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All kings and all things Kandyan

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By Uditha Devapriya
The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom (1591-1765) by Gananath Obeyesekere
Perera-Hussein, 2020, 200 pp., Rs. 1,200

In 1602, the year of the Dutch East India Company’s founding, Joris van Spilbergen reached the shores of Sri Lanka after setting sail from the seaport of Veere in Holland a year earlier. Tasked with opening up trade negotiations with the King of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya, Spilbergen bore with him a letter from the Prince of Orange, acknowledging their willingness to counter the Portuguese. Not for one moment underestimating the Portuguese presence in the island, though, they disembarked at Batticaloa, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Kandyan Court. They anchored off the coast on May 31.

From there, having proved that they were not of Portuguese extraction, they began their journey to the capital of the Sinhala Kingdom on July 6, after receiving word from the king. Taking 10 of their countrymen with him, Spilbergen’s entourage was flanked by elephants, palanquins, and every hour, gifts of fruits and vegetables and inquiries from messengers sent by the king. Among those gifts were flasks of wine: made, they learnt, from grapes in the country under the guidance of Jesuit priests. Paul E. Pieris tells us that they relished the wine, and even compared it favourably with the Portuguese variety.

A foreign envoy to the Court of Kandy in the 17th century would have to go through certain formalities before obtaining an audience with the king. Not even Spilbergen could spare his embassy from these protocols.

On the river crossing Kandy, they met Manuel Dias, a Portuguese Mudliyar in the king’s service. A thousand or so armed soldiers, some of them Turks, Moors, Kaffirs, and Portuguese, the rest Sinhalese, then accompanied them to a Rest House built in Western fashion. Hours later, in the afternoon, the king sent three saddled horses with a message that he was ready to receive the group. The rendezvous between the envoy and the monarch, as drawn by Dutch artists, depicts Vimaladharmasuriya as bulky, lanky, and powerful, yet friendly. This was the impression Spilbergen had of him too. What he didn’t realise at the time was how immensely cosmopolitan he was.

Vimaladharmasuriya had been consecrated as King of Kandy in 1591 under circumstances both peculiar and significant in the context of the country’s history. With his reign began the period of the last citadel of the Sinhalese kings. And yet, as scholars have identified, its first ruler was neither totally Sinhalese nor totally Buddhist. Having been baptised and brought up by Catholic missionaries, and christened Dom João of Austria, the man who would be king distinguished himself by his fencing skills, serving the Portuguese.

The pretender of Sitavaka, Rajasinghe, had executed his father years before. Taking on his earlier name of Konappu Bandara, he and a confidante of his called Salappu Bandara joined Don Juan Dharmapala’s campaigns against Rajasinghe. Later, in one of those campaigns, he entered the Kandyan highlands, where he reneged on his loyalties, proclaimed himself as a sovereign ruler, took on a new name, and embraced Buddhism.

Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom, lucidly written and accessible, delves into this chapter in our country’s history. It is more than a prequel to his earlier published The Doomed King, which focuses on the last ruler of the kingdom, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe. Taking up several vantage points from the perspectives of its rulers, Obeyesekere’s latest work captures the contradictions which were very much a part of the cosmopolitanism of Sri Lanka’s last capital. He begins with Spilbergen’s expedition, the banquet Vimaladharmasuriya hosted for his entourage, and the encounters the latter had of his Court. What is striking is not the deeply entrenched cosmopolitanism, but how that cosmopolitanism evolved, changed, and faded away under its later rulers.

In The Doomed King Obeyesekere endeavoured to portray Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe as more schemed against than scheming, the victim of a conspiracy hatched by his own courtiers. His prose, at once pugnacious and polemical, remains as pugnacious and polemical as ever here. The problem with the compiler of Kandyan history, he implies, is not that there isn’t a lack of sources, but that there’s so much of them. The task of the compiler and historian, which Obeyesekere fulfils until the end, is to disentangle these and distinguish between the reality and the myth. That’s where the prose becomes so pivotal.

Among the more contemporary accounts of Kandyan history which the author critically assesses here are Lorna Dewaraja’s The Kandyan Kingdom, 1707-1760, C. E. Godakumbura’s Sinhalese Literature, S. N. Arasaratnam’s Ceylon and the Dutch, and even Paul E. Pieris’s celebrated Ceylon: The Portuguese Era and Sinhale and the Patriots. While mounting a thinly veiled yet highly impassioned defence of the Kandyan rulers, he counters the Portuguese, Dutch, and British accounts from then as well. The main issue with these, he concludes, is that they simplify an otherwise multifaceted, complex reality: the Kandyan Kingdom was neither as Sinhala Buddhist as the Pali Chronicles, which celebrated the Sinhala kings, made it out to be, nor opposed to Sinhala Buddhist values as the Portuguese and the Dutch, who found in the later Nayakkars a formidable foe, imagined it to be.

