By H.M. Nissanka Warakaulle
It was the year 1962. I was getting ready to sit the final year examination of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, in April of that year. The University authorities had distributed a schedule among the final year students for those who would like to get a teaching appointment to indicate their preferences of Districts where they would like to teach. I indicated Kandy as my first preference and Matale as the second. I finished my last paper on the 26th of April. Soon after finishing the examination, I received a letter from the Department of Education appointing me as an Assistant Teacher in the Maha Vidyalaya in Dambulla with effect from 2nd May. That was how the undergraduates were given recognition then. Teaching appointments even before the results of degree examination were released!
On the 01st of May in the afternoon I left home and boarded a long distance bus from Kandy which was going past Dambulla. In those days as there was not much traffic on the roads and the drivers were very careful, the bus reached , covering the distance of forty 45 miles (this was how we measured the distances then before the metric system took over) in one and a half hours and stopped at the small bus stand close to the Dambulla temple. I alighted from the bus and now had to find my way to the school. As I was a stranger in town (I am not sure whether it could be called a town at that time), I had to ask a few persons and after getting the directions right, arrived at the school. The school was located between the Kandy and the Kurunegala Roads. Later, I used to carry a torch in case I arrived in Dambulla after dusk the trek to the school though short, was dangerous as there were serpents on the road.
The school at that time had only one building and there was another old building which was divided into two separate sections. One section was used as the teachers’ quarters and the other as the home of the Overseer of the then Public Works Department. The teachers’ quarters had accommodation for only four persons. Fortunately for me there was accommodation available with a bed, mattress, pillow and a mosquito net. I immediately parked myself in this gloomy place as there was no other suitable place in the whole town. Just before darkness fell, one of the resident teachers would light the petromax lamp which was the source of light at that time.
Having arrived at the school and sorted out the accommodation, the next thing was the meals. Fortunately the other teachers had arranged a woman to supply the meals and I too joined the club. So this woman, better known as Buth Amma used to bring the meals always on time. We did not worry to find out her real name but continued to address her in the newly established name linked to her then vocation. Of course, at that stage I could not worry about the hygienic ways of her preparing the meals as it was Hobson’s choice! There was no decent place in Dambulla town at that time to have even a good hygienically prepared cup of tea, except the dingy looking rest house.
Dambulla at that time was famous for the cave temple. Then it was in its original state without the hideous looking additions that have come up of recent times which have spoilt the appearance and the value of the temple. From the point where the temple is situated up to the Mirsgoniyawa junction there were only three permanent buildings in Dambulla. They were the school(then a Maha Vidyalaya), the police station and the government hospital. Of course, in addition to these there were the rest house on the Kandy Road and the small building on the Kurunegala Road used as the circuit court (this was used about once in two months).
As Dambulla was bordering the dry zone, most of the period of the year it was dry and hot, especially in the afternoons. During this dry period there was no cultivation possible. The farmers in most of the areas had to depend entirely on the North East monsoon and the convectional afternoon thunder showers in April and October to cultivate the paddy lands as well as the vegetables and fruits, including those lands that were used as chenas. Those farmers who had their paddy fields close to the Kandalama tank used to get water for cultivation from the tank. When the harvesting is done, the vegetables and fruits were sold at unbelievably low prices so that for a mere five rupees one could obtain a large amount of vegetables. At that time Kandalama was just a village with a few inhabitants and remained as such till the hotel designed by Bevis Bawa, was constructed.
We had to have our baths drawing the water from a well. The water in the well as elsewhere in Dambulla was brackish. We had to use this water for our tea as well as to drink after meals. As a result of this water I had kidney problems which was overcome with the help of antibiotics from a reputed doctor in Kandy.
During the time I was in Dambulla, a group of us went to do some cleaning of the roadway to the Somawathi Chaitya on a shramadana basis. At that time there was no macadamized road leading to the chaitya which was in a thick jungle. It was a cart track with footprints and dung of wild elephants seen everywhere. We cleaned the shrubs that had grown on this cart track. The Chaitya was discoloured, it had not been whitewashed for a long time as there was no temple near the chaitya at that time.
