Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Dying Race of Gentlemen: Colombo Center for Special Education

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As we hop off the vehicle and walk into the school, twenty-four year old Ajmeer runs up to the door, and pointing to the van mumbles something I can’t quite understand. He has such a broad smile and dance in his eyes that I can’t help but smile back and ask again what he said. And still I can’t understand what he says.

Ajmeen is the newest member of the “boys” at the Colombo Centre for Special Education (CCSE). He has been diagnosed with meningitis, is hyperactive and suffers from seizures from a very young age, but none of that prevents him from being outgoing and friendly, keeping up a running commentary as we tour his school. CCSE is dedicated to providing a safe and positive environment for men with autism, Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy and other mental conditions that affect learning. “Most of them are very sheltered in their homes” explains CEO Charika Muttiah, “and this is one place their parents and caretakers are sure they will be loved and not abused”.

Charika’s designation is fancy, but the work she does is far from that. “I have a very small staff here and I tax them to the maximum” she tells me even as she sits down on a piano-stool to look through a sheaf of papers and put her signature on them. They have hit the bottom of their funds. “We are not secure by any means” is the confession Charika makes to me. CCSE is running on the interest off a few investments they’ve made, she explains, and that is stretched thin every month. Most of the parents and legal guardians of the students pay a fee of “whatever they can”, but the CCSE’s main source of funding is private donations, and these are no more all that forthcoming.

Each year, CCSE engages in a number of fundraisers, the highlight of which is the annual sale of work. Through these events they acquire funds to cover their costs and make a little profit, but according to Charika, nothing substantial that can keep the centre running smoothly. “We are such a small group” she tells me almost regretfully, “even to engage in something like a walk is difficult”. It is not that they lack the spirit, but the practical tools to put ideas to action. Many of the CCSE’s students are already a burden to their families, their siblings, their legal guardians who care for them, and the CCSE is their only source of hope and relief. But the organization itself is now approaching not-so-solid ground.

“Security” is a word that keeps returning ominously to our conversation, and I am struck by the irony of how secure the students seem in this place. Some talk and laugh as they are taught basic math, others silently concentrate on their sewing or craft work. There is an air of peace and contentment that pervades the schoolroom. It is unbelievably calming and refreshing.

The school is in fact an airy house at 80/7 on Layards Road, the main hall and verandah of which have been equipped for teaching math, sewing, art, carpentry, woodwork and other simple skills. The hype these days at CCSE is the Art room. One suspects that this is most often the case, but these days more than ever because ‘Expressions 2012’, an exhibition of art and craft by the students at the centre is kicking off at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery on June 21. The exhibits are set to be revealed at 9:00am by Chief Guest Mrs. Sunethra Bandaranaike at the gallery, which will be open to public until 6:30pm. There are paintings upon paintings in the art room, some done with oil paints, others with acrylic, still more in chalk and pastel, and even a few in mixed media. But the best thing about these paintings is the obvious strength of genuine character that speaks through their forms and colours.

the art room. pic by M. A. Pushpa Kumara.

This is no surprise considering the artists themselves are a lively and interesting bunch. The 28 “boys” as the gentlemen of the institution are called, are between the ages of twenty and sixty-five, and though the CCSE website ( reports fifty percent of them lack an understanding of basic instructions, it is impossible not to admire their focus and patience. And even as they are intent on their work, it is impossible not to enjoy their company as they ask simple questions and delight in the most mundane answers. But for many, the true gift of spending time with them is that of pure love and complete forgiveness. “It is amazing” says art teacher Anusha, who has been working at CCSE for roughly a decade now, “you hurt them, they walk the other way and come back the next minute to kiss and hug you”. Her face exudes a brilliance of calm, and the other teachers I meet, Jean, Sister Agatha, Aunty Irene, are all radiant. The love is tangible.

It seems that the beneficiary-benefactor roles are reversed and that it is the teachers and staff that gain from the presence of the students in their lives. Even a brief visit of just over an hour has left me feeling simply content for the rest of the day. Make time for the exhibition on June 21, have a look at the paintings and tonnes of other nifty craft-work and most importantly, meet the artists. Do this not for their sake, but for your own.

Please check out the CCSE website and don’t hesitate to contact them; any form of volunteerism would be welcome, am sure!

Sunday, May 20, 2012


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His voice is deep and firm, tinged with melancholy and almost at odds with his coarse features and stocky frame. The way his eyes take us in as we step across the threshold, I imagine he must have been a force to reckon with, before he was crippled. Recall Moses Thangarasa.

Close to midnight on 27 March, 2010 the 33-year-old three-wheeler driver found himself hit and then dragged along the railway lines near Meewathura by a night-train. The accident left him with two vertebrae fractured and both legs amputated quite high above the knee. After months of treatment at the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital and therapy at the Center for Handicapped in Kundasale, Moses was finally sent home. But he is hardly comforted.

Moses currently lives in his father’s sister’s small house with her children and grandchildren on a steep incline in Irugalbodiya, off the Mahakande Road. He has crutches and prostheses acquired through the goodwill of his friends and well-wishers, but finds it difficult to use them due to his spine-injury. His existence is confined to the bed beside the living-room window, and the outhouse when his cousin Susantha is home to carry him to the yard. Otherwise he is forced to use a bedpan that his aunt Chandra cleans after him. “She can't even go anywhere” he regrets, “not even to a relatives’ in an emergency. It’s impossible, because of me.”

This is what he hates the most. Moses’ father died when he was only 16, so after O/L at Wimaladharma College in Penideniya, he began working. He was employed as a gardener at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya for some time, then at a garment factory and later as a security guard. “There’s no one thing, miss” he tells me with an open smile, “I’ve worked many jobs”. Finally his father’s younger brother Jayantha bought a three-wheeler and leased it to Moses to run on hire. From the age of twenty-plus, this has been Moses’ steady source of income. Having got used to earning close to 25,000 rupees a month and being able to spend on and support others, to now depend on charity for support is incredibly frustrating.

“If I'd always depended on other people it wouldn't have been this difficult” he continues. Far from wallowing in self-pity though, Moses is industriously looking for ways in which he might overcome his handicap and start working again. He would be happy to engage in any work that can be done without the use of his legs, but admits he is most comfortable hiring his taxi, so is looking for ways to acquire a modified three-wheeler so he may return to the stand.

Susantha, who is Chandra’s son, is also a three-wheeler driver. “We all suffer because Moses is not at the stand anymore” he says. The other drivers at the Galaha Junction, where Moses used to park his vehicle, apparently still discuss that drivers from other parts of Peradeniya wouldn’t come with “chandi part” and occupy their lot if Moses was around; “he is not afraid of such people”.

