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Golden Jubilee years of Sinhala Pop Music;

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Christian youth herald an Integrative revolution

By Dr D.Chandraratna

Right at the outset I need to justify the above subtitle. The readers may be understandably perturbed that the use of the word Christian is an irrelevant identity marker, given the violence that identity markers have caused in Sri Lanka. I am acutely conscious of Amartya Sen’s advice, ‘Reason before Identity’ before we classify groups (Identity Violence, 2007). However this identity profiling is only an empirical generalization contextualized here because it has contingent social significance.

I wish to demonstrate how young, predominantly Christian youth, through Sinhala song stumbled on to foster amity, dialogue and communication between communities, ‘unloading a million bricks’ out of the Sinhala psyche (Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, 1986). Having relieved my burden I shall come to the subject proper. This article is to celebrate more than half a century of the continued dominance of Christian youth led popular Sinhala music where they reigned supreme.

Bands Galore

At independence while Sinhala music was experimenting with different forms, amidst debate and rancour the city dwelling youth were emulating the sprouting bands and vocalists in the West, and Latin America. The Beatles, Shadows, Kinks, Rolling Stones etc. and generally fast rhythm music was mimicked by the westernized youth who were mostly Christian whose talents were honed in the arts and performances of the church. The bill was split between competing groups. Among the most popular were La Ceylonians, Moonstones, Sunflowers, La Lavinians, Los Flamingos, Hummingbirds, La Bambas, Los Muchachos, Los Serenaders, Los Caberellos, Beacons, Peddlers, Sunflowers, Spitfires, Gypsies, Eranga and Priyanga and many more in the country towns including the North. The Christian schools in Colombo as St Thomas’, St Peter’s, St Joseph’s, St Benedict’s provided much needed youth to work the bands. Likewise the Christian Schools in towns of Kandy, Ratnapura, Nawalapitiya, Galle, and Jaffna followed suit supplying vocalists and instrumentalists.

The dawn of the ‘people’s revolution’ in the late fifties was turbulent. It was a time Sri Lankan society was badly challenged by language and religion thereby partitioning the pluralities and diversities that were considered the norm. The revolution was executed in a rush without debate and dialogue. Exultation was short lived and as the ideals became distant many communities felt betrayed and perceived to feel outside the Sri Lankan heritage. The thesis canvassed here is that Sinhala popular music championed by Christian youth, led an integrative revolution, which was successful in no small measure.

The sudden loss of the conviviality and robust richness of the cultural mix that was their world may have driven the youth to yearn for a mechanism to return to the beautiful old days. Sinhala pop music beckoned them as the integrative solution that many were yearning for. Their school education, mainly in the liberal arts, equipped them with a number of competencies; an intellectual tolerance, substantial questioning of dogmatism, social maturity, rejection of authoritarianism and a degree of secularizati

on outside of books. They were not oblivious to many aspects of the contemporary world.

Meteoric popularity of the Sinhala bands

With apologies to many bands and artists of yore including the Dharmaratna brothers who were the stars of the Sinhala pop I will limit myself to the trio, Indrani Perera, Annesley Malewana and Clarence Wijewardena. Indrani of the Three Sisters and Clarence and Annesley of Golden Chimes, and their bittersweet re-union in Super Golden Chimes were at the helm for the entire period. Their stamp in the pop scene has survived all these years and naturally they have been dubbed the Queens and Kings of the fifty plus year’s history of the Sinhala popular music.

The stars of Indrani, Annesley and Clarence have burned brighter for more than half a century and I will be excused for selecting the three for the purposes of this article. Indrani’s crystalline voice delivering folk like verses were framed in exquisite musical arrangements prepared by Clarence Wijewardena, the songwriter and producer extraordinaire. He was bass guitarist devising dynamic guitar breaks as a value add, especially to the moody emotion filled songs such as Dilhani and Kalpani Duwani. He once said in public that as a teen he was an avid listener to Beatles and Shadows with Cliff Richard and that after secondary school all he wanted was to make actual music with his interiorized musicality. Indrani’s vocals were often multilayered with harmonies by her sisters. Annesley’s dusky voice ranging in delivery from home based country anthems to solemn folk balladry attracted large crowds and sold the records under numerous labels.

