Sunday, August 26, 2007

Manning Town

The people who made Manning Town

By Dr. Lakshman Abeyagunawardene – Sunday Times Aug 26 2007

I lived a good part of my childhood in Manning Town, a little township situated between Borella and Narahenpita in Colombo 8. My father who was attached to the Postal Department had been in the waiting list for government quarters in Colombo for some time. Towards the end of 1949, it was his turn to be allotted a 'Government Bungalow" as they were then called. The family thus moved from Hendala where we were living in a rented house to Manning Town to start a new life in the city.

Rupees and cents of yesteryear

Much water has flowed under the bridges from the time when a gallon of petrol was sold at Rs 2.40, a pound of beef cost 80 cents and an ice cream cone was just 25 cents. Although I was only a mere eight years old at that time, I was aware that a Peacock cigarette was marketed at only 2 cents! That was also a time when a beggar happily accepted a one-cent coin with the all too familiar chant of "pin sidda vechchave".

50 years on : A section of Manning Town today with flats replacing the spacious bungalows of the past

Over half a century later, I am not too sure whether a beggar would be satisfied with a ten-rupee note! Our "new" home in Manning Town was a housing scheme where typical "middle class" families lived. Heads of households were attached to different government departments, but their income levels were more or less the same. The 54 families belonged to different ethnic groups - Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, Moors and Malays. On the basis of religion, it was a good mix of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims. The upbringing in that environment went a long way in inculcating in us a sense of racial and religious tolerance and amity. Even today, in spite of sad events like the Black July of 1983, and the long drawn out North-East war, I have maintained close friendship with some of my childhood Tamil friends from the Manning Town days.

Strangely enough, the western sounding name "Manning Town" has survived the test of time. The names of the network of minor roads within the Scheme have also been retained to this day. Each house with four large bedrooms, wide verandahs etc., was in the centre of a 40 perch block
surrounded by a four-foot boundary wall. During those seven years, I must have traversed every inch of those roads whose names bring back to me, nostalgic memories of a happy childhood. 50 years later on my annual visits to Sri Lanka, I still make it a point to walk leisurely along Matha Road, Mangala Road, Mangala Path, Gajaba Road, Manning Square and Victoria Place.

Gone are the bungalows

The aging "bungalows" were demolished nearly two decades ago. What has now come up in its place is a concrete jungle of "flats" providing housing to well over 200 families.

If one were to drive down Elvitigala Mawatha today from the direction of Borella towards Narahenpita, just beyond Kanatte and the Elvitigala Flats, the Manning Town Flats (that is the new name of the Housing Scheme) can be seen on either side of the main road. From Kitulwatte Road (road adjacent to Kanatte on the left) onwards, the entire stretch of land up to Koswatte Road belonged to Bogala Graphites and H.L. de Mel and Company in the fifties. The main Borella-Narahenpita Road which was then called Narahenpita Road, ran right across the government housing scheme with parts of it on either side. It was at that time, just a 20-foot road. Today, it is a six lane highway with two carriageways and has been renamed Elvitigala Mawatha (after the well known Ayurvedic physician who practiced in Narahenpita). As in "Old" Manning Town, the "New" Manning Town of today also has the large majority of housing units on the side of the Motor Traffic Department, and very few units on the opposite side where the Sri Lanka Standards Bureau is presently located.

The Manning Town Housing Scheme was roughly rectangular in shape and abutted the Ridgeway Golf Links (Royal Colombo Golf Club Course) on two sides. Across the golf course, one could see in the distance, the present Nawala Road, with the RCGC clubhouse and the Kanatte General Cemetery on the left. The narrow gauge Kelani Valley railway track also ran right across Manning Town. The small Manning Town Railway Station was right behind our house (G 31) that faced Mangala Path, the only section of the Scheme beyond the railway track. The KV line extended from Colombo Fort to Opanayake. In-between were railway stations Maradana, Dematagoda, Baseline Road, Cotta Road, Manning Town, Narahenpita, Kirillapone, Nawinna, Maharagama, Kottawa, Pannipitiya, Homagama and Avissawella. The railway line
bisected the Ridgeway golf course and ran close to the Kanatte cemetery.

The southern side of the rectangle was a marsh that was later filled up and on which site stands the present Department of Motor Traffic and the Police Garage. Beyond them was Mahawatte Road (present E.D. Dabare Mawatha). The fourth side of the rectangle faced a vast expanse of scrubland that we used to call the "African Jungle" where we played "Police and Robbers" or "Hora-Police".

