Revolutionising actor training through indigenous corporeal arts
By Sajitha Prematunge
The various thuds, groans and gasps begged the question, were the participants insured? Apparently not, according to the AHEAD project team, lead by University of Visual and Performing Arts, Faculty of Dance and Drama, Professor in Theatre and Drama, Dr. Saumya Liyanage. The training takes place three days per week and make no mistake, Angampora is harder than it looks. But it is not life threatening if trained by a professional Master, assured Liyanage.
Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) is a World Bank funded government initiative aimed at supporting the higher education sector with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education as the implementing agency and the University Grants Commission (UGC) coordinating the activities in the universities.
“The objective of AHEAD is to develop IT skills, English language proficiency as well as innovation and research in the government university sector,” informed Liyanage. The programme provides funding under three key areas, one being development-oriented research, under which Liyanage’s research project proposal titled ”Lamp in a windless place’: Developing an Actor Training Methodology through Sri Lankan Combative Art Forms’ was selected for funding. The project explores the effectiveness of actor training through Angampora.
Liyanage explained that while Europeans are more explorative and there exists an intercultural discussion on performer training traditions, the potential of indigenous martial arts in developing an actor training methodology had not been explored at length before Phillip Zarrilli’s research. Liyanage was influenced by Exeter University, UK Professor Zarrilli’s research. Having met and worked with him, during an actor training workshop in India, Zarrilli’s work inspired the conception of Liyanage’s project. “Zarrilli developed an actor training methodology using Kerala-based form of martial arts, Kalaripayattu.” “But this is the first time the potential of Angampora, as a Sri Lankan combative art form, is being explored in terms of actor training,” said Hillary.
Lead academic expert of AHEAD Operation, Prof Thusitha Abeytunga and World Bank lead economist, Dr. Harsha Aturupane has been of immense support to them. “It takes a lot of effort, on their side, to appreciate the significance of this project, particularly from an economic perspective,” said Hillary. “Providing financial support to actor training research is an alien concept even for them,” confessed Liyanage. He said that he is grateful that his project is one of few from Humanities funded by AHEAD.
“The funding is provided as a soft loan, meaning the government has to pay it back eventually. But in essence, it is the public who has to bear the cost,” said Liyanage, pointing out that it is imperative that the public knows that they are paying for a good cause. “Contrary to popular belief that they are stagnating, universities actually do good work. For example, we produce academic papers quite frequently, but the general public is not exposed to them, simply because they are subject specific papers.”
The 10 million grant, offered for a period of three years, is being put to good use. The academic aspect of the project requires actual research work to be undertaken. “It makes for a healthy blend of academic exploration and practice,” said Liyanage. Consequently, much of the first year was spent on research and development of two MPhil degrees. Liyanage, Team Member, Natasha Hillary and the research assistants write academic papers while training takes place simultaneously. “Because it is only with the justification through academic writing, a qualitative method of evaluation, can we prove the objective or the outcome of the project,” said Hillary. Institute of Arts Barcelona, Spain has agreed to allocate the next issue of their journal to the project. Liyanage opined that developing new theory is an integral part of the project. “Later we would focus on developing an actor training methodology in a laboratory setting.”
In the second year an actor training laboratory was established within the university. “But we have not yet been able to make full use of it, because the university is currently off limits due to the prevailing pandemic situation,” admitted Liyanage. Hillary explained that the World Bank usually funds research projects and development of university infrastructure. “Such as the actor training laboratory, which the university was much in need of.” She explained that securing funding and actually keeping the project on par with other World Bank funded projects was no cake-walk. “They have a strict monitoring mechanism and we are expected to achieve Key Performance Indicators, within the project structure, that varies from academic papers, research problems to presentations at international symposia or conferences.”