The Pali Chronicles which valorise the pre-Nayakkar rulers make almost no mention of their sensual pursuits. As Obeyesekere rightly points out, “erotic practices and popular temple dancing… were hardly the stuff of monastic interest.” And yet, they were very much a part of secular life, even in the Anuradhapura Period; no less an account than the Dalada Sirita tells us of Parakramabahu IV organising a harem, among other festivities, in honour of the Tooth Relic. Even Dutugemunu, the hero of the Mahavamsa, once “disported himself in the water the whole day together with the women of the harem.”

The absence of such references to the pre-Nayakkar rulers of Kandy has led to two assumptions today: either that these rulers were Sinhala Buddhist, or, on the evidence that some of them indulged in what must to a prudish mind be un-Sinhala, un-Buddhist activities, that their frolicking distracted them from their role as protectors of the faith. Obeyesekere unequivocally debunks both these views.

The author engages in a defence of Narendrasinghe, widely perceived to be a playful king (or sellam rajjuruwa). Not unlike A. H. Mirando’s defence of Rajasinghe I and critique of the widely prevalent view of that king’s anti-Buddhist personality, Obeyesekere conjures up a counter-narrative. Much of Narendrasinghe’s image as a playful ruler, he suggests, comes from a distortion of the very word sellam. While it did include “erotic enticements, mostly by dancing women accompanied by drumming and singing”, this was hardly peculiar to the ruler of Kandy. Indeed, “sellam” embraced music, poetry, and the arts too, and the heroic pose of the king, as celebrated by poets, did not necessarily exclude these material exploits. One can quote Cameron Dokey here: “for surely a king is first a man.”

There’s no doubt that the freewheeling spirit of these monarchs, so scandalising that after the 19th century, under the influence of Protestant Buddhism, it was sidelined if not excised by nationalist historians, endeared them to European diplomats. Indeed, it helped them to acquaint with European and Western customs.

One recalls Vimaladharmasuriya’s aside on the question of faith with the Dutch: he pointed to the city and declared that “all this has God given me.” Receding briefly in the reigns of Senarat and Vimaladharmasuriya II, by the time of Narendrasinghe this cosmopolitan streak starts to crop up again. In the interregnum between these monarchs, moreover, we have the colourful figure of Rajasinghe II, who collects, as Paul E. Pieris once wrote, “a perfect menagerie of the various European races which visited his dominions.”

Even Senarat’s reign is not free from this tendency; it is during his time that a Dutch envoy is appointed as a nobleman in Negombo: Marcellus de Bochouwer, or Meegamu Rala. It is also during his time that many of these European races start to marry local women, “enhancing the complexion of many a fair Kandyan.” Not just Robert Knox, but also De Lanerolle, figures in as key witnesses to his successor’s more complex polity. One can’t unconditionally accept them, of course, but many of their insights into the kingdom have survived.

Given the evidence, Obeyesekere seems quite justified in his assertion that much of our understanding of the Kandyan Kingdom stems from “a three-way antagonistic discourse” between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Sinhalese, which picked up after the Nayakkars moved in. The conflict between the kingdom’s ideal of “Tri Sinhale” – “the three parts of the Sinhala land” – and the reality of European presence had brought in missionaries, envoys, musicians, and military officers from various parts of the world to the highland territories. When the Dutch annexed the Maritime Provinces, Portuguese missionaries found an ally of sorts in the king, who let them peach and convert. Right until the last Sinhala ruler of the territory, Narendrasinghe, Catholic priests coexisted with Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. With Narendrasinghe’s demise, the situation changed drastically.

Here the author departs considerably from scholars, historians, and compilers who see in the enthronement of the Nayakkars a turnaround in the Kandyan polity. While not denying the veracity of their views, Obeyesekere argues that the demonization of the Nayakkars as not just un-Buddhist but also anti-Buddhist was mostly the doing of Dutch officials hostile to them; he cites two Dutch governors, Jan Schreuder and the more militant Baron van Eck, as they plan out and mount campaigns to annexe the highland territories.

Meanwhile, conscious of their foreignness in a Buddhist polity, the Nayakkars from the reign of Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe begin to compel not only envoys absorbed into the kingdom like De Lanerolle, but also Catholic priests like Jacome Gonçalves (“a more problematic figure”), to leave the territory. What replaced the cosmopolitanism of the earlier rulers, most historians conclude from that, was a Dravidised territory.

