Happiness Through Teaching: Mrs. Seeta Vimalakshmi Jebanesan
By Shruthi Mathews & Thulasi Muttulingam
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Seeta Vimalakshmi Jebanesan
Seeta Vimalakshmi Jebanesan was eight years old when her father died. Today, she is 80. She has lived through war and hidden under her bed as bombs fell near her home in Jaffna. But as she looks back on a long life, she still identifies her most significant challenge as the loss of her father. This loss, with the grief and hardship that followed, impelled a life and career in music.
Seeta, or Mrs. Jebanesan, as her students call her, is a music teacher. Trained as a classical pianist from a very early age, Mrs. Jebanesan has taught Western classical music across Jaffna, including Vembadi Girls High School and Jaffna College. But although Mrs. Jebanesan has traveled a long journey in music, it wasn’t her passion for the art that lit this path; it was the death of her father that gave purpose and form to her work. As Mrs. Jebanesan recalls, “It wasn’t that I had a passion for music. Because we didn’t have a father, I thought I have to study and help my mother earn money.” Mrs. Jebanasan was one of six in a family that was educated and gifted in the arts. Following their father’s death, her family felt deep grief and also financial strain. In the wake of their sudden loss of security, their mother aligned each of her children with a skill or art they showed promise in and encouraged them to pursue this as a future line of work. As Mrs. Jebanesan says, “she gave each of us a line; my sisters was art, mine was music.” Oddly, considering Mrs. Jebanesan’s dedication and achievement in the practice, music wasn’t her first choice or passion, “Had my father been alive, I would have wanted to go to the university to study. I would have liked to do Religious Education,” she muses, “My ambition when I was small was also to do social service. I love children.”
But although Mrs. Jebanesan did not formally study religion, this desire and faith remain alive and present within her teaching. Mrs. Jebanesan’s faith in God informs all aspects of her life. As the wife of Bishop S. Jebanesan of the Jaffna Diocese of the CSI church, she was involved in the church’s musical activities, from training the choir to translating and notating hymns. She also has a great love of religious music, which she continues to teach to her students who, she remarks, are happy to learn them even if they aren’t Christian themselves. As Mrs. Jebanesan notes, “Throughout my career, there were always children in my house, and they were always singing.” Her home is open to children who may not have their own instruments or pianos to practice at home. While she administers lessons according to the exacting standards of international examinations boards, she has also been a part mother, part counselor figure to many of her students, particularly to those without their parents.
Mrs. Jebanesan’s memories of her home in Jaffna evoke a place of warmth and light amid a city that saw much darkness and fear, “Even during curfew, people would say that there was so much laughter, singing, and drama going on at Jebanesan’s house. When there was curfew time, there was also no light, but I would take lanterns and go to the children’s house and teach them English and also English songs.” She candidly remarks that she was able to remain in Jaffna during its most terrifying days because of her unshakeable assurance in the divine protection of God. In the face of bombings and threats, Mrs. Jebanesan never really felt afraid; she knew that this was not how she would die. And so she stayed, playing music, opening her home, and extending her warmth to the children who wished to learn.
Reflecting on her 80 years of life, Mrs. Jebanesan says “I’m happy over my past life, and also I’m not sad that I had to go through this. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved and contributed. People around me are grateful for my contribution to the community. Teaching gave me enormous happiness. I love playing the piano when the children sing, and when they sing I get a real happiness.” She remembers the support of her uncle and aunt, who both helped her early career by purchasing books, funding her classes, and offering encouragement.
Mrs. Jebanesan’s quiet achievements and kindness aren’t widely known, but they are deeply felt. Her impact is felt on the lives of the children she taught and in the high standards of music she maintained — and continues to maintain — in Jaffna. From the deep wound of the loss of her father grew a life in music that touched many. Mrs. Jebanesan has faced loss and she has resisted the great obstacle of war; in the face of death and danger, she refused to leave her home, resolutely persevering in the role assigned to her as a child: to be a teacher of music.
(Shruthi Mathews is currently an online graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, studying Liberal Arts. She was a co-founder of the food review site YAMU and covered arts for the Hindu newspaper in Chennai. She’s a graduate of University College London and mother of two.)
(Thulasi Muttulingam is a journalist based in Jaffna. She mainly reports on post war social issues and women’s issues)
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