Travelling through your mind | Daily News

Travelling through your mind

Finding your inner talent helps one deal with stress and also grow as a person through  following one’s spiritual path in life
Finding your inner talent helps one deal with stress and also grow as a person through following one’s spiritual path in life

With curfews and lockdowns to make the island safe again for everyone, it’s a good idea to use this time to travel around your home or work creatively, whether rediscovering old talents you’d forgotten about or finding new creative gifts that have lain dormant inside everyone of us, ready to be nurtured. Look to the future and not the current situation and see how you can turn all this misfortune into fortune, whether financially, by selling what you make during this period inside your home. Whether upcycled or new the island will need fresh creative ideas when it reopens fully for us all to move freely again and travellers from all around the world can return and explore one of the most beautiful islands in the world, or just do it to enrich your life and learn new skills in the process. In the case of General Manager, Gamunu Srilal, the pandemic has given him a whole new outlook on life, which helps him face the many challenges for his team and family who he dearly loves, and at the same time he makes the very best out of the current limited tourism situation for the country.

The artist at work

I caught up with Gamunu after seeing his artwork on facebook; I wondered as detailed architectural drawings went up each week, what had brought on all this creativity and passion for ink, pencil and watercolour. Gamunu recounted to me that he was born in Matara and is the sixth of eight children all with a creative outlook. His father was a building contractor and loved all the arts. From his childhood, he very much admired the work of Barefoot owner Barbara Sansoni in particular her detailed sketches of of Sri Lankas incredibly diverse architecture and whenever he got the chance, he would paint at school, as well as dream about one day becoming a journalist. “I used to draw and write short stories on culture, like that of the shanty village near my school, Dharmaraja College, Kandy,” where he was schooling in 1982. “We had a subject called ‘culture’ and each one of us was given a task, which I relished, as we had the best library in Kandy, which I loved to explore in depth. My classmates and I competed to read the most books, so we could discuss and debate ideas daily.” This led to very healthy banter that made him look closely at the macro issues, like the 1977 election, when the government changed after seven years of power and many of these ideas, discussed over cups of tea with friends, have proved extremely useful throughout his career.

Yala watercolour painting kept Gamunu positive during the never ending lockdown

Talking about his early years, he discusses with much joy and happiness about how he experimented in the arts, explaining, “At school I loved pastels and capturing scenery and the voodoo of the location. I was not a prominent artist during my school days as I did it for fun and, although I kept it secret, the teachers who saw it said that I had a knack for capturing the architectural essence of a building. My parents, like most people, wanted me to be a doctor, but I used to draw in the back of the room during classes and was hammered by the chemistry teacher for not concentrating hard enough on my studies.”

His father was also great at painting and thinking creatively when building the family business, but sadly for him and his brothers and sister, his mother died of pneumonia when he was 14 years old, leaving his father so upset at losing the great love of his life that he died, too, of a heart attack, a few months later.

As a result of this early double tragedy in his young life, he had to start at the bottom of the hotel business, and in 1981, at the age of 19, he got his first job as a

Architectural drawings are his passion since childhood
Gumunu’s self portrait considering life’s many challenges, but always finding positive solutions
Simple village life is anything but simple and yet the heartbeat of this historic island
Gamunu was so attached to his son they held hands  everywhere they went exploring the island
Gamunu’s sketch of a Negombo rod fisherman deep in thought

steward, washing up at Mount Lavinia Hotel. Despite the challenges in his family life, Gamunu wanted to get on in life and when he met manager Rohan De Mel, who asked him what he would like to do with his life, he cheekily responded, “I want to sit at your chair, which is not an easy task”. Gamunu then joined Ceylon Hotel school in Colombo and, to pay his living costs, he worked at Lanka Oberoi, where he started as a waiter then rose to senior captain, which was extremely tough with the hours he had to juggle between studies and work. “The best part is, I had to go to the hotel school from 8.45am to 3.30pm and then from 4pm to 1am in the night I worked at Oberoi. Not only that, I walked 13 kilometres home every night, as there were no buses at that hour.”

Then, in 1987/88 during the JVP uprising, Gamunu decided it was time to leave the island to build his career, so he went to Jedda to work at the Red Sea Palace in Saudi Arabia, returning in 1990 to complete his studies at the Ceylon Hotel school. In 1991, he started as Food & Beverage Manager at St Andrews, going on to work at Tropical Villas in Beruwala in 1993 and in 1996, he was promoted to Assistant Manager at Hunas Falls, after which, in 1999 to 2006, he went back to manage Tropical Villas, returning, in 2006, to Hunas Falls as the General Manger and then to Laos in 2011 to a charming town called Luang Prabang, where he spent two amazing years. Then, in 2014, he went to Jetwing Yala, where he turned the hotel into one of the most sort after and popular places to stay in the country, as seen by the number of returning guests, who loved both him and the five star hotels dynamic environmental strategy and later developing an exciting Safari camping experience with his dynamic team of naturalists.

