by Dr Manique Cooray
Fires at sea continue to pose a significant risk to container shipping and often give rise to long-winded and complex claims between all affected parties. Space does not permit even a cursory examination of the large body of relevant international legal provisions available. Moreover, the rise of containerisation has exacerbated the problem of fire on board ships as we have seen with the MV Hansa Brandenburg, the Jolly Rubino, the Maersk Londrina and recently in February 2017, in the MV APL Austria case where a Liberian flagged container ship caught fire off the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
In the backdrop of the ongoing environmental catastrophe in one of Sri Lanka’s worst ever marine disasters, it is imperative to address two issues that seem to be of central importance pertaining to the cargo ship carrying tonnes of chemicals which now lie in the seabed off the west coast of the Island. The Singapore registered MV X-Press Pearl, Super Eco 2700-class container ship was built by Zhoushan Changhong International Shipyard Co. Ltd at Zhoushan, China, for Singapore based X-Press Feeders and its sister ship X-Press Mekong. The 37,000 dead weight tonne (DWT) container vessel could carry 2,743 twenty-foot equivalent units. The ship was delivered on February 10, 2021. It had a 25-member crew including Filipinos, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals. It was carrying 1,486 containers, among them 81 carrying dangerous goods, which included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals, cosmetics and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets. Reports indicate the vessel was deployed in the Straits of Malacca to Middle East (SMX) service of X-Press Feeders, from Port Klang (Malaysia) via Singapore and Jebel Ali (UAE) to Hamad Port (Qatar). The return journey to Malaysia was to be via Hazira (India) and Colombo (Sri Lanka). It was reported that the ship’s crew had noticed the leakage of nitric acid from one of the containers when the vessel set sail to the Port of Colombo.
It is common knowledge that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no vessel can enter a country’s “territorial water” extending up to 12 miles from the nearest land without approval from the coastal state. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Basel Convention, it is not the aim here to address basic questions on how, why and who authorized a vessel with a container leaking nitric acid to enter the territorial waters of the country carrying hazardous material. This entry into Sri Lankan waters could have been under “Port of Refuge”, a situation wherein a ship deviates to a port due to an emergency which renders the ship unsafe to continue on her voyage.
The ill-fated ship erupted in a fire while anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo. The Sri Lankan navy believes the fire was caused by a chemical reaction from the leaking cargo loaded from the port of Hazira in India. As flaming containers laden with chemicals fell from the ship’s deck, seawater may have entered the hull that submerged the MV X-Press Pearl’s quarterdeck a day after firefighters extinguished the fire. With such a dramatic turn of events of an overseas registered ship, carrying crewmen of various nationalities and cargo belonging presumably to various parties, and with a vessel located within the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, presents itself a plethora of issues in conflict of laws determining principles of choice of law with recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments.
While the local authorities are moving to sue the owners of the vessel to claim damages from the insurer, the suitability of existing Penal Provisions and the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No 35 of 2008 of Sri Lanka raises the question of its adequacy as the principle legislation of the forum state to hear a case of such magnitude of which the main issue is to claim compensation. Insurers of cargo vessels generally require the owners and operators to adhere to internationally recognized guidance concerned with maximizing the overall safety of the vessel, the crew and the cargo. One part of the guidance is the International Maritime Organizations Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code), an internationally accepted guideline for the transportation or shipment of dangerous goods or materials by a vessel on water.
Even a cargo that might be quite innocuous in small quantities can display dangerous properties when transported in large quantities, especially if those large quantities of material are exposed to environmental conditions such as moisture or heat, during or prior to loading, or during a voyage. Under the Hague-Visby Rules, the liability regime for the carriage of most cargo, neither the carrier nor the shipowner is responsible for loss or damage arising or resulting from fire unless caused by the actual fault or privity of the shipowner or carrier. To successfully recover for damage to cargo from the shipowner or to defend a claim for general average, the cargo owner must show a lack of due diligence of the shipowner to make the ship seaworthy and safe to receive, carry and discharge the cargo. From a procedural perspective, “(i) the cargo owner must prove their loss; (ii) the carrier or shipowner must prove the cause of loss (i.e., that the fire caused the loss); (iii) the carrier or shipowner must prove due diligence to make the ship seaworthy prior to and at the commencement of the voyage; and (iv) the cargo owner must prove fault of the carrier or shipowner or knowledge of fault or another for whom the carrier or shipowner is responsible.”
