellowship of Christian University Students), Christmas in Kandy in the 1970’s was a “fun time” when all the family came together at her grandfather’s house. “My mum used to make the traditional Christmas cake, and although it was not over the top, the meal was special.”

The violence of the late 80’s, when Savithri was an undergraduate, drastically changed her view of the festivities. “We called for fasting and prayer on the day, and then slowly figured there’s no exhortation in the bible to celebrate the occasion at all!”  Her three children and the families of many of her Christian friends from her undergraduate days, have since, never had a Christmas tree or presents. “I drop my older kids off at church if they want to attend on Christmas morning, but neither my husband nor I attend unless it’s a Sunday” she says gently. “Some believe we simply need to cut the ostentatiousness and make Christmas a spiritual exercise rather than an extravagant festival, but we take the rather extreme view and abolish it. It’s a difficult thing to do, and nearly impossible to pass on” she continues, adding that she and her husband are firm in their conviction nevertheless.

Thrice Olympic swimmer and fifteen-times SAF gold-medallist Julian Bolling reiterates that Christmas time at his home when he was growing up, was a time of too much food. The extended family came together and Julian remembers looking forward to sending up hot-air balloons. “We still have the family breakfast and lunch” Julian shares, “so the next generation has the same kind of Christmas”. The only thing that has changed about for him is that he doesn’t attend church. “It’s not to say I’ve lost my faith, I search God out and I find him, just not there” he says, confidently.

Shanila de Livera, 32 year-old entrepreneur at Zsa Zsa Gallery, too, remembers the balloons as well as the feasts of turkey, potatoes and cranberry sauce that began at lunch and went into dinner. For her, this Christmas is different from all others. A few months ago she gave birth to her “first-born son” Rayaka. “It really put things in perspective for me,” she enthuses, amazedly. “I keep wondering how difficult it must have been back in the day when Jesus was born, if in the midst of all this luxury the birthing process was so difficult for me!” Even before her son was born though, Christmas had changed from being about Santa Clause to being about Jesus and the remembrance that “no matter how much garbage you’ve picked up over the year, He is able to forgive you that.”

But from the thoughtful deliberations of the middle-aged generation to the hectic lifestyles of today’s youth, is a wide jump. Eshantha Peiris’ schedule over the last few weeks has been chock-full of carol services, school Christmas programs and SOSL events, at all of which he is found in a professional capacity. “Nowadays, I really don’t know what we will do” he says in quiet abandon. “When we were in school, there was all the hype and the holiday fun, the family getting together for a good time and all that” says Damien Fernando from Voice.Print, “but now you’re so busy you don’t have time for any it!” Even for those not caught up in the limelight, Christmas is becoming another hectic season. Undergraduate Shalini Abayasekara still makes date cake at home with her mother and grandmother, but is quite caught up in carol services and youth activities happening through the month. Ultimately for her though, “It’s about Jesus of course and how He came to save me”.

Talk against the commercialization of Christmas is common, and regret at busy lifestyles that only get worse during the holidays. But where do we find the time or energy to even consider a change, if that is in the calling? What are you doing this Christmas?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Real Music: Project Authenticy

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When Billy and Nigel Fernando take up guitars and team up with Devashrie de Silva on vocals as an opening act to any show, there’s that inevitable expectation of something really good about to happen. But wait, if it’s only a bunch of young and relative amateurs taking the mic, does that still apply? Project Authenticity declared: yes, definitely.

Ezra (1)

Paragon Events set off on the first steps of what founder Dinesh Michel envisions will be a cultural revolution in the Sri Lankan music industry. The night of Sunday 27 November was the first of a series of events that will create a platform for gospel artists to share their original work. “The main thing we’re interested in is that these young people bring in positive ideas to society with their music” Michel explains.

Many of the original numbers performed that night were based on themes of personal struggle and also resonated with a hopeful take on ethnic reconciliation. But the greatest sense of positivity seemed to be conveyed in how children, youth and elders from a variety of linguistic, racial and ethnic backgrounds took one stage with a perfect sense of unity.

The sounds of south Indian and western pop, country, alternative, rock, hip-hop, rap and even reggae came to life on one stage that night. Darren (aka Suddha) Stork apparently “just back from Jamaica” was a definite show-stealer in his sarong and sunglasses. And then there was the the Zep 317 Crew, led by Jeremiah “Jiggy” James, block-breaking to the sounds of – get this – “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, setting the audience bopping like pros!

Project Authenticity also featured Kanishka Fernando whose single ‘Adare’ has made over 3000 hits on, as well as Ruwan Hettiarachchi who’s topped 150,000 views on YouTube with ‘Mathakada Handawe’ off the Sinhawalokana soundtrack. Also taking the stage were promising musicians in Deborah Rajapakshe, Niroshan Perera, Josiah Lazarus (this one we’ve really got to see more of!) and Candida Perera. But the performers of the evening were unquestionably MCs Lakshan and Charlene who continued to pump up the pace with their “modest” and definitely not self-absorbed (who would ever dare say they’re self-absorbed!) approach to the whole act.

Group (1)

And what a pace it rose to! After nearly a year of relative silence, Ezra, winners of TNL Onstage 2002 (a bygone era when the show actually produced noteworthy acts) and the first Sri Lankan gospel rock band to enthral audiences with hits such as Nazarene, took on the audience as the last act for the night. Did they rock? Take your guess, and don’t miss the next episode!

I Opened the Wild!

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After hours and hours of winding round bumpy roads we finally turn into one leading to ‘Chaaya Wild Yala’. A security guard at the gate stops the van to reach forward and hand each of us a wooden plank. Now it is important to read what’s written on this wooden block – a warning from the ‘locals’ at Yala about their grunting-trumpeting habits and their penchant for wandering in the dark – so you don’t find yourself surprised to discover that stepping into Chaaya Wild you have, in fact, stepped into the wild.

At the risk of being called cliché and unoriginal, one must admit, the word to describe Channa Daswatte’s work at what used to be Yala Village, is “natural”. The steel, wood, cane and cloth interiors at the entrance and lounge give one only sullen greys, deep browns and subdued greens to rest eyes upon – a welcome sight after a tiring journey to the south-eastern ends of Sri Lanka. There are no fancy works of art for one to stress over sounding educated on and no glaring colours to offend, only homemade ginger-beer or chilled cucumber juice, and as one relaxes and leans against the cloth-backed chairs, the hidden brilliance of Ena de Silva’s batiks on the ceiling. There is only one thing that really demands attention at Chaaya Wild. The cement floors seem to flow through the open boundaries, past the deep green and glittering pool, on towards the unknown jungle.

The lone baby-monitor sunbathing beside the pool, the camouflaged lizard scuttling across the footpath are signs of greater things to come – Grey Langur monkeys swinging outside your window, peeking in from the heat of the midday sun at the coolness of the earthy yet luxurious chalets, the inquisitive squirrel chirruping as it timidly enters to take in the canopied bed with the palmyrah-weave accents, the grunts and squeals of young wild boar as they frolic beneath your wooden floors and the occasional hushed crunch of measured footsteps as an elephant strolls across the quiet neighbourhood.

The chalets are shielded by rattan shades that fall across the many windows which keep the rooms well lit and ventilated. Once the blinds are pulled down and the aircon switched on, only an elephant in your space could bring you out of the lovely cocoon the chalet becomes – perfect for a siesta after an early-begun morning of traversing the conservation grounds.