While this thesis is accepted by most, Obeyesekere rejects it. He posits two reasons for his refutation: one, that the Nayakkar influence in the Kandyan Court preceded the arrival of the Nayakkar kings, and two, that Dravidisation was nothing new to the Sinhala polity. It is true, as historians have pointed out, that the Pali Chronicles accepted them as Sinhala rulers owing to their disavowal of their “false beliefs” – recalling the Mahavamsa’s valorisation of Elara despite his “false beliefs” – and it is also true that Western observers, not mindful enough of how race operated in the upcountry, failed to see how Telugus from North India could be incorporated as Sinhala monarchs.

But the reality was far more complex than this, and it is to Obeyesekere’s credit that, in his chapters on Muslim presence in the Kandyan territories, the demonization of the Nayakkars by militant Dutch Governors, and the reordering of “the cosmic city” in line with the rules and symbols of kinship by Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, he acknowledges it throughout his study. It was here that British designs on the island began to materialise as well; under the last two kings, these designs reached their logical end, culminating in the deterioration of relations between the ruler and his Chief Ministers. That is where the narrative of The Doomed King takes over, and where this work, a fine if not original prequel to it, ends.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

An epic Air Ceylon charter flight in late 1940s

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Reminiscences upon turning 100:

The comprehensive and interesting article written by Capt. Elmo Jayawardena in The Island newspaper of 06 October 2020 under the title, ‘First Pilgrimage to Mecca by Air,’ described the daring flying capabilities of the Ceylonese pilots with limited navigational facilities when Civil Aviation commenced in Ceylon in 1947.

The final pilgrimage to Mecca by Air Ceylon was to take a group of pilgrims organised by Adamjee Lukmanjee family and friends not only on pilgrimage to Mecca but also on a tour to Cairo and Damascus.

The crew consisted of Capt. Peter Fernando, Co-Pilot. P.B. Mawalagedera, Co-Capt. Ken Joachim, Radio officer D. L. Sirimanne and Flight Engineer G. V. Perera.

The Ratmalana Airport was chock-a-block with well wishers, relations and friends. The pilgrims were all dressed in white. The DC3 aircraft had 21 slumber lounge seats for luxury travel. The aircraft loaded to full capacity finally took off on a beautiful clear morning and set course to Bombay on its first lap. It was a four-and-a-half-hour flight flying at 8,000 feet. Approaching the Indian air space, we were cleared to ascend to 12,000 feet to fly over the Western Ghats. Heavy cloud formations were encountered. Fasten-seat-belts warning was switched on and the aircraft got enveloped in thick clouds; the flight became extremely bumpy, rough and turbulent. Down drafts almost sucked the passengers off their seats. It lasted for about half an hour and then the plane shot out to blue skies and steady smooth flying again to the joy of the frightened passengers and landed at Bombay for refueling.

The passengers were relieved to stretch their legs and attend to toilet facilities at the airport. Lunch was served and when ready took off to Karachi, a three-and-a-half-hour flight. The weather was superb. Nearing Karachi, the evening sky became hazy turning red in the setting sun. The famous R 101 Hangar at Karachi Airport was visible from as far as 70 miles which was a useful navigational aid for homing. It was a huge aluminum roofed hangar which reflected the setting sun like a glistening star. It was built in 1929 for the R 101 Airship to fly long distance in the British Empire, but on its maiden flight from England, crashed over France killing the crew and passengers. On landing at Karachi, the BOAC agent took the passengers and crew for a night stop to their BOAC ‘Speed Bird’ transit hotel at the Karachi Airport similar to the KLM ‘Midway House.’ It had comfortable rooms with sleeping and toilet facilities and attendants at the press of a button. A sumptuous biriyani dinner was served.

Early next morning after breakfast, we left Karachi and headed over the sea to Salalah on the Arabian Coast. The five-hour flight was smooth and uneventful and we landed at Salalah for fueling. Since it was midday, the lunch packets and drinks loaded at Karachi were served on ground. Refreshed, we took off and did a five hours flight in clear weather and landed at Aden for a night stop. Aden was beastly hot and unbearable. The BOAC staff welcomed us and took the passengers and crew to a comfortable hotel in the city centre for the night.

Early in the morning, we took off, and after a three-hour flight landed in Jeddha, a busy transit airport for Hajj pilgrims to Mecca. The Adamjees thanked us and bid farewell on their journey to Mecca on a Saudi Airline as foreign aircraft were forbidden to operate to Mecca. We returned empty to Aden for a three-day stay. To our annoyance, the Aerodrome Control instructed us to park in a remote area far from the normal parking bay. Three miserable days later we left Aden and arrived in Jeddah. The pilgrims having finished their rituals at the sacred Kaaba in Mecca were gleefully waiting excitedly to tour famous Cairo and Damascus. The leader of the party had brought two large barrels of Holy Water and requested they be loaded. Capt. Fernando politely refused to take them as the aircraft was loaded to capacity and suggested they be shipped to Colombo.