The shipowner is not liable for an act or omission by the crew. If the negligence of the crew caused the fire, this is a complete defence for the shipowner unless the cargo owner can show that there was some lack of due diligence by the shipowner, which made the ship unseaworthy. In the case of fires at sea, this would include the shipowner failing to exercise due diligence insofar as the crew fighting the fire is concerned, a lack of adequate firefighting systems, lack of training, or lack of procedural guidance from owner or carriers to the crew. Cargo owners are also likely to be successful in claiming against a shipowner where it is shown that the shipowner or carrier failed to correctly stow dangerous or hazardous cargo (provided that such cargo was correctly declared) in accordance with IMDG guidelines. In the event a shipowner can rely on a “fire defence”, the cargo owner (or their insurers) may be left with a recovery action against the shipper of the miss declared cargo. However, this often involves expensive litigation in a foreign jurisdiction where the “guilty” shipper may be a brass plate company without any assets to satisfy millions of dollars worth of damages to the ship and her cargo and let alone the environmental aftermath. This means that the insurer may be liable, and the affected party could claim compensation from the shipowner.
From the brief facts at hand, it appears to be a total loss for the shipowner even if the vessel stays afloat with what appears to be, if not all, of the cargo, damaged. Although there is much uncertainty over the size of the loss, it is safe to assume that insurers will face cargo and liability claims and the value of the hull and machinery. The value of these claims have not yet been made known. It is highly possible for the fire and explosion losses to be covered under cargo insurance policies among various companies which are party to it. The London Steam Ship Owners Mutual Insurance Association Ltd and its subsidiary, the London P&I Insurance Company (Europe) Ltd, in a press statement on May 26, 2021, stated that as the “liability insurer, it would cover crew injuries and any environmental impact.” A study of previous cases of similar nature indicates that a vessel sinking in deep water perhaps is a better outcome for the insurer than saving it and bringing it back to port with the heavy cleanup costs incurred. Perhaps in this current scenario, the P&I insurer could end up covering the cargo and salvage costs.
The environmental impact of the fire could have a significant bearing on the size of the P&I claim leading to potentially hundreds of millions, as previous cases have shown us. It is well to keep in mind that while the owners of the ship are maybe accountable for bringing the ship to the territorial waters, the local authorities themselves may have a share in their contribution by their bad choice of actions. It is highly questionable whether adequate compensation could be secured given the larger environmental impact (an impact which may be seen beyond the limitation period for such claims to be brought) under the existing lacuna in the local law. Hence, the importance of the forum state to take on such a mammoth legal action against the parties possibly raises the issues of whether recourse should be made to an international maritime arbitration tribunal permitting contractual arrangements.
The second issue to be addressed is whether a special legal regime in the nature of strict liability is needed to cover the irreparable damage caused to the Sri Lankan Sea, marine lives, including the coral reefs and the fisheries industry. There is now an additional danger that fuel tanks of the stricken vessel containing thousands of tons of thick bunker oil could break up under the pressure of the seawater and discharge its deadly cargo into the ocean. The Wildlife Conservation Department of Sri Lanka states that apart from the fish species, the harm done to seagrasses and nesting habitats, sea mammals, and reptiles will also be substantial and that their “initial observations reveal the spill-over effect will last for more than 100 years.” The illustration of the Exxon Valdez’s incident in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 indicates that the oil spill is a severe threat to the maritime environment. A review of this incident may be a good reference to seek a fair understanding of the circumstances and for proper estimation and preparation in encountering massive oil spills.
