By Kumar de Silva
The Alliance Française de Kandy celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year. The highlight of the celebrations will be the forthcoming gala soiree on Saturday 27 May under the patronage of H.E the Ambassador of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Jean-Marin Schuch, as past Presidents, Teachers, Students and Friends of the Alliance Française de Kandy gather in an evening of conviviality and bonhomie to celebrate this landmark event at the Royal Kandyan Hotel on Peradeniya Road.
Located 640/2 Peradeniya Road, Kandy, the Alliance Française de Kandy has at its helm the amiable and energetic Director Mickaël Lenglet who hails from Lille in the north of France. Since he arrived in Kandy in June 2016, Mickaël (34) has steadfastly continued in the path of his predecessors and rejuvenated the Alliance Française de Kandy, taking it to the next level.
“This year we not only celebrate 50 years of teaching French but also 50 years of cultural sharing. Today, we are proud to be the second biggest Alliance Française in the Sri Lankan network, after the Alliance Française de KOTTE à Colombo, of course. And why are we successful? Most probably because people know who we are and they trust us. We are at the crossroads between Sri Lanka and France”, Lenglet said.
“Our teachers are both local and French, they are qualified in teaching French as a foreign language and undergo regular training to update their teaching skills. Our various cultural events such as cinema, exhibitions, dance, concerts, literary talks, debates, gastronomy workshops etc attract more and more people. To celebrate our 50 years, we have planned 50 events among which is also our gala dinner on Saturday 27 May”, he added.
The Alliance Française de Kandy now averages around 1300+ students per year and this number is steadily growing. It also has strong links with the University of Peradeniya which has around 100 undergraduates learning the French language for the degree.
In fact two of the Alliance Française de Kandy’s former directors, Dr. Kusantha Herath Kariapperuma and Dr. Jacques Soulie, currently teach French at the University.
The Alliance Française de Kandy is also assisting the University to also have a French national teach French there.
The current President of the Alliance Française de Kandy Committee is J.K. Wijedasa whose ties with the Alliance Française go back fifty-three years to 1964 when he first joined the Alliance Française de Ceylan at Alfred Place.
He goes on record as being one of the very few Sri Lankans to have such a long association with the Alliance Française.
The rest of the current (2017) Committee comprises : Dr. Jacques Soulié (Vice-President), Prof. Ratnayake Bandara, Prof. Nedra Karunaratne (Vice-President), Mr. A.K.A. Malik, Mr. Zava Zavahir, Mr. Vijitha Nugegoda and Mr. Kanishka Thilakarathne.
Past Presidents of the Alliance Française de Kandy have been Justice T. B. Wadugodapitiya, Prof. Kapila Dahanayake, Prof. Ashley Halpé, Dr. Patrick Nugawela, Mr. Aldo Perera, Dr. Mark Amerasinghe, Prof. C.B. Dissanayake, Mrs. Vagdevi Fernando, Prof. Veranja Karunaratne, Dr. Pradeep Ruwanpura and Prof. Ratnayake Bandara.
And as the story continues … I reproduce below Chapter 44 from my (2013) book ‘The Bonsoir Diaries’. This chapter is entirely devoted to the AF de Kandy and those who have been connected with it over the years.
Chapter 44 – The Alliance Française de Kandy – French language excellence in the hill capital
The Alliance Française de Kandy is the second oldest French language teaching institution of its kind in Sri Lanka. It has been functioning in the central hill capital since 1967.
French is taught as a subject for the AL examination in several schools in Kandy. The student numbers taking French show a steady increase each year. French has continued to be taught at the University of Peradeniya for many years and is today offered by students as a subject for the General Degree.
The teaching team comprises Dr. Kusantha Kariaperuma (who incidentally taught me French at the University of Kelaniya in 1981 and is better known as Kush Herath) and Dr. Jacques Soulié. With Kandy occupying a significant position in Sri Lanka’s tourist trail, the French language also has great commercial use in these parts. Hence the important role played by the Alliance Française de Kandy.
Since its early days, Bonsoir has had a long association with the Alliance Française de Kandy. At that time it was in a spacious old house at 412, Peradeniya Road and was a popular landmark in Kandy, with its bleu-blanc-rouge French national flag flying at full mast. This was even before the new and alternate road, William Gopallawa Mawatha came into being. All traffic into Kandy and beyond had to pass the Alliance Française and visibility was thus at its peak.
Many years down the line, today, 412 Peradeniya Road is still a very popular landmark and continues to attract crowds. It is now a much-visited, gastronomic venue – KFC, Kandy !
Director at the Alliance Française de Kandy during its 25th year was Gérard Petitqueux. Annelie his wife also played a very supportive role in its wide ranging cultural activities.
I remember Directors like Fabrice Mongiat, Kush Herath and more recently Dr. Jacques Soulié who have all, over the years, contributed to the success of the Alliance Française.
‘Chez Ronnie’ was the well-patronised cafeteria run by Ronnie Mathew. Just in front, across the courtyard, was the well-stocked library over which the no-nonsense librarian Namal Jayasekera presided, with her agasthi maalé and all. Students behaved themselves very well in the library.
Alliance Française de Kandy has also had its Students’ Committees whose members played a very active role in organising various activities.
The President of Students’ Committee during the late 80s was the active and energetic Ayesha Imbuldeniya, now Mrs. Ravana Wijeyeratne, of Sinhaputhra Finance PLC fame.
Coincidentally her father-in-law, the late Tissa Wijeratne, had been Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France from 1970 to 1974 and had done a lot to strengthen Franco-Sri Lankan bilateral relations, making her own French connection even stronger.
A more recent happy co-incidence is that Ambassador Tissa Wijeratne’s son Ravana is now the Consul of France in Kandy and so the Wijeratne family’s French connection continues.
