In Defence of a Voice from the Grave, That of Sunila Abeysekera

Jane Russell presenting “a reply to unjustified criticism ” …. * …. [see endnote]

Foreword: I first met Sunila Abeysekera at a joint exhibition of sculpture and poetry which my Sri Lankan partner, sculptor Malathie de Silva, and I held at the Lionel Wendt Gallery in 1976. Sunila was twenty-four; I was two years older. She brought her father along and he purchased one of my poems which I‘d produced as wall-posters.:

Malathie and I got to know Sunila well some years later when a close friend of ours, Tissula Jayanetti — a medical student and singer — married Sunila’s rock-musician brother Prasanna. Sunila and her family moved into Tissula’s roomy house on Green Path and lived there for some years. We met Sunila many times after that. Malathie and I were also in Sri Lanka when Sunila (and not long afterwards, her son) died. It was a tragedy.

Many people mourned then and many more today mourn Sunila’s death. Many praise her achievements. But few mention Sunila’s voice: it was her greatest asset apart from her courage. Sunila’s voice was magical. It was low and thrilling. You could hear the musicality when she spoke. It gave her oratory a special quality. You felt you could listen to hear speak all day, no matter what she said.

This short appreciation of Sunila’s musical as well as political achievements is a collaboration between Indrakanthi Perera and myself. Indrakanthi first brought Sepal Amerasinghe’s article to my attention some years ago. She translated it for me and has supplied information relating to Sunila’s film and musical career. The fact that it has taken so long to finish this essay is largely my fault. Sunila was an inspirational person. Writing an appreciation required inspiration and I had to wait a while for the right circumstances to collude to produce the right words. Hopefully, the nakhad moment has arrived……….

Shortly before Sunila Abeysekera died from cancer on September 9th 2013, an article written by Sepal Amerasinghe appeared in a brief-lived Sinhala literary magazine, “Paparratzia”. It was an unashamedly misogynistic attack on Sunila for her supposed ‘western sophistication’.  Sunila was too ill at that time to respond. By then she had become so inured to the torrent of unrelenting abuse coming from the fundamentalist end of the male chauvinist Sri Lankan community, that this particular piece of vituperation was just one more rusty nail hammered into the coffin being prepared for her early death.

This article is a belated response to Sepal Amerasinghe’s comments. Perhaps, in some small measure, this brief essay may serve as restitution for the diatribes Sunila had to face over the years.

Amerasinghe began his essay by saying that Sunila was a “western-oriented sophisticate”.  According to him, this was a trait that cannot be acquired late in life. Therefore, in his view, she must have had it from her earliest days as a girl, when she first started acting in Sinhala films. Although Sunila had won a scholarship to Bishops’ College, a leading Christian girls’ school catering for daughters of the English-Page speaking elite in Colombo, she came from a Sinhala-educated middle-class background. The fact that she managed to osmotically absorb this quality of ‘westernisation’, normally associated with wealthy, land-owning English-speaking Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and BurgHer members of the island’s elite, only serves to indicate the stretch of her creative imagination and fearsome intellect.  However, according to Amerasinghe, this magical ‘westernised’ quality resulted in her being placed on a “pedestal of middle-class intellectual worldliness” by the artists she mixed with – composers and musicians Premasiri Khemadasa and Dharmasena Pathiraja, friends of her first husband, short story writer and occasional lyricist W. Jayasiri.

Amerasinghe claimed these musicians, whose inclinations he maintained were “primarily insular” (ie Sinhala nationalist), were so transformed when they met Sunila, that they were able to produce “landmark “(ie original) creations. These included two famous songs – Udumbara and Handuna Gathoth Oba Maa, whose lyrics by Jayasiri were sung by Sunila to a Khemadasa melody.

Amerasinghe admits that Sunila and these “so-called radicals” accomplished significant artistic achievement with these songs which were used in the film Bambaru Avith.  But in Amerasinghe’s view, the originality of this music was mainly due to Sunila’s ‘western sophistication’. [1]

[From this point on, Amerasinghe’s phrase ‘western sophistication’ is accompanied in brackets by the transliteration ‘cosmopolitanism’ (ie ‘having an internationalist world view’) as it brings his criticism more firmly into intellectual debates of the 21st century.]