The harm caused by many environmental incidents are not only contained within the borders of the states, but pollution originating from one state may cause harm to another state. And pollution which damages the Oceans does not belong to one state alone. This type of harm raises a number of acute legal conundrums. Establishing causal connections between effects such as damage to marine life or extinction of species and a particular source of pollution, which could be targeted by a system of liability and compensation rules, may be extremely difficult. In the absence of intergovernmental compensation regimes or where individual states seek compensation for cross border pollution, claims must be made in domestic courts. In such situations, the importance of conflict of laws rules about jurisdiction, choice of law, and recognition of judgments matters. One could plausibly conclude that X-Press Pearl too may find its unfortunate place in legal history for the colossal task it has presented of assessing harm to the environment caused in a line of container ship losses in the maritime insurance industry.
(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Multimedia University. Malaysia and was the Dean of the Faculty of Law from 2014-2016 and 2018-2021.)
Sins of Fathers and Comrades
“The sins of the father will be laid upon the children.”
Exodus 20:5 (5th of Ten Commandments)
The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, Scene 5)
by Kumar David
It is a terrible, a terrifying curse that the sins of one generation will be visited upon successors. Some Christian sects, to this day, hold the Jews responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ though a learned Christian scholar, Lay-Preacher and friend assures me that this is perverse – Pontius Pilate must carry full responsibility he declares. But another with lesser ecclesiastical credentials (he never would have made it to Lay-Preacher though lay was not the obstacle) assures me that unlike JR in 1983, Pilate had good reason to fear that he had no choice and that the mob threatened governance. Actually, JR never made that lame-duck excuse – I think he rather enjoyed watching it. (Aside: Ranil was JR’s nephew in whose Cabinet he loyally served throughout the treachery and slaughter – Bahu please note).
Two organisations are paying a high price for their past, the blame for which is laid on their heads. The example in the headlines this month is the Taliban. The curses of centuries of faith-based relics have submerged it, though internal conflicts may still reverse the worst of the dark age. The other, always in the rear-view mirror of Lankan politics are the 1971 and 1989 events. I promised in a previous piece that I would stop bugging the JVP for long ago follies for which present leaders bear no responsibility. I intend to keep that promise. The misfortune is that that we the NPP still face “Didn’t your people do that?”, “Can we trust them again?” and such flak. A giant blunder by one generation of comrades hangs over the heads of their successors. This piece however is about the Taliban, a theme to which I seem to be getting addicted.
That Chairman fellow said “Women hold up half the sky”, but the Taliban by imposing cruel dress codes and obsolete conduct on unwilling women who have tasted personal freedom for two decades have created an implacable foe. (If some prefer to adhere of their own volition, that’s fine). Opposition to gender oppression and the Pashtun power grab will ignite conflict. There were sporadic protests by small groups of women earlier, but on September 7 a large one, thousands strong marched for miles through the streets of Kabul and was finally dispersed by shots in the air. There are videos of beating and detention of well-disciplined women protesters by bloody fool machismo in the lower ranks of the Taliban who will have to be crushed. It remains to be seen if the leadership has the guts to do this or whether it will go the way of all Lankan regimes on inter-racial and religious injustice. I am not holding my breath. On September 8 the regime impose a ban on demonstrations; this will be defied. If the Taliban mows down Afghan women with grapeshot what is left of its Islamic credentials?
So far, I have written in support of the expulsion of NATO. This has been done and now Act 2 of the drama has commenced. It is time to hold the Taliban to acceptable standards of human and democratic rights but instead it has formed an all-male mainly Pashtun government of aged hard-line dotards and given the lie to promises of ethnic inclusivity and recognition of women. It has slipped back to primeval faiths and primitive customs. The Taliban Education Minister who has never been to school, when challenged about his fitness for the job responded: “Education is irrelevant so long as you are pious.” There will be a push back by younger Taliban cadres as the economy goes into free fall and conflict with women and non-Pashtun ethnic-minorities swells. I am of the view that we are passing through a period in which nothing is settled and foresee changes within the Taliban and in the nature of the state.
