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When it was known as the Harley Street of Ceylon

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The Homes in Ward Place in its early days,

by Hugh Karunanayake, Dr Srilal Fernando, and Avinder Paul

Ward Place in the heart of Cinnamon Gardens is a roadway linking the epi centre of the Colombo Municipality with the eastern area of metropolitan Colombo. Two centuries ago, there was no roadway in the area, which was part of cinnamon plantations established during the Dutch period of occupation of the maritime areas of Ceylon. When a road to the area was first built in the nineteenth century it was named Borella Road, later to be named Ward Place.

Arunachalam Ponnambalam was a man of foresight and great acumen. Originating from the village of Manipay in the north of the island, he sought opportunities for work in Colombo during early British times and won the confidence of British Governors who appointed him the Chief cashier of the Colombo Kachcheri which was the key government instrument in the administration of the dominion of Ceylon. The Kachcheri together with the early Legislative Councils were the local institutions that set the pace for the administration of the colony. Land throughout the country was made available by the new rulers of the island at ome to five shillings per acre to pioneer British settlers, and also to a few natives who had won the favour of the Government.

Arunachalam Ponnambalam was one of the latter, and by the mid 1850s the owner of two cinnamon estates, Rajagiriya, and Borella. While Rajagiriya Estate was sold after some years, to Mrs Cornelia Obeyesekera whose son Donald established a township still known as Obeyesekera Town, Borella Estate disintegrated into building blocks for residential housing. Ward Place of today represents a part of the original Borella Estate.

Ward Place, named after British Governor Sir Henry Ward, became an elite residential area not long after the Ceylon Medical College was established in the adjoining Regent Street in 1870 with Dr Edwin Lawson Koch as its first Principal. This was followed two decades later by the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital built through the munificence of the legendary 19 Century philanthropist Sir Charles Henry de Soysa. Another landmark event in the progress towards enhanced healthcare was the establishment of the De Soysa Lying-in-Home (the LIH) on December 13th, 1879. The hospital owes its beginning to a philanthropic gesture by Sir Charles Henry de Soysa.. He was deeply touched by the plight of women of poor socio-economic status who were deprived of the facility for safe care in a hospital during childbirth. He proceeded to establish a hospital by personal donation of property and funds for their care, the De Soysa Lying-in-Home which is the second oldest maternity home in Asia.

Since then it has played the lead role in providing for all aspects of healthcare for women and in the training of staff in all grades for this field of work. During the initial years, maternity services was the main thrust of activities at De Soysa Lying-in-Home. At its commencement it consisted of 22 beds and provided for 52 births during its first year. A decade later the hospital was providing for 425 births annually then on to 1051 in 1909 and 2000 in 1921. The bed strength had now increased to 100. In later years it provided care for over 14,000 maternity cases annually, most of which are of a high-risk nature. Today it is a Teaching Hospital.

The Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital stands on a property formerly named Mango Lodge which was said to have been a hunting cabin during the time of the Dutch occupation. The two institutions viz the General Hospital and the Eye Hospital served as the pioneer medical institutions of the country, and attracted most of the country’s medical specialists for service there. Consequently, Ward Place became the most sought after location for residence for medical specialists and by the beginning of the 20th Century was the most popular residential location for leading medical specialists., and regarded as the Harley Street of Colombo.

The General Hospital (as it was then known) was established during Sir Henry Ward’s governorship (1855-1860), with 3,000 pounds sterling being earmarked for the project. Until then, government policy had been to contribute to locally operated charitable health organisations. However, after the establishment of the General Hospital, this policy was abandoned. Furthermore, the General Hospital also succeeded the Pettah Hospital, since the latter’s capacity to treat patients was very low.

Accordingly, the General Hospital was opened in Longden Place in 1864, under the inaugural administration of Civil Medical Officer Dr Parsley .It was later moved to Kynsey Road. named after its first Medical Superintendent, Dr WR Kynsey. The location of the General Hospital added to the demand for specialist medical services, which in turn created a soaring demand for residential accommodation to which Ward Place was considered the prime locale.

