Thursday, February 19, 2015

Miranda Hemalatha still in the tempest

“A psych evaluation must be made mandatory in recruiting new teachers,” said educationist Miranda Hemalatha who is also an award winning dancer, actress, choreographer as well as a director of drama, in an interview with The Nation. “I recently read that about 70 percent of school children have some type of a mental disorder. If this is true, it is a segment of these students who get through to universities. A person who walks out as a teacher from a university might be a person from this group,” she noted, adding that this might result in more serious issues if overlooked now. “There isn’t a method to evaluate the mental state of people who receive appointments as teachers,” she said, reiterating the need for a psychological evaluation for teachers with the recent unfortunate incidents of corporal punishments and sexual abuse in the school environment.
Best known for her ballets productions, Miranda has been producing dance programs, with many new production, since 1957. Ranga Dahara, Nupura Rawaya, Nritya Prasadini, Narthana Rekha, Nrithya Pushpanjalee, Ranga Leela and Narthana Pooja are a few among them. She also contributed in dramas Kadawalalu, Rathnawalie, Mati Karaththaya, Janelaya and Liyathambara as an actress.
She is known for the experimental dance dramas she produced. Vasantha Thilaka, Thanha Asha, She, Deewari Geethayam Swarna Thilaka are among the most appreciated dance dramas. She said that she has always tried to depict the destruction taking place in society through her dramas, again trying to be a rebel on stage.
Starting her professional life as a teacher in Vanathamulla Central College, Miranda gradually made her way to becoming the first Directress of Aesthetic Education in Sri Lanka. She worked for the Education Ministry for 37 years, for the Teacher Education Department for 16 years. She was in administrative service for 15 years. Today, she is the Chairperson of Diri Daru Piyasa at Kindelpitiya; an institute for the Down Syndrome children who seek assistance to enter society as independent individuals; and Miranda Hemalatha Kala Ashramaya.
She was just five years old. It was a Thaipongal Day, she remembers, when she saw a wonderful dance by a small Tamil girl at Hettimulla tea estate where her father was working as a superintendent. “I was amazed by her steps and I still remember how I wanted to dance like her,” Hemalatha, now in her late 70s recalled what inspired her to learn dance. When she was young, dancing was belittled by people of high caste. Therefore, she did not receive the blessings of her family when she chose to study dance. “My parents were fond of singing; we used to sing playing Serpina in the evenings. But they didn’t consider dance as a respectable profession,” she said.
While receiving school education from Panadura Good Shepherd Convent, she applied for the dance course in College of Fine Arts (Rajaye Kalayathanaya). Out of the thousands of applications received, she was fortunate to be accepted as one of seven students who received admission in 1954. Some say that the university struggles commenced in 1961. Yet, Miranda claimed that the first university rebellion was in 1957 which resulted in the appointment of the Kularatne Commission.  
“As a student, I was annoyed at the corruption and how people took advantage of the troubles faced by students at the College of Fine Arts. We formed a group and went to the parliament to meet the Prime Minister. We sat on the staircase of the parliament and swore that we wouldn’t get up till we met him,” she reminisced how they were promised what they asked for; a commission of full authority over the Fine Arts College.
She also remembered the service rendered by the late Sri Lankan ballet master, Premakumara Epitawala and renowned musician Sunil Shantha. “Situation of our arts field would have been worse if not for people like them who committed themselves to their work,” she said.
Miranda was a rebellious character at the university, at work as well as an artiste. She fondly recalled the memories when she put herself in trouble trying to do the right thing. “I always say that I am Miranda in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s play. I’m always in a violent windy storm and I always will be. Miranda is still in the tempest,” she laughed.
Meanwhile she also took classes under veterans Shesha Palihakkara and Ganganatha Master to study Barata Natyam, Kathakali and Manipuri dance. “If we were to rebel we had to become strong and confident in the subjects we study. Therefore we all became committed to studying the subjects in depth,” she said. Going to India as the first Colombo Plan scholar in 1963, Miranda’s Arangetram in India had been organized by the leading Indian musician Maturai Krishnon.
She believes that the stigma of dancers in society lifted with the international recognition Sri Lankan dance received. Yet, she said that with the emergence of the television this established reputation started to deteriorate again. “Dance we see today on television is not meant for aesthetic sensations. It aims for something else,” she condemned the semi-nude costumes used by most dancers.
“We cannot blame the private TV channels. They are money oriented. Yet, the two national television channels can’t telecast everything without control. They depend on people’s money. They have to give what is best for the people, without following private media blindly,” she emphasized.
Miranda criticized the artistes who sided with political parties for their personal benefits. “Although I didn’t get on stage in any political party meetings, I believe that I have done my part for the country as an artiste,” she claimed. She believes priests and artistes should not get involved in party politics, they should always consider themselves beyond.
She stressed the importance of nurturing a child’s personality and pointed out how the current education system disrupts the development of personality instead. “If a child’s personality is nurtured, he or she will grow up to be a youth with high self-esteem and self-respect and will have a strong backbone,” she said. “Unfortunately, their personalities are being destroyed from the beginning”.
Speaking further about the personality of the youth today she brought up a conversation among a group of university students, which she happened to overhear. They were having a discussion about new job appointments and they weren’t certain whether those who have maximum qualifications will get the jobs. “I heard one saying that this is their fate. I was shocked by this response, that they were ready to take up anything given to them by the authorities. Should this be the response from the youth?” she raised a question. “They don’t have the courage to fight for their rights. This is one of the reasons behind the downfall of our country,” she added.
She expressed her sorrow at the university and school education system. “University is a place where a student seeks knowledge with the guidance of lecturers. It is sad that today, there are university students who have never set foot in the library while being undergraduates,” she said adding that once the child’s personality is crippled through the school education system it cannot be reconstructed through university education.
She pointed out the weaknesses in the school curriculums, teachers’ manuals as well as the school based assignments and practical tests. “Some of the officials who write teachers’ manuals have third class degrees. How can you make people with third class degrees responsible for education?” She noted that reforming the education system in the country will not be an easy task. “I hope the new government will not repeat these mistakes,” she said.

Miranda reiterated the necessity of a control in selecting teachers for schools as mentioned earlier in the interview. She also said that practical training programs for teachers also play an important role in shaping a successful teacher. She remarked that it is important that the school examinations and administration are in responsible hands. “Without producing a generation of qualified teachers, it will be impossible to redevelop the education system of the country,” she stressed. 

Pic by Ravindra Dharmathilake 

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