According to Hillary University Business Linkages acts as a business partner to the project. “For example if the project achieves the results we hope it would it qualifies for a patent, where in a new course can be introduced, enabling actors to apply and learn this form of martial arts during their studies at the university.” She pointed out that students have hardly any opportunity to be exposed to such martial arts, within the university curriculum. “But if the project becomes a success it can even be converted to an internship,” informed Hillary.
Liyanage explained that although the university system produces quality graduates, there is no vibrant industry to absorb them, compared to countries like India. “The issue is that we have a small television industry, theatre is almost negligible and film industry is stagnant.” Liyanage explained that they are striving to produce high quality graduates to improve the industry, by honing their language skills, soft skills and IT skills.
Acting and martial arts
“Perfection of any martial arts requires discipline,” said Liyanage. “It is a very corporeal teaching methodology based on a traditional master-disciple relationship.” The basic principle is imitation of the master and imitation is a form of acting, explained Liyanage. “Attentiveness is essential in both mastering a form of martial arts and in acting. The presence of an actor is another key element in performing,” explained Liyanage. “It’s not mere personality, an actor’s presence is something else entirely. Just being in front of the camera or on stage, conveys a message and can count as presence.”
Training in martial arts also prepares an actor psychophysically, explained Liyanage. Liyanage points out that martial arts such as Angampora trains both body and mind simultaneously. “In fact, in the west there is a clear demarcation between mind and matter. This is a philosophical problem. However, in major Asian corporeal arts there is no distinction between mind and body. Philosophically, Angampora also reflects this unity of the body-mind.” Liyanage believes that this can be adapted as a philosophical base for actor training, as psychophysical actor training focuses on the body-mind functionality of the actor.
In fact, how the psychophysical approaches of ancient martial arts can be incorporated into actor training is what initially attracted Research Assistant, Lyudmyla Honcharova to the project. Honcharova admitted that she had always been attracted to martial arts. Honcharova observed that her training is more mentally challenging that it is physically so. “What constraints us is really a construct of the mind. Your body can take it, but your mind holds you back. But the master coaxes the students into pushing those psychological boundaries, to overcome your fears. This in the long run, builds self confidence.” Honcharova explained that if an actor is unsure of him or herself and hesitate on stage or set, it does not make the acting plausible. “The audience will see right through it. To become the character you portray, to become someone else, first you have to know yourself.”
Honcharova opined that the well-being of actors is something often ignored in traditional actor training. “Acting as a profession is both mentally and physically very rigorous. So it’s important that you know how to transit from your daily life to your stage life. A gap in actor training is that this is not taught.” Honcharova explained that, in contrast, martial arts have a solid structure, with warmups, the main session and the cooling down. “Angampora is not just about fighting, but about healing and both physical and mental well-being. Martial arts teaches you how to take care of your body, how to treat injury. It is specially based on Ayurvedic practices, capable of treating many ailments.”
Honcharova opined that Angampora helps one connect with the surrounding environment better and facilitates smoother energy flow, while also allowing one to concentrate on the different parts of the body. “The Angampora sessions start with meditation and it really helps to focus. In martial arts focus is vital, because you need to be able to foresee your opponent’s moves and you need to be observant and attentive. All these translate well into acting, since acting also involves multitasking in the form of interacting with other actors on stage, audience and delivering dialogue.” Honcharova explained that in both martial arts and acting the body becomes the main instrument. “So, although the two seems mutually exclusive, they are in fact mutually beneficial,” argued Honcharova.
Thilakshini Ratnayake, who has been engaged in theatre for over 10 years and have acted in several teledramas and films, is no stranger to acting. Ratnayake had acted in Vishama Bhaga, Silence in the Courts, Let Her Cry and Koombiyo, with two more movies in the pipeline. Her latest project is her role as Sulo in Thanamalvila Kollek. Ratnayake graduated with a Bachelor of Information Technology – external (BIT) from the Colombo University in 2010. Later she switched to Theatre Studies at the University of Visual and Performing Arts. Is is currently reading for her level II diploma in Drama and Theatre Studies at Trinity College London.
