Born as the eldest daughter to two of Sri Lanka’s Premiers, Sunethra Bandaranaike had been a witness to many political trials of our times. Nevertheless, seeing herself as ‘not belonging to the world of active politics’, but desired in a realm of society, overlooked by many, she pioneered Sunera Foundation, opening ‘creative doors’, to unearth the innate talent of differently-able. The Nation discovers more of her mettle.

By Randima Attygalle
Q: Born to the most affluent political family in the country, why did you opt to stay away from politics?
As the political scene unfolded over the years, from the time my father and politicians of that calibre did politics, to a period, during which, I would have been in my 20s or 30s, the political scene was developing in such a way that, it had no appeal or attraction, for me. If I had been a matured adult, at the time my father did politics, I may have considered doing politics. I remember when I was interviewed at Oxford, knowing ‘whose who’ I was, I appeared to have said that, “when I go back, who knows? I might quietly slip into politics.” That was in 1964. But as it happened, the political scene and the calibre of politicians, changed in such a way and so fast, that I did not see myself, belonging to that world.

Q: What made you initiate Sunera Foundation?
It was just a happy accident, that happened! I had a dear German friend, Wolfgang Stange, living in England, who used to visit Sri Lanka often and he used to work with disabled young people, linking up with small organisations here, and using performing arts, as a therapeutic tool, to work with them. At that time, I had set up Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust, which was giving grants and scholarships annually, to needy people in performing arts, to create something. My friend knew about this, and he suggested that, I extend my work, to disabled people, engaged in performing arts. I knew nothing about this field, which required special knowledge, which I presumed, not to have by any stretch of the imagination! One day, he invited me to attend a workshop, which he was conducting with Rohanadeva Perera, a young Sri Lankan, who was involved in theatre. When I walked into the room, where there were about 25 young people, with various disabilities, with whom my friend Wolfgang and Rohanadeva were working, I could not believe, what I saw. For the first time, I saw people with either mental or physical disabilities, who were very creative. I was amazed to see, how their creativity had been tapped well, and how they were coming out with their talent, without any self-consciousness. So I introduced him to my trustees and then Wolfgangsuggested us to do a major production. Then we tapped into a new component, soldiers. So we went to Ranaviru Sevana, because there was already a rehabilitation programme, in progress there. We picked eight of them and we performed in Colombo, out side Colombo and we did a second production, which we took to England, Brisbane and India, followed by third and fourth. Three of them were on ethnic crisis. There were soldiers, young people severely affected and dislocated in the war. It was in the aftermath of these productions, that I set up Sunera Foundation with charity status.

Q: How does Sunera Foundation strive to enhance the quality of life of differently-able?
I think 1.2 million of disabled people, is a large number in a country, which has around 20 million people, and the quality of life, is non-existent in majority of cases. The situation is worse, when they are born to poor families. There are other children, and the father may come home drunk, and it’s the poor mother, who has to bear the brunt and to have a disabled child at home, is considered, as a sin committed by the mother in her previous birth! This is the reality here. Most of them are embarrassed, to bring such child, into society. They are tucked away at home, and even the neighbours don’t know, that such a child exists! We at Sunera, bring these young people together in groups, and we use techniques, in developing their creativity, from what they were, to what they are capable of becoming, given the chance and space. We give them opportunities, to boost their self confidence to such an extent, that they would come out happily and perform on a public stage, to an audience, without any feeling of being looked at, in a negative way. That is what I call developing. The benefits of that, is not only to the person who feels great, but to the family, particularly to the mother. The society suddenly becomes aware that, they are also people, capable of, they are not some useless, unfortunate creatures. Raising awareness of their innate talent, is another objective of ours. We are just a small organisation, touching just the tip of the iceberg, there should be many more such endeavours. The state patronage is very important, to encourage organisations, willing to help these people, and map out a proper plan.

Q: What are your comments about the rights and privileges of the disabled in our country?
In Sri Lanka, we have a strong Act passed in 1996, called the Act to protect the rights of people with disabilities, which is quite comprehensive. Subsequently, few more Acts have been passed, concerning the facilities available in public places for the disabled.. Unfortunately, all these are confined to legislative enactments, because very little has happened since then. I’m afraid, I’m not one of these people, who subscribe to the opinion that, we are a poor country, and we have other priorities like fighting a war. Therefore, we have no money to spend on the disabled. In my opinion, a society is judged by the way, they care for their disabled community and their senior citizens. I don’t see Sri Lanka, as a country, generally unkind to these people. It’s just that, they are not given any opportunity, to live with dignity in society. You and I know, what our Fundamental Rights are, and can take action, if they are infringed. These people don’t even know, what rights are. They may be written in Acts of the Parliament, but they wouldn’t know. They merely accept, what is meted out to them, by family and society. We have a greater responsibility towards them.

Q: It is understood that, Sunera Foundation is to exploit Forum Theatre. Can you shed light upon this endeavour?
Forum Theatre is something new to us, and at the moment, we are putting together a performance in the Kurunegala District. We have auditioned and picked our cast, among them, two soldiers from the Boyagane Rehabilitation Centre. Then we have got 6-8 young people representing all three ethnic groups, with some experience in theatre. We got Shasthri Mallawarachchi and his team, who have learnt Forum Theatre, to train our cast. Performances are scheduled for June/July, and it is going to be a huge challenge.