Perhaps the best known resident of Ward Place was Former President JR Jayewardene, who lived in a house named “Braemar” at 66, Ward Place. The property was originally owned by his father-in-law, Leonard Rupesinghe whose only child, Elina, was married to JR. It is on record that he bought the property from a previous owner, most probably a Scotsman, who had bestowed the name Braemar on it. C Brooke Elliott the lawyer lived there as a tenant, when he published his book “Real Ceylon ” in 1938. Since then the original house had been demolished by Rupesinghe, and by the Jayewardenes who built a modern residence for themselves, retaining the old name Braemar. The house has since been ascribed to the Inland Revenue Department to offset income taxes, but is being managed by the JR Jayewardene Cultural Centre.

Another famous resident of Ward Place was Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the national leader of the early Twentieth Century. His stately home named Sukasthan was demolished several decades ago to give way to the construction of many large homes on the property which now have the address Sukasthan Gardens. It could be speculated that Sir Ponnambalam built his home on land inherited from his father Arunachalam Ponnambalam from the Borella Estate.

The list of names of residents of Ward Place in the early 20th century would read as a list of the most eminent personae of the medical profession in Ceylon of the time. Names such as Dr Simon de Melho Aserappah, his son-in-law, Dr SC Paul, the latter’s son Dr Milroy Paul, possibly the only holder of the Master of Surgery qualification from Ceylon. There was the reputed eye surgeon Sir Arthur M de Silva, gynaecologist Dr PR Thiagarajah, Dr Percy Kulasinghe, Dr SL Navaratnam, Dr Jackie de Silva, Dr DP Billimoria, Dr W Balendra, Dr AC Arulpragasam, Dr A Sinnatamby, and Dr LAP Britto Babapulle are names that readily come to mind, and were household names of mid Twentieth Century Ceylon. There would of course be many others.

The residents of Ward Place were the elite of Colombo’s society and the medical practitioners living there commanded the biggest practices and were considered as the crème de la crème of medical specialists in the country, with a few exceptions of course.

At the intersection of Ward Place with Alexandra Place stood the two storied home of Dr Alles on a 120 perch block of land. It was for many years subsequently leased by the government of the day as the head office of the Department for the Registration of Motor Vehicles. The Alles property was next to the original home of Cargills Pharmacy which later moved to the opposite end of the De Soysa Circus .For the past few decades It was operating as a retail fashion centre named ODEL , a concept new to the country and successfully owned and managed by Ms Otara Chandiram, herself a granddaughter of two eminent medical personalities of the past, ENT surgeon Dr HCP Gunawardene, and Cardiologist/Radiologist Dr HO Gunawardene. Having disposed of this successful venture, Otara is now preoccupied with animal welfare (in an honorary capacity), a subject close to her heart.

(This originally appeared in the Ceylankan)

To be continued next week



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Life style

The Homes in Ward Place in its early days, When it was known as the Harley Street of Ceylon

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(Continued from 16 May)

by Hugh Karunanayake, Dr Srilal Fernando, and Avinder Paul

The large four-acre property with the name Tyaganivasam (previously named Jaffna House) was the home of J Tyagarajah, member of the Monetary Board, and son of Namasivam Mudaliyar Tyagarajah. The grounds of Tyaganivasam included the property on which Cargills Pharmacy stood. Tyagarajah was also a Director of the Central Bank. He served in this capacity for more than two decades, never failing to attend meetings of the Monetary Board, and is reputed to have not claimed a cent for the expenditure incurred by him, a remarkable example of service to the nation. Part of the Tyagarajah property is now home to the University Grants commission.

With two major hospitals in close proximity, and despite the presence of Cargills Pharmacy at the opposite end of De Soysa Circus, the need for a pharmaceutical outlet in Ward Place was almost a sine qua non. The void was filled by the opening of the Lanka Pharmacy at 6, Ward Place by David Silva, who named it after his son Lanka Silva, who stepped into the father’s shoes on leaving school. Lanka Silva was a champion athlete at Royal College of the early 1950s. “Manohari” The impressive home of Sir Arthur M De Silva ENT Surgeon was located nearby. His daughter married Justin Kotelawela, brother of former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela, in 1948.

Proceeding on the same side of Ward Place at No 16 stood Veerin the two storied home of Dr LAP Britto Babapulle a leading Veterinary surgeon of the time. Dr Babapulle was known as the owner of the largest number of tenement houses in Colombo, mostly located in the Grandpass area. His daughter, Andrea, lives in the house today.

