Excerpted from Sarath Amunugama’s Kohomba Kanakariya
We end this essay (on some of the country’s finest Kandyan dancers), fittingly I think, with Nittawela Gunaya whom De Zoete called “One of the greatest Kandyan dancers and teachers.”
His grandfather Siriya had two sons Kiri Ukkuwa and Suramba. Kiri Ukkuwa was Gunaya’s father, but he was a better farmer than a dancer. So Gunaya studied dancing under his father’s brother Suramba, who was a great Kandyan dancer in keeping with his father’s heritage.
At the age of 18-years Gunaya underwent the “Ves Bandima” ceremony and, together with his cousin Nittawela Ukkuwa, earned a reputation as promising young dancers. They were recruited by Hagenbeck in 1927 together with 14 others to participate in shows in his Tiergarten zoo in Hamburg. Gunaya and Ukkuwa may have been presented among the “Wild Men from Ceylon” who were exhibited in many towns of Weimar Germany. Gunaya, however, returned and was in great demand for the rest of his life for performances abroad.
He was perhaps the most acclaimed Kandyan dancer in the capitals of the western world. It must be stated here that Gunaya’s early exposure to western audiences may have improved his commitment to the dance as a performance with his sense of drama and stage presence. But he had a sense of restraint and occasion which Sanskrit critics called “Auchitya” or appropriateness. This was in contrast to Ukkuwa, who also was a technically proficient dancer but did not have either the build or the restraint of Gunaya. As De Zoete correctly stated Ukkuwa had learnt some bad elements of western “show business” which detracted from his obvious talent and technical correctness.
Gunaya was a regular dancer at the annual Kandy Perehera and was given a prominent role in dancing alongside the sacred elephant carrying the relic chamber on its back. He also farmed his small plot of paddy land in Nittawela. However, it says much about his self confidence that he was not a Kankariya dancer, probably because he was in great demand as a Ves dancer both locally and abroad. While he did not refuse to dance in a group, his forte was solo dancing which enabled critics and general audiences to focus on his outstanding skills and personality.
To him goes the credit for making the dancing of Vannamas a major aspect of his performance. They suited his virtuoso style because he could improvise in the dancing of Vannamas. One could not take liberties with the Kankariya dances in that way. Beryl de Zoete describes Gunayas superlative dancing of Vannamas as, “The Horse and Hawk have only one version. It was Gunaya who made the new versions since being in Colombo, and for stage purposes. The frog was copied from a real frog. The mimicry and acrobatics to which it gives rise is remarkable, and it would be pedantic to quarrel with such masterly interpretations even if one might prefer the old, stylized form. The horse is sufficiently representative, even in the old version, and needs no reform” [1957;182].
At this stage we must focus our attention on the Vannamas and its significance for modern Kandyan dancing. According to legend, Vannamas [Descriptions or Varnanavas] were created in the time of the last Kings of Kandy, particularly Narendrasinghe and Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. Narendrasinghe was called “Sellam Nirindu” which has been interpreted in several ways. Obeyesekere who has recently drawn attention to this King says, “As Charles Godakumbure notes, there are a huge number of praise poems or panegyrics on this king … current research shows that there is considerable overlap between the erotic verses praising Rajasinghe and those associated with Narendrasinghe. If indeed Rajasinghe has many heroic poems associated with him, Narendrasinghe also has many verses in the erotic texts praising the king’s greatness and prowess but not in the grand style of War poetry” [2020;138].
However, in the case of Vannams we have a clear reference to him in the “Vadankusa Ratanamalaya” the writing of which is attributed to a Buddhist monk from Malwatte. The Ratanamalaya says that Narendrasinghe whose Royal pleasure [Raj asabhayangatha Vinodharyawu] was in the “five musical instruments” [Pancha Talayan] directed his Poets Hall [Kavya Sabha] to study the [Indian?] Vannama style and create 18 [new] vannamas. The poets did so taking the Kings immediate posessions like the royal elephant, royal conch, royal horse etc as their models. As instructed, they did so before his consecration ceremony [Rajabhisheka] Narendrasinghe was delighted and showered those members with many gifts [Kulatilleke;1993;4].
It is clear that Narendrasinghe was a patron of the arts and had supported the “Kavi Maduwa” or chamber of Minstrels. These poets had to please the king through “Prasasti” or singing of his great attributes. It is possible that the Queens and ladies of the harem were also musicians and singers in light of the fact that it was an attribute of Nayakkar ladies in Madurai who were familiar with erotic Vaishnava songs of Krishna and the Gopis. There is no doubt that there were female singers and musicians because we know that there were such singers called “Alatti Ammas” who participated in the rituals of the Dalada Maligawa. [I am in possession of a copy of a painting by a Thai court artist who accompanied King Chulalongkorn in 1897 to the Maligawa, which clearly portrays women singers before the chamber housing the Tooth Relic].