Foreign occupation has had contradictory effects. On the one hand liberal values and a liber-democratic state were the proclaimed objectives. On the other hand, drones and artillery killed thousands of civilians, the Afghan army murdered and plundered, and billions of dollars unloaded on foreign contactors spread a plague of corruption from the President down. In sum the occupation was a disaster and a failure.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran, the Taliban regime and some others impose dress codes, curtail commonplace democratic rights, deny education and horse whip or stone to death women who defy primitive religious injunctions imposed on all whether these practices are egregious to other genders, faiths or ethnic collectives. (I avoid the term Islamic as I am not schooled in whether Islam actually sanctions such incongruity and cruelty). In the best-case, the Taliban will see the writing on the wall and retreat, give or take a few tactical adjustments. If it is deaf to half its population it will engender a women’s uprising; these women have nothing to lose but their chains and a world to gain. It will take time for a clandestine but identifiable leadership to mature and resistance organise itself. The Taliban does not want to give any rights to women and it will concede only what it is compelled to by domestic and international pressure.
The best Sri Lankans of all faiths, ages, communities and genders can do is to extend moral and if possible practical support to women enslaved by confessional states. Did you know that Afghans were making creative and aesthetically sensitive films from well before Taliban-I? Muslim women in open societies have shone in the professions, academia and public service. Their fathers, brothers and husbands now have a duty to help this process everywhere. It is a shame that Islamic clerics and Muslim laymen and scholars across the world have failed to denounce the Taliban’s behaviour. Many, not only in the thuggish lower ranks, who obstruct progress gun in one hand and whiplashing women on the streets, are alarmed by their own limited educational and intellectual horizons and nativist ignorance. That’s the long and the short of it.
The New Taliban Government: a formula for strife
The Taliban proclaimed an Islamic Emirate, but a Republic is emerging on the streets of Kabul and Herat. Two weeks ago I wrote about the internal dynamics in political movements in watershed periods. It is necessary now to admit that in Afghanistan and in the Taliban the first round has been won by the reactionaries. Nevertheless, professed pieties and hermetic decision making notwithstanding, the conflict within Taliban driven by anger on the streets and dissent in the countryside, is only beginning. Yes true, the Taliban did not fight for 20 years in the mountains to win power and then create a liberal state. Nor do the hardliners care a whit about the hardships people suffer without medical services and food. What will forces change within the movement is if these deficits provoke challenges to its power in the country at large, and if internal cracks within the Taliban widen under stress. The real world will in the end win over the imagined world of faith, ideology and ignorance.
You would be justified to reckon that the government was formed in a home-for-the-aged. Aging Mohammad Hassan Akhund, an aide of the Taliban founder Omar, is PM and Abdul Ghani Baradar his deputy. Omar’s son Yaqoob is defence minister. Two senior Haqqani network members, leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and his aging uncle Khalil Haqqani are interior minister and minister for refugees respectively. Akund, Siarjuddin and Khalil are on UN sanctions lists for terrorism. It’s as if after victory in the Panjshir Valley they cocked their thumb at the world, especially the West and said “Bugger off! We won the war. We will do as we please”. That in broad terms is the government though described as “Interim”. Unsurprisingly, Beijing welcomed the new government. It is playing at global foreign policy and currying favour with the Taliban not to interfere with its repression of Uighur Muslims. China will be of no help in the democratisation of Afghanistan (or Sri Lanka or Burma or anywhere).
The leaders professed that women will play a prominent role and have access to education, but they were excluded from talks when forming a government and there is no longer any mention of a ministry of women’s affairs. About 40% of school children are girls and 30% sitting the university entrance exams are women; unrepentant religious aboriginals in the leadership will attempt to roll all this back. I keep returning to the women’s issue because my sense is that repressing women who have tasted education and employment and then oppressing them socially is not sustainable and will engender conflict. Attempts to impose a Pashtun state on other ethnicities by an aged ideologically primitive leadership in the context of an economic meltdown will aggravate conflict and create splits and realignments within the movement. This may bring younger leaders to the helm and then modify the state itself. The signals as yet are mixed. If the leaders refuse to budge, conflict between the people and the Taliban will break into the open. This is not a desirable scenario; a compromise is better.
