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The flamboyant tycoon



Some personal recollections


I returned to Sri Lanka in 1979 from a tour of duty in the Philippines and reassumed duties at the Foreign Ministry. One morning shortly afterwards President J.R. Jayewardene summoned me. I had never met the President and was quite curious as to how he knew of my existence. Minutes after I met him and after the customary exchange of pleasantries, that mystery was solved when the President complimented me on a ‘political report’ on the 1978 elections in the Philippines, which I had sent to Secretary/Foreign Affairs. I also sent a copy to my friend, Minister Athulathmudali, who had found it interesting and he had shared it with the President.

As for the reason for his having summoned me, that too was explained. The President very quickly came to the point. He wanted me to assume duties as Secretary-General of the precursor to the present Board of Investment, the Greater Colombo Economic Commission, as it was then known. Perhaps some reports on the functioning of the Batan export Processing Zone in the Philippines and on Investment Promotion in the Philippines, which I had sent my minister friend had also been shared with the President.

And that was how I found I myself being appointed as SG of the institution which the President often described as his pet project for which he took personal responsibility.

It was a presidential order and as such I had no option. The Katunayake ‘Free Trade Zone’ had been established through an Act of Parliament, which gave it wide-ranging powers—it was not only a Board of Investment but also the local authority for an area larger than Singapore. Even before 1 joined the institution I was aware that it was the pet hate of the Communists and their newspaper — the Aththa — the ‘Free Trade Zone’ — (I don’t know why they called it that instead of calling it the Export Processing Zone—which it was) referred to it as the Wahal Kalapaya or the slave zone, not giving credit to the fact that the ‘Zone was to be the source of employment to thousand who would otherwise have been unemployed and further, in their hatred for private enterprise, not realizing, as President JR himself said to me, “workers have their dignity and they are also voters. I created the Zone to give employment and give the people a better life not to lose votes”. On one occasion when the Aththa carried a headline report of how workers of a garment factory were put out of their lunch room to make way for sewing machines the President ordered me to close the factory and send the manager who had learned ‘bad ways’ in the Philippines out of the country. His words still echo, “The workers are our people. I will not let them to be exploited”.

Upali who was out of the country at the time endorsed the words of the President and gave instruction to the Senior Manager Industrial Relations to ensure that no worker in the Zone was exploited; this was also a matter which was wholly supported by the politician on the Board – the able and formidable Deputy Director General Mr. Paul Perera.

The newspapers at the time were also full of reports about differences between the flamboyant Chairman/Director General Upali Wijewardene and a particular colleague of his. The ‘tabloids’ also referred to the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister also ‘gunning’ for the chairman, whom they viewed as someone who could cheat them of their ambitions; in the circumstances one would understand my own reluctance to accept the appointment, but I was curtly informed that President Jayewardene had in fact made an order and that I had no option.

When I assumed duties, Upali Wijewardene was away from the country. We had met socially once or twice before, but I did not in fact really know him. When he returned from his overseas tour he sent for me-we shook hand and his first words were “you know I was never consulted about your appointment.” My response was “neither was I and had I half a chance I would not have come to the Sarpa Kalapya.” He laughed loud and long (he shook all over when he had a good belly laugh) and a friendship was made.

We worked out of the same floor – I was not only the Executive Secretary but he considered me to be his senior executive. Whenever he came to office after a break—(he came in only when he was in the country – he traveled extensively, but kept in touch on the phone) he called me in for a briefing’ On one of those occasions he asked me the following question: ‘What is the grade a student receives if he makes twenty five mistakes out of one hundred in an examination?’

The answer was of course obvious – “disto” (distinction) I replied. Upali responded with a “quite, so don’t worry, take decisions, they would come to attention only if you make mistakes of 25% and over.” He had the strength to delegate, He also had the ability to spot talent and was never afraid to give responsibility. I recall the case of a young man who looked

so boyish that I thought him to be a fourth former, whereas he was a graduate of good US University. Upali wanted to post him to an important overseas office and some of us had reservations because of the age and the fact that the young man was just out of University. But he said ‘no, lets try him out’ The recruit certainly delivered. He is presently with the UN holding a responsible position.

