by Srilal Miththapala
Vil Uyana, the iconic award-winning, luxurious boutique hotel, set amidst purpose built wetlands and thriving natural environment, celebrated its 15th anniversary of operations last week. And what better anniversary gift than to have their resident crocodile ‘Villy’ produce a brood of hatchlings almost to the day, for the first time ever. The mother and 16 babies (up to now) are reportedly doing fine.
The story of Villy the crocodile, and Vil Uyana the hotel, are both most interesting.
Vil Uyana was the brainchild of Jet Wing Chairman Hiran Cooray, who conceptualised it around the London Wetlands Centre. A barren patch of land in Sigiriya was carefully nurtured and developed into a wetland and thriving eco system of its own. Part of the area was reforested, and another section developed for paddy cultivation, using traditional methods.
Twenty-five individual luxurious chalets were built initially, spread over the property. Over time, a range of fauna were attracted to the salubrious natural environment of the hotel premises.
According to the hotel, after operations commenced, mammal species have increased from 12 to 27, birds from 29 to 151, butterflies from 24 to 51, and amphibians and reptiles from three to 39.
The first northern Grey Slender Loris, an elusive nocturnal primate, was glimpsed in a forest patch at the resort in 2010. Prompt action by Jet Wing’s management saw development plans for the forest patch shelved, and the area comprising rich vegetation was declared as Jet Wing Vil Uyana’s Loris Conservation site. Today it has become world famous for its Loris conservation efforts. (that’s another story of its own ! )
The hotel went on to win several local and international awards, particularly for its design which incorporated the environment. Today it is arguably Sri Lanka’s most well-known luxury nature-boutique hotel.
Villy the crocodile
I first set eyes on Villy around 2007 when I stayed in the hotel with my family. We christened her ‘Villy’ at that time. Since then I have followed her ‘progress’, dropping in to the hotel whenever I was travelling in the area. She was a mugger or marsh crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and must have been about 3-4 years old at that time, and was about 2.5 feet ( about 3/4 meters) long. We saw her basking in the sun at the further end of the pool, and she was the cynosure of all the resident tourists. (actually none of us were really aware of her sex until last week. So now that we know, I will refer to her as ‘her’ !)
How and when she arrived at the hotel is rather vague, but Ms Sunela Jayawardene, the architect of the hotel, recalls sighting her during the construction time as a very young juvenile. So this indicates that she’s been around the hotel, and made it her home for about 17 years. Assuming that she was around 2 1/2 years when first sighted, I would estimate that she’s about 19-20 years now. In all her 17 + years at the hotel, there has never been any altercation with guests or staff, although she has been sighted quite close, and out in the open, several times.
There is an interesting incident on record when during the early days the Dept. of Wild and Conservation ‘raided’ the hotel on the suspicion that the hotel was keeping a tame crocodile in the premises. Inspection revealed the truth, that the crocodile had taken up residence in the hotel premises on its own accord, and that the hotel had not done anything to encourage it. It was obvious that the environment had become so ‘natural’, that wild animals were being attracted to it.
On a few occasions Villy has gone on a ‘walk about’ and had been missing for a few days from the hotel premises. Usually during periods of drought, crocodiles travel overland in search of water holes. But in the hotel premises there was always adequate water and food ( fish in the water bodies). So Villy has been contented to live in the hotel premises, by and large without causing any problems to anyone, except for such short ‘excursions’ occasionally .
There are records of at least four other crocodiles making periodic visits to the hotel premises during the dry season and making it their temporary home.
And obviously one of these ‘visitors’ must have turned suitor to Villy, culminating in her becoming a mother for the first time.
(most of the following is based on discussions I had with Chaminda Jayasekara, Experiential Manager of the hotel )
Over two months ago Chaminda had noticed some strange behaviour from Villy. She was found digging the soil by the road side just a few meters away from the restaurant. And on one occasion she had very uncharacteristically hissed at him when he was walking along the road.
A few days later he had noticed that she had dug up a small area, and covered it up with soil. So when she was not around, he had carefully removed the top soil and found a clutch of eggs buried there. Thrilled with the discovery, he had quickly replaced the soil over the ‘nest’. Subsequently the hotel staff had noticed Villy spending long periods at the nest, obviously guarding it.
Chaminda told me that he was surprised that she had chosen that particular spot, only about five metres away from the restaurant, right by the side of a road that was often used by guests and staff. We both surmised that maybe she trusted the hotel (her home for almost two decades) and humans, and felt more confident to nest closer to humans.