Safari’s at Yala are like nowhere else in the world. Take it from the experts. Thomas Stephens, producer of Night Stalkers for Nat Geo Wild, 2011 calls Yala’s leopard population “one of the most visible” in the world. Jonathan and Angela Scott, from BBC’s Big Cat Diary, are in raptures about Sri Lanka, the “hidden treasure” for wildlife enthusiasts. Andrew Chastney, film editor for Animal Planet and Big Cat Diary etc., is “absolutely blown away” by his Yala experience. At a presentation made to coincide with the launch of Chaaya Wild, Chastney shared of his experience at Yala, noting that it is rare to see relaxed leopards, and that he “can’t wait to be coming back” to the “best place to find leopards”. During his stay in here, he worked with the Nature Trails team, producing a documentary on the Sri Lankan leopard. This unique experience has given the Nature Trails team at Chaaya Wild the kind of expertise not many other Sri Lankan naturalists can boast, of having worked with one of the world’s leading anima
l experts and some of the most advanced infrared imaging technology.

Head of Eco Tourism for John Keells, Chitral Jayatilake, is keen on making similar equipment part of the Chaaya Wild experience, with the mini night safaris. “Sure we offer luxury to our guests, but we’re mostly about nature” he explains, “if you want to see the leopard, we’ll show you the leopard, but you’ve got to sit it out.” Alongside the typical touristy wild-life activities they offer, Chaaya Wild also has fun activities like animal track identification lessons, camera-trap setting and wildlife movies for the “man-cubs”. But what Nature Trails is gearing to do in the long run is revamp Sri Lankan wildlife culture, getting people serious about observing jungle life, and serious about conservation, because it is, in fact, one of our dearest treasures. “It’s not about quantity or the number of leopards or elephants you see, it’s about quality, about how you see them.” And if you’re lucky, you can even see them while you have a drink.

The architects’ baby at Chaaya Wild is really a wonder. The main open and chilled-out restaurant area is open and relaxing, but not the only option. Management also provides private dining options beside the pool and on the lake shore, as close as you can get to their four-footed and winged neighbours. The part one is not likely to forget easily though, is the Observation Deck. Next to the Peacock Bar, above the restaurant area, is open space. Soft engulfing couches and sleek barstools allow one to be alert or relaxed as one pleases, stargazing while the gentle sea breeze  plays upward from the shores, over the jungle, across the lake and through the candlelight. In the daytime the Observation Deck allows a 360-degree view of the sea, the jungle, the lake, the pool and the leopards’ favourite haunt – the rocky cliff that marks the boundaries of the Chaaya property.

To describe the place is a difficult task. It is a wonderful blend of the luxurious with the rustic, and one that works. Go see for yourself, it is absolutely worth the long drive there and back.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sri Lanka Design Festival

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“It seems everyone is going crazy” Karen grins as we step through the elevator doors at the Academy of Design (AOD).  People rush around laughing and talking, walking through the wrong doors, doubling back and displaying signs of hype-infection in general. Everyone from the cleaning lady to herself, Principal Karen MacLeod is knee-deep in preparations for the third consecutive leg of the Sri Lanka Design Festival.

Small rectangular glasses with thick black rims accent Karen’s face, framed with brown plaited hair held together by a funky bright-blue hair-tie. Although she’s Principal, she’s keenly aware of everything going on at the school and is highly involved. She even knows most of the students by name, probably how she keeps track of all that’s going on. “I arrived here last September in the middle of design festival preparations and was a bit “wow!”” she laughs, “and I’ve found the only thing to do is just try and not go crazy!”

Up on the third floor, students in the fashion department are busy working on pieces they will submit for review and approval for the festival runway. The hangers along the walls of the workspace are neatly arranged with pieces already finished, but the tables are piled high with tonnes of colourful material of various textures and uses and students sit and stand around stitching, pinning, chatting laughing and some quite worried. Dilki, 2nd year fashion student has just been “blasted” and is painstakingly attaching hundreds of satin flowers to a bridal dress she has already finished. It’s the third day she’s doing this with the help of her friends, but she’s patient, because AOD requires “very very high quality” as Karen puts it. None of this is easy.

Anuradha and Lonali, who are part of a team of five students who’ve volunteered to work with local artisans on handloom craft projects, know this all too well. They’ve been spending 14-hour work-days in Gampaha working with nearly 70 artisans, coordinating teams as they take fresh takes in terms of colour and quality on the familiar local art. Some of the exhibits this work will produce include household items made from recycled thread and even denim-inspired handloom sarees! “Craft is no more about little old ladies sitting home and doing things because they have nothing better to do” Karen says, explaining how they’re aiming to contemporize national arts to give it a foothold and future in bigger markets.

And it’s not just handloom, they’ve got artisans from each and every province on the design festival agenda this year! They’ve also got elite international designers, advertising gurus, photographers and opinion leaders lined up to take part at the gala exhibitions and workshops that will take place at AOD and Mt. Lavinia Hotel. “We’re bringing everyone together on this to envision what Sri Lankan design can and will be in the next few years” Karen enthuses. It’s tonnes of work and everyone is so completely absorbed in it, gearing to give guests a blast of an experience, probably better than we’ve seen in the last two years..

“Who?” one girl questions when I ask her which floor the lobby is on – there is obviously only one thing on her mind. That same thing should most definitely be in your agenda for next week – especially since entrance is free!

United: One People

“Let us build a new Sri Lanka!” B. Priyathanushan of Vattapalai M.V. called out to his audience on the evening of October 29. Professionals, volunteers, well-wishers, teachers and parents gathered at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute with students from Kandy, Mullaithivu, Vidutaltivu, Vishwamadu, Killinochchi and Mannar as they spoke, danced and sang in English, Sinhala and Tamil, to celebrate the launch of the Ekamuthu Oray Makkal (One United People) Unity Mission Trust (EOM-UMT).

Priyathanushan stood at the podium that night alongside two of his fellow students, to share his vision of a Sri Lanka that would recognize that “unity is strength” and step “beyond racial and religious differences” into a truly peaceful future.

EOM-UMT works to “foster and facilitate national unity, reconciliation, integration and healing amongst and between the children of the North, Wanni, South, Central and other areas of Sri Lanka”. The philosophy behind the trust is a simple one: that of friendship. “What we’re trying to do is create friendships between children of different communities, because it’s only personal relationships that can be translated into social change” explains trust coordinator Bertal Pinto-Jayawardane.

Although the trust is now officially established, EOM does not boast of grand beginnings.  It is another simply inspiring story of how one family, in its bid to help those in need, began approaching friends and work colleagues in order to collect whatever possible resources they could, to provide for those in need soon after the end of the war. Their genuine efforts to reach out soon grew and developed into what is now a source of true inspiration and encouragement to the younger generation of the North and East.

“I am extremely proud” S. Yasutha from Vishvamadu M.V. reiterated during her testimony, as she shared how her experiences at the EOM camps helped her learn, develop as a person, and most importantly, build friendships. Her generation is now stepping out of a war-torn life into something they have never experienced before and which we in other parts take for granted, and these friendships will, in time, prove to be strong links of support as they face challenges yet unknown. The testimonies shared that evening at the gala launch of the EOM-UMT were moving proof of what personal contact can do to remedy communal wounds that have festered for longer than three decades.

EOM-UMT operates on an inter-faith platform, giving primary importance to the recognition of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of Sri Lankan society. Their main aims are to support the educational needs of the children in the war-affected areas by “developing reference libraries, providing school books and other requirements to support classroom studies and sports, and conducting small-scale infrastructure projects to facilitate schoolwork”.

So far, they have completed food, educational supplies and medical projects in Menik Farm, Chettikulam, Jaffna, Kayts, Vidutaltivu and Mannar a number of times over the last two years. Although this sounds like a good list of achievements for an informally organized group of “like-minded people” who see themselves simply as “concerned and caring citizens who love Sri Lanka”, their real victory – in the friendship business – is far greater. Photographs from the EOM Camps held in Colombo in December 2010 and Mullaithivu in June 2011 show tonnes of laughter and gleeful smile after gleeful smile, depicting students from Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna, Mannar and Mullaithivu as they “chill out”, play games and do creative stuff together.