The BOAC Representative informed that it was a mandatory requirement for passengers visiting Cairo from Jeddah and South Africa to spend three days quarantine in El Tor as a precaution against Yellow Fever. On the navigation chart we observed it was almost on our heading to Cairo. The four-hour flight was uneventful and we homed on El Tor NDB. We got landing instructions and the runway was an improvised airstrip marked with white painted stones and a small building at the end. We landed and taxied to a camp spread in front of the building which, we later learnt, was a base hospital with spacious tents for accommodation.

After immigration formalities, we were taken over by a Medical Officer and a batch of nurses who attended to the passengers, and the crew was taken to a separate tent with beds, enclosed toilets and shower facilities. A little later, a nurse in uniform gave each of us a test tube with a small piece of wire tipped with a swab of cotton and a small bottle for specimens of feces and urine. After a while she came back with a tray to take them. We were unable to have them ready and requested her to come in the evening. She was furious and returned with a bulky health officer who asked us to comply immediately. Otherwise, he would be compelled to take samples by force. We had to give in as we did not like anyone poking wires into our anuses and requested a little more time. Our Flight Engineer G.V. Perera said he has an inclination and retired to the toilet. He came back with his test tube full. We shared what he brought amidst peals of laughter. The nurse came and took the samples away. We all chuckled. What if G.V’s had anything infectious? All of us would have been in quarantine for a longer period!

We were made comfortable during the three days with food, drinks and listening to the blare of Egyptian music and songs on a loudspeaker broadcast for the whole establishment. The nights were cool although no trees were within sight. There was a billiard table that kept us in good spirit. Three agonizing days in the sweltering desert heat dragged by and finally were given a Clean Bill of Health to proceed to Cairo.

El Tor airport had no control tower but only a cabin. Peter asked me to get flight clearance from the Controller. The Controller said he could not do it as Cairo was in fog. After an agonising wait of more than two hours, clearance was granted. It was a tricky take off from that short sandy runway in the desert. I held my breath with prayer as we just managed to clear the end of the runway on full power; luckily there were neither trees nor high obstructions to fly over. After an hour’s flight we landed in Cairo, a huge busy international airport with modern navigational and landing facilities. The fog had dissipated, the temperature was rather cool compared to Aden and Jeddah.

The BOAC handling agents cleared formalities and took over the passengers to a hotel, and the crew to Shepherds, where international flight crews stayed. A magnificent hotel built by the British during their occupation of Egypt to accommodate royalty and other dignitaries including King Farouk of Egypt. The hotel was like an Egyptian palace with huge pillars painted red and gold and even the rooms were large with high ceiling and huge king-size beds. The ornate lobby had a palatial atmosphere and the waiters were six-foot Nubians in colorful robes. The hotel was located overlooking a broad avenue where thousands of cars roared past without sounding their horns, a continuous mushy sound indicating how busy modern Cairo was. The food was delicious and served with wine. One had to be in full dress for dinner and we went in our Gabardine ceremonial uniforms.

The following morning, we visited the famous Cairo Museum, a vast building and saw the Mummies of King Tutankhamen and Queen Nefertiti and a huge collection of ancient artifacts of ancient Egypt and then ended with a boat ride on the Nile. There were many interesting places to visit in Cairo and further south. In the afternoon, we motored to a hotel in Giza to see the Pyramids. We hired a tour guide and six camels, one each with its keeper. I was the last to follow the batch. Half way, the camel suddenly sat on its belly and wouldn’t move. I shouted to the rest of the crew to stop and help me, but they didn’t hear and I felt frightened to be left alone with the camel keeper in the desert. He tried everything possible for the camel to get up but it wouldn’t. Then the camel keeper asked me for some ‘buckshee’ (money) and in desperation I gave him a few Egyptian pounds. He tucked it into his waist and fed something to the camel. Suddenly, it rose to its feet and started trotting at speed to follow the rest. The Pyramids are made of massive blocks of stone and there were several of them in the distance. The biggest was next to the Sphinx. We got down and there was a large hole at the base of the pyramid and we climbed within, one behind the other, an unending ladder leaning at about 40 degrees. It was dark and each was given a torch and, on all fours, we reached the middle chamber of the pyramid and strangely there was a ray of sunlight. There were empty ornate royal coffins or sarcophagus, lots of statues, and other ancient relics in it. A little while later we started descending until we came out into bright sunshine, which hurt our eyes.