There was no laundry in Dambulla to get the soiled clothes and linen laundered so that I had to take them home to be laundered and take them back when getting back to school on Monday morning.
It was with the Gam Udawa that was held in Dambulla that the town developed to what it is today. By that time I had left Dambulla as I managed to get a transfer to a school in Ankumbura. With the advent of the Gam Udawa, gradually the sleepy hamlet developed into a busy township. Now there were street lights and water on taps and house owners were able to obtain electricity to light up their houses. Then came the first five star hotel in Kandalama overlooking the Kandalama tank and the hotel being merged with the vegetation in the background. A number of other hotels sprang up later on. In addition the cricket stadium too was constructed just outside the town limits. Dambulla developed into the main distribution centre for vegetables and the town became a very busy hub with a heavy flow of traffic.
The Maha Vidalaya where I was teaching has been upgraded to a Madhya Maha Vidyalaya with a number of new buildings coming up. The school which had about 60 students and a staff of about 10 teachers had now developed to cater to a student population of about 600 students with a staff of about 25 teachers. However, I must mention that even with the few facilities we had at that time a few students gained admission to the universities and some even were successful in joining the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Though the facilities available at the time I was in Dambulla was nowhere compared to what we enjoyed at Peradeniya, it was a fruitful experience as I was able to teach the children to enhance their knowledge in the subjects I taught which gave me a lot of satisfaction.
A tribute to vajira
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 email@example.com
It’s all about France in 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
Problem of being identical twin of a politician
This is an amusing incident that took place several years ago. One evening we, then schoolboys, were playing soft ball cricket at the Mahinda College grounds, when someone came rushing up and told us that a young servant girl of a certain household had climbed a huge tree as a mark of protest over some wrong done to her, and was refusing to get down.
All of us, including Minister Rupa Karnatilleke, who was a schoolmate of mine, ran to see the unusual sight, to find a huge crowd already there. It was almost dusk, and there was this pretty creature perched precariously on one of the topmost branches of a massive Donga tree. It was a stupendous task.
“I want to speak to Dahanayake hamumahattaya” cried the lass.” I won’t come down till he gets here!” (Being a son of a Muhandiram, W was hamumahattaya to everybody, despite being a vociferous Sama Samajist).
W. Dahanayake was away in Colombo, attending a sitting of the State Council. (He was MSC for Bibile at the time) and everybody looked at each other in dismay. Then someone got a brainwave.
“I will get him”, he shouted to the girl who was on the tree, and sped away. A few minutes later he was back with W’s twin brother Kalyanspriya, who spoke soothingly to the girl and persuaded her to get down, promising that her grievance would be looked into.
At the 1947 general election, the first to the newly created house of Representatives, W’ twin brother K contested the Colombo Central Seat. Unlike today’s elections, the earlier ones were spread over a number of days. (As everybody knows, it was W, then Prime Minister, who held the very first one-day general election in March 1960).
On the first day of the 1947 elections, Sir Vaithyalingam Doraisamy, the Speaker of the outgoing State Council lost. On the second day, Sir Susantha de Fonseka, the Deputy Speaker, lost.
A few days later, while W was addressing one of his brother’s meetings, an Inspector of Police strode up to the platform and said,” Mr. Dahanayaka, you are permitted to use loudspeakers only until 10.00 p.m. It is now 10.05. I don’t care if you haven’t finished your speech, I am going to disconnect the loudspeaker.”
As the Inspector did so W yelled: “Sahodaravaruni, on the first day, Speaker giyaa! On the second day Deputy Speaker giyaa! Onna dhan loud sepakeruth giyaa!” (On the first day, the Speaker went! On the second day, the Deputy Speaker went! And now the loud speaker has gone!”
In the late nineteen forties, there was a large crowd on the side of a road. A woman was pitching into K accusing him of not attending to some matter of hers after solemnly promising to do so. It was obvious to everybody that she had mistaken him for his twin brother W, the then MP for Galle.