“What have we achieved in 30 years of war?” S. Logeswaran of Vidyananda M.V., Mullaithivu asked that evening. “We have seen only death, maimed families and widows. Violence will only give us destruction. Only love can achieve anything.” Clichetic you may think, and uncannily strong for a teenager. But it is that very strength that testifies to its genuineness, for he speaks out of more experience than most of us.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


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It’s not breaking news that there is abject poverty on our doorsteps. But that abject poverty is not part of our reality either. In one part of town, teenagers sleep in their branded pyjamas dreaming of the latest Apple product while in another, their peers in shanties shiver through the sleepless night. Older children of poorer families are forced to stay home from school, hungry, looking after their younger siblings while there are those of others, happily skipping school to sleep off fatigue from a party the night before.

Those poverty-stricken children lucky enough to attend school regularly quite often wear the same uniform every day of the week and are literally barefoot (not a fashion statement or your favourite hangout). In many village schools, a number of students faint each morning from lack of nourishment. It is not a surprise that the majority of these students, not having the luxury of various avenues for higher education at the end of their credit cards, drop out of school soon after O-Levels and start looking for employment. Financial sustenance being a difficult thing to come by with no proper education, many begin turning to crime in order to provide for themselves and sometimes their families also.

It is easy to sit back and expect the state to deal with such issues, Gowri Kariyawasam, President of Business Professional Women (BPW) shares, but also irresponsible, considering how deep-rooted and wide-spread they are. “If each and every organization within Sri Lanka undertook to focus part of their work on the future generation” she muses, awed at the implications, “how our prospects would improve!”

Just this September saw the initiation of Project Change, what BPW hopes will be a pilot project to translate this postulation to action. The organisation has recognized 2,000 children in the Hanwella area that need help, and are working to enlist 2,000 donors that will fund these kids’ welfare. The programme will provide the children with school books, uniforms and shoes, as well as a supply of dry rations for the family. All it takes is 12,000 rupees per annum, Gowri explains, adding that this breaks down into a mere 30 rupees a day, a pittance really. Mechanisms are already in place to make sure that these children get a glass of milk at school each week. Not only does this help improve the state of their health, it also directly impacts their educational development – not one of these children misses school on ‘Milk Day’ if they can help it.

Two weekends ago, 150 boy-scouts and girl-guides from schools in the Avissawella, Hanwella and Kosgama areas were brought together by the BPW, simply to have a good time at project chairperson and outgoing BPW president Janaki Gunewardena’s home in Boralugoda. The house is spacious and welcoming, opening out at every possible window to a garden filled with the aroma of flowers and the sounds of birds chirruping in the surrounding paddy and coconut plantations. “We have been given more than others in this world simply to share” Mrs. Gunewardena shrugs in her typical matter-of-fact way, “not to accumulate for ourselves!”

Alongside the village-school students at the Boralugoda house that weekend, and having just as much fun with them was an unexpected lot – students from the Elizabeth Moir School. Behind Project Change is an often missed recognition of the fact that more privileged children are not uncaring and selfish as often depicted, but simply unaware of the life conditions of their less fortunate neighbours. Mrs. Gunewardena remembers her life as a youngster growing up in Colombo in the 40’s and 50’s and that despite her grandparents and parents often bringing less fortunate people home to bathe and feed, she “never wondered about their tomorrow, how they would find their meal the next day”. It was later in life that she began to see the importance of a more permanent solution to the problem. “We need to break that wall between the classes” she shares, a thought that will undoubtedly worry some, “otherwise we can’t really change anything”.

BPW hopes that providing continuing opportunities for young people from different economic backgrounds to mix and mingle will help start lasting friendships across cultural barriers. This in turn they believe will increase awareness and involvement of youth in welfare endeavours geared towards their less fortunate peers, not only making such projects more successful but also enriching lives and equipping them to be socially responsible adults. “We hope that some of these children at least will take it to their hearts to fulfil the need” Mrs. Gunewardena says.

Mrs.-GunewardenaSquealing, giggling and running around in a dainty cotton dress at the Boralugoda house is Ayoshi Hapuaarachchi, the Project Change “mascot”. “She’s like my adopted grandchild”, Mrs. Gunewardena smiles down on the baby, sharing the story of how Niluka, her domestic helper, confessed one night that she couldn’t afford to provide for the child in her womb. They made arrangements for the baby to be legally adopted at birth by another couple, but there were complications with the process, and it was decided that Mrs. Gunewardena would help bring her up instead. “Just because she was born into a poor family doesn’t make her any less beautiful, intelligent or capable of contributing to the welfare of her country and people” she argues, “she deserves a decent life as much as any other child”. As Ayoshi grew into the bouncy-bubbly one-year-old she now is, Mrs. Gunewardena came to realize the significance of the impact a single individual could make on a child’s future, and Change was born.

Neither Mrs. Gunewardena nor Gowri Kariyawasam though, is interested in talking much about themselves or even their work. The thing is to see, hear, understand and do. Fifty metres from the main Avissawella highway and a right turn onto a concrete road lies Munamale, the first village that BPW will Change. The area seems decent as some of the houses even have plastered walls and children grin from ear to ear showing gaps in their teeth as one young fellow wobbles off his bicycle. But the illusion is quickly dispersed with. A few hundred metres down and the road is simply a wide gravel path, on either side of which lie tiny dwellings, some of wattle and daub with thatch roofs, some of wooden planks and bits of concrete sheeting. By the time we arrive at homes that are mere shacks – metal frames covered with polythene and canvas – the road is too narrow and uneven to travel on and we are forced to turn back. “It gets worse” Mrs. Gunewardena explains, “I don’t want to put you through that”.

It is only a month since Change was initiated on September 21, and it is evident that BPW has jumped straight in the deep end. Gowri Kariyawasam is nevertheless convinced that this pilot project will spark nation-wide interest and involvement, really bringing about Change. It is most definitely not the first time an endeavour of this sort has been stepped into, but Change seems different in its bid to create links between the generations as well as economic classes – a radical move on their part. And though it is still a distinct group of people heading single-minded to achieve great things behind the scenes of Change, their aim is to get simply everyone involved.

“As long as you can talk or even just think, you’ve got to help where you can” Mrs. Gunewardena emphasizes, “you’d be surprised at how a little attention now can change a child’s future”. Most importantly though, BPW is aware of the individuality of each child that goes into the great mosaic that is the future of our country: “Change Sri Lanka, One Child at a Time”.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

ABYT 2011: Garam Masala

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Sitting down to a chat with ‘Garam Masala’, this year’s Act Before You Think (ABYT) winners, is like having your seat moved from the audience on to the stage at the theatre. Facial muscles distort, arms fly, players keep switching roles and once in a while, chairs and tables also move. And they laugh so much!

Benjamin Aluwihare, Nadim Akram and Brandon Paul are taking the IB Arts at the British School and Sajiv Panditha, who has already completed the course, is employed in advertising. While Brandon and Benjamin have known each other for nearly ten years now, they’ve all four been friends for two or three. “We’re closer now” says Sajiv, turning to Brandon with the sly look of a ‘moment’ on his face. Benjamin explains that “they had a very... passionate session onstage” and everyone bursts out laughing.

The laughter hardly ends before someone else cracks a joke or throws a diss in someone else’s face and it starts all over. “My parents preferred the IB in Arts over my first choice which was Visual Arts” shares Brandon. We’re discussing Sri Lankan attitudes towards performance (which, by the way, they all feel is not very encouraging, although they will all definitely continue to pursue theatre). “They preferred it ‘cus it’s more... character building?” he continues hesitantly, to which Benjamin interjects “Yeah, he has a sort of weak character”, and the table erupts again.

While all four identify themselves as dramatists, Nadim is also a dancer. “We’re a bit of a Garam Masala” Sajiv says, grinning wide. True enough, they come from distinctly different backgrounds, speak with distinctly different accents and there is really no better name for them to call themselves than that. But it was “random like most other things we do” Brandon points out.