In the afternoon while we were in the spacious verandah of the hotel watching the rich visitors who come to the hotel, a Muslim gentleman visited us and introduced himself as Majeed, a Ceylonese businessman owning a jewellery shop opposite the hotel. He had heard some Ceylonese had arrived and are staying in the hotel. We told him that we were an Air Ceylon crew bringing a group of Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca and they are touring Cairo for a couple of days. He was delighted to meet us. We ordered tea. While chatting, Majeed said he had heard there was a high-level diplomatic conference at the hotel that afternoon and the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake were expected to arrive here on their way after attending a Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in London.

 

It was wonderful news and we waited anxiously to meet our PM. Little later Mr. Senanayake with two gentlemen arrived, and Capt. Peter Fernando went and greeted our PM with due respect and invited him to join us. Senanayake was surprised to meet Ceylonese in Cairo, and when told that we are Air Ceylon crew flying a group of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and touring Cairo and Damascus, he congratulated us. There was a commotion and Jawaharlal Nehru arrived with a large retinue. Our PM wished us goodbye and joined them.

It was the time King Farouk was forced to abdicate and Abdul Nasser had taken over the government. The British were sent out of Egypt and the Suez Canal was taken over. Our Co- Capt. Ken Joachim, a fair Burgher in Gabardine uniform looked handsome like a British military officer. He had seen a beautiful French sales girl in a perfume shop nearby and would go on the pretext of buying some perfume. The police had stopped him and questioned him as to what he was doing in Cairo. When told he is a pilot from Ceylon bringing some tourists, they let him go. Ken got scared the Egyptians would lynch him mistaking him for a Britisher, begged me to chaperon him when visiting the perfume shop. On the last day in Cairo he bought a bottle of perfume for his wife. A message was received the passengers were ready to proceed to Damascus. We took off from Cairo at noon the following day and after a three-hour flight landed in Damascus.

Damascus is the capital of Syria. Due to turmoil in the Middle East, the Damascus Airport was full or fighter planes and soldiers. The passengers and crew were cleared and taken over by a BOAC Officer to a hotel in the centre of Damascus. Something amusing happened there; a high-ranking Air Force officer at the airport with lots of medals asked Captain Peter Fernando, from which country we were from. When told from Ceylon, he was surprised for he thought Ceylon was part of India. He wanted to know how many planes Air Ceylon had. Peter without batting an eyelid lied: ‘We have six DC4s, ten DC3s and we operate to cities in India and East.’

The pleasant and amiable BOAC Officer visited us that evening and took us to dinner at a restaurant in the Damascus City Square and then to a nightclub. It looked like a dark little den, crowded with Syrians in their traditional dress and seated on cushions on floor, smoking hookah. The air was pungent with a strong tobacco smell. We were distinguished guests and being foreigners, given front row seats. A waiter wearing tiny cups around his belt would stoop down gracefully filling the cup with strong spicy coffee from the container strapped on his back and a brass tube curved over shoulder with the snout offered coffee free on request.

Loud Syrian music by a band of musicians started playing and with a rousing applause, a fair young buxom Syrian beauty appeared on the stage scantily dressed in a sequined bra and flimsy colorful veils hanging from her waist covering a sexy bottom and shapely legs she danced her belly and hips in an erotic rhythm displaying shapely thighs, and the audience applauded with delight. Most of them were bearded old men. While dancing she snatched a veil from her waist revealing a bit of her pubic region and threw it to the audience who grabbed it gleefully throwing money to the stage. One by one while dancing she removed leaving the last to cover her nudity. The crowd in ecstasy screaming wildly threw more money at her feet. The dance went on and suddenly she coyly removed her bra, revealing beautiful dancing breasts with pink nipples, and threw it to our group. The audience was in raptures. Our amiable BOAC Officer caught it quickly and threw it back to the stage with a handful of money and hastily took us out saying she expected a night out with us.

The following morning, we went on a conducted tour of Damascus. The place that interested me most was the window in the Wall of Damascus, where St. Paul escaped in the night from certain death and fled to Jerusalem. We entered the massive market called ‘Souq’ in Arabic, is a labyrinth of passages lined with shops under one vast roof where one could get lost. Bargaining was a customary ritual. It had a variety of merchandise including beautiful clothing, genuine Persian carpets, gold, jewellery, perfume etc. I bought an attractive brocade dressing gown. Peter was looking for wartime medals, especially the “German Iron Cross,’ a medal given by Hitler for bravery. He tried to take a snap of some beggars and the police snatched the camera saying photography was prohibited. Probably, they did not want the world to know that poverty prevailed in Syria.