The hotel had noticed that there were stray dogs and land monitors who were trying to raid the nest. So, a security guard was instructed to check on the nest every hour around the clock ! ( a typical response one would expect from this hotel, which places such a great value on conservation of nature and the environment). The nest area was also cordoned off with a wire netting, leaving access for Villy to enter from the side.
About 70 days later, ( the typical incubation period of crocodiles being about 80 days) Villy had started digging the nest and exposing the eggs. Chaminda and his team could hear the babies making chirping noises inside the eggs, as they started breaking out of their shells. Villy very delicately carried the new born hatchlings in her mouth, to the edge of the bund, closer to the water’s edge.
Some were finding it difficult to break open their shells, and those she gently broke open with her mouth. Chaminda tells me it was amazing to see such a massive animal with such powerful jaws, being so gentle. (a crocodiles can slam its jaws shut with a force of some 3,700 pounds per square inch (psi), or 16,460 newton’s of bite force. By contrast, you might tear into a steak with 150 to 200 psi (890 newton’s). Hyenas, lions, and tigers generate around 1,000 psi (4,450 newton’s).
Interestingly, Chaminda told me that on finding one egg rotten and smelling, Villy had eaten the whole egg immediately. She would eat up all the shells and the remains of the placenta. Perhaps to remove all residual smell which may attract predators.
By late morning all the hatchlings were closer to the bank near the water, basking in the sun, while the ever vigilant mother kept a close eye over them.
As of writing, there are 16 hatchlings alive and well. The team is not sure whether there are any more eggs remaining to hatch.
The challenge would be to now protect the hatchlings from numerous predators. Granted that within the hotel premises such threats would be less than in the wild. In the wild the survival rate is very low. ( around 20%). And I am sure that the Vil Uyana team will zealously safeguard the family.
Chaminda and I discussed what would happen when eventually the hotel will have a large crocodile population to deal with! I guess nature will take its course. Demand on limited resources will put pressure on individuals, who will then move off to find other locations.
Meanwhile, as the hatchlings slowly grow up, I am sure the Jet Wing and Vil Uyana team will have great happiness and a sense of achievement. This is certainly further confirmation that the fruits of their efforts have succeeded in creating a thriving natural oasis of an ecosystem, amidst a star class hotel development.
(Photographs courtesy of Chaminda Jayasekara)
Beyond the fiction of Alborada
By Sarath Chandrajeewa
“No matter how much a work of art is sweet, if it hides the truth and disregards humanity it can only be equalled to a beautiful but empty shell that attracts us.” (L.E. Kerbel – Russian Sculptor)
‘Alborada’ is the Spanish word for ‘the dawn’. In 1984, a music group was born in Peru, South America by the same name and they gained immense popularity. Their music mainly spread among people in North and South America. Their music’s foundation was the traditional music of Native Americans who lived in the Andes mountain range (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTD2VDcxvNc). Likewise, in 2005 a soap opera by the same name was broadcast in Mexico, North America, which became very popular. This story was based on a series of events that took place during the historical period when Panama and Mexico were on the verge of gaining freedom from Spain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iM5s_d1vls).
In 2021 Asoka Handagama made a film in Sri Lanka by the same name, Alborada. The protagonist of this film is Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), the Chilean Consul in Ceylon for two years, from 1929 to 1931. He was very young, only 25, when he was appointed to this post. Ceylon was a colony at the time and he was lodged at No. 56, 42nd street, Wellawatte, Colombo 6, a place close to the sea. He had written down his reminiscences, in his own language, in book form. Later it was translated into English and published under the title ‘Memoirs’. According to this book, he had referred to his house as ‘My solitary bungalow’. It is said that the name Alborada was proposed by Pablo Neruda for the house of his friend, Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944), who had lived at Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7.
Wendt too was fluent in several languages including English, Spanish and some other European languages. It is apparent, from documents and events that took place at that time, that his house, Alborada, had not been a lonely or tranquil place. It is clear that house Alborada was always full of people, such as painters, dancers, actors, photographers as well as pianists and those who enjoyed music. It was more like a cultural centre where discussions, art critiques and debates took place. (L.C. Van Geyzel, et al. . ‘Lionel Wendt: A Centennial tribute’. Lionel Wendt memorial fund; Sampath Bandara. . Lionel Wendt Kalava Saha Jeevithaya, Sarasavi Publication. [Sinhala]).