Improvised theatre just happened upon them, as did their name. “We were having breaks during theatre” Sajiv explains, “and somebody just grabbed a broom and started calling it something else and that developed into a nearly ten minute long piece!”

“The thing about ‘improv’ is you can just do what you want” he continues, “it won’t be as clear as conventional theatre, but [the structure] is there”. He and Brandon both definitely prefer improvised theatre to formal, while the other two are not so sure. “I enjoy both” Benjamin takes his turn (which rarely happens actually, the preferred method is for all to talk at the same time) “in a formal drama the actor becomes what the director wants. Here, all the actors are collaboratively also the director”.

What they liked the most ABYT though, seems to be the direct audience involvement in the performance. “You’re not afraid of the audience as such” Brandon explains, “if they shout something at you, you shout something back. But it’s terrifying how you stand there and do something, and then you realize what you’ve done!”

“You literally act before you think” Bejamin adds thoughtfully.

During the dance segment for example, Benjamin and Nadim seem to have ‘found’ themselves taking their t-shirts off. Onstage. “We finished and we’re like, ‘why did you take your shirt off?!’ says Sajiv, laughing. They were being “spontaneous” Benjamin suggests, and they’re all laughing some more. “You’re finished, and when you come back to that couch and sit down, it’s like you’re on Oprah,” Brandon says animatedly, dramatising an emotional breakdown while wailing “why would I do that!? I didn’t mean to!”

Sajiv, Nadim, Benjamin, Brandon

Nadim (the quieter one, yes there is a quiet one) is grinning wickedly as he describes how while being Brandon The Bartender’s helping hands, the timer went off. “He was drinking so slowly, and there was nothing left to do!” he helplessly (laughingly) explains why he spilt the contents of their very fruity mock-juice-tail-smoothie all over Brandon’s shirt.

“But we just kept going” Benjamin declares with gusto as Sajiv adds that “good competition” helped them keep their energy levels up. “It wouldn’t have been” Benjamin starts, “as much fun” Brandon continues, for Sajiv to finish “if there wasn’t that”. Yes, they share sentences.

How easily their thoughts synchronise is proof of how well they coordinate. It takes just over a second for the others to catch, understand and respond to a cue either one of them gives as they pose for the camera, obviously loving the flash.

They seemed, from the beginning, to have that special touch of something that made them winners, something that let them “just keep going” and abandon themselves on the boards.“We knew that no matter what happened, we’d always be there for one another.” Maybe that’s all it took!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Puppet-Master Premin

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A little further than the instructed one kilometre down the by-road, we stop to ask for directions. With no address and only a given name to go with, success seems unlikely. But we are mistaken, for not only down Elpitiya Road but through the Ambalangoda district, the puppet master Premin is more than just well known. The legacy his father Ganwari Jemis and his father’s father Ganwari Podi Sirina left for him, which he struggles now to guard, is that well treasured.

Kalabhushana Ganwari Premin is passionate about his puppets. The decades he has dedicated to learning and adapting traditional naadagam scripts, musical forms and dances has taken him to many stages and carnival sites around the world. Not only is he one of the country’s leading puppeteers, he is also an ardent historian and promoter of the art. His small smiling eyes light up animatedly as he pulls out volume upon volume of neat scrapbooks on which posters, paper-cuttings,  photographs, letters and even envelops, connected to Sri Lankan puppetry and dating from the 1940’s are meticulously arranged.

Premin’s grandfather, Ganwari Podi Sirina Guru is popularly considered the father of traditional puppetry. He is accredited with introducing not only screens to the Sri Lankan puppet stage, but also the popular Nango Hami and Sellan Lama characters who sometimes perform introductory acts to the main play. Podi Sirina is recorded to have presented the controversial (and immensely popular) play ‘Ehelepola’, based on the massacre of the Kandyan family of that name, before the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870 at the Bagatale Walawwa. The Duke and his retinue were so thrilled with the performance that, according to Premin, they awarded Podi Sirina a gold medal as well as five hundred rupees – a fortune at the time!

Such royal encouragement helped Podi Sirina and his contemporaries work towards improvement and propagation of the art across Sri Lanka, but unfortunately was not enough to prevent the complete cast of 47 puppets from the ‘Ehelapola’ play from being sold in 1910 and shipped to West Germany. Although puppets were not unfamiliar to a European population, the stature of the life-size creations are said to have created a stir, miniatures being the norm.

These figures, as all other traditional Sri Lankan puppets, are made of the wood of the goda kaduru tree. It is soft and pliable, as well as light, perfect for the job. The puppet is fashioned as a number of parts measured to exact proportions, the calculation of which is known as path bindeema. Once the separate pieces have been carved and detailed, the painting begins.

Traditionally, either valicchi (a concoction made of various powdered natural ingredients) or dorana thel were used to colour the puppets. The centre of the massive dorana tree, which grows in our rainforests, is carved out and the cavity set fire to. The sap then drips into coconut shells arranged at the bottom of the cavity, and is later treated before used as paint. Different colours and patterns are used to define characteristics of the figure, pink skin always indicating femininity while bold patterns signal either divine or legendary characters.

The pieces of the puppet are now jointed together, and costuming begun. “They’re just like actors” smiles Premin as he opens box after box of polythene-wrapped clothes, “each puppet has many outfits”. Those of royalty are made of orange, black and blue velvet lined with cotton and adorned with pearls, beads and sequins, while greens, purples, chains, jewels and gold and silver thread dazzle the other costumes.

Whenever there is a performance scheduled, Premin spends a number of days before, going through the collection of puppets and costumes, repairing and packing. A good troupe consists of at least 30 puppets he says, describing how after being placed in cloth bags and padded with lots of cloth in between to prevent damage, a lorry is required to move the set.

The puppet stage is made of two sections, the front for the play proper and the elevated back for the hidden artists. Puppeteers bend over the separating screen as they work, leaning their weight on a smooth pole to prevent spine injury as the figures, despite being hollow, are rather large and heavy. Premin treasures a nearly two hundred year-old head-part of one mammoth piece, the face of an aristocrat fitted with the typical moustache made of human hairs, which he believes belonged to a nearly six-foot figure.

“Meka raekaganna, meka kaewa” Premin sighs, pointing first to his belly and then the damaged face-figure, as we speak of art in contemporary Sri Lanka. If there is one thing he regrets, it is how traditional art which has intellectual as well as entertainment value is not appreciated as well as more modern forms, and is simply exploited for financial gain. “We have a tradition of puppetry that has exceeded that of many other countries, but hardly any reception in our own land” he shares regretfully. And this, he believes, is causing the art itself to decline in standards.

Nostalgically he speaks of a time when as a young boy he would tour the country with his father, performing at carnival after carnival for months on end, during school vacations. “I have seen all the masters” he declares proudly, reminiscing the good times of his youth, “but they were masters mostly because they had an audience that enjoyed and critically understood their work, so they were continually challenged”.

Premin yearns to build a similar audience in contemporary society and thereby promote the growth of the number of practitioners, which he believes is currently less than two hundred, because he is thoroughly convinced of the value of this art. “I can’t help but imagine the possibilities”, he speaks animatedly of television, advertising, media and education combined with puppetry. Dreamily he remembers how “once in Kurunegala, my father had to stop in the middle of the ‘Ehelepola’ because the audience was moved to tears and wailing. That is the kind of impact we can create.”

Next Friday, 21 October, Premin will bring his vidhane’s and puja dancers, his stilt-walkers and fire-eaters, his satirists and his historical characters to present Colombo with a performance at the Navarangahala at Royal College, starting 6:30pm. He hopes it will help improve public awareness of, and interest in the art. Premin’s son, fourth-generation artist Indika, too will join him and his company on this trip. He smiles shyly, admitting that he has been playing with his father’s puppets since he was a very young child. Despite his love for the art, the necessity of feeding the little mouths at home has kept him from pursuing it full-time.