This essay has continuity in views and content with my column of September 5, “A perspective on conflicts in the Taliban” which readers may wish to consult.
My personal experience and perspective of Astrology and Palmistry
by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
I was simply fascinated by the stories about his experience with palmistry revealed by my erstwhile colleague Prof Sanath Lamabadusuriya in a recent article to the Sunday Island Newspaper.
Palmistry or Cheiromancy originated in ancient India more than 5,000 years ago and spread to China, Greece and Rome. Now palmistry as an art is practiced worldwide. At present there are three types of palmistry, Indian, Western and Chinese. The Western and Chinese palmistry now show a significant divergence from the original Indian palmistry. The Indian Vedic astrology is closely linked to the notions of karma. Palmists believe Palmistry is both a science and an art. Astrology originated in Babylon far back in antiquity around 2,400 years ago.
I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents both of whom were measured and well-mannered health care professionals. Bringing up their children in the aftermath of the first World War they endured the nomadic life of government transfers every four years serving in some of the most inhospitable places. Those were troubled times of malaria, dysentery and typhoid epidemics. In those days without TV and radio they developed a hobby which was all consuming. They were excellent and adept palmists and astrologers.
I still recall the many books on the subject that filled the bookshelves of our house in Nugegoda. Friends and family got my grandparents to cast horoscopes and got their palms read. For them it was a hobby for which no money changed hands. According to family folklore, when I was born at the Kandy hospital my grandma, was there with her watch recording the time of birth with accuracy. The local time in Ceylon was changed during World War II to what was called ‘War Time’. This caused enormous upheaval in the astrology community in getting the time correct for casting horoscopes.
I grew up in a milieu with great belief in the ability to predict the future. We all had our astrological charts on rolled up ola leaves. My grandparents were well aware of its difficulties and shortcomings and also how, when and what information to divulge. My grandfather was a fine palmist. He never lost his sense of playfulness or the ability to find humour in his predictions. When I was a young kid I was told that I will be a doctor and my future lies in another country. In retrospect I am amazed how accurately he summed up my future.
He was always discreet in his predictions and did so with great sensitivity. In the fullness of years, I can acknowledge now, the predictions were remarkably accurate. I had a cousin who was my age and attended the local school with me. When I asked my grandpa about her future he was reluctant to discuss it. It brought us great sadness when she died tragically age 35. There were times he did get things wrong. His clientele was family and friends. These errors came to light many years later and no one came to any serious harm.
My grandfather did tell me that I had the perfect chart to be a good palmist. I did learn the basics from him and loved it. He often said “practice makes perfect” and that I should read palms regularly. The idea did appeal to me. It is wonderful to be able to predict the future. As a teenager there were too many other interests and distractions. Although my interest receded it never died. I took it up again briefly after retirement, just as a hobby. On a Mediterranean cruise I discovered palmistry was a good ‘party trick’. The mere mention at the dinner table that I could read the palm generated great interest. Despite my disclaimer of being a novice the ladies lined up for their futures to be revealed.
When I was a first year medical student we visited a family friend in Kollupitiya. There was a large gathering. Amongst the crowd was a professional palm reader. They asked me if I want my palm read. Without much thought I agreed and realised later that was a huge mistake. As there was an audience the palmist played to the gallery. Some very personal events of my future life were bared for all to hear causing me great embarrassment and distress. Much of the past was incorrect and in retrospect the future predictions were a load of rubbish. In those days I wasn’t vocal enough and suffered in silence. I still blush when I think about it. This is an excellent example of how NOT to read the palm. There are many such unscrupulous quacks and rogues that hoodwink the people to earn a living.