K then asked a friend of his, who was there, to tell this woman that she was making a mistake and that he was not the MP. His friend did as he was requested and the woman then turning on K’s fired in fury shrieked, “Tho mata Kiyanna enawada …..”(“Are you trying to tell me ….”) and went on to say that she had known W for years and years, and the hapless man at the receiving end of her tirade was he.
Later, the matters were sorted out and K told his friend ruefully, “This is one of the hazards of being the identical twin of a politician!”
Once during a school excursion, the students visited Sir John’s Kandawala Estate with their teachers. Seeing K, Sir John asked him” I say Daha! What are you doing here?”
“Sir, he is my elder brother,” said K.
Once the Secretary to the Prime Minister Bradman Weerakoon said. “The twin brothers were exceedingly close and one of the real friends Dahanayake had was indeed his twin brother who visited him often at Temple Trees. It was quite difficult at the beginning and especially when they were together to determine who in fact was the Prime Minister?”.
The remains of the assassinated Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was lying-in-state in Parliament and K went to pay his last respects.
W had been sworn in as the new Prime Minister, and the two brothers travelled to the House-by-the-sea in the Prime Minister’s official car.
As the car stopped at the entrance to the House, a police officer sprang forward and opened the door on the side K was seated. As K stepped out of the car, all the police and other service officers present clicked their heels and saluted him smartly.
When W got out from the other side, their jaws dropped and they looked around in consternation and confusion – for they were quite unaware of the existence of W’s identical twin!
K knew his crowd psychology just as much as W. My friend Siri, who was once the Registrar of the Galle High Court, was then a student at the Hikkaduwa Central College, when K joined the staff as an English teacher.
On the first day or second, he took the lessons from the back of the class.
“Yes, he would say suddenly in the middle of a lesson. You there, Sirisena, give a word having a similar meaning”. And a very surprised Sirisena would rise and answer. And, so, it went on, right from the very first day. K would call out a name from the back of the class, and the student concerned would get up and answer.
The students were most impressed. How could the new teacher know their names so soon?
One day, a daring student surreptitiously took a peek at the teacher standing at the back of the class – and the cat was out! K had a list of the names of the students, copied from the class register, in his hand, and he would call out a name at random. And he stood at the back of the class, because then he didn’t have to look at the student as he called out his name, for he didn’t know whom the name belonged to!
It was a tradition of the Hikkaduwa Central in the old days that a member of the academic staff had to be elected President of the College Literary Union.
One year a rather unpopular teacher who nursed ambitions of becoming the President, got two of his ‘stooges’ to propose and second his name.
“Any other names?” asked the principal who was presiding. (Usually, there was no contest for this post). And immediately Siri, who was a student then, jumped to his feet and proposed the name of K the popular English teacher.
“Have you got Mr. Dahanayake’s permission to propose his name?” asked the Principal sternly, knowing a contest was going to be an undignified thing.
“Yes, sir,” replied Siri without batting an eyelid.
The two names were put to the vote, and, of course. K won resoundingly. As soon as the result was announced, Siri sped to the Staff Room and told K what had happened, apologizing profusely for not obtaining his permission beforehand.
“That’s alright, my boy” said K gazing at the excited student with a twinkle in his eye. “I won’t let you down!”
Parakrama, a son of K, who was at the time the private secretary to W, the Minister of Cooperatives, wrote to “Amita’s column in The Island“, giving a vivid description of the farewell dinner to the then principal of Richmond College B. Suriarachchi, who was leaving to take up the new post of principal, Royal College.
He stated that 300 old Richmondites who had gathered for the occasion lustily sang.
“Richmond to the fore/boys let the air resound/Richmond to the fore/boys let the cry go round..” adding that the speeches were spicy and witty and that C. J. Seneviratne, the President of the Galle Bar Association came out with this exhortation to the young ladies of Galle:
“When from school you depart,
This lesson you should impart –
To live in dignity and grace,
You must a Richmondite embrace.”
Vijaya was another son of K. He was once the Mayor of Galle. On the day of his funeral, a trade unionist said. “Today, ends the era of gentlemen politics of Galle.”
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