Reminiscing on founder Principal of Devi Balika:
Founders Day of Devi Balika Vidyalaya
will be commemorated tomorrow, January 15. The objective of the founders
was to provide an education to enable its students to fulfill their
potential and to meet responsibilities to the community in keeping with
the school motto
-‘Those who are
disciplined in mind are wise’
The Late Dr Wimala de Silva was an educationist par excellence who
was selected in the year 1953 to head the newly established Government
Girls’ College Colombo 8 (which later was renamed Devi Balika Vidyalaya).
The thinking behind the establishment of this new school was on a
recommendation of the then Director of Education, H W Howes “to ensure
that ability has an equal chance of being discovered and developed
whatever may be the economic and social environment of the individual”.
Dr Wimala de Silva
The structure of the school was to be a collegiate one with the
school being confined to classes above standard eight and provided with
a variety of courses in Science, Arts and Domestic Science. When the
idea of establishing a school incorporating the above ideals was mooted,
the Late Dr Wimala de Silva who was the principal of Government Girls’
College, Maliyadeva was the obvious choice of the Director of Education
and the others in the Education circles, to head the new school.
The challenge to Mrs Silva as principal of this school in her own
words was “that this government girls’ school should be able to hold its
own, if not surpass the best private schools in the country”. To her
this challenge was “an exhilarating one”. The expectations were high and
human resources so limited. But undaunted with all these obstacles, she
with the capable and committed band of teachers surpassed the
expectations of all!
The present generation who complain the lack of this or that to carry
out any task could learn many a lesson from the manner this capable lady
resolved problems confronting her on a day to day basis.
To begin with the buildings of the school had much to be desired. The
buildings had been originally built for a Boy’s Junior School and lacked
special necessities to cater for the adolescent girls. But these defects
were somehow overlooked without harassing parents, as is the current
There was no proper hall/ stage for the annual school concert. She
was keen to resolve this problem by getting an open-air theatre built in
the school grounds. The open-air theatre was an idea of Mrs Silva and Ms
Jezima Ahamed (now Ismail).
But the school works engineer could not understand the idea of an
open-air theatre. Mrs Silva somehow located and engineer L I de Silva in
the Irrigation Department through the then Deputy Director of Irrigation
Ahamed who happened to be the father of Ms Ahamed. Engineer de Silva
worked closely with her and made the dream of having an open-air theatre
to materialise in quick time and at a minimum cost! The first production
to be staged had been A Midsummer Night’s Dream trained by Jezima Ahamed
(now Ismail) and Rhona Candappa.
It is indeed a wonder how the Late Dr Wimala Silva tackled all her
problems without ever raising her voice but in a very firm manner.
A story that is oft repeated is how she tackled the ‘Kasippu gang
leader’ in the area! She has vividly described this in her memoirs Those
Phoenix Days’. The gang leader - a red eyed burly man had called over at
her office in the late evening to confront her as to why the Shramadana
- students had destroyed his Kasippu bottles that were hidden in the
rainwater drain running through the school premises. He had warned her
that ‘they’ would make life impossible for her. But she had calmly and
spontaneously answered him... “To tell them (that is the Kasippu brewing
ones) that my husband is from Balapitiya”! The man had made a quick
In fact when the school opened on January 15, 1953 the school lacked
a Science lab and also teachers for Physics and Chemistry. Without
lamenting on these practical deficiencies or waiting for the problems to
be resolved, she in her usual calm manner discussed the serious issue
with her husband the Late Dr S L de Silva, the then Technical Education
and Training Director.
Permission was obtained through the proper channels and arrangements
were made for the students to use the Technical College Lab at Maradana
and also for two experienced teachers from the Technical College to
tutor the students in Physics and Chemistry.
Amidst all the practical difficulties relating to teachers, buildings
etc, the late Dr Wimala de Silva gave equal importance to extra
curricular activities from the very beginning of the establishment of
the school. In this respect she was able to get the services of the Late
Sesha Palihakkara for oriental dancing.
The foundation laid by Sesha Palihakkara continued in the years to
come. He continued with his classes until a permanent teacher was
appointed. This quality of facing challenges and resolving them
immediately shows the characteristic of Mrs Silva who never waited for
‘things to happen’. But adopted measures to resolve problems without
burdening the parents or students! This was a special feature that
characterized her actions.
