By Channa Daswatte –
I am privileged to have been asked by Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha to speak at the launch of his new book, which is his tribute to Ena de Silva in her 90th year, but indeed regret my inability to be here in person. Since part of the book is about travels, and the bug is indeed in me too, Rajiva has been kind in letting me be absent for this, as I travel at this very moment through Iran.
Travel is indeed a wonderful equalizer and opportunity for sharing. This is amply evident in the second part of the present volume. And indeed traveling with Ena is an especially enriching experience. The wonderful way in which Ena always manages to bring great food and service in the middle of the jungle while watching elephants swim across swollen torrents is fascinating. This is indeed in the true spirit of Ena de Silva, who on a trip to Sikkim eight years ago, with my parents, Chamikade Alwis (who will kindly read this in my absence) and myself, insisted on riding a yak at 17,000 feet on the border with Tibet! Ena was never going to miss out on any part of the fun of a journey. Traveling with Ena, as Dr. Wijesinha points out, also lends an opportunity to imbibe her vast knowledge and clear opinions about all things. But more than anything, her endlessly curious mind constantly engaged us with questions about her surrounding environment. I for one was glad that I had a pictorial handbook of Himalayan flora and fauna at hand to sate that curiosity.
The first part of the book outlines the connection between Dr.Wijesinha and Ena de Silva. The shared family heritage is touchingly portrayed through the lives of ancestors and cousins. It is a wonderful piece of social history addressing the lives of the people described as openly as possible such as when he addresses the life of his Great Uncle Hugh. It also shows the kind of structured social life that Ena came from and why her rebellion was all the more important. Though she may dislike my describing her thus, she was amongst the first emancipated women in Sri Lanka!
The aunt’s stories are extracts from other works by the author and used here to highlight how the lives described in the first two parts could affect others with which they are connected.
I first met Ena at her daughter’s wedding, described in this book and I was then the acolyte or golaya of Anjalendran, Ena’sgreat architect admirer, who was one of the architects falling over themselves to decorate the little huts on the terrace. I remember sprawling about on a rock painting kolam patterns on the floor with Barbara Sansoni, as my own little contribution to this utterly multi cultural event, where all that mattered was the beauty of the whole rather than what each thing was affiliated to. On that day, Kollam patterns and kondamallas merged with heirloom hill country jewellery, Gokgeddis and Matisse cutouts on table cloths.
As I enjoyed working with Ena in the next twenty years, I realized that this indeed is her greatest gift. She is able to see and share the beauty of things irrespective of the layers of meaning, culture and habit had put on them. She has a wholistic view of anything that she looks at and a strong view at that, which Dr. Wijesinha recognizes too. This is what makes her the rebel and certainly in matters of Art and Craft, which is what I know about, she has made an extra ordinary contribution to contemporary culture in this country.
Her work with Geoffrey Bawa have become legendary milestones in the art and crafts of contemporary Sri Lanka. The ceilings of the Bentota beach hotel, the ceiling paintings in the outdoor pavilions and entrance verandas of parliament along with the great provincial flags displayed at state openings of the legislature are now historic items. All this was done through craft workshops she created and operated in many parts of rural Sri Lanka through her Ena de Silva Fabrics company.
Through this company and later the Aluvihare Heritage Centre, the crafts workshop she founded, she addressed the issues that her husband was concerned with, which were the social dimension of policing, all those years ago. Her establishment of a wood work shop in the late 1980’s certainly helped the young men of her village to escape the trials of the JVP insurrection of 1989/90. This concern for the understanding of the community she lives in and contributing to it continues to be a concern for her.
Late last year, as Ena danced the twist for me and touched her toes, shaming me into starting to take a regular morning run, whilst insisting on throwing in two extra colours to a new ceiling fabric she designed for the lighthouse hotel, being done by her girls, all in the same breath, in her 90th year, I can only wish to be 90 myself!