It is probably the fact that Moses was always there to support and defend his friends that made them all come together, pool their resources and help concrete the small gravel road that leads up to Susantha’s house. “Some gave cement, some gave sand, many came and helped with the work” Moses says quietly, humbled.

The quietness and humility must be new. When he speaks there is that inevitable tone of the patient suffering in Moses’ maimed body, but his eyes light up once in a while with a fierceness and boldness that must have been the source of strength to his friends.

“He never had to borrow money from anyone before” Susantha says as he drives us back down the hill to the main road. Now, Moses is completely dependent on Susantha and Chandra for his survival. Susantha himself earns very little with his taxi, and this income is spread thinly between his mother, three siblings and their families as well as Moses. His younger brother is a bus conductor who though hardly employed, brings home about 2,000 rupees on a good day. Susantha himself is at work from 5am to 9pm. “I have no time left even to spend with my baby” he says, speaking of the whiny little 2-year-old girl that was ogling at us as we chatted with Moses, and wailed to be held by the father as he left with us.

“What to do?” he continues, unable to despise the crippled man for the heavy burden. Susantha is firmly convinced that he must provide for Moses because they are his only family left. Moses’ mother, who is employed in keeping house at a university lecturer’s residence, visits sporadically, but “she doesn’t care much, she never has”, he says. He believes she has been psychologically unstable since her husband’s death over fifteen years ago. Moses thus recognizes and appreciates Susantha’s generosity and only yearns to show his gratitude with some return. But the task is nearly impossible with his limited resources and reduced capabilities. His voice dropped and he looked down to merely mumble as I left that this is what he needs me for, to find him some help.

If anyone has advice or is able to help, he would appreciate a call on 777 182 259 or financial assistance could be made available to the People’s Bank S/A 0572-0014-000-9766.

More than two years of complete dependency on others has probably left Moses an altered man. He must have the kind of hindsight many of us are not blessed (or cursed) to acquire. “I have learnt a lot after this accident, miss” he told me, while his tone said they were not all pleasant lessons. If nothing else, he has learnt humility, which is a difficult lesson for anyone to learn, let alone a strong and hefty man in his early thirties. He simply pleads for help.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

LG’s 50th Anniversary

No matter how little his name is heard these days, even a tiny inclination to western music will have you “knowing” at the mention of Lylie Godridge. Back before choirs and musical ensembles blossomed like mushrooms and a-capella was the fashionable kind of singing to do, he was making musical history in our little island. Now, it is reported, some ask if the LG Singers are from LG at Abans!

“It was a good opportunity for us to learn that humility must go hand in hand with what we do” laughs current choirmaster (and Lylie’s son) Willie Godridge. And far from being an insult to the choir, it seems a testimony to Kalasuri Lylie’s character and integrity as a musician that the LG Singers aren’t a famed choral ensemble.

Even as a young boy, John Lylie Godridge, born March 4, 1928 to a poor family in Kotahena, showed clear signs of musical genius. His beautiful treble earned him scholarships to school and the attention of scores including the then Governor of Ceylon, Sir Andrew Caldecott. Already more than familiar with stage performance and radio air-play, at twenty-three he was made a soloist in the Colombo Philharmonic Choir’s rendition of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew’s Passion’, earning the chance to meet the likes of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten. In 1981 Lylie was commissioned by President Jayawardene to tour the world as Sri Lanka’s Singing Ambassador, and in 1993 honoured with the Kalasuri title. Scores of music lovers remember him for his mellow baritone, others for his skill at all things musical, but despite all his worldly achievements, most remember Lylie Godridge for his jolly, unassuming nature, his humility, and his gentleness.

While any of us would have grabbed the opportunity to make a fortune and rise in society, Lylie Godridge, despite his “star” qualities, remained true to his conviction that as his musical abilities were a gift from God, he must use them as a gift to God. He placed his commitment to Christianity above every kind of achievement, moving further and further away from profit-making ventures. Though to some his choices may have seemed peculiar, to those he inspired, there was no replacement.

The LG Singers (now careful to call themselves the Lylie Godridge Singers!) seem a reflection of the dear old man that started them up and kept them going to his very last days in 1998. And this character that refuses to be affected by ambitiousness and remains simple is what sets the LG Singers apart from (boldly we say) all other vocal ensembles in Sri Lanka.

Willie remembers their heyday when Christmas time alone was packed with upto fifteen performances, and a year’s work probably involved close to thirty nights of singing. From there the LG Singers have come to rare performances made only on request, but their spirit remains the same.

The choir is just heading into its 50th anniversary, and from its birth at 2A Allen Ave., on 15 May 1962, hardly anything has changed, not even the practice/rehearsal (both words are inaccurate, really!) schedule. As many of the “boys” (very much so at heart at least!) put it, they look forward to the weekly session. Whether they are preparing for a performance or not, Tuesday evening 6pm is the “sacred” time “like Sunday mass” as Eshantha de Andrado, member of 25 years, puts it. “It’s like the boys club” laughs Willie, “without the wine and the women”, but plenty of the song.

And the songs themselves have hardly turned over. A special thanksgiving service celebrating the 50th anniversary of the LG Singers will be held on 19 May at St. Paul’s Church on Kinsey Road starting 6pm. Of the nearly twenty spiritual numbers they plan to sing that night, Willie says only two have been added to the repertoire after he took over from “Pater”. ‘Swing Low’, ‘Nobody Knows’ and ‘Let the Heav’n Light’ are among the popular spirituals on the program while those like ‘Rock-a My Soul’, ‘Spiritual Medley’ and ‘Sinner Man’ are the LGs’ favourites, the ones Willie laughs they have “possessed”.

Negro spirituals have always been the LGs’ forte, but over the years they’ve built up a vast repertoire of a-capella numbers ranging from classical to contemporary styles. The LGs staggering commitment to music and to the man behind their music – nearly every Tuesday of the year for fifty years is no small feat! – if nothing else, has taken them places. They have performed in Galle, Jaffna, Batticaloa, many times in Kandy and twice in fact in India. A potential performance in Israel though it never materialized still speaks volumes for the strength of the choir. Through all this, not one of the LGs has ever profited a cent or intended to do so, all proceeds from their performances being donated to charity.

Even as they celebrate their 50th anniversary this year with a thanksgiving service and not a gala performance at a grandiose location, the LG Singers honour their founder’s vision of music as a “gift from God” that must be shared, not made use of. Lasantha Tennekoon, Choirmaster at Trinity College, Kandy has teenage memories of the LGs as “a jolly bunch of people” and Lylie Godridge as a man who understood the “true spirit” of music and simply “wanted music to live on” in people’s lives. And it is probably this joy of sharing that makes the LGs’ meetings absolute stress-free fun.