Even today Kandyan dancers sing and dance the “Narendrasinghe Varnanawa” particularly as a tribute to the “Sellan King” in the presence of a Nilame or a Chief during a procession.
As mentioned earlier the Kavikara Maduwa were the originators of the Sinhala Vannams. They took as a model the Vannams of an Indian poet named Ganithasara and were assisted by Buddhist monks from Malwatte who interacted closely with the king. There are many legends and folk poems about this period when Kings, Queens and Monks had close literary and other relationships with each other which indicate the presence of a literati in Kandy who were familiar with the rules of prosody in the creation of kavi or poems. As highlighted in the Ganithasara connection, the Vannams of this period were no doubt influenced by the culture of the Nayakkars who were Saivaites and Vishnuvites.
Kandy had the biggest Vishnu Devale after the sacking of Devinuwara, the seat of Vishnu. Today we have 18 traditional Vannamas [Daha Ata Vannam] of which the most popular are Gajaga [Elephant], Thuranga [Horse], Savula [Cockbird], Naiyadi [Cobra], Kirala [Lapwing], Sinharaja [Lion], Mayura [Peacock], Ukussa [Eagle], Hanuma [Monkey], Mussaladi [hare], Gahaka [Conch], and Eeradi [Arrow]. These all refer to well known animals or objects. Another class of vannam are dedicated to the Buddha [Asadrusa], Sakra [Surapathi], Ganapathi [Ganesh], and Udara [the pomp of the King].
It is most interesting that in the preliminary stage of the Kohomba Kankariya there is an episode called Naiyandi which is the Vannama of the Cobra. This is danced by the Mul Yaddessa before the core ritual that starts with the Avanduma begins. The Vannamas were not a part of the Kankariya and was danced by Goigama caste dancers. However, later it came to be a favorite item of the more innovative Kankariya dancers and became a bridge in their transition to being performers on stage and secular ceremonies.
Gunaya was the best exponent of the Vannamas. It suited his temperament and style because he preferred to dance solo so that he could interpret it in the light of his outstanding intelligence and training. Thanks to Gunaya, who was by now idolized by the Colombo middle class, new vannamas were composed by poets such as Sri Chandraratne Manavasinghe. They collaborated on the Mahabo vannama which became very popular. Gunaya also danced the Samanala [Butterfly] Vannama. In the light of later miming of the features of animals by lesser dancers, Gunaya stands out an artist who through “Abhinaya” suggested but did not imitate the subjects of the vannamas.
To get a feel of Gunaya’s influence let us turn to De Zoete’s description of the Maestro at the initiation ceremony of his protege Sevranga. “They chant while dancing, very slowly advancing and retreating with forceful steps, facing each direction in turn. The teachers and some of Gunaya’s group of dancers join in the chant. Again, the drums burst out, and the dancers leap into the air. Wide crossed steps alternate with high springs in an orgy of movement. Finally, it settles down and chanting begins again. The long streamers wave wildly from the point of the headdress. The initiated boy always take the lead. He is certainly a magnificent dancer. His springy step and beautiful hand movements, as it were marking time, his syncopations sideways and forwards, his sudden leaps without preparation into a spin are quite intoxicating” [1957;100].
The high point of Gunaya’s national stature was reached when he was chosen to dance the Thuranga [Horse] Vannama at the celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. At that time, he was in his prime as a dancer. Thuranga was a wise choice because in addition to its fidelity to the traditional Vannam as recognized by De Zoete, it was a dance pregnant with meaning for a Buddhist society since it depicted Prince Siddharta’s ride on his favourite horse Kanthaka away from royal pleasures to seek his enlightenment.
Let me paraphrase the vocal rendition which accompanies the dancing of the Thuranga Vannama:
“The prince Siduhath who was loved by all was attracted to the reclusive life,
He ordered Channa to bring his horse Kanthaka and mounted it,
To the soft sounds of the horse’s hooves the three advanced, Going hither and thither till they reached the riverbank, Then carrying the handsome young prince Siduhath, all three jumped across [the river Neranjara] thanks to the strength and courage of his Thuranga [Horse]’
Gunaya danced before the Royal Guest- the Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of Edward, D. H. Lawrence’s “Pale little wisp of a Prince” who in 1922 saw the Perehera and Kandyan dancers from the Octagon of the Maligawa. There were three stages at three levels in the hall and Gunaya danced to the throb of drums at two levels and in the finale, with a magnificent leap ended with an “adawwa” on the lowest stage to the acclamation of the distinguished audience.
Fortunately, we have a word picture of that event penned by a leading journalist of the time D. B. Dhanapala who was an eyewitness, “A lone Kandyan dancer clad in the usual costume that changes a normal peasant into a glorious, resplendent prince came on the vast open stage and strutted across it in such majesty of step and dignity that a hush fell on the assembly. Then slowly the dance began to the rhythm of a lone drum echoing through the vastness.
