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The BMICH Four Decades on

It’s part of our history



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Story and Pictures by Maheen Senanayake


As I drove into the BMICH and halted briefly to take in a pass from the checkpoint at the gate, I got a feel of the vastness of the place, its sprawling lawns and well tended garden and couldn’t help thinking that this surely was Colombo’s greenest oasis.


Sitting on 35 acres in a section of the Havelock Golf Links known as ‘Katu Kelle’, the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) will on May 17 celebrate its 40th Anniversary. Host to some much loved exhibitions and a long list of international and national conferences, it remains to this day the premier venue for any big event in Sri Lanka.


In this backdrop, it becomes opportune to trace the history and background surrounding this great gift to Sri Lanka from the People’s Republic of China to celebrate the life and times of a great leader of this country.


Brief History


The BMICH was once described as a probable insult to SWRD’s memory. That was due to the perception in some quarters at that time that a memorial for Mr. Bandaranaike should be first a Sri Lankan effort for which the needed resources, including the cost of building, should have been subscribed to by the people of Ceylon.


The cries against Chinese aid for this monument reached a crescendo with the change in Government in 1965 and Dr. N.M.Perera has been noted as having said in parliament at the previous Budget debate that the Sirima Bandaranaike Government was not doing the memory of Mr. Bandaranaike any honour by having a foreign government build a monument to him here in Sri Lanka.


There were also other sentiments at the time that a fitting memorial should have been more appropriately "a more useful institution such as a clinic" rather than a "talking shop".


In August 1965 with Mrs. Bandaranaike out of office and a UNP-led government in power, the Ceylon Daily News reported that the PRC had been asked if she could build a tourist hotel at the site of the proposed BMICH noting that it felt that a conference hall of the magnitude proposed would not be of much use to Ceylon. Little had anyone realized that only two decades later its services would be imperative to the country’s development effort.


The BMICH is today widely regarded as one of the finest venues to host any event of national importance. Its services over 40 years have been many and cannot be dismissed by friend or foe. The project was sanctioned by no less than Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai themselves.


Newspaper reports during the later half of 1964 emphasized and played on the "Chinese Help Build Hall" theme while one report on October 23, 1964 noted that this building was estimated to cost Rs. 19 million.


Despite the heated debates and the procrastination, the foundation stone for the BMICH had been laid by Premier Sirima Bandaranaike on March 17, 1965 and the people of Sri Lanka participated in its construction in shramadanas.


Unmatched in capacity, amenities, service and grandeur, the level of bookings of the BMICH facilities today would have been undreamed of judging by what the Times of Ceylon said in an article dated August 31, 1965, after the Sirima government had been defeated.


It declared "the National Government has acted most sensibly in suggesting to China that the Bandaranaike Memorial be adapted to the needs and resources of the country. The original scheme was for a conference hall with 1,500 seats to house and cater to the needs of something like a hundred delegation. The cost of furnishings and equipping this would be several million rupees, and the annual cost of maintenance would also be formidable. At best the conference hall would not be used for more than two months a year."


"Interestingly, there isn’t a day that passes when some function is not held within our premises" said Mr. Bandhula Ekanayake, Director General, BMICH. While the main facility celebrates its 40th anniversary on May 17, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Exhibition Centre also celebrates 10 years.


By 1970 with a new government in office the tune had changed. The Daily News noted on September 7, 1970 that "…Ceylon , after all, will have an international conference hall named after Mr. S. W.R.D.Bandaranaike and financed by People’s China.’’ This further noted that a plaque at the Havelock Golf links proclaimed in Sinhalese, Tamil, English and Chinese, that work on the project had been inaugurated on the 17th March, 1965."


Work on the BMICH construction truly began on November 24, 1970 at 4 pm when Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike cut the first sod at the Anderson Golf links in the presence of the diplomatic corps. The work continued between 1970 and 1973 with a large number of Chinese workmen, led by Mr. Hao Fu-tang, the team leader, employed in the project.


The government factory provided the only Ceylonese component for the BMICH which was nearing completion by about the end of September 1972 by making a bronze ‘frieze’ of the late PM.


The Golden book.


On September 24, 1970 the Daily News reported that the Anderson Golf Links, once the playground of golfing brown sahibs turned into a massive field of Sramadana when people from all electorates led by Housing and Construction Minister Pieter Keuneman joined in to help in the construction work.According to the government the mass sramadana had been organized to minimize labour costs of the project and also to give an opportunity to the people to participate directly in the construction of this national monument which was expected to be the largest in South Asia.


