The Potency Borne by Pictures

Michael Roberts

This little presentation is a DEDICATION. It illustrates the potency and power of friends in producing an academic booklet in 2011. As it happens, the booklet bears the title Potency, Power & People in Groups and was financed by the good friends Godfrey & Amar Gunatilleke of the Marga Institute.

The “Acknowledgements” and the “Foreword” taken together spell out the names of those friends who assisted this project. But let me single out Anura Hettiarachchi for his aid in this project and in the endeavours leading to my book on Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004) because he was struck down by heart failure recently.

To Anura, then, in gratitude I place this item in my website.

JVP Rally at Colombo Town Hall, 1977 …. & the LTTE Rally at Sudu  Amman Temple on 4th August 1987


 Rarely is any book the work of a single hand. As the Foreword clarifies, Ismeth Raheem has been a significant figure in the conceptions that launched this venture and has supplied some striking and valuable photographs for reproduction.  Since pictorial imagery is central to this work I emphasise here

  • the generosity of Palinda de Silva in allowing me to draw on his web site and its stock of photographs from British Ceylon;
  • The magnanimity of Victor Ivan in supplying me with some images from his Paradise in tears. A journey through history and conflict (Colombo: Sahajeevana Centre for Coexistence, 2008 ).

I also thank Rohan de Soysa, Kumari Jayawardena, Prasanna Hennanayake, Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathypillai, Hugh Karunanayake, Dennis McGilvray, Lal Samuel and Irwin Weerackody for supplying specific photographs; and Lukie Pereira** and Sivam Krishnapillai in Australia for technical aid in the preparation of some reproductions.

I am also grateful to Ananda Chittambalam,** Mano Ponniah and Nandasiri Jasentuliyana for important tit-bits of information. It is from little smidgeons that larger splashes of canvas develop.


This little venture has its origins in the researches that went into the shaping of People Inbetween. Volume 1. The Burghers and the middle class in the transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s (Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing, 1989). That work began in the 1980s and involved Percy Colin-Thomé, Ismeth Raheem and myself. Percy (since gone to make his maker) worked meticulously in readying the Lorenz letters and other nineteenth-century documents for publication (one which was projected as Volume III of People inbetween and has not eventuated), while I concentrated on the historical survey which came out in 1989.

The second volume with its images of exotica, events and artefacts from the nineteenth century heyday of British power in the island was seen as the most marketable of the projected set of books. It was also the most demanding and that task fell mostly on Ismeth Raheem’s shoulders. It called for several trips to Singapore on his part and some extended periods in that city. It appeared in print as Images of British Ceylon (Singapore: Times Editions, 2000). Apart from the many rare photographs, it is centred upon Raheem’s detailed and revealing survey of nineteenth century photography in Ceylon.

This focus is buttressed at the end by analytical descriptions on several topics which were aligned with the grouping of the photographs. These descriptions were the work of Roberts and Raheem in varying fusion of input. The subjects are

  • Middle class mansions
  • The working class situation in Colombo
  • Galle Face and its environs as symbolic space
  • The fort of Colombo and the British security
  • The harbour of Colombo and its environs
  • Communications within British Ceylon
  • Clubs and other institutions
  • Streets and the urban landscape of Colombo
  • Urban ‘outposts.’

However, there were two other topics in the original plan covering “Sport & Pastime in British Ceylon” and “People in Groups. From financial considerations these fields were jettisoned during the final stages of production.  I had drafted texts surveying these fields, texts that were left on the shelves so to speak. At some point in 2006 conversations with Kumari Jayawardena and her encouragement led me to resurrect the project with an expansion in temporal scope that embraced the twentieth century and the inclusion of political and sporting events, both dwelling on mass popular action. This line of thought was then given a boost by Dominic Sansoni’s response to my draft text.

There was, inevitably, the problem of requisite finances for the printing of such an effort with its projected corpus of photographs. I cannot overemphasis my gratitude to Godfrey Gunatilleke and the Marga Institute for bearing this monetary burden. I add, here, that financial considerations have precluded a coffee-table book with photographic reproduction of the highest quality. The stress within these covers is on the content of each photograph not its elegance and aesthetic force of presentation. Ultimately, too, the impact of this book must rest on the evaluation of its central text and the cumulative weight of the little embellishments that accompany some images.

I invite readers to participate in this journey into times past, both distant past in our forefathers’ time and in the recent past of living memory. Participate and ENJOY.

Ismeth & Percy


** Alas, both my cousin Lukie Pereira and my brother-in-arms, Ana Chittambalam, are no longer with us in this world.

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