Author: Ranga Chandrarathne
Source: Sunday Observer
It was one of the fashionable, calm but unusual houses situated in a fashionable quarter of the hill capital, Kandy. The house looked like a museum of the arts. As soon as I stepped into it with my able photographer, what I experienced first was the sight of enthusiastic students who had come to study choral music under Mrs. Bridget Halpe.
It was indeed a most suitable abode for such pursuits as music and literature. The house is set against a well-maintained garden and surrounded by tall green Atthika, Damunu, Haveri Nuga and other trees, providing an aura of serenity, while the veranda gives spectacular views of the Hantana range and Primrose Hill. There is no doubt that the cool fresh air that pervades the atmosphere would breathe fresh ideas and much needed artistic freedom into the enthusiastic students as well as visitors to this abode of the Halpes.
After a brilliant career at the University of Ceylon/Peradeniya as Professor of English for thirty three years, Professor Ashley Halpe is now retired. But he and his wife Bridget are still leading quite a busy life contributing to all spheres of human activity.
"I attended De Mazenod College, Kandana, upto what we now call O/Ls and then I went over to St. Peter's as De Mazenod had no science teaching for the University Entrance - I was a science student then. I was admitted to the University of Ceylon in 1952. I was in the first batch that came to Peradeniya in 1952 - there were only nine hundred students on the Campus then! I graduated in 1956 and in the same year Bridget entered the University", said Professor Halpe reminding us of a golden era of his life and certainly of the University of Ceylon as it was then called .
"He came as an English lecturer and I was one of his students. That's how we met. We had a wonderful time in the campus as undergraduates. I must say we were not like present-day students. Campus was an exciting place and we took part in every possible activity", said Mrs. Bridget Halpe, of the kind of student life they had on the Peradeniya campus.
"In fact we were more comfortable in campus than in our homes", said Professor Halpe. "My father was a teacher with seven children. Much of my childhood was spent in Kandana. My father, though trained as a teacher of English, rapidly moved on to administration. He was interested in cadetting and was an officer, so during the war he volunteered for service.
For some time, he did administration for the army, and when he came out of that he became a government teacher. He was the Principal of the Havelock Town Senior School, now called Lumbini", he said.
Mrs. Halpe's father was a civil servant. Most of her childhood was spent in Colombo and in Galle. Her father, Victor Fonseka Abayakoon was in charge of elections in the Western and Southern provinces. Bridget had to change schools whenever her father was transferred.
As an infant she began her schooling at St. Mary's Convent Matara, then to Holy Family Convent Dehiwela and then in Galle she attended Sacred Heart Convent. She was one of the few who got direct admission to the University of Ceylon in 1956. She said that the university training instilled a sense of disciplined reading in her.
It was when she went to England that she began to discover her talents in music. While Professor Halpe did his PhD she turned to specialising in music, and in England she was intrigued by the vast horizon it presented. She did the LRAM (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music) in pianoforte performance, in London, while simultaneously taking the B.Mus courses in the University of Bristol. Since then her hobby has become her career; in fact she started her teaching career in England.
Mrs. Halpe has also been the President of the Kandy Music Society for many years. The society is a forum that provides an interactive platform for music of diverse traditions, Western, Sri Lankan and global. In the activities of this society, music is presented to the members and wider audiences.
Visiting musicians from various countries perform in Kandy, enriching cultural life and exposing local music lovers to diverse musical traditions. Every year the society holds a "Young Performers' Concert" to promote young talent in and around Kandy and a Choral Festival, to which all school choirs in and around Kandy are invited. These events are multicultural and are not confined to Western "Classical" music alone.
It should be mentioned here that Bridget Halpe has kept The Peradeniya Singers alive. The group started in 1953 as the University Singers under Robin Mayhead from the University of Cambridge and consisted of campus students.
This group as Peradeniya Singers, so named because it now includes many non-university people, continues to present many concerts annually.
Following the tradition of residential universities, they have always shared their lives with university students.
Their house became a centre for the meetings of different student societies, while Professor Halpe's work as University Proctor, Director of Welfare and with the Dramsoc constantly brought students into their lives, sometimes in the middle of the night! as ardent Catholics, the religion has had a profound influence on their lives and no doubt on the service they give to others.
Apart from numerous academic papers and articles to professional journals both local and international, Professor Halpe has translated major Sinhala literary works such as Martin Wickramasinghe's Madol Duwa and Viragaya into English, besides doing versions of several Sigiri Poems.
He has also served as Dean, Faculty of Arts, has been a visiting lecturer at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia, Honorary Fellow, Clare Hall, Cambridge and twice Visiting Professor to the USA in the Fulbright Programme.
Genius in Fine Arts
He is also a critic and poet with three volumes of poetry to his credit. The government of Sri Lanka has conferred the titles of "Kalakeerthi" and "Vishvaprasadhini" on him, and the French government that of "Chevalier dans I'ordre des Palmes Academique".
A little known fact about him is that he is also a gifted painter whose works have been exhibited at the Sao Paolo Biennale in Brazil and at the Royal West of England Academy. He has also been active in theatre and has directed several productions for the University Dramsoc.
Both Halpes have contributed to the drama activities of the wider community eg. producing Twelfth Night in Sri Lankan costume, MacIntyre's Let's Give Them Curry and EMW Joseph's The foreign Expert with the Kandy Players.
They have frequently helped Kandy schools with their presentations at the Shakespeare Competitions and their productions won first place for Trinity College in 2003 while Trinity and Girls' High School were adjudged as the best outstation schools last year (2004).
Both Professor and Mrs. Halpe keep an open house for students, friends and family, always welcoming them and guiding and counselling whenever needed. It was evident from the gleaming eyes and the manner in which they spoke of the past that the duo had led a very good life.