It is a timely reminder of their services to the country in various spheres
“Who’s Who of Sri Lanka” is the kind of title which might actually put prospective readers off. But this book edited by Chandrabhanu Samaraweera, a very interesting foray into the lives and times of forty eight personalities who have made their marks in the social, political and artistic spheres from the 19th century on.
Many of them are now forgotten. If not, it isn’t clear any more why they became famous in their own times. Some, perhaps many, will recognize the names and achievements of Lionel Wendt, Devar Suryasena, D. T. Devendra, Punyakanthi Wijenayake, John Still, Carl Muller, H. A. J. Hulugalle, Ray Wijewardhane and Maj. Montague Jayawickrema. But what about Harold Samaraweera, M. B. Mathmaluwe, Doreen Samaraweera, J. T. Thambimuttu, Wilmot A. Perera, Dr. James de S. Wijeyerathne and P. A. Ediriweera?
Quite possibly, the majority of the 48 people discussed in this book are now forgotten except by their families and immediate family circles. Therefore, this book is a timely reminder of their services to the country in various spheres – the arts, education, politics, law and business.
The titles are tantalizing. They read like a do-you-know quiz – The man who took our folklore around the world, the first university don to teach economics in Sri Lanka, the journalist who sold the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, the mudliyar who rescued the golden casket of the tooth relic, the only Sinhalese to meet Lenin, the English poet who loved Lanka, Fashionable Sinhalese wedding; Perera-Fernando, He started the registration of marriages in Ceylon, He took the Galle Race course to Boosa, Sri Lankan poet who fell in love with British poetry, he ruled over all elephants in the island, the rebel of the English stage, the first newspaper arts editor etc.
Chandrabhanu Samaraweera is a veteran bi-lingual journalist whose editing and writing career goes back almost half a century. He specializes in biographical articles on well-known personalities. He has worked with multipacks and now works for AHD publications on a free lance basis.
The chapter on Devar Suryasena (Herbert Charles Jacob Pieris) is of absorbing interest, listing highlights and anecdotes in the life of this remarkable man as winnng first place in the English elocution contest at Cambridge University, that he sang in public parks while studying music in England, his productions at the Colombo YMCA of two of Rabindranath Tagore’s plays, his discovery and research into Sinhala folk music, his re-working of old Christian hymns in Sinhala into more aesthetically pleasing forms, and the studies and concerts undertaken all over India by him and his wife Nelum Devi.
Other details of historical and archaeological interest come up as one reads on – for example, that the old Galle Road ran through Egoda Uyana, Koralawella and Katukurunde, or that Dr. R. L. Spittle started the wildlife journal ‘Loris’ way back in 1937, or that Lionel Wendt started and managed Chitra Foto in the ground floor of Lake House and that famous photographers of the 50s and 60s such as B. P. Weerawardhane and Fred Malwenna were products of this studio, or that Sirancee Gunawardhane, who in 1967 became the first Sinhalese principal of Ladies College, Colombo, was also an environmentalist and author who wrote ‘Mediaeval Palm Leaf Manuscripts of Sri Lanka.’
R. E. de Alwis, the first Sri Lankan journalist to interview George Bernard Shaw, also interviewed Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, Ramsay McDonald and Mahatma Gandhi. Melsam Samaraweera joined Ceylon Tours (the pioneer local travel firm) as a director, and later put the profession of tour guiding in this country on a professional footing, becoming an excellent tour guide himself. C. H. Z. Fernando, a radical barrister and founder member of the Lanka National Congress, met V. I. Lenin at a Sinn Fein meeting in England. Robert Rasaiah Crosette Thambiah, born to a middle class Jaffna family in 1897, left a teaching job with a salary of Rs. 125 at St. Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia to work as a reporter for the Daily News under S. J. K. Crowther for a salary of Rs. 75.
One chapter, written by Srilal de Silva, is about Chandrabhanu Samaraweera, a fascinating personality in his own right. It tells us about his efforts to grow more jak trees throughout the island. He was able to convince the Saudi Arabian government to grow kottamba trees at Saudi bus halts.