Dancers / Designers / Diplomats / Musicians

Christobel and Oliver Weerasinghe: A Life of Privilege

Christobel Weerasinghe née Kotalawala was born on the day her father became a member of the Legislative Council. It was the beginning of the 1920s and the life she inherited was one of extraordinary privilege – her family could trace their genealogy back to the kings of Kotte and in the present her father, Sir Henry Kotalawala had broken all records with 26 consecutive years as a member of the Legislative and State Council. As a consequence, a young Chrissie had danced for S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and sat down to dinner with Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten.

By the time Mr. Kotalawala was ready to retire, his only daughter would be a fully grown woman, a mother herself and wife to another distinguished man. Oliver Weerasinghe, 15 years her senior, would become the country’s ambassador to America and was lauded as modern Sri Lanka’s first town planner. His beloved wife would accompany him on his many journeys. But Christobel was so much more than the sum of the powerful men in her life.

When we meet her, it is in her ancestral home in Barnes Place. For someone a year past her ninetieth birthday, Christobel is incredibly vital. Walking carefully after a recent fall, she takes us from room to room – to the dimly lit library filled with old black and white photographs and file upon file of newspaper clippings, then to the drawing room where a small box holds prized pictures of her wedding day, after which we move to a small room off the parlour where intricate sketches of their homes are hung, then to the veranda where she sits every day surrounded by the lush garden her husband laid out for her.

“I prefer to be alone these days,” she tells me ruefully, explaining that it wasn’t always so. Growing up, she felt keenly the absence of her mother, who after many years of being a semi-invalid passed away when her daughter was just 16. Christobel had already been enrolled in boarding school at Ladies College in Colombo by then, where private tutors had been hired to teach her the arts that she so excelled at. Music and ballet absorbed her, but painfully conscious of a void in her life, Christobel decided she wanted to part from the religion of her parents and convert to Christianity. In an attempt to dissuade her, her father asked that she switch schools enrolling her in the Buddhist school Visakha Vidyalaya.

It was there, when she took to the stage as the star of a production of ‘La Boheme’ (The Bohemian Girl), that Oliver first laid eyes on her. A few meetings later, in 1943, they would be married. It was an unusual alliance, a marriage of opposites: he so quiet and reserved, she full of youthful vigour and gaiety; he a “man of the world”, she a naive girl barely out of the classroom. To no one’s surprise, it was a spectacular success. “My children tell me it was one of the happiest marriages they’ve ever seen,” she tells me, explaining, “he and I were the best of friends, and we talked always like friends.”

Ahead of Christobel lay what she describes as the “happiest days of my life” – an 18 year stay in the U.S. In 1956, Oliver would join the U.N as Chief of the Bureau of Social Affairs in Housing, Building and Planning and by 1965 he would be appointed Sri Lanka’s ambassador to America. Together Christobel and Oliver would see the Johnson years segue into the Nixon’s tenure. There are dozens of pictures of Christobel as she was then. Absolutely stunning in a traditional sari and utterly poised, she appeared the perfect diplomat’s wife. While her husband served with the U.N, she did too, becoming an Alternate Representative and a cultural ambassador.

She was something of a radio star. She made 6 long playing records about the music and people of India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Israel and the Arab world. Though UNICEF and UNESCO provided her with the material, it was she who wrote and then narrated the scripts. (All royalties from the sales and any honorariums she received were donated to UNICEF.)  Another series of recordings, dubbed ‘Tales from the East, re-written for Children’ was broadcast over New York and Washington networks and her ‘Portraits of Ceylon’ aired over 44 stations and was used by the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation and the Trinidad Broadcasting Corporation.

On yet another radio show, she accompanied herself on the guitar as she sang ‘Stories, Songs, Facts and Fun, Told and Sung by Christobel Weerasinghe.’ She shows me a letter carefully filed, that is some indicator of her success. Dated May 12, 1960 it is from the Teaching Aids Service, Inc. and informs her of their intention to make her recordings available to “more than 95,000 schools and universities in the United States.” She was even nominated for a Peabody Award. In between shows, she travelled all over the country addressing women’s groups and performing for them. Throughout those years, she thrived.

