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Past Laurels

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By Punya Heendeniya

The era was the mid-sixties. The transitional period of ocean travels to air travels. No hand phones and children read story books and played board games with the adults and sat for dinner together. No phone lines to the rural areas. Electricity was just installed. Roads widened with and given names of the local dignitaries. The only form of communication was by post or by telegrams.

We were invited to a world film festival held in Mexico, and the reason was Gamperaliya, a masterpiece written by the peerless writer Martin Wickremasinghe and transformed into celluloid by Dr. Lester James Peries; it won the Golden Peacock award at the international film festival in New Delhi in 1965. I was the main actress and Henry Jayasena played the male lead in the film.

The invitation was sent to me by Dr. Lester J Peries via a trusted crew member. My father started pacing up and down the sitting room murmuring, “How can we send you to the other side of the world alone? You never even go to the “lindha” (the water well) alone. Send a message saying that you cannot accept this invitation.”

Such was the atmosphere I grew up in. My mother as usual kept “mum”. My elder brother, an ardent admirer of my artistic career, came to my rescue.

In an unusually confident and assertive manner, he told father, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for someone like Nangi and she should make use of it. If you do not allow her to participate, I will take a transfer and move out of the house”. That did the trick and my brother’s firm statement had the desired impact on the situation.

Dr. Peries heard about my problem and devised a plan to make things easy for me.

He transferred his invitation to his wife Sumithra, who also was a co-producer and the editor of the Gamperaliya. All is well, that ends well. I managed to join Sumithra and Henry as part of the smallest group of invitees to the festival.

Foreign exchange

Three of us had to find foreign exchange for the trip even though the air travel was paid for. Only four pounds was allowed per person for foreign travel. We got together and appealed to the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, who very generously allowed each of us to carry one hundred pounds. That was just our pocket money.

Sumithra and I appointed Henry as our delegation leader.

As state guests of the Mexican government, at dinner in Hotel El Cano, in Acapulco, and other banquets, three of us said in Sinhala, that we would have stopped with the sumptuous starter itself if we had to pay for our meals.

A mink coat

It was the height of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Coming from a tropical country we were short of warm clothes. Sumithra having been in France had a few warm clothes and she very willingly gave me a pair of old gloves and a flannel vest. A very affluent fan of mine, who became one of my best friends later, came to my rescue. She offered me her mink coat.

A mink coat to Punya Heendeniya was manna from heaven those days.

If I had been offered that coat today, I would have turned it down, given the sheer number of innocent minks killed to make that coat.

Eighth Resenna Mundial

That was how the Mexican festival of festivals was named in Spanish. All the award -winning films of the world of the year were invited and the festival was held on a very grand scale in an ancient battlefield. We were able to mingle with the most famous stars of the world. I kept the then Ceylon (Sri Lanka) flag flying by wearing only the osariya and cloth and jacket for two to three weeks. This was highlighted in bold letters in the national newspapers. In an article written by Henry, at a later date, he mentioned, “Punya created history in Acapulco by refusing to wear a swimsuit.” That was my upbringing and Sumithra in her nonchalant, casual, and calm way supported me by saying we did not show flesh to attract attention.

The newspapers were all full of pictures of me in cloth and jacket and osariya.

Meeting the Asian film giant Satyajit Ray

Our delegation comprising just the three of us was assigned a limousine for travel purposes and it was named “Ceilan delegation

To the adjoining multi-starred hotel to our Hotel El Cano, came a one-man delegation. That was none other than the Satyajith Ray with his Charulatha. His appearance was majestic. He was tall, dark, and handsome. His visit made the three of us feel as if we had a close relationship with him. He very happily refused his limousine and travelled with us until the end of the festival. It was remarkable that he was one of the judges of the panel, at the New Delhi International Film Festival, where Gamperaliya was adjudged the best film. So, he had some understanding about the members of our delegation.

We attended experimental matinee film shows almost daily and one day we gave a lift to an American film critic in our Ceilan vehicle. He was seated with Ray in front and our topic of conversation was Asian films. He talked about Akira Kurosava and Satyajith Ray. All four of us were silent. He said he has seen the Opu trilogy. Ray in his elegant style said, “I am Satyajith Ray”. I do not have words to express the American’s reaction. He was elated.

