Sunday, October 30, 2011


Link up to published version

It’s not breaking news that there is abject poverty on our doorsteps. But that abject poverty is not part of our reality either. In one part of town, teenagers sleep in their branded pyjamas dreaming of the latest Apple product while in another, their peers in shanties shiver through the sleepless night. Older children of poorer families are forced to stay home from school, hungry, looking after their younger siblings while there are those of others, happily skipping school to sleep off fatigue from a party the night before.

Those poverty-stricken children lucky enough to attend school regularly quite often wear the same uniform every day of the week and are literally barefoot (not a fashion statement or your favourite hangout). In many village schools, a number of students faint each morning from lack of nourishment. It is not a surprise that the majority of these students, not having the luxury of various avenues for higher education at the end of their credit cards, drop out of school soon after O-Levels and start looking for employment. Financial sustenance being a difficult thing to come by with no proper education, many begin turning to crime in order to provide for themselves and sometimes their families also.

It is easy to sit back and expect the state to deal with such issues, Gowri Kariyawasam, President of Business Professional Women (BPW) shares, but also irresponsible, considering how deep-rooted and wide-spread they are. “If each and every organization within Sri Lanka undertook to focus part of their work on the future generation” she muses, awed at the implications, “how our prospects would improve!”

Just this September saw the initiation of Project Change, what BPW hopes will be a pilot project to translate this postulation to action. The organisation has recognized 2,000 children in the Hanwella area that need help, and are working to enlist 2,000 donors that will fund these kids’ welfare. The programme will provide the children with school books, uniforms and shoes, as well as a supply of dry rations for the family. All it takes is 12,000 rupees per annum, Gowri explains, adding that this breaks down into a mere 30 rupees a day, a pittance really. Mechanisms are already in place to make sure that these children get a glass of milk at school each week. Not only does this help improve the state of their health, it also directly impacts their educational development – not one of these children misses school on ‘Milk Day’ if they can help it.

Two weekends ago, 150 boy-scouts and girl-guides from schools in the Avissawella, Hanwella and Kosgama areas were brought together by the BPW, simply to have a good time at project chairperson and outgoing BPW president Janaki Gunewardena’s home in Boralugoda. The house is spacious and welcoming, opening out at every possible window to a garden filled with the aroma of flowers and the sounds of birds chirruping in the surrounding paddy and coconut plantations. “We have been given more than others in this world simply to share” Mrs. Gunewardena shrugs in her typical matter-of-fact way, “not to accumulate for ourselves!”

Alongside the village-school students at the Boralugoda house that weekend, and having just as much fun with them was an unexpected lot – students from the Elizabeth Moir School. Behind Project Change is an often missed recognition of the fact that more privileged children are not uncaring and selfish as often depicted, but simply unaware of the life conditions of their less fortunate neighbours. Mrs. Gunewardena remembers her life as a youngster growing up in Colombo in the 40’s and 50’s and that despite her grandparents and parents often bringing less fortunate people home to bathe and feed, she “never wondered about their tomorrow, how they would find their meal the next day”. It was later in life that she began to see the importance of a more permanent solution to the problem. “We need to break that wall between the classes” she shares, a thought that will undoubtedly worry some, “otherwise we can’t really change anything”.

BPW hopes that providing continuing opportunities for young people from different economic backgrounds to mix and mingle will help start lasting friendships across cultural barriers. This in turn they believe will increase awareness and involvement of youth in welfare endeavours geared towards their less fortunate peers, not only making such projects more successful but also enriching lives and equipping them to be socially responsible adults. “We hope that some of these children at least will take it to their hearts to fulfil the need” Mrs. Gunewardena says.