Indika’s little four-year-old daughter hurries her grandfather as she expertly helps him fit a puppet twice her size into its cloth bag. She is already on her way to taking up the family legacy. Giggling shyly, she follows the 65 year-old artist from his house, down the narrow gravel path that leads to Pokuna Paara off Elpitiya Road. He gently tells her to go back home, as he is heading to Colombo to finalize plans for the programme, it is immensely important to him. “Naethiwunanam mata vitharai, raekunanam mulu ratatama.”

Jacob–Prince of God

Most of us have seen some version of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber and been inspired by the transformations in the life of the dreamer. We nearly forget though, that the benevolent and jolly old man, Joseph’s father, had his more-than-fair share of drama as a young man too! Known as the deceiver, he tricked those around him countless times to end up in scrape after scrape after scrape. Inspiring as it is, to think that such a man would grow to father a nation, imagine the story coming to life!

‘Jacob, Prince of God’ will do just that next weekend as The Christian Arts Foundation brings the collaboration of experts Jerome L de Silva and Mary Anne David on stage with the production of a musical the kind of which has previously never been seen in Colombo.

The Christian Arts Foundation, better known as CHRAFT (, is now two years old. Ramesh Shantha brought the idea of a school of music and theatre that encouraged Christian ethics to Jerome L de Silva and Mary Anne David in 2009, and was met with total encouragement. “I had always been working with churches and Christian ministries like YFC in my forty-two years of theatre production in this country, but never in a formal way” Jerome, who will soon be celebrating his sixtieth birthday, shares, “and I’ve always wanted to”. So when as he was phasing out of his advertising work and going in to
retirement, “suddenly from the blue, Ramesh called”, he thought, “superb!”

The foundation sees the participation of very young people (their junior-most member turned six just two weeks ago) and some older people as well. “When we started, I said, the age group is five to a hundred and five” Jerome laughs. These participants belong to different church denominations, while
some of the cast and crew are in fact, from other religious backgrounds. The basic principle behind the work at CHRAFT is sharing love and having fun, a philosophy which seems to work extremely well, as enthusiasm, numbers and popularity just seems to be growing!

True to their bid to share love equally, CHRAFT currently participates in the ‘Uthurai Vasanthai’ initiative and has from its inception been conducting workshops in distant and “unfashionable” areas such as Menik Farm. Though for the last two years the organisation has been involved mainly in church-related performances, they are finally going public with this production of ‘Jacob Prince of God’.

“It’s not exactly Broadway, but it’s really big” Jerome promises. A cast of nearly forty people (minus the choir!) will take the stage at the Lionel Wendt from 21 to 23 October starting 7:30pm to portray the story of Israel’s birth. And although the plot stays true to the biblical version, “it’s more a musical
than a bible story”, according to Jerome. “It’s really very funny, and there’s lovely music!” he enthuses, promising “extravagant” lighting and some “sure to be spectacular” moments, declaring the production likely to be “the theatrical event of the year”!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Discovering Music, Discovering Life - Joshua Roman (cellist, TED Fellow)

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“They all thought I was crazy” he laughs, hazel eyes twinkling, as he describes how at six years old he’d tell people he was going to be a concert cellist. Joshua Roman simply “always knew”. It is truly a rare gift to go through one’s formative years with an understanding of where one is called to be once ‘grown up’, when many of us continually change our minds and never decide. “I went through some phases too”, Joshua reminisces with a smile, “I thought, if I broke my arm and I’d never be able to play the cello again, I’d be a fighter pilot, I thought that was cool”.

Joshua grew up in a Christian family of four children (of whom he was the first); all of who received a musical education, although it was only he who decided to pursue classical music professionally. “When I’m home at Christmas we’ll play string quartets together at church or something” he shares, adding in a reluctantly wistful tone that sometimes he wished for more full-time music in the family. “There were times when I’d think “Wow wouldn’t [it] be cool, being up on stage with your little brother or your little sister, really making something powerful”” he intimates. He is quick to add though, that he is glad they are able to still experience music, minus the pressure of being professional musicians.

Of the pressure itself, he does not worry much. Smiling confidently he assures “it’s not the sort that bothers me”. His early (and growing) success in the global classical music arena does not however, make him insensitive to the plight of all artists who simply can’t make the cream of the crop. “It’s not the normal pressure when financial/professional problems are tied up with something you care deeply about. I really love what I do and mostly feel lucky about that.”

So much so that Joshua is secure in the belief that he has never had a second thought about his choice of career and lifestyle. In fact, quite unlike many a performer who relish time off a heavy tour schedule, a week maybe two without having been on stage and he is found “a little grouchy, and off, I get told!” Joshua confides, laughing rather embarrassedly then pushing his thick rimmed glasses up his nose.

His love of exploration has taken the cellist (and of course his – literally – constant companion, the nearly century and a half old instrument) to a variety of places with his music. He shares stories of encountering different cultures and traditions in performance (and the confusions these sometimes cause!), as well as what he calls the “realities of life”.

In December he hopes to make a very special trip to Uganda, with his siblings, one he has already made before to “find deeper ways of making a connection”. He describes their decision to play in the disaster-stricken areas as “a leap of faith by four idealistic young kids who thought they could go and play something and make a difference”. The experience, he says, was “powerful for us”, and believes, altered something in their audiences. The drive to do something socially positive with his talent and available opportunity is evident in Joshua who, in Sri Lanka contributed the proceeds from his performances to the Sunera Foundation whose work he says he is greatly moved by.

His humanistic ventures (as well as and with his musical ones) take Joshua around the globe, but this is not the only reason “explore” is an important part of his vocabulary. The word drops from his lips every once in a while no matter what he speaks of, but it is also important in that he “loves” Sri Lankan curry, orders it wherever he eats in the country and wonders what it will taste like on a hamburger! “My imagination started to go wild” he says, speaking now not of food, but physics, quantum physics and relativity. “It’s an exploration, like music.”

Called a “fearless explorer” in his musical ventures by none other than Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Roman does not limit himself to the classical tradition in which he was trained but takes part in various artistic ventures that aim at a fusion of forms, mediums and cultures. Nevertheless, his firmest belief is in the school of thought that music, being universal as it is, need not be changed in order to be appreciated by different audiences, but that the presentation of different ‘types’ may be adapted to suit the audience. And thus he is often found playing classical music with friends at local pubs and bars in NY where he makes his home. “It’s sad that people try to put a box around classical music” he shares, suggesting rather that performers “invite people to relax and have pop corn and hot dogs while they’re listening to the Beethoven Symphony”.

Joshua Roman (c) The Sunday Times

More to Joshua than being a potential change-maker in his chosen field, the importance of being able to pursue a career that he can remain passionate about is that “when you do the thing that you love [for] a living, there’s freedom, because you really get to say something with your work”. And “say something” he does!

Joshua Roman is the class of musician whose work Sri Lanka rarely gets to hear. What has been called the “heart-stopping beauty” of his performances thrilled audiences from Colombo and Kandy last Monday and Friday; rare pin-drop silences during the recitals bearing testimony. He doesn’t just play the right notes with the right kind-of touch and sensitivity, and that extra bit of musical flair – he speaks to you. He doesn’t just perform Schubert and Bach – the ones you already know and recognize – he plays what they mean to him, and challenges you to understand, reinterpret with him.