Trained in gospel singing, in Indrani and others the Sri Lankan audiences discovered a national treasure That won lasting affection for bringing us nostalgic experiences of our own lives; beauty of the landscape, undiluted romantic innocence, and the warmth of a human community. Throughout their long and brilliant careers spanning five decades they entertained millions of Lankans. Working long hours in a undervalued vocation in the 60’s and 70’s we who are the recipients of their precious gift owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. A career in music is hard work, a lot of sacrifice, but more importantly need a lot of perseverance and patience.

 

The integrative revolution

The singer and audience relationship is about connection; above all an emotional bond that make you cry, laugh, think, hold out a hand, in brief empathic union. The bands playing western music were moving the people on the dance floor while the Sinhala groups were moving people in an atmospheric emotional direction. Beyond the form they also were driving hard a message to bring the nation together. In sonata style, without big guitar moments, warbling in unhurried tunes, fittingly mellow with mundane lyrics made an impressive appeal.

 

It was the immense capacity to put together a poetic collection of images, sounds, scents and stories, wrapped in mellifluous but simple words. They produced a grand alchemy of songs all testimony to the indigenous artists’ engagement with the country and its people, the common folk. At the same time they evoked something within all and we felt connected. It was a part of the little tradition of the Sri Lankan culture that brought us together.

This change in the music topography and culture that took place from the decade of the 60’s points to something beyond the confines of musical creation and musical thought to the wider sphere of social life and social strife. This was an integrative revolution responding to kindred developments in the realm of wider society. The integrative revolution was led by the suburban Christian youth.

Clarence Wijewardena, mindful of the furious forces that were beating against the barriers that hemmed them in, stuck to his motto throughout: semplice-sempre, simple in style and presentation. Contemporary reality mirrored and expressed in spirited conversations with few instruments, he was able to compose songs like Sigiriya, Ruwanpuraya , Kalu ganga Udarata Kandukaraye, Dunhinda Manamali, Wana bambaro ohoma hitu, Dilhani, Ela dola piruna Gon Bassa, Mango nanda, Gamen liyumak avilla, Udarata niliya heda wage, Kalu mame, and many others disregarding formalistic aspects of language and idiom. Of course some of the words were criticized and even censored for being rustic.

Use of words such as Himihita wetiyan, Umbata rideyinam, ohoma hitu, and bithu sithuwam neluwo were subjected to trenchant criticism. But the most important fact was that this music, lyrics and tempo appealed to all segments of society, Buddhists, Christians, Hindu and Muslims could enjoy breaking ethnic and class barriers. In sociological parlance it can be said that while the earlier bands and music were westernized, the Sinhala pop music was sanskritized.

The authoritative Indian sociologist M.N.Srinivas captured the social changes in the 1960’s in India by devising the term sanskritization for a similar process that we can freely use to describe the changes in Sri Lanka ushered in by popular music. Even to the urban society it impressed both on an intellectual and emotional level. I may be pursuing a tenuous connection leading to a dead end but I considered it necessary to record this transformation as a valuable contribution, as reminded by Reverend Malcolm Ranjith quite candidly. It was a social movement and the implied consequences may not be intended. However as Hegel once noted philosophy should avoid political entanglements.

Music and song became the catalyst that unleashed the forces and opened vistas of all communities including the upper middle classes to fall in line. No doubt there was opposition but there were also entrepreneurs like Gerald Wickremasooriya who unstintingly offered assistance. Perhaps they understood the underlying integrative element because it was a contrapuntal message, given better than any political pamphleteer. Popular artists liberated the melody from its tight constrictive wordy bodice and made it part of the common man’s idiom. More importantly, the text invited all social classes and communities to embrace the ethos of our common Sri Lankan heritage. Maw bima obei sithala, rata deya kere bandila, panamen obei sithala, pili gatha yuthui puthune, they pleaded.

One needs only a comparative perspective to understand how the thought content of their music presented a contrasting but an inclusive society in which all communities and religions to wipe out that ordre positif of the old feudal regime and enter a much better ‘ordre naturel’ preordained by the all-wise and all loving deities whose work men can mar but never mend. Was that the confidence they possessed to accomplish their task fighting all barriers that playwrights like Professor Sarachchandra could not easily dismantle.

