Posted on April 18th, 2013

Dr.Tilak Fernando

The closing down of the Ceylon Students Centre was a big sledge hammer blow to the students and the Sri Lankan expatriates who used to enjoy typical Sri Lankan cuisine at an extremely reasonable price which also saved time in preparing insipid meals by students on their own lodgings.

From a Sri Lankan government perspective it was a great loss of opportunity as an investment by allowing it to slip away at a time when a loan had already been arranged to purchase the freehold of the Student Centre through the Natwest Bank.

New concept

The vacuum caused by the closure of the Students Centre was felt by almost every Sri Lankan who lived in the UK at the time.

However, after a lapse of a few years, on December 2, 2000, the traditional drumbeats throbbed an evocative crescendo and six young lasses dressed in white saris chanted sanctified Jayamangala Gathas from a plush suite at Alexandra Palace, Wood Green, North London. It was the occasion of a short lived birth of a new Sri Lanka Centre organised solo by an enthusiastic Sri Lankan (Ediriweera). The High Commissioner for Sri Lanka at the time, Mangala Moonesinghe, declared open the new centre by lighting the traditional oil lamp.

Alexandra Palace, North London

Gamini Abeysinghe, a former silver screen star in Sri Lanka, and his dance troupe graced the occasion by unfolding fluid movements, supple and graceful, depicting twenty five centuries of old Sri Lankan culture which has been considered as a priceless form of art that communicated to the people (the legends and tales that live forever) from time immemorial.

The concept of a Sri Lankan Centre, which was quite different from that of the Student Centre, was meant to take place at different venues in London on a weekly basis, (during weekends) mixed with entrepreneurial display associated with social intercourse.

The High Commissioner, Moonesinghe, emphasised on the importance of having a “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lanka Centre’ to cater for the needs of the Sri Lankan community in the UK, especially after the demise of the Ceylon Students Centre.

Under a new name and a new concept the “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lanka Centre’ was meant to be an all day event to enable Sri Lankans scattered around in London particularly to come together.

To organise an event single handed of such magnitude was regarded as a yeoman task which could have been achieved only by someone with a cast iron determination.

Needless to say despite its inevitable teething problems, which delayed the proceedings in the morning, crowds started to pour in to experience the new idea and purchase various Sri Lankan products from a number of stalls Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in London had installed on this particular occasion.

Quite contrary to the concept of having a Students Centre, which focused mainly on students, the new Sri Lanka Centre was aimed at expatriates and their families and took the shape of a “ƒ”¹…”Sunday fare’ where visitors could buy Sri Lankan products, from high quality Ceylon tea to various commodities in a typical Sri Lankan market environment.

Food and drinks

Traditionally, at every Sri Lankan function in London the Ceylon Tea Centre provided “ƒ”¹…”Ceylon Tea’ as a token or a gesture of good will in a subtle promotional exercise, but in this instance the ill fate of the Student Centre had become contagious and the Tea Centre too had faced the same fate, as such to fill the vacuum left by the Tea Centre the organiser had made arrangements to serve and sell tea privately.

The teas imported by a vendor consisted of a variety of unadulterated tea in packets and gift boxes which people could buy and give as Christmas gifts to their English counterparts who always enjoy the golden taste of a “ƒ”¹…”Ceylon cuppa’.

Bringing back old memories of the “ƒ”¹…”Ceylon Students Centre’, string-hoppers sold on this occasion was inexorably a “ƒ”¹…”smash hit’ along with mouth watering “ƒ”¹…”Pol Sambol, Kiri Bath, Parippu and Fish Ambul thiyal or Chicken curry with Seeni Sambol’. It was just the kind of fad that brought back the shadow of the “ƒ”¹…”Students Centre’, but with far more potential and on a much imposing scale on a business style rather than hospitality.

The evening was punctuated by an organised dance which went on until late hours to the music of the popular Sunset Band that provided the revellers with endless catch and toe-tapping music.

The special guest artiste, Mariazelle Gunatillake, who had been especially flown directly from Sri Lanka on the previous evening for the inaugural show regaled the dancers with a string of her highly popular songs including her theme song, “ƒ”¹…”Kandy Lamissi’. During the show intermittently a disco took care of the enthusiastic young crowd where the entertainment went on till 1.30 am.

Lost dream

The organiser had intended to conduct educational lessons on a weekly basis with the help of volunteer Sri Lankan expatriate teachers, who were professional enough to discharge such a meritorious deed free of charge, to cater for students who were preparing for GCE or “ƒ”¹…”A’ level examinations on a weekly basis. To this end a request was made loud and clear to formulate a list in order that a systematic approach could be made to meet the demand and the size of the group(s). The organiser emphasised on the fact that unless there was a good response and a feasible quota of students it would be impossible to organise qualified teachers who in turn had to be advised in advance.

The organiser emphasised on this occasion that the main aim of the “ƒ”¹…”The Sri Lanka Centre’ would be to perform an innumerable service to the Sri Lankan community in the UK not only as a centre for social, entertainment and business activities, but also as a means to bind the community and develop a national spirit especially at a time when a terrorist war aimed to rip the country into two and its social fabric simultaneously.

With the assurance of full support by the High Commissioner Moonasinghe, the organisers were making a determined effort to make their fellow Sri Lankans “ƒ”¹…”re-visit’ the “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lanka Centre’ on a weekly basis, but the organiser had to surmount enormous problems in putting the pieces of the jig saw into proper slots such as finding requisite halls to rent for the occasion for a start which had to come from his personal funds, arranging container loads of Sri Lankan goods and food stuff to arrive on time so as not to miss targets and most importantly to find local Sri Lankan entrepreneurs who were willing and could give a hand in the operation and paying rent on space allocations on every “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lankan Centre’ day to meet the cost of the operation. In short, the survival of the Sri Lanka Centre depended purely on the number of trade halls and the crowds who visited and purchased various items from the vendors!

Cultural configuration

The venue for the second “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lankan’ Centre was fixed at the Porchester Hall, at Bayswater, London W2, not far away from the Sri Lanka High Commission, on February 3, 2001, with the idea of combining Sri Lanka’s independent day commemoration.

Unfortunately things did not turn out as expected where the organiser, despite his determined efforts, lost money, enthusiasm and heart which led to towards the same fate as the Students Centre where Sri Lankan community in the UK by then had lost the Students Centre, Tea Centre and the short lived Sri Lanka Centre for good! No human being is just a human being, and he or she must necessarily have a cultural configuration; the individuality is able to identify in mind, heart, and spirit with a community or a people larger than the immediate family.

In such a back drop, Sri Lankan expatriates in the UK had a bounden and a moral duty to come together, support each other and make The Sri Lankan Centre their national identity and pride in England, but alas it was not to be!

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