After three days of sightseeing, the Adamjees were ready to get back home and so were we. We flew to Sharjah for refuelling and then to Karachi for a night stop. The next morning, we took off, had lunch in Bombay and reached Ratmalana in the evening where crowds were waiting to receive the pilgrims with garlands. Thus, ended a memorable and exciting adventurous flight.

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Sat Mag

The playwright and the novelist

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Notes on culture:

By Uditha Devapriya

Sir Chittampalam Gardiner was a man to be reckoned with. With a sure eye for what would work and what wouldn’t, he had built a sprawling empire in the movie industry. By instinct he knew what people wanted, the kind of tastes they pandered to.

Movies meant big business those days. They invariably conformed to a certain pattern: men and women chasing after one another through song and dance, heroes and villains facing each other in a final skirmish, good triumphing over evil, innocence over cynicism. Primitive though they may have been, these nevertheless determined the fortunes of directors, actors, and technicians. As such they stuck to the same formula, and gave audiences more of the same. Gardiner knew this, and hence knew which horse to back.

Lester James Peries’s first encounter with Gardiner has to be situated in this context. Chitra Lanka, the “company” Lester and his acolytes had set up for his debut, Rekava, needed money. They had no one else to turn to. Thus with six reels of film in a bag, they went to meet Gardiner and his wife at the Regal, on “a dreary dismal morning.” In the darkness of the hall, no one said a word when they projected the film. They were nervous. If he said no, they had nothing else to do but wrap up production.

After much rising of tension, they sighed with inexorable relief as Gardiner asked them to come up to his office. There, beside Lady Gardiner, he wrote a cheque for Rs. 125,000 for the three mavericks: Lester, Willie Blake, and Titus Thotawatte. Not a particularly bulky man, he was nevertheless wont to making papal pronouncements. He chose this moment to make one of them: “I have just seen,” he declared, “the finest Sinhalese film ever made.” Lester’s heart fluttered: could it be that that the biggest movie mogul of Sri Lanka had liked Rekava that much? Apparently not: “Do you know that Seda Sulang will be an all time great?” he asked them quixotically. He had seen it in Madras a few days earlier.

The cultural renaissance which flowered in 1950s Sri Lanka took time to make itself felt in the cinema, and Gardiner’s comment in its own way proves it. Both Sarachchandra and Martin Wickramasinghe had made their mark years before Lester James Peries returned to Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe had by then been acknowledged as the man of letters in, and of, the country, as much as Faulkner and Steinbeck, through their stories of rural society, had in the United States. Sarachchandra, who rated Wickramasinghe’s work highly in The Sinhalese Novel, had begun to experiment more boldly onstage, seeking inspiration in not just kabuki, but also Sinhala and South Indian folk drama.

In order to do justice to Lester Peries’s contribution to the cinema, we must juxtapose the playwright with the novelist. It is in the confluence of their worldviews, as different as they may have been, that we see the renaissance of the 1950s run its course and reach its peak, thereby shaping the trajectory of the cinema.

By the turn of the century, the theatre had found a receptive audience among sections of the urban working class and petty trading class. Its literary equivalent was to be found in the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena, under whom the written word became a tool of propaganda for Sinhala nationalism. The Sinhala stage – really a hybrid one, representing a melange of Parsi and rural folk drama – became Janus-faced: it valorised traditional values while subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of the past. Thus John de Silva’s Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, while celebrating the heroism and martyrdom of Madduma Bandara and Ehelepola Kumarihamy, made no mention of the defection of their patriarch to British territory, and transformed the king into a non-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist pretender.

Sinhala nationalism, the ideology of small time traders, merchants, and vast swathes of the urban working class, became rooted for a while in these plays. As Frantz Fanon has observed, “[t]he history of national liberation struggles shows that generally these struggles are preceded by an increase in expressions of culture.”

This proved to be true of the small time trading class espousing anti-imperialism: the seeds of their opposition could be found more at the Tower Hall than at the Legislative Council. Their mode of protest remained at best a cultural affair, though as the case of Anagarika Dharmapala (a scion of a family of merchants) showed, such protests could go beyond a cultural framework and question the very basis of colonial rule.

What then of the novel? We need to examine its evolution in the West. Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel, argued that as a mode of narrative the novel was rooted in the emergence of the bourgeoisie; it’s more than just symbolic, after all, that it established itself definitively in 1847 and 1848, a period of unending revolution throughout the continent.

Edward Said would take up this argument in Culture and Imperialism decades later. Regi Siriwardena, however, disagreed. In a largely negative review of Said’s book, he argued that inasmuch as the bourgeoisie contributed to the growth of the novel, it gained popularity at the same time in societies where the aristocracy still held sway, the most obvious example being 18th century France. Siriwardena fails, in my opinion, to make a distinction between the evolution and the popularisation of the novel; either way, there’s no denying the role of the bourgeoisie in the West in the growth of narrative fiction.

