I used to walk down to the SLBC in the early eighties for my programmes. The sleepiness of the streets round ‘Lakmahal’ had diminished with the construction of Duplication Road, but Colombo was still pretty much a quiet place. Though it was a longer route, I preferred to go down Queen’s Road, which in those days did not have the schools that have now made its upper reaches a mess, first Sujata Vidyalaya which Goobai Gunasekara started in emulation of the great days of the national schools her mother had presided over, later Wycherley when International Schools became the vogue.
On the right, after Duplication Road, and the built up areas that had once been the gardens of Maalyn Dias and his sister, Ira Fernando, were what we always knew as Bank Houses. They were ensconced behind bright red brick walls, which I think I have only penetrated once, for a wedding, if I am right in thinking that Ranmali Pathirana’s reception was held in one of those, her aunt’s husband then heading the Commercial Bank.
On the left were old mansions that were open to sight, including the grand edifice that had belonged to Sir Marcus Fernando. Fascinated as I was by the early electoral politics of Sri Lanka, I knew the name well. It was Sir Marcus who had lost to Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in the first election in which Ceylonese took part, that for the Educated Ceylonese seat on the 1912 Legislative Council, constituted under the McCallum Reforms. Ramanathan had got a great preponderance of Sinhalese votes to win, and one reason advanced was the caste factor, the Goigama Sinhalese preferring a Vellala Tamil to a representative of the Karawas.
That may have been a reason, but more important I think was the fact that Ramanathan had been an outstanding legislator before, deeply committed to Ceylonese as a whole, as his championing of a holiday for Vesak had shown. He was easily the most active legislator in the days in which all representatives were nominated by the Governor, which was perhaps the reason he was tempted away with an official position in 1893. He gave that up in 1906 and went off to India to meditate, but was summoned back by a multi-ethnic deputation when finally Ceylonese were given a chance to elect someone. He was undoubtedly the better man, of the two who came forward, and his eloquence in standing up for the Sinhalese who were persecuted by the British during the 1915 Sinhala Muslim riots eminently justifies the decision of the electorate.
Further up Queen’s Road was the house owned by Grindlay’s Bank, which remained anonymous like all the other Bank Houses except for a brief period ten years later, when the Bank was headed by an ostentatious Englishman called Bradshaw. He saw himself as a cultural catalyst, and he was in fact an important influence in this regard. His support transformed classical music in Sri Lanka, by virtue mainly of his patronage of Rohan Joseph de Saram, who challenged the sleepy orthodoxies of the Colombo Symphony Orchestra.
Bradshaw inspired colleagues as well to embark on sponsorship of culture, and Rohan Joseph seemed to have so much money that the old Orchestra was split, as gifted musicians crossed over to a body that actually paid them. Relations were strained for some time, and the atmosphere unpleasant, but all this contributed to an improvement in professionalism. When the dust settled the CSO had also been transformed from the days when it was governed by gifted amateurs such as Peace Samarasekara – leading to the memorable review by Elmer de Hahn that was headlined, ‘Peace Be Still.’
All this was of course later on, as was Grindlay’s contribution to literature, in helping with the Gratiaen Awards. The trust was set up by Michael Ondaatje in 1993, to promote Sri Lankan writing in English, and it began on a fairly small scale, but Michael’s sister Gillian persuaded Grindlay’s to sponsor the first awards evening. Bradhaw obviously could not resist someone who had just won the Booker Prize. So that Gratiaen too then became a social event at which anyone with pretensions to sophisticated social significance had to be seen.
I think this helped in making Carl Muller respectable, in that he was the first winner of the award, albeit jointly with Lalitha Witanachchi. I am glad Arjuna Parakrama, who dominated the judging panel that year, held out for Carl, because Colombo was still not sure whether the man was a pornographer or an artist. Arjuna could not however prevail upon Ben Fonseka, appointed to the panel as the representative of the ordinary enlightened reader, to have Carl alone selected. History, in the form of the even better work Carl produced in the next few years, suggests that at least that award, in 1993, achieved the purpose of encouragement and promotion. Unfortunately Grindlay’s collapsed soon afterwards, and the Gratiaen is now sponsored by others – but I think that, without the effervescent Bradshaw, corporate sponsorship of cultural activities would not have been quite as common, or prestigious, as it is now.
From the top of Queen’s Road one turned right for a short stretch along Thurstan Road with its magnificient mara trees, passing the university grounds where my father walked regularly, and where Dennis Chanmugam had once persuaded me to go running, at grave risk it seemed to my heart. Finally there was the beautiful walk down Buller’s Road, past a series of old colonial mansions which delighted the eye of the passer by, before tall walls took them from sight.
Those I suppose will remain, but I was delighted that the walls on the left, along the grounds of I think the National Film Corporation, came down at the beginning of the year. Even more pleasing has been the unveiling as it were of the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station, an impressive building that for years had to be protected by ungainly walls and barricades. Personally I am delighted that the public face of the city has now been entrusted to the Ministry of Defence. I don’t blame them at all for what they had to do to protect us from the eighties on, but I have no doubt that they will be more efficient at restoring things, not just to what they were, but to what they should be.
The SLBC, housed in what I was told had once been the lunatic asylum, had a bureaucracy worthy of the past it had inherited. Multiple vouchers had to be signed for payments to be made and I gathered that, before that, your producer had to have multiple forms signed to allow you to come in to participate in a programme. If you were lucky, after several months you were paid, by the young ladies at reception, who painstakingly added up the tiny sums each programme was worth. I cannot remember exact details now, but I believe the presenter received less than Rs 50 for a quarter hour slot, and additional voices something like Rs 5. I had to be very thankful then that Richard and Yolande Abeywira and Jeanne Pinto were pure altruists as far as helping me on my programmes went.