“The dancer has slowly assumed the gait of a somewhat showy horse. He displayed his flanks, strutted, and pranced, showing the creatures noble proportions; head light and moving in majestic rhythm as he confined himself to the topmost part of the three-tiered stage. Then we became aware as the dancer proceeded, that the horse had turned to be the rider, proud of his seat on the stallion, controlling the beast and urging it on as and when he pleased completely enchanted with the joy of movement and the power he held over the beast … it was as though we were seeing a Centaur of the fabulous age in flesh and blood dancing before us as a split personality of a dancer. And when the dance had run to its climax there was a sudden pause. In a split second the Centaur dancer leaped from the top to the lower stage. It was a dramatic moment” [2012;116].
Even today that is recognized as a magnificent fusion of the man and the moment and a recognition of the pure dance quality of Ves as the preeminent national aesthetic manifestation of the Ceylonese nation.
Some wistful memories of the Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital
by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
The Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital with its imposing architecture is an iconic landmark in Colombo. It faces the Lipton Circus, the roundabout named to remember Ceylon Tea that became famous all around the globe. This is now called the De Soysa Circus named after the philanthropist and entrepreneur Charles Henry de Soysa who also has the De Soysa Maternity Hospital named after him. The Victoria Memorial hospital established in 1906 was named to honour Queen Victoria and her Diamond Jubilee that was celebrated in 1897.
This red-brick colonial building was designed by Edward Skinner, a British born Architect who emigrated to Ceylon circa 1894. The red bricks used in its construction gives it a grand and distinctive appearance. The history of red bricks dates back to the 12th century in Central and North-Western Europe. Many of the famous 19th century hospitals in London were made of red bricks like the University College Hospital and the Moorfields Eye Hospital.
Skinner designed several recognisable buildings in Colombo including parts of the Galle Face Hotel, Cargills, Victoria Masonic Temple, Wesley College, Lloyds Building in the Fort, and St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk in Galle Road Colombo. Although the Gothic Revival in Western architecture survived into the 20th Century, Edward Skinner most appropriately, decided on an Indo-Saracenic model for the hospital. The design and construction of the domes are reminiscent of the architecture of the Mughal period. The doors and windows have neat and stylish polychrome brick arches. Architecturally it can more than hold its own against the best of that period in the world.
The wife of the British Governor of the time, Lady Ridgway, laid the foundation For the Victoria Eye Hospital in 1903. It was opened for business with great optimism two years later. The cost of the building was divided equally between the government and the Anglophile general public. In 1905 it was considered the best in the colonies. It is now part of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka.
My earliest connection with the eye hospital was in 1952. I was far too young to appreciate its formal beauty. The world was a totally different place then. The veteran politician Dudley Senanayake was our Prime Minister. The doyen of cricket, F.C de Saram, captained the All-Ceylon team. I was then a scraggy kid in the boarding at Wesley College. Cricket occupied much of my mind and a great deal of my free time. I couldn’t read the blackboard in class and complained to the school Matron. She sent me with a chaperone to the Victoria Eye Hospital. I recall a young doctor’s questions about my vision. It amused him no end when I said I couldn’t see the blackboard nor the cricket ball. From then on, I began to wear glasses. Although I could read the blackboard, it never improved my cricket.
I saw the Victoria Memorial Eye hospital everyday when I was a medical student in the 1960’s and this exemplary building is now deeply rooted in my memory. By then the Ophthalmology Services had moved to the brand-new hospital just around the corner from the old. The New National Eye Hospital of Colombo was established in 1962 to cater to the growing demands of the 20th century. Everything was moved to the new site, lock stock and barrel. In the melee the new relegated the old to near obscurity. The old Victoria Memorial Hospital, although parts of it were allowed to be derelict, continued to provide a service. There was an ever-increasing demand for space in healthcare. In 1967, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake opened the Accident Service in the Victoria Memorial Hospital.
When I worked at the Central Blood Bank in Colombo in the early 1970’s the Victoria Memorial Hospital housed the Accident Service of the General Hospital Colombo. it was a part of my duties to cover the blood transfusion work of the Accident Unit at night when the full time Medical Officer was away. I remember there was an ornate wooden staircase with beautiful carvings leading up to my office. The office was a single room with high ceilings and two large windows in front facing Ward Place. There were lovely views of the red Leyland buses and the slow traffic that chugged around the Lipton Circus. I could see Peking Hotel which was beautifully lit which has now given way to Rajya Osu Sala. The rear wall had beautiful decorative wood panelling and I did my work in Victorian splendour.