Amerasinghe himself appears conflicted about the ‘westernised sophistication’ (cosmopolitanism) he recognised in Sunila’s voice. On the one hand, he suggested it was an almost magical property, resulting in wonderful artistic achievement.  On the other hand, he characterises it as a negative anti-patriotic quality as he further claims that because of her “western sophistication” (cosmopolitanism), Sunila “was never able to accomplish anything politically significant”.

According to Amerasinghe, Sunila’s voice was “a reflection of her caste”; by this, he explains, he meant that her voice had an “inexpressible golden quality” which could not be caught even by great lyrics and music.  Notwithstanding the back-handed compliment, the disrespect in Amerasinghe’s remark manifests itself as a scarcely-veiled ‘put-down’ on Sunila’s social position[2]. One must ask, would he have dared target a male Sri Lankan so explicitly?  Discourtesy, it seems, was an enduring trait of Sunila’s treatment at the hands of her Sri Lankan (male) critics.

Amerasinghe went on to argue that the male artists involved in producing these songs gained invidious credit using Sunila’s voice and innate musicality for they could never reproduce such distinction again with anyone else.  He claimed that none of these men had Sunila’s ‘western sophistication’ (cosmopolitanism). Therefore, they used hers to elevate their work. He states for example, that Khemadasa must have acquired “sophistication” from Sunila – because “otherwise he was just a ‘Sinhala godaya’” and he derides Khemadasa’s subsequent work, including his “so-called great operas, as lacking the artistic merit of these songs.

However, isn’t it much more likely that the co-operative effort of lyricist, composer and singer in creating these songs resulted in such remarkable music, not just because all were talented in their own fields, but because they could also work as a team? It was not the case that these male artists put Sunila on a pedestal and used her as an inspirational icon: on the contrary, their artistic achievement was the product of teamwork between a woman and men working as equals – something Amerasinghe, a product of the prevailing Sinhala male chauvinist ethos, seems to have found impossible to comprehend.[3]

Amerasinghe further argued, an absurd claim in light of her subsequent career, that Sunila was “not political” at all. He maintained that, far from being political, she just had “an outrage” against what he pinpointed as her “birthplace in society”. Here again we see an example of the antideluvian chauvinist attitude Sunila was forced to confront on a daily basis. As her many friends and colleagues in the Womens’ Movement know so well, Sunila was a renaissance figure. She was not just a fine actress and virtuoso singer, she was also a respected scholar, researcher and author. But above all, she was an activist.

Sunila had her own political agenda which encompassed the widest spectrum of human rights, but specifically the right of women to equal treatment before the law. And this included not just mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of (important) men, but also outcasts of the female gender – poor women of the underclass and undercastes, female prisoners, sex workers and lesbians.  Her agenda was far more revolutionary than anything recognised as ‘political’ by Amerasinghe in his labelling of the “so-called radicals” because it involved ideas which were, and still are, unacceptable to the authoritarian and hegemonic male chauvinists determining the prevailing cultural ethos of Sri Lanka. Far from being ‘sinhala godayas’, the male artists in the Sinhala film and music-world of the 1970’s and 80’s were able to work so closely with Sunila because they were radical and progressive enough to be creatively liberated by her feminist ideas.

In fact, Sunila was one of the finest examples of the ‘political being’ that Socrates believed human/womankind to be. To be a liberal feminist is a distinctly radical political position in Sri Lanka’s unreformed male chauvinist-dominated society. Radical feminist liberals like Sunila are post-modernists who understand that you can no more divorce politics from cultural identity and the arts in society than you can separate the fingers from the hand and still have a working hand. Post-modernists believe all parts of human society — political, economic, musical, dramatic, poetic, the fine arts of painting and sculpture, the philosophical, medical, scientific, mathematical, ecological, technological and environmental etc — are so integrated that to influence one is to influence all. Sunila and her male collaborators in the world of late 20th century Sinhala music and film understood this intuitively.

