Cassandra scrabbles around for mishaps and mistakes, of the Mighty of course, for her Friday Cry and ruminates like a true female bovine for scraps of gossip starting Sunday. Strangely this Sunday she fished out nothing. There was much about Pandora and the papers that flew out of the box of investigative journos, but Cass decided not to touch these, too hot and far too close to a pretend royal family for an unprotected woman to look into, least of all, comment on. Then viola! Serendipity! Ooh la la! The editor of The Island, on Monday, October 18, inadvertently threw a morsel in her way: “A move to set up a zoo on a 72-acre land (in Piliyandala)…” And who pray is the Zoo Enthusiast, cruel to animals, behind it? Minister of Power, Gamini Lokuge who, the Ed implies, fits into Bob Hope’s definition of senile: “when candles cost more than the birthday cake,” and Cassandra says outright: Should have retired to anonymity, more probably ignominy, many years ago. Wasn’t this minister the one that defied COVID-19 restrictions and wanted open sesame for his electorate to go where they pleased, as they liked, when the entirety of Sri Lanka was locked down? Resembles another costly candle buyer, ex-tuition master, Bandula Goonewardena, who wanted a cricket stadium built in Piliyandala or thereabouts notwithstanding the many Colombo boasts of, and Moratuwa too.
These Ministers of the government who come up with these ‘brilliant’, read absolutely haywire but personal money making or vote catching, projects should have their heads examined. Free Sri Lanka is on its knees or on its last legs economically so how would it spend on such completely unnecessary projects. The land in Piliyandala was earmarked for a veterinary hospital and factory to turn out food for existing zoos. No, the ‘Big House’ man decided to imprison animals and not cure them. Cass suggests we set environment protector Devani on Lokuge. She will crush the bod using only her knowledge of nature matters, experience as ecosystem protector, womanly wisdom and of course, her sharp, unafraid tongue.
We are sick of these crazy ideas. More seriously, the country is damaged irreparably by these VIP-dreamed-up projects. Cynics say it is to harvest commissions. Surely you don’t send the country down the ‘pallam’ of destruction to enrich yourself? That is idealistic Cass speaking. The realistic Crier of Doom realises that the most important matter of the hour is stashing away pilfered lucre. And there are ways, means and facilitators for this as exposed in the Pandora Papers. The truth however is that now, persons will sell their mothers, their very motherland, to enrich themselves further. They impoverish an already economically challenged country, aggravate the poverty of most, so that 50 percent of the population is ill-fed and half of them malnourished to the extreme.
We, at first, freely allocated forest land for many insane projects; given away by mere word of mouth, however presidential, treating askance written orders. So we saw forest cover, of massive soaring trees, reduced to corn plants. The latest trend is to give away forest land to grow aloe vera. My heavens! Can’t this resilient plant be grown interspaced with trees in other plantations? Can one bear to cut down a tree for this insignificant plant? It is a money-plant though.
Next came the overnight banning of inorganic fertilisers, insecticides, weedicides; then delay in obtaining COVID-19 vaccines while power was consolidated and dual citizens legally brought to the country as saviours. Next followed the rape of Wewa bunds to lay jogging paths for non-est joggers. Billions were also earmarked for beautification of certain cities. OK with excess money obtainable. But aney appé not when the Treasury is drained of cash and SL cannot pay its debts, though, of course, the Governor of the Central Bank (CB) says we are on cloud nine money wise. Ex-Prez M Sirisena tots up billions that were sent in cheques from the Treasury in 2000-something and again on January 7, 2015, just the day prior to the presidential election that saw him through. He asks where the money was sent on a day business was not carried out. It was supposed to be for a huge project to divert the Nilwala Ganga and another to Hambantota. Not a tiny stream has been diverted nor even a start made. Money transferred though.
Now it’s zoos to be built. The Ed had a super solution to this latest craze. Yes, build the zoo with its protective boundaries that converts it to an open prison, but save the beasts and others of the wild and make the politico animals, who commit crimes against humanity, the inmates of the posh new Zoo in Piliyandala; named Lokuge Udyanaya or have again the R name one sees all over the island, except in the North.
Statements, not quite quotes
The President, at an army ceremony with much pomp and pageantry, apologised, or at least said, he had been unable to fully implement promises made to the people. We appreciate this admission. He does not seem to see reasons. Shall Cass dare point them out? To her it’s the false prophets, unwise advisers and the Cabinet who have caused him to be ineffective in the keeping of promises he made which won our votes. The Cabinet, different names given by different persons to most of them, knows only how to shake heads in the correct direction to say yes to the Prez and of course PM, and shake heads horizontally if the answer required is nay. Have we Ordinaries ever heard a Cabinet Minister asking an in-depth, contradicting question from either of the royals or shown the slightest disapproval of their proposals? Most are uneducated boors. So Prez, out with most of them and nominate pragmatic intellectuals in, women included; never mind if they are not lotus buds.
The Governor of the CB says that we can manage even if GSP+ concessions are not granted us. The visiting EU team’s negative opinion of this fair isle gone rotten will be no surprise judging by what a State Minister did while they were right here investigating the human rights status quo. The Minister goes marching into one prison, inebriated it was said, accompanied by a shorts-clad ‘beauty’ and played with the hangman’s rope disregarding the imprisoned inmates. To the other he barges in, not in a playful mood but revengefully and threatens Tamil prisoners with his gun to their heads. No reprimand; no punishment at all for this pohottuwa. And thus, no GSP in all probability. The Governor of CB suffers not, neither does the karachchal Minister, but our garment and fisheries exporters will, very significantly, losses passed onto the near-slaving factory and fisheries workers.
Minister Aluthgamage continues to be hit, trod on, spat at, red paint splashed and burnt. Oops sorry! Minister A’s effigy is subject to these crescendoing indignities. Cass spied another’s effigy being paraded by farmers somewhere. No burning of it; or no TV cameras captured it. These farmers are desperate and their cry for inorganic fertilizers should be respected and attended to immediately.
Teachers, and shockingly principals, striking and marching is not tolerable. They are crushing the dignity of pedagogues or pedagogy and seem to be dementedly following vituperative, hate scattering Stalin, their leader, who gives Cass the impression this mass strike is really a personal vendetta. Those who are supposed to mould totally balanced personalities out of the students in their charge, are behaving worse than jackals. What can salary increases be paid with? The situation is as basic as that.
And so the caravan of leaders moves on; the river of tumult flows; the sea of discontent rises and serendipitous Lanka is changed almost wilfully to a miserable place of high costs and low living.
Rising farce of Family Power
Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.
He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.
He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.
“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,
“If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again. If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.
“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”
Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength. In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.
It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.
While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.
Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law? Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?
What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,
The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.
The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance. There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser – from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?
The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to
use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.
A tribute to vajira
By Uditha Devapriya
The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.
A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.
In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.
One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.
Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.
In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.
In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.
Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.
Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.
Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.
At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”
If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.
Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.
These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.
Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.
As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.
As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.
Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.
That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
It’s all about France in Kandy !
This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.
A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.
All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.
Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.
Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.
To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.
Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar
comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives
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