Mrs.-GunewardenaSquealing, giggling and running around in a dainty cotton dress at the Boralugoda house is Ayoshi Hapuaarachchi, the Project Change “mascot”. “She’s like my adopted grandchild”, Mrs. Gunewardena smiles down on the baby, sharing the story of how Niluka, her domestic helper, confessed one night that she couldn’t afford to provide for the child in her womb. They made arrangements for the baby to be legally adopted at birth by another couple, but there were complications with the process, and it was decided that Mrs. Gunewardena would help bring her up instead. “Just because she was born into a poor family doesn’t make her any less beautiful, intelligent or capable of contributing to the welfare of her country and people” she argues, “she deserves a decent life as much as any other child”. As Ayoshi grew into the bouncy-bubbly one-year-old she now is, Mrs. Gunewardena came to realize the significance of the impact a single individual could make on a child’s future, and Change was born.

Neither Mrs. Gunewardena nor Gowri Kariyawasam though, is interested in talking much about themselves or even their work. The thing is to see, hear, understand and do. Fifty metres from the main Avissawella highway and a right turn onto a concrete road lies Munamale, the first village that BPW will Change. The area seems decent as some of the houses even have plastered walls and children grin from ear to ear showing gaps in their teeth as one young fellow wobbles off his bicycle. But the illusion is quickly dispersed with. A few hundred metres down and the road is simply a wide gravel path, on either side of which lie tiny dwellings, some of wattle and daub with thatch roofs, some of wooden planks and bits of concrete sheeting. By the time we arrive at homes that are mere shacks – metal frames covered with polythene and canvas – the road is too narrow and uneven to travel on and we are forced to turn back. “It gets worse” Mrs. Gunewardena explains, “I don’t want to put you through that”.

It is only a month since Change was initiated on September 21, and it is evident that BPW has jumped straight in the deep end. Gowri Kariyawasam is nevertheless convinced that this pilot project will spark nation-wide interest and involvement, really bringing about Change. It is most definitely not the first time an endeavour of this sort has been stepped into, but Change seems different in its bid to create links between the generations as well as economic classes – a radical move on their part. And though it is still a distinct group of people heading single-minded to achieve great things behind the scenes of Change, their aim is to get simply everyone involved.

“As long as you can talk or even just think, you’ve got to help where you can” Mrs. Gunewardena emphasizes, “you’d be surprised at how a little attention now can change a child’s future”. Most importantly though, BPW is aware of the individuality of each child that goes into the great mosaic that is the future of our country: “Change Sri Lanka, One Child at a Time”.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

ABYT 2011: Garam Masala

Link up to published version

Sitting down to a chat with ‘Garam Masala’, this year’s Act Before You Think (ABYT) winners, is like having your seat moved from the audience on to the stage at the theatre. Facial muscles distort, arms fly, players keep switching roles and once in a while, chairs and tables also move. And they laugh so much!

Benjamin Aluwihare, Nadim Akram and Brandon Paul are taking the IB Arts at the British School and Sajiv Panditha, who has already completed the course, is employed in advertising. While Brandon and Benjamin have known each other for nearly ten years now, they’ve all four been friends for two or three. “We’re closer now” says Sajiv, turning to Brandon with the sly look of a ‘moment’ on his face. Benjamin explains that “they had a very... passionate session onstage” and everyone bursts out laughing.

The laughter hardly ends before someone else cracks a joke or throws a diss in someone else’s face and it starts all over. “My parents preferred the IB in Arts over my first choice which was Visual Arts” shares Brandon. We’re discussing Sri Lankan attitudes towards performance (which, by the way, they all feel is not very encouraging, although they will all definitely continue to pursue theatre). “They preferred it ‘cus it’s more... character building?” he continues hesitantly, to which Benjamin interjects “Yeah, he has a sort of weak character”, and the table erupts again.

While all four identify themselves as dramatists, Nadim is also a dancer. “We’re a bit of a Garam Masala” Sajiv says, grinning wide. True enough, they come from distinctly different backgrounds, speak with distinctly different accents and there is really no better name for them to call themselves than that. But it was “random like most other things we do” Brandon points out.