Ratnayake has attempted to apply what she had learned through the AHEAD project to her acting. Ratnayake pointed out that Angampora demands focus and coordination. “My focus and coordination between mind and body has improved. Movement needs to be coordinated, precise, purposeful and you have to be able to imagine your opponent. That’s very much like acting. When you act you may not have props or the other actors around, so a vivid imagination helps.” Consequently, the two can be mutually beneficial, opined Ratnayake. She admits that the training has heightened her focus and bodily awareness.
An injury deters Ratnayake from taking physical risks. But with the training she received from the AHEAD project, she has learned to relax and be more receptive to reactions from other actors and input from the director. “This kind of training also trains you to respect your body. My eating habits have gotten healthier and I’m more disciplined since I started training.” Ratnayake has learned to maintain a strict regimen in terms of physical health, eating right and getting regular hours of sleep. “I feel responsible for my body.”
Angampora is his forefathers legacy to Guru Karunapala, their Angampora master. Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers were Angampora masters of the Kotte tradition. Karunapala took up Angampora at the tender age of six. By the end of his studies he had become such a formidable Angampora fighter that he could kill a man with a newspaper, in quite the literal sense. He also perfected the art of using pressure points in combat and learned indigenous medicine for various ailments.
Karunapala had a tough training regimen, climbing arecanut trees in the rain and training ‘geta poottu’, different types moves or knots using one’s own limbs, in muddy paddy fields. A fully grown person can be incapacitated by tying him or her up with his or her own limbs, informed Karunapala. In fact, he said that a mere jerk of the opponent’s arm or pressing the right pressure point can nearly incapacitate an opponent for an extended period of time. “So you wouldn’t have to resort to killing.”
According to Karunapala, Angampora employs few of the oldest forms of physical exercise, such as locking one in a dandukanda (a pillory-like device). “This particular form of exercise strengthens the back and those who practice it will never hunch even at the age of 80 or 90.” While he was training he was required to do certain stretching exercises in the confines of a well. “It was called a ‘ling gete.’ Such exercises condition and strengthen the body.” Making one able to fight while standing on one foot. For most it’s nearly impossible to lift 100 pounds. But due to Karunapala’s rigorous weight lifting exercises, he can easily lift 350 pounds despite his 80 years. “In weights training, you are expected to lift other people, and the weight is increased daily, gradually.” Karunapala informed that certain breathing techniques are also employed in weight training. “When you have trained properly you can lift a fully grown cow without breaking a sweat.”
He explained that most of the Angampora moves are based on animal behaviour and certain moves are not taught because they are simply too dangerous. In fact, after mastering several of the styles Karunapala graduated only after vowing, standing neck deep in water with seven pots of milk on his head, never to use the moves to another’s detriment. He went back on his oath only once when he incapacitated 18 LTTE cadres single-handed. But this was a transparent matter of self defence.
“In all there are 64 styles. For example, the mantis is a harmless insect, but the Angampora style based on the mantis can be deadly.” The ‘Polu Sellama’ or fighting using staffs is based on deer fights using antlers. The ‘pimburu gete’ is based on pythons’ flexibility. The leopard and bear styles are some other such examples. “All these styles are slowly dying now,” said Karunapala, because some masters failed to pass the teachings onto the next generation. “Besides, people are too caught up in their economic strife, trying to make ends meet, than to take up something such as Angampora.”
Pics by Thushara Athapaththu
India Forges ahead even arts-wise; Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy (?)
Hope springs eternal in the human breast, it is said, but if the breast is of a national-minded Sri Lankan, hope cannot rise; it is stifled by fear, worry, frustration and stark disappointment. Government persons are flapping their upper limbs and crowing about improvement in the economy; nothing much for us Ordinaries to experience or savour.