My sojourn at the Accident Service was an enjoyable one as most of the doctors who worked there were known to me. We were all young and idealistic. I soon got used to the buzz and the rush of adrenaline with the arrival of the ambulances. In those distant days the sirens and the flashing lights were less conspicuous. At times there was a sense of dread, and an expectation of a life-defining situation. I saw for myself the tragic drama that unfolded day after day and the weeping and the wailing that followed. It was a most humbling experience. We were in the habit of chatting away late into the night when there were gaps in the busy workload supported by multiple cups of coffee and tea. I look back on those years with great nostalgia of the friendship and the warmth that prevailed despite the sleepless nights.
Typical of Victorian buildings the hospital was a rabbit warren of narrow corridors and a multitude of rooms and recesses. At night much of it was dark and unlit. in the gloom they become ominous passageways. There is a strange belief which is universal that most old buildings were haunted. There were stories abound of mysterious happenings at night. Some believed the hospital was haunted by ghostly figures. The doctors who slept in that building have heard strange noises and others spoke of seeing humanoid figures appearing through closed doors. I slept in a dimly lit room in the Blood Bank. In all my years I never saw or heard anything untoward except the occasional cries of pain or screams of despair from the Accident Service which was right below me.
The Victoria Eye Hospital was built when architects created buildings for their elegance and beauty while making it functional and fit for purpose. On my occasional visits to Sri Lanka, I was appalled by the disdain shown to this landmark building in later years. There were large advertising billboards and hawker stalls covering the grandeur and the magnificence of its redbrick façade. The splendid entrance gates and the elegant porch are not in use any more. Disuse, disrespect, and decay seemed everywhere and I feared may even destroy this forever. I am reliably informed and delighted to hear that the hospital remains a part of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka and has a Burns Unit, Surgical Theatres and also some Neuro Surgical Services.
As a medical student in the early 1960’s I had the good fortune to learn my trade in the new eye hospital. The post-World War II era is known as the age of brutalist concrete when beauty gave way to the cheap and cheerful. The 1960’s however was a time of enormous socio-political change which was reflected in the architecture of the time. Even if the designs were not pleasing to the eye they were practical and functional. Although the New Eye Hospital looked a huge block of concrete it was a state-of-the-art hospital with a modern layout and the very latest of facilities. With large wards, better lighting and fine operating facilities this was a far better working environment for the healthcare professionals. The design enabled the seamless interaction between clinicians, patients and students. The spacious waiting rooms and large airy areas dedicated for Out-Patient Clinics made it so much better for the public. I remember with affection the dedication of the eye surgeons and the high quality of the care they provided.
I am overwhelmed by a heady rush of history when I see the old hospital now. The Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital indeed is a part of our colonial past. Time catches up with all, but the past will always be present in our lives. Although well over a hundred years old, even now when the sunlight catches the paintwork the building looks a masterpiece. The hospital should be listed and preserved for posterity.
Edward Skinner was a brilliant architect. His wisdom and designs won him the admiration of the City and was popular and much sought after in Ceylon. He had his offices in the Colombo Fort. When he was recently married, he had a cycle accident and suffered with concussion from which he never fully recovered. Sadly, Edward Skinner took his own life by hanging in his own office in the Colombo Fort on Boxing Day in 1910. The stunning designs he created in prestigious buildings in Colombo will remain as monuments for his superb architectural ability. Part of him will forever remain in the Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital. He died, far too young, at the age of 41 years when he had so much to offer this wonderful world.
The United States and social democracy
by Kumar David
The Scandinavian countries are held up as models of social democracy. The distribution of wealth and after-tax income is more egalitarian than elsewhere, freedom of expression, the press and religious rights are not restricted, the people choose their governments at free and fair elections and there is uninhibited licence in sex related frolics. Conversely, purist-leftists point out that the “economic system” throughout Scandinavia is capitalist; big enterprises and the commanding heights of industry and commerce are the property of a shy bourgeoisie. Production, reproduction and appropriation of surplus value conform to textbook definitions of capitalism. Both sides of have their point, but Scandinavia is not my topic today, it is the United States not so much for its intrinsic interest but because change there will inevitably spark global trends.
My friends Marjorie and Geoffrey in Orange County, California, are to all appearances fit, able and charming people. They down their beers, puff on their cigarettes, go for walks, drive two nice big SUVs and run a small business. But they collect social disability cheques of $600 a month each for some invisible frailty and their case is typical of maybe millions of others. Likewise the current labour shortage in the US is in part a constructed malaise. Small businesses cannot attract employees. People find it better to stay at home and collect unemployment benefits while others will only accept part-time jobs. You can get more by filing for part-time unemployment benefits and getting paid for half-day’s work. Small businesses say the problem is acute.