Though Handagama’s film was titled Alborada, the actual location, where incidents mentioned took place, was the Solitary Bungalow, the Chilean Consul’s official residence (Jamie James. . ‘Pablo Neruda’s life as a struggling Poet in Sri Lanka: A young poet’s Adventures in the Foreign Service’. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/pablo-nerudas-life-as-a-struggling-poet-in-sri-lanka/). In the 20th Century Sri Lankan context, Alborada was a distinguished active cultural centre. As a Sri Lankan cultural symbol, it directly connects with the character of Lionel Wendt. The creator of a work of art has the total freedom to create his work as he pleases and also to choose whatever name for the particular work. Handagama’s Alborada is similar to a poem, set to inspiring music. It includes a series of artistic figure compositions and features a number of skilled performing artistes. The trailer of Handagama’s film gave me some ideas.
When creating a work of art based on historical events, rather than myth and imaginary incidents, its trustworthiness depends on the people who faced the incident, the actual incidents, exact places, time period and the political and cultural background. Consequently, thorough research is necessary to identify accurate works based on historical incidents. It is difficult to rectify myths or false assumptions ingrained in society by unreliable books, documents, magazines or films. People will always embrace falsity, deception and myth, over the truth. Our culture as well as other cultures are replete with many such examples.
‘Alborada’ is the name of Lionel Wendt’s house. It is important as it is the house of a great Sri Lankan cultural icon of the last century. It is also important as Alborada was the name given to the renowned cultural centre of modern history, in Sri Lanka. It is from this place that art activities in our country were taken to the international arena. Alborada was situated at No. 18 old Guildford Crescent. Today this street is called Premasiri Kemadasa Mawatha. Six years after his demise, in 1950 his friend Harold Peiris (1905-1981) demolished his old house, Alborada, and built a gallery and a performing arts centre (Lionel Wendt Art Gallery and Theatre) to commemorate him. It was designed by painter Geoffrey Beling (1907 – 1992), Principal Art Inspector, Department of Education, and Bernard G. Thornley (Manel Fonseka. . ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).
When Lionel Wendt was alive, renowned upcountry master dancers, Amunugama Suramba and Nittawela Ukkuwa used to lodge at Alborada with their troupes, when they visited Colombo (Dancer Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, daughter of Master Dancer Suramba, Personal communication, 2017).
A documentary movie ‘Song of Ceylon’, directed by Basil Wright in 1934, was placed first at the Brussels International film festival in 1935. The creative segments of the movie were organized at Alborada. Manel Fonseka reported in an article, ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’ in 1994, that in an interview with Julia Margaret Cameron, Basil Wright had said this about Lionel Wendt; “I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived. I should place him among the six best I’ve come across”.
As a result of discussions held at Alborada, master dancers Nittawela Ukkuwa and Amunugama Suramba were taken to England for a recording of drum beats, for the movie ‘Song of Ceylon’. This trip was sponsored by painter Harry Peiris (1904-1988). A dance school was established to develop up-country dance, in Gunnepana, Sirimalwatte, Kandy in the 1920s for Master Suramba, as a result of discussions held among a group led by Wendt and George Keyt (1901-1993). This troupe, which included the group of up-country dancers, Ukkuwa, Nittawela Gunaya, Punchi Gura and Sri Jayana Rajapakse, was later upgraded as the ‘Dance Ensemble of Central Lanka’. Jayana’s coming of age ceremony, inclusive of his ‘Ves ceremony’, held at the Degaldoruwa Rajamaha Viharaya, Kandy, in 1939, and Jayana’s dance training in India later, were all sponsored by Wendt (Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, Personal communication, 2017).
The first art inspector appointed to Sri Lanka, during the colonial era, was Charles Freegrove Winzer (1886-1940), an Englishman. He became close friends with Wendt, during his tenure in Sri Lanka. In the early years, Winzer and Wendt both wrote reviews on exhibitions of George Keyt, Justin Peiris Deraniyagala (1903-1967) and Geoffrey Beling. Wendt also translated Neruda’s art reviews from Spanish to English and published them (Manel Fonseka.
. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).
The first avant-garde art movement in Sri Lanka, the ’43 Group’, was born under the leadership of Winzer and Wendt. The 43 Group consisted of Wendt (Chief Organizer), painters Harry Peiris (Chief Secretary), George Keyt, J.W.G Beling, Richard Gabriel (1924-2016), Ivan Peiris (1921-1988), Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, George Claessen (1909-1999), Aubrey Collette (1920-1992) and L.T.P Manjusri (1902-1982). The meetings of the 43 group were held at Alborada until Wendt’s death.
Afterwards the meetings were held at the house of Harry Peiris, Sapumal Foundation, Barnes Place (Sarath Chandrajeewa. . ‘Modern Art in Sri Lanka and its socio-political environment’, Artful resistance: contemporary Art from Sri Lanka, ZKF publishers. Germany).