Professor K.N.O Dharmadasa noted in an introduction to a booklet on Maname the interesting and enlightening dialogue between Professor Sarachchandra and a Cinnamon Gardens lady on the steps of the Lionel Wendt theatre on one of the early days of Maname where the lady said that Sinhala nadagama appealed nicely to the likes of her kitchen maid. No more profound expression of the class divide of the Sri Lankan Weltanschauung is needed. The upper classes were steeped in a world quite alien to the common Sri Lankan heritage. We therefore pose the question whether the musicians, mostly brought up in the Christian Church background lifted the impenetrable barricades as they sang ‘Api enawa murakawal okkoma bindala’ with much more ease, one wonders.

In the 1950s and sixties the freedom, equality and liberty that independence had granted to Sri Lanka was blotted out by dark shadows of communalism and religious bigotry, a society already fractured by caste and creed. The Bandaranaike revolution was hardly inclusive. The politics at the time failed to create a liberated society, a society that is able to express a richer and fuller life. The people’s revolution brought out the monstrosity of communalism more repulsive than the semi feudal class oppression that it was intent on driving out.

Here we draw the power of the form and thought of creative art in song and music. These musicians, who were the progeny of parents outside the ‘purists’ managed to enter the depths of the consciousness of those who were distracted by the people’s revolution and unobtrusively connected them with the Sinhala mainstream society. While appealing to the common multitude they also entered the homes of the rich and famous freely and all this without political undertones.

All we can say is ‘Thank you for the music and thank you for bringing us close’.



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The tragedy of Afghanistan. Is there a way forward?

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by Anoja Wijesekera

The desperate scenes at Kabul airport of Afghans trying to flee and the image of the US Airforce flight taxi-ing down the runway while people were trying to board it, and hundreds running alongside, is an image that will be etched in our minds forever.

The tragedy of Afghanistan is that the same saga of desperation and suffering has been repeatedly endured by ordinary Afghans who have been at the receiving end of war, throughout their lives. They have suffered death, loss of limbs, loss of breadwinners, loss of livelihoods, the destruction of their homes, the trauma of displacement, the horrors of seeing their loved ones killed before their very eyes, squalor, pain, hunger and cold, for over four decades.

At a human level, the Afghans feel betrayed by the Western Alliance and the US. This is not the first time but the second. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there was no overt resistance from the West. However, the Afghan warlords and their supporters who provided some resistance were armed and funded by the CIA, via the ISI of Pakistan, in order to defeat the Russians. The Afghans paid a heavy price; an estimated two million died another two million lost their limbs and approximately 800,000 women became widows. The entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed.

Once the Russians left, the US turned its back on Afghanistan and paid no heed to help in the reconstruction and development of that battered land. This was the first experience of betrayal and it was also at that time, that Osama Bin Laden who was an ally of the US and a part of the Mujahideen, became its sworn enemy.

The second episode took place after 9/11. In order to get at Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan. Although Osama Bin Laden had already left Afghanistan, many bombs were dropped, followed by drone attacks. Large numbers of civilians including women and children were killed as a result, throughout this 20-year period. Now in August 2021, with no proper system in place to ensure peace and stability, the US forces simply left. Even General David Petraeus, former Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan and former Director of the CIA, expressed his shock when interviewed on TV. For the Afghans, in their hour of need, the sudden and inexplicable departure of their President, Ashraf Ghani, is an even greater disappointment that they find hard to bear.

It is difficult to think that President Ghani left because he wanted to save his own skin. It is possible that this was part of a hasty deal worked out with the Taliban that went hand in hand with the sudden withdrawal of American troops. By paving the way for the Taliban to enter Kabul unhindered, and with no resistance offered by the Afghan army, a blood bath was averted. The destruction of the infrastructure and livelihoods in Kabul was also prevented. In turn, it is possible that the Taliban agreed to all the concessions that they announced during their press conference in Kabul, on 17.8.21.

