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Presidents Premadasa and Wijetunga – some personal anecdotes

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by G.A.D.Sirimal, Retd. SLAS

Chandra Wickremasinghe’s interesting piece on Presidents Premadasa and Wijetunga last Sunday (Oct. 10) nudged my memory about my own encounters with these two personalities when I worked with/for them. So here goes:

True, President Premadasa was certainly not easy to please or satisfy and his officers managed to complete work he wanted done in whatever manner possible to avoid unpleasant repercussions. It was said that Mr. Premadasa, as Prime Minister, had requested the then Secretary to the Treasury (name withheld), a former Civil Servant who was brought back to service by President JRJ to provide funds for his Janasaviya project. The Secretary had said he cannot accommodate such a large sum in the Budget; Premadasa had responded saying he would find another person who could.

The upshot was that another Secretary to the Treasury, who also chaired the Development Secretaries meeting which approves or rejects proposals for/by ministries, was the result. This senior (I’d rather not name him too) sometimes said, “Find the funds, this is a big man’s requirement.”

President Premadasa as Prime Minister started taking the government to the people, his Mobile Secretariat, covering outlying areas/villages. I was appointed from the Ministry for Power and Energy to handle these mobile offices, meet villagers and settle requirements on the spot. This necessitated our going to the place where the mobile office was to be held (often a school), and stay at an area resident’s home (invariably an influential UNP supporter). The day before the program began, we had to arrange desks and chairs to make the venue look like a government office.

The first day I set up the office, some of the PM’s staff turned up to check whether everything was in order. One of them asked me why no portrait of the PM was not on display. I said I didn’t have one and it wasn’t a requirement. He said the PM is very particular about this and brought me a framed portrait to be displayed behind my desk. The next day I found that a clerk who was present when the PM’s people visited had garlanded the portrait. PM Premadasa used to visit every office set up for this mobile project when an oath of service (prathigna) was taken to start off proceedings. When the PM stepped into my office and I greeted him, I noticed him looking smilingly at his own portrait. These mobile events closed with an announcement where the next one would be held giving us time to prepare; and I would start contacting the Divisional Manager of the area to discuss what should or could be done and make necessary arrangements.

There was an interesting episode when a Mobile Office was to be held in Matugama. I discussed plans with the Divisional Manager South of the CEB and he came up with a bright idea. He said he will be completing four rural electrification schemes and we could on that day get PM Premadasa to declare them open by switching on the lights in a newly electrified home. He said he would request some householders, whose homes were close to the distribution line (and not involve planting a new electric post), to wire their houses and on payment of the estimated cost at a bank, a connection will be given the same day.

I contacted my friend Jehan Cassim, then Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon, and asked him how best he could help. He said arrangement could be made to receive payments at the Mobile Bank which will be on site. This was to be kept a secret to give a surprise to the neighbourhood. The day arrived, the morning oath was taken and we went back to the office to start work meeting people. I sent a message to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat to announce what we had planned, and requested that the PM be informed. As this announcement was made over the public address system, all of us were surprised when PM came to my mobile office, congratulated me and said ‘That’s the way government servants should work’.

There was a large gathering and loud applause when the lights were switched on by the PM who entered one of the houses to do the honours. The owner’s wife offered a sheaf of betel and worshipped him. I could see the satisfaction and happiness in his smiling face.

About three days later, an official from the PM’s secretariat handling the Mobile Office project met me and asked whether I would join the Secretariat. I declined the offer on the advice of my friend Jehan Cassim (Chairman BOC) who told me, ‘Siri, if you accept it, then forget your domestic obligations as he will call you at any time of the day or night and assign tasks. He will provide you with a car and a driver and a flat at Elvitigala Mawata if needed.” He then related an incident when Mr. Premadasa had summoned him by phone at 2 a.m requesting his immediate presence and he had to rush to his car doing up his buttons to make it on time. My excuse for declining the offer was that I had two sons who I take to school every morning and also that I was happy working at the Ministry for Power and Energy.

As President, Premadasa commenced his Gam Udava Programme, all Ministries, Departments and State agencies were required to display what they did at each festival. When this began, we received a request for a generator to provide electricity at the Gam Udava grounds. The CEB being a commercial operation, we said that at least the cost be met. This was not to the liking of the President and his staff. However, by some means, they had contacted the Workshop Engineer of the CEB and got generators without approval.

When I visited the Gam Udava site at Buttala, I saw them being operated by CEB employees. Without making a fuss, on my return I inquired about it from the General Manager who smilingly said ‘We know when to keep a blind eye’. The story does not end there, when Mr. Premadasa was elected President he did a cabinet reshuffle and Mr. P.Dayaratne, who was our Minister for Power and Energy was assigned Ministry for Mahaweli Development. Lo and behold! The Workshop Engineer was appointed Chairman CEB!