Beyond the fringes of the "African Jungle" (part of which is now the fashionable residential area of Longden Place) towards Bullers Road, was the Havelock golf course on which the BMICH was later built, and the CR & FC rugger grounds surrounded by those tall Cypress trees even then. It was in this section of Manning Town that was demarcated from the rest by Narahenpita Road, that the Manning Town Government Officers Club was situated at Victoria Place (the road leading to the present Sri Lanka Standards Bureau). The two tennis courts were adjacent to the main Narahenpita Road, but the children's playground was behind the clubhouse.

Haven for children

It was there that most of the children assembled in the evenings. As with most clubs, there were the annual tournaments and club nights. When they had a fancy dress parade on one such occasion in 1953, as a twelve-year old, I was runner-up dressed in the costume of an Afghan moneylender with a handle-bar moustache adorning my upper lip! I received the prize from the chief guest who was Sir John Kotelawala, Minister of Transport and Works at that time. My father was the Honorary General Secretary (and later President) of this club. Ironically, his friendship with Sir John was a contributory factor to our departure from Manning Town not long after the change of government in 1956. But that is another story!

Those fifties people

This article would not be complete unless I touched on the people who lived there in the fifties. One noteworthy fact is that quite a few well-known personalities of today, who have achieved much in life as useful citizens of Sri Lanka or have brought honour to their motherland by their outstanding achievements across the seas, had been brought up in Manning Town. They are children of middle-class government servants from happy homes who grew up in an nvironment that was ideal for good education and personality building. They have shone in a wide variety of fields and it is a pleasure to record their achievements here.

Architect Surath Wickramasinghe who is a Past President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects and the Organisation of Professional Associations is the eldest son of my father's Postal Department colleague who occupied G33 (all houses had either "G" or "F" numbers). Having lived right next to the RCGC golf course as a young child, Surath became the President of the RCGC a few decades later. Surath's younger brother Gamini is the CEO of Informatics and the present Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka (SEC) as well as the Insurance Board of Sri Lanka (IBSL).

Gratien Gunawardhane (G36) is a highly successful industrialist and businessman being Chairman of Hands International. He is also a past District Governor of Lions. Another past Lions District Governor was the late Winston Malawana (G14) who was practising in Ratnapura as an Attorney-at-Law at the time of his untimely death. Like Winston who himself played first eleven cricket for St. Joseph's, his younger brother Ranjith was an outstanding cricketer at the same school, who later played for Bloomfield Cricket Club as a fiery opening bowler.

Docs in the bloc

I am able to count at least 13 doctors from among Manning Town residents of the late forties and early fifties. Mahen Wijesuriya (G39) is one of the better-known physicians in the private sector in Colombo today, and is Founder President of the Diabetes Association of Sri Lanka. Mahen followed his two older sisters Manel (Panditaratne) and Lalitha (Katugaha) into the medical profession. Kandiah Wigneswaran (G38), their next-door neighbour at Victoria Place is a paediatrician in New York.

The Abeysuriya family who occupied F26 produced three doctors - late Srikanthi (who too died at an early age in New Zealand), brother Sunil (now in UK) and the youngest Surangani who is in Sri Lanka. Ranjith Weerakoon (F27) who lived next-door is presently in Gastonia, North Carolina. His brother Eric is a Dental Surgeon.

My own immediate neighbour Bala Karalapillai (G31) qualified as an ENT surgeon. After his marriage to Professor C.J. Eliezer's daughter (Eliezer was the name of the Professor of Physics which later became a household name in Ceylon during the total eclipse of June 1954), Bala migrated to Australia where he too died in the prime of his life. He was a Public Schools tennis player who later represented the University. Bala's younger sister Rani is also a doctor who graduated from Peradeniya the same year that I did from Colombo. The list of Manning Town Doctors would not be complete unless I add my own name to it!

Among the others who distinguished themselves in their chosen professions, one big name that comes to mind is Gunasiri Weerakoon (F27) who retired as Sri Lanka's Commissioner of Labour. Besides his brothers Drs Ranjith and Eric mentioned earlier, the Weerakoon family contributed another professional - Nihal who retired as Regional Telecommunications Engineer, Badulla. Namasivayam Ganeshalingam entered the Faculty of Engineering in the University of Ceylon and graduated as an engineer. Shanthi Canagasabey who also died early in life was a planter. His younger brother Nihal is a mercantile executive in Colombo. Kirthi Rasaputra (G29) who entered the Science Faculty of the University and obtained his B.Sc, later qualified as a textile technologist. His younger brother Kithsiri joined the Army and retired as a Brigadier. Their uncle Warnasena who resided in Manning Town in the same Rasaputra household at some time during his own university days, was the Governor of the Central Bank and later was Ambassador to the United States.