Workers had cleared the site, building an approach road, cutting drains, concreting water tanks and constructing a cement store. A Golden Book was kept at the site for every person who took part in the sramadana to have their names and addresses and electorates and the dates on which they worked entered. This they called the Ran Potha. It remains in the completed hall to this day for posterity. Each worker also received a medal with an engraving of the hall.


A report in the Daily News of October 6, 1970 reported a ‘big saving’, an item that should send most eyebrows up today; "The massive sramadana(Volunteer Labour) campaign initiated by the Housing Ministry at the Bandaranaike Memorial hall site at the Golf Links has saved the Government nearly Rs. 2,000 in labour costs. This was the result of two days’ work.." This was a reflection of the value of Rs. 2,000 in 1970.


Meanwhile, several other Sramadana campaigns were organized by various parliamentarians and ministers, including the Prime Minister. "Api gamey kello" (we are village girls) the prime minister had smiled waving a raffia sun hat as her ministers played barrow boys during sramadana programmes.


Following the completion of work at the BMICH the first conference to be held there was the International Rubber Conference organized by the Rubber Research institute of Ceylon held on June 22, 1973.


All carping and criticism of the project of the earlier years was gone after the building was done with the Daily Mirror of May 18, 1973 editorially calling the ``stately edifice erected on Bauddhaloka Mawatha and ceremonially opened on May 17 as magnificent tribute to the late Mr. S. W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Completed three months ahead of schedule and Rs. 5 million less than estimated was a happy combination that is probably without precedent in a major undertaking of this type in this country."


And the people of Ceylon did not forget to thank their Chinese friends when the prime minister herself attended a farewell cultural concert titled "Pahanen Pahana" at the Navarangahala in appreciation of the services performed by workers both of the Peoples Republic of China and Sri Lanka where Janavegaya, a ballet was also performed.


Chou En-lai, was represented at the ceremonial opening of the BMICH by a top ranking member of the National People’s Congress of China, Marshal Hsu Hiang-Chien, the Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress. He was accompanied by a 24-strong delegation of ranking dignitaries including the Director of China’s State Construction Commission.


Home of International conferences


Ever since 1978 when the fifth Non-Aligned summit was held in Colombo and the national flags of 90 states fluttered in two rows at its premises, the BMICH in Colombo has had great leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia and Josef Broz Tito of Yugoslavia grace its halls. In what is perhaps the most fitting tribute to SWRD Bandaranaike, the BMICH to this day remains the premier location for meetings of this grandeur.


Its capacity to host large numbers, its amenities that includes star class catering and its spacious proposition with its sprawling lawns and expansive and very green surroundings makes the BMICH a superb venue for conferences. As many as 16 resident gardeners work tirelessly on a daily basis to maintain these surroundings.


Its Museum harks back to the life and times of the assassinated Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike while the BCIS, the Bandaranake Centre for International Studies, provides valuable programmes of study for academics, public servants and all with an interest in international affairs and foreign languages.


Refurbishments


The BMICH is today in the last phase of re-furbishment. The incumbent president who is the chairman of the Board of the BMICH has been instrumental in supporting these efforts. Detailed renovation by a Chinese team is slowly bringing the back to its former glory. Furthermore, the President has fully supported the BMICH’s efforts to project itself as a regional conference and events venue.


Recent developments


It takes a human presence to give life to a building – the difference between a house and a home. The BMICH is today a fitting memorial to a once great prime minister. It is not just a building but a culture, a point one would realize when interacting with its staff of 160, the caretakers of this institution. But this is not a notion that has come about by accident; it is a philosophical approach that seeps down from the top; and Mr. Bandhula Ekanayake, the Director General of the BMICH is the architect of some of its profoundest ideological developments. He has been instrumental in building a cohesive team to bring life to the institution.


His vision has transformed the institution into a one that promotes professional service. Welfare of the staff is also at the heart of this scheme while maximizing on the space several initiatives including an Eco theatre that serves multiple purposes and a home garden in the heart of the city provides several other possibilities. The buildings occupy approximately three and half acres in the sprawling property of 35 acres.


Eco Auditorium


The Eco Auditorium ‘Mihilaka Medura’ replicates traditional Sri Lankan village life and was built on a piece of abandoned marshy land. At the centre of the village lies the ‘kamatha’ or the threshing floor; surrounded by a paddy field around which lies an arena that can host any performing arts.


Though in the heart of Colombo, it has been constructed without any damage to the aesthetics of the original building. Set in the backdrop of the kamatha , the open air theatre is ready for performances in the backdrop of a village setting while the training facility in the kamatha area facilitates the premises of the only Outbound Training range and High Adventure course – ‘the Arena’.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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