A few properties away is Sukasthan Gardens, a cluster of homes built on the grounds of the former stately home of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan named “Sukasthan”. It was inherited by Ramanathan’s daughter, Sundari, who eventually sold it. Gynaecologist Dr PR Thiagarajah lived in one of the houses that were built there. Another well known resident of Sukasthan Gardens was LS Boys, a Director of Gordon Frazer and Co who lived in a house named “Shiel.” Proceeding further at No 36 was the home of Physician Dr VEP Seneviratne. Around here were the homes named Chetwynd and Donnington belonging to DF Peiris, built around the turn of the Twentieth century.

DF Peiris’s daughter, Maud, married Thomas Lambert Fernando, the grandfather of Dr Srilal Fernando, a joint author of this memoir. Donnington was later occupied by ARM Ameen, Consul for Egypt. Chetwynd was later owned by DF Peiris’ younger brother, the father of orthopaedic surgeon Dr Rienzie Peiris. Adjoining Donnington and located northwards was “Greylands” the home of Mudaliyar JCS Fonseka a stalwart of the Orchid Circle of Ceylon. At No 48 was the home of former Minister Montague Jayawicjkreme on whose large property many houses have since been constructed.

A few properties away is Sukasthan Gardens, a cluster of homes built on the grounds of the former stately home of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan named “Sukasthan”. It was inherited by Ramanathan’s daughter, Sundari, who eventually sold it. Gynaecologist Dr PR Thiagarajah lived in one of the houses that were built there. Another well known resident of Sukasthan Gardens was LS Boys, a Director of Gordon Frazer and Co who lived in a house named “Shiel.” Proceeding further at No 36 was the home of Physician Dr VEP Seneviratne. Around here were the homes named Chetwynd and Donnington belonging to DF Peiris, built around the turn of the Twentieth century.

DF Peiris’s daughter, Maud, married Thomas Lambert Fernando, the grandfather of Dr Srilal Fernando, a joint author of this memoir. Donnington was later occupied by ARM Ameen, Consul for Egypt. Chetwynd was later owned by DF Peiris’ younger brother, the father of orthopaedic surgeon Dr Rienzie Peiris. Adjoining Donnington and located northwards was “Greylands” the home of Mudaliyar JCS Fonseka a stalwart of the Orchid Circle of Ceylon. At No 48 was the home of former Minister Montague Jayawicjkreme on whose large property many houses have since been constructed.

Proceeding towards Borella on the left side of Ward Place are the two major government health care institutions the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital and the Dental Institute. The Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital was built in honour of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 and constructed in 1906. Designed by architect Edward Skinner in traditional Indo Sarasenic lines, it is characterised by its red brick façade and the many turrets of Sarasenic design. Further down the road is the Government run Dental Institute. The Dental Institute was set up in the 1930s with Dr W Balendra as its first Director. Dr Balendra himself was a resident of Ward place. Alongside was Volkaart gardens where homes of the Directors of Volkaart Brothers were located . Further on was the home “St Brycedale” of Dr Richie Caldera, Obstetrician in Charge of the De Soysa Maternity Home located on Regent Street running parallel to Ward Place. At No 53 were four homes built around the 1960s one of which was the home of Dr Chris Raffel.

A home in Ward Place and two eminent doctors, father, and son, also from Ward Place featured in a much publicised murder trial called the “Duf

f House Case” in the 1930s. White House in Ward Place was a large elegant home belonging to Solomon Seneviratne who was married to the sister of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. Solomon Seneviratne himself owned broad acres and his country home was situated on his coconut estate in Kotikawatte, Angoda. Solomon’s son Stephen was like the father educated at Royal College, and later at Cambridge University, where he qualified as a Barrister. He did not practice at the bar and spent his time managing the cattle farm which he inherited. He soon became a keen and enthusiastic cattle breeder with an expert knowledge of animal husbandry.

He married Lilian de Alwis, sister of Leo de Alwis, who was married to a daughter of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. Leo’s wife was a sister of the late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike. The life of Stephen and Lilian was tumultuous. They had many quarrels regarding Stephen’s intention to sell his home, White House. The couple lived in Duff House at No 4. Bagatelle Road rented out at Rs 100 a month, a considerable sum as rent in the 1930s.