The President has announced the thuttu deke Sri Lankan rupee has risen against the dollar as if he had achieved the fall in the price of the dollar himself with his great economic expertise. Yes, the value of the dollar has declined from its 360 plus worth but if anyone has to be thanked, Cass boldly affirms, it is the Governor of the Central Bank, bless him, our Saviour at this moment. He works cleverly we have to presume, with dedication and loyalty to the nation, gaining nothing himself except his remuneration which we believe he could very well have done without as he was recalled from retirement in Australia to haul the nation out of the economic blackhole it had been pushed into by its own bigwigs – a past Prez, a former PM who, when he was Prez, borrowed mostly from the Chinaman to build his Ozymandias constructions to have his name emblazoned on them. Assisting these two, pulling the strings and side driving in government, was a former Minister of Finance who absented himself often from Parliament when the budget he presented was being discussed. Then there were ministry secretaries and CB high ups and a Gov himself who helped in pushing the rupee to near worthlessness and the country firmly into bankruptcy. This they did in brotherhood, three of them, and unitedly, willfully and most insanely with glaring mismanagement and mistakes.
And we sit and mourn and suffer on account of their mistakes. Some rose in unison and protested and we saw drastic changes in top positions but not in structures and systems. Naturally, and to be accepted, is the fact that recovery will be very slow and very painful. Those who rise up in protest now – chief among them being the IUSF and persons like Stalin whoever – are only a menace and obstacle to whatever economic progress is underway. We see and hear some of the earlier bootlickers of the R clan, or their kith and kin, pontificating again. Cass mentioned three such in her last week’s column. Add to them a horizontally gifted Minister who is guilty of and charged in court for soliciting payment to do some job he had to do; and another who is associated, wrongly or rightly Cass knows not, in the drug trade. He came to the limelight when rescued in a VVIP power driven helicopter with the said power as an actual presence. Only blood relatives are thus treated!
This is miserable Sri Lanka’s side of the picture. Cass cannot help but create the analogy of a beautiful damsel who pleases in every way, being raped by greed and lack of any sense of decency or humanity but totally for selfish gain by rapacious persons to gain power and enjoy the perks accompanying. Thus, she is grievously harmed and injured both physically and mentally. A brave person comes along and rescues her and attempts giving her the chance to recapture her charms. Cass supposes this could be the present Gov of the CB and not the IMF which organization has its own agenda.
And, so we have secured IMF emergency funding. We hear congratulations to Prez Ranil W being extended by SLPP MPs in Parliament. The SLPP may gloat but the Prez has wisely warned our troubles are far from over. TV1 in its news broadcast on W ednesday night had an accurate recalling of how the IMF loan came to be granted.
Hearing the loan was approved and the first tranche would soon be released had the immediate image crossing Cass’ mind of some in power salivating with selfish greed to get their hands on bits of it. But to her great delight she finds that one superb condition, loudly greeted, of granting relief through the IMF is that corruption must be reduced and eradicated. Tall order but it is there in black and white so maybe ticking minds will slow down and seeking/grabbing hands held back.
My title speaks of India. Yes, it is outstandingly clear how far India has progressed in its development and position it now holds in the world. She was burdened with a huge and ever bloating population; widespread poverty; a high percent of illiteracy and lack of education; internecine strife between races and religions and the ever-bubbling Kashmir problem. But just see how far she has progressed, outpacing some developed countries, almost on par with China and courted by the US and EU. I remember vividly a cartoon seen when she entered the Nuclear Club which had just five members. The cartoon showed a bare-bodied man in a dhoti entering a posh club with its wide chairs and bar. India now hopes to join the outer space travellers’ club. There was rampant corruption but laws and the right for the public to report and even bring to Court malpractices of bureaucrats and politicians has reduced the prevalence of this canker. Vigilante groups rendered great service.
