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Regi Siriwardena dies at 82

DN Thu Dec 16 2004:

Regi Siriwardena, one of the country's foremost intellectuals, literary critics and writers, died yesterday. He was 82.

Educated at S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia and Ananda College, Colombo. Siriwardena graduated from the then University College with honours in English. As a young student he joined the LSSP and at the time when the party was proscribed during the Second World War, he worked as in the underground.

Siriwardena began his writing career as a feature writer on the Ceylon Daily News during the editorship of the scholarly Jayantha Pathmanabha.

He wrote a regular Arts Column and was also the newspaper's editorial writer, political correspondent and parliamentary sketch writer.

Leaving Lake House in the early 1960s, Siriwardena entered academia and was instrumental in establishing the English Department at the Vidyalankara University and made a pioneering contribution to university English studies.

A writer, poet, playwright and translator, Siriwardena studied Russian in his middle age to translate the Russian poets from the original. He wrote the screen play for Lester James Peries award winning film "Gamperaliya".

A man of broad intellectual range, his humanism made him one of the small band of founders of the Civil Rights Movement after the Insurrection of April 1971.

Among his works are The Lost Lenore, Among My Souvenirs, Pure Water of Poetry, Ocfef and Collected Plays.

He was proficient in the Spanish, French and Italian languages apart from the Russian. At the time of his death he was the Editor of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

His body is lying at the Jayaratne Funeral Parlour and the funeral will take place today at the General Cemetery, Borella.


Regi Siriwardena


Regi Siriwardena, who has died aged 82 on December 15 2004 in Colombo, lived many lives as political and later human rights activist, journalist, literary and film critic, translator, playwright, poet and novelist.

His reputation as a critic of both English and Sinhala-language literature and film inspired the director Lester James Peries to commission him to write the screenplay for a film of the same name based upon Martin Wickramasinghe’s Sinhala-language novel, Gamperaliya (The Changing Village), depicting a rural community in the throes of social upheaval.


Released in 1963, it achieved international recognition and broke new ground in dramatic form and technique in a local cinema that until then was largely imitative of formulaic Indian productions.


Born in colonial Ceylon on May 15 1922 in Ratmalana into a lower middle class Sinhala Buddhist family, Siriwardena’s father was a government clerk who retired when he was still in school, leaving the large family in financial straits.


However as he once remarked, his “ability to wield the English language – that potent instrument of power in a colonial society – often compensated for those disadvantages”.


His education began at the elite Anglican school, St Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia, where he was never socially at ease, and was disaffected with its pro-colonial ethos.


He was happier at Ananda College in Maradana, where others shared his class and cultural background; and who’s famed Principal P de S Kularatne was a Ceylonese nationalist.


Awarded a scholarship to the University College in Colombo, that offered the external degree of London University, he was among the first few graduates of its English department whose faculty included EFC Ludowyck and Doric de Souza.


It was at university during the Second World War that Siriwardena attracted the attention of British authorities as an anti-colonial activist in the left-wing Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Under the nom de guerre ‘Hamid’, he became part of the LSSP leadership in its period of illegality.


He recounted his role in propaganda work and revolutionary organising in his brief memoir Working Underground: The LSSP in Wartime (1999) – along with sharp observations on well-known personalities of the Sri Lankan Left.

Critical of the LSSP’s evolution from the pre-war “loose, open, radical mass party” it had been, towards orthodox Trotskyism in organisation and ideology in the early 1940s, Siriwardena left the Party in 1946.


A few years later he was hired by a former LSSPer turned cold war conservative, Esmond Wickremesinghe, as parliamentary sketch-writer and leader-writer on the Ceylon Daily News, part of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon (‘Lake House’) Group then owned by Wickremesinghe’s father-in-law, DR Wijewardena.


Frustrated by the newspaper’s editorial opportunism and closeness to the right-wing United National Party, Siriwardena left journalism in the early 1960s and entered academia when he founded the English Department at a former Buddhist seat of higher learning, Vidyalankara (now Kelaniya) University.


He had briefly taught English after graduation to the senior classes at Royal College, another leading Colombo school, and before that at Ananda College too, and was highly regarded by his students’ in all three institutions.

He read widely in a number of European languages, self-taught in French, Italian and Spanish, and learning Russian in middle age so as to enjoy his beloved Akhmatova, Pushkin, and Tolstoy in the original, and introduce them to an English and Sinhala reading public.


From translating poetry, he began writing it too with local favourites making their way into anthologies of Sri Lankan writing in English and subsequently collected in Waiting for the Soldier (1989), To the Muse of Insomnia (1990) and Poems and Selected Translations (1993). His literary criticism over five decades, widely dispersed and hard to find, has fittingly been edited by AJ Canagaratna and was published in March 2005.


Siriwardena was drawn back into direct political engagement in 1971 when reacting to an abortive armed insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples Liberation Front) the United Front government used emergency powers to arrest and detain suspects, impose curfew and censorship, and ban public meetings and processions.


He became a founder of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, the island’s pioneer non-governmental organisation campaigning against attacks on individual liberties and democratic rights, and was its first Secretary confronting a hostile government that included many of his old comrades in the LSSP.


An early representative of the liberal-left, he was sought out by a younger generation of like-minded activist-intellectuals to become one of the public faces of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo during the 1980s and 1990s, where he edited its journal, and was held in great affection by young researchers and passing visitors.


Unlike his younger co-thinkers Siriwardena maintained a critical respect for Marxism and an emotional attachment to its history, literature, and personalities.


Enthused by developments in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Siriwardena resumed writing political commentary for the Sri Lankan media, with informed analysis based upon his access to Russian-language sources and personal knowledge of Eastern Europe. He believed Mikhail Gorbachev’s mix of political and economic pluralism to be a superior alternative to Stalinism and neo-liberal capitalism.


At the ICES he finally had the creative space and supportive environment to write well-received studies on language and poetry, as well as two novels: The Lost Lenore (1996) and Among My Souvenirs (1997) – the former a defence of cultural hybridity in the wake of ethnic polarisation in Sri Lanka; and the latter drawing heavily on his own biography mourning the squandering of promise in Sri Lanka’s nationhood.


Late in life he believed he found his true vocation as a playwright enjoying the collaborative and interactive dimensions of writing and re-writing for public performance. He wrote eight plays assembled in Octet: Collected Plays (1995); all but one performed on the local stage.


Borrowing from one of his favourite modern poets, Regi Siriwardena “hoped to improve [the world] a little by living”, and he did.


He is survived by his son, Amal.



B. Skanthakumar

February 11 2005