All palmists should learn the trade as an apprentice to a true professional who should pass on their wisdom, teach the obligations and the refinements we call “bedside manner”. Like in the Hippocratic oath they should be taught “primum non nocere” ( first, do no harm). In my childhood I recall the village astrologers and palmists who frightened the people with impending doom and gloom and extracted money to counteract the forces of evil. Perhaps with increased literacy and learning these practices have now largely disappeared. It is my belief that like in every profession, for astrology and palmistry too, well beyond the aptitude, some have the special gift of instinct or intuition that set them apart from the rest. I have met a few such brilliant professional astrologers and palmists who have made a name for themselves and make an honourable living.
The art of predicting the future has always fascinated people all over the world. For a young person with all his/her life before them there is that inevitable desire to know what is in store. Even In the 21st century that desire still exist. There are some who would say “why know the future, just get on with life”. As a septuagenarian, knowing the fragility of life, I agree with that sentiment completely. Que sera sera – whatever will be will be.
On a personal level, my future has been predicted with great accuracy and I have good reason to believe in both palmistry and astrology. The accurate time of birth and proper casting of the horoscope is the key to its reliability. Even with all that the predictions are neither fool-proof nor flawless. Finding a genuine bona-fide palmist or astrologer is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
There is a conflict between my scientific background and those imprecise and unregulated business of astrology and palmistry. As a medical professional I am trained only to trust evidence-based information and have some scepticism and even some cynicism about matters I cannot deduce logically.
I never allowed my decisions to be guided by astrology or palmistry. Those predictions have no guarantee of accuracy although it gave me a fairly clear picture of what the future held for me. I have lived my life as I wanted making much of the decisions on the hoof. In the main I have no regrets. I have always believed that although my future lay in my own hands much what happens to us in life is governed and influenced by the awesome forces of destiny.
As old age came to my grandparents, they had the respect and love of the extended family. I will always remember grandma’s diligence, energy and enthusiasm, and grandpa’s calm reflective kindness. Their demise to me was an end of an era. The memory of my grandparents still remains with me as a dear and precious possession.
BAILA KING & I: 1987-1993
CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Today, instead of chronologically narrating another episode of the story of my career, I will write about a music legend. Uswatta Liyanage Ivor Sylvester Sunil Perera left us this month, saddening generations of Sri Lanka music lovers around the world, including me. Many tributes have been written about him during the last few days. Therefore, in this tribute, I will focus on my entertainment collaborations with Sunil during six short years three decades ago. It was a period when I was closely involved with the western music scene in Sri Lanka.
First Meeting in 1972
In early 1972, when I was a trainee waiter at the Mount Lavinia Hyatt Hotel, I was asked by the Food and Beverage Manager to work at a special beach party. A new band formed in 1970 with a young, eighteen-year-old lead singer performed at that event. I was thrilled with the energy of their performance. For nearly 50 years since then, I was always entertained when I listened to the music of the band Gypsies, led by Sunil Perera.
Since then, I occasionally saw Sunil and Gypsies, performing at weddings, dances and music shows. They released a string of pop hits enhanced with dynamic stage acts and various props. Sunil was the mastermind in such innovative initiatives. Inspired by Sunil’s creativity I was convinced that hospitality is very much like showbiz. Entertaining and pleasing our customers is common in showbiz and hospitality. That concept had an impact on my decisions on the event calendars throughout my career as a hotelier. Event creation, planning, organizing, choreography and creativity in promotion, all are exciting and enjoyable work in the hospitality business.
Second Meeting in 1986
I spoke with Sunil for the first time at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel in 1986. Gypsies were performing at a wedding and I was the Director of Food and Beverage of this five-star 500-room hotel. Sunil liked to talk a lot. He was often out-spoken about his ideologies. Topics for our quick chats after that included music, entertainment, shows and my desire to make Le Galadari Meridien Hotel the centre for food and beverage events and entertainment in Colombo.
I was concerned that after the wedding season (June and July) there were four months when the banquet business went down considerably. I commenced brainstorming with my team of managers and supervisors, finding creative ways to fill our large banquet rooms with additional events. Among other ideas, I decided to get into music show production to increase the income of the departments I managed. This concept was fully supported by our in-house musicians and bands including Sohan and The X’Periments, Apple Green, Dream Team, Burn, Noeline, Dalreen, Suriyakumar, Judy, Kanthie and a few others. Gypsies were not a part of the in-house musicians I had under contract, but Sunil fully supported my showbiz ambitions and music show initiatives.
