by Agnes Thambynayagam
“Bitten by the pageant bug, Irangani Gunatillake was thrust into being a goodwill ambassador of her country during the dawn of post independent island nation of Ceylon”
( January 23, 2016, Texas, Sri Lanka Guardian) A few days ago I had the opportunity to read an article written by Mr. S Skandakumar, currently High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Australia for ‘The Island’ and ‘The Sunday Times’ entitled “The way we were….”, a reflection of the true nature, character and the sprit of the Sri Lankan people. The article inspired me to narrate this little story about an inspiring Sri Lankan woman–a story that must be told:
Irangani was born on 27 September 1937 in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to a Ceylonese diplomat Felix Sirimanne and Beatrice Weerasinghe, the daughter of Reverend Weerasinghe of Trinity College, Kandy. Irangani’s father, Felix Sirimanne worked as the private secretary to Sir Arthur Ranasinghi, Ambassador to Rome and many other countries. Felix Sirimanne’s mother was of Scottish decent who married the elder Srimanne in Scotland and settled in Sri Lanka in the late Nineteenth century. Irangani’s Scottish grandmother ran a Maternity Nursing Home in McCarthy Road (now Wijerama Mawatha) in Colombo in the early twentieth century.
In 1952, a slender, tall teenaged girl of uncanny beauty with grace, elegance and poise called Irangani Sirimanne was thrust into the limelight. Irangani became a model for the revered Kirthi Karunaratne, a pioneer fashion designer, and was a mannequin at many of his functions, which propelled her to stardom. Irangani became a prominent person winning the beauty queen title at numerous beauty pageants in Ceylon. Along with the coveted title came a huge moral responsibility; she had to prove her intelligence, talent and pleasing personality. Irangani mastered the art of expressing herself readily, clearly and effectively. Under the constant glaze of the media the teenaged Irangani had to be an advocate of civility and maintain a respectable character. In short, Irangani became the goodwill ambassador representing her country in many walks of daily life.
Soon after, Irangani Sirimanne met a boy named Harold Gunatillake at a birthday party. Harold was a Medical student at the University of Colombo. Following a five-year courtship, Irangani and Harold were married on May 1, 1958 at Mt. Lavinia Hotel, Colombo. Their only son Hiran was born on May 20, 1959 in Hiniduma (near Galle, Sri Lanka) where Harold worked. They sent Hiran to St. Thomas College, Kollupitiya for early education when they moved to Colombo.
In 1962 Irangani was named the “Royal Queen” at the Royal College Ball at the presence of the Honorable Minister of Finance Dr. N.M. Perera that won her a trip to Bombay, India. In Bombay, Irangani was given the opportunity to sing for Radio India. Irangani, characteristically, would never let an opportunity pass; she accepted the offer to sing. The songs she sang were ‘Autumn Leaves’ and the ‘Danny Boy’. Irangani became the recipient of many awards and titles. Crowning of Irangani became a routine event at both Grand Oriental Hotel and Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.
The economy of post independent Sri Lanka was predominantly dependent on one crop—Tea, a treasured commodity and the main source of revenue for the island nation. In 1967 the Ceylon Tea Cooperation bestowed Irangani with the title of ‘Ceylon Tea Queen’, a title that elevated her esteemed standing in Sri Lanka to an even higher level. Mrs. Irangani Gunatillake now became a symbol of her country internationally; she represented the Tea Cooperation at its centenary celebrations in Glasgow, Scotland where she met Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Her Majesty Queen Mother. I am told that, Her majesty the Queen of England spent about half an hour talking to Irangani about Ceylon.
In 1968, Harold became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in UK. Their son Hiran finished his primary education at Carshalton primary school in England. Hiran was back at St. Thomas College when the family returned to Sri Lanka. Irangani, Harold and young Hiran migrated to Singapore in 1972 where Irangani’s stardom continued. In many occasions, Irangani and Harold were the guests of then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. One of Harold’s proud moments in life was to see his wife dancing with Lee Chin Koon, the father of the legendary Lee Kuan Yew.
The family migrated to Australia from Singapore in 1974. Irangani and Harold were struck by tragedy in December 1975. Sadly, they lost their precious sixteen-year-old son at a tragic motorcar accident along with two other teenagers. Hiran was a back seat passenger.
Irangani Gunatillake was ahead of her time: she was an articulate and effective speaker who projected her countries image abroad; a goodwill ambassador for her country; a fundraiser for worthy causes and most of all a role model for aspiring young girls around the world.
Harold and Irangani, now married for 59 years, spend the twilight of their life together in Sydney, Australia. Harold publishes the Health and Views news online every week, which has a readership of over six thousand. The former beauty queen Irangani and her husband Harold, an epitome of “enormous capacity” to love and give, have changed the lives of so many in need in Sri Lanka: both in the South and the North. They are an inspiration to all of us.
May God shower this remarkable couple with blessing for many more years!
source: SriLanka Guardian (https://www.slguardian.org/2016/01/irangani-sirimanne-the-beauty-queen/ )