I first heard about Minnette de Silva a couple of years ago.
She was a pioneering architect of Sri Lanka, forgotten long before her death. This appears to be the buzzword when it comes to Minnette – “forgotten”. It’s in the title, or at the very least, the first paragraph of every article about her published twenty years after her death.
She’s not the only person to be forgotten by the world, not the only woman, or Sri Lankan, she’s not even the only one to be forgotten in her own family. There are many people left out by “official” histories and public discourse. Minnette de Silva, and her mother, Agnes de Silva, are not the first.
Nor will they be the last.
What I find most unsettling about their stories, however, is that in wildly different ways, they each dedicated themselves to their country and achieved great things in its name. Yet, until very recently, I had never come across their names or achievements at school or in my daily life.
Agnes was a suffragette who fought for women’s right to vote in Sri Lanka, and she got it. She was instrumental in the foundation of the Women’s Franchise Union of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), fighting for the rights of Indian Tamil women, and granting a franchise to women above thirty. Not that she stopped there, she went on to fight for Ceylon’s independence from British rule, which was achieved in 1948.
Minnette, based on her story, seems to have shared her mother’s drive and passion.
She was the first Asian woman to be appointed an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was the first representative of Asia in the International Congresses of Modern Architecture. She pioneered the modern architectural style of Sri Lanka (years before her contemporaries caught up). She made it a point to incorporate local crafts and styles into her work, giving local artisans employment and recognition in the modern age.
She was also the second woman in the world to open an independent architectural practice under her own name.
Her worldly social circle included Picasso, Homi Bhabha, Le Corbusier, David Lean, and Mulk Raj Anand. It paints a vibrant image of her early life that seems to only emphasize the tragedy of her much-talked-about lonely death.
What little there is to be known of both Minnette and Agnes has already been saying. There is some poetic irony about being remembered as a forgotten pioneer, but my takeaway from them both is that I should have known about them earlier.
Sri Lanka is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the first female Prime Minister in the world – Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was (briefly) Prime Minister before being appointed President of Sri Lanka, a role she held until the end of 2005.
In 2018, Sri Lanka reimposed a law that had for the most part been forgotten. The law makes it illegal for women to purchase alcohol from, or work at, a bottle shop.
As a country, we forget to remember the people who fought for it to be better, who returned home to establish themselves in Sri Lanka and let their home, and their people, benefit from their hard work and talent. It makes me wonder how much more both Agnes and Minnette could’ve achieved if they were appreciated, and celebrated by the country they clearly loved.
It also makes me wonder how many more Minnettes and Agneses there are out there that I didn’t learn about in the classroom. It’s time Sri Lanka showed more pride in the stories that can inspire their young women to follow in the footsteps of the women who came before them and paved the way.
In 2018, the World Bank concluded that 51.97% of the Sri Lankan population were women, more than half the island’s occupants.
What would my country look like if we heard more about the Minnettes and Agneses, and fewer justifications about why we shouldn’t be allowed in bottle shops?
We don’t have to turn elsewhere for role models or vehicles for our ambitions and dreams; they’ve been sitting right under our noses all along. Rubbing shoulders with Picasso and creating the architecture of the island as we know it, fighting for the rights we take for granted every day….and in sarees, no less.
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