The Taliban spokesman declared that an amnesty has been granted to all those who opposed them and that all citizens should remain in Afghanistan and help in re-building the country. They announced that all would be safe and that they forgive those who fought against them, and in turn that they should be forgiven. The Taliban stated that women would be allowed education and the right to work, as per the dictates of Sharia Law. It was also announced that no one will be allowed to use Afghanistan to attack other countries and that opium cultivation and its trading would be stopped. There was an indication that an inclusive government would be formed, but under their command.

The inevitable takeover of the country by the Taliban should come as no surprise to anyone, as it was evident right from the start. There is a popular Taliban saying “You have the watches, we have the time. We were born here and will die here. We are not going anywhere”.

A look at the map of Afghanistan, showing the areas under Taliban control indicates clearly how the Taliban gradually and surely increased the areas under their control over these 20 years. The take over of Kabul on August 16, 2021, was just the last lap of the race and was a parting gift offered on a platter by the US, when it hurriedly withdrew its troops out of Bagram airport, with no apparent handover and no declared plan for governance.

The Western misadventure is but a repetition of the history of Afghanistan. No foreign invader has ever been able to hold Afghanistan for long or maintain governments of their liking for any length of time. In the 13th Century the mighty army of Genghis Khan was massacred by the Afghans. In the 19th century, in the heyday of the Empire, the British sent a garrison to Kabul and each and every soldier except one, was slaughtered. In the 20th Century, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and were defeated in no uncertain terms, despite their weaponry and might.

There is a saying that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. The US did not learn from what happened to the Russians or from their own experience in Vietnam. At a time when the TV footage is showing the desperation of the Afghans, the efforts made by the US government to justify their hasty departure and declare to the world that their mission in Afghanistan was a success rings hollow and indicates a cynical disregard for the horrific ground situation. Subsequently the US announced that it would help Afghans who worked for them, to seek refuge in the US.

Now, as things evolve, whatever working arrangements are agreed with the previous administration and other stakeholders, the reality is that the Taliban is back in power and seem to be determined to recreate their “Emirate”, characterised by the strict imposition of Sharia Law. The Taliban has declared repeatedly that they would allow female education this time round, indicating a softening of their stance. However, the news from the areas under their control, indicate that their rhetoric is at variance with the ground realities in some places. When questioned on this, the Taliban spokesman said that all such incidents would be investigated.

I served with UNICEF in Afghanistan, in the years 1997 to 2001, both in Jalalabad and Kabul and am therefore very familiar with the draconian regulations of the Taliban.

The Taliban brand of Sharia Law imposed during their time in office, which was from 1996 to 2001, was particularly geared towards the ruthless limitation of women’s freedom and rights. Women were debarred from working and girls’ education was banned. Women were restricted to domestic work in their own compounds. When going out, they were forced to wear a “burka” that covered them from head to foot. At the time I was there, they passed the Maharam Edict, which dictated that women could not walk alone on the streets. A woman had to be accompanied by a “Maharam” meaning husband, brother or son or a very close male relative.

Failure to do so resulted in getting beaten on the roadside. The Beard Law, meant that all men had to grow beards. Men were prohibited from even trimming their beards. Both men and women were beaten in public if they flouted these regulations. Even some of our own staff members were flogged in public for trimming their beards. The Taliban brand of justice was meted out on the streets, by their vice squads, who beat you first and asked questions later.

Music was prohibited. All musical instruments were destroyed. Music playing in vehicles was banned. TV, films, entertainment, gatherings of men and women together were prohibited.

Under the Taliban regime, at the time, people had to pray five times a day regardless of any consideration. At prayer time people had to stop whatever they were doing and turn towards Mecca and go down on their knees or be beaten even on the road-side. The penalty for theft was the amputation of limbs and the punishment for adultery was stoning to death. The football stadium in Kabul was an arena where these horrific acts were performed in front of an audience. There was no judicial system and no due process. An accusation was regarded as sufficient evidence of having committed a crime.

Games including card games and board games were prohibited. Iconography, art, photographs and images were destroyed. Priceless artefacts in the Kabul Museum were smashed to smithereens and we are all too aware of what happened to the Bamiyan Buddha statues, which were priceless treasures and a wonder of the ancient world.