Improvised theatre just happened upon them, as did their name. “We were having breaks during theatre” Sajiv explains, “and somebody just grabbed a broom and started calling it something else and that developed into a nearly ten minute long piece!”

“The thing about ‘improv’ is you can just do what you want” he continues, “it won’t be as clear as conventional theatre, but [the structure] is there”. He and Brandon both definitely prefer improvised theatre to formal, while the other two are not so sure. “I enjoy both” Benjamin takes his turn (which rarely happens actually, the preferred method is for all to talk at the same time) “in a formal drama the actor becomes what the director wants. Here, all the actors are collaboratively also the director”.

What they liked the most ABYT though, seems to be the direct audience involvement in the performance. “You’re not afraid of the audience as such” Brandon explains, “if they shout something at you, you shout something back. But it’s terrifying how you stand there and do something, and then you realize what you’ve done!”

“You literally act before you think” Bejamin adds thoughtfully.

During the dance segment for example, Benjamin and Nadim seem to have ‘found’ themselves taking their t-shirts off. Onstage. “We finished and we’re like, ‘why did you take your shirt off?!’ says Sajiv, laughing. They were being “spontaneous” Benjamin suggests, and they’re all laughing some more. “You’re finished, and when you come back to that couch and sit down, it’s like you’re on Oprah,” Brandon says animatedly, dramatising an emotional breakdown while wailing “why would I do that!? I didn’t mean to!”

Sajiv, Nadim, Benjamin, Brandon

Nadim (the quieter one, yes there is a quiet one) is grinning wickedly as he describes how while being Brandon The Bartender’s helping hands, the timer went off. “He was drinking so slowly, and there was nothing left to do!” he helplessly (laughingly) explains why he spilt the contents of their very fruity mock-juice-tail-smoothie all over Brandon’s shirt.

“But we just kept going” Benjamin declares with gusto as Sajiv adds that “good competition” helped them keep their energy levels up. “It wouldn’t have been” Benjamin starts, “as much fun” Brandon continues, for Sajiv to finish “if there wasn’t that”. Yes, they share sentences.

How easily their thoughts synchronise is proof of how well they coordinate. It takes just over a second for the others to catch, understand and respond to a cue either one of them gives as they pose for the camera, obviously loving the flash.

They seemed, from the beginning, to have that special touch of something that made them winners, something that let them “just keep going” and abandon themselves on the boards.“We knew that no matter what happened, we’d always be there for one another.” Maybe that’s all it took!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Puppet-Master Premin

Link up to published version

A little further than the instructed one kilometre down the by-road, we stop to ask for directions. With no address and only a given name to go with, success seems unlikely. But we are mistaken, for not only down Elpitiya Road but through the Ambalangoda district, the puppet master Premin is more than just well known. The legacy his father Ganwari Jemis and his father’s father Ganwari Podi Sirina left for him, which he struggles now to guard, is that well treasured.

Kalabhushana Ganwari Premin is passionate about his puppets. The decades he has dedicated to learning and adapting traditional naadagam scripts, musical forms and dances has taken him to many stages and carnival sites around the world. Not only is he one of the country’s leading puppeteers, he is also an ardent historian and promoter of the art. His small smiling eyes light up animatedly as he pulls out volume upon volume of neat scrapbooks on which posters, paper-cuttings,  photographs, letters and even envelops, connected to Sri Lankan puppetry and dating from the 1940’s are meticulously arranged.

Premin’s grandfather, Ganwari Podi Sirina Guru is popularly considered the father of traditional puppetry. He is accredited with introducing not only screens to the Sri Lankan puppet stage, but also the popular Nango Hami and Sellan Lama characters who sometimes perform introductory acts to the main play. Podi Sirina is recorded to have presented the controversial (and immensely popular) play ‘Ehelepola’, based on the massacre of the Kandyan family of that name, before the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870 at the Bagatale Walawwa. The Duke and his retinue were so thrilled with the performance that, according to Premin, they awarded Podi Sirina a gold medal as well as five hundred rupees – a fortune at the time!