As mentioned above, Pablo Neruda was only 25 when he was in Sri Lanka as the Chilean Ambassador (1929-1931). At 29, Wendt was four years older. In his book ‘Memoirs’, translated from Spanish into English by Hardie St. Martin, published by Penguin, Neruda had written thus about Wendt, on page 93.
“Little by little the impenetrable crust began to crack open and I struck up a few good friendships. At the same time, I discovered the younger generation, steeped in colonialist culture, who talked only about books just out in England. I found out that the pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.
Lionel Wendt, who owned an extensive library and received all the latest books from England, got into the extravagant and generous habit of every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books. Thus, for some time, I read kilometers of English novels, among them the first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in Florence” (Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, translated from Spanish by Hardie St. Martin . Penguin Books).
To be continued
Politics at its most primitive
By Uditha Devapriya
Review of Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell
Sarasavi Publications, 2021, 118 pages, Rs. 300
Half-way into Shaveen Bandaranayake’s novel, the Minister at the heart of the story tells us that the wealth he earned was people, not money. This is what politicians usually say. In the very least, it is what people who dislike politicians imagine they say.
Come to think of it, both amount to the same thing: we’ve turned politicians into objects of hate so much that we’ve come to love them for being who we think they are. Since we can’t control them in real life, we want to dominate them in popular fiction. The number of plays and films that poke fun at Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Ministers testify to how badly we want to be, not like them, but above them.
I am deeply suspicious of satire of that sort. In his excellent review of Pusswedilla, Hafeel Farisz tells us why political parody ends up serving the people and objects being parodied. This is not rocket science. At its best, political satire can move us to anger, disenchantment, and rebellion. At its worst, it can lull us into a sense of complacency with things as they are and as they seem. Farisz seemed to think that Pusswedilla epitomised the latter, reinforcing cultural stereotypes while offering no proper critique of the political establishment and the ruling class. I suppose you can say the same thing of Vijaya Nandasiri’s comedies: at his best, he makes us aware of the corruption of the political class; at his worst, he turns the corrupt into objects of love-hate, full of tropes and clichés but nothing substantive.
Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell reads as a political satire, though I have my doubts. Interweaving different stories and unfolding like a film, it goes back and forth. I won’t call its ending funny, but then how can any novel involving politics end on a funny note?
What Bandaranayake does in his story, short as it is, is to tell us that nothing good can come out of a system mired as much in corruption as in patronage. Since these people are tied to each other through politics, politics can prove to be their undoing. The way he forays into this theme and explores it, without regurgitating the usual political clichés, puts the novel at a notch or two above what you come across at, say, the Lionel Wendt. Without conforming to crude stereotypes, he attempts to humanise his characters, showing us why connections matter in politics, and why they don’t always work out.
The plot is simple enough. A woman comes across a corpse of a man at the foot of a hill one fine morning. She informs the police. By the looks of it, he seems to have lost his grip and fallen to his death. The story then rewinds to a political rally at that most obtrusive site of political rallies, a temple, where we are introduced to Sarath Aluwihare, a Minister trying to win his next election. We are also introduced to Sunil, a young man endeavouring to land a job. Events will unfold in a way that will bring the two of them together.
We are told that Sarath hails from a family of politicians, and that this family has been in politics for over two generations. The surname tells us as much. Sunil, on the other hand, is so unobtrusive that Shaveen doesn’t grant him the privilege of a surname, which, after all, is the preserve of those who matter. Like other village youths lacking employment and in dire search of a patron from the ruling class, Sunil clearly is not important; even when he finds a job as Aluwihare’s driver, his status rises, but not so much as to protect him from the novel’s ending. He is as destined to his place in life as Aluwihare is to his.
There are other characters though, and they have surnames. There is the head priest of the temple, for instance, an unabashed admirer of Aluwihare who uses him to achieve his not so religious purposes. Then there is Dileepa Jayanetti, who rises “from rags to riches” and ends up becoming the owner of the country’s biggest media house. Dileepa finds his way up by befriending the daughter of another prominent politician, who introduces him to Aluwihare, who in turn becomes his biggest benefactor. You sense the pattern here.
Halfway through the story, Dileepa hires Lasantha Muthukumarana, a journalist who tries to stick to the tenets of his trade. Dileepa does this because he thinks that by hiring the honest, he can keep them from being honest. For someone who is so bright and manipulative, this is far from the most brilliant decision he could have taken: a few pages later, Muthukumarana is investigating a hit-and-run incident which may be connected to Aluwihare.
