The world was his canvas … he was both the palette and the brush : remembering Kirthi Sri Karunaratne one year after his demise


Kirthi Sri Karunaratne passed away just before dawn this morning, exactly one year ago on 01 November 2015. Below is a combination of two tributes … one which appeared in the ‘Daily Mirror’ a few days later … and the other in the December 2015 issue of the ‘HI Magazine’ …

kirthi-05Telephone calls and text messages kept criss-crossing Colombo from around 7.30 last Sunday morning (01 November 2015) as news broke of the demise of the veteran and legendary couturier Kirthi Sri Karunaratne.

The news then rapidly spread to Face Book, Viber, Whatsapp and Twitter, 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 that month on Saturday 28th November 2015. With his demise, yet another era in Sri Lanka’s fashion industry comes to a close.

The world was his canvas and on it he splashed his kaleidoscope of colour and his joie de vivre. He was both the canvas and the paint. He was both the palette and the brush. That was KSK.

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.

Baby Kirthi

Born on 28th November in 1930 to Charlie Karunaratne and Debicia Samarasekera, he was the second in a line of five boys – Ranjith, Chitra, Mahnil and Shanthi.

Kirthi was the creative one. It seemed an inherent part of his biological composition. He sketched and drew. His first foray into designing and dressing was in his early teens. Debicia his mother was both his muse and his guinea pig.

The bond was symbiotic and the journey began. There was no turning back and all that followed is now contemporary Sri Lankan couture history.

ksk-12His journey took him to Rome where he worked with designer Emilio Schubert, to London to couturier John Cavenagh.

It also took him to Paree to the House of Christian Dior where Kirthi (who had mastered his art by that time), had even been told that he had “nothing to learn” (‘vous n’avez rien a apprendre’) from them since he knew it all.

Years later in the 1980s when Pierre Cardin visited Colombo, Sri Lanka presented the work of her couturiers at a gala soiree at the Lanka Oberoi. KSK was one of them. His stunning collection celebrated the intricacy of pillow-lace (beeralu) and Cardin was heard to exclaim “O la la” which translates into English as the modern day “Wow”. Such was the acclaim KSK attracted.

ksk-14Small in stature and soft spoken to match, KSK was, on the contrary, a multi-faceted giant whose imprint on Sri Lanka’s fashion industry over seventy years has been incomparable. 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.

ksk-25Simple 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, (he ate like a bird) 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 and his whisky. Nothing pleased him more. And then there was his ‘haruku muss’ (jaggery-ed beef), a regular feature in his kitchen.

kirthi-09A relatively 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.

On stage at the Lionel Wendt

Nattily dressed and ready to report for his columns, he was similarly a frequent feature at the races in Nuwara Eliya, where Ascot was most often outdone.

His creativity sensibility was not confined to clothes alone. He hit the silver screen in Manik Sandrasagara’s ‘Kalu Diya Dahara’ and Dr. Lester James Peries’ cine classic ‘Nidhanaya’.

Even to this day he is best remembered as the incomparable ‘Mister Nirwasthara’ in Manik’s ‘Colomba Sanniya’ teaching the raw Geetha Kumarasinghe the finer points of déportement and finesse.


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 waltzed through the aisles at Arpico Hyde Park Corner, he was instantly “re-recognised”, much to his great embarrassment.

ksk-05He had an inexhaustive fount of joie-de-vivre. He sang and was a great dancer too, tripping the light fantastique like an over-charged teenager, when most others his age ended up panting and sweating on the closest chair.

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. 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, “Not one bit. Staying at home will KILL me….”. Such was his indefatigable joie-de-vivre.

Totally contrasting to the very flamboyant profile he had in Colombo’s social circles, KSK was also very much a family man.

His brothers Mahnil and Chitra died when they were 24 and 42 respectively. Ganjali was still pregnant with Manomi when Mahnil died. Deeply saddened, KSK made it his raison d’etre to help bring up their children – Gihan (15 months) and later Manomi, and also Romesh (13), Amal (4) and Shalini (3).

He was a true father to them. Gihan recalls, “I was in Grade 03 and Norris Canal Road was heavily flooded one day. I remember him coming to Salgado Bakery as I was trying to walk back from school (Ananda) and carrying me home on his shoulders in the pouring rain. Such was his paternal concern”.

“My biological father passed away before I was born, but we never wanted for anything. Kirtha seamlessly and happily filled the role of father supporting us in ways that we would never be able to thank him for. We never felt the void of a father because he was that and the best friend we could have ever asked for”, adds Manomi gratefully.

ksk-06Even 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 at the Taj Samudra’s annual cake mixing celebration 2015.

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!

KSK’s 70 year journey in couture saw him dress thousands of women from different parts of Sri Lanka and from assorted social strata. The plain ones he made pretty and the beautiful ones he made “beautiful-er”. He celebrated them all in his columns. This made him greatly sought after. They loved him to smithereens and he was a ‘must-have’ on their guest lists.

kirthi-10KSK expected to hit the nineties in 2020 but he might have had a premonition …. Early this year when he first went to hospital he had made this entry in his diary addressed to Gihan and Ravintha, his two nephews, and which no one saw until he passed away.

I was one of the very few, privy to reading this, when the family opened his diary a little while after his demise that 01st November morning.

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 his wishes were obliged. However it could not be the private adieu Kirtha wished for. He was a public figure and could not be sent away silently”, Gihan said at the parlour that night.

The circle of life is all about impermanence. Nothing lasts, not even loyalty at times. As Kirthi lay on his sick bed for months, large numbers of those personalities celebrated in his fashion columns slowly faded away. There were newer flames to gyrate around. Only a very loyal few remained, kept in touch and remembered to visit the ailing KSK. He was deeply saddened but he rarely showed it.

And so he passed away, mercifully NOT knowing of their conspicuous absence at the parlour that single night, and their even more conspicuous absence at his cremation the following evening …

May Kirthi’s journey through Samsara be speedy !!!

(Kumar de Silva)

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