It would be misleading to imagine though, that since they seem to have so much time for fun, and since as even Shanthilal Perera, who has been with the LGs now for 26 years, “can’t really think of anything that has changed”, that the Lylie Godridge Singers has deteriorated in any way. Paul Bibile was one of the twenty-odd singers first invited to form the group, and remains the only original member who still sings with them. At 79 going on 80, his voice is unbelievably steady and firm, and one is unlikely to find him catching his breath whether he sings or speaks or works one of his two jobs. If he is any indication of the level of vocalist produced and breath and voice control demanded by the LGs, then one cannot help but be impressed.

Funnily enough, not many of the LGs see themselves as musicians, and according to Willie, some of the current members were not even quite sure they were capable singers until they started singing with the choir. This is one of those “things” about a genuine love for music, that while sharing the love and joy of a good listen, one inevitably also shares something of one’s gifts and talents in the capability to produce. It works like love; giving increases the receiver’s ability to give. And so they sing and sing and sing...for themselves undeniably, for God inevitably.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Love Dance

This interview was much unexpected fun!*gloats* at mention in the jubilee souvenir.

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Thaji is lost for words. She can’t begin describing the experience, a dream that “actually happened”. “I was in tears just before I got on stage that night” she tells me, of her first performance at the Joyce Theatre in Manhattan, NY. As part of the Chitrasena Dance Company, it was Thaji Dias’ great privilege to be on stage at ‘Samhara: The Braid’, an international dance collaboration that premiered this February in India and then toured internationally to flattering reviews.

For six straight nights, Thaji presented Kandyan Dance with Mithilani Munasingha to a sold out audience glittering with famed dancers and choreographers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris. Dancing alongside them were renowned Odissi performers Surupa Sen and others of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. If you’re familiar with the two dance forms, I reckon you’re incredulous. If you’re not, let me explain.

Marina Harss of ‘DanceTabs’ magazine writes: “Kandyan dance is more vertical, Odissi is all curves; the first is dynamic and muscular, the second fluid, ever-shifting, difficult to pin down; one is more athletic, the other more theatrical and poetic. The contrasts are endless.” So despite a common South-Asian heritage as well as a shared performance ethic, the two forms are vastly different in their delivery, if not in the basics, then (to this untrained mind) in the level of human perception they attract attention from.

No one thought it was possible. According to Heshma Wignaraja, choreographer at the Chitrasena Dance Company, neither company is inclined to producing “fusion or whatever you call it”, and the only reason ‘Samhara’ was possible was because both companies functioned within a framework of “complete respect” for the other’s form. The production is hardly a performance gimmick and is more a labour of love and learning.

“If my aunt was here, she would jump to tell you it’s the love they have for each other” Thaji laughs as Heshma mischievously tells me how the collaboration was a result of the strong friendship between two world-class dancers Surupa Sen and our own Upeka Chitrasena. Yup, it’s largely a family affair. Thaji and Heshma are in fact, first cousins, granddaughters to Chitrasena and Vajira. It seems that these strong personal bonds between the artists and the mutual admiration and respect are what finally carried the production through to its success.

From July to October of 2011, Heshma and Thaji travelled often to India, spending two-and-a-half weeks at a time at the Nrityagram Dance Village in Bangalore. From their description of it, only an intense love of art and perfection could have kept them going through the gruelling twelve-hour work-days of conceptualization and rehearsal that ultimately resulted in a satisfactory union of the forms. The name ‘Samhara’ (which means “gathering” among other things) as well as the tag ‘The Braid’ are symbolic of this “union”.

In case we are being misleading though, Heshma is very particular that they were never interested in producing a “fusion” of Kandyan and Odissi. ‘Samhara’ is in effect a dialogue, not a chorus. And the dialogue takes place in two vastly different ‘languages’. The issue for artists set off on such a venture is far greater than that for those set to fuse languages, because bilingual dialogue is also concerned with the problem of staying “true” to each “language” and still being intelligible via the other, to avoid disjointedness.

And unquestionably, the learning experience has called Heshma as choreographer for the Kandyan dancers to push the boundaries of the tradition into which she was born and bred. She is excited about the possibilities though keenly aware of the sensitivities of such experimentation. Even during the conceptualization of ‘Samhara’ she spent days in thought with Thaji and their aunt Upeka, weighing the implications, within the tradition of Kandyan dance, of the “movements” and “phrases” they composed.

Despite the long and arduous process though, both are unhesitant in declaring that the time, energy and mental and physical exhaustion were fully worth it. “We loved every moment of it!” Heshma declares, gazing knowingly at Thaji who smiles back with an asserting nod. The cousins often share smiles and giggles like youngsters, as though they are in disbelief of the dream they have lived. Working with Surupa Sen and performing at the Joyce Theatre has evidently been a life and ethic altering experience for them. “The whole production says a lot about Surupa” Heshma says admiringly, “because she doesn't flaunt herself or her achievements, she is simple and true”.

Far from a collaborative “performance” by the Chitrasena Company and Nrityagram Ensemble at the Lionel Wendt, what I expect ‘Samhara’ will offer on the nights of 12 and 13 May from 7pm onwards will be a sharing of joy and of a new discovery. Not a jarring and forceful mix but a sublime dialogue of love.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


An Integrated Health, Natural, Engineering, Social and Management Sciences Approach to Development Practice.

One thing about education in Sri Lanka is that most of us don’t know why we study what we study. It’s not really education for edification, but qualification; for that extra certificate to push you that extra bit higher in the corporate ladder. Most often, the problem is that what we learn really has nothing to do with the life we live or the society we live in. This is where the Masters of Development Practice (MDP) offered at the University of Peradeniya is different.

The purpose of the program is to address the lack of critical linkages between the natural, social and health sciences and management that program developers saw in other development-related post-graduate courses offered in Sri Lanka. What the instructors want the MDP graduates to take away is not just a piece of paper and lots of theory by rote, but a working knowledge of what development theory looks like in real life and how to address the core issues of development.

Students will not only be able to undertake projects that require an integrated perspective and effectively lead multidisciplinary teams; but also learn use up-to-date spatial analysis and data analysis methods and tools; design, monitor and evaluate projects while paying attention to sustainability, economic, environmental and social aspects; and develop integrated policy solutions that are scientifically, politically and contextually grounded.

Obviously, this is not work for the faint-hearted. “Their standards are very high” shares MDP student Samantha Lindsay, 44 year-old External Relations Officer at Asian Development Bank. She juggles a demanding job in Colombo during the week with this “challenging” course at Peradeniya over the weekend, but is “very happy” with the outcome. Samantha is “sceptical” of graduate courses that blossom daily and chose the MDP at Peradeniya because she believes she can “trust” the government universities.

