A poetess's plight | Daily News

A poetess's plight

Gajaman Nona was a famous Sinhala poetess who lived during the Dutch and the British Colonial periods. She was born in 1746 in Kollupitiya. Her real name was Dona Isabella Cornelia. Her father Don Francisco Senaratna Kumara Perumal was a government servant and he predominantly worked in Matara District. Therefore she grew up in Matara.

From very young age Cornelia showed her aptitude in poetry. She had the ability of reciting impromptu Sinhala poetry in appropriate occasions. She studied under the famous Karatota Dhammarama Thera in Weragampitiya Temple in Matara. Cornelia was a bright student and she had exceptional talents in language.

During that time period girls' education was not very much tolerated, also co-education in temples was prohibited. Therefore young Cornelia had to disguise herself as a boy to receive the education from Dhammarama Thera. However later she revealed her true identity and asked for forgiveness from Dhammarama Thera.

According to Mahagama Sekara the modern Sinhala poetry began from Matara era and Gajaman Nona (Dona Isabella Cornelia) was one of the pioneers. She is best remembered as a romantic poetess who had outstanding language skills and poetic ability. Her talents were profoundly appreciated by Sir John D'Oyly- the British Colonial Administrator. Sir John D'Oyly bestowed a land in Ambalantota to Gajaman Nona's in appreciation of her poetry. This land became known as Nonagama.

Gajaman Nona wrote narrative poems. One long narrative poem titled Dedi Soka Malaya contained 206 verses. In addition Denipitiye Nuga Ruka Vanuma (the banyan tree in Denepitiya), Poetical petition to Sir John D'Oyly became popular among people. The poetry of Gajaman Nona is characterised by human emotions, romanticism and eroticism. Also women attitudes were marked in her poems sometimes challenging patriarchy.

In a way Gajaman Nona was a revolutionary who challenged the Victorian society. She had liberal ideas and Gajaman Nona was advanced than the women of her era.

She was beautiful and intelligent, also had a charming personality. She dressed elegantly and the aristocrats adored her. Elapatha Mudaliyar of Ratnapura District wrote to her constantly in attractive verse. She became the brightest star among the Matara poets. Poetesses Ranchagoda Lamaya and other poets were envious of Gajaman Nona's glory and started spreading rumors about her. Gajaman Nona replied them with witty and sardonic poems.

She got married in very young age to Thalpe Merenchegei Garadiya Arachchi but he died within two years. She became a widow at about twenty two. After a few years, again she was married to Hendrick Siriwardena Wijaya Wimalasekera. Less than eight years her second husband died leaving young Cornelia with four little children. Gradually life became an immense struggle for her.

In 1801 her father Don Francisco Senaratna Kumara Perumal succumbed to an elephant attack. It was an unbearable devastating event in her life. However her poetic activity did not come to an end. She used poetry to express her grief and emotional pain.

In later years Gajaman Nona was stricken by poverty. The premature deaths of her children left her immensely sad and destitute. She became isolated. Probably she suffered from Major Depressive Disorder. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness started hounding her. She became utterly disheartened and took her own life in 1814. She was 57 years old at the time of her death. 

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