The Lady of The Banners

busilady.jpg (21103 bytes)by Carolyn Mcaskie
Ena de Silva will always be for me, the Lady of the Banners. I moved in and out of association and friendship with Ena throughout the 1980’s, beginning in 1980 with the Commonwealth Secretariat and ending, for the time being, in 1989 with my departure from Sri Lanka, but it was 1985 and my first stay at the Oberoi Hotel on the Galle Road that the impact of her great banners etched in my heart the enormity of her soul, her vision and her art.

Who can forget the impact of walking in to that immense lobby, architecturally stunning as it was then – is it still now? – and adding to the immensity, the Niagara of festooned cloth banners tumbling from several stories high. The first questions that sprung to mind were how did they get there and who could have created such an endless flow of colour and texture, rich in reminiscence of tradition and startling in its universal voice.

It was not until I arrived to live in Sri Lanka that I had the good fortune to get to know my Lady of the Banners as a friend. One of the great joys of being High Commissioner is the doors it opens to you and my days in Sri Lanka are marked by extraordinary friendships with extraordinary people. Ena stands out as more extraordinary than most.

Our first association, however, was through the Commonwealth and its London based Secretariat where I was an Assistant Director in the Fund for Technical Cooperation, when Ena decided that a stint "off island" was what she needed. In 1980 she responded to our request for a handicrafts adviser to help the nascent tourism industry of the British Virgin Islands, the BVI, a set of islands in the Caribbean, exquisitely beautiful and tiny enough to make Sri Lanka, the Resplendent Isle, a major continent by comparison.

Ena de Silva is many things, first and foremost a great artist full of energy and innovation, coupled with a deep love of tradition and a desire to share her art and her craft. The BVI was for her an opportunity to pass on her wisdom, a wisdom which in its universality transcended culture and moved naturally from South Asia to the Eastern Caribbean filtered through all of her varied cultural and artistic influences.

A year later I was back in Canada having returned to the Canadian International Development Agency after five years in London. On my way home from a trip to South America I had decided to stop over in the BVI to visit my friends, Ken and Margaret Bain. Ken, a New Zealander, had been my boss in London and was now BVI Financial Secretary. Margaret, Tongan and European, vibrant and culturally curious, and Ena, of Serendib and Taprobane, had gravitated together and in one of life’s truly serendipitous experiences I was drawn into their circle of art and friendship. I have a souvenir, a cloth, subtle and fluid, combining the delicacy and permanence of that moment.

But it was not until I arrived in Sri Lanka as Canadian High Commissioner in 1986 that I came to know Ena as a friend, and saw her in her proper setting, regal in her Aluwihare eyrie, a queen in her Kandyan kingdom, ruling from her magnificent hilltop. To reach her, you drove up the escarpment to Kandy and as if it were not enough to have reached the ancient capital, you drove further into the hills beyond Matale and through the ancient traditional lands. There, on her family property, she lived, worked, was inspired and passed on her talents to young artists through her Aluwihare Cooperative.

The Canadian mission had made some modest but significant contribution to her programme where she sought to entrench the traditional Sri Lankan designs by making them available to the public and by passing them on to young artists. This gave me the excuse to drop in from time to time, but you didn’t need an excuse, she was always accessible. The cooperative workshop was also the source of her hangings and batiks and embroideries which you would come across in the art shops of Colombo and elsewhere.

In her work, as in her life, Ena never does things by halves. What to anyone else would be a finished piece of work, to Ena is an unfinished symphony. There has to be another colour, another design, another stitch layered on. The only time I had a difference of opinion with her was when I decided to buy a tablecloth and napkins I saw in her workshop. Ena looked at me haughtily pointing out that with only one colour (a subtle Chinese celadon) the work was barely begun, let alone finished. I was so keen to have it that she graciously gave in, but not without a shrug of incomprehension at my lack of taste. I made up for it by acquiring other pieces of suitable complexity.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the scene abounds with many of Ena’s flatterers. But once you had known the real thing, the copy never has the same richness of colour or texture.

Staying at Ena’s house was a rich experience in itself. First of all, to stand in her garden, and look down across the valley, you could understand her soaring spirit, one which had fed on the Aluwihare spirits rising through hundreds of years of history and weaving through the morning mists of the surrounding hills. There, she tends her garden including the cultivation of traditional plants, many of them edible, which she inflicts on her unsuspecting guests. When I stayed with her there with my Aunt Flo visiting from Canada, auntie was never quite sure what she was eating, a source of some discomfort to her.

Her house is further evidence that she never does things by halves. Every corner is layered, even the ceiling, decorated with traditional designs. A vacant space to Ena is a lost opportunity. To sit down at dinner, is not to have a single plate put before you on a simple cloth. The cloth has cloths on it, the place mats have place mats and the platters have plates on them. I once calculated that there were seven layers between my food and the table. When she goes into her garden a sunhat or headscarf is not enough. The headscarf must have a sunhat on it.

My time in Sri Lanka was for me a Shangri La. When I left in 1989 and my plane took off from Colombo, it was as if the clouds closed behind me, leaving this exquisite, but troubled, paradise perfectly preserved to be found again on my return. I have returned several times and despite the troubles (are they now thankfully coming to an end?) Sri Lanka manages to retain this sense of beauty suspended in time.

Years ago, in all my travels, I learned to savour deeply the experience of a place, to live so that there would be no regrets, no sense of a moment unappreciated. But in my friendship with Ena there is for me one lingering regret for a moment lost, an experience passed by. In the spring of 1989 I was preparing to leave my post. Being accredited to the Maldives, as was much of the Colombo diplomatic corps, I had requested an appointment to call on the President to say my official farewells. Ena meanwhile had extended to me a privileged invitation to her daughter’s wedding, an event that promised to be as resplendent with Kandyan tradition as anything the Resplendent Isle could offer. Imagine my disappointment when the instructions came from the Maldives that I was to present myself to the President’s office on a day that coincided with the wedding. Dutifully, off I went. How many times has the moment replayed itself in my mind. Could I have re-scheduled the President of the Maldives for Ena de Silva. And the answer always comes back. Why not!

As a Scot (albeit a Canadian one) I am reminded of a line in a famous Scottish song which should belong to Ena:


By CAROLYN McASKIE, formerly Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and currently Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, United Nations, New York.