The first show I produced with input from a galaxy of musicians was ‘The Musical Stars of 86’. It included several weekly competitions for aspiring musicians from all main cities in the country. We ended the season with a grand finale show which featured the winners of the weekly competitions and the leading western musicians in Sri Lanka. Sunil helped me as a judge and a performer. His support was encouraging.
A Seminar for Musicians
In 1987, led by musicians under contract at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel and Sunil, the western musicians of Sri Lanka formed a dynamic association – Sri Lanka Association of Musicians (SLAM). Noeline Honter was the first President of SLAM. I worked closely with SLAM to organise a seminar for professional musicians and also produced their first fund-raiser show. I invited Sunil to join the seminar panel, which included, Noeline Honter, Sohan Weerasinghe, Harold Seneviratne and a few other well-known musicians. Surprisingly Sunil declined my invitation, but instead, offered to perform a ‘fun’ act to enhance the seminar. Sunil’s performance with his band members in the characters of his 1987 top of the pop songs, – ‘Uncle Johnson’ and ‘Lunu Dehi’ were the highlight of that seminar. Sunil was a master in always being in the limelight.
‘Lunu Dehi’ (Lime and Salt) were the ‘fun’ characters most popular among Sri Lankan kids at that time. On the day of the seminar, when he heard about Sunil’s act, my (one year old) son, Marlon, insisted that I must take him to the hotel to meet his idols. At age one, Marlon, like many Sri Lankan kids, was a fan of Sunil. That made Marlon’s day, but he was a bit scared when he realised how big his favourite characters were!
Star of the Shows and the Producer – Late 1980s
Encouraged with the popularity and the financial success of my maiden music show – ‘Musical Stars of 86’, I produced a string of stage shows. We sold out around 1,000 tickets for each of these shows staged at the packed Bougainvillea Ballroom of Le Galadari Meridien Hotel. Sunil became a key performer and a main attraction for most of these shows. My productions included shows such as ‘A Farewell to Priyanthi & Raja’, ‘Noeline – A Celebration’, ‘M1’, ‘Slam 1’ and the first-ever ‘Model of the Year’.
Impressed with quality of my productions at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel, Ivan Alvis who was in charge of the teen/music page of the Island Newspaper, invited me to produce their annual awards show. I conceptualised, produced and promoted the largest four annual ‘Island Music Awards’ events for the Island Newspaper in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1992. Ivan Alvis chose the judges for the selection of winners and I looked after the production of the show. Sunil was a key member of my creative team for those four events as well as for a dozen other music shows/events I produced in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1993.
The Show Goes On – Early 1990s
After doing two short contracts for the Oberoi Hotel chain in Iraq and the Schiller International University in the United Kingdom, I returned to Sri Lanka to manage the Mount Lavinia Hotel as the General Manager. In 1991, Ivan Alvis contacted me and checked if I would like to produce the ‘Island Music Awards’ event in Mount Lavinia. As I was also the General Manager for the catering operation at BMICH – national conference centre, I told Ivan, “Let’s make the show bigger by staging it at BMICH for an audience of over 1,500.” We agreed and I contacted my friends Sunil and Sohan first to seek their support. We took the show to a new level, and achieved the target of a full house. That year Sunil won the main award – ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ and I was the first to congratulate him.
More Collaborations with Sunil
1) Six New Year’s Eve Dances – In 1991, Mount Lavinia Hotel set a record by being the first and only hotel to organise six New Year’s Eve dances. We held dances at the Terrace and pool deck, Empire Ballroom, Regency Ballroom, Little Hut Night Club, Paradise Beach and the Roof Top. I contracted Gypsies as the main band at the main dance. Sunil was a tough negotiator and insisted that I approve a larger fee for Gypsies, stating that, “New Year’s Eve is the entertainer’s bonus day!” I eventually offered him a little less than what he was demanding, and also got him to sign the contract stating that he will do guest appearances at the other five dances. Sunil was our key attraction and it worked. Mount Lavinia Hotel attracted a record-setting 3,000 people to usher in 1992 from this historic hotel.