I mentioned the arts in my title. This because India has bagged two Oscars this year, one for best short documentary and the other for best song. I watched both films: Elephant whisperers and RRR. The first was of an elephant nursery in South India. I thought our Uda Walawe elephant orphanage where abandoned infant animals are nurtured and rehabilitated to go back to their jungle living could have been filmed to an even better documentary. RRR had the rousing song Naatu, Naatu. Goodness! It was a typical South Indian, though Hindi film of impossible feats of bravery, blood drenched and insanely melodramatic. But the songs were superb.
It was said three conditions held the vast subcontinent as one country – after Pakistan broke away. They were: the continuation of democracy and the efficient bureaucracy the British left; the widespread use of English and it being the main language of communication between the centre and states; and communication in the way of a wide web of railways. Cass feels the most important positive that not only held the country as one vast collection of states but also aided its development and march forward to be one of the VIP countries of the world is that Indians are first and last Indians, whether of the south, east, north or west; and their ardent patriotism.
We Sri Lankans lack these great and good qualities.
We invariably intoned “poor Bangladesh”, considering it would always be battered by tidal waves and floods and continually poverty stricken with two widows clawing for power. Look at her now! She lent us money; she is moving upwards as a self-sufficient country looking after its population. While our GMOA and universities acted strong against private medical education, a college in Chittagong earned plenty forex from just our students alone among its international student body.
A radical change in systems, mass and individual behaviours and mostly in those who rule the country is urgently needed. We are in another debt, this time to the IMF. We need to get back on our feet. We stood firm a couple of decades back. With our positives, mainly of clever, educated people, and potential of the country we can get out of the dire straits we are in. Will we even now wake up and work unitedly while getting rid of the dregs of society that wield power?
The Box of Delights
Seeing through testing times and the future
Text of the Keynote address By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.
At the beginning of this year I read again, after well over half a century, a delightful book by John Masefield, called The Box of Delights. A feature of this box was that it allowed one to travel swiftly, and to make oneself very small. It struck me then that these magical properties were what is needed for us to do better in the field of English Language Teaching. Those making the running as it were must move very quickly, and they must be able to think like the young do, the very young but also all those students who need to be motivated to learn.
Unfortunately, all efforts to take things forward have to contend with the blockages imposed by the equivalent of Masefield’s coven of witches in an earlier novel, The Midnight Folk, now turned sanctimonious as potential churchmen in The Box of Delights. Who these are in real life varies from generation to generation, but what they have in common is slowness of thought and execution, and an incapacity to think except as adults, and sometimes not even that!
At the end of last year, I came to this university to celebrate a welcome initiative on the part of your Library, together with Madhbhashini Ratnayake of the English Language Teaching Department, the first major contribution to English Language Teaching – or Learning as I prefer to term it – since the nineties. In that decade too personnel at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura played a major role in taking things forward, and I was happy to learn that now too those in authority have given unstinting support to the innovations your colleagues are trying to introduce nationwide. But remember that the midnight folk are always waiting to pounce, the negative ones, though I should note that Masefield also thinks of the little people who help as midnight folk, working with their lights under a bushel.
Let me now speak briefly of those initiatives of the nineties, even though this may seem an arrogant move, given how central I was to all the developments of those days. But I should make it clear that none of this would have been possible without not just strong but also imaginative support from many others, including two fantastic practitioners of English Language Teaching at this University, Parvathi Nagasunderam and Oranee Jansz. Interestingly, the latter was not initially enthusiastic about the former joining the university, because she was a strong proponent of autonomy for the English Language Teaching Unit, and resented what she thought was potential interference by a recruit to what was then the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies. The then Vice-Chancellor had expressed the view that Paru should be appointed to head the ELTU, but there was such opposition to this that the incumbent who had resigned reassumed the position.
