“Some biographies are meant to be remembered … His was never meant to be written …”

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Kirthi Sri Karunaratne
28 November 1930 – 01 November 2015

Telephone calls and text messages kept criss-crossing Colombo from around 7.30 last Sunday morning as news broke of the demise of the veteran and legendary couturier Kirthi Sri Karunaratne. The news then rapidly spread to Face Book as friends, fans, clients and colleagues from around the world connected with each other in expressions of grief and sorrow.

Had he been alive, Kirthi would have been 85 years at the end of this month on Saturday 28th November. With his demise, yet another era in Sri Lanka’s fashion industry comes to a close.

Once on a television talk show with me, I remember him proudly recalling his debut into fashion designing as a teenaged Ananda College schoolboy, and, the long and colourful journey thereon.

This was journey which took him to Rome where he worked with designer Emilio Schubert, to London to work with couturier John Cavenagh and to Paris to the House of Christian Dior. Kirthi had mastered his art by that time, and, at the House of Dior had even been told that he had “nothing to learn” (vous n’avez rien a apprendre) from them since he knew it all.

Although small in stature and diminutive in size, Kirthi strode Sri Lanka’s couture industry like a giant. And a giant he was. He was a trendsetter and undisputedly ahead of his times. Simple and generous to a fault, he later enjoyed the prestige of dressing third generation brides. He also often regaled in stories about the “good ole days” when horse races were held in Colombo and fashions held sway.

Kirthi was also a great epicurean and an incurable connoisseur of good food and drink. A very, very small eater, yet with impeccable table manners, nothing elated him more than a generous slice of Roquefort and a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc. He was also known to cherish his cognac. Nothing pleased him more.

A lesser known fact was his frequent forays into theatre and the cinema, and his singing. With great nostalgia he often fondly spoke of his “days on the stage at the Lionel Wendt Theatre” where he also did costume design.

Kirthi played in Dr. Lester James Peries’ cine-classic ‘Nidhanaya’ in which he also choreographed the waltz sequence between Gamini Fonseka and Malini Fonseka. He also worked with Manik Sandrasagara on ‘Kalu Diya Dahara’

Kirthi with Rukmani Devi
Kirthi with Rukmani Devi

His most memorable movie role however always was and will always be as Mister Nirwasthara in Manik’s all-time hit ‘Colomba Sanniya’. Over the years this film morphed into one of those regular ‘election-night-results’ movies, heavily punctured with constant interruptions. And so on the morning-after-the-night-before whenever he walked on the road or hailed tuk-tuks or walked through the aisles at Arpico Hyde Park Corner, he was instantly “re-recognised”, much to his great embarrassment.

Kirthi defied his age. His zest for living was incurable. He was a party animal beyond compare. It was in his blood. It was his DNA. He could easily outdo those half his age, and at times he often did.

I once asked him if he wasn’t tired of going out almost every single night of the week and whether he didn’t like staying at home for a change. He brushed me off, laughingly saying, “No not one bit. Staying at home will kill me”. Such was his indefatigable joie-de-vivre.

Even during his final weeks, he still went out, sometimes on that wheelchair he so vehemently disliked. Partying was his predominant raison d’etre. It was a cause celebre. In fact his last outing was just last week at the Taj Samudra’s annual cake mixing celebration.

Kirthi was in great pain during those last few days. Gihan his nephew says it was “unbearable and excruciating”. Kirthi was one who never complained but this time around he did. Just as much as his family and friends deeply grieve at the loss, we also realise with sad and painful relief that Kirthi is free from all the physical suffering he silently and agonisingly went through. He would surely have wanted it that way!

Although he wanted to hit the glorious nineties in 2020, Kirthi might have had a premonition that he would depart before that. Early on this year when he first went to hospital he made an entry in his diary addressed to his two nephews – Ravintha and Gihan. I was one of the very few, privy to reading this, at the house last Sunday morning. I have also got Gihan’s consent to reproduce it below, and in-toto.

It read thus: “When I die ensure – NO funeral. No religious rites. No mala batha. NO embalming. CREMATION within 12- 24 hours. Ashes to be thrown into the sea. NO casket – a simple coffin. Corpse dressed in shirt and trousers only”.

“Some of the above were and will be obliged. However it was not and could not be the private adieu Kirtha wished for. He was a public figure and he could not go away silently”, Gihan said tearfully at the parlour that night.

I close this tribute with beautiful lines written on my Face Book wall by my friend and colleague Savithri Rodrigo. “Some biographies are meant to be remembered in mind and soul. His was never meant to be written but lived, each day, the way he always lived; with kindness, generosity, love and peace”.

This, to me, is the perfect epitaph. May your journey through Samsara be speedy dear Kirthi and may you reach the Supreme Bliss of Nirvana one day !!!

Kumar de Silva