Upali, was by some; considered aloof and arrogant, but those of us who worked with him, found him to be quite a genial person fond of relating anecdotes. He seemed to always want an audience. I recall a particular anecdote, he had applied to Levers for a single post of management trainee. After many interviews only two applicants survived and he was one of them.

The CEO of Levers, a foreigner, had invited them to lunch at the Galle Face Hotel (according to Upali to test their table manners) The soup had been served and his competitor had tilted the soup plate towards himself to gather the last spoonfuls. Upali ended the story. ‘1 knew then that the job was mine’.

Upali never forgot his beginning as a businessman -he would often recall that he did not have the capital to make his dream of becoming a dollar millionaire at 30-years of age, come true. He would refer to the purchase of a ‘thachchi’ toffee business and remember those who had helped him. One story bears relating. There were four or five persons around the table and someone made a derogatory reference to the late Mr. TB Ilangaratne. That was the first time I saw Upali angry. He almost assaulted the man saying that Mr. Ilangaratne was eking out a bare existence. If he had made money in the manner that his political enemies made out, he would not have to depend on the charity of friends to survive. Upali; the capitalist had many socialist friends—one of whom was Sarath Navana of the LSSP, who edited the LSSP Party paper the Janadina’,

Upali was of course quite ambitious and often made his ambitions known to his ‘audience.’This I believe was the cause of his undoing. He made more enemies than friends, and his enemies were very powerful persons. The High Posts Committee of the House had not cleared the members of the Commission even by the end of 1979 (they had been appointed in 1978). When the hearing finally came around, rivalries within the Commission were not as bitter as they had once been. Old wounds had been healed and we expected the Commission to have easy clearance

That was not to be. Prime Minister Premadasa hated the very sight of Upali and. it was said by those present, tore into Upali from the word ‘go’ and had at one point referred to his ‘retinue: The SUN newspaper had reported a story of how Upali’s helicopter had been used to take supporters to Kamburupitiya. Upali, who had no respect for Premadasa had snapped back’yes of course. we look after those who work for us and this is in the best feudal tradition – something which you will not know anything about’.

The High Posts Committee headed by Premadasa found Upali unsuitable for the job of Chairman/Director General of the GCEC. It was quite ironical that this Committee which found a draftsman who had only ‘relative merit, (he was an immediate relative of Premadasa), eminently suitable to be our Ambassador in Sweden, found Sri Lanka’s forenost industrialist and venture capitalist, unsuitable to be head of the GCEC and not because they perceived any conflict of interest.

What had indeed become a huge joke did not end there. The findings of the High Posts Committee created by President Jayewardene had absolutely no effect on the president. Jayewardene had told Upali that it was he who had appointed him and therefore there was no need to step down! And he didn’t. And nothing happened. Those were the days!

JRJ, though he stood by his kinsman on that occasion let him down badly on another. The Kamburupitiya seat in Parliament had fallen vacant and Upali, who hailed from Kamburupitiya staked a claim. He considered himself as the obvious choice for the UNP ticket.

President Jayewardene had confirmed that he would be nominated. Upali summoned a special meeting of the board and farewell but he was in for an absolute shock, God only knows who could have held a. gun at JR.1’s head. but he changed his mind and gave the ticket to a nonentity from Galle whose name is now forgotten even by the people of Kamburupitiya. He was said to have been Mr. Premadasas nominee.