Oranee herelf changed completely when there was opposition on racist grounds to Paru by other members of the ELTU, and not only supported Paru thereafter, but took another Tamil recruit whom the other ladies were attacking to work with her in the Medical Faculty. Her imaginative approach there meant that USJP medical students were accepted much sooner by the medical hierarchy than graduates from other new medical faculties – since as you know the establishment in this country belittled any new medical faculty, and in turn, when that faculty gained wider acceptance, it joined the old guard in belittling new ones. Kelaniya and Ruhuna and Sri Jayewardenepura and Rajarata have suffered such persecution in turn, though perhaps that mentality has now changed for the Sabaragamuwa Medical Faculty has not had to face similar belittling.
My return to the state system was because of an initiative by Prof Arjuna Aluvihare to extend opportunities in tertiary education, and to do this in particular with regard to English. Typically, the Midnight Folk sniffed at this, anguished by the thought of English being made available at tertiary level to students who had not studied English at the GCE Advanced Level, in short, to students outside the charmed circle of Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna. After all, as one professor put it, when earlier I had suggested syllabus revision to incorporate Sri Lankan writing in English, her students could go to Cambridge for postgraduate work, though in actual fact no one from that university or indeed any other in Sri Lanka had gone there for postgraduate work for two decades.
So, it was USJP that took up the challenge, through the then Dean of Arts, Mahinda Palihawadana, whose erudition too I see has been honoured by the republication of a seminal work on the Vedas. Given his wide-ranging sense of commitment to students as well as books, he roped me in, and persuaded me to join the university, which seemed essential to keep things going, for he himself was on the verge of retirement. So, I not only took charge of the English Diploma course at six Affiliated University Colleges and of General English at five others but also transformed English at this university, introducing an English Language component in addition to English Literature. And this was available also in the External Degree we started, which rapidly became the most popular external degree in the whole university system.
I was able to do all this because of the wonderful support I had in the Department, and in time Paru expanded on this, when, finally, an English Department was established here. She also when we requested this from the Ministry introduced English Language Teaching as a component of the external degree, which was a great boon to teachers nationwide. Again, in those days, at the turn of the century, the other universities refused, for they still believed pedagogical skills had nothing to do with academia.
That situation has now changed, and all universities I believe understand the need for this, though I fear the idea has not penetrated into other skulls, whereas we also need for instance components of teaching mathematics in university mathematics degrees, if we are to develop STEM education. But while successive ministers of education talk about this, they will not ensure the elementary measures needed to promote such education, namely to produce better teachers – and swiftly, as I started by saying we must ensure with regard to all positive measures.
I have spoken thus far of the colleagues I worked with in the university system to change things so swiftly in the nineties, after half a century of moribundity as to tertiary level English. But there were also other tools essential to take things forward. The most important of these were materials, and materials that could be made readily available, for students to be able to own them and work with them on their own.
This was an area in which The Midnight Folk had a particularly baneful impact. They did not believe in materials which students could use on their own, and instead thought that education demanded power in the hands of the teacher. Thus materials were not easy to understand, and had to be explicated further, and all this meant enormous profits for those who produced materials, books prepared by teams whose members vied to impress each other rather than produce what students could readily understand, and then teachers’ guides which also had to be studied, and only by the teacher. The fact that these did not always reach students and teachers in time – the more remote the area, the greater the delay in transmission – meant nothing in a context in which the production of materials, and the money made on them, through allowances for preparation and contracts for printing, was an end in itself, with little thought for the use that was to be made of them.
I transformed this, using a system I had instituted while at the British Council, where fortunately those in charge accepted my argument that we needed to develop the reading habit, and we could best do this by producing low cost readers. A stream of these were produced, initially costing Rs. 5 each, which meant they were snapped up by students all over the country. And thus we could reprint without further subsidy.
We had produced well over 50 titles at different levels by the time I joined USJP, and we then produced dozens more which were made available to students, some at just Rs. 10. Needless to say I was accused of making money on this, though the students themselves, who had initially objected to paying for materials – provoked by The Midnight Folk who did not like the successful impact of my programmes – agreed that Rs 10 simply covered costs and that, having got money, from the Canadians who were very supportive, to publish the first copies, I was not going to go begging again to them.