Together with her equally dedicated and enthusiastic committee comprising Asela Wevita, Yohan Ziard, Sunil de Silva, Sarath Rupasinghe and Waruna de Silva among others, live-wire Ayesha was responsible for many cultural activities during her time.
Incidentally Dr. Mark Amerasinghe and Madame Bridget Halpé are two names that instantly come to mind when one recalls cultural activities at Alliance Française de Kandy – the former with his insightful readings and creative dramatisations, and the latter, with her widely acclaimed virtuosity at the pianoforte.
Over the years I have seen Directors come and Directors go, I have seen Presidents and Committees come and Presidents and Committees do. There is however, one person, who has withstood the passage of time – Miss. Lakshmi Madapatha, the legendary teacher of French at the Alliance Française de Kandy. She joined the Alliance Française in the mid 1980s when she was teacher of French at Girls High School, Kandy. She later parallely taught at the University of Peradeniya and is now full time with the Alliance Française.
Much to my surprise I learnt from celebrated architect, the late Minette de Silva, that in its early years, the Alliance Française de Kandy was even located at the Ulpangé or the Queens Bath just opposite the Dalada Maligawa.
In a special “Bonsoir” programme to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Alliance Française de Kandy in 1992, Yasmin Rajapakse and I joined Minette on a journey back in time as the Bonsoir cameras followed her around the Ulpangé.
And there she was … this grande-dame of Kandy, the fall of her cotton sari casually pulled across around her slender frame, her gray hair gently blown across her face by the breezes that swept across the Kandy lake, as she wafted around this ancient edifice, ethereal-like.
One of the first women architects of the East, Minnette was a pupil of the famous French architect Le Corbusier and holds the record of being the first-ever Easter woman to be inducted as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Crowning a long and illustrious career Minette de Silva was decorated by the Government of France as Officier in the Order of Arts and Letters.
“Minnette de Silva’s buildings sing, as very belong to the rare few which do so …. reverence to the land and nature present in them … passionately pursued her ideals … the generation of a new architectural-based tradition and culture …” were lines from the citation.
Dennis Sharp in a 14 December 1998 article to ‘The Independent’ says, “……she continued to travel extensively in Europe where she made many contacts with architects and artists ranging from Jane Drew and Denys Lasdun to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Laurence Olivier, Picasso and Feliks Topolski. She created a considerable impression, her fragile, slim Asian beauty enhanced by the wearing of colourful national saris. It was while attending the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne meeting at Bridgewater in Somerset in 1947 that that she met Le Corbusier with whom she struck up an enduring friendship ….”
Minette’s father George Edmond de Silva was a well know politician in Kandy. Elected Member of the Legislative Council and the State Council, he was also Minister of Power, Health and Fisheries in the First War Cabinet and was credited with helping secure Independence for Ceylon. Her mother Agnes Nell was of Dutch origin and known to be a relentless champion of women’s rights at that time.
Minnette had four siblings. Her eldest sister Marcia De Silva De Vigier was the wife of Phillip de Vigier, a noted Pasteur Institute cancer scientist. George De Silva was a tea planter while Purcival de Silva was a legal draftsman of note.
Her brother, the debonair Edmond Frederick Lorenze was co-incidentally Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France from 1966 to 1970, and, was on the Executive Board at UNESCO till 1976. Writer, barrister, politician and Member of Parliament, he was also Ambassador to Switzerland and Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya.
The former Ambassador’s daughter Helga de Silva Blow Perera is a 21st century psychedelic mélange of enigma and savoir-faire, indeed the 360° multi-dimensional driving force behind ‘Helga’s Folly’, (the former staid Chalet Hotel), a modern day jewel of hospitality in Kandy, where reality and fantasy lock horns in a meteoric collision.
The Lonely Planet says it beautifully : “… Interesting reminders of lives of the extremely well-lived, decorate the interior of this quirky boutique hotel. That includes stags’ heads, out-of-control candles and Gaudíesque one-off pieces of art. It’s a deeply eccentric place that resonates with history; a roll call of celebs stayed here post WWII. Now the colourful Helga De Silva presides over the hotel ….”
The Alliance Française de Kandy has moved location a few times in its 46 year old history and is currently located at No 640/2, Peradeniya Road, Kandy. Currently headed by the charming Franco-Swiss Director, Madame Laure Mermoud Fernando, the AFK is indeed a cultural haven in quiet sylvan surroundings. It is the major French language and cultural institution that serves not only Kandy by also its surrounding areas with vigour. Vive la langue française.NOTE : The Alliance Française is present at five locations in Sri Lanka. They are as follows :
Alliance Française de KOTTE a Colombo : No 11, Keppetipola Mawatha, Colombo 05. Tel : (94) 11 205 52 55
Alliance Française de KANDY : 640/2, Peradeniya Road, Peradeniya Road, Kandy. Tel : (94) 81 222 44 32
Alliance Française de MATARA : 31/4, (4th Floor) Akuressa Rd, Nupe, Matara. Tel : (94) 41 22 320 60
And its own GALLE branch at 196 A, Wakwella Road, GALLE. Tel : (94) 91 2231118
Alliance Française de JAFFNA : 61, Kachcheri, Nallur Road, Jaffna. Tel : (94) 21 222 80 93
These institutions enjoy the total patronage of the Paris-based Fondation Alliance Française and are fully-affiliated to the international Alliance Française network. All certificates and diplomas awarded by these five institutions are fully recognised in France and internationally. Apart from these five branches, the Alliance Française does not have any other branches in Colombo or any other part of Sri Lanka.
The writer is one of the Founder Directors of the Alliance Française de Kotte à Colombo and has been decorated by the Government of France as ‘Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters’ for his contribution towards the popularisation and propagation of the French language and culture in Sri Lanka.