The development of the novel, as with the theatre, played out differently in countries like Sri Lanka. Under conditions of plantation colonialism, newspapers and periodicals came to be owned by a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and European businessmen on the other, though a rentier elite later took over: D. R. Wijewardene, for instance, bought the Dinamina in 1914 from a Sinhala scholar five years after it had been started.

Nine years before WIjewardene’s takeover, A. Simon de Silva had written Meena, reputedly the first Sinhalese novel; a tale of love and intrigue, it had little in common with the later endeavours of W. A. Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena. The latter, for their part, popularised fiction among the same crowd patronising urbanised Nurti productions, and went beyond the likes of John de Silva by appealing to a rural middle class as well.

How the pioneers of the theatre and the novel in 20th century Sri Lanka – Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe – diverged from these trends is the subject of much conjecture. In their contrasting attitudes to the culture that underpinned their art, we see the paradox at the heart of the renaissance of the 1950s: like all cultural revivals, it took off from the past, yet had to be anchored in the future. Both playwright and novelist understood this duality, but at the same time their approach to it contradicted one another’s.

On the one hand there was Sarachchandra, who saw the Sinhala village as split between two worlds: that of ritual and that of religion. The two, he noted, could never come together. Far from enriching the performing arts, he felt that Theravada Buddhism contributed to their stagnation, and valorised a Sanskritised culture: one sees this even in his characterisation of temple art as narrative rather than emotive.

Like Ananda Coomaraswamy quoting the Culavagga, Dasadhamma Sutta, and Visuddhi Magga in support of his contention that Buddhism ignored the arts, Sarachchandra would view the resuscitation of folk drama and the revival of Buddhism as two different goals. It is ironic that a playwright who went, in much of his plays, for Buddhist parables should reprove religious ideology this way, but it is clear that his vision of the cultural revival pitted him against those who sought in that ideology the wellsprings of the revival.

On the other hand, there was Wickramasinghe, who championed a lesser literary tradition which had laid emphasis on popular, emotional, anti-Brahmanical Buddhism. He debunked Coomaraswamy’s thesis, and like Walpola Rahula claimed that Buddhism encouraged even men of the cloth to engage in cultural pursuits. Making a distinction between amusement and genuine art, he acknowledged the role played by the Buddhist temple in the flowering of the latter. For him, the Sanskritised Sinhala that scholars like Sarachchandra defended in the wake of “Sinhala Only” meant nothing to the ordinary man; on that basis, he defended those who agitated for parity of status for Tamil, accusing the monks who held protests against S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s proposal for the reasonable use of it of having “[t]reated the common man’s spoken Sinhalese as a vulgar language.”

Thus Sarachchandra’s ideal was oriented fundamentally to a ritualistic past rooted in a Brahmanical, Sanskritised tradition. While dismissive of Nurti, he sought to improve on it by incorporating the Buddhist parable with folk drama. Wickramasinghe’s ideal, by contrast, was oriented to a religious past devoid of Brahmanical trappings. In the realm of theatre, until a decade or so later, Sarachchandra’s ideal held sway; in the realm of literature, again until a decade or so later, it was Wickramasinghe’s that did.

When Chittampalam Gardiner raved about Seda Sulang to Lester James Peries, who was much, much younger than either of these cultural giants, the cinema had resisted these ideals. If in their conception of culture Sarachchandra differed from Wickramasinghe, in their critique of bioscope they were more or less alike. They relegated it as an amusement art, a point Sarachchandra underscored when he described Gamperaliya, a film he very much liked, as an opa pathika or a sui generis objet d’art.

Offering a critique of this thesis, Tissa Abeysekara argued that the cinema in Sri Lanka, no doubt epitomised by Lester, underwent the same cultural transformation that the theatre and the novel did. More Christianised than Sarachchandra, and certainly less rooted in the past than him or Wickramasinghe, Peries, not unlike much of the “43 Group” of which his brother, Ivan, had been a founding member, resorted to the visual arts to compensate for his linguistic handicap: just as Ivan had painted, he would film. There could thus be nothing opa pathika about the work he was engaged in; it was rooted, as much as Sarachchandra’s plays and Wickramasinghe’s novels had been, in the cultural revival.