On the day of the screening of our film, we draped our guide girl Christina Godard in a saree, and she carried it in a real stylish way. I wrote a short speech for myself, and Christina translated it to Spanish. I memorised it and when I addressed the audience in fluent Spanish “Saludos mees Amigos”, the audience went into a rapturous applause. Sumithra in her genteel manner, appointed me to collect the trophy for the film, “The Golden Palanque Head”.

Our sojourn in New York City

Having left Acapulco city’s warmer climes, our next stopover was New York. The Ceylon Mission of the National Assembly was aware of our arrival. We landed at the snow-covered John F Kennedy airport in the early evening. We were warmly welcomed by the staff members of the Ceylon Mission.

Among them was another tall, dark, and handsome figure I had seen in only pictures but never met. That was none other than our very own Mahagama Sekara. The funny side to it was, he was from Siyane Koralaya and I was from the adjoining Hapitigam Koralaya. We both were gamayas from rural Mirigama and Radavaana. We had to meet for the first time, in the John F Kennedy airport in New York!

From then onwards it was one full impromptu programme with dinners and sing songs. At one point we were singing “Mey Sinhala apage ratai, mulu lova ey ratata yatai” (lyrics by Mahagama Sekara) from the 42nd floor of a sky scraper. After that we all were walking along the Fifth Avenue to our lodgings. Unusual for the time of the year in the winter sky, the moon appeared through the skyscrapers. That was a very familiar sight for all of us and our very own poet Mahagama Sekara murmured, “Gamey andurana kenek dekka vaage”. (As if we have seen someone known to us back from home”)

That time the ambassador to the Ceylon Mission was Mr. R.S.S Gunawardane. He joined most of our get-togethers and invited both Henry and me to perform at the World Human Rights Day, which fell on the 10 December. The scheduled agenda had Sidney Poitier as an invited speaker. Our very own Shantha Weerakoon was to perform a Kandyan dance item. The Ceylon Mission made use of our unexpected presence at the right time to invite us to perform. We most willingly agreed. A separate printout was made available introducing us as the main actors of the award winning Gamperaliya and also mentioned our most recent and fresh participation at the Mexican festival from which we had just returned after winning the Golden Palanque Head Award.

Henry and I discussed what to perform and we sang our own Maestro Amaradava’s ” Piley pedura henata aragena enavaa“. Again lyrics by Mahagama Sekara. This opportunity proved to be a feather in our cap as we would never have dreamt of such a heaven-sent chance like this to perform on the main stage of the UN assembly. Credit to our great Dr.Lester J Peries and Gamperaliya. In a way it was all possible due to my brother’s support as well. I could not imagine getting garlanded on the UN stage in appreciation of the participation.

Meeting legendary Sir Sidney Poitier

Sir Sidney in his speech to the assembly, very humbly recalled how he had been coached to read and write by a senior Jewish waiter, when he was employed as a child in a menial job as a dish washer. He mentioned that his journey from dust to gold, and to hold the prestigious Oscar, was rough and full of hurdles.

Then followed the photographic session. We lined up and I was hidden a little behind, and suddenly I felt two iron tongs lifting me from my waist and placing me in front saying, “Your place is there” and positioned me next to the Secretary General Mr. U Thant. Immensely flabbergasted, I looked back. I could not believe my eyes; it was none other than Sir Sidney Poitier, the heartthrob of the galaxy of Hollywood stars, and at that time he was at the apogee of his distinguished career.

We enjoyed the Green Room hospitality of the Secretary General. I saw this unassuming Knight in shining armour, mixing with the crowd like a well chiselled, well- polished ebony statue that had come to life.

We as artistes adored this trailblazing, ground-breaking Oscar winner’s performances, in films like “Guess who is coming to dinner”, “To Sir with Love” and “In the heat of the Night”.

Sir Sidney is no more. But he will live in the hearts of everyone.



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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