To Ms Silva her primary objective was for her students not only to
achieve excellence in academia but also to be well equipped to fit
society in all aspects when they leave school. To this end emphasis was
laid for Domestic Science for the girls as well as Current Affairs to
widen the horizon of the students. A Mock Election held prior to the
general Election of the year 1956 was the highlight of the activities
related to current affairs. Classroom study of the need for elections
and the policies of the mock major political parties preceded the
conduct of this Mock Election. Candidates were chosen. Parts of the
school grounds marked out for meetings and named Galle Face Green, Hyde
Park, Campbell Park. This was to introduce the children for adult life
that was to follow in a few years time.
Devi Balika Vidyalaya, Colombo. File photo
This Mock Election was followed by another in the sixties.
Mrs Silva was always assisted by her husband the Late Dr S L de
Silva. Both of them looked into the needs of deserving students who did
not come from affluent backgrounds. During her years as Principal of
Devi she did not hold a single School Prize Giving. To her a student who
does satisfactory work amidst difficult circumstances had to be given
more recognition than another from an affluent background who would fare
better. This analysis may or may not be acceptable but it reflects her
concern and humane nature to deserving students.
To Mrs Silva honesty, integrity in her staff and her students was a
priority factor. Family influence of students never had an effect on
There was no 'gift-giving' to teachers. The greatest gift the
students could give the teachers was to become good citizens of Mother
Lanka. It is to this end that Mrs Silva moulded her students from day
one she took office as principal of this fledgling school.
According to Mrs Silva during those early years in the 1950's 'female
empowerment' were not a catch phrase. Nevertheless this concept had been
instilled in her during her school days at Newstead College, Negombo
that girls' schools had a responsibility to equip young people to their
role in life.
She was conscious of her responsibility of this aspect towards her
students and invited eminent women of that era Ezlyn Deraniyagala, Dr
Mary Ratnam, Sylvia Fernando amongst others to speak to her girls. To
impart value education to her students as well as the personality
development of her students was important to her as much as their
Extra curricular activities
To get to know 'others' and other 'cultures' were equally important
as academic studies and extra curricular activities. She took about 50
students by train on a trip to Jaffna in the mid sixties. On the journey
to Jaffna a couple of days were spent in Anuradhapura and the journey
continued by train to Jaffna. The students were lucky to participate at
a traditional wedding ceremony of a past Devi student from Jaffna. The
trip was made to coincide with her nuptials.
Her activities outside Devi are too numerous to mention. But a few of
them are highlighted to emphasize her contribution to sectors other than
She was the first woman to be Sectional (Social Science) President of
the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, President of the
Sri Lanka Federation of University of Women and Council Member of the
International Federation of University Women. She created history by
becoming the first woman to be appointed as a Chancellor of a University
in Sri Lanka - Sri Jayawardenepura University. She was proud of this
appointment as her work was recognized and she had proved herself!
Her courage and enthusiasm were unparallel!
After her early retirement in 1968 she willed herself to complete her
PhD study which she had commenced way back in 1950. She did succeed in
this and was very happy for having completed an 'unfinished task'. She
started her memoirs at age 80 and it was published after three years in
the 2004 when she was 83 years of age. Lessons for all of us!
In concluding this it is only apt to quote one of the early students
of Devi, Myrtle Perera in a letter to Mrs Silva, who has been quoted by
Mrs Silva in her memoirs. This was with reference to 'Sil' days at Devi.
"Sil days were important not only to Buddhists but also for
non-Buddhists, a mix of Christian Hindu and Muslim students. These
students had to provide Upasthana to those observing Sil. In between the
Upasthana duties the non-Buddhists exchanged religious knowledge and
religious practices. The Christians sang well-known hymns. The
camaraderie had been incredible. All these activities had taken-place
under the wide spread jam tree at the furthest end of the school
premises so as not to disturb the meditation going on inside the school
Myrtle Perera ends her story at Devi with this concluding remarks "We
at Devi learned not only to tolerate differences but also top appreciate
them. Thus our lives were enriched".
Myrtel questions herself...'am I fanatatising in my old age dreaming
of a Utopia or did these things really take place? But when I meet
teachers of that day and their ability still to advice, I realize I am
not speaking of a dream world but of what did take place".
To the present day Devi students as well as students and teachers of
the present generation.....It is in each of us to learn from this lady
of yesteryears and not only dream of but try to create a Utopia!
Those Phoenix Days by Wimala de Silva and to the numerous conversations
of the writer with Mrs Silva and also to life at Devi of the writer in
the mid sixties)