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The walauwe behind award winning film
by Nimna Edirisinghe

In the early 1960s, Sinhala cinema legend Gamini Fonseka directed his first film, Parasathu Mal, inside a magnificent mansion that has today become the Gampaha district secretariat.

An architectural masterpiece curiously called ‘Agra’, the building in Bandiyamulla is usually crowded with people from throughout the Gampaha district. Inside the structure are housed three ministries, departments and divisions ranging from the provincial health ministry to a unit of the cultural department. Amid the bustle, it is easy to miss the glory of Agra and the beauty of its past.

Parasathu Mal offers a view of that past, portraying the mansion as it used to be - before it started getting buried under an avalanche of people and bureaucracy.

Agra was constructed by one of Gampaha’s most distinguished residents, D. D Karunaratne, who was first elected as Member of Parliament of the district in 1947. He was a social worker and also erected several of Gampaha`EDs landmark buildings, including Rathnavalee Balika Maha Vidyalaya and the older buildings of the Gampaha Base Hospital.

Karunaratne is a legend in Gampaha but not everyone knows the complete story of his life. Not even Chitra Balasuriya, who ventured into film-making in the 1960s by producing Parasathu Mal, can tell us everything about the man - although he does know more than others.

Balasuriya had been fourteen when he first met Karunaratne. He had been a close friend of the boy’s principal and had helped construct a new building in his school, a Buddhist pirivena.

‘He was the wealthiest man in Gampaha and he did a lot for the welfare of the villagers,’ Balasuriya said, in an interview with the Sunday Island. ‘He lived in a small house near his coconut mill. His house is now the Bandiyamulla post office.

‘In the 1920s, he started constructing Agra. There was a competition between him and Gabban Appuhamy, a contemporary feudal lord who wanted to build another mansion better than Agra. He called it Jayakody Walauwwa. Each tried to outshine the other but Agra finally turned out better.’

Balasuriya said the manor was not named by Karunaratne, adding that he had not been a very learned man. He guesses that Karunaratne may have wanted to name it after the Taj Mahal, in Agra. Since that name was already taken, he someone may have suggested that he called it Agra.

The veteran film producer remembers Karunaratne had two daughters between whom he wanted to divide some property before giving them in marriage.

‘He was determined that one daughter should get the mill as well as Agra while the other should inherit equally valuable estates,’ Balasuriya narrated. ‘To decide who will get the mansion, Karunaratne invited his friends and distinguished residents of Gampaha to his mansion as witnesses.’

Among them were Balasuriya and his school principal and Panditha Wickramarachchi. At this event, Balasuriya was asked to toss a gold coin to decide which of the daughters would get what. ‘I got to toss the coin because I was a favourite of my principal,’he reported. ‘It turned out that the elder daughter won Agra and the younger stormed out of the room!’

When Parasathu Mal was in the pipeline, the filmmakers had wanted a background setting which highlighted the privileges of its central character, Bonnie Mahattaya. The film was based on the true story of a feudal lord. ‘Gamini and I had no second thoughts about using Agra as Bonnie Mahattaya’s residence,’ Balasuriya said. He remembered that the filmmakers had experienced difficulty in obtaining permission to shoot in Agra as Karunaratne had died many years before and the house belonged to the elder daughter.

‘The film was done entirely on location,’ Balasuriya said. Agra helped make Parasathu Mal distinctive among the films at that time because its settings blended well with the story and its characters.

The crew filmed in Agra for ninety days but some shots were also done in Jayakody Walauwwa.

In the 1970s, Agra was first rented out as the Kachcheri building by Karunaratne’s daughter after her son’s death in an accident. He had been a gambler and into wine, women and song - much like Bonnie Mahattaya of Parasathu Mal. Balasuriya said that Agra was later taken over by the government after her demise because nobody had claimed the property.

Balasuriya remembers an area parliamentarian surreptitiously shifting most of the house’s furniture into his own residence when it was taken over by the government in the early 1980s.

Agra underwent many changes after the takeover. Today, the weather-beaten mansion shows signs of negligence. The beautiful and quaint designs carved in the magnificent teakwood staircase, pillars, ceiling and furniture lie hidden under layers of dust. Agra’s living room and dinning room together serve as the government agent’s office.

District Secretary V. K. Ruparatne rules over Agra at present. Dramatic changes have been made. Instead of the huge courtyard portrayed in Parasathu Mal, there is now a new conference hall. The open veranda where Bonnie Mahattaya held parties no longer exists. Instead, the area has been partitioned to create additional office space.

The senior official in charge of Agra’s maintenance said that there are currently no special programmes to preserve its precious woodcarvings. She spoke on condition of anonymity.

‘The treasury allocates a maximum Rs 50,000 per year for maintenance. This is barely enough to whitewash the whole building. We don’t have any funds to launch any conservation projects,’ she said, emphasising that the district secretariat does not get any extra funds simply because it is Agra. She calculates that such a project would cost at least Rs 300,000.

The last major renovation effort was made in 2001, when roof leakages were fixed. Round 1,800 roofing tiles were replaced. In the process, it was found that around 15 types of roofing tiles, dating back to the 1890s, had been imported from India.

‘We don’t have enough office space here,’ the official pointed out. ‘Partitioning here and there has hindered proper ventilation and the atmosphere downstairs is rather damp. The staircase will be attacked by termites soon.’

She thinks it would have been best if Agra was turned into the district secretary’s official residence and a several-storied office complex constructed to accommodate the 17 odd offices within Agra premises.

Agra is not an official tourist site although any interested member of the public can visit and admire its trademark staircase flanked by crystal mirrors; marbled floor; teak wood ceilings, engraved with fruit baskets highlighted in gold colour; and furniture with intricate woodcarvings.

It is true that the rule of decay and change is common to all, including Agra. But some feel that it is a miracle for Agra to have remained intact under such harsh circumstances. Agra is an architectural masterpiece worth saving for the next generation.

 

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