Gamunu says, “I learnt many things from Yala, like having to train a number of young people from the area, who had never seen a hotel before in their life, but who had this ambition and drive that has taken them all over the world.” During Gamunu’s seven, nearly eight years at Yala, the global pandemic was one of the hardest issues for him to deal with, especially the way it affected his team, who he clearly deeply loves as much as his very exceptional family. “On 16th March 2020, our hotel was isolated and cleared of guests, by the military due to a Covid 19 case found in one of our tour guides. I then had to keep the hotel going with only 15 staff to manage a 100 room property in a first class state for when we could finally reopen. I did not go home for two months and had to minimise all the costs, reducing our consumption to one meal of curry and rice a day and turning off the lights so there were no electricity bills to pay. I would have dinner by candlelight and again I started to draw in April, as whenever I got overwhelmed by the situation the country was facing, it was like meditation and therapy for me; when I drew and sketched life around me, the stress would go away.

Being someone that creates the bench mark for standards and customer service, not knowing in 2020 what was going to happen next as more and more of the world lockdown made him feel like “I would have gone crazy if I had not been able to paint, as I was all alone at Sri Lankan New Year last April with no chance of seeing my family. So to keep myself focussed I paid a lot of attention in my spare time to explore the details in each picture, so it would take me 5 to 6 days to complete a piece, between dealing with one issue after another running an empty hotel, during the 67 days of lockdown. To give you an idea of the situation, the property is 22 kilometres away from the nearest village; we had no lights, no business, no guests, and were effectively in the jungle with wild elephants marauding around the grounds and only a handful of us to keep the place safe and looking beautiful.” Walking was his only other salvation as observing the wildlife helped also relax his mind.

Since moving to Negombo in April, he has started drawing with Indian ink pens given to him by his daughter and, unlike pencil, where you can erase and redo mistakes, with ink, every mark counts. So, as we progress from one lockdown to another he feels whatever a persons creative inclination, just do it and you will, even in the hardest of times, find that inner happiness that will help settle your mind and get you through all this uncertainty and stress. With one curfew just gone and another starting again over the Vesak period, he is busy compiling a set of some 15 photographs and drawing them together so you can understand the life of a lagoon fisherman, “The people here live such a unique existence with the nets, lines and manmade decoy islands that are used for fishing; those fish they miss are gobbled up by the Kingfisher, Intermediate Egret, Cormorant or White-bellied Waterhen, all of which appear in his latest pen and ink drawing. Including the friendly hotel water monitor lizard. He explains, “ If you photograph the lagoon you can’t capture its soul, but you can if you pull the many elements together from the bird life to the way people have been fishing with nets for hundreds of years plant a picture of life that frames it and makes it so exotic and special to encourage those who have never seen it to come and stay. You can fabricate a true picture of this unique part of Sri Lanka by collecting many different things together. So in a way Gamunu is writing a story about not only the scenery, but the many tales it has to tell about life on the Lagoon. This is now something he loves to do when he wants to step out and think of the best solutions for his guests in this excellent Level One hotel. It is something not one photo can ever capture and this is the magic of using pencil or pen you can take elements of many different images and gather them into one frame. He points out that each day is a new exciting vista and today he is thrilled to see a red sail boat, like an ancient dhow passing by, something none of his team have seen before.

Gamunu says “I drew for my personal satisfaction at school and did not even show my children until recently. My friends liked my drawings on facebook during the pandemic, so I started posting more of them.” Two well known artists from his school, Pushpananda Ekanayake and Ajith Ranjan Ekanayake asked where was this talent before? “I guess now I want to start showing my life and also leave something for my children and grandchildren to understand what I have seen travelling around this amazing island. I also want to make my friends and colleagues happy during this very hard time that we are all going through. For me, you showing others what I have done means a great deal, as I see the power my pictures have on peoples well being and happiness.”

Interestingly, when Gamunu leaves, to finish off his latest ink drawing, he responds politely to a suggestion of creating a painting of the adorable newborn baby chick, “I don’t want to be told when to draw something; it must talk to me first.” The noisy chick seemed to have a lot to say, and like the hotel monitor lizard who likes to sneak into the pool for the occasional dip when no one is looking, these suggestions merely amused him, but did not inspire his creativity to pick up a paint brush or pencil at the end of another long working week. He explains “The spirit has to come to me to move my hand with the pencil, or the ink to give the page detail, and, as shadows appear, the drawing takes life and the story of a place is told for those in the future to know of the life we live now.” So go on travel on your own doorstep and discover your inner talents that in time may prove as interesting as crossing the globe.

To say Gamunu has achieved this and more is an understatement as one well travelled businessman put it this week about the hotel he runs, “Jetwing Lagoon is the best quarantine Level One hotel in the world; you come out rejuvenated and inspired by the stunning location that envelopes you in wildlife, which comes and goes about the island’s largest pool, and, however down you are, the delightful staff will put you in great spirits and the world class food is a fantastic reminder of an island that is deeply proud of its exquisite, delicious cuisine.” The fact that the General Manager is also a lover of drawing may just explain why he is so good at looking at everything, even the smallest of details.

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Gumunu has captured in pen and ink the soul of Negombo’s ancient Lagoon framed by Nature’s healing powers
Gamunu’s imaginings of Galle Fort’s Leyn Baan Street, somewhere he loves to go and created while under lockdown in Yala
The red sailing boat that appeared like magic out of nowhere and then vanished