When I first went to Afghanistan in 1997, as the UNICEF Resident Project Officer in Jalalabad, the Taliban refused to look at me, as I happened to belong to the female gender. At meetings, which were all male events, they would look away from me with an expression of total disgust and would keep their heads turned away from me, when speaking to me. They clearly indicated that meeting with a woman was abhorrent to them. One Mullah even went to the extent of covering his own face when he had to pass by me. I found this utterly amusing and did not let it bother me.

After a couple of months of this icy reception, which I considered to be a farcical comedy, they gradually thawed and even shook my hand and became friendly. The Mayor of Jalalabad, who earlier covered his face, became particularly friendly and had many conversations with me, in English, declaring that he did not oppose girls’ education. I learned that he was educated to degree level. I said to my staff that I thought that perhaps the Taliban thought that I had turned into a man! As time passed, many Taliban officials and heads of departments, said that they regarded me as a sister.

After the closure of girls’ schools when female teachers lost their jobs, Home Schools were started by them in their own compounds, which UNICEF supported. As the Home Schools progressed, and grew by the day, I began to think that perhaps even the Taliban sent their daughters to those schools.

It was evident that some of the educated Taliban knew the value of education. Most of their foot soldiers however have only been to a Madrassa [Islamic school], where the curriculum consists of memorising the Quran, studying Arabic and learning the art of guerrilla warfare. However, the educated Taliban realise that it is important to address economic, social, health and educational issues, in addition to implementing their draconian version of Sharia Law.

Since I had to work with the Taliban government on a daily basis, I thought to myself that the Taliban are after all human beings and I decided even before I took up my assignment, that I will simply deal with them as one human being to another. Therefore, I accorded them the due respect they were entitled to on account of the office they held and regarded them as fellow citizens of the world. I followed the dictum that one has to give respect to get respect. This formula was effective and very soon they cooperated with me and my colleagues on all the programmes UNICEF had to implement, including our efforts to promote maternal and child health, and the inclusion of women in some of the activities.

However, each activity which involved the participation of women, was implemented with due consideration and in a very low-key manner. I was guided by my Afghan colleagues who knew exactly how to approach this problem. The Taliban departmental heads also gave tacit approval for the participation of women in our programmes, as the women had to be paid through a government department, as per UN regulations.

Towards the end of my tenure, when the Bamiyan Buddha statues were blown up, and I was devastated, one senior Taliban minister apologised to me, as he knew that I was a Buddhist. He said to me that many people in the Taliban government opposed this action, implying that the Bamiyan Buddhas were a part of their own heritage, which they respected. The Afghans reported that the Buddha statues were not destroyed by the Taliban, but by the Al Qaeda, who were Arabs. They cried and said to me, “the Taliban has destroyed our future and now they have destroyed our past, we have nothing left”.

In the present context, following the fall of Kabul, the only hope for the future is that the Taliban will take a more enlightened approach and modify their agenda. This will be important for them, in gaining international recognition and much-needed aid.

In my opinion it would be a mistake on the part of the international community to impose sanctions as that would only hurt the poor and vulnerable. To regard the Taliban regime as a pariah state would also not be fruitful as that will only make them even more adamant in pursing inhuman practices. It is only through engagement and genuine dialogue that the international community will be able to help Afghanistan and influence the Taliban to be more responsible and mature in their approach.

At the time of writing this article, following the press conference and interview given by their spokesman in Kabul, all indications are that the Taliban have indeed changed and matured and wish to form an inclusive government and have softened their stance on the rights of women. The spokesman repeated that everything will be done within the bounds of Sharia Law. I hope that since they were last in power, which was 20 years ago, that they have gained greater wisdom in their interpretation of Sharia Law.

It is imperative upon the international community to now step up on their humanitarian assistance and ensure that starvation, destitution and a colossal human tragedy is averted and that the displaced are assisted to return to their homes. Already more than 50% of Afghans are in need of food aid, on account of the severe drought that has hit the country. Childhood malnutrition has increased and Covid is on the rise. UNCEF, WFP and the other UN humanitarian agencies are in place and are working round the clock.

The UN Secretary General has already made an appeal to donor countries to increase their assistance. The US and its allies who spent billions in weaponry and military hardware, need to now genuinely engage with the Taliban and help in developing and funding a workable plan for the development of Afghanistan, with the participation of the UN agencies, so that a sincere attempt is made at long last, to improve the lives of all Afghans. This is the best safeguard against the country descending once again into civil war and becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.