Talking about the Sri Lanka Army, I also wish to mention that late Major General Vijaya Wimalaratne (who died tragically in Kayts along with General Denzil Kobbekaduwa) lived at G11 in Manning Town in the fifties.
The sporty ones

Among the other outstanding sportsmen produced by Manning Town of the fifties were the Jebarajah brothers. Mervyn was a leading swimmer at Royal College and blossomed out to be Ceylon's best-known diver after joining the Navy. Brother Milroy played cricket for Wesley and later turned out for Tamil Union in Saravanamuttu Trophy cricket.

K.Vincent Perera who was the Librarian in Parliament, occupied G15 on Mangala Road. His elder daughter Chitra graduated with a BA from the Peradeniya University. Another arts graduate is Jayanthi Gooneratne (now Liyanage) who retired recently from UNICEF, a case of my former fellow Manning Towner becoming my office colleague some forty years later! Jayanthi's elder brother Elmo Gooneratne (G3) is a senior journalist.

My own sister Vinitha also graduated from the Peradeniya Arts Faculty while my younger brother Ananda has just completed 30 years with the well-known electronics group Avnet. Inc. of San Jose, California.

Before the "Sinhala Only"cry was raised by the Nationalists in 1956, and when English was the language used in the day-to-day affairs of the country, the Burgher community had an important place in society. They were omnipresent in all fields of activity and the Public Service in particular, was well served by members of this community. The large number of Permanent Secretaries heading Ministries at that time was ample proof that Burghers played an important role as government servants. Manning Town was no exception because many of the bungalows were occupied by Burgher families. Names of Burgher Manning Town residents that readily come to mind are: Woutersz, Reimers, Cole, Berman, Leonard, Sanders, Jansz, Slemmerman, Cannon, Koch, Paulersz and Assauwe.

Michael (Brian) Berman (G5) qualified as an engineer having graduated from the University of Ceylon. He played first eleven cricket for St. Joseph's and the University of Ceylon. The Koch family lived in F19. The father and two Peterite sons Jan and Gordon were outstanding tennis players. Dodwell Soysa who occupied G21 was Ceylon's leading cricket umpire at that time. His son Anton did not play cricket, but entered the University and got his B.Sc in the Physical Sciences. Geoffrey Assauwe played cricket for Royal. Most of these Burgher families migrated to Australia after the "Cultural Revolution" of 1956.

... and the arty ones

Manning Town was not short of talent in music, art, films and drama. The well-known dancer and film actor/director Sesha Palihakkara lived in F24 opposite our own house on Mangala Path. His younger sister too qualified as a doctor. Wadham Dole (G2) was a well-known tennis player at Royal who later made a name for himself as a dancer. He earned popularity as a cabaret artiste who performed regularly at dances and in Colombo nightclubs in the early sixties. His professional career as a dancer was cut short by his early demise. Joe Jayasuriya (G12) became the leader of a popular band that dominated the music scene in the sixties and seventies.

Sockalingam Gnanalingam who lived next to the Doles at G1 was an all rounder. He played first eleven cricket for Thurstan College and was also one of the best products of the Amarasekara School of Art. On the same subject of art, accomplished artist Druvi Madawela is the daughter of Arlene Wickramasinghe (F24 after Palihakkaras) who later married Major General Mano

I am certain that Manning Town would have continued to produce high achievers in different fields in the years that followed, and continue to do so in the future. But I doubt very much that the output of such a versatile set of useful citizens by a few families that lived in that small neighbourhood in the 1949-56 era will ever be matched. (E-mail:

Monday, August 06, 2007

Delightful Dalreen

Dalreen - the name echoes with music in the world of show business. Dressed always in black with matching kohl-rimmed eyes, bandana on the head, elegant ethnic bangles and rings on her hands and fingers, she has been photographed, talked about and continuously pursued; she has never been anonymous! Always warm and friendly and ever willing to help out another musician, her phonebook is crowded with numbers of musicians who keep in constant touch with her. Her persona alluringly blends with the throbbing of guitars and drums and wins your instant appreciation. Her charisma on stage is unique and has won her a long line of fans over the years, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in every corner of the world.

Where do we begin to tell the story of Dalreen?

According to her mother Decima, who was a singer herself, Dalreen as a baby used to move her hands and gurgle her own baby notes whenever her mother sang to her even if it was a lullaby! She was destined to be a singer.

Dalreen spent most of her childhood days watching in wonderment as her mother and aunt Mignonne performed on stage as the Kelaart Sisters. The passion to be on stage grew within her and eventually could no longer be contained. At the age of nine, Dalreen made her debut singing Elvis Presley songs and when she turned twelve she was featured on Radio Ceylon, the national radio, with other professional singers. From then on, the child star became the talk of the town.

