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.