Kaushalya Kathireson, 24, just rounding up her first semester in the program, also feels the work is tough. She works as a copywriter for JWT, but her extensive interest in development and volunteerism gives her the passion to pursue the course with enthusiasm, despite the high demands. “It’s not discipline-specific, but a holistic approach to coming up with solutions” she explains. Kaushalya likes having a “global” curriculum not only because it gives her the opportunity to compare that with the local development situation, but also because it pushes her to “go deeper” into the issue of development practice as a whole.

The global perspective of the course is facilitated partly by support of the MacArthur foundation ( – “supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world”) and is solidified in the Global Classroom: a cross-border, interactive web-based course hosted in New York by Columbia University. The program thus links up students, practitioners, scholars, leaders and communities in over 20 MDP programs in 16 countries, making it internationally well-recognized.

Leoma van Dort, 25, applicant to the MDP and Research Assistant at the University of Peradeniya is excited about the doors the course will open up for her, and the possibilities of studying abroad through exchange programs. Development has been a passion with her, and she looks forward to gaining the kind of practical knowledge that will make her valuable to society and potential employers.

The 2-year course that has been developed by academics from across the eight faculties of the University of Peradeniya as well others, includes a 3-month internship in a leading development practice organization including program partners FECT, CEPA, Gemidiriya, Mahaweli Authoriya, Practical Action (South Asia), Malidives Ministry of Environment, UNDP, Ministry of Disaster Management and SLT Manpower Solutions. It not only gives its students access to the teaching and learning resources of the best-endowed university in Sri Lanka but also to those of other institutions from within the country, as well as from overseas. These include Data Analysis and GIS computer labs and audio-visual equipped classrooms.

While all this makes the program sound nicely packaged and just another post-grad program, what makes the difference is the genuine interest all concerned parties take in the learning and teaching experience. Behind the curriculum are passionate teachers reputed for their sincerity and in the classroom, students who are seriously committed and enthusiastic. The kind of environment in which one might in fact, acquire an education.


  • · 2-year course
  • · 3 months internship
  • · 68 credits
  • · Classes on weekends and public holidays at the University of Peradeniya
  • · English medium


  • · Undergraduate degree (or equivalent) or a diploma with relevant work experience
  • · English language proficiency

More info:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Born to Write: Samantha Modder

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“I was born to write

You may not like what I have to say

Or the way that it is said

You may not think that it's the best

Thing you've ever read

But I was born to write

When emotions find the way

To be still in time and space

When hours pass and I feel alive

As each word falls into place

I know I was born to write…”

(Born to Write)

Samantha doesn’t know how or why she started writing; she’s simply always been doing it (her parents have poetry she wrote when she was four years old – when most of us were probably not sure how to spell anything!). “If you find something interesting you just write about it” she says simply, seemingly confused as to why anyone would be interested.

But then, it’s not every day that a nearly-17-year-old publishes her second collection of poetry. And not just any old collection of rhymes either. Though In a Head Like Mine features poems from when she was between 10 and 14, there’s quite some depth of thought in the works. ‘You From Where?’ and ‘Jesus, My Shooting Star’ for example deal with serious issues that are personally very important to Samantha: identity and Christianity. “I try to put a little bit of humour in it, but [Christianity] is a big part of who I am, so I’m not gonna joke about it” she tells me, matter-of-fact.

But more often than not, there’s lots of humour in what she writes. She pokes fun at her not-so-tech-savvy mum, her super-spy brother, her friends, and just picks up little things (homework, dust-balls, vegetables, cockroaches!) from everyday events, adds lots of wit and sarcasm, whips it together with tonnes of imaginative insanities and puts together a delightful concoction of unbelievably good poetry.

Samantha's cover illustration for her new collection

And then she illustrates them too! Samantha’s second love (after writing) is drawing, a flair for which she loves to show off. “That’s something I’m not embarrassed about” she laughs, explaining that since she simply draws images, and not what she feels, she’s not as self-conscious about her painting as her poetry. “The reason why this book took so long to come out was that I really didn’t wanna publish it” she admits, “I write for me, and if you read the stuff I write, then you know a lot about me, it’s very personal”.

She begins, in a mocking, super-flowery accent describing how her parents have “always been very supportive” (they have the kind of relationship that leaves no room for false emotion but plenty for good laughs) but gets serious with a truth she took “a long time” to realize. “I recognize the importance of not being ashamed of what you have”. Publishing has helped her share and assert the strength she receives from knowing that “this is what I do, and it’s good”.

How she switches modes, from playful to serious, confused to confident, reveals not only what seems an instinctive desire to “capture” and highlight moments (as she does with her poems) but also her love of treading the boards. “I love to act!” she smiles, a tad regretful though, that she doesn’t have more opportunity to do so. Now, we’re starting to think she’s one of those “perfect” girls from out of a movie. She has smooth but striking features and a slender figure, tops most of her classes, wins prizes, writes, acts, draws, sings a little, plays a little sports, and everyone seems to love her. But Samantha Modder defies the box I’ve arranged for her. “We got kicked out of here (the quiet little tea-shop where we’re having our highly animated and giggle-punctuated conversation) once for playing Uno” she tells me quietly, grinning broadly, “cus we were banging our hands down on the tables really loud and stuff”.

more pot than poet!

The story, in fact, is not all that difficult to believe. There is a persistent glint in young Miss Modder’s eyes that sparkle as they roam the area, seizing things up, and I learn, she is not fond of jewellery, heels, party dresses or shopping. She will most definitely not be stereotyped.


It’s quite likely that it is this quietly rebellious streak in her that makes Samantha’s writing so surprisingly mature and well-controlled, allowing her to see and represent the irregularities in everyday situations. “So this is what it feels like/To be alive” she writes at 13 years old, in ‘I Watched the Ball’, unexpectedly sensitive to the unintentionally marginalized, the true writer’s sensibility. These moments of what her father calls “thoughtful, creative calm” were not so frequent in her earlier works on aliens, haunted houses and panthers drinking Fanta, as they are now. The passion and intensity of a few more years added to her age are starting now to show on her notebook of scribbles and doodles;

“There's a pain deep inside me

That never goes away

It sits and hides quietly


For the moment, for the word

That will make it come

Gushing out

In hot salty tears

And tiny little gasps

Of air as I try to breathe…”


“Love?” we wonder aloud, to which the sweet-sixteen laughs. “I've never been in love, and I haven't imagined myself in love, AND I think that most people who think they're in love aren't really in love... So!” you really can’t expect her to be how you expect, or to feel uncomfortable that she is not what you expect, because in her own words;

in a more pensive mood“…right now, right here, this very place

I know what I must do

Sculpt these words and form these lines

'Cause I was born to write

For you.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Walk and Talk: Galle with Channa Daswatte

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Sure, the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) is about books. Not Really. For a lot of people, especially those who’ve been attending the festival over a number of years, GLF is about discovery. Discovery not only of new authors and new books and new things about old authors and old books, but also ideas, people, perspectives. What GLF does is create the kind of atmosphere conducive to discussion, and if you’ve ever been to GLF you will know that Galle Fort has a huge role to play in that. You will know it best, if you’ve been on an ‘Excursion’ through the quaint old place with Channa Daswatte.

