Beyond the fiction of Alborada | Sunday Observer

Beyond the fiction of Alborada

5 December, 2021

“No matter how much a work of art is sweet, if it hides the truth and disregards humanity it can only be equalled to a beautiful but empty shell that attracts us.” – L.E. Kerbel (Russian Sculptor)

Alborada is a Spanish word meaning ‘the dawn’. In 1984 a music group was born in Peru, South America, by the same name and they gained immense popularity. Their music was mainly spread among people in North and South America. Their music’s foundation was the traditional music of Native Americans who lived in the Andes mountain range.

Likewise, in 2005, a soap opera by the same name was screened as a series in Mexico and North America, which became very popular. This story was based on a series of events that had happened during the historical period in which Panama, and Mexico were about to gain freedom from Spain. In 2021, Asoka Handagama created a film in Sri Lanka by the same name, Alborada. The central figure of this film is Pablo Neruda (1904 - 1973). He was the Chilean Consul in Ceylon for two years, from 1929 to 1931.

Pablo Neruda

He was very young, only 25 years, when he was appointed to this post. Ceylon was a colony at that time and he was lodged at No. 56, 42 Lane, Wellawatte, Colombo 6, a place close to the sea. He had written his reminiscences in his own language as a book. Later, it was translated into English and published as Memoirs. According to this book, he had called his house ‘My solitary bungalow’. It is said that the name Alborada was proposed by Pablo Neruda for the house of his friend, Lionel Wendt who had lived at Guildford Crescent Street, Colombo 7. Lionel Wendt too was fluent in several languages including English, Spanish and some other European languages. It can be seen by the written documents and events that had happened at that time that his house, Alborada had not been a lonely or a tranquil place. It is clear that this Alborada house was always full of people, such as painters, dancers, actors, photographers as well as piano players and those who enjoy music. It was more like a cultural centre where there were discussions, art criticisms and debates.

Though Handagama’s film has been named Alborada, the actual place where the said incidents had happened was at Solitary Bungalow, the Chilean Consul’s official residence. In the 20th century Sri Lankan context, Alborada was a distinguished active cultural centre. As a Sri Lankan cultural symbol, it directly connects to the character of Lionel Wendt. The creator of a work of Art has total freedom to create his work as he pleases and also to choose a name for the particular work. Handagama’s Alborada is a creation similar to a poem with inspiring music. It has a series of artistic figure compositions and a number of skilled artistes. Having watched the trailer of Handagama’s film, some ideas came into my mind.

When creating an art work based on true historical events rather than myths and imaginary incidents, its trustworthiness depends on the true characters of the incident, actual incidents, exact places, time period and the political and cultural background. Due to this reason, it is necessary to research much for creations based on historical incidents. It is very difficult to correct the myths or false opinions that have been built in the society by unreliable books, documents, magazines or films. People will always embrace falsity rather than the truth, deception and myths. There are so many examples about this in our culture as well as in other cultures of the world.


Alborada is important to us as it is the house of a great cultural figure who lived in our country during the last century. It is also important as the name Alborada was the given name to the renowned cultural centre of the modern history of Sri Lanka. It is from this place that art activities in our country were taken to the international arena. Alborada was situated at No. 18 old Guildford Crescent. Today, this street is known as Premasiri Kemadasa Mawatha. Alborada is the name of Lionel Wendt’s (1900 - 1944) house. After 6 years since his demise, in 1950 his friend Harold Peiris (1905 - 1981) had demolished his old house, Alborada, and had built a gallery and a performing art centre (Lionel Wendt Art Gallery and Theatre) to commemorate him. Today, it’s known as the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund. Its architectural design was done by Painter Jeffrey Beling (1907 - 1992), Principal Art Inspector, Department of Education and Bernard G. Thornley.

When Lionel Wendt was alive, renowned upcountry Master dancers, Suramba and Master Ukkuwa used to lodge at Alborada with their troupes when they visited Colombo.

Song of Ceylon

A documentary movie Song of Ceylon was directed by Basil Wright in 1934 and it won the first place at the Brussels International Film Festival in 1935. Creative parts of the movie were organised at Albaroda. Manel Fonseka reported in an article, Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’ in 1994, that at an interview with Julia Margaret Cameron, Basil Wright had said this about Lionel Wendt.

“I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived. I should place him among the six best I’ve come across”. As a result of discussions held at Alborada, Master Dancer Ukkuwa and Master Dancer Suramba were taken to England for a recording of drum beats for the movie Song of Ceylon. This trip was sponsored by painter Harry Peiris (1904-1988).

A dancing school was built to develop Up-country dancing in Gunnapana, Sirimalwatte in Kandy in the 1920s for Master Suramba as a result of discussions held between a group led by Lionel Wendt and George Keyt (1901-1993). This dancing school which included a group of Up-country dancers, Ukkuwa, Gunaya, Punchi Guru and Jayana was later upgraded as the ‘Dance Ensemble of Central Lanka’. Jayana’s coming of age festival, which was held at the Rajamaha temple in Degaldoruwa in 1939, the Ves ceremony and later Jayana’s dancing training in India were all sponsored by Lionel Wendt centering Albaroda.

