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BRIGHT STARS OF COLOMBO CHETTY COMMUNITY

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by ECB Wijesinghe

I am beholden to my friend, Mervyn Casie Chetty, lawyer, poet, wit and reigning king of the Colombo Chetty community, for the fund of information he gave about Dr. Philip Sebastian Brito, one of the medical giants of a bygone era. His portrait showing a massive head, broad shoulders and sparkling eyes still adorns the walls of the Medical College.

The Brito family was famous even at the turn of this century and double-barrelled names like Brito-Muttunayagam and Brito-Babapulle testify to their pride in a distinguished ancestry. Old Dr. Brito-Babapulle’s name was a household word in Grandpas. Besides being a good doctor he was a humorist and even compiled a book of jokes. He paid the penalty for his reputation for making witty speeches by being invited to speak at every important public dinner and festive occasion.

Ultimately his digestion was affected and he went through life with a chronic gastric complaint. Which of course, was no joke. When I married, Dr. Babapulle gave us a wall-clock as a wedding present. One day when I was not feeling too well the clock stopped mysteriously and I thought my end had come. But to my dismay I soon learned that the dear old doctor had passed away instead. If he had known of my apprehensions I am certain he would have had a long, last laugh. Dr. Babapulle is no more, but the clock is still ticking.

Mervyn Casie Chetty is wrong when he says that it is mainly medical blood that runs through the Brito family. I was in school with the last of Dr. P.S. Brito’s sons, who rejoiced in the name of Andrew Theophilus Philip Gurunather Brito. His teachers called him Andrew. His mother called him Theo and his intimate friends liked to call him Gurunather.

Gurunather is an attorney-at-law now practising in Jaffna, but is better known as an astronomer of the first magnitude. Do not be surprised if, one of these days more lustre is added to a famous name by Gurunather, who spends half the night gazing at the stars. One may yet look forward to some celestial object swimming into his ken which, willy-nilly will have to be called Brito’s Comet. When that happens the Brito name will be immortal and the Casie Chettys, Savundranayagams, Aserappas, Ondaatjies, Muttukumarus, Chittys, Perumals,Anandappas, Fernandopulles, Candappas, Alleses, Pullenayagams, Christie-Davids, Rozairos, Rodrigopulles, Murugupulles and all the other collaterals will be able to bask in the reflected glory.

The Colombo Chetty community, incidentally, is an ancient tribe that migrated to this country from South India. They should not be confused with the Natukottai Chettiars, who are mainly money-lenders. One community is as different from the other as chalk is from Dutch Edam cheese. Legend has it that one of the three kings from the Orient who went to worship Christ in Bethlehem was a Colombo Chetty. His name, I believe was Casper. Though Herod wanted him to come up and see him some time after the Bethlehem visit, Casper, being a Wise Man, took a devious route and landed in Sri Lanka, where he lived happily ever afterwards.

It is not correct to say that the Caspersz family in Ceylon has anything to do with Wise Man Casper’s connections with our lovely land. In Kotahena where I spent my boyhood years, it is well known that you cannot throw a stone without hitting a couple of Colombo Chetties. As a clan they are easy-going and are fond of food and music, to say nothing of a little alcohol. Their choir at New Chetty Street compares favourably with any of the philharmonic varieties. Most of them bear Tamil names, but by nature they have greater affinities with the Sinhalese. They celebrate the feasts of St. Anne at Wattala and Welisara with greater eclat than Christmas. The mortality among the porcine population is heavy during these festivals, as they believe in the popular theory that fatty foods are easily digested when they are washed down with large quantities of what they affectionately call “Old Stuff.”

Many Colombo Chetty celebrities have surfaced during the past 200 years. Perhaps the greatest of them was Simon Casie Chetty, the great-grandfather of Mervyn. Simon, however, made two mistakes. One of them was to be born in Calpentyn, where there were no maha vidyalayas at the time. Undeterred by this handicap – or was it? – he educated himself, and, besides mastering four languages, achieved fame as a lawyer judge and historian. And all within a brief life span of some 50 years.

Simon’s other major mistake was to start a newspaper. It was in Tamil and probably the first in that language. But it folded up as most of the best newspapers do, not owing to lack of readers, but due to amnesia on the part of subscribers, who forgot to pay their subscriptions. The history of journalism is studded with such lapses of memory.

