The Eternal Gift of Knowledge

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By 2017-02-12

By Ranga Chandrarathne

For Maya Abeywickrama, it was destiny that led her to earn Sri Lanka's first ever Ph.D for Western Music awarded by a Sri Lankan University. Remarkably, she earned her Ph.D from the University of Visual and Performing Arts at the age of 72, reaffirming the fact that age is not a barrier for acquiring knowledge. She also is the proud recipient of the first ever M. Phil. for Western Music awarded by a Sri Lankan University (University of Kelaniya). Apart from her Ph.D, she also received an honorary fellowship from the Trinity College of Music, in recognition of her work. She is also the first ever Asian recipient of that Fellowship.

She read her PhD on the subject of Breaking Through Socio-cultural Barriers in Popularising Western Music Across Sri Lanka and M. Phil. on Influence of Western Music on Local Music.

When her parents bought an invaluable collection of books on music from a rather strange Englishman who had been teaching at the Village Pirivena School, they could not have imagined in their wildest dreams that music was the path that she would one day follow and that she would make such good use of the treasure trove bequeathed to her back then, at the age of seven.

Dr. Maya Abeywickrama's life was not the proverbial bed of roses. It was a colourful life with its fair share of ups and downs.

Though unwittingly, May was fortunate to be introduced to music as early as five years old when she received piano lessons for the first time. Though not aware at the time, her parents decision to buy a collection of books on Music from an Englishman who has been teaching at the Village Pirivena (in fact, the Englishman had expressed his willingness to gift the books to the little girl although later it was bought by her parents), was also a significant milestone in her career. Another landmark in her journey was her first ever pupil, her younger sister. Aged 8 at the time, she received her first ever piano lessons from her elder sister.

Maya's father was a Municipal Commissioner and it was customary for government servants to receive new postings from time to time. Such transfers were, an essential part of the job and for the children and spouses, it was a life frequently on the move.

Maya's father had to move to Jaffna to take up duties as the first ever Sinhalese Municipal Commissioner there. It was a turning point in Maya Abeywickrama's life as she had studied in the G.C.E (A/L) Class in the Sinhalese medium. Obviously, in Jaffna, there were no A/L classes conducted in Sinhalese so she was left with little choice but to give up her education at the age of 17.

It was a huge disappointment for her. Her father was worried too and searched all the possible avenues available for her to receive a decent education. He went to the Holy Family Convent in Jaffna to speak to the nuns about whether there was any chance to continue her studies but the response was an emphatic no. She could not be taken as a student but there was a vacancy for a teacher of Western Music in the Western Music Section of the Convent. Apparently, the nun who had been teaching Western Music had been stricken with a heart-attack, thus, leaving the position vacant. It was a defining moment in Maya's life, destiny guiding Maya to her first teaching appointment. Her duties included teaching piano and Sinhalese as a second language for the few burgher children there.

It was a beginning of a lifelong career in teaching and also her passion for music. She taught Music at the Holy Family Convent Jaffna for three years until her father was transferred to Kurunegala. Maya also got a transfer to the Holy Family Convent in Kurunegala. In 1968, Maya Abeywickrema got her first government appointment as the teacher of Music at Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala. After teaching there until 1973, she then took up duties at St.Paul's Milagiriya. It was destiny again that intervened in her life while she was working at St.Paul's Milagiriya. A fortuitous case of mistaken identity involving a Tamil teacher of music who had in fact, just retired, led to Maya assuming duties at the Ministry of Education. It was the invitation for a teacher of Music, not the person to work for the Ministry. How different the story would have been if the Ministry had requested for that particular teacher to work for the ministry.
As she was talented and full of energy, Maya did the work with enthusiasm. In 1976, she worked at Gothami Balika Vidyalaya and she was taken to the Ministry of Education as a teacher in service, where she served at the Ministry as a teacher on secondment until 1990. In 1990, Maya Abeywickrama was appointed by Cabinet as a Deputy Director of Music. Later on she was appointed as a Consultant to the Ministry of Educations. Among her achievements during her tenure at the Ministry of Education were the founding of the National Youth Orchestra with a cultural grant from the government of Japan and the setting up of the Western Music Resource Centre (with another grant). In 1992, Maya received a Fellowship from the Trinity College of London and was the first Asian to receive the Fellowship. Coincidently on the same day, Malcolm Arnold, composer of Music for The Bridge on the River Kwai, also received the same Fellowship.

One of the progressive steps that Maya took was to change the nature of Western Music Competition; she observed that Western Music Competitions were beneficial, mainly for private schools and national schools. The outstation schools were reluctant to participate due to constrains in language and lack of resource personnel. Maya set about changing all that and was instrumental in introducing the National Music Festival, Music for Unity, instead of Western Music Competitions. A salient characteristic was that there was no competition and all the participants and trainers received certificates and the festival proved to be an invaluable experience for making important breakthroughs. For over forty years, she was involved in syllabus making and even at the age of 72, Maya Abeywickrema is still active as an educationalist. She has written two books, namely, "Harmonious Illusions, a Study of Western Influence on the Music of Sri Lanka" and "Kirthita Mese Pawasami", a personal memoir.

"I met Dr. Maya Abeywickrama when I was a third year student at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies (now the University of Visual and Performing Arts) and she a teacher who taught Western Music theory. She was a tough disciplinarian but she encouraged students to ask questions regarding the lessons. By that time, though she served at the University as a visiting lecturer, she was holding an important position at the Ministry of Education. While serving at the Ministry, she strived to develop the knowledge and practice of Western Music among school children. The culmination of that effort is her founding of the National Youth Orchestra, which attracted students from diverse parts of the country to the Sugathadasa Stadium to showcase their talents. It was because of this interest that she chose the subject of Breaking Through Socio-cultural Barriers in Popularising Western Music Across Sri Lanka for her Ph. D Thesis. Throughout her Ph. D dissertation, she focused her attention on the issues that she has been dealing with throughout her career.

It was her wealth of experience as a teacher and official at the Ministry of Education that prompted her to select the subject for her PhD. By reading her PhD at the age of 72, she set a shining example that there is no age limit for an academic to engage in research. Though she has retired, she has not retired from the subject. It is also significant that her PhD is the first ever PhD awarded by a Sri Lankan University for Western Music and the first woman to receive it from a Sri Lankan University. She explores the performing aspects of Western Music through her publication "Harmonious Illusions". She also conducted workshops on repairing musical instruments such as those belonging to the family of braces musical instruments. She is punctual and methodical. She encountered several tragic events in her life but she has been able to overcome the hurdles and achieve her objectives. I read with great interest her book dedicated to the fond memory of her husband, former Minister Keerthi Abeywickrama titled "Keerthita Mese Pavasam". She still lectures at the Department of Applied Music and Mass Communication at the University. She always strives to make a substantial contribution to the University in a fitting manner. She also contributed, officially and unofficially, to curricular development. Prof. Kolitha Bhanu Dissanayake, Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, recalls the invaluable and lasting contribution that Dr. Maya Abeywickrama has made to the University.

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