It becomes difficult in the intensity of his performance, the weight of his philosophy and the sheer brilliance of his achievements to keep in mind that Joshua Roman is still just discovering (or exploring?) his groundings in life. But his goofy wide grin and sparkling wit are fleeting reminders that the bow is held by a six-year-old boy who, more than twenty years later, people “still think” is crazy to dream.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Of A Man Who 'Sees' No End

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 2: 2-3 (NIV)

These words from the Bible constantly inspired Margaret, mother of Don Patrick Mervin Weerakkody to be positive about her youngest son’s blindness. Though he could perceive light and make out obstacles at birth, his sight deteriorated fast and left Patrick, more popularly known as Wimal completely blind. “It was like her slogan” he chuckles as he recalls his childhood. Margaret and Wimal’s father Johannes, were both educators by profession and so strove to give their youngest an education equal to that which their three older children received. Their home was an environment conducive to learning, and Wimal picked up fast from what his brothers and sisters brought home from school. Their young uncle Juluis Perera, a master violinist and music teacher, created in Wimal his special favourite, an early love of music. And so a genius was put in the making.

In 1954, at nine years of age, Wimal entered the School for the Blind at Ragama, where he gained his elementary education as well as basic musical knowledge, mastering the piano, accordion and violin. These skills equipped him well for his task as a young teenager playing the role of organist and choirmaster at his local church as well as secondary school. He also acquired skills essential for the visually impaired academic – reading Braille script and typewriting – at this school. By the time he entered Christ King College in his hometown Thudalla, Ja-Ela for his secondary education, Wimal was well equipped not only to work on a par with his sighted classmates but even to top his class. He left school in shining glory, having passed the Advanced Level Examination at the very top of the national rank.

“Most of the responses I had from people in my young days were Christian, they were matter of fact about my blindness” reflects Wimal, now Professor. “At university it was different” he shares, describing snide remarks about karma and such. “The fact that I am a Christian has helped me a lot, my outlook is more positive because of that.”

Prof. Wimal Weerakkody. (c) Kalpa Rajapaksha
And this positive outlook he inherited from his mother has helped Wimal Weerakkody achieve amazing feats in life. Going through university and getting a BA and PhD he says, have been his greatest achievements to date. He admits the task was positively difficult since he did not have the convenience of facilities visually impaired students now have as study-aides. “I had to depend on sighted readers” he explains, adding that “the subject was difficult for the average reader and required a high standard of English” and was therefore the task even more trying. Nevertheless he trudged through, and in 1971 obtained his BA with First Class Honours in Classical Languages. Upon receipt of a scholarship he then commenced studies at the University of Hull, obtaining a PhD in Classics in 1977. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, Wimal Weerakkody joined the staff at his alma mater, the University of Peradeniya, and was subsequently made Professor of Classical Languages; a position he held for nearly ten years, until his recent retirement.

Among his academic achievements are translations of famous Greek and Latin texts ‘Phaedo’  and ‘The Republic’ by Plato, Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’, works by Cicero, plays by Plautus and Terence as well as ‘Louise Braille: A Touch of Genius’ by Michael Mellor among many others. He is also a Vadya Visarad, (B.Mus.) of the First Division from Bhathkanda Sangeeth Vidyapeeth, Lucknow, India, and has won many international academic awards and scholarships including those awarded by the Commonwealth as well as SAARC.

Though his academic achievements are great, it is the gentle and compassionate person Prof. Weerakkody is, and the high values that motivate him, which his students and those who have the blessing to know him appreciate most in him. “My inspiration has always been my desire to help other persons with disabilities” he says unassumingly, “I try to acquire skills that help them and then impart it to them.”

He has truly done much more than has been expected of him as a voice of the visually and otherwise impaired, and as Coordinator of his brain-child; the Special Needs Resource Centre (SNRC) at the University of Peradeniya. Every year, Prof. Weerakkody conducts a number of workshops which he hopes will provide the visually impaired with skills for a better life. Although the workshops are geared at educating and providing specialized skills, it’s undeniable that the participants have immense fun in the learning process and go away having made good friends and wonderful memories. Prof. Weerakkody is a genial person by nature and an entertaining and enthralling teacher, and his lectures and teaching session are coloured with jokes and anecdotes which his students find difficult to forget. Among these unforgettable workshops number those on Braille Music notation for teachers and students as well as on special IT skills for the visually impaired, all conducted at the SNRC.

Prof.'s special watch with braille dots to mark the time.
How he clasps his hands together is typical of his patient, unassuming nature.
(c) Kalpa Rajapaksha
“I feel information is primary, that’s why we started the centre” explains Prof. Weerakkody as he describes how he once very informally approached a representative of the World Bank and was able to secure a donation of 50,000 USD for each national university that was willing to utilize it to help the handicapped. Though the fund was allocated for use over two years, Prof. Weerakkody and his staff of unconditionally dedicated volunteers managed to stretch the funds over four years. “Now we have trouble maintaining the centre” Prof. says, explaining that funding is very hard to come by. The centre takes on projects such as the recording of the pansiya panas jataka and school syllabi for grades 9-11, which are funded by organisations such as the Buddha Shasana Madhyasthanaya and the American Embassy. These funds nevertheless, do not provide any backing for the running of the centre or for the undergraduate students the centre is pledged to support.

Prof. Weerakkody believes that Sri Lanka has sufficient resources to provide visually impaired students with a good quality tertiary education, but that “attitude changes are necessary” for the proper allocation of these resources to be made possible. The attitude of the general public towards the handicapped population is also “mixed” he says, adding that despite the fact that “people are sympathetic”, there exist in our culture “age-old prejudices” regarding mental and physical handicaps. Prof. recalls the incident of a fellow undergraduate returning to his room on his way out for an examination, because the blind ‘apala’ student Wimal Weerakkody has stepped onto his path. Such incidents and attitudes are not only sad and embarrassing but also detrimental to the creation of a positive environment for the visually impaired within our country.

But Prof. Weerakkody has not allowed such events to deter him from achieving his goals and dreams. He has overstepped boundaries even unimpaired persons would consider insurmountable, mastering not only the fields of classical languages, philosophy and music, but those also of administration and information technology.

Since retiring a few months back, Prof. Weerakkody has been catching up on what he mischievously calls “outstanding work that lies on my table and my conscience”. He looks forward to completing a Sinhala translation of The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus and quiet hours in his house hidden in the cool hills of Gampola. “I haven’t decided on anything yet” he smiles “I’ll just take things as they come”. Typical, one would feel, of how he has lived so far, grappling with immense obstacles and never faltering in his walk to bring glory his Maker.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review - Rukshan Perera Live in Concert

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Where were you last Sunday night? If it was not the Bishop’s College Auditorium, take a minute now to add that to your list of regrets. Getting ‘Jazzed Up’ with Rukshan Perera live in concert should have been a part of every musician or music-lover’s agenda.

First up is the fact that Colombo rarely sees performances at this level. Rukshan Perera is an immensely accomplished, highly experienced and insanely talented musician. Sunday’s concert brought the cream of Colombo’s performing pop musicians together onstage with a tasteful as well as meaningful repertoire of original compositions and arrangements of popular tunes by Rukshan. Natasha Rathnayake, Voice.Print, the De Lanerolle Brothers and Thriloka are all well known for the quality of the music they produce. Having all these acts together on stage, and more importantly, under Rukshan’s umbrella, made the experience that night truly splendid.

Needless to say, the lights were not bright enough to outshine these well-known stars behind the mics and instruments. What made the evening different from other similar shows these artists perform at was the sensitivity towards music. Vocal and instrumental quality was complemented by a truly rare finesse, a refusal to over-do any one act or the other, and a balance of styles as well as individuality and unity.

Among the numbers that stood out was ‘Nature’s Calling’ featuring Natasha Rathnayake. Not only did the diva do true justice to the evocative song with her broad and sultry voice, she also seemed to be conveying her emotions regarding climate change with a pained look that absolutely refused to leave her face. The question of a wardrobe department did also come up during this number, but that did not hinder it from conveying a dramatic sense of what our environment is suffering.