The shopping carts at Walmart, Cusco, Vons and such supermarkets are full to the brim and queues at checkout counters are long and slow. Some of this is thanks to huge Covid-relief monies pumped into personal bank accounts in recent months and therefore atypical. But obesity has been bursting at the seams for three decades. The point is that there is trickle down of material wealth to low-income classes in the US. This of course is not socialism but it keeps the wolf of revolution at bay. Still it’s an odd version of capitalism if you go by the classics. Sure, brash billionaires, coarse captains of giant technology companies and cigar chomping industrialists garner big profits and avoid tax using Pandora’s Box havens. America being what it is, matters soft and genteel in Scandinavia are loud and brash. It would be absurd to say that the same degree of income equity prevails in the US as in Scandinavia. Still the material lives of the four lowest (lower 80%) of the American income quintiles is not pitiable and not too far from Scandinavian averages.
Data for three countries a few years ago (comparative ratios have hardly changed):
In the Pie-chart of US GNP one might for simplicity imagine that federal and state government expenditure (16.6%) is spent mostly on the people (Medicare, social services, education and unemployment benefits) while conversely the 17.7% private domestic investment belongs to the rich (stock-market, new enterprises, grand houses). The big slice (68.5%) is consumption. One can conjecture (a bit risky but let me take the risk) that half of this is spent by the lower two-thirds of society and the other half by the top one-third. How much grand-crux wines can the rich consume and how many first-class air-tickets relish? Unless my guesswork is way out of order this means that 51% (16.6 + half of 68.5) is consumed by the lower two-thirds of society. What I am saying is that despite income inequality, the redistributive outcome of taxation and government support (above all health care) defuses pressure. [To pre-empt nit-pickers I need to admit that sales tax is carried mainly by the yako-classes and income tax is part paid by middle and lower-middle classes. Furthermore, government expenditure includes the likes of defence which hardly benefits the daily life of ordinary people].
Bar-chart 1 shows household income spread. This is not Scandinavian social democracy but neither is it grotesque inequality which will incite the masses to pour out on the streets pitchfork in hand. American capitalism keeps yakos in line by dishing out a share of the pie while ours do it by intoning hela jathika abimane.
This is not to deny that the filthy rich are getting richer at everyone else’s expense – I have no quarrel with Thomas Piketty. Bar chart 2 shows that the top-5% of income “earners” have hogged the largest part of the gains in the last three decades. Nevertheless this has to be taken in the context of a general upward swing of median US household income in the last half-century, see Graph. This is partly because the global hegemony of the US dollar, abominations like the Vietnam War and stooge Latin American dictators for much of the Twentieth Century. All this allowed imperialist and neo-liberal transfer of value created elsewhere in the world to the US. Nevertheless being rich does contribute to social complacency and cools the ardour of the poorer classes.
I have inflicted quite enough statistical injury and economic boredom on you for one Sunday. I move on by asserting that American democracy, battered though it has been in recent years by the far-right and by Trump’s antics, is durable. The power of the anti-vaccination lobby, though cerebrally retarded in the eyes of outsiders is grassroots, albeit cretin, populism in the terrain of America’s anything-goes democracy. Another example is that Black Rights Matter mobilisation in response to racist police brutality, actually consists of a majority of white marchers. The jealous independence of the judiciary is legendary. Determination to exert constitutional rights, despite grotesque displays like the freedom to run amok with guns, the right to infect others with Covid and such manifestations thought crazy elsewhere, are muscular exertions of spirited populism which would have had regimes reach for the machine gun in third world countries. For better for worse American populism is loud, brash and vibrant; it is not staid Scandinavia.
Lest you imagine I am composing a panegyric I must recount the grotesque underside of America, the hundreds of thousands of homeless street sleepers. Los Angeles has over 25,000 and New York even more; every big city has hundreds, some thousands. It is something you will not see in any European city or China, Korea or Hong Kong – perhaps a few psychologically disturbed people but not on a mass scale. Those who know Bombay or Calcutta are familiar with what I am saying on a much larger scale. But America is super rich so why you will ask aren’t a few thousand housing blocks being constructed, why is the state not funding a social welfare department? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. And the huge prison population – that’s a sign of social sickness.
I also have a grouse which is personal. The spread of political correctness in priggish sections of society and in main-stream media is tiresome. I suggest that red-blooded persons ignore it and speak and act like normal humans. Some persons we are reminded are lesbian, homo, bi, auto or omnisexual, but what’s the need to insert sympathetic references to this at every turn of dialogue? Don’t retch but the latest 007 has become a pansy. And if you want to give the American accent a slip, welcome to the club.
But come on, this is all trivial stuff.
The unschooled and the intellectually handicapped imagine that socialism is only about rescuing the poor from material hardship, to hell with political and democratic rights. This twist gained currency because the great revolutions of the Twentieth Century were in dirt poor countries and the revolutionary state was compelled to prioritise “bread, land and peace” and to repel foreign aggressors. Fair enough, but states so conceived unavoidably turned out to be caricatures of socialism – say the USSR, China and Cuba. True they fed the masses but that’s only half the game, and indeed some capitalist ones have done well too – Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the Chinese province of Taiwan. You don’t need to consult the classics to be familiar with the axiom that socialism asserts it is a higher form of civilisation. Readers I am sure are familiar with “The freedom of each ensures the freedom of all”; “Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious”; “The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal”, and such aphorisms. Socialism sans democracy is an oxymoron.