“I think it was simply because [this] is such a beautiful place” Channa says of the thinking behind the first GLF Excursion. This full-day outing which was part of the GLF schedule took participants all the way from Galle to Tangalle bay beach over nine hours, and thus seemed “untenable” a second time around. So it was decided that the second (2008) GLF Excursion would be a walk around the Fort. “Of course by then I had already done quite a few projects in the Fort, so I had access to a few of the houses and people knew me so I could just walk up and say ‘Can I walk into your house?’ and they would say ‘Yes that's fine’” he continues the story “And that's what we did.”

In what comes across as a characteristically carefree vein he jokes that by 2010 “they (GLF) decided they’d had enough of me walking”. So that year’s GLF excursion was, in fact, not a literal one but a figurative one which took the form of an audio-visual presentation ‘A Room of Their Own’ (ringing quite aptly of Forster!) by Channa Daswatte – a look, he says, at architects’ houses. And though 2011 saw an enthusiastic return of the walk around the Galle Fort, by the time GLF plans for 2012 were being discussed, Channa confides, the thought of another walk was “really, really boring, for me”.

So together with Jetwing, GLF organized what the architect (The Architect!) calls “a sort-of part-tour of the suburbs of Galle”, looking at the variety of influences on architecture “a stone’s throw” from the Fort. The sites Channa chose for this year’s tour, he says, embody “how people began to decorate their buildings taking fashion cues from other religions, other cultures” and in these borrowings “created a very beautiful architecture”. This sort of mixing and borrowing, he says (albeit hesitantly), is still common, although it happens with “a lot of bad taste”. What he sees as a problem in contemporary Sri Lankan architecture is that “there is no specific style that seems to be prevalent”. Seemingly regretful, he continues that “that's what comes of a democracy, when everyone has their opinion. I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but, most great architecture arises out of power and dictatorship”. Timeless wonders such as St. Peter’s Tomb and the Sistine Chapel, he points out, arose out of the Pope’s supremacy.

One reason for the popularity of the GLF Excursions is becoming clear. Channa Daswatte has tonnes of ideas to share, and be these on governance, identity, ambition or history, their figurative foundations lie in literal buildings. Plus he is articulate and witty, in a quiet sort of way. He seems to enjoy himself on the tours. “It has truly been good fun for the last six years, and I don't know whether they'll ask me next year, they may not!” he laughs. But the fact that the excursion tickets sell out “minutes” after they’re issued should clear all doubt. Not only is the tour entertaining, it is also informative in a way that tourist guide-books and Wikipedia simply are not.

One of the sites on this year’s excursion (and probably one of the most desired boutique hotels in the world!), The Dutch House, dates all the way back to 1730. What Channa is interested in bringing to our notice though, is how as far back as the 18th century, the “classic” Palladian plan (stylistic bent named after Venetian architect Andrea Palladio who drew inspiration from classical temples) is fused with patterns from the typical “Sri Lankan Sinhalese houses” to create something unique. A little later, around 1820, is built a similar house that was recently complemented by what Channa calls “tropical modernist style” additions to the garden by architect Kerry Hill, resulting in “[an] old house surrounded by these very beautiful, contemporary constructions”. The highlight for him though, is “a beautiful old temple”. It is “on the inside, a Sinhalese temple with the Buddha and all the paintings and so on of the southern school”, Channa describes, “but on the outside it's entirely decorated with the baroque, which you find in the Dutch-reformed church!” Another example of such unexpected similarity, he shares excitedly, is St. Mary’s Cathedral and the mosque just opposite the road from it, both with towers on either side, framing a similar main structure. But while the architect is seeing form, the inner child has begun to hear the tale of “how these things begin to work”.

Channa Daswatte is no architect or designer. He is a storyteller. “I can see myself retiring in some lovely old house somewhere, and telling stories to people” he smiles and, on second thought, laughs. “Every time I take people on this walk I try to tell a slightly different story”. So the theme of each tour is different, and “even if someone comes for all the tours, they're not doing the same tour”. Even when he is working on a new design, Channa is making stories. Of his latest project he says “it’s in Beruwela so it's got something to do with the Muslim culture that's there”. The story then, is about “how that gets integrated into the building – and suddenly there's a huge oculus in the middle of the building - oh, that's where the dome was, which collapsed into a garden and -” one can’t help but be caught up in the images he deftly conjures up in one mad flow. It is somewhat amusing but at the same time incredibly inspiring. “I try to live that story” he explains, adding that whether visitors to the building see his story for the place or not, “there's still something interesting that comes out of [it] - at least [for] myself”. But, “if that translates and is readable, to someone who comes in the building, then that's fantastic”.

Ultimately, he says, his work is “very openly eclectic”. He picks “different strands and threads” from different “cultures of understanding architecture” and puts them together, “enjoying how they relate and interact with each other.” He believes that the fact of there being “no identifiable style” to his work is a result of his philosophy on life as a celebration of diversity.

“I think we might not have so many problems if we accept each other for absolutely who we are” he says, simply. The Galle Fort too, he believes, we ought to see in the same way “absolutely for what it is...this wonderful mix of architecture[s] and culture[s]”. True Channa has special memories of Galle from his childhood holidays to his times as a student of, and understudy to Geoffrey Bawa, but what really draws him to the place is this fusion, what he likes to call the “mongrelism”, of the place. “We always call it the Dutch Fort when it’s really not the Dutch Fort. There’s very little ‘Dutch’ left of it. And to start with, it was built by the Portuguese, so it’s really the Portuguese Fort, of Galle – or wait, is it the British Fort!?” This confusion, this “wonderful, wonderful” mix of different periods and cultures he believes is what gives the old place “an architecture that is so rich” and its own special magic.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mama in her Kitchen

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Yeah, we’re still on about Galle. But it’s impossible to make a trip down that way without dropping in at Mama’s. In a matter of months, Mama’s Cafe on Leyn Bahn Street in the Fort developed a flattering international reputation for its rice-and-curry. What sets it apart from tonnes of other similar places is the simple fact that there is no food like home-cooked food, because at Mama’s, it’s really Mama who cooks.