On reflection, the famous saying that “In wars there are no winners, there are only losers” is indeed true. The Taliban has lost thousands of fighters: no statistics are available. There would be hundreds with severe wounds and injuries. In fact, some of the Taliban leaders during the time I was there had serious war injuries and suffered from the resulting disabilities. On the side of the Western Alliance, large numbers of soldiers have died and some are left with lifelong injuries and disabilities and are suffering every day.

Many American and British soldiers who served in Afghanistan experienced severe forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders [PTSD], that led to a number of suicides, after their return home. The BBC quoted in a Panorama programme that in 2012, more British soldiers took their own lives after their return from combat duty in Afghanistan, than the number killed on the battle field. These suicides were caused by PTSD and depression. Taliban soldiers who are the poorest of the poor, too have suffered enormously. What support is there for them? Do we even know how many of them were killed or injured?

It is up to the world to now help Afghanistan, and not turn its back on it. The Afghans need maximum help and support to recover from this unspeakable tragedy. The Islamic countries in particular, that helped the Taliban to wage war, now need to come to their aid, to build peace. ‘Islam’ in Arabic means peace. Therefore, the Islamic world needs to exert influence on the Taliban and support them to evolve from ruthless fighters into a group of leaders, who can govern with compassion and wisdom and bring about long-lasting peace and stability to that beautiful country – Afghanistan.

Anoja Wijeyesekera

[former UNICEF Resident Project Officer, Kabul from 1999 – 2001

and former UNICEF Resident Project Officer, Jalalabad from 1997 – 1999]

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75th Independence Day of Pakistan celebrated in Sri Lanka

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The High Commission of Pakistan and the Pakistani community in Sri Lanka celebrated 75th Independence Day “The Diamond Jubilee” with traditional fervor and resolve to make Pakistan a strong, dynamic, progressive, tolerant and democratic Islamic welfare state.

The women were in all their splendour in mostly green to represent Pakistan flag colour.

The High Commissoner in the opening remarks, highlighted the achievement of the government in the spheres of security, economy and culture.

The High Commissioner Maj. Gen (Retd) Muhammad Saad Khattak hoisted the national flag of Pakistan in vibrant and colorful ceremony at the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo.

Ms. Ayesha Abu Bakr Fahad, Second Secretary (Political) read out the message of the President of Pakistan, H. E. Dr Arif Alvi, quoting, “Pakistanis are a brilliant and brave nation, that has made tremendous successes in various fields making the country distinguished from other nations.

The message of the Prime Minister of Pakistan was read out for the audience by Ms. Asmma Kamal, Commercial Secretary. The message included: “As we hoist our national flag to mark Independence Day, we must reiterate the firm resolve to uphold our national values of unity, faith and discipline as envisioned by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. We have surmounted monumental challenges during the course of our history to emerge as a united, peaceful and resilient nation. Even today, the changing regional dynamics along with some domestic issues continue to test our resolve. Like each time, we will also overcome these obstacles with our characteristic determination and come out stronger as a nation”.

In his remarks, the High Commissioner of Pakistan, paid tribute to the forefathers of the nation who faced insurmountable challenges and gave unparalleled sacrifices for achieving the dream of Pakistan.

On Sri Lanka-Pakistan relations, the High Commissioner said that Pakistan attaches great importance to its relations with Sri Lanka, based on mutual respect, understanding and close cooperation. He further said that Pakistan has always extended unconditional support to Sri Lanka at all fora and will always continue to do so.

The event was well-attended by a good number of participants including members of the Pakistani community, officials and families of the High Commission, local dignitaries, journalists and friends of Pakistan.

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Every style in every size

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Shyamalie Wijegunawardena of Spring and Summer, co-founder of this brand was recognised as number female entrepreneur in the large business category at the International Conference of Women’s Entrepreneurship (ICSE). The fashion industry be it in Sri Lanka or globally, presents exotic, melodramatic or glamorous silhouettes, cuts, patterns and diverse designs majorly curetted to quench the fashion hungry population apparently being women. However, today, the fashion world is witnessing a reformation not merely in the kind of fashion, seeping in but with women designers stealing the ramp with their unique silhouettes that are creating a magnitude of ripples in the fashion world. Shyamalee Wijeyagunawardena with her creative instincts have made a benchmark in this competitive business

by Zanita Careem

How you started your journey?