2) The Show – In 1992 I produced my biggest show. I worked with a diverse team of 157 professionals (musicians, stage managers, choreographers, dancers, ballerinas, set designers, special effects engineers, lighting and sound technicians). At one point during the production process, owing to a delay in completing an important task, I decided to replace a set designing company. I refused their appeal for me to re-consider my decision. They then had approached Sunil, who called me on their behalf. Sunil guaranteed that they would honour the contract as per my deadline. I finally agreed. Sunil always acted on behalf of other entertainers and service providers. He was more like an ambassador for his profession.
3) More Shows at the Mount in 1993 – Sunil became a lead performer for other shows I produced at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Each performance was unique, innovative and extremely entertaining.
4) The Story Board for a Controversial Song – By 1993, I had gained experience in song writing and music video productions for TV. My first video direction – for my friend Sohan’s popular song ‘Whispers in the Sand’ was nominated for the ‘Music Video of the Year’ Golden Clef Award. Soon after that Sunil invited me to write a story board and then direct a music video for his popular song – ‘Wine, Women and Song’. I immediately worked on it and created a detailed story board and short-listed a group of well-known comedy actors to perform in the music video. Unfortunately, this song faced some censorship challenges due to Sunil’s controversial lyrics. We decided to drop the video production.
5) Profit-sharing – In 1993 I managed to convince the two top bands in Sri Lanka (‘Gypsies’ and ‘Sohan and The X’Periments’) to perform without a fixed fee to usher in 1994 in a venue never before used for a New Year’s Eve dinner dance – BMICH. I negotiated a three-way equal profit-sharing contract between the two bands and the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Unfortunately, owing to a management change, this did not materialise.
6) The ‘Fitness Fever’ Cassette – In 1993, the fourth song I wrote was recorded. I convinced twenty leading singers in Sri Lanka, including Sunil and his brother Piyal to sing ‘Fitness Fever’. I organized a competition and the fans who were able to name all twenty singers were given season passes to the Little Hut, which by then had become the most popular night club in Sri Lanka. The song rose to the number one slot in pop charts soon after its release and remained so for a long period. Soon afterwards I produced a cassette and donated all proceeds to Ranvirusevana (fund to rehabilitate soldiers wounded in the civil war). Sunil fully supported this initiative and encouraged all artists to attend the cassette launching event at the Little Hut Night Club.
Thank You for the Music!
Sunil and I had mutual respect for each other and he was a friend of mine, as well. Sunil was the first to hug and congratulate me when I won the Island Music Award for the Composer of the Year (jointly with Noeline Honter) in 1993. In early 1994 I left Sri Lanka to embark my international career. I followed Sunil’s remarkable career and innovative contributions to the world of entertainment with great pride. I remained an ardent fan of Sunil.
Under the leadership of Sunil, Gypsies became the most successful Sri Lankan band of all time and toured the globe to entertain their ever-growing numbers of fans with Sri Lankan heritage. Sunil cannot be described simply as a successful bandleader, vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and composer. He was larger than life and was an icon. He was easily one of the most famous singers of all time, in Sri Lanka, as well as one of the most recognizable faces. He elevated Sri Lanka’s Baila genre, and gained the nickname “Baila Chakravarthy” (Emperor or King). Sunil inspired generations of musicians. There were many celebrations in the recent years when Gypsies completed 50 years in the entertainment industry and when Sunil turned 65. It was a heart-warming testimony to Sunil’s popularity among peers, when a new song and a music video was released by western musicians in Sri Lanka about Sunil as one his surprise presents for his special birthday.
Dear Sunil, thank you for the music and innovative entertainment over fifty years! I was fortunate to have the opportunity to artistically collaborate with you for a short period of time. You were the undisputed champion of showbiz in Sri Lanka! Rest well, my friend!
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