Malini Perera, in her simple skirt-and-blouse, is the shyest when I tell her everyone seems to just love her polos curry. She laughs quietly, because she doesn’t know how she “became” such a good cook, “I guess it’s something I’ve brought from birth”. What’s special about her cooking, she thinks, might be the spice. She buys the raw ingredients from the market and spends dear time washing, cleaning, drying and pounding it to the right consistency. The mix, she puts together intuitively and bottles for the next few weeks, sending some to her daughter’s store down the next street.

Her chicken and polos curries get special blends of curry powder prepared for them, but the other curries on the buffet line-up get the usual amu paha, turmeric, maldive fish, chillies, garlic, rampe, karapincha etc. They’re still so special because everything falls from Mama’s own hand, and as our mothers and grandmothers know, there is so much more in the hand that cooks than in the ingredients themselves. “I want everything right” she smiles, “the taste, the aroma, and I also need the food to look good” But it must be Malini’s simple generosity that makes her cooking irresistible – in her typically “Mama” way, she is not happy to let me leave without having eaten something, asking every few minutes whether I’ll not have some lunch, or “something small”, or even a drink from their extensive menu.

Mama’s Cafe serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, full course meals, snacks, and drinks and takes special pride in their Coconut Flang. To get to the food though, one must needs walk up the quaintest little wooden staircase that curls tightly upwards, past the guest rooms and little reading nooks to the rooftop. Wide windows, soft light, sea breeze and a view above the Fort rooftops to the sea... perfect for a chilled out meal in the heat of the midday sun.

Quietly managing the bustle of the place is Malini’s husband Jerome; the man behind the name “Mama’s”. Malini giggles shyly as she relates the story of how during the planning stages, Jerome would constantly be sharing his ideas with her. “He loves me so much, really” she smiles, “that every five minutes it was ‘Mama, mama, mama’” as he shared every little part of the plan with her “that’s just the way he is”. And so when it came to naming the restaurant/guest house, there were no two questions about it, Mama’s it was.

Malini and Jerome’s younger daughter, Dinesha, helps with the accounts it seems, and where the great food and comfy atmosphere come from is becoming obvious. It feels ridiculous to call the staff that wait the tables “waiters” because they are smiling away and genuinely happy to be serving you, as if it’s a simply matter of passing a dish down the table. It’s a simple case of having stepped into the Perera’s home to pay a visit and grab a bite.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Music, Heart, Home: Tanya Ekanayaka

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If you think accomplishment in an unlikely combination of linguistics and music performance together with model-material looks, grace, candour and humility sprinkled with a few funny facts like ambidextrousness and synaesthesia is impossible in one person; Google Tanya Ekanayaka. She’s got it all.

Her mother being a piano teacher and father an amateur violinist, it must have been the inevitable that Tanya started piano lessons as young as five years old. But unlike for most of us, playing the piano – performing – was not just another extra-curricular activity for her, but the development of a relationship. “As performers we all go through stages when as much as you love to play and as important it is, you need to be away from it... Then you sort of run back and there's a greater need and so much intensity!” she explains, the questioning look in her eyes swiftly replaced by a distinct sparkle. It is probably this intimate relationship she has with the act of playing the piano itself that makes her performances so fluid, a seeming conversation between herself and the instrument. “I never stopped playing” we are emphatically told, “but there was a lull... God forbid a day when I can’t access a piano!”

Tanya doesn’t play the piano simply because she is phenomenally good at it or because she likes it, but in her own words, because she has to. “I need it” she tells me intently “it sounds almost selfish to say that, but yeah...” Seemingly paradoxical for a linguist, Tanya believes she does not express herself all that much through language in the common sense. “It’s through my compositions that most of me is reflected” is the explanation. Those “most personal, intense, traumatic” experiences of Tanya’s life translate to her music and not her verbal expression, she says, claiming that certain original compositions of hers can be correlated to specific personal experiences. “[This] is why I can’t let go... It’s pure love; pure passion and drive.”

But as “essential [a] part of life” as music is to her, Tanya knew, and her parents recognized, that “from a practical point of view, it’s a very risky thing to make a career out of music – especially in this country”. And so, along came academia. Tanya’s father was professor at the University of Peradeniya, and thus she grew up on the campus premises, constantly exposed to the “academic” kind of atmosphere of the place. Not a surprise then, that she was admitted to the English Honours programme at the university in 1999.

“Linguistics took hold of me” she says, almost amazed by it herself. There is an unexpected bounce and care-freeness in the slight frame and flyaway hair as we chat on her veranda that contrasts completely with the obvious strength of her expressive hands and the intense involvement evident in her piano playing. And so with laughter and sparkly eyes is narrated the experience of undergraduate studies with well-known linguist Thiru Kandiah. “I was very fortunate, he really inspired me” she enthuses. Unable to give up her first love, yet falling headlong into her academic interests, Tanya began at this stage to fuse language studies with music. Her undergraduate thesis was focussed on a combination of the two, and earned her a place on the staff at the Department of English at Peradeniya soon after graduation.

“Oh, it was lovely!” she says of her first experiences as a lecturer, adding with laughter that she learnt more during this time “‘cus they just put you in the deep end”. But it was “fabulous” she says to sit with Prof. Kandiah and have “long, long discussions about everything”. In 2007 Tanya was offered a scholarship to read for an MSc in linguistics at the University of Edinburg. She has just finished writing her PhD thesis at Edinburgh, again bringing music and linguistics together in a study of language mixing in Sri Lankan pop-music.

Tanya has also continued to teach in the linguistics and music departments at Edinburgh and it was while practicing on a piano at the department that she was heard by a more senior member of the staff and “quite by accident” launched into an international career in music performance. Her performances gained Tanya the reputation that finally led her to the highlight of her career so far: becoming the first Sri Lankan to play in the ‘Pianists of the World’ series at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 2010. “It was a huge honour” she says quietly, humbly. The performance also marked the first occasion on which one of her compositions was part of the programme, as well as the first time a Sri Lankan composition was presented at that famed site. Since then, each of her concerts has featured an original composition (most of these – some found on YouTube – based on Sri Lankan tunes from her childhood). And these concerts too, have been many.

Despite these treasured achievements, Tanya’s heart was set on returning to Sri Lanka and her teaching position at the University of Peradeniya. And though she seems to deeply regret being unable to make it a reality yet, “I am determined to return” she says, of the future. “I miss a lot” she explains, so quiet and hesitant now. “I miss...the feeling of being home, because this is where my roots are.” She hopes that she will soon be able to perform in Sri Lanka, hinting that concerts with the SOSL will probably be in her agenda for the near future, once she has completed a series of performances at “prestigious” venues in New York.