You will appreciate where I am going. Socialism is not about bread alone but also about cognizance and liberty. But first I have more to say about bread in the United States. The Biden Administration, driven by the left-wing of the Democratic Party, is pushing the$3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act spending plan. Add to this the $1 trillion infrastructure bill already approved and it becomes a humongous $4.5 trillion programme. To give you an idea, of scale, the US spent $13 billion (about $ 160 billion in today’s money) on the Marshal Plan, an economic recovery programmes for Western Europe after World War II. The proposals American progressives are pushing is an order of magnitude larger in substance and in trickle down money. Republicans, big business and about 1,500 paid Congressional lobbyists are fighting it tooth and nail.
My conclusion is straightforward. It is easier for the United Sates to move towards socialism than for any other country including China. Regimes with a bogus ‘Democratic Socialist’ tag on their brand name are a hoax. America and China are the only countries which can serve as global prototypes. But since it is a truism that Socialism can only flourish on a world scale that means, right now, it’s Hobson’s choice. I am no starry-eyed dreamer unaware of the pernicious extension of the by no means forever bygone Cold War, nor the menace of another conceivable Hot War. The world is replete with dangerous neo-fascists; Trump has plenty of company. My purpose in this essay, nevertheless, is to remind readers of dimensions of this story other than the trite. I am confident that democracy will not die in the US short of civil war. It’s impossible to reverse history against mighty odds and proto-fascism will be destroyed in such a civil war. Hence, I have no option but to differ from my carousing buddy Vijaya Chandrasoma – “How Democracies Die”, Sunday Island 17 October – about the impending death of democracy in America. VC is familiar with Mark Twain’s quip re exaggerated announcements of his demise.
BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT ?
THE KILLING OF A PRIME MINISTE
by Sanjiva Senanayake
WHO SHOT THE PM ?
The first point that had to be proved by the prosecution beyond any doubt was that Somarama actually pulled the trigger. Without that the entire case, conspiracy and all, would fail.
Despite the large number of people present that morning, only three ‘eye-witnesses’ were called by the prosecution to establish that Somarama was the actual shooter. They were :
(a) the Buddhist monk Niwanthidiye Ananda (NA)
(b) one of his acolytes from Polonnaruwa named Wedage Piyadasa (WP) and
(c) a teacher named Wijekoon Wickramasinghe (WW)
The evidence of NA :
Ven. Ananda said that the PM, after finishing speaking with him, took a few steps toward Somarama and then turned back to inquire if Ananda was satisfied. He then went over and worshipped Somarama, who remained seated, and asked why he had come. Then the PM took a step backward. Ananda had turned round and bent down to collect his belongings when he heard two rapid gunshots. Somarama then pointed the revolver at Ananda who closed his eyes in terror. He then heard some more shots but didn’t see Gunaratne being injured. When he opened his eyes, he saw Somarama holding a revolver, biting his lip and with bulging eyes, follow the PM as he stumbled into the house. The monk did not say he actually saw Somarama firing the gun. In the Magistrate’s Court he had said “I did not see the actual act of firing. As I turned, I saw the accused holding a pistol in his hands levelled at the PM”.
Ananda then jumped over some flower pots into the garden, ran up to the main gate and shouted at the sentry there, grabbing him by the arm. He told the sentry that the PM was being shot and to protect him. Then as Ananda returned to the house, he saw the injured Gunaratne stagger out bleeding and he took him to the gate and requested bystanders to send him to hospital. He said he then went into the bedroom where the injured PM was lying and spent a few moments in contemplation until he heard a commotion in the central corridor outside the room. When he came out, he found a bleeding Somarama on the floor being assaulted and joined in by kicking and hitting him with his slippers. Somarama wanted some water and Ananda asked one of the servants to bring some. Before he could give the water, Somarama vomited blood and fainted. Then, when Ananda and one of his acolytes (Yatawara) were tying Somarama’s hands together, DIG Sidney De Zoysa turned up and ordered them to stop. Ananda then left and went to his temple in Kollupitiya.
However, the police sentry, in his evidence, said that no monk ever came and spoke to him at the gate. Instead, he said that, when he came running toward the house on hearing the shots, an old gentleman pointed out Somarama as the assailant. Furthermore, DIG Sidney de Zoysa said under oath that there was no monk other than Somarama in the premises when he arrived. He also said that there were no signs of Somarama’s hands being tied, and that it was he who sent the injured Gunaratne to hospital.
The evidence of Wedage Piyadasa (WP) :
WP corroborated Ananda’s (NA) evidence on some of the main points including the version about alerting the sentry. WP had run out with NA soon after the shooting but then went out of the gate and did not return to the house thereafter. It is reasonable to expect WP to back up NA, a monk he was faithful to and on whose patronage he was dependent.
