Kalasuri Oosha Sarawanamuttu Wijesinghe

My first experience of Aunty Oosha was as a painfully shy 3 year old. She strongly believed in public performance and my career started off as a Teddy Bear in the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Next was Golliwog, in Golliwog in Fairy Land and then the Frog in Thumbelina. Aunty thought I was better suited to character roles! As Ballet Teacher at Bishop’s College, her beloved Alma Mater and mine, being a private pupil brought no special treatment, only more was expected of us!

Aunty was famously aloof. Not one to mince her words, she called out all spades. But few knew her like her students. Oosha stopped taking fees from students who completed 10 years in her school. She had an unwritten rule – anyone doing more than 2 parts in her shows would only pay for 2 costumes, she paid the rest. In an era when corporate sponsorship of the arts was not well established, she was generous to the point of being foolish.

It was her passion and love for her art form that led to this behaviour. To have us perform to our fullest potential was her greatest joy. Of course she pushed us beyond endurance. Blisters, toenails that festered and dropped off and any aches and pains were overcome with Panadol, Voltari and a smile. Rehearsals stretched into the early hours. We were regularly called Giraffes and Buffaloes! Through tears and gritted teeth, we prevailed! There was never a good enough excuse to miss a rehearsal. I did my mock OLs during a show and discovering I was in exams, she smiled wryly saying ‘it’s good to learn to do many things at once’, adding she would pray for me.

Ever unconventional, Oosha pushed the borders of dance way beyond accepted norms of the time. We were trained in Classical ballet, performing the choreography of Frederick Ashton, but we also learned modern dance and performed Maurice Bejart’s ‘Right of Spring’ bare footed, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations, Song & Dance and most of Alvin Ailey’s work. It took a lot of courage not just to produce, direct and choreograph these shows, but to risk including controversial pieces in her productions. We loved being on the cutting edge of dance in Colombo but she endured the critics! She prevailed with incomparable grace and aplomb.

My most vivid memory of her will be how dressed to the nines in her silk sari, flowers in her hair, she would be on her knees before the curtain rose on every show, praying, asking God to bless the work of her hands. Psalm 127:1 says unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Aunty lived that verse. But Oosha didn’t just build her own house, she left a legacy to those who came under her tutelage. Yes, she taught us to dance and to love music and all that is theatre and performance. But more lastingly and importantly, she taught us that good manners are timeless, there are no short cuts to excellence, only hard work, commitment and sacrifice and that true freedom comes only from the strictest discipline.

What we acquire, leaves us at death, what we give away, of our self, time & possessions, survives us ever more. I know this to be true of Oosha. Darling Aunty Oosha, we miss you and will think of you fondly always, with all my love.

Manjula Amerasinghe Seneviratne

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