The next ear-catching number ‘Something Is Happening to Me’ featured another guest act fast becoming uncontrollably popular in Colombo: Voice.Print. The acapella group seemed finally to have overcome their tendency to sing as many different artists rather than one performer, possibly thanks to the amazing delivery of a reverberating bass line by Melantha Perera from Mirage fame. It seems a family thing, the way he and his brother Rukshan go about their music-making: seemingly effortlessly!

‘What Time Is It?’ was a question far from the audience’s mind, the two and a half hours of the show gliding by in what felt like minutes, but Rukshan got at the keyboards nevertheless, to ask it. He used variations on the famous Big-Ben tune as a recurrent motif in this number that really got the crowd laughing and applauding. The confidence he exudes was most obvious in this number as he stopped in the middle of the song to prompt the audience to go “blah blah blah”.

The Colombo Brass Ensemble sensitively accompanied Rukshan as he opened an instrumental medley of popular local folk tunes on his flute. The Mozart Meets India-like performance was one of the many numbers during which Rukshan displayed another of his qualities that’s uncommon among locally established musicians - a true desire to share the lime-light.

Harshan Gallage, drummer for the backing band Thriloka, gave us a short taste of his unmatched skills at the drum-kit during this piece, battled by Dylan Rathnayake on percussion. Eshantha Peiris too shared a few moments of sparkling improvisation with the audience, characteristically gentle yet brilliant, during an "experimental" jam session with Rukshan on guitar and Julius Mitchell from Voice.Print doing his thing.

Official beat-boxer for the acapella act, Julius got the most alone time with his audience - and justifiably so! There are many young aspiring artists out on the Sri Lankan musical horizon doing quite a number of fabulous things with just their vocal apparatus, but Julius Mitchell is probably the only one with a whole dj's console as well as a good collection of popular dance tracks all concentrated in the upper part of his body. Slick, smooth and unassuming, his command of the audience too is quite something to see! Somebody only needs to take him to a club and give him a mic to put most dj's out of business.

Voice.Print (yes, they featured heavily in the programme) returned onstage to back Rukshan up on another memorable performance; the ‘Nursery Rhapsody’ - an arrangement of popular local children's songs in the form of Queen's ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The harmonies were undoubtedly more complex than what they usually do, but the challenge was decently well lived up to. Rukshan's vocal flexibility was made obvious as he kept switching, in this number, from straightforward western-style singing to the sri lankan lilt with ease and no awkward moments, and carrying no trace of an artificial accent (the lede of most western-influenced local vocalists) into the sinhala lyrics - parts of which included ‘Me Gase Boho’ as well as ‘Athuru Mithuru’!

Most of Rukshan’s lyrics (especially those to 'We Are Brothers', his duet with Melantha, composed in memory of his mother, their music teacher) stood out in their remarkable simplicity. They refuses to succumb to pop-culture, discussing unfashionable matters in clear, un-poeticized language. The whole concert was testimony to Rukshan's deep and more importantly, genuine, concern with the world around him - not only in his lyrics but also in the way he highlighted the younger generation of artists onstage, those needing and deserving the exposure.

Among the better-known artists was Mariazelle on backup vocals and Ishan de Lanerolle doing a sensitive and subtle bass-line for a medley of local pop tunes that brought the maalu kaaraya, kammal kaaraya and the kandy lamissi together in Colombo 7! Chris Wickramanayake took to the keyboards to accompany Rukshan on 'Sri Lankan Blues'. The lyrics were a little mashed up in this one, but honestly not grounds for complaint, as the song was simply fabulous. Another memorable piece was an instrumental arrangement of 'Olu Pipila', a testimony to Rukshan's instinctive musical genius. In a nation of musicians infected with the imitation bug, Rukshan stood out as capable of successfully claiming for himself not just any song, but a house-hold favourite - a risky business.

In fact, the whole deal of putting up a show at this level of glamour and musical quality is itself ridden with risk. But the ease with which Rukshan dealt with the tiny glitches that popped up in a nearly spotless show declared to his audience that entertainment is surely not the easy game most people think anyone can play. Sunday night's programhas the potential to redefine show-biz standards for Colombo, and if there was anything missing, it was a more relaxed audience and a Sri Lankan instrument or two. For a musical genius of Rukshan Perera's calibre and inherent talent, this is hardly a challenge!

What the audience and artists experienced that night was more than just good music, bright lights and a packed hall. It was not just Rukshan Perera showing off his skill, some musicians sharing his light or a random collection of people bopping heads. It was the inception of a dialogue that is constantly (only) whispered. If our country can produce artists of real skill and integrity, can it also produce an audience of equally matched commitment? For as they sang at the end, each move we make is part of that 'Journey of Love' we take on this "one land, one land for all".

All photographs taken off Facebook.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review of Nanda Pethiyagoda's 'Emerged'

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Let’s first drop all pretences: very few of us had any taste for History at school. It was all a memorizing of names and dates that meant nothing to us. So when one hears the title of Nanda Pethiyagoda’s research-narrative Emerged: Noteworthy Women from Kandy, the read doesn’t seem too welcome. But the term “don’t judge a book by its cover” (or title rather, in this case) is a good piece of advice to remember here. What the insides hold will really surprise you.

The book is an enjoyable and engrossing read! True, the cover is beautiful but rather dull, the title sounds prosaic and the first few words of the front flap “this researched study” really put one off. But the introduction as well as the first ‘half’ of the book are obviously the result of much thought and personal engagement, and therefore make a really captivating read. Nanda Pethiyagoda talks of serious social (and to a large extent feminist) theory in her informal style, making the whole discussion much easier to digest and something of a light conversation over cups of tea! With what ease she seems to manage the flow is quite amazing, and has the potential to provide an education on the issues she addresses to those not usually inclined to reading such material.

Emerged: Noteworthy Women from Kandy portrays the lives of eight women, “middle class Kandyans of means”, who lived and “emerged” in the time period between 1900 and 1950. In and through these portrayals the author explores the issues of conservatism and patriarchy, attempting to discern “whether the social milieu these emerged women came from was patriarchal” and “to what extent the emerged women were influenced and guided to emerge by their mothers who were conservative and within a patriarchal system”. These academic goals are combined with a genuine interest in telling the stories of these remarkable women, providing the author with a unique style and flow.

Nanda Pethiyagoda is obviously personally very interested in the issues she discusses. Even the introduction to the author on the back flap highlights her interest in “the situation of women” and “particularly those from her place of birth and upbringing – Kandy”. Maybe because of this strongly personal nature of the inquiry, or because of the strength of her interest in the study, the research questions she asks as a point of departure to her narrative, tend either to be biased or to be based on broad assumptions. Though from an academic point of view this may seem a negative, it is this bias and assumption that hold the narrative together and makes it interesting.

The need to qualify the first statement as “the first ‘half’” arises out of the fact that the second ‘half’ doesn’t seem to flow as well. While part I consists of Pethiyagoda’s own thoughts and therefore provides better-organized material for writing, part II is built mainly of quotations from biographees and relatives of biographees, complemented by Pethiyagoda’s comments on these quotations. The juxtaposition of comments against quotes (i.e.: theorisations against stories) is not an easy feat to achieve, and the flow of the writing seems to suffer because of this.

The work Nanda Pethiyagoda sets out to achieve nevertheless, is monumental. It takes rare amounts of bravery to nose-dive into the kind of discussion the author engages in, and much more skill to take the reader along as well, without demanding much or losing him/her along the way. The author’s experience as an academic and prolific writer help her overcome these minor setbacks and make the end result a well-balanced portrayal of the amazing yet un-sung women of Kandy that Nanda Pethiyagoda knows and admires.

Oktave Debut Concert

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Question: what happens when you put some of Sri Lanka’s best voices together, give them some of the most popular and neatly arranged music, back them up with some of the hottest sound technology available and the most sought-after accompanist in the country?