“I've always felt that in Sri Lanka people are very very fond of music”, she laughs that it’s a silly thing to say. “There's a real interest, even though there is – ironically – very little scope for someone to make a career out of it. People want to sing and talk about music in a very uninhibited sort of way... and I think that's wonderful. And I think that is why there is a lot of talent here. It is sad though, that this whole classical music "business" is restricted to a certain class of people.” Tanya believes that if the musical sphere were to be opened up and broadened out, out of that would come the new sounds of our generation. “Of course it is inevitable that a lot of confused sounds will be emerging out of that endeavour, but that is natural, and you absolutely need it. Look at Bach and Beethoven – that's what they did. They messed around with what was there before them, and made it their own and did something new – and it was new pop music at the time!”

As we talk music, linguistics, technology, boys, food, infection, philosophy and pop culture, the conversation keeps returning to what Tanya fondly and emotively calls “my home”. With her education, her experience, her stunning looks, her achievements and fame, one expects Dr. (yes, Doctor!) Tanya Ekanayaka to be overbearing and bowl one over. But in the few hours of chatting, we learn the opposite. Far from losing herself in who she is, the slim girl with the dainty step is still very much aware of where she comes from, and the simplicity of her character driven by two things: love of music and love of home.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nature Trails at Chaaya Wild

3A339269Nature Trails, the professional body of naturalists at Chaaya Wild, are much more serious about nature than just safaris and camping out in the jungle. They’re taking time to observe the villages surrounding the Yala conservation as well as their wilder friends in order to better understand the relations between the two and prevent potential problems. According to Chitral Jayatilake, Assistant Vice President of the John Keells Group as well as Head of Eco Tourism and Special Projects, leopard territory issues may become a problem for cattle farmers in the area. Having observed the issues chena farmers in the north-central province and surrounding areas have had with elephants in the recent past, and the level to which clashes have escalated, Chitral and his team are determined to prevent similar occurrences from taking place at Yala.

As young leopards grow into adulthood and begin marking their own territory, the space available at Yala begins to be insufficient and the junior members of this elegant yet fearful species are being forced to encroach into human property, using penned cattle for prey. With the help of foreign experts as well as our own wild-life enthusiasts, the Nature Trails team have embarked on Project Leopard. What they are slowly but steadily achieving is the availability of strong steel pens in which the farmers can house their cattle for the night, in the assurance that leopards will not be able to break into these as they do with the traditional pens.

Chaaya Wild is also serious about their waste management, recycling waste water and encouraging guests to take their garbage back to the city. “One or two of them, in fact, do take it back” Chitral shares proudly. He recognizes though, that better than guests to the property, it is the locals that are in a position to positively impact the conservation environment. “There are farmers and there are forest conservers” Chitral explains, “and most of the time there are clashes between the two groups. If they worked together instead, their work would be so much more effective.” Instead of just theorizing, Nature Trails is working. They conduct regular awareness workshops at local schools, in the hope that they will encourage the next generation to take a holistic approach to nature conservation seriously.

Nature Trails is also working with the drivers on the conservation, to give them guide skills as well. “We’re trying to build the driver-guide concept, get them vehicles, diesel etc. and educate them so they can provide better service to their customers and thereby earn a better pay”. This way, they hope, the drivers too will become more interested in the long-term impact they have on their environment, rather than just the short-term financial income.

“Sometimes the villagers misunderstand” Chitral shares regretfully, “but we have to be committed and we have to be strong.” He himself spends most of his time away from his family in Colombo, working to uplift the state of wild-life tourism in the whole island and set new standards. “These two years” he says with passionate determination, he is dedicating his life to the leopard.

A Night to Remember: Bob Fitts


The best word to describe the evening of Monday, November 7 is probably “blessed”, or better yet, “blessing”. Audiences generally walk out of an auditorium either disappointed or so pleased they don’t want to leave, but if nobody asked for an encore once Bob Fitts left the stage that night, it wasn’t disappointment in the experience. Most responses were “awesome” or “amazing” and the less hyper-enthusiastic ones were “good” and “nice”, not with that look of “I can’t really say anything rude can I?” but of wide-eyed radiance.

Bob Fitts claims a musical career of over four decades, and a repertoire that has been made popular through performances around the world from the United States to the Middle East and Asia. He is nearly a senior citizen, but the energy Fitts demonstrates in front of the congregation, jumping up and down, strumming his guitar and singing, you’d think he is still just a teenager rocking his ego. Unlike most musicians and artists though, who thrive on as well as give life to their audience by calling attention to themselves, Bob continuously leads the gathering to focus on the meaning of the music. The simplicity of his approach to what he does is further testified to in the lack of a fancy entourage, despite his status as a well-known and popularly emulated musician. Accompanying him on stage were just his wife and a backup band made up of amateur musicians from different parts of Colombo and the suburbs.

The two and a half hour programme featured a good repertoire of over twenty songs ranging from gentle, meaningful classics like ‘Blessed Assurance’ by Fanny Crosby to exuberant contemporary numbers such as Hillsong’s ‘Mighty to Save’. There were the poignant moments of prayerful meditation and the light funny ones too. “I never thought there’d be a worship song with the word intoxicated in it” he laughed, “but here it is!” launching into ‘You Are Worthy’. ‘Glory, Glory Lord’ he sang in English, Spanish, Hawaiian, Sinhala, Tamil and even “Ostraailian”! Although the repertoire didn’t call for display of a wide vocal range, the fluidity of Bob Fitts’ delivery was unmistakable, as was its gentleness and sensitivity. Added to the child-like smile that continuously adorns his face, it steadily becomes impossible not to be infected with his optimism and joy.

The freeness of his performance was more obvious in contrast with the relatively tensed nature of the CHRAFT choir that took the stage before Fitts. For a group of amateurs though, the choir boasted good strength and roundness of sound as well as a number of very good voices that stood out in the solos and full upper notes. A particularly enjoyable arrangement of ‘He is the Rock’ set the group more at ease, and one wished they focused more during the other numbers as well, on conveying the meaning of what they sang and enjoying themselves than putting up a grand performance.

Singing heartily along with Fitts and the choir was a 5000 strong congregation from different backgrounds, packed in the main auditorium at Calvary Church, Kirulapone. It was a rare and unique event that brought together people from a multitude of racial, ethnic, economic and linguistic backgrounds together with one heart and mind. “Say to those who are broken-hearted / Do not lose your faith... He will come and save you!” they all sang, hands held across the theatre and raised to the sky, echoing Bishop of Colombo Rev. Cangasabey’s prayer for our people as “one nation” to “receive healing”. It was an unexpected and meaningful moment, and true to Bob Fitts’ words, the evening was “more than just a concert”. If you missed it, what you missed was so much more than a musical show, what you missed was time to come together in all the diversity our society has to boast and take away a likeminded unity in hope.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


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Many of Peradeniya’s graduates from the 50’s and 60’s look back nostalgically past the serene surroundings and grand structures of the famed campus to the glory of her academic achievements, the brilliance of the intellectuals it produced, and most importantly the simple inspiration of its atmosphere. Those moments of genius, the hours of passionate discourse and the joy of intellectual stimulation seem to have all but disappeared from what used to be the home of the Social Science and Humanities departments of the University of Ceylon, but for two days last week, some of that clarity in the air of its heyday seemed revived. Intellectuals from around the globe gathered on the premises of the Faculty of Arts to mix, mingle, discuss and debate ‘Social Sciences and Humanities in 21st Century Sri Lanka’ at the first International Conference on the Social Sciences and the Humanities (ICSSH).