Lilian had a troubled pregnancy which ended with the birth of their only child Terrence. She did not have a warm relationship with the son as she blamed him for her difficult pregnancy. Lilian was found one day dead in the living room of the house having inhaled chloroform. The case tested the strength of the family relationships within the Bandaranaike extended family. Here was Sir Solomon’s brother-in-law’s son accused of the murder of Sir Solomon’s so

n-in-law’s sister. The police were notified and Lilian’s family, particularly her brother Leo de Alwis, was convinced that Stephen had forced his wife to inhale a lethal dose of chloroform.

 

Dr S C Paul who was a close friend of Sir Solomon gave expert medical evidence to support that contention, which was rejected by Stephen who said that his wife was depressed and could have inhaled chloroform which Stephen kept for his animal husbandry.

Stephen was however charged with the murder of his wife before Justice MT Akbar. Stephen’s defence was supported by the expert medical evidence of Dr SC Paul’s son Dr Milroy Paul. In his direction to the jury, Justice Akbar ignored aspects of evidence that would benefit the accused, and consequently, the accused was found guilty of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. This was in 1936 when there was no Court of Criminal Appeal, so the accused appealed to the Privy Council which overturned the judgment of Akbar and acquitted Stephen. The Privy Council also made some scathing observations on the findings of the trial judge which led to Akbar suffering depression and submitting his resignation from the bench. Finally, it seemed that the murder trial ended in the trial of the presiding judge!

There were two other older well known homes on Ward Place.. One was Chateau Jubillee occupied by Adrian St V Jayewardene, Supreme C

ourt Judge, and brother of JR Jayewardene’s father EW Jayewardene. The other was Fairy Hall built in 1880 the original home of Dr Simon de Melho Aserappah and his wife Emily Wake. It was part of the large homestead on which 20 years later Rao Mahal and other homes were constructed by the family of Dr SC Paul who married Dr Aserappah’s daughter Dora.

Interior of the Dr PH Amerasinghe home designed by Architect Minnettte de Silva

The house 53/3 Ward Place designed by Geoffrey Bawa for Dr Chris Raffel was sold by Dr Chris and Carmel Raffel to Ajit Saravanamuttu who resided there until his death in 2006. Next door at No 55 was “Villa Mirelle” the home of Dr Percy Kulasinghe also situated on a large block which has since been subdivided with a new road named Kulasinghe Gardens hosting several houses. In the adjoining block at No 57 stands today the hotel Jetwing Colombo. Dr Kulasinghe was for many years a Director of the Ceylon Insurance Co founded and managed by fellow Ward Place resident Justin Kotelawela.

At No 61 was the home of lawyer FR de Saram and wife Miriam (nee Pieris) acclaimed aesthete and oriental dancer in an era when women were rarely seen on stage. Her elder son Rohan de Saram is the internationally famous cellist. The De Sarams engaged renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa to design a new additional home on the grounds now bearing No:61/6. Another Rohan, Rohan Perera at 57/2 and his brother Dr Hari Perera, Psychiatrist, the sons of the eminent lawyer HV Perera had their homes also in Ward Place.

At No:65 a house named “Taprobane “was the home of proprietary planter SR Muttiahpillai owner of the 1,250 acre Naluwella Group in Balangoda. His son M Rajendran managed the family properties in Balangoda until the initiation of Land Reform, and was awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to agriculture. The Muttiahpillai Caddillac in metallic blue colour was an ubiquitous feature of life in Ward Place in the 1950s. The passing of time and the demand for quality blocks of land has led to the breaking up of their large tract of land. A new road goes through the property now with the name Muththiahpillai Gardens, serving many new homes.

Dr W Balendra the dental surgeon’s home stood next door at No 67 next door to whom lived Dr May Ratnayake at No 69. Somewhere here stands the home of gynaecologist Dr PH (Chandra) Amerasinghe designed by renowned woman architect Minnette de Silva. She also designed the home of Chandra’s brother, Dr Asoka Amerasinghe in 5th Lane. Chandra was snatched away in his prime, from injuries resulting from an accident arising from a fun filled motor cycle ride.

