APPRECIATION - KALIDASA (KARL) GUNASENA
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from London
Finally arrived a day towards the beginning of July, after eighty three long years, when the main sail of Kalidasa (Karl) Gunasena's life boat suddenly had to take the impact of an unexpected and imperceptible wind force to plunk the boat peacefully.
On a sunny afternoon in London on 5 July 2007, Karl Gunasena made his final journey on earth to the North London Crematorium leaving eternal fond memories in our hearts. The news of his unexpected death came to me as a humungous shock just as I disembarked at the Heathrow Airport.
Karl Gunasena was born in Galle. He came to Colombo from his parental home at the age of twelve to attend St. Thomas's College, Mt.Lavinia. Subsequently he continued his education from Royal College, Colombo.
Karl was a remarkable person who thought life, from birth to death, was a university, and we mortals needed to be educated in one form or the other all the time. He was a passionate reader who delved into any area to stimulate his grey matter which made him deeply involved in Buddhist literature. Though he was a Christian by birth, more he read Buddhist text, enhanced and philosophical he became. Naturally Buddhist way of life, its thinking and values appealed to him exceedingly which made him a Buddhist in 1965 despite his Christian upbringing.
As a transformed Buddhist Karl took a leading role in religious and social activities attached to the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre at Kingsbury. With acquired knowledge in Buddhism and refractive journalistic aptitude he undertook the responsibilities of editing a monthly Dhamma magazine published by Kingsbury International Buddhist Centre. Karl's devotion and dedication became more apparent when his supreme organizational genius was uncovered at a time when Lord Buddha's corporeal relics (Sarwagna Datu) were exposed for the first time in the UK from the Wembley Conference Centre. His wife Renaira, who was decorated by Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II, as the first Sri Lankan in the UK with a MBE for her services in Buddhism attached to the British Libraries, no doubt would have influenced him towards his aspiration to Buddhism.
Karl Gunasena introduced and dominated English drama on Sri Lankan stage and became the backbone of Lionel Wendt theatre in the 1960s. Forty years ago, at a time when he was a popular English broadcaster attached to the Radio Ceylon along with Chris Greet,
Karl became a legend and an icon in the society and made foot prints in Sri Lanka Cinema by appearing in the films Gatawarayo and Chandiya playing the villain to the late Gamini Fonseka, the superstar in Sinhala cinema...
The year 1965 became a hallmark in his life where his performance took a three hundred and sixty degree turn to something different. In London, attached to the then Greater London Council (GLC) and under Ken Livingstone, the present Mayor of London, he undertook duties as a planning officer in charge of prestigious buildings in London.
Karl's thirst for Sinhala drama had not exhausted completely, yet a residue was still bubbling like glowing amber within him. In 1981 he organized a cultural circle in London with the help of his wife and Namel and Malini duo (Weeramunis) with the idea of resurrecting and upholding the Sinhala culture and dram in London for the benefit of the expatriate community. The result was heartening; soon productions such as The Bear, Kattadiya and Golu Birinda hit the boards in London. A parched expatriate society received them overtly and always acknowledged with standing ovations.
After a lapse of forty long years Karl was approached to act in a tele-drama, a London production, with Wimal Alahakoon. After much persuading and convincing him to get involved in acting he made two choices in doing so. In accepting the offer he said: "I like to keep something to my grand children and I like to project with my dear friend Wimal Alahakoon", which exactly he did as a final episode not only in the film but in his life by playing the character of Dr. Lloyd Wickremasinghe, a prominent Sri Lankan Medical Consultant living in London giving advice to a Sri Lankan youth who had come to Britain seeking greener pastures, lost his track and finally got involved with a white girl and got hooked on drugs.
Karl Gunasena always retained a modest disposition and was a human being with a magnanimous heart. He did not exactly know the meaning of the words malice, hatred or jealousy; but always extended a helping hand to whoever needed help in word or deed whenever approached him. He never cultivated barriers between the affluent and the poor and always had room in his heart to forgive and forget even those who did not agree with him at times, a gracious quality he has left for the rest of us to emulate.
The value of a society does not depend on the numbers of its populace but of a handful who would shine as beacons in their behaviour and contribution to the society. When such personalities fade away in an ephemeral world, it does affect the value of a society as well. Karl Gunasena, actor, philosopher, broadcaster, traveller, husband, grandfather, 'interminable student' and a dear friend, was a one of those rare gems Sri Lanka had ever produced. May he attain Nibbana.