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Of cabbages, kings and things : Charting the genealogy of a famous rebel family

by Padma Edirisinghe  - Daily News Sat March 1 2003

Once in a way it is good to look back and ponder on one's past actions including the foolish and the immature adventures indulged in. On a leisurely day I browsed through some of my published articles and was surprised that a few years ago I had traced back genealogies with gusto in the Daily News.

The families I had researched on were not limited to the upper echelons of society. I had even obliged an unemployed a youth who came with (what seemed to be authentic) documents to prove the family affinity to  Sembap Perumal which he said the Tamil equivalent of Prince Sapumal. I wonder whether the royal affiliations thus publicized enabled him to get a job or whether he is still filling the ranks of Lanka's unemployed despite the royal antecedents.

More recently I was given an assignment of writing some "profiles" (not by  DN) but the space allotted was so limited that I felt it was almost a case of dishonoring well-known celebrities who had dedicated their whole life to a worthy cause.

So I did not care to pursue the assignment. One such celebrity "dishonored" by a brief narrative was our female cinema idol, Sumitra Peries, nee Gunewardena. I stressed on the "nee", because some are unaware that this female who has now reached the top rungs in the arena of cinema production, belongs to the famous Gunewardena rebel clan of Boralugoda. Sumitra plus her equally famous husband Lester were humble enough to tell me that they had read with much interest my genealogy accounts. In fact Sumitra had gone out of the way (when I phoned that I was coming to meet her)  to get me material on the Gunewardena family history which incidentally a grand-niece of her in the United States had collected through family relations back home for a project on "the student's ancestral history'". Such projects in our country exist only in foolish brains like mine.

Sumitra Peries told me, "The matter may interest you". To make up for  dishonoring her as well as to get rid of my scratching urge to dabble with genealogies and also afford an interesting historical dimension to a famous family saga I intended writing this.

The traced family history goes back to the reign of king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, (1747- 781) He was the second   Nayakkar king and adopted the same practice of Sinhalisation by taking on a Sinhala name and embracing Buddhism. Not only did he embrace Buddhism but goes down to history as one of the main royal benefactors of Buddhism. In fact the defunct  Upasampada was revived due to his endeavors and many were the temples put up by him all over the country. But then as now there were rebels or a clan who thought differently.

They were not going to be duped by faked ones but wanted an authentic one on the throne, a true Sinhala Buddhist king. So a rebellion erupted that ended unsuccessfully since the oncoming coup d'etat was disclosed to the king by a faithful minister. The punishments seem to have been mild for the king was crafty, only a few were put to death while a famous prelate said to be involved was almost unpunished but many were banished to the low country.

To this category belonged the progenitor of the Gunewardena family who was banished to Mawalgama near Mahiyangama around 1750.  Mahiyangama is in the present Sabaragamuwa province and the family took root there. However this area being rather in the proximity of the Western province displayed signs of the social transformations that took place in the Portuguese and Dutch periods. In fact the village Mahiyangama is sited very close to Malwana, the citadel of Portuguese captains as Azavedo who according to legends of the area threw the Sinhalese who refused to be converted to Roman Catholicism to be devoured by the crocodiles swarming in the Kelani Ganga picturesque elbow bend by the captain's Maligawa (which ruins are still said to be extant).

Thus the first three in this family line carry the names, Don Sabanis Rupesinghe, Don Abanis Rupesinghe and Don Bastian Rupesinghe. It is Don  Brumpy Ranasinghe who gets conferred with the name Gunewardena in 1880. Son Don  Jakolis Ranasinghe Gunewardena becomes a village headman in the Samanabedda area. Now we come to the beginning of the 20th century. The emergence of the Boralugoda Gunewardena family belongs to more recent and known history.

It was one of the first Lankan families to toe a completely different political line by adopting Socialist ideologies. The Boralugoda estate to which the family trekked later and settled down finally became the breeding ground for many a rebel Gunewardena, the most famous among whom was Phillip Gunewardena, Sumitra's father's brother. Sumitra too can be considered a revolutionary or one who chose to tread a different path from the average Lankan woman.

Life's vicissitudes she took up as challenges. Her mother's death while she was still a young girl just ruptured the smooth flow of her life. Then came her elder brother Gamini's disappearance. He had fled the country unable to bear the family tragedy.

Refusing to sink Sumitra traced her brother's whereabouts and found him ultimately in Naples, Italy living in a yacht with a painter and his wife. Sumitra withdrew all her savings, joined them and thus began the travels up and down the Mediterenean and its border countries the myriad scenes and peoples way of life enthralling the artistically inclined young girl.

The marine adventures resulted in many documentary films and the life led, according to Sumitra was the most adventurous phase of her life but the aiya was getting worried about the nangi and had her admitted to a school of Drama in Inech, Paris. Here she met Lester who had come over from Sri Lanka with his highly acclaimed 'Rekhava'. No immediate romance followed. In fact he turned her guide and had her next enrolled in the London School of Film Technique where Sumitra obtained her Diploma in Cinema.

However as this is not a Story of Sumitra Peries's glorious career no more will be said of it. But the bold spirit, the way of looking at issues differently, the innovative way of handling and approaching situations seems to run through the family transcending centuries. Scores would have been the rebellious men who dreamed of placing on the throne a pure Sinhala Buddhist way back in the 1750s when king Kirthi Sri had just ascended the Sinhala throne.

But I have not met any descendants of theirs. It was almost by accident I met one single descendent who also happened to belong the glitterati world of cinema to which she entered by sheer brashness of will that marks the famous Boralugoda Gunewardena family.