Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Dharmadeepa and Serendipity – A Tribute to Manik Sandrasagra

By Koshika Sandrasagra

Manik at Kataragama, 1987
Manik at Kataragama, 1987

Serendipity was one of my father Manik Sandrasagra's favourite words. Manik was a man of many words - consummately articulate - and a man who may have had his detractors and his critics, but was also greatly loved, respected and not easily ignored.

Manik had a wonderful ability to inspire, provoke and charm. This was borne out by the constant stream of guests, both foreign and Lankan who wandered through our doors. From Edward Goldsmith to Patty Boyd and David Bellamy - he broke bread with the literati, the cognoscenti, beggars and politicians alike. He lived his life large, choosing to carve his own path through an often rock-strewn landscape, with his eyes on his vision, and his truth. Those who were initiated into the inner circle knew what motivated the man, and understood what inspired him. This inspiration is what created the Koslanda sanctuary, the Ulpotha village, The Festival of Lanka, and in the past, several of the most successful theatrical productions and films in the annals of Sri Lanka's artistic history.

My father passed away before his time, in May 2008. Stephen Champion's latest book, Dharmadeepa, is dedicated to Manik, and to the vision of Lanka that he cherished, and introduced to his chosen companions. Stephen was compatriot, travelling companion and friend to my father, for the last 20 years. Hence, he was led through the portal into the Lanka that is secret and sacred - the Lanka that has endured despite years of civil war and political upheaval.

Serendipity is defined in the dictionary as the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. Serendipitous, then, that on the weekend of the one-year anniversary of my father's death, I received Stephen Champion's book in the mail. At the same time, while we held pooja for my father in New South Wales, news blared out that the civil war in Sri Lanka had ended.

With over 280,000 internally displaced people in dire circumstances in Sri Lanka at present, there is great need in our country – for re-building, restoring, remembering. There is a need for Dharmadeepa, to restore the balance. This then, is an ideal time to consider what this island – our Lanka or Ilankai, Serendib, Ceylon, Taprobane and Dharmadeepa – once was, and can once more become.

Stephen's work is brave, incandescent and contains that rare subtlety that lends beauty to the most deceptively simple images. The soft light that bathes a paddy field illuminates the face of a grandmother holding her grandchild close. Through mystical landscapes, ancient forests and winding waterways, the pictures gently radiate warmth that permeates this unique collection of images. The golden twilight, the hectic clouds spread across dawn skies - articulated in the subtle shading of black and white - are to me, the essence of the Lanka that my father introduced to Stephen, poignantly harnessed in his book - Dharmadeepa, Sri Lanka Island of Balance.

Manik Sandrasagra sits for a toke with friend Topi in 1987
Manik sits a toke with friend Topi in 1987. Photo by Patrick Harrigan
Manik at Yala. Photo by Dominic Sansoni

"Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, come and join the dance?" The Mock Turtle's song, by Lewis Carroll punctuated my childhood, as my parents, Manik and Anne, were both literary and had a great love of Carroll, Blake and the Greek philosophers. A Shiivite, my father was eternally aware of this dance – birth, life, death and decay – creation and destruction, and then to begin again. This is an epoch that, in this Kali Yuga, I wish my father had lived to see. As the dance continued through the years, his abiding love for Lanka meant that he kept the faith – continuing the crusade to preserve Sri Lanka, her culture, environment and innate "Sri Lankaness" (to adapt an Ananda Coomaraswamy quote).

Manik was my teacher, my father, my writing companion and my best friend. There is no real need for a memorial for a man whose actions and reactions have spoken for him and built up a legacy of thought, vision and belief that have evolved through the years of his life. In fact, no words I have could ever be adequate. My father often said to me, however, that life is for the living, and so the memory of someone who has been loved is celebrated by those who are left behind.

I thank Stephen Champion for articulating his experiences and his understanding of Manik. It is a timely tribute to a brand of magic worth celebrating. This book is a tangible articulation of the very spirit and essence of this country that inspired and motivated my father.

These words and images, then, are not a memorial for Manik, but a marker. Coming at the end of year without the presence of Manik in our lives, for us - those of whom he lived with, laughed with, loved and taught - this is a reminder of those lessons, the joy and the dance.

The text of the book Dharmadeepa contains the words of a friend with intimate knowledge, garnered over time and many travels with Manik. It is a vision of the sacred Lanka - and also of the healing power of beauty, generosity of spirit and simplicity.

Courtesy: The Sunday Times (Colombo) of Sunday July 19, 2009