The architect VS Thurairajah built a block of Flats at No 75 which was almost entirely leased out by the Marga Institute on its establishment in 1972. By 1975 Marga was in its own home at 61 Greenlands Avenue now known as Issipatana Mawata. Dr AC Arulpragasam ENT Surgeon and Dr Rajah Cooke both from the extended Paul family lived at No 77 as part of the large landholding adjacent to the Paul home “Rao Mahal “. Rao Mahal was built by Dr Simon De Melho Aserappah one of the first overseas qualified doctors who returned from England in the 19th Century. His daughter Dora married Dr SC Paul whose descendants still live in the original homestead in Ward Place where the

Paul family still retain a large extent of land on the site.

Dr Gunaratnam Cooke lived at 77 Ward Place, and Egerton Paul, another son of of Dr SC Paul, lived at No 85. Dr S.C Paul’s son, Dr Milroy Paul was the acclaimed surgeon who obtained his Master of Surgery qualification in the UK and was given the signal honour of delivering the “Hunterian Lecture” to the Royal College of Surgeons in England. He inherited Rao Mahal. Prof Milroy Paul’s son, Avinder, has collaborated in this present enterprise on homes in Ward Place and his knowledge and memory has helped us immensely in putting together this piece for the readers of The Ceylankan

Ward Place was closely associated with the development of the medical profession in Sri Lanka, and its early residential character was dominated by the medical profession. From the beginning therefore it was a highly gentrified area within the metropolis. Many successful doctors lived there, but they certainly would have had some unsuccessful medical adventures too, in addition to others whose lives were decreed not to go any further. They did not have to go far thereafter, the General Cemetery Kanatte also part of the former Borella estate, was nearby to provide them everlasting peace!

A cursory study of the residential features of this precinct would reveal that today it has lost that once dominant association with the medical profession. The street is located in one of the most sought after areas for dwellings today, and where large homes and gardens once stood, are large blocks of luxury apartments. Opulence still reigns however, and there is little doubt that Ward Place will continue to play host to a privileged few.

Concluded

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Best Fashion Photographer

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by Zanita Careem

Raffealla (an internationally recognized photographer) believes art is how you want to see the world. Passionate about art since her school days in St. Bridget’s Convent Colombo, Raffaella Fernando was a woman who always wanted ‘to do something unique and create art with her innovative ideas. She said with pride “From a my young age, my paint:ings and art were extraordinary, and nothing could stop me once I received a camera as a gift from my father.’ With a motivation to pursue a career of my own, I started photography and designing and reached success at a very young age due to my creative talent and enthusiasm.

Raffealla Fernando Photography is Raffaella’s photography brand, under which her most popular brand, the Raffealla Fernando Celebrity Calendar (RFCC). RFCC has been annually published, featuring multiple celebrities across Sri Lanka. Raffealla has been closely working with an interesting team of celebrities while collaborating with makeup artists, designers, etc. Her luxury designer brand is known as ‘Raffealla’, which she claims to define herself the most, and her more affordable designer brand is ‘Mermaidish’. She has also collaborated with a few other designers while contributing to the above brands.

A highlight of her career was when she became the “Best Fashion Photographer of the Year” at the 5th International Achievers Award 2017 London out of 310 contestants across the globe. She has also made us proud with her World Ranking of the 8th best photographer of the world, competing with 150 other photographers at the BEFTA Awards UK. Another wonderful milestone of her career life is being invited to design for the 69th and 71st Cannes Film Festivals where she could showcase her talent to the world as the first Sri Lankan designer of all. Raffealla also showcased in the London Fashion Week, where her designs were cherished among all. She also reminisces the opportunity she got to showcase one of her collections to the Prince Charles Charity Trust 41st Anniversary as well as becoming a finalist on the New York Fashion Week, bringing pride to Sri Lanka.

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into photography?

Fashion designing came first, I started off as a fashion designer and after 3 years I started my journey as a fashion Photographer. I was very much passionate about Photography since I was a school girl, I was part of the school photographic society and has also won few interschool photography competitions. When I was about 14 years old I won an Art competition and my father asked me what I need as a gift and I said I want a camera, I still remember my first camera was the F25 lumix SLR camera, my passion and interest grew from there and gradually I found the interest for fashion photography through my fashion background.