Such royal encouragement helped Podi Sirina and his contemporaries work towards improvement and propagation of the art across Sri Lanka, but unfortunately was not enough to prevent the complete cast of 47 puppets from the ‘Ehelapola’ play from being sold in 1910 and shipped to West Germany. Although puppets were not unfamiliar to a European population, the stature of the life-size creations are said to have created a stir, miniatures being the norm.

These figures, as all other traditional Sri Lankan puppets, are made of the wood of the goda kaduru tree. It is soft and pliable, as well as light, perfect for the job. The puppet is fashioned as a number of parts measured to exact proportions, the calculation of which is known as path bindeema. Once the separate pieces have been carved and detailed, the painting begins.

Traditionally, either valicchi (a concoction made of various powdered natural ingredients) or dorana thel were used to colour the puppets. The centre of the massive dorana tree, which grows in our rainforests, is carved out and the cavity set fire to. The sap then drips into coconut shells arranged at the bottom of the cavity, and is later treated before used as paint. Different colours and patterns are used to define characteristics of the figure, pink skin always indicating femininity while bold patterns signal either divine or legendary characters.

The pieces of the puppet are now jointed together, and costuming begun. “They’re just like actors” smiles Premin as he opens box after box of polythene-wrapped clothes, “each puppet has many outfits”. Those of royalty are made of orange, black and blue velvet lined with cotton and adorned with pearls, beads and sequins, while greens, purples, chains, jewels and gold and silver thread dazzle the other costumes.

Whenever there is a performance scheduled, Premin spends a number of days before, going through the collection of puppets and costumes, repairing and packing. A good troupe consists of at least 30 puppets he says, describing how after being placed in cloth bags and padded with lots of cloth in between to prevent damage, a lorry is required to move the set.

The puppet stage is made of two sections, the front for the play proper and the elevated back for the hidden artists. Puppeteers bend over the separating screen as they work, leaning their weight on a smooth pole to prevent spine injury as the figures, despite being hollow, are rather large and heavy. Premin treasures a nearly two hundred year-old head-part of one mammoth piece, the face of an aristocrat fitted with the typical moustache made of human hairs, which he believes belonged to a nearly six-foot figure.

“Meka raekaganna, meka kaewa” Premin sighs, pointing first to his belly and then the damaged face-figure, as we speak of art in contemporary Sri Lanka. If there is one thing he regrets, it is how traditional art which has intellectual as well as entertainment value is not appreciated as well as more modern forms, and is simply exploited for financial gain. “We have a tradition of puppetry that has exceeded that of many other countries, but hardly any reception in our own land” he shares regretfully. And this, he believes, is causing the art itself to decline in standards.

Nostalgically he speaks of a time when as a young boy he would tour the country with his father, performing at carnival after carnival for months on end, during school vacations. “I have seen all the masters” he declares proudly, reminiscing the good times of his youth, “but they were masters mostly because they had an audience that enjoyed and critically understood their work, so they were continually challenged”.

Premin yearns to build a similar audience in contemporary society and thereby promote the growth of the number of practitioners, which he believes is currently less than two hundred, because he is thoroughly convinced of the value of this art. “I can’t help but imagine the possibilities”, he speaks animatedly of television, advertising, media and education combined with puppetry. Dreamily he remembers how “once in Kurunegala, my father had to stop in the middle of the ‘Ehelepola’ because the audience was moved to tears and wailing. That is the kind of impact we can create.”

Next Friday, 21 October, Premin will bring his vidhane’s and puja dancers, his stilt-walkers and fire-eaters, his satirists and his historical characters to present Colombo with a performance at the Navarangahala at Royal College, starting 6:30pm. He hopes it will help improve public awareness of, and interest in the art. Premin’s son, fourth-generation artist Indika, too will join him and his company on this trip. He smiles shyly, admitting that he has been playing with his father’s puppets since he was a very young child. Despite his love for the art, the necessity of feeding the little mouths at home has kept him from pursuing it full-time.