When she and Oliver came back home, she returned to her old love of performance, only this time as a teacher. At the Methodist Maradana crèche she taught children 3 – 5 years olds English, music and dance. As always, she and her husband gathered around them the political elite. Also on her return, Christobel began to put down all she could remember, collecting her memories into an as yet unpublished document addressed to her grandchildren. She shows me the heavy file titled ‘Joy of Remembrance.’ ‘Your mom and Uncle Rohan being very young then, it was so exciting for them to see the skyscrapers towering high above, and the twinkling and glittering lights of Manhattan,” she writes on one page, going on to describe the strain of adapting to life in a very big city.

Later, she says, ‘with both uncle Rohan and your mom living and working in the United States, I often wonder whether my husband and I made the right decision in accepting the United Nations Post in 1956. We served our country well, but we have left behind in the United States a part of ourselves.’ With the passing of Oliver, in 1980 (a plaque marks the place he fell in Vihara Mahadevi Park) she misses her children all the more, but cannot regret the opportunities they’ve had. Excelling academically, Menekka (who holds 3 Masters Degrees) went on to become a university lecturer and then moved into business. After graduating from Harvard, Rohan became the first Asian to be made a senior partner at the prestigious international law firm Shearman & Sterling.

Menakka, Christobel tells me happily, calls every day, Rohan, twice a week. While she is so proud of their academic and professional accomplishments, she is prouder still of all the charitable work they’ve undertaken in Sri Lanka – from setting up scholarships to presenting villages with water tanks, they’ve done much, more often than not dedicating it to their parents.  They now have families of their own, making Christobel a great grandmother.

Though she is too old to visit them as she once did, life in Sri Lanka offers its own small consolations. Christobel loves her garden and the white orchids that bloom there. Her domestic aids are more in the way of close companions, with whom she likes to talks politics. Next week, Menekka will be visiting (in her pictures, she looks the very image of her mother) and Christobel can hardly wait. Gesturing to the comfortable house that surrounds her, she says simply, “I have been blessed with so much, so that I can give to others.”

Oliver Weerasinghe: Sri Lanka’s Father of Town Planning

A recent announcement revealed that a plot of land on Sarana Mawatha in Colombo 7 will soon be the site of a new head office for the Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka (ITPSL). With construction having just begun, it seems a particularly auspicious moment to look back on their history and on the man who began it all. Both the auditorium and the library will be named after Oliver Weerasinghe, Hemantha Jayasundera, President of ITPSL told the Sunday Times.

The man so honoured held the post of the country’s first Director of the Department of Town and Country Planning and is the subject of a new bulletin issued by ITPSL. As Sri Lanka’s ‘Father of Town Planning’ Oliver is credited with the design that so distinguishes the new Anuradhapura town from any other city in Sri Lanka.  “Though we had a heritage of town planning that was unlike any other country’s, at that time it was very hard to find someone who specialised in it,” says Hemantha. The son of Joseph Weerasinghe, one of the first two Sri Lankans to qualify as an engineer, Oliver also made significant contributions to the design of the Lake House Building, the planning of the Peradeniya University and the Regional Planning Scheme for Colombo.

His wife, Christobel remembers that his methodical, thoughtful approach gave him the skills to attain his three goals for Anuradhapura. The most crucial, was of course, his desire to see the ancient city protected from further encroachments and to clear archaeological sites of modern constructions. In addition, he wished to provide pilgrims an atmosphere of peace and dignity in which to worship and lastly to provide archaeologists working on the site a chance to do so unhampered by concerns that unbridled development would destroy the ruins. Oliver ensured the new town had plenty of room to grow. An infrastructure that was initially designed to support 25,000 people now accommodates more than 60,000. Future planners would draw from this model, applying it to other towns such Kataragama, said Hemantha.

That he got so far had much to do with his uncle D.R Wijewardena, the founder Chairman of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon. Like his brothers, Oliver studied abroad, but he returned to Sri Lanka during the Great Depression and would have been unable to fund his studies in town planning had it not been for a loan from Wijewardena. At the University of Liverpool, he was fortunate to be able to learn from the legendary Sir Patrick Abercrombie. (The latter would later serve as a consultant on the Sri Lankan projects). The inauguration of the new town of Anuradhapura eventually took place in 1949. Oliver himself would go on to serve as our ambassador to the United States and later as a consultant to the UN on urban development.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 20, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Saman Kariayawasam. 

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