Q: What is good art to you?
Whether it’s literature, performing art or visual art, good art is art, that gets through to people, and has the impact, that is expected of it. This is what I see as good art, as a medium of communication. It’s a presentation of something by the artiste, to the world at large, and you have failed, if you have not got it through, to the world at large. Then comes the aesthetic art. That of course, is very personal. It’s just individual taste. But, beyond all that are standards, that have been applied universally, from time immemorial.

Q: As the eldest daughter, what can you tell about the role, you played in the family unit?
I was very studious, very quiet and not an extrovert. My sister was more lively, energetic, and communicated closely with people. My brother was the baby of the family, much loved and cared for by the family. He was a lovable and a very gentle person and our personalities developed on those lines, as we grew up. But, I must say that, the turning point came for me, when I went to Oxford for my higher studies. I came back as a different person. By nature, I had a very high sense of responsibility, and a sense of duty. My mother was like that, and it went right through my life. I didn’t get involved in the lives of my siblings, except when I had a role to play, other than being friends. Our lives went in three different directions. We didn’t spend much time at home together, but, wherever I was required to play a positive, responsible role, I played it. After all, we are a family which faced many tragedies. When my father died I was very young, but when my sister’s husband died, I stepped in as the big sister, and did what I could do. When my mother fell ill, I looked after her, because I was at home with her, and by nature I am a care giver in a very big way. Sometimes, it’s too much, but it seems to sit on my shoulders, in a rather comfortable way, that it pops up naturally!

Q: As a young woman, what was it to be the eldest daughter of two premiers?
Horrendous! We could not lead normal lives, because my father was the Head of the country. He was assassinated and then came the security concerns. Soon after that, my mother became the Head of the State. As children of the Head of the State, we could not lead ‘normal lives’. Three of us got the opportunity to lead normal lives, only when we went abroad, for our higher studies. We had total freedom to conduct our own lives, like any other young person, and also we got the opportunity, to ‘grow’. When I came back, I had changed in a positive way, and since then, there was no turning back. Once, I cut my hair short and when I came back from England, I was in a mini-skirt, and they chased me all over Fort, when I went to do some shopping, and I landed in the front pages of the newspapers! It was a nightmare!

Q: How did the death of your father reflect in your life, as well as your siblings’?
We were completely traumatised. My sister was 14 and I was 16. We were able to handle it better. But my brother was scarred for life. A lot of his behaviour traits were governed by that. He was very much the ‘spoilt child’ in the family, as the ‘much awaited’ only son. Everybody loved him, and my father gave him lot of affection. When my father died, my brother would have expected the mother to play that role. Far from it, mother went into politics, as well. In other words, he almost lost, both his parents. He never recovered from it. Right through his life, all the situations, that unfolded till his death, displayed a tremendous sense of insecurity, which came about, at that very impressionable age of 10. He lived with it, until he died.

Q: As a brother, what was the greatest faculty you perceived in late Anura Bandaranaike?
He was a very gentle, caring person. He was a democrat and liberal in his thinking. People talk about the short period, he was the speaker of the House of Parliament and how, he adhered to ethics. He was a man like that, very honest and caring. That’s what I valued most, in him. He was so kind to his staff, his friends. Although, he did not have children of his own, he was so fond of children. When he had three strong women in life- mother and two sisters, it would have been very off-putting for him. So he preferred to keep his distance from us. But, whenever we met, we used to have a great time. But they were short and sweet. We had similar tastes in music and theatre because, we were exposed, to the same culture. That was the bond we had. We would crack a joke, and if he said something witty, I would try to be cleverer than him. When Anura was questioned about marriage, he used to say “I have three such bossy women in my life, you think, I want to bring the fourth in? Thank you very much, no”!

Q: What do you think is the legacy left behind by your parents in the political set up of this country?
My father moved Sri Lanka towards true independence and self sufficiency, and to stand up as a nation, hold your head up high, be proud of your country. But above and beyond all of that, what I rank as ‘number one’, in the tenures of my parents is, honesty and integrity. They governed very deeply and they wanted, as far as they could, to create standards, whereby people would care for each other, and cultivate human qualities.

Q: What is your greatest strength in life?
If I commit myself to something, I am totally focused on it. We were brought up believing, that whatever we do, we have to set high standards. We have to adhere to certain ethics, in whatever we do. My strength is based on my belief, in a set of values that are born of a kind of exposure, I had to my father’s liberal thinking, thinking on very broad lines. I think that is my greatest strength. If not, I would not have been able to do the kind of work I’m doing, continuously in a sustained way, without for one second feeling, exhausted. The more I do, more I want to do, the more I see, the more I want to achieve. I also believe in humility. The moment you get arrogant, you’ve lost it completely, because then you become a person unpleasant to have around. I’m also a very causal person, totally casual in the way I dress, the way I speak, in all what I do. I think my greatest strength lies in those things. I’m a very friendly person, and what provokes me, is injustice and violence. I abhor all that! I don’t lose my temper very often, because I don’t think I have that much of temper in me, by nature to lose!