I always had a liking for fashion, beauty and cosmetics. The desire to make a career out of these elements was something that was certainly in my heart for a long time. While I was a student in university, I remember taking many minor courses in such disciplines. However, my light bulb moment happened after the birth of my second son. I wanted to get engaged with something that would financially contribute to the household. Following my sister’s guidance, I decided to supply to Salu Sala – Sri Lanka’s state-owned fashion retail enterprise at the time. This decision changed my life completely. I was lucky to get a shop in Borella in 1995 even though it was just 300sq ft. I was content. I had a good customer base that kept coming to my store.

Lessons along the way?

a. Family first

b. Always treat your employees like your own family and most of all be a mother to them with all your heart

c. Build a good team that is loyal and they will give their blood and sweat to the company

d. Build a capital by saving. Always spend money wisely by knowing what you can actually spend

Was it different to be a female entrepreneur?

My main challenge is the same as all women face in Sri Lanka, be it at the grassroots or at the top echelons – balancing family and work. In my case because of the supportive network we had built with our employees, I was able to fulfill both my responsibilities and that is how we empower our female staff too to enjoy a stable work-life balance.

How did you manage as a mother?

As a women entrepreneur, we must be willing to break any barriers, which confines us to limit ourselves. For me, my priorities were a wife and mother and looking after the wellbeing of my family. I firmly believe that without my husbands and family’s support and love, I would not have been successful. Fundamentally, entrepreneurs should never forget that the wellbeing of their families should be their first and foremost priority.

How involved is your family now?

Spring & Summer is a business where the warmth and support of the family has led to success. I have the support of not just my sons, who have pursued their higher education, but also the support of their spouses.

Can you tell us a little about your company?

Spring & Summer commenced operations in 1995 with the opening of their first outlet in Borella. Now almost 25 years later, Spring & Summer has grown to become a leading retailer in Sri Lanka with six major outlets in Nugegoda, Maharagama, Wattala, Panadura, Bambalapitiya and Colpetty. As well as these locations, Spring & Summer’s online store caters to customers in every corner of the island. I am the entrepreneur and brainchild behind the brand, building the business from my operations.

We have expanded to employ over 400 staff members. We see the business as a family and aim to care for all our employees like family members. This level of care is passed on to customers, which contributes to a great shopping experience.

Our constant improvements, research and keeping up to date with latest fashion trends have always kept us one step ahead than most of the other local clothing stores. Unlike most of these stores, we do not give priority to imported garments. I can say 85 percent of the clothes we sell at our stores has been designed and stitched locally. It is important to keep up to date with international trends and modern manufacturing practices. It is a must to be creative and innovative to be a success in this industry.

Also, we always look at the contemporary fashion and latest trends in the country and provide the most desired designs with the highest quality. We take care of each other and we take care of our clients. This is the way we will continue to succeed.

What do you consider as your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge was developing a business without a capital. So we had to rely on our friends and family who were very helpful. Also we had to save every penny that we earned from our business to reinvest and expand it.

What leadership characteristics are your strengths and weakness?

Empathy – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Courage – Doing the right thing

Some times empathy can be taken advantage of hence it would become a weakness but in the overall scheme of things it’s not because things done with good intensions are always rewarded.

Memorable experience? Make or break moment in your career?

I am proud to say Spring & Summer was the first to introduce a dedicated White Section on the shop floor. This is one of the turning points in our business because If anyone wants something in white, we were known as the place to offer that. Our popularity started to grow exponentially in the market due to this.

Your favourite thing to do in your free time?

Spending time with my five grandkids. I also like to read books and watch movies.

Your inspiration?

For me, my family is my greatest inspiration. Entrepreneurs should never forget that the wellbeing of their families should be their first and foremost priority.

It is important to know what your passion is and also what drives you to better yourself. This passion within the entrepreneur is what gives strength to the business which then translates to customer attraction. Personally, my family is my first priority and as a result of that, massive financial gain has never been a driving force for me.

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