The cinema has been faulted, rightly, as the most Western of all arts; it still hasn’t been “Easternised”, not even by the looming figures of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. In Sri Lanka as in Japan and India, it had to seek inspiration from two art forms rooted in the past. The purveyors of these art forms here both looked to the past, but their conception of it, though ostensibly similar, radically differed from one another. Gardiner may have preferred Seda Sulang to anything Peries could come up with, yet by the end of the decade and the beginning of the next, the revival that Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe had unleashed would find its way to the cinema hall. To these two cultural giants, and to their contrasting attitudes to tradition, Peries thus owes more a considerable debt.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

‘You eat what you are’

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When I was growing up in army cantonments, meat was on our table every day. It was taken for granted that military men ate meat because they were “real” men. In my grandfather’s house all the women were vegetarian, but he had to have his meat at both meals and the vegetarian women cooked it for him. When I became vegetarian, I had to listen to any number of men yapping on about how they avoided “ghasphoos”. I’ve never heard this nonsense from a woman.

On a visit to Jaipur, I had lunch with Dr. Mehta, the ex-head of SEBI and founder of the Jaipur Foot movement. I drew back in horror when I dipped into the curry. It tasted like meat. My host explained the origins of the dish and why they had prepared it specially for me. Two centuries ago, a sage turned the women of the royal families of Rajasthan vegetarian. But since the men were adamant about hunting, fighting and eating meat, the women secretly created a recipe out of wheat and ghee which tasted exactly like meat. The only problem is that the preparation takes hours so it has now become very rare.

Food and gender have been, and continue to be, closely intertwined. It’s less ‘you are what you eat’ than ‘you eat what you are’. Women are expected to be compassionate and virtuous, so veganism and vegetarianism are seen as feminine. Men are defined as rough and tough, so eating meat is masculine.

Everyone knows that eating meat is bad for health and humanity, the environment, the economy and animals. The ongoing COVID pandemic is an extreme reminder of all of the above, and meat eating has definitely dipped. But rationally it should have ended. The trouble is that simply making an information-based appeal about the benefits of a vegetarian diet ignores the primary reason why men eat meat: It makes them feel like “real” men. And “real” men are entitled to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, and wherever they want. Damn the consequences.

The last vestige of prehistoric man as “hunter” is his consumption of meat. The man today may be a lazy, paunchy shopkeeper selling plastic toys, and the meat cheap, supermarket sanitized slabs, but in his own mind he is the ultimate male proving his masculinity by stabbing his fork into a fatty steak.

The idea is so ingrained that according to research by the University of Hawaii, men often eat more meat in situations where they feel their masculinity is under threat. Which is why for years, until I stopped it, live animals used to be dropped by plane to border areas of the army so that they could get fresh meat.

 So why is eating meat still seen as a symbol of manliness?

In her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams explores how the media has marketed meat as a sign of masculinity to boost sales. We’ve all seen the overtly sexualized commercials selling that idea.

In addition to clever marketing it has been the misleading medical theories emphasizing meat as the primary source of protein, which is linked to strength, which is seen as masculine.

There is also the misbelief that masculinity requires risk taking (dangerous driving, excessive drinking) hence the association between unhealthy eating and masculinity: if you’re a real man, you shouldn’t be so concerned about your health. Numerous studies have found that larger portions and unhealthy food are perceived as more masculine, while healthy food and smaller portions are considered more feminine.

There is also the class angle that, in the past, it was the rich or masters who ate meat which is prepared but not partaken by the slaves. In fact, the English bragged about how they were able to colonize India because their soldiers ate red meat unlike the native men.

What is it that deters men from turning vegetarian? Social anxiety. Paradoxically, these so-called “real men” are actually afraid to quit meat for fear of being dubbed feminine. In a Twitter poll directed at men, 45 percent of respondents reported their biggest barrier to leading a vegan diet was social stigma, the fear of being called ‘beta males with limited options in the outside world’, with ‘way low testosterone levels’, ‘x/y organisms who don’t eat meat, not men’, ‘pushovers, controlled by women, who have feminine characteristics’, people who ‘aren’t capable of hunting and gathering’ and ‘soyboy, low testosterone feminists’.

The good news is that there’s a growing new sensibility that strongly challenges these outdated stereotypes.

Most famously, the documentary The Game Changers follows elite special forces trainer James Wilks as he showcases the world’s top athletes in sports as rigorous as cross-country running, boxing, wrestling, football and Formula 1 racing, including former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom credit their health and performance to their vegan diets.

When asked about his relationship with masculinity and powerlifting after he adopted a vegan lifestyle,  Nick Squires, a champion powerlifter and vegan of five years said, “There’s so much in the way of traditional gender roles that I think cause men to be reluctant about veganism. Putting aside the misinformed conception that you need animal proteins to build muscle, there’s an idea that men need to be muscular, and to most people this is tied to the consumption of animal products.” He is living proof that it isn’t.  In fact, another study found that a plant-based diet leaves men feeling more satiated than a diet including meat and dairy, because they had increased levels of healthy bacteria in the gut.

With better education, