Somakumari Samarasinha of Hillwood



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by Nanda P. Wanasundera


Soma Kumari Seneviratne Samarasinha was a remarkable woman, who like a multi-faceted diamond shone brilliantly, but never ever attracted attention or publicity. Her life’s code seemed to be to work and achieve the highest whether in family life, education or being a school principal, doing the best to encourage girls to develop their personalities and become women of worth.


Mrs. Samarasinha is to be ceremonially recognized as a pioneer of Hillwood College Kandy on 2nd March by the dedication of the school’s new middle school building in her name.


Education


Why did I say that Soma Kumari Seneviratne was remarkable and a pioneer? She had an outstanding educational and professional career. Born to a respected, landowning Kandyan family in Ampitiya, she had the good fortune of having a farsighted, broadminded father and an understanding mother. Ehelepola Maddumma Bandara Seneviratne arranged for his daughter to go to Women’s Christian College, Madras, after her passing the Senior Cambridge Exam from Girls’ High School, Kandy, in 1917. She read for her first degree in this newly opened university for women, and passed with a first class in English, winning the Grigg Memorial Gold Medal. That was in 1922; she being the first Kandyan woman to venture out of country for her higher education. She followed this by winning the distinction not only of gaining admission to Cambridge University UK, but of being the first Kandyan woman if not the first Ceylonese woman to go to this most prestigious University and earn a double Tripos – in English and Sanskrit. She completed her second course of studies in eight months - November 1926 to June 1927 - against the usual two years since her father was ill and she felt she had to return home. He died in March 1927.


Career


In between her first degree and going to Cambridge University, the young Miss Seneviratne taught at her old school, Girls’ High School. After her Master’s, she returned to Women’s Christian College as lecturer in English, she being a Shakespeare scholar. In 1932 she was appointed the first warden of the University Women’s Hostel in Colombo and was also visiting lecturer in English and Sanskrit at University College. Two years she then spent in the Diocesan College in Calcutta teaching English. In May 1939 she joined the tutorial staff of St Thomas’ Girls High School Matara and at the end of that very year she was appointed Principal and continued thus until December 1945. It was then that she applied and was selected as Acting Principal of Hillwood College Kandy, since the Principal was due to go on furlough to Britain. Miss Rigg however, opted to rejoin a school in Japan, so the acting principal was requested by the CMS (missionary) Board to assume the principalship.


Mrs. Samarasinha was thus the first Ceylonese Principal of Hillwood. She nurtured the school, worked from 6 in the morning to 6 in the evening in the school office, went back for dinner with the hostel kids and was at her post even during school holidays. This is vouched for by her daughter, Latika. She was a principal who was strict but understanding of the quirks of girlhood. Hillwood was a boarding school primarily. Mentioned at its inception was the fact that the Christian Mission in London and Ceylon envisaged it to be a school that produced English educated girls for Trinity College boys to marry!!


Mrs. Samarasinha definitely did not think this was the aim of the school. It was a school to enable girls, mostly from traditional Kandyan families, to develop their personalities, study as far as possible, be faithful to their religions and then of course become good wives. She encouraged parents to send their daughters for higher studies. Not for her the traditional view of an arranged marriage being the best future option for a girl with a smattering of ‘English education’. She served the school as an excellent principal till 1963. She taught more by example than precept, lecturing students was not her style but she had complete control over the school – students, teaching staff, matrons and ayahs. She was not one to be obtrusive or commanding; never ordered good discipline from teachers or students, but expected them to behave as they should.


The Personal


I said Mrs. Samarasinha was a pioneer since she broke a couple of traditionally held norms. She pursued higher studies and embarked on a career; alien to the Kandyan Provinces where marriage was considered by most to be the be all and end all of a girl’s life. Fortuitously, her perseverance and preferences were complemented by her father and younger generations of Ampitiya people. She embarked on so far untrodden paths by a young girl from Kandy.


Soma Kumari converted to Christianity while at Women’s Christian College, where also she met John Wilson Samarasinha, a theology student. She fell in love with this man from the South. Falling in love was not considered a thing to do, marrying to please oneself and the chosen was taboo in conservative families. She did both and still remained in her extended family gaining more respect as the years went by.


Latika told me her parents in their courting days wrote letters to each other in Sinhala but using nagari style – a form of Pali writing. They were married April 22, 1931, in Madras where the Principal of the university, a British woman, gave the bride away and arranged for a jasmine decorated wedding reception. Here were two very out-of-the-usual steps taken by this girl from a conservative family and very conservative Province. She combined career and being a good wife and mother to her son Rajeeva and daughter Latika who also went against the grain. Rajeeva opted to marry Visaka Kotagama, a Buddhist, and Latika married Rev. James Ratnanayagam, the marriages frowned upon by their father but accepted by their more liberal minded mother.


When Mrs. Samarasinha retired from Hillwood she agreed to accede to her husband’s wish to live in Akuressa; this in spite of her heart and interests being in Kandy. She made the personal sacrifice in appreciation of the fact Rev Samarasinha had lived in Kandy because of her career commitments.


This remarkable woman was a person with heart and understanding. I first met her when I started my teaching career at Hillwood College. I wore my hair short in a pony tail, with ribbons to boot! Mrs. Sam, as we affectionately referred to her, tolerated my dress code – after all I was in sari with sleeved blouses and showing very little at the waist - for three days. On the fourth I was summoned to her office. I shivered, and at my faint knock on her door there was a mellow ‘come in’. In the same soft yet professional manner she said: "You know Miss Pethiyagoda, if you wear your hair up you will earn respect from your students."


I wanted to say they respected me, or so I thought, but mercifully refrained from stating my case. We hardly ever spoke back to a principal, mostly because they were just and understanding and needed no excuses or explanations. Up went my hair pronto, any old how, until I could tie a decent konde.


As I grew older, if not wiser at least maturer, I remembered women from Kandy apart from Soma Kumari Seneviratne Samarasinha who in one way or another were outstanding, even unconventional. They included Lady Leela (E A P) Wijeyeratne (Leela Petiyagoda), Anula Ellepola Udalagama, and others of more recent times, but of the early half of the 20th century. I felt impelled to write about them, which researched study I have just had published as Emerged: noteworthy women from Kandy. Eight women from Kandy are written about, six of them Kandy High School girls. The need to write was the fact these pioneering women were forgotten or not known by the now generation.


So it is with great joy and satisfaction that I received the news and invitation to attend the dedication of the newest building of the school up on the hill – Hillwood - to its first Ceylonese Principal (1946-1964) on March 2, 2011 by the Rev Shantha Francis, Bishop of Kurunegala. For this the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Hillwood, Col Ananda de Alwis and the Principal, Mrs. S. K. Hettige, are to be thanked very sincerely. Ananda had strong connections with Hillwood since his sister, Barbara, was Principal of the school a couple of years after Mrs. Samarasinha She was of the same mould but with a more girlish touch. Barbara too started her teaching career under Mrs. Sam and succeeded her as Principal, a more onerous task since most Hillwoodians were/are school boarders. Hillwood was, and I am sure, continues to be a happy school and now winning awards both in academic studies and sports, especially swimming. Who would have thought a swimming pool could be built up on that hill! For all these Mrs. Samarasinha must be thanked. She continued the traditions of Hillwood but introduced more Sri Lankan features like greeting with palms together and oriental and Kandyan dancing to the co-curricula programme.


It is most gratifying that this outstanding and pioneering first Sri Lankan Principal of Hillwood is being remembered and honoured. The present generations need to know that such as Mrs. Soma Kumari Samarasinha lived and worked tirelessly to guide to good womanhood generations of girls.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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