Amerasinghe claimed that Sunila could never become “one with this or any other group of radicals, politically speaking, because she was not a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ nationalist”. That’s a fact: Sunila was not a nationalist, although she was Sinhala-speaking and was born into a Buddhist family. Sunila’s father, Charles Abeysekere, together with his friends and relations, for example HG Sugathipala, and literary luminaries Reggie Siriwardene and Sugathapala de Silva, were an integral part of her childhood experience. Later, leading feminists Suriya Wickremasinghe and Kumari Jayawardene, both daughters of English mothers and Sinhalese fathers, became her mentors. Sunila was therefore exposed not only to great literature, both Sinhala and English, but politics was infused into her blood from an early age. Therefore, in direct contradiction to Amerasinghe’s claim that Sunila had no political influence and was a mere “cultural ornament”, not only did she have a powerful political impact on Sri Lanka’s political life, but it is one which is growing in strength year by year.

Amerasinghe saw Sunila as the “star” to the Sinhala radical “satellites or minor planets” orbiting her ‘western sophistication’(cosmopolitanism). According to him, she could never “fully intermingle” with them as she could never “dissolve her essential westernised identity”. That is true: Sunila was not a narrow-minded nationalist. On the contrary, she always preserved her integrity as a global citizen. That was why she was so successful in the world outside Sri Lanka.  She was not just a pioneer who brought an intense feminist dialogue into the public sphere in Sri Lanka, but she also made her mark on the feminist world stage. The three awards she gained for her defence of Human Rights in Sri Lanka – the UN Award in 1999, the Award for Global Defence of Human Rights from Human Rights Watch in 2007 and the South Asian Award for Peace and Social Justice in 2013 – evidence the respect in which she was held across the globe. How many Sri Lankan women have merited an obituary in the New York Times?

As a radical liberal, freedom of expression and tolerance of others’ views plus a supreme respect for all humanity, regardless of class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or race, were integral to Sunila’s beliefs. An activist in every sense of the word, Sunila held herself accountable as an advocate of gender equality and mutual respect for all shades of sexual identity.

She not only worked relentlessly in the political arena to bring about a change in attitude and law in favour of gender equality and LBGT rights, but she also experienced for herself the problems inherent in sexual politics in both eastern and western societies.

Hannah Arendt wrote that “Courage is one of the cardinal political virtues”. Sunila had courage in abundance. She was not just an intellectual of the first rank, but amazingly brave. But if courage is the prime virtue of the political activist, it takes a heavy toll in terms of sacrifice. Sunila was never afraid. She ignored abuse and discrimination. She faced exile, physical and mental suffering and death with equanimity and cheerfulness. Long may her legacy inform Sri Lanka and the world!

Jane Russell (author) ….. Indrakanthi Perera (translator)

  • Words in italics are either direct English translations from the Sinhala or transcriptions of Sinhala text.


[1] Translators’ note: Later, Pathiraja wrote lyrics for a Khemedasa composition, Hemin Saray Piyavida, for Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s film ‘Hansa Vilak’.   This composition, also sung by Sunila, is considered, along with those from ‘Bambaru Avith’, to have changed Sinhala popular-classical music forever.

[2] Sunila’s father was from the goldsmiths’ caste.

[3] The author went on to say that “Pathiraja was so addicted to his ‘western sophisticated’ inspirational figure (Sunila) that he went looking for a replacement and in ‘Paare Dige’ found Indira Jonklaas to suit”! (Translator’s note: ‘Paare Dige’, an homage to the Italian art house film “La Strada”, is a landmark film in the development of Sinhala cinema).


Dayapala Thiranagama,  (9 September 2014). “The Legacy Of A New Woman In Our Generation: Sunila Abeysekera (1952-2013)”Colombo Telegraph. Retrieved 30 July2020.

 Samantha Dugan: Sunila Abeysekera Biography”cwgl.rutgers.eduArchived from the original on 2017-08-21. Retrieved 2018-09-28.

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Filed under chauvinism, cultural transmission, disparagement, education, female empowerment, gender norms, heritage, Left politics, life stories, literary achievements, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people, vengeance, violence of language, women in ethnic conflcits

One response to “In Defence of a Voice from the Grave, That of Sunila Abeysekera

  1. Richard Simon

    Perhaps someone would be so kind as to correct this so that my late, good friend Thisula Abeysekera’s name is spelled correctly.

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