In Bandaranayake’s world, everyone seems to know everyone else. That is why it comes to no surprise that the man run down by a vehicle in the middle of the night should have been married to a woman Aluwihare just happened to hire at his Ministry, and that she should be rumoured to have formed the object of Aluwihare’s affections. That Lasantha thought for a moment that a news report linking all this to a prominent Minister would make it in a paper linked to and blessed by that Minister is, of course, intriguing. But he tries to get it published it anyway. When the predictable opprobrium follows and he finds he can’t get it in, the story moves to its inevitable and in many ways unsurprising conclusion.
In saying all this, I am by no means revealing the plot. In fact, surprising as it may seem, the plot is what least interests me about Bandaranayake’s novel. This is a narrative I have come across many times, in many forms. Bandaranayake takes great pains to make it all relevant to the immediate political situation, i.e. the one we are in, now. Those who manage to draw links between his characters and their “real-life counterparts” should, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that he has attempted political critique masquerading as satire. My interest in it, then, has less to do with the novel than the genre it belongs to.
If Groundswell can be called a satire, it is satirical only to the extent that his characters are caricatures. Yet, as I implied earlier, it is not a satire in the way that a work like Pusswedilla is. The characters fit into preconceived and familiar patterns, but that doesn’t make them the clichéd tropes they turn into elsewhere. These characters are more rounded, certainly more complex. Sarath Aluwihare, for instance, does not possess the overstuffed tummy his counterparts from countless parodies do, while Sunil doesn’t become a Renfield type figure hell bent on catering to his “Master.” Even though Bandaranayake can be facetious, and is pugnacious, he refuses to dabble in the kind of satirical humour which could have turned his story into a Vijaya Nandasiri style parody of politics in Sri Lanka.
Depending on how you view it, this may be the strongest point or the biggest weakness in Bandaranayake’s novel. Groundswell makes several important points, and they should be considered pertinent whether they be couched the language of satire or of serious political critique. The medium is hardly the message, contrary to what people might say, and the way you communicate your ideas should not really impact the importance of those ideas.
And yet, there are one or two episodes which reveal Bandaranayake’s funny side. It is here that the disjuncture between the satirical undertones and the ponderous overtones of the narrative, and the author’s voice, proves fatal to the development of the story.
Bandaranayake is at his best when he is setting up situations, and these situations are, all things considered, effective in setting up the plot. He tries to create atmosphere, and does a good job of laying the context. But when each and every point is prefaced by laboriously long explanations of social phenomena, such as the separation between temple and State in Sri Lanka, or the wretched fate encountered by a million or so menial workers in West Asia, you struggle to distinguish between the narrative and the commentary.
For local readers, these explanations will at best be passé. I suspect they will be for foreign readers as well. Groundswell is a novel, or more correctly a novella, which could have been shorter, tighter, and more effective without them. Not surprisingly, the story gains strength when Bandaranayake cuts to the chase, and loses track when he does not.
I have read this kind of story many times before. What makes this one interesting is that it is Bandaranayake’s first attempt at fiction, and that, for a first attempt, it’s damn good. Even within its limits, he has come up with something enjoyable. That I enjoyed the book, and of course the brilliant illustrations that more than just decorate it*, is why I wish it were leaner, shorter, and tighter. Less can be more. More often than not, it is.
* With one exception: the eighth drawing depicts a scene that, if you think about it carefully, is at odds with the text on the opposite page.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Thirty two little ballerinas win awards at TBSC’s 2021 prize giving
Text and pictures by
PRIYAN DE SILVA
Thirty two little ballerinas were presented with certificates of achievements and awards at the 2021 prize giving of The Ballet school of Colombo (TBSC) held recently.
Directors of TBSC Tara Cooke and Romina Gyi said that they were extremely proud of the achievements of their charges and thanked the students and parents for their dedication in attending classes diligently despite the trying conditions.
Certificates of achievement were awarded in the baby ballet, junior ballet and intermediate ballet categories to students who excelled in pre-classical and pre-jazz ballet.
Debbie McRitchie, International Director of the Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (to which TBSC is affiliated), in her congratulatory message thanked the parents for investing in their childrens dance education and the teachers of TBSC for preparing the candidates. She said that dance is like life and is a journey but not a destination and encouraged all stakeholders to work harder.
The prize giving was a proud moment for both students and parents as it was a parent who presented the certificates of achievement to their child. Five-year-old Shenaya de Alwis Samarasinghe was the youngest candidate at the prize giving, passing with honours in pre-classical ballet.
The Ballet School of Colombo was the former ‘Oosha Garten Sschool of Ballet’ pioneered by the late Kalasuri Oosha Saravanamuttu-Wijesinghe and was instituted as the ‘The Ballet School of Colombo’ in 2016.
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