Unfortunately, this very simple principle, that we cannot live for ever on handouts, is very far from the minds of our decision makers, for as you can now see, when we are hopelessly in debt, the only answer they can think of is more debt. The idea of generating income, of using borrowed money only to promote productivity that can pay for itself, the horror of sinking further and further into debt that future generations will have to repay at the cost of their own productivity, is not something that occurs to the unimaginative Midnight Folk.
To return to the idea of producing our own, I believe that over the years I have been responsible for well over a million books for language learning, which were snapped up by students all over the country. I had wonderful collaborators in this project, Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Sybil Wettasinghe and Madhubhashini Dissanayake as she then was for primary and secondary level, Madhu again and also Nirmali and then Janaki Galappatti (and a team of university scientists) and Goolbai Gunasekara and Oranee and the ELTU head Damayanthi Ahangama for tertiary level, Paru and Dinali Fernando – who was at USJP for several years – and Rapti de Silva, later of Moratuwa University, for pedagogical input.
We used these materials, refined further, when Oranee and I were also asked to take charge of the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) project, where we changed the term teaching to training, for we were also concerned to introduce soft skills, the first time in this country, long before they became fashionable – and still with no proper system to develop them nationwide. Sadly the Life Skills curriculum developed when I headed the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education was perverted to exclude this, with a change of Minister and another of the Midnight Folk appointed in my stead. Entertainingly that same Minister is now in charge of education, and tertiary education and vocational education too, for the umpteenth time, with nothing to show for his many periods in office, only sanctimonious pronouncements.
(to be continued)
Happy Birthday dearest Mrs. Peries !
Dear Mrs. Peries,
So you would have turned 88 today, 24th March 2023. On a day like this, my mind goes back many, many years, to all those birthday parties and celebrations at the old Dickman’s Road (Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha) house.
Birthday month at No 24 residence spanned both March and April and usually kicked off today, when in the morning you would offer dane to the Bellanwila Temple.The floors were polished, as was the gleaming brassware. The prized crystal ware would sparkle from inside the glass cabinets and the vases would brim with flowers. The birthday mood was all pervasive.
That faithful telephone, the much memorised 011.2588822, would ring incessantly right through the day and this was perhaps the only day in the year when LJP would not volunteer to answer, since the calls were invariably all for the Missus.The evening was generally a subdued quiet affair with family from both the Peries and Gunawardene sides, and a few very close friends, and even fewer from the big screen.
I remember Mrs. Paddy Mendis, a regular birthday visitor. After all it was during her husband Dr. Vernon Mendis’ tenure as Ceylon’s Charge d’Affaires in Paris in the late 1950s that LJP first met you, when en route to Cannes with Rekawa.Remember how you carefully chose your short eats. Getting pride of place were your favourite delicate asparagus sandwiches. Coming a close second would be those cheese and chicken bouchees, and the ginger beer and the iced coffee.
There would be Nuran Gomez, the great-grand-nephew from the Peries side, at the piano, tickling the ivories and entertaining everyone with music from the Peries’ films and old world continental hits much to LJP’s delectation. Aaahhh such lovely soirees those were.
Today would also begin the countdown to 05th April, when No 24 literally overflowed with humanity and when the maestro would blow the increasing numbers of candles on his cake. Oh 04th April is another story altogether !
Yes No 24 overflowed with humanity from the film industry. But then as I sadly observed over the years, as the both of you made fewer and fewer films, those crowds decreased. When the both of you finally stopped making movies, he with Ammawarune (2006) and you with Vaishnavee (2018), those numbers dwindled down to a mere handful from the film industry. You were left with family and a few very close friends.
I remember one of your birthdays a few years ago when you and I decided to go on a “loaf” one evening. We drove around, loafing around, I actually forget where, and when we finally got hungry it was past 10.30 pm when most of the restaurants were closed. We were hungry, very hungry and there was no place open.
