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.