During the colonial era, the first art inspector appointed to Sri Lanka, was Charles Freegrove Winzer 1886, an Englishman. He was a close friend of Lionel Wendt of Alborada during his tenure in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, during the early years, when painting and drawing exhibitions of George Keyt, Justin Peiris Deraniyagala (1903-1967) and Jeffory Beling were organised, Winzer and Lionel Wendt had written reviews regarding the exhibitions. Lionel Wendt had also translated Pablo Neruda’s art reviews written in Spanish to English and had published them.

The 43 Group

The first avant-garde Art Movement in Sri Lanka or in other words the ’43 Group’ was born under the leadership of Winzer and Lionel Wendt. The 43 Group consisted of Lionel Wendt (Chief Organiser), painters Harry Peiris (Chief Secretary), George Keyt, J.W.G.Beling, Richard Gabriel (1924-2016), Ivan Peiris (1921 -1988), Justin Peiris Deraniyagala, George Classen (1909-1999), Aubrey Collette (1920-1992) and L.T.P. Manjusri (1902-1982). The meetings of the 43 group were held at Alborada until Lionel Wendt’s death. After that the meetings were held at Barnes Place, Sapumal Foundation, which was the house of Harry Peiris.

Pablo Neruda was only 25 years old when he was in Sri Lanka as the Chilean Ambassador. Lionel Wendt was at 29 years was four years older. In the book, Memoirs, which Pablo Neruda had written in Spanish about his recollections, and Hardie St. Martin translated into English and published by the Penguin Publishers, Neruda had written thus about Lionel Wendt on Page 93.

“Little by little the impenetrable crust began to crack open and I struck up a few good friendships. At the same time, I discovered the younger generation, steeped in colonialist culture, who talked only about books just out in England. I found out that the pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.

Lionel Wendt, who owned an extensive library and received all the latest books from England, got into the extravagant and generous habit of every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books. Thus, for some time, I read kilometres of English novels, among them the first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in Florence”.

Allegations about the Chilean Ambassador during 1929 – 1931 under colonial Sri Lanka


According to his book Memoirs Pablo Neruda had openly written that he was sexually involved with a Tamil female labourer, engaged in the lowest profession in society while he was the Ambassador in Sri Lanka. Though he was honest in writing about the incident, that act shows the inhuman, forceful qualities of higher officials, and the low vision they had of women. This is not second to playful behaviour of a foreign officer with higher authority.

However, without citing sources, Tissa Abeysekera in his book Memories that had gone astray had written verses about Neruda’s incident with intense enthusiasm for literature “The great poet, the Nobel prize winner who loved a scavenger woman in Wellawatte”. In this text. the poet frees Pablo Neruda not considering the women’s freedom and sexual coercion. He frees Neruda because of his attraction to his prestige. If Neruda’s admission is investigated, he never says anything about love in his declaration.

The poet behaves as if he is about to catch a prey. He tries to bring her into subjection by giving her gifts. The woman, who is powerless, knows that she would not be able to free herself from a well-built white skinned man by opposing. The frightened woman with open eyes lying there with no emotion, he compares as a thousand year old ancient south Indian female statue. He only sees her body. He does not see her internal shock. He uses her as a lifeless form to satisfy himself. He has written that, that was the first and the last time that he had lain with her. He does not say anything about what had happened to her afterwards.

It can be concluded that most probably she had run away or hidden herself somewhere. It is confirmed that this act had been a forceful sexual assault because she had not returned nor did they get together again. The following statement of Neruda could be used as a complaint against him regarding a forceful sexual assault. The following is a translation of Neruda’s statement.

“My solitary bungalow was far from any urban development. When I rented it,I tried to find out where the toilet was; I couldn’t see it anywhere. Actually it was nowhere near the shower, it was at the back of the house. I inspected it with curiosity. It was a wooden box with a hole in the middle, very much like the artifact I had known as a child in the Chilean countryside. But our toilets were set over a deep well or over running water. Here the receptacle was a simple metal pail under the round hole.

The pail was clean every morning, but I had no idea how its contents disappeared. One morning I rose earlier than usual, and I was amazed when I saw what had been happening.

Into the back of the house, walking like a dusky statue came the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon, a Tamil of the pariah caste. She was wearing a red and gold sari of the cheapest kind of cloth. She had heavy bangles on her bare ankles. Two tiny red dots glittered on either side of her nose. They must have been ordinary glass, but on her they were rubies.

She walked solemnly towards the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence, and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.

She was so lovely that, regardless of her humble job, I couldn’t get her off my mind. Like a shy jungle animal she belonged to another kind of existence, a different world. I called to her, but it was no use. After that I sometimes put a gift in her path, a piece of silk or some fruit. She would go past without hearing or looking.That ignoble routine had been transformed by her dark beauty into the dutiful ceremony of an indifferent queen.

One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.’

The writer is a Painter, Sculptor, Researcher, Senior Professor and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Performing and Visual Arts, Colombo

To be continued