Answer: Oktave and ‘My Tribute’.

Saturday the 4th of June, 2011 saw St. Mary’s Church continue to fill up after the evening mass had been said. Music lovers from around the city packed into the beautiful church to experience the unique yet seasoned sounds of the sweetest new octet to arrive on the music-scene in Colombo: Oktave.

The brain-child of Rajeev Aloysius and Neranjan de Silva, the group has been performing at various functions in and around Colombo for some time now. ‘My Tribute’ was nevertheless the first concert these musicians presented themselves. Peshali Yapa-Aberywardena, Jehan Bastians and Eshantha de Andrado are also among the famous names belonging to the octet, and the audience came full of expectation. Needless to say, these expectations were more than fulfilled that night.

Oktave is different from any other choir in Sri Lanka in that while other such groups consider sound equipment secondary and shy away from electronic amplification, it is an integral part of their setup. The group’s aim is to be good enough to “withstand the scrutiny of individual microphones”. So when Peshali opens the favourite ‘Amazing Grace’ with her confident and sensitive alto, we know they’ve got their dream in the making.

Each of the numbers were arranged by Neranjan himself, specifically for Oktave, and Jehan’s clear, easy tenor perfectly suited their version of Chris Tomlin’s ‘Jesus Messiah’. The gospel feel of the song though, kept calling to the singers for a little more swing and a little broader delivery, the absence of which did not prevent the number being thoroughly enjoyable.

Harin Amirthanathan’s powerful tenor solo succeeded in drawing out the strength of the choir in their rendition of the heart-warming favourite ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. A thrillingly silent moment after “though your dreams be tossed—” was perfectly complemented by the full orchestra at Neranjan’s fingertips.

The delivery of ‘You Raise Me Up’ by Eshantha, despite conveying a feeling of being rushed, was duly mellow and rose to a rich and impressive fullness. The theme of the evening ‘My Tribute’ based on Psalm 30:12 was sung very sensitively by Peshali whose controlled strength of voice gave the choir a good foundation to really open up and sound fifty-strong!

Everyone has heard the ‘Alleluia’ from Shrek performed in so many different ways, and the Oktave rendition of the number was in fact, just another one of those. The blend of voices though, was quite amazing, considering the fact that each of the eight voices was amplified individually by a hand-held microphone, and the fact the singers are all well-seasoned helped render the sound a well-controlled body. Neranjan’s accompaniment again shone through, complementing the choir with its strength as well as variety.

Rajeev brought the evening’s praise to a grand close with a well-controlled and precise rendition of ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ in his deep, full bass. Neranjan’s arrangement allowed the choir to give the audience a peep at the amazing breadth and range they are capable of, bringing the evening to a memorable and regretted end.

Despite the fact that all the numbers they performed were popular favourites among a varied crowd, and ones that have been sung endless times by endless numbers of similar musical groups, the Oktave performance of these numbers was consistently infused with a unique and signature sound. Neranjan’s arrangements, characteristically simple yet evocative, combined with the singers’ maturity of voice as well as their evident passion for music and vocal performance, create a super-blend that leaves the audience yearning for more of their heart-music.

Pecha Kucha Colombo

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What do you say to a thousand people gathered together for an hour of inspiration-intake and passion driven pecha kucha? Inspiration and passion sound good, but pecha-what!?

Pecha-Kucha is the Japanese word for the sound of chit chat and Pecha-Kucha nights are now a world-wide phenomenon. Gatherings of thousands of people in over 100 cities witness presentations in the unique 20x20 format and use these presentations as points of departure for networking and discussion. Colombo will experience Sri Lanka’s first Pecha-Kucha Night, 6pm on July 23 at the Warehouse Project in Maradana. Tickets are priced at a negligible 100/= as the organizers are interested mostly in accessibility.

The first four Pecha-Kucha Nights will take place in Colombo within this year, and depending on “how fast it catches on” the program will hopefully spread to other cities across the island (starting probably with Galle and Jaffna). Organizers are already working closely with undergraduates within the local university system in order to make this dream of branching a reality.

For starters, Pecha-Kucha Night will feature eight hand-picked presenters (designers, artists, photographers etc.) who will stand and describe their work using 20 slides, with 20 seconds on each. The format, developed by Klein Dytham Architecture in Tokyo in 2003, is perfect for giving many people light-space as well as making sure that the audience is not driven to boredom by long harangues. The fact that the main medium is visual is a huge plus-point since it allows people in multi-lingual cultures such as ours to overcome language barriers as they display and discuss their creativity.

Saskia Fernando, team coordinator for Pecha-Kucha Colombo promises that the atmosphere will be relaxed and casual and encourages everyone to just come in “jeans and rubber slippers” and have a good time.

Zsa Zsa Gallery - Shanila de Livera

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At some point or the other we’ve all experienced the trauma of having to sit on someone else’s sofa feeling uncomfortable and not knowing what to do about it except stare at the wall in front. Often enough, the wall carries a garish lampshade or a photograph of someone you’re not very sure you want to be caught staring at for lack of better things to do. So what then?

Tell your host about the Zsa Zsa Gallery.

Fitted snugly into its new home at the creative end of Queen’s Road, Shanila De Livera’s unique venture is set out to take away your wall-blues. “Customers coming into Foto-Design often asked about something different in terms of wall concepts” the proprietess explains. She believes that home-makers are at a loss for wall-décor because of a lack of affordable and convenient options. “Viharamahadevi Park pieces are reasonably priced, but the experience is so overwhelming” Shanila continues, “and at the other end, art studio pieces are really expensive!”

The cogwheels slowly began working with Shanila and she started collecting small art pieces she found in her travels around the country, with the idea of an affordable wall-art concept gallery framing her selections. The concept came to fruition in 2008 and has now just stepped into a new phase at its new location.

Newer pieces at the Zsa Zsa gallery feature light-wood works encompassing a wide range of sizes, colours, styles, moods and techniques. Shanila is bouncy and energetic (pregnant and bounding up and down the staircase!) but still graceful, and her personality comes through in the pieces she designs. Some pieces, like those inspired by coconut palms and other local fauna are two-tone works in thick bold lines that capitalise on contrast for effect. Others, like those made of embossed lily-pads painted or stencilled in pale gold, burnished bronze and dull green, convey a more calm and subdued aura. No two pieces are alike, and one lily-pad piece especially brings across a dark, brooding personality.

Combining the bold and the graceful are the pieces based on trees and creepers. One, against a backdrop of gold fading to black, carries impressions of trees, the branches of which are carved so gracefully and sensitively that one can almost feel the wind blowing through them. Another similar piece is one based on Shanila’s favourite motif – the sandakadapahana. Finely woven lines drawing intricate patterns and thick bold ones displaying flora and fauna appear alternately on dark brown and beige rings, bringing to mind the intricacies of the traditional Sri Lankan moonstone.

Although some of the pieces are machine-crafted, most of the intricate patterns are handcrafted. Most of the pieces take hours upon hours upon days to be completed, and then the craftsmen must spend more, working on accenting and complementing the carvings with different kinds of colours and application techniques. Shanila is careful to visit the craftsmen often and discuss new ideas with them first, in order that the designer and craftsman have a mutual understanding and work together to create a unified concept piece.

Most of the pieces are based on paulownia wood, one of the lightest and softest woods available, and therefore the most suitable for the purpose. While the more dramatic hangings are worked on a single wooden base, many of the larger, more subtle ones are panelled. Shanila promises therefore that there is something at her gallery for everyone – the truth of which fact is easily found out upon stepping into Zsa Zsa gallery. And best of all is the possibility of working with Shanila in order to create just the piece you want for just that wall! The Zsa Zsa gallery also has murals and metal work art and even mirror work – so the next you’re in that situation we talked about, you can even admire yourself to ease the boredom!