The main theme under which presentations were made over the two days was “Knowledge Society, or Knowledge for Society”, a reflection of the fact that the ICSSH, as according to organizing Chair Prof. C. Wickramagamage, hopes to “reinstate the human subject” to the centre of the knowledge production process, which she believes has in fact come to “marginalize the human subject in whose name knowledge generation is, or ought to be, undertaken”. The academics at the Faculty of Arts, “far from being abstract thinkers living in ivory towers, are interested in knowing how best to deal with social problems and issues that are the inevitable outcomes, unfortunately, of the advances made in sciences, economic development and technology”, Dean Prof. A. Abhayaratne asserts. The inauguration of such an event as ICSSH, which the Vice Chancellor of the University Prof. S.B.S. Abayakoon hopes will be become an annual fixture in the faculty’s calendar, marks the fact that “the Arts Faculty is ready to face the challenges to its academic domain as well as to navigate the faculty in new directions”.

What these challenges are, is no secret, as recent FUTA and Students’ Union action has brought problems within the tertiary education system of Sri Lanka, even momentarily, to the fore of national attention. But the conference was concerned with much more than just the issues of education in Sri Lanka, and with the presentation of approximately 60 papers, brought under its broader theme those including ‘Knowledge, Equity and Development’, ‘Governance, Rights and the Discourse of Development’, ‘Transforming and Transformative Education’, ‘Revisionist Representations – History, Arts, the Media’, ‘Conflict, Mediation, Security and Human Well-Being’, ‘The Environment, Business and Entrepreneurship’ and ‘Sri Lanka: In the Region and In the World’. Presentations on topics ranging from women, empowerment, industries, environment, human-animal conflict, MDG’s for 2015, public accountability, post-conflict development, the psychology of education, kandyan dance, literary criticism, ethics, IT, globalisation, identity and even Facebook opened up debates and discussions that flowed from the sessions into tea breaks and lunch buffets.

Many of the presenters were positive they would come back for the next series of sessions, adding that discussions following their presentation were enlightening and encouraging. “On the whole, the sessions were informative and interesting and some of the papers were quite thought-provoking” shared Crystal Baines, an undergraduate at the university, “but the real treat was the opportunity to hear some distinguished scholars and great thinkers of our times share their ideas”. “It was amazing how even if the topics of the keynote addresses were not of particular interest to you, the ideas were so lucid and well-put that sitting through the 45-minute lecture was a pleasure!” another student, Samitha Senanayake enthused. True enough, if the key-note speakers were not commended with enthusiastic applause, they were followed out by a stream of participants and fellow speakers with questions, comments or bones to pick! – A sure sign of the audience’s serious engagement.

First of these distinguished speakers was President, Pugwash Conferences for Science and World Affairs and Deputy Chairman, Governing Board of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Jayantha Dhanapala. His provocative speech on ‘The Formulation of Foreign Policy in Independent Sri Lanka’ placed the topic in the sphere of a “legitimate public concern”, questioning Sri Lanka’s response, to “shirk or rise to the challenge” of fixing its international relations.

‘Is there a Future for the Social Sciences and Humanities?’ Gishan Dissanaike, Adam Smith Professor of Corporate Governance at the University of Cambridge asked, in his address. “The harsh reality [is] that no university should have to say their students are unemployable” he said, pointing to the problem of tax-run universities producing a majority of graduates in what are generally considered non-income-generating fields of study. He drove home, with wit and fact, the idea that Sri Lankan departments of Social Sciences and Humanities need to begin focussing on quality over quantity.

A trend for voicing honest opinion whether it be to the distaste of those gathered was thus set in the first day of the conference, testimony to the integrity of the academics gathered at the event. Following suit, or simply heeding the alma mater of her memory, Emeritus Professor of Law Savithri Goonesekere addressed the conference on ‘Imagination, Thought and Development’ in order to set some more people at their unease. Tracing the development of Sri Lankan universities and their decline in the recent past to badly formulated education/linguistic/recruitment policies she stressed “the realities have not changed... the quest for applied knowledge undermines the relevance of imagination, thought and reflection”. “Have our failures... impacted to perpetuate intolerance and violence that has been generated on campuses?” she asked of her fellow academics and teachers, “should we transform the guru-gola relationships that we often see today in hierarchical terms of an empowered teacher and a disempowered student, to the ‘Guttila Kavya’ model of a talented student who challenges the teacher?” As one might expect, this was one address that struck home with the attending undergraduates! From tertiary education to the focus on employment-driven degrees, Prof. Goonesekere addressed the issues of “sustainability” in development, and the attitude changes required to bring about such development.

Avid blogger Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan who is more (or less?) significantly Senior Consultant Social Anthropologist for the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies took a slightly different approach to his keynote address on ‘Politics, Ethics and the Human Sciences’. Wittily he drew on Althusser, Foucalt and enlightenment trends in “scientific inquiry”, in order to bring to light the political implications of disciplinary practice, questioning the construction of the relationship between student and subject. In the light of such heavily philosophical discussion, Prof. Priyan Dias from the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Moratuwa, made during the final panel discussion on ‘Priorities for Higher Education in 21st Century Sri Lanka: Natural Sciences and Technology versus Social Sciences and Humanities’, the important yet seemingly disregarded observation that “the humanist project as we see it, even as I see it, is an elitist one”. And as Nishan de Mel, Executive Director, Verite Research, concluded his take on the panel discussion, “the humanities is not about humanising, but about making sense of the complexities of being human”.

Many questions were raised at the conference, not only on the themes under discussion, but also on issues such as funding to facilitate such discussion, which is, unquestionably a problem. But the one that seemed to nag the most was whether this was really a Knowledge Society or Knowledge for Society. If, as the Chair pointed out at the inauguration of the conference proceedings, the human must be returned to the centre of knowledge production, and if knowledge is to be produced for society, then what are the knowledge producers  doing to translate and transcribe that knowledge for society? And maybe within Peradeniya’s halls of education there still dwells a spirit capable of inspiring transformation, but even if the academic in his “ivory tower” is driven to search for this knowledge for society, we absolutely must also stop to ask: is society for knowledge?