Indika’s little four-year-old daughter hurries her grandfather as she expertly helps him fit a puppet twice her size into its cloth bag. She is already on her way to taking up the family legacy. Giggling shyly, she follows the 65 year-old artist from his house, down the narrow gravel path that leads to Pokuna Paara off Elpitiya Road. He gently tells her to go back home, as he is heading to Colombo to finalize plans for the programme, it is immensely important to him. “Naethiwunanam mata vitharai, raekunanam mulu ratatama.”

Jacob–Prince of God

Most of us have seen some version of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber and been inspired by the transformations in the life of the dreamer. We nearly forget though, that the benevolent and jolly old man, Joseph’s father, had his more-than-fair share of drama as a young man too! Known as the deceiver, he tricked those around him countless times to end up in scrape after scrape after scrape. Inspiring as it is, to think that such a man would grow to father a nation, imagine the story coming to life!

‘Jacob, Prince of God’ will do just that next weekend as The Christian Arts Foundation brings the collaboration of experts Jerome L de Silva and Mary Anne David on stage with the production of a musical the kind of which has previously never been seen in Colombo.

The Christian Arts Foundation, better known as CHRAFT (, is now two years old. Ramesh Shantha brought the idea of a school of music and theatre that encouraged Christian ethics to Jerome L de Silva and Mary Anne David in 2009, and was met with total encouragement. “I had always been working with churches and Christian ministries like YFC in my forty-two years of theatre production in this country, but never in a formal way” Jerome, who will soon be celebrating his sixtieth birthday, shares, “and I’ve always wanted to”. So when as he was phasing out of his advertising work and going in to
retirement, “suddenly from the blue, Ramesh called”, he thought, “superb!”

The foundation sees the participation of very young people (their junior-most member turned six just two weeks ago) and some older people as well. “When we started, I said, the age group is five to a hundred and five” Jerome laughs. These participants belong to different church denominations, while
some of the cast and crew are in fact, from other religious backgrounds. The basic principle behind the work at CHRAFT is sharing love and having fun, a philosophy which seems to work extremely well, as enthusiasm, numbers and popularity just seems to be growing!

True to their bid to share love equally, CHRAFT currently participates in the ‘Uthurai Vasanthai’ initiative and has from its inception been conducting workshops in distant and “unfashionable” areas such as Menik Farm. Though for the last two years the organisation has been involved mainly in church-related performances, they are finally going public with this production of ‘Jacob Prince of God’.

“It’s not exactly Broadway, but it’s really big” Jerome promises. A cast of nearly forty people (minus the choir!) will take the stage at the Lionel Wendt from 21 to 23 October starting 7:30pm to portray the story of Israel’s birth. And although the plot stays true to the biblical version, “it’s more a musical
than a bible story”, according to Jerome. “It’s really very funny, and there’s lovely music!” he enthuses, promising “extravagant” lighting and some “sure to be spectacular” moments, declaring the production likely to be “the theatrical event of the year”!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Discovering Music, Discovering Life - Joshua Roman (cellist, TED Fellow)

Link up to published version

“They all thought I was crazy” he laughs, hazel eyes twinkling, as he describes how at six years old he’d tell people he was going to be a concert cellist. Joshua Roman simply “always knew”. It is truly a rare gift to go through one’s formative years with an understanding of where one is called to be once ‘grown up’, when many of us continually change our minds and never decide. “I went through some phases too”, Joshua reminisces with a smile, “I thought, if I broke my arm and I’d never be able to play the cello again, I’d be a fighter pilot, I thought that was cool”.

Joshua grew up in a Christian family of four children (of whom he was the first); all of who received a musical education, although it was only he who decided to pursue classical music professionally. “When I’m home at Christmas we’ll play string quartets together at church or something” he shares, adding in a reluctantly wistful tone that sometimes he wished for more full-time music in the family. “There were times when I’d think “Wow wouldn’t [it] be cool, being up on stage with your little brother or your little sister, really making something powerful”” he intimates. He is quick to add though, that he is glad they are able to still experience music, minus the pressure of being professional musicians.