However, WP also said that Somarama deliberately aimed and fired at Gunaratne. It does seem strange though, that an assassin would take time off to shoot an innocent man while his prime quarry was getting away from him and escaping into the house. If the prosecution believed this story, they should probably have charged Somarama with the attempted murder of Gunaratne too.
The evidence of Wijekoon Wickremasinghe (WW) :
WW was standing in the other wing of the verandah from Somarama and his view was blocked by intervening bodies, including that of the PM. In the Magistrate’s Court, just a few months after the shooting, he had said, “I heard the shots from the direction where the Prime Minister and the monk in the corner were. I was unable to see anything at that time because my view was obstructed by the Prime Minister.”
However, his later evidence in the SC was very different. He said that, as the PM approached Somarama, the latter sprang up, took a few steps to his left (i.e. away from the garden) and started firing. By a happy coincidence, this alleged move by Somarama would have better placed him in WW’s line of sight. However, the likelihood of Somarama shooting after such a movement is cast in further doubt by forensic evidence, as explained below.
Furthermore, WW’s evidence in the SC contradicted the evidence of the other two, NA and WP, by saying that the PM did not reach, worship or speak with Somarama before the latter started shooting.
The evidence given by eye-witnesses, especially in circumstances where they themselves are in danger, and probably taking evasive action, can be somewhat unreliable. However, if the accounts of several eye-witnesses are also inconsistent with one another on major points, then the evidence becomes dubious. The reader can decide on the credibility of the evidence of these three eye-witnesses. There is plenty of authoritative material on the internet about the pros and cons of eye witnesses.
In summary, no clear, consistent, unambiguous eye-witness evidence was produced in the Supreme Court to definitively establish that anyone actually saw Somarama firing the weapon. The prosecution did not call more eye-witnesses from the long list of people interviewed by the police in order to establish guilt beyond any doubt and close the case out. It’s fair to assume that there were no such ‘reliable’ witnesses.
THE FIRST BULLET
The forensic evidence that was presented at the trial, which is not dependent on any witness’s testimony, also raised a vital question. ASP Tyrrell Goonetilleke of the CID, who was at the scene within one hour of the shooting, made precise notes of the physical damage caused by the bullets in addition to other relevant facts. He noted that one bullet travelled almost at right angles to the line of the verandah, and went into the house. It pierced a glass pane of a French window separating the verandah from the hall inside, at a height of only 4 feet 3 inches above the verandah floor and hit the back wall of a second living room, well inside the house, at a height of 13 feet. Blood and fragments of flesh were found where it hit the wall confirming that it had struck the PM. Several people who were present had mentioned that the PM jerked his hand and cried out in pain soon after the first gunshot was heard.
The Judicial Medical Officer, Dr. W.D.L. Fernando, who examined the PM’s injuries on the day of the shooting described the related wound as follows –
1. A punctured lacerated wound on the back of the left wrist – an entrance wound
2. A punctured lacerated wound on the back of the left hand – an exit wound
Injuries (1) and (2) corresponded and were caused by the same bullet which passed only skin deep through the hand.
This was a relatively minor wound and, naturally, most of the attention was focused on the three bullets that entered the torso of the PM leading to his death. However, it is the first bullet fired that created most doubt about Somarama’s guilt. The injury caused by that first bullet, and its trajectory, is only compatible with the shot being fired from the garden outside, which was at a lower level than the verandah. There was never any suggestion of a scuffle, a second gunman or a second gun and the Government Analyst established that all six bullets were fired from the same revolver that was recovered at the scene.
The crucial question is, how could Somarama have fired that bullet from where he was seated and caused that injury to the PM, who was facing him in worship?
As for Wickremasinghe’s (WW’s) evidence, if Somarama stood up and moved to his left as the PM approached before shooting, the height and trajectory of the first bullet would be absolutely impossible for Somarama to achieve.
SOME LEGAL ASPECTS
It is important to bear in mind that the onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused are guilty. Defence counsel do not have to prove that their clients are ‘not guilty’. The benefit of doubt goes to the accused. The accused are not even required to give evidence and, in this case, only Newton Perera testified, for reasons decided as advantageous by his counsel. However, Somarama made a statement from the Dock on which he was not open to cross-examination.
The process that prevailed was for the prosecution to submit a list of names of witnesses at the beginning of the trial. If the prosecution chose not to call a witness in their list, the defence could do so, if it saw a specific advantage. However, the defence would then have to lead the evidence and lose the opportunity to re-examine the witness following examination by the other counsel. It was a risky move because there was no opportunity for the defence to counteract impressions created in the minds of the jury through the testimony of that witness during examination by the other counsel.
