Alfreda de Silva, Amaradeva, Anne Ranasinghe, Colombo Symphony Orchestra, Earle de Fonseka, James Goonewardene, Jean Arasanayagam, Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, Patrick Fernando, Peace Samarasekera, Piyasara Shilpadhipathi, Prashanthi Navaratnam, Punyakante Wijenaike, Regi Siriwardena, Rex Baker, Trinity College, Yasmine Gooneratne
Before I got involved in education too, my work consisted of ensuring positive publicity for the work of the Council in general, while also promoting literature and art and film and music. I set myself a target of about half a dozen programmes a month in the Hall, together with something larger about once a quarter. Fortunately Rex was quite happy to let me work on Sri Lankan efforts too, so I generally managed to ensure a regular flow of activity.
This was made easier by the fact that London had a library of films, from which we could borrow one each month, for several screenings, in addition to a set for a festival each year. I had a judicious mix of culture and entertainment, old favourites
and contemporary productions. Then there were lectures and readings, the occasional art exhibition, and a few concerts. We got down British musicians about twice a year, for performances in the Hall as well as in larger concerts outside, usually in collaboration with the Symphony Orchestra. I was also able to showcase local talent such as the Trinity College Choir, and Prashanthi Navaratnam, after her initial training in London.
We developed an excellent collaboration with the Symphony Orchestra, chaired in those days by the redoubtable Peace Samarasekera and conducted almost always by Earle de Fonseka. He was utterly charming, and a highlight of all performances was the dinner he hosted at his house for the entire orchestra, plus anyone he thought had helped. We also did some work with local musicians, initially because a delightful man called Sivasambu ran what he called the Bloomsbury Group in London, which had an annual festival for which he asked the Council to sponsor an artist from Sri Lanka. We sent both Amaradeva and Piyasara Shilpadhipathi, on one occasion together. I knew the work of the former of course, but I was privileged to discover the latter’s excellence as a drummer.
It was with regard to writing however that I was able I think to make a seminal change. Previously English writing by Sri Lankans had been looked down upon by our critics. Punyakante Wijenaike was criticized by our academics for simplicity and bad English, and James Goonewardene fared worse. In poetry Lakdasa Wikkramasinha had achieved some fame, but I think this was only because he had died. Patrick Fernando was just beginning to gain recognition, but he too died young, perhaps as a consequence. Certainly the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that excellence could only be granted to the dead – though perhaps this was not due only to the Sri Lankan habit of doing down local talent, since in those days we managed to produce an Advanced Level syllabus which included I think only one living British writer. Needless to say, there were no Sri Lankans, but there were no living poets either.
We had regular readings of Sri Lankan writers, using any excuse that offered, including the award of prizes in a competition run by some University in America. The Triton Competition, as this was called, seemed to give hundreds of prizes, but we nevertheless felicitated the winners, which allowed the showcasing of talent such as Alfreda de Silva’s. We launched books, Anne Ranasinghe’s and Jean Arasanayagam’s and James Goonewardene’s, and had readings of Regi Siriwardena’s plays. Richard and Yolande did yeoman service in all this, but we were also able to use younger talent such as Ranmali Pathirana and Ravi John.
We also did a number of readings of contemporary British plays which might otherwise have never been known in Sri Lanka. I remember Rohan Ponniah too helping on one occasion, and I was astonished and impressed at the meticulous care with which he studied his script for a difficult extract from Edward Bond. He was of course a consummate artist, and having been impressed with his brilliant production of ‘Waiting for Godot’, with the two veterans, Lucien de Zoysa and Winston Serasinghe as the two tramps, I was overwhelmed when, a few years later, he took one of the roles himself, and perfectly complemented his much older opposite number.
The highlight of my own literary productions – I did not dare to work on plays – was the one man performances of Dickens and Kipling in which Richard starred. We toured these too to several places, Batticaloa and Kandy and Galle and some of the training colleges too, and had a riotous time. On the second occasion Richard insisted that we use his friend Waruna Karunatilleke as stage manager and for transport. Though it was good not to have to depend on Council transport, Waruna was not the most dependable of colleagues, nor punctual, though unfailingly good humoured. Still, the performances went off well and, though I suppose no one else remembers them now, I can still hear Richard’s pomposity as Podsnap, and his pathos as Steerforth died. I can see him as Mrs Sparsit stalking round the slimy plants we had piled up on the stage, mainly from ‘Lakmahal’, and fluttering madly as the butterflies in Kipling’s delightful story of King Solomon and his wiser Queen Bilquis.
I think it was after seeing one of these performances that Yasmine Gooneratne asked me to arrange a launch for ‘Relative Merits’, her memoir of the Bandaranaike family. I had had a great regard for her before we met, partly for her poetry and partly because she had been the first to try to promote Sri Lankan writing through ‘New Ceylon Writing’ which she had started in Peradeniya in 1970. But she had soon afterwards emigrated to Australia, and though her academic career had gone from strength to strength, she had for some years seemed out of touch with Sri Lanka – and indeed her final book of poetry suggested a loss of inspiration, which she was acutely aware of herself, in someone who had shifted away from original roots.
In the mid-eighties however she renewed her links, and indeed brought out an issue of NCW that dealt with the ethnic violence of 1983. I was honoured then to devise a programme for the launch, and got Richard and Yolande to read, with the necessary mixture of formality and whimsicality. The old ebony furniture from Lakmahal, which had served as props to recreate Dickensian England, was trotted out again, more appropriately I suppose for Yasmine’s incisive account of the exploits of an earlier generation of her clan.