Of the pressure itself, he does not worry much. Smiling confidently he assures “it’s not the sort that bothers me”. His early (and growing) success in the global classical music arena does not however, make him insensitive to the plight of all artists who simply can’t make the cream of the crop. “It’s not the normal pressure when financial/professional problems are tied up with something you care deeply about. I really love what I do and mostly feel lucky about that.”

So much so that Joshua is secure in the belief that he has never had a second thought about his choice of career and lifestyle. In fact, quite unlike many a performer who relish time off a heavy tour schedule, a week maybe two without having been on stage and he is found “a little grouchy, and off, I get told!” Joshua confides, laughing rather embarrassedly then pushing his thick rimmed glasses up his nose.

His love of exploration has taken the cellist (and of course his – literally – constant companion, the nearly century and a half old instrument) to a variety of places with his music. He shares stories of encountering different cultures and traditions in performance (and the confusions these sometimes cause!), as well as what he calls the “realities of life”.

In December he hopes to make a very special trip to Uganda, with his siblings, one he has already made before to “find deeper ways of making a connection”. He describes their decision to play in the disaster-stricken areas as “a leap of faith by four idealistic young kids who thought they could go and play something and make a difference”. The experience, he says, was “powerful for us”, and believes, altered something in their audiences. The drive to do something socially positive with his talent and available opportunity is evident in Joshua who, in Sri Lanka contributed the proceeds from his performances to the Sunera Foundation whose work he says he is greatly moved by.

His humanistic ventures (as well as and with his musical ones) take Joshua around the globe, but this is not the only reason “explore” is an important part of his vocabulary. The word drops from his lips every once in a while no matter what he speaks of, but it is also important in that he “loves” Sri Lankan curry, orders it wherever he eats in the country and wonders what it will taste like on a hamburger! “My imagination started to go wild” he says, speaking now not of food, but physics, quantum physics and relativity. “It’s an exploration, like music.”

Called a “fearless explorer” in his musical ventures by none other than Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Roman does not limit himself to the classical tradition in which he was trained but takes part in various artistic ventures that aim at a fusion of forms, mediums and cultures. Nevertheless, his firmest belief is in the school of thought that music, being universal as it is, need not be changed in order to be appreciated by different audiences, but that the presentation of different ‘types’ may be adapted to suit the audience. And thus he is often found playing classical music with friends at local pubs and bars in NY where he makes his home. “It’s sad that people try to put a box around classical music” he shares, suggesting rather that performers “invite people to relax and have pop corn and hot dogs while they’re listening to the Beethoven Symphony”.

Joshua Roman (c) The Sunday Times

More to Joshua than being a potential change-maker in his chosen field, the importance of being able to pursue a career that he can remain passionate about is that “when you do the thing that you love [for] a living, there’s freedom, because you really get to say something with your work”. And “say something” he does!

Joshua Roman is the class of musician whose work Sri Lanka rarely gets to hear. What has been called the “heart-stopping beauty” of his performances thrilled audiences from Colombo and Kandy last Monday and Friday; rare pin-drop silences during the recitals bearing testimony. He doesn’t just play the right notes with the right kind-of touch and sensitivity, and that extra bit of musical flair – he speaks to you. He doesn’t just perform Schubert and Bach – the ones you already know and recognize – he plays what they mean to him, and challenges you to understand, reinterpret with him.

It becomes difficult in the intensity of his performance, the weight of his philosophy and the sheer brilliance of his achievements to keep in mind that Joshua Roman is still just discovering (or exploring?) his groundings in life. But his goofy wide grin and sparkling wit are fleeting reminders that the bow is held by a six-year-old boy who, more than twenty years later, people “still think” is crazy to dream.