I remember calling my good friend Harpo Guneratne who, in turn, immediately called the staff at Harpos Pizza Pasta Parlour on Mirihana Road, Nugegoda and told them to keep the shutters open despite it being way past closing time. The boys were there, all smiles, to greet and serve the celebrity Birthday Girl guest.
I remember, very, very vaguely, another birthday soiree in the late 1990s in Paris when you were our Ambassador. It was just LJP and You and I in that beautiful salon at your Ambassadorial apartment on the Avenue de Longchamps with the French cheeses and the wines, and Coq-au-Vin for mains, and as the champagne popped we sang Joyeux Anniversaire in French. Quelle nostalgie !!!
‘Carols for LJP’ at Christmastime was yet another looked forward to event at the old Dickman’s Road House with Nuran Gomez once again at the piano and everyone joining in lustily. What absolutely memorable and joyous soirées those were.
There were also those New Year’s Eves when you lit sparklers in the garden with Kumudu Casie Chetty, Surangani Wijewickrama and Lalinka Mutukumarana and much to LJP’s fretting and concern, those after-dinner chats that went on beyond midnight, the impulsive drives we went out on for iced-cream and those occasional dinners out. Those were the simple pleasures of life you also rejoiced in.If I were to go back in time, the both of you came into my life that morning in 1986 when I walked into your Dickmans Road sitting room and we shot my first ever interview with you for “Bonsoir” for the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka. I was in great awe and felt terribly small and insignificant in your presence.
Little did the three of us ever realise that this was to be the beginning of our private lifelong bond … sealed by France and the French culture and language. Yes it was our very private “Club Français”. In it we regaled. In it we journeyed through French history, gastronomy and culture through our innumerable chats. In it we constantly celebrated the francophones and francophiles in us. LJP was the first to leave us and our little Club got empty. Mrs. Peries now you, and our Club is emptier than before.
Seated in the audience at the BMICH that afternoon in January 2022 with Nadeeka Gunasekare and Yashoda Wimaladharma, I vividly remember the joy jubilantly splashed across your face when the University of Kelaniya conferred on you an Honorary Doctorate (Sahithya Chakrawarthi). Your portfolio of honours and achievements was finally complete. You were now Dr. Mrs. Sumitra Peries.
And exactly one year later you’re gone. Mrs. Peries, as I write this piece I don’t think even you realised, two months ago, that you would go, go just like that, in literally a flash. Yes you were ailing but you were ok too. And then suddenly you were gone.
That evening at the Independence Square was sad and overcast as the flames consumed all that was mortal of you, at almost the identical spot they did to LJP five years ago in 2018. And as I did with LJP too, I patiently sat there by your pyre, in the intermittent drizzle that evening, and stayed with you way past midnight, until you were finally gone, until all that was you turned into soft, burning hot ash. Those images still haunt me.
My dear Mrs. Peries, it’s already two months and a week for today, since you’re gone … gone on your journey in Samsara. The inescapable humdrum of life has overtaken us all, yet the grief still persists, thick, viscous and heavy. It sits like glue at the bottom of my heart.
The nation mourns. The film industry mourns. Family, friends and colleagues still mourn. I too grieve my very personal loss, yet celebrating the memory of two wonderful people who lit up my personal and professional lives and who were also my ‘alternate’ Father and Mother. You often referred to me as “the son we both never had”. The feeling was absolutely mutual.
Yet … just as a rainbow slowly appears after a torrential downpour, there is also a very strange sense of joy … joy as we now celebrate your life and everything you meant to a lot of people.As you journey on … what more can I say but “Thank You / Merci Beaucoup” for the memories, those warm, cheerful, nostalgic and indelible memories. May your journeys through Samsara be speedy my dearest LJP and Mrs Peries, my ‘adopted foster mother and father’. Love you both from the depths of my heart … always … and beyond always.
– Happy Birthday Mrs. Peries.
Kumar de Silva
Trustee – Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation
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