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A birthday tribute to Prof. Siri Gunasinghe : 

A multifaceted scholar

by Prof. Sunanda Mahendra

Dr. Siri Gunasinghe

On trekking down the memory lane I have to stop at a certain memorable day when I was commissioned to translate a book on film studies titled 'teaching about films' by J.M.L. Peters published by the UNESCO, by the then general secretary of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka W.B. Ratnayaka.


I was also advised to meet Dr. Siri Gunasinghe (then professor) of the University of Peradeniya. I was so delighted to see him at his residence in Mahakanda, where I used to stay a day or two in order to clarify some of the film terms used by the original author.

By this time I had known him closely that he was no stranger since two of the books authored by him happened to be my favourites: Masle nati ata (a pioneer collection of free verses known as nisandas kavi), his first collection of poems and his first novel Hevanalla.

In his study I would go on reading whatever I have translated and brought from Colombo; he would listen keenly making more and more suggestions and alterations to improve the Sinhala translation. If my remembrance is clear, we spent about two or three hours on one or two sentences and one or two terms.

Film debut

Though I could not complete the translation, the contact with Dr Siri Gunasinghe was cemented over our discussions on culture, arts and literature. I remember the days when he was getting ready for his film debut Satsamudura, where the location happened to be in Negombo, a place we frequented more.

Then one fine day, Mr Ratnayaka wanted me to translate a research article written by Prof. Gunasinghe titled 'Sinhala contributions to the Buddha image', which presumably appeared in the journal Artibus Asiae. Without much help from anybody else or from the author I translated and handed over the manuscript to Mr Ratnayaka, who passed it on to the kalasangarava then edited by Austin Jayawardhana.

The part one of the paper appeared and I am not too sure whether the other part appeared or not.

Anyway to cut a long story short this particular essay was a turning point in my life since without my knowing at an examination to gauge the ability to translate from Sinhala to English the BBC selection committee gave the very translation to be put into English and I found it easier than the other contestants and never expected that my own translation will be selected for the event, and I be selected for the post of the BBC external services Sinhala Sandesaya producer on account of that achievement predominantly.


On the eve of the 80th birthday of our beloved professor, which fell on the 18th of February 2005, I revealed this fact to him for which the response was just a smile and 'I did not know of such a thing, Sunanda'. Prof. Gunasinghe currently resident in Canada, is one scholar, who makes it a point to visit his country at least once a year and involve himself in various literary activities relaxing reading and writing poems and novels.

Senior Professor

He finds time to attend to some of our favourite book launches where we have tirades arguments and near brawls for which he becomes a target of attack sometimes. He comes from Canada where he was a Senior Professor in the history of art attached to the university of Victoria. Although he finds time to see us in various places, nooks and corners we find it difficult to see him in the same manner, especially I find it difficult to convince him about it.

"I got some work," I would say, "why shouldn't you relax a little?" he would ask. So we make it a point to fit into his schedule.

I observe Gunasinghe as a multi faceted person. Being a researcher, a critic, a teacher, painter and a Pali Sanskrit and French scholar to whom several pupils still venerate.


But to the popular literary enthusiast, he is a filmmaker (writer director of Satsamudura) lyric writer poet novelist make up artiste and costume designer (of Maname fame) and a pioneer book cover designer.

As far back as the early sixties he did broadcast a series of radio talks in Sinhala introducing the aspects of film medium titled chitrapata kalava. For the first time he introduced what the silent era and sound era meant in the film history and introduced the salient points that go into the making of a film. He also pioneered and steered the film club concept at the university level in order to build a better taste in visual arts among undergraduates.

Radio talks

At that time I thought that those radio talks transmitted over the shastriya sangrahaya were some of the most informative pieces the Sinhala listener received. He also adapted a French novel into Sinhala and was produced by the late P. Welikala.


Then for sometime he designed and presented a chat radio programme titled samalochana. From time to time he used to come over the radio on topical literary subjects.

The views he holds on the use of language and the simplification or minimizing of Sinhala alphabet have already become controversial issues among the purists.

He believes in the supreme and sensitive efforts to express the ideas and experiences in the simplest possible manner and should not be shrouded in panditisms like the unwanted use of mahapranas.

He had expressed his views at number of occasions on these matters and recorded perhaps in many a newspaper.

Even coming on to the subject of post modernism a topic which is being handled in the most lunatic frame of mind among the so-called Sinhala literary critics, he takes an alternative heretical point of view going to the extent of saying that such things are not even taken seriously in the English speaking countries and he does not want to delve on the subject seriously with hair splitting arguments.

So this is a wee bit of a birthday tribute, which comes in the form of a series of disconnected episodes.

Sukhi digha yukho bhava beloved professor!

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