She joined her first band The Fireflies in 1966. They quickly landed a gig at the prestigious Ceylinco Hotel for the popular Sundown Dances. Soon after in 1967 she was selected by an American agent to sing for the USO in Vietnam. Dalreen joined The Savages which was the first group and female singer from Sri Lanka to perform abroad for the American forces. After a tour of nine months in Vietnam and upon her return to Sri Lanka, the excitement of being on stage led her to sing with The Spitfires, again at the Sundown Dances that by then had become extremely popular at the Ceylinco Hotel.

As Dalreen's popularity grew so did her musical career. In 1972 she made her first European tour and was signed by the Polydor (Ariola) recording label in Germany to record and release three singles. She actually recorded four singles for Polydor, two were in English titled 'Stranger Boy' and 'With a Little Love'. The other two were German songs 'Als der neue tag' and 'Sei weider gut', which she performed on German television. 'Stranger Boy' became a big hit for her.

The years with her bands Amazing Grace and Orpheus at the Little Hut, Mount Lavinia and the Blue Leopard, very popular venues in Sri Lanka, set new trends in music, with Dalreen radiating her never-ending charm. A rock singer in her early years, she also became a familiar figure on stage with leading pop names like Kumar Navaratnam, Upali Fernando and Prince Rajaratnam. Always a survivor in the ever changing musical world Dalreen switched her talents to the Asian music scene. Clarence Wijewardena composed four songs for her which were released on the Sooriya label one of which, 'Chuda Meneke', became an anthem for Dalreen.

After her huge success in Europe, Dalreen was invited by the Travel Agents of the PATA Conference in 1975 to perform at the Sydney Opera House where she sang her Sinhala songs. Soon after there were more tours. Each one of them spelled excitement and happiness for Dalreen making all of her teenage dreams come true. The experience of touring was equally valuable. Her fame has taken her to India, Japan, Hong Kong, Berlin, Australia, Switzerland, Moscow, Rome, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Katmandu, London, United States, Canada and the countries of the Middle East.

Dalreen's happiness was great when in 1993 she won two Sunday Observer Golden Cleft Awards one for 'Singer of the Year' and one for 'Trio of the Year' for her group Dalreen and Company.

The publication 'India Today' profiled her as, "...the songstress who turns you on with her songs of love and life. To the people of Sri Lanka she is not just a 'singer par excellence' - she is a symbol - the woman who acts as a kind of ambassador, transporting a part of their world to the world outside..."

Music is an intrinsic part of Dalreen's family. Her two daughters have inherited their mothers' musical talents with the same degree of enthusiasm and commitment. Debbie, her elder daughter, a recognized keyboardist, pianist and singer too, enjoys a successful career as a soloist performing at countless venues and special events. She continues her music as a keyboardist in the popular group Phase 3. Thahani her teenage daughter is a singer in her own right excelling in today's pop music scene. She appears as a soloist in Dalreen's DVD 'Dalreen - Then to Now'. Debbie appears on the same DVD doing harmony and backup vocals.

Not to be left out musically is Dalreen's percussionist husband Thabit who is also a horticulturist and environmentalist at heart, lends continuous support to his musically minded family.

Dalreen is in high demand throughout the worlds musical stages. She recently returned home from a summer tour of the US and Canada with The Gypsies another popular Sri Lankan band.

Extracted from Dalreen's Website:

Message from Dalreen to all her fans:

Music, has always been my life, and today this celebration in song gives me so much happiness.

Winning a talent contest at the age of nine opened the doors to an exciting and fruitful musical career, and never did I think that I would have such a long stay in the scene as a singer and professionally, almost forty years. This is like the dream I had as a kid acting myself as a singer in front of the mirror.

It was no easy trek but my enthusiasm and determination gave me the success I enjoy today.

I cannot proceed without expressing my heartfelt thanks to all those who helped me to be what I am now.

I have always been associated with Sri Lanka's best professional musicians both in the western and Oriental scene, and shared the stage not only in Sri Lanka but overseas as well. I am proud to have represented my country at many International Music festivals and music events.

When I reflect now, I am happy that despite some of the obstacles in my way, I stood my ground and gave up the best by way of my singing to my people and all my fans who never failed to support me through all these years, without you I would be nothing or nobody.

I thank you for being here tonight and being a part of my show "LIFE OF SONG".

Love you all,

Note: This is from Dalreen to her audience (and now for you) at a recent concert in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A DVD of that concert is available and is a 'must have' if you are a Dalreen fan!