D.B.Wijetunga

The first time I met D.B.Wijetunga, was during my stint in the Railway Department, then attached to the District Engineer’s office at Dematagoda, in the early 1950s. As I remember, he came into my office, introduced himself as Private Secretary to Mr. A.Ratnayaka, a cabinet minister and wanted a personal favour. He said he had paid for some old railway sleepers and whether it was possible to have them transported to a point close to Pilimatalawa. The way he made his request without throwing his weight made me want to help and I gave him a note to Mr. Costa, the Foreman Platelayer, requesting him to oblige as I knew there was re-sleepering to be done in that area.

About three weeks later, Mr. Wijetunga came all the way to Dematagoda to thank me. Since then, I occasionally saw him in the Fort in his usual gray tussore suit. Once I was going home to Nawalapitiya, and waiting for the train at the Fort Station when he saw me and asked where I was going. When I said to my home at Nawalapitiya, he smiled and said ‘You are also an upcountry person’. When the train arrived, I got into a second-class compartment while he traveled third-class. He waved to me when he passed my carriage when he detrained at Kadugannawa.

Years passed and he was elected UNP MP for Udunuwara in 1965, having lost Kadugannawa in 1956. I was working for the PWD handling improvements to minor roads and other road projects. One day he came to my office for some business and recognizing me, remembering the favour I had once done him long ago, whether I was once in the Railways. He had now come to see whether estimates sent by PWD Executive Engineer Kegalle have been approved. On that occasion he told me how he followed-up all matters pertaining to his electorate by visiting the relevant offices and meeting officers to expedite work. Surprisingly, he lost the next election by a small margin but never failed to follow-up work he had started in the electorate he represented.

When I was transferred to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development, the Ministry of Highways was scrapped and brought under the Mahaweli Ministry leaving the Department of Highways to function as it was. He used to visit me there in connection with electorate work and the talk went round that I was a UNPer. I will not relate the consequences of that but only say I was transferred back to Department of Highways and after about one year brought back.

Then when the Sirima Bandaranaike government was defeated at the next election, Wijetunga was once again elected as MP for Udunuwara; the Mahaweli Ministry was disbanded and Ministry for Power, Energy and Highways was formed. At a conference chaired by Wijetunga, where the separation of departments was discussed, he asked me what Ministry I propose to work at. When I said Ministry for Mahaweli, he said “You had been a Highways man, so why do you choose Mahaweli’. Before I could reply, he turned to the Secretary, James H Lanerolle and said ” James, take him to my Ministry”, much to my embarrassment. I thought the Secretary may think I would be a tale carrier to the Minister. However my fears were allayed in the manner Mr. Lanerolle treated me and promoted me take on added responsibilities.

Later Wijetunga was assigned the portfolio of Posts and Telecommunication, by President JRJ.

I recall another instance of his simplicity when he was Finance Minister with an office at the Old Secretariat. I was waiting with several others for the lift to go up to the second floor. The liftman didn’t allow us to get in as Minister Wijetunga was approaching, he saw me and the others and beckoned us to get in.

He was a simple man whatever position he held and trusted his officials some of whom took advantage of his nature. He had a faithful Co-ordinating Secretary, Wilson who was also a friend of mine. One day an engineer -friend Arulambalam who fled the country during LTTE uprising and was in England for over ten years came back after the war and found the telephone at his house on Station Road, Wellawatte, disconnected. He contacted me to help get it reconnected. I took him to Wijetunga who was then the Minister for Post and Telecommunication. When I introduced Arulambalam as an engineer who worked in the Railways, to our surprise he said ‘ Why I know him. What’s your problem?’. When he was told the reason for our visit, he instructed Wilson to get all the particulars and telephone the Chief Telecommunication Engineer to attend to the matter immediately. Walking out of the building my friend Arulambalam said that this was the first time he had met Wijetunga “and how could he say he knows me.” I laughed and said he is a very simple man, and that is a ‘politrick’ of politicians. On my way back home after office that evening, I dropped in at Arulambalam’s to see the re-connection had been done by 3 pm that day.

Once when I was travelling from Kandy to Colombo with my niece, I made an unannounced call at Prime Minister Wijetunga’s residence at Pilimatalawa. I was asked whether I had an appointment and when I replied ‘No,’ identified myself and asked at least to send a message to the PM saying I was there to meet him, this was done with much reluctance. To the amazement of the security officer, the PM asked him send me in while others waited. He was happy to see me, ordered tea and we had a pleasant chat. In the course of this conversation, referring to various sorts of government servants, he said that there are efficient and hard working officials, but there were others like the Mara trees in the jungle that grow huge but are of no use at all! My niece still chuckles over this remark.

Once I asked him why he did not contest the Presidential Election at the end of his period serving the balance term of President Premadasa. He said Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted him to step down but if he had contested, he had a better chance than Ranil.

I remember with gratitude that he once willingly helped get my son into DS Senanayake College. I told him that living in Boralesgamuwa, I found it difficult to get my son into a Colombo school. He promptly rang Principal R.I.T.Alles, and got the boy in. Such humble, simple and lovable, approachable people in high positions are hard to find.

The writer retired as an Asst. Secy. to

the Ministry of Power and Energy



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Features

It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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