Before Simon Casie Chetty’s star began to shine in Colombo there was a Colombo Chetty named Jurgen Ondaatjie who emigrated to Holland and became an instant favourite with the Dutch ladies. Ondaatjie’s virile personality and glib tongue appealed to the phlegmatic dames from Amsterdam to the Utrecht. They immediately took him to their bosoms and tip-toed through the tulips with Jurgen. They liked not only the tan on his face but the tang of his name, which sounded so Dutch that they persuaded their reluctant husbands to give him a high Government post, in fact a four-poster, from where Jurgen Ondaatjie disseminated Oriental culture and added a touch of colour to the sallow complexions of the Netherlands natives.

I had the good fortune to work alongside one of his descendants, a journalist named B.R.J Ondaatjie, the fastest shorthand writer of the day, with probably one exception, Stanley Morrison. He was possessed of a sharp tongue and it was a treat to hear him after one of those confrontations with his boss, D.R.Wijewardene. It was then that he expended his ire on his colleagues, a thing he could not do to D.R.W.

Other Colombo Chetties who made good abroad were the de Mello Aserappas, who rose to the top wherever they went, but the man who really put Ceylon on the map was Emil Savundranayagam. He made a long name short by calling himself Dr. Emil Savundra. If the term “genius” can be applied to any living Ceylonese it is to Emil. Before he was 35 he had acquired an international reputation as a financial wizard. From China to Peru hard-boiled entrepreneurs were dazzled, if not by his virtue, at least by his virtuosity.

Emil made them look like the rabbits which he pulled out of his capacious bag of tricks. Emil was the only Ceylonese to own a luxurious sea-going yacht though owing to recent vicissitudes he has had to give it up and paddle his own canoe. But he is bound to set sail in his yacht once more. You cannot keep a clever man grounded for long.

FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY

My learned friend and kinsman, Stanley Suraweera, the Lion of the Kegalla Bar, has taken my light-hearted romp into the past somewhat seriously and kindly sent me some more details of the famous Colombo Chetty who emigrated over 200 years ago and made good. The point that Stanley wishes to make is that Quint Ondaatje was not only a greater man than Simon Casie Chetty or Dr. P.S. Brito but that he was the greatest Ceylonese of all time. And that of course, includes not only our dear old kings but coming closer to our own generation, men like Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Charles Ambrose Lorenz, Sir Harry Dias, Arunachalam, Ramanathan, D.S. Senanayake, Dudley and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

This statement should raise a hornets’ nest if I knew anything of the idiosyncrasies of these troublesome insects. I do not pretend to be a historian and the little bit of history I crammed for my Cambridge Senior was forgotten immediately after the examination. Nor do I wish to probe too deeply into the cupboards of ancient families because the rattle of skeletons can sometimes be most annoying. Anyhow, this is what Stanley Suraweera writes, and I am giving it headings and all, for the edification of my less-informed readers:

THOSE ONDAATJES

Your reference to the third generation Ondaatje, better known as Quint Ondaatje, in this column, recalls to me this paragraph in Cassell’s Biographical Dictionary – Ondaatje Peter Philip Jurgen Quint, Phd and JUD born Ceylon 1758, died Java 1818. Remarkable as the only Asiatic who figured in European history. He was an orator, writer, politician, lawyer and soldier, but par excellence, a patriot and champion of liberty.

In later years, he was Quartermaster-General under the great Napoleon Bonaparte. Early in life he collected, not only a Master’s degree in Arts at the University of Utrecht, Holland, but also Doctorates in Philosophy and the literal sciences. In February, 1783 he received the honour of the Freedom of the City of Utrecht. He also took to Dutch politics. In the year 1806, Quint was nominated as Councillor of the Court of Finance of the Batavian Republic and towards the end of that same year appointed resident of the Council of Imports and Prices in the Kingdom of Holland, under Louis Bonaparte. By February 1815 he was by royal mandate, included among the Civil Servants of the First Class, destined for the East Indies Service. On April 30, 1818, he was dead.

And in the words of his biographer Mrs. C.M. Davies, the wife whom he had loved so long and so well, sank from a state of perfect health into the grave, a few months after him.

(Excerpted from THE GOOD AT THEIR BEST first published in 1976)



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Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

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Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

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ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

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HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

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