Rodrigo Villa

Charity begins at home – The Rodrigo Saga.

Ahead of Time – Story of the Rodrigo Family. Edited by Deva Rodrigo, Geetha Rodrigo Karandawela and Sandya Salgado. (Published by the Rodrigo Family Society 2014)



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Some of those present at the
recent meeting.


The volume refers to many outstanding members of the Rodrigo family who have achieved distinction in various fields. In entrepreneurship, there is Thomas Rodrigo and his son, Cyril, who established and expanded the well-known Pagoda Tea Room, which was once a notable landmark in Colombo Fort, and the Green Cabin, in Colpetty. Sudana Rodrigo was an enterprising innovator who established the Barberyn Reef Hotel on the south coast, which was the first of its kind to offer ayurvedic treatment to overseas visitors. His son, Manik, is now following the family tradition. Sudana’s daughter Geetha Rodrigo Karandawela, now engaged in the hotel business, is an authority and expert in international maritime law, having worked for the United Nations in Geneva and Bangkok. One other name that I should mention in the business and commercial sector, is Deva Rodrigo, a chartered accountant who was inducted into the Hall of fame by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka. He was chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Monetary Board of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Then there is Nihal Rodrigo, who has been a distinguished Sri Lankan diplomat, secretary general of SAARC, and Sri Lankan ambassador in several postings. Amongst sportsmen from the Rodrigo clan are the outstanding cricketers, Mahes Rodrigo and Aravinda De Silva. I have kept one name to the last, and that is J L C Rodrigo, Professor of Western Classics, at the University of Ceylon in the time of Ivor Jennings. He was a towering figure, an outstanding journalist and one of the finest after-dinner speakers at the time. Along with G P Malalasekara, who also features in this volume, as he is from Panadura, they were two outstanding academics of the 1950s.


Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva


There is a resurgence of interest in clans, families and genealogy, all over the world. The internet has fuelled this interest. Scotland is famous for its clans, and once upon a time, each of these clans had their own defined geographical space. Now, these clans are spread all over the world. There are clan diasporas, and these families are anxious to trace their origins. In Sri Lanka too, there is a growing preoccupation with family trees, and it is now a family pastime. This new interest in family trees and clan connections, especially when they have very positive features, need to be encouraged. Generally, the objective is to create a sense of belonging in a growingly impersonal world. Once you belong to a clan, there is greater meaning in one’s life, and there is a sense of community and continuity, though not occupying the same geographical space, unlike old times. Another very positive feature is that these clan and family entities are intended to make connections and be of assistance to those who need it.


The Rodrigo family of Panadura can proudly claim that they established the fist family society of Sri Lanka – ‘the Friend-In-Need Society of Panadura" in 1838, and this year, it celebrated its 175th anniversary. It was started by a man with a vision, Johannes Rodrigo, with 20 others, all of Panadura. Its mission was ‘To foster a spirit of fellowship and a sense of mutual independence and respect for each other and to provide financial and other support to less privileged members of the larger Rodrigo Family and other members of society’. At the time of its establishment, there was no legislation to incorporate and register this kind of society. It was only in 1891 that the Societies’ Ordinance was enacted and the Rodrigo Society was the first to be registered under this Ordinance. There can be no doubt that the Rodrigo Family Society was an innovative mechanism is social organization. After 175 years and seven to eight generations since its founding, with seventh and eighth cousins now managing the society’s affairs, it is less a family and more a clan society. The great achievement of the Society is that it has held together, a family and clan that has changed beyond recognition and living far beyond the narrow Panadura boundaries.


Let me briefly describe the contents of the volume which is being reviewed. Beautifully produced, the volume is a mixture of narrative and richly evocative photographs of people and places who have featured prominently in the life of the Society. Following a description of "Rodrigo Villa", the birthplace of the Society, there is an extended description of the early days and of the founding fathers of the Society. There is along section on the presidents, secretaries and treasurers of the Society over the last 175 years, including pictures and pen portraits. The chapter that follows on" Panadura The Benevolent Abode of our Forefathers" is a graphic description of this suburban town. There follows brief sections on entrepreneurs, academics and professionals, and sportsmen in the family. At the end of the volume is a superbly crafted and elegantly produced Family Tree of the Rodrigos dating back to 1697, which is more than a century before the founding of the Society. The volume is an outstanding achievement and is unique in the family annals of Sri Lanka.


Throughout the long history of the society, three distinct strands of concern and engagement might be observed. First was the Society’s early commitment to dispute resolution. ‘Johannes Rodrigo’s vision was not driven entirely by the pursuit of philanthropy. He foresaw the value of peace and harmony in the family as well as in the village and the inevitability of conflicts; the need for a pragmatic way to settle them was of paramount concern for him". The dispute resolution role of the society continued for more than 100 years, until about 1950. This role was dispensed with as it was too complicated and onerous, and office bearers did not have the time to devote to it. It is a pity that there is no more information on this particular aspect of the Society’s work. While the economic and social organization of Sri Lanka is now more complex than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, there are opportunities for dispute resolution at an informal level through family bodies. Recourse to legal institutions is complex, cumbersome and costly, and family societies might be an avenue of first resort in the event of disputes.


The Society has made an important contribution in the establishment of a network within the extended family. The Rodrigo family , like other families, have their well heeled and affluent and the poor and powerless. One critical role in family networks is to connect up these disparate family entities. Prof. Hiran Dias, whose grandmother was Mrs. Jeremias Dias, (nee Selestina Rodrigo) in a perceptive and concise speech at the launching of this volume, stressed the importance of networking in alleviating poverty. Those who are affluent are generally well connected and have their own influential networks. It is the poor that lack such assets. It can be clearly recognized both from the volume and in other archival records of the Society, that one of the functions of the Society has been to connect the rich and the poor within the family. Whether more can be done on a more sustainable level is something the Society has to ponder upon.


The third strand of the activities of the Society as described in the volume and elsewhere is offering assistance to the needy, which indeed is the original objective of the Society. Assistance appears to be provided at two levels. First, is from the central funds of the Society. Secondly, and even more significantly, it is the members and the families of the Society individually, offering assistance in cash and kind, to poor families without chanelling such assistance through a central fund. The fact that there is a Society, enables more donations of this kind. The Society and its members have offered assistance primarily for education and medical care, and for old age.


To discuss in any worthwhile detail, the contributions made by past presidents, secretaries and treasurers, to the successful functioning of the Society, is not practical, in a brief review. The volume is replete with the details of their lives and their contributions. One person who stands out, after the founder, is Mudaliyar Thomas Rodrigo, who donated a large house in Panadura, to the Society. Without going through the impressive roll-call of names that crowd the pages of the volume, I shall refer to the current president and secretary, as being representative of these key functionaries over the years. Swarnamali Rodrigo, the first woman to be president of the Society (since 2006) represents in my view what can be considered a typical Rodrigo family unit. She is a Rodrigo who married Garvin Rodrigo, an engineer. She taught at Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya at Panadura. Her brother, a prominent member of the Society, is Tennyson Rodrigo, a distinguished chemical engineer and leading corporate executive. Two of her children, who are also active in the Society, is Sandya Salgado, a leading figure in Sri Lanka in marketing and communications, and Thushara Rodrigo, a brilliant pathologist practicing in the U.K. The current and very active secretary is Sepalika Rodrigo De Silva, a great-granddaughter of Mrs. Jeremias Dias, who has served in this capacity for 17 years.


The volume refers to many outstanding members of the Rodrigo family who have achieved distinction in various fields. In entrepreneurship, there is Thomas Rodrigo and his son, Cyril, who established and expanded the well-known Pagoda Tea Room, which was once a notable landmark in Colombo Fort, and the Green Cabin, in Colpetty. Sudana Rodrigo was an enterprising innovator who established the Barberyn Reef Hotel on the south coast, which was the first of its kind to offer ayurvedic treatment to overseas visitors. His son, Manik, is now following the family tradition. Sudana’s daughter Geetha Rodrigo Karandawela, now engaged in the hotel business, is an authority and expert in international maritime law, having worked for the United Nations in Geneva and Bangkok. One other name that I should mention in the business and commercial sector, is Deva Rodrigo, a chartered accountant who was inducted into the Hall of fame by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka. He was chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Monetary Board of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Then there is Nihal Rodrigo, who has been a distinguished Sri Lankan diplomat, secretary general of SAARC, and Sri Lankan ambassador in several postings. Amongst sportsmen from the Rodrigo clan are the outstanding cricketers, Mahes Rodrigo and Aravinda De Silva. I have kept one name to the last, and that is J L C Rodrigo, Professor of Western Classics, at the University of Ceylon in the time of Ivor Jennings. He was a towering figure, an outstanding journalist and one of the finest after-dinner speakers at the time. Along with G P Malalasekara, who also features in this volume, as he is from Panadura, they were two outstanding academics of the 1950s.


There is a delightful chapter on Panadura, the town which is the Rodrigo family base. The Rodrigo family and its Society can only be understood in the context of Panadura and its institutions and its families. The Rodrigo family had many inter-connections, marriage and otherwise with other leading families in the town - Ponnahennedige Diases, Salgados, Coorays, Abraham and Wilmot Perera families, the De Fonsekas. Panadura produced some outstanding politicians, Susantha De Fonseka, Wilmot A. Perera, and Neville Fernando. It is the Panadura philanthropists - Mrs. Jeremias Dias, Wilmot A. Perera, the P C H Dias family – which established Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo, Sri Palee, Horana, (modelled on Santhiniketan) and Kethumathi Maternity Hospital at Panadura. The Panadura families also established Sri Sumangala boys and girls schools, and continuously supported the Rankoth Vihara, apart from other temples. The Rodrigo family can proudly claim that it has also created an institution of its own, The Society, which is unique in the annals of Sri Lanka, and which has its base in Panadura.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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