Despite his other obligations as Chairman of the ever expanding ‘Upali Group’ with big business interests in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK, he devoted much time to the GCEC. His style of management to which I have referred to earlier, in another context, was quite simple dorit bring problems to me. You are paid to take decisions. If you wish to consult me on solutions, bringyour solutions across and we can discuss them’

Investment promotion was an area in which he quite naturally revelled. I recall that our Senior Manager Investment Promotion then was the able and dynamic Rohan Weerasinghe, now a Director at Bartleets. Rohan did the legwork and the result had to be of the highest professional standards. Upali never compromised on standards when it came to work and never entertained excuses.

The promotion team led by Upali travelled to the US, the UK and Australia forpresenGations. Incidentally the Chairman did not charge the government travelling expenses, though he travelled first class and stayed in suites in five star hotels. On a number of occasions questions were asked in Parliament, on the instigation of his enemies, about the amounts spent on business trips. The answers always cited expenditure incurred on account of the rest of us—and it resulted in the matter being brought to the attention oft lie President who put an end to the witch-hunt.

It was Upali who brought Motorola Semi Conductors and Harris Semi Conductors to this country. Unfortunately they packed up and left after they incidents of Black July stating that the country was not stable Upali had the GCEC treat every prospective investors as a VIP. They were looked after from the time arrival till they left.

One happening in the US on one of our trips, bears recalling. We were making our presentation (to a major US’ Corporation) when the President of the Corporation dropped in to spend a few minutes with us and apologize for his inability to he present throughout the presentation. He glanced I I Trough the CV of Upali, and perhaps noting that Upali had big business interests in South East Asia, told him that their subsidiaries in South East Asia were having problems. He asked Upali a few questions and what happened next was quite amazing.

The company president called in a number of his senior management teams to discus his company’s problems and when it was pointed out that we had a plane to catch to another destination that afternoon, the he insisted that we be his guests at an exclusive club for dinner that night and fly out to our next destination on his executive jet the following morning.

I recall another interesting incident in Australia in 1981. We had planned investment promotion meetings in Sydney and Melbourne. I had gone ahead of the others to Sydney when Upali arrived the day before the workshop, I told him of a big horse race that was scheduled for that Saturday and suggested that we stay a day longer and watch it and move on to our next destination.

‘Not just watch it’ lie said. “I may have a horse running in it”. He wanted to buy a horse and enter it for the race. I thought was a joke. But two days later when I was having breakfast he walked in to the dining room with his entourage. I inquired as to where they had all been so early He replied, “we went to buy a horse”. He had indeed bought a horse,’My Lord Avon’, was its name. When I casually inquired as to the price paid his answer made me drop my cutlery At JD 149,000! He certainly did things in style!

Upali was the only Sri Lankan known in international business circles. His reputation was high in East Asia. He had been featured in many well known magazines including Business Week but when the prestigious Fortune magazine featured him, that certainly meant that he had arrived.

But his success was also his downfall. Perhaps I should not insult the other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka by lumping them with us Sinhalese in this regard Sadly, the Sinhalese often hate to see another of their race succeed.

Upali had more than his fair share of enemies and he indeed made his own contribution to building a hate bank.

I shall conclude with a story told to me by the late Mervyn de Silva.

He had interviewed Upali for a story he intended to send to a foreign magazine. Mervyn had completed his interview and was in the process of gathering up his papers when he had casually inquired as to whether he had a sort of hero. Upalfs answer had shocked him. He had put down his papers and sat down to do new article for his own magazine, the Lanka Guardian.

Upali had said that his hero on the Sri Lanka political scene was SWRD Bandaranaike! Mervyn carried the story in the December 1991 issue of the Lanka Guardian and Upali was asked to resign days afterwards by his cousin the President, Mr.JR Jayewardene! Perhaps had he said that his hero was JR he probably would have ended up in Parliament and who knows where afterwards.

(The writer served as Executive Secretary of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission when Upali Wijewardene was Chairman/Director General. This article first appeared on Sunday Island anniversary issue of Oct 01, 2006)

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Rising farce of Family Power



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



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

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It’s all about France in Kandy !



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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