As the counsel representing Buddharakkitha said in his summing up –
“Although Mr. Chitty has told you that the defence could have called any prosecution witness it liked, there is a big difference between the prosecution calling such a witness and the defence doing so. The defence has no access to the information book or to statements made by witnesses to the police. Is it not a terrible risk for the defence to take, to call a prosecution witness when it has no access to these statements and no opportunity of examining the witness in advance?
Further, when the defence calls a prosecution witness, it cannot cross-examine him, as it could do if he were called by the prosecution.”
(Weeramantry – page 296)
It’s important to note that only the Judge and prosecution counsel had access to the police investigation notes (Information Book), which also included statements made by various individuals to the police.
Having the last word is of great value in court, as it is in life. This principle is also of great importance when it comes to deciding the order of the final addresses to the jury by counsel, which is then followed by the charge to the jury by the Judge. The process applicable in 1961 is succinctly explained by Weeramantry in his book as follows –
“The Ceylon Criminal Procedure Code lays down that counsel for the accused ordinarily enjoys the right of reply to the Crown. If, however, counsel for an accused calls evidence for the defence other than that of the accused himself, he loses that right and must address the jury before the Crown does so. Counsel for the 3rd, 4th and 5th accused, having called evidence on behalf of their respective clients, had therefore lost their right of reply and had, in consequence, to address before the Crown. Counsel for the 1st and 2nd accused, however, having called no evidence on behalf of his clients, preserved his right of reply.”
(Weeramantry – page 232)
Thus, the counsel who represented Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena had the opportunity to listen to the final summing up of all the other counsel and then tailor his address accordingly to have maximum impact on the minds of the members of the jury. It was a strategic decision that he took.
The final line up to address the jury, in order, was –
1. Counsel for Anura de Silva, the 3rd accused (K. Shinya).
2. Counsel for Talduwe Somarama, the 4th accused (Lucian Weeramantry)
3. Counsel for Newton Perera, the 5th accused (Nadesan Satyendra)
4. The Crown (George Chitty)
5. Counsel for Mapitigama Buddharakkitha and H.P. Jayawardena, the 1st and 2nd accused respectively (Phineas Quass)
THE RETURN OF THE HANGMAN
The debate on the pros and cons of capital punishment during that period casts some light on the attitude and approach of the decision-makers on justice within the government toward the accused in this particular case.
PM Bandaranaike was firmly opposed to the death penalty. In May 1956, within weeks of his inauguration, a Bill titled Suspension of Capital Punishment was presented in Parliament and passed overwhelmingly with just one vote against it. However, it was defeated by a slight majority in the Senate. Bandaranaike persisted and finally the Suspension of Capital Punishment Act No. 20 of 1958 took effect on May 9, 1958. It was still ‘suspension’ and not ‘abolition’.
A Commission was then established in October 1958 by the Governor General to study and report on the advisability of the death penalty. It was headed by Dr. Norval Morris, an academic from Australia who was internationally known in the field of criminal law. The Morris Commission held intensive interviews and consultations, analysed relevant data regarding the efficacy of capital punishment in reducing crime and considered broader social and economic issues and implications. The subject even came up during the SC trial, and Justice T.S. Fernando himself mentioned that he appeared before the commissioners in strong support of the death penalty. The Commission’s report, recommending continuation of the suspension was issued in that fateful month – September 1959.
On October 2, 1959, within seven days of Mr. Bandaranaike’s passing, the suspension instituted by him was removed by an extraordinary gazette. Subsequently, the Suspension of Capital Punishment (Repeal) Act No. 25 of 1959 was passed in Parliament and took effect on December 2, 1959, even before the magisterial inquiry on the assassination had commenced. This new law reinstated the death penalty, retrospectively, for those found guilty of murder and repealed the previous legislation.
It is ironic that the death penalty was brought back specifically to hang the assailant for whom the PM had called for clemency from his death bed.
That was not all. By an oversight, the death penalty was only reintroduced for murder, and not conspiracy to murder, which meant that the first and second accused could not be executed. Thus, although death sentences were pronounced in the SC, the Court of Criminal Appeal altered their sentences to life imprisonment.
The government then came up with the Capital Punishment (Special Provisions) Bill which was scheduled for discussion in Parliament on January 18, 1962. It sought to retrospectively include the death penalty for conspiracy to murder, and annul the sentences of the Court of Criminal Appeal on Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena. Since it was clearly targeting the accused in the assassination of the PM, and not based on any general legal policy or principle, there were massive protests and opposition. Colvin R. De Silva called it ‘murder by statute’. Under pressure, the government withdrew the Bill one week later, on January 25.
The abortive coup d’état of January 27, 1962 followed a couple of days later and the government’s legal campaign shifted to another arena, where retrospective legislation was once again used.
However, Somarama’s fate had been sealed one week after the PM died, and he was hanged on July 6, 1962.
TO BE CONTINUED …..
The writer can be contacted on this subject at email@example.com
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