In Appreciation of Shelagh Goonewardane

Yasmine Gooneratne

SHELAGH GBorn on 12 December 1935 in Colombo, Shelagh Goonewardene  was the younger daughter of Lt. Col. Dr T.R. Jansen, OBE, ED (one-time Commander of the volunteer corps), and  Mrs Georgiana Jansen.  Like her elder sister Suzette, Shelagh  was educated at Bishop’s College, Colombo, and benefited  from the  fine teaching of Mrs Doreen Keuneman, Miss Norma Vanderwall, Miss Lesley Tirimanne (now Alles), and her special mentors Pauline and Dick Hensman. Her love for  the stage made itself evident from her earliest years at Bishop’s, where she appeared in innumerable playlets devised for class and school entertainment , besides  acting the parts of Melisande in Apple Pie Order, Rosalind in As You Like It,  and taking a starring role in Patricia Pantin Munro’s production of Alice in Wonderland. While still at school she appeared on the Colombo stage in Chekhov’s play The Wedding (for the Little Theatre Group), and from there it was a short step to the  ‘Dram Soc’ at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya, where Professor Lyn Ludowyk was quick to observe her talent. Shaw’s Major Barbara and  Androcles and the Lion  were among the plays in which she took part under Ludowyk’s direction.During the 1960s, Shelagh took a crucial role in the activities of Stage and Set, as actor and as administrator. Among the many S & S plays  in which she played a key role, the most powerful and moving (for me) was Macintyre’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, in which she played Linda Loman, opposite the veteran actor Winston Serasinghe.

In her book This Total Art,  Shelagh has put on record her personal perceptions of her activities in the Sri Lankan world of arts, an invaluable gift for the instruction and education of future generations.

Looking back, I am astonished by the range of her interest in the arts, for, not confining itself to the English theatre, it overflowed into the area of Sinhala drama represented in the plays of Sarachchandra, and of classical dance as interpreted by Chitrasena and Vajira. Her love of the arts included an intelligent and sensitive understanding of the work of George Keyt, then at the height of his powers, and it was only when she decided to emigrate with her family to Guyana and thence to Australia in the interests of her children’s education, that her active participation in Sri Lankan arts was forced to a close.

No account of Shelagh Goonewardene’s life would be complete that did not include some mention of her  love for her children, her record of  community service,  and of the steadfast spiritual endeavour that  illuminated her  later years.  She was immensely proud of her three children: the eldest, Antony Anghie, now Samuel D. Thurman  Professor of Law at S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah; the next, her son Devinda Goonewardene, whose talent for photography she fostered and encouraged (his splendid  photographs of Melbourne’s natural beauty alternate with the poems in both volumes of Shelagh’s verse); and the third, her daughter Devika, who died young, but not before she had given proof  that she had inherited much of her mother’s  academic abilities and her love of books and cinema. Shelagh instilled in her children something of her own feelings of compassion : they joined with her in concern for the  provincial schools in Sri Lanka – I know of two, but there  may be more –  to which she provided personal financial and material assistance, accompanying her on visits to the  students when she visited the island, maintaining correspondence with them when they  returned to Melbourne. As for matters of faith: she had been born and baptized into the Dutch Presbyterian Church to which the Jansen  family belonged, but she converted to Roman Catholicism on her first marriage, and remained faithful to it to the moment of her death. That did not affect her respect for other faiths, however, especially for  Buddhism,  of which she made a serious study with the encouragement of the Hensmans (themselves devoted Anglicans),  bringing up her children Devinda and Devika in the Buddhist practices and beliefs of their father Ranjith Goonewardene. 

Having known Shelagh Goonewardene  for  over 70 years (we met in Grade 1V at Bishop’s College at the age of nine,  beginning  a friendship that lasted through school and  University, and was enriched by  the experiences that marriage and emigration brought with them),  I  had thought my affection for her and respect for her memory were unique. Since she left us earlier this month, I have learned how  mistaken  I have been, as  expressions of grief and  outpourings of sorrow from friends of all ages and in many parts of the world  have greeted the news of her death in Melbourne.

In the words of a mutual friend of  Shelagh’s school days and mine, Wimalaraj Gunasegaram , I recognize feelings so much  akin to my own, that I cannot do better than quote them here: “Shelagh was the most beautiful person that I called my friend. Her outward physical beauty and grace was matched by her inner beauty, gentleness, and kindness. It has been my privilege to have known her for 60 years. She has shown love, loyalty, charity, gentleness, kindness, and forgiveness in the most graceful manner  –  even to those who had hurt her or betrayed her. She suffered losses and pain without showing bitterness. She shared her intelligence, education, artistic talents, knowledge and literary understanding to help others have a better appreciation of these subjects. She has been a beacon in my life, and I am deeply grateful to her for making me a friend over these  many  years.”

Shelagh 5


Born 12 December 1935 in Sri Lanka

Died 12 April 2013 in Australia

Steadfast in  her faith, generous in her loyalties,  most excellent of friends


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Filed under cultural transmission, life stories, literary achievements, performance, sri lankan society, unusual people, women in ethnic conflcits

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