How do you describe your individual style?

I have dark twist to my style, not particularly a signature look but I like more black so I mix black with all most all my clothes. I try a lot of looks, makeup and hair styles, I am person who explores and experiment a lot with style and fashion.

When comes to my Photography I have conceptualized style, I love to tell stories I also look at myself as story teller sometimes because a lot of thinking goes into my thought process when it comes to my concept shoots.

To summarize it’s dark, conceptualized and creative.

How do account for your fearless approach to the fashion world?

I’ve always been myself and I let it flow seamlessly. Fashion industry in the only place I always wanted to work since I started dreaming from a right mind. I don’t know if it was fearless because I was very young when I entered the Industry, the excitement was way much that all I can remember is that I worked very hard to do new things in the industry also to have my own place and stay.

As an award winning photographer? What is your first preference?

Fashion a photography?

It’s very hard to pick from both because I started as a designer and then got in to Photography. But if I speak honestly I love taking photographs more because I get to create a whole new different world for my creative eye.

What made you to name your brand Raffealla?

I think My name itself does the best Branding for me , that’s why I using my name as my brand name as well…. I grew up disliking my name so much thinking it is so different and now I think it works in my favor. Also I have a fond memory with my grandmother who is no more with us, she named me Raffealla and I used to ask her ” why did you name me Raffealla , it’s such an ugly name ” and she use to always tell me ” no its such a unique name, thank me later when you grow up “

Why did you change your career from film direction and journalism?

well I’m very new to film direction, at the moment I’m planning on my very first film direction and that is something I’m really looking forward to.

I started to work as a fashion journalist at the age of 18 I continued for 5 years and gradually and sadly I had to stop because I couldn’t find the time to continue.

Actually didn’t change but my direction from it I changed my direction towards it.

DO you have any signature styles?

Not particularly but creating concepts and stories are more of my style and kind of work.

Difference between art photography and fashion photography?

I would like to call both “art” , but there is a whole world of difference between conceptualized photography and fashion photography, because it’s so different to each of the style the line itself is created I feel.

In fashion photography we always want to keep it trendy,fashionable , styling and what we always highlight is the fashion, but in conceptualized photography we highlight the concept, the story, the expressions it’s the soul of the concept we try to highlight. Art Photography is more of an abstract style.

What are your plans for this year with the endemic spreading?

Fashion photography is an incredibly competitive niche what steps

you have taken to be above the rest

Consistency is definitely the key of success, as women we sometimes have to work as twice as hard as a man, it is a good thing I am not complaining about it because it helps us a lot to grow. So I always feel consistency is the key just be consistent and do what you do, continue even when you fall and fail. It is a beautiful industry to work , of course like any other industry we do have a different side , it is very competitive like you said and cut throat. I try to be constant as much as I can, do new projects, explore and experiment with myself and I do a lot of work on me to make myself a better and a fuller artist.

What according to you is fashion?

Fashion is the form of clothing, accessories, and furniture. It can be used by everyone. It is related to culture,

style is such a personal thing it does not change with seasons, for an exams Micheal jackson , queen and etc they had such unique style.

The above was the technical part of fashion and style, for me fashion is a language, helps to understand people and also feelings. If you are happy you dress well and when you aren’t you dress down and bad sometimes.

What do feel most challenging/interesting?

Every single working day is challenging and interesting especially these days as we all push more to create, we work a lot on the virtual platforms and I find it the most interesting.

Like last year I conducted Sri lankas very first solo virtual photography exhibition, we launched it online during the second lockdown period. I found it interesting how we make use of platform we previously didn’t consider.

What do you think are the most important traits a fashion model should have?

Understanding of fashion, light and camera. A conscious mind of movement to move with the camera and lights, I appreciate a lot when models listen.

A little bit on jewellery designing

I Have a higher national diploma in Jewellery designing and something I always enjoyed applying for my designs and styling. I create a lot of jewellery with throwing away material and create recycle and upcycled jewellery for my collections.

 

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COVID-19: You might be depressed now, but don’t underestimate your resilience

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The mental health toll of COVID-19 pandemic is real. But many will recover.

Trauma does not reliably produce illness, which is important to remember when looking at how people are responding to the pandemic as it unfolds. Picture used for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Supplied

The emerging data on mental health during the pandemic suggests a troubling future. Surveys show that Americans have become more depressed and anxious, and experts in a variety of fields have argued that COVID-19 has changed society forever.

While the pandemic has undeniably caused extraordinary stress and sadness, research on human resilience suggests that people will recover from the trauma of the pandemic faster than many believe. And while certain groups may need mental health care for the longer term, it’s also true that humans’ ability to overcome adversity is often underestimated and that an overwhelming majority of people who suffer trauma will not develop mental illness but eventually feel better.

As a psychiatrist, I see this firsthand with patients and colleagues. Most of my patients who had clinical depression and anxiety before the pandemic did not deteriorate during the pandemic. Yes, they were stressed and worried, but I was struck by how this group remained pretty stable.

Earlier in the pandemic I also ran a support group for the anesthesiologists at the hospital where I work. Every day this group of men and women would intubate people with severe COVID-19, exposing themselves to the virus and immense patient suffering. But eventually, the support group disbanded because the members felt they could cope without my help.

This is not to suggest that the impact of COVID-19 on mental health isn’t real, nor that it won’t be long-lasting in some cases. It is real, and it will linger for many. But it’s also important to underscore that most people who are exposed to stress and trauma do not necessarily develop clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Sure, they experience anxiety and sadness, but these mental health states can lift soon after stress abates.

Studies suggest that up to about 90 percent of Americans have experienced a traumatic event, yet the prevalence of PTSD is estimated to be 6.8 percent. So while exposure to traumatic events is common, only a small minority of people develop PTSD as a result. Follow-up studies of trauma victims with PTSD in the general population show that the symptoms decrease significantly within three months after trauma and that about 66 percent of those with PTSD eventually recover.

Trauma does not reliably produce illness, which is important to remember when looking at how people are responding to the pandemic as it unfolds. A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from August 2020 to February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety and depression increased to 41.5 percent from 36.4 percent.

Transient and unreliable

But most surveys like this assess symptoms at a given point in time, which could turn out to be transient. These surveys are also conducted online, using rating scales that don’t reliably establish a clinical diagnosis. Other research tracking people with diagnosed mental health conditions haven’t found an increase in symptom severity during the pandemic.

I’ve found that many patients find comfort in learning that most people who are traumatized do not develop psychopathology. The ability to cope with adversity is the essence of resilience – but it doesn’t mean there is no psychological distress. To the contrary, anxiety and sadness are common reactions, but these responses are typically manageable and temporary.

It’s why many people who experience intense stress or trauma go on to live healthy, productive lives. Not all stress is harmful to the brain, and many people cooped up at home during the pandemic largely faced a kind of manageable stress. Once normal life can resume, many people will begin to feel much better.

Chronic unremitting stress that isn’t easily resolved, however, leads to sustained increase of adrenaline and cortisol and can be harmful. Frontline workers were exposed to this type of chronic stress during the pandemic and thus are at much higher risk of developing clinical depression and anxiety. The pandemic also took a disproportionate toll on people of color, who experienced increases in suicide rates in 2020 while overall suicide rates in the country dropped. Making sure these groups have access to care will be critical for their mental and physical health.

Experts have long been interested in why some people are more resilient than others in the face of stress, including after events like wars and natural disasters. Some of it is genetic, and some of it is a person’s life circumstances. Things like having a steady income, family support and access to health care can affect how people handle traumatic events.

Foster emotional and physical resilience

But there are things that people can do to foster emotional and physical resilience, including maintaining social bonds, getting regular exercise and finding ways to reduce stress, among other things. Social support, for example, has been shown to strengthen resilience by increasing self-esteem and the sense of control. Social connectedness also inhibits activation of fear and anxiety circuits in the brain.

There is no question that this has been a stressful and brutal year marked by untold loss and grief. I lost my splendid 94-year-old mother to COVID-19, and I’m still sad. But people should feel a measure of relief at having navigated COVID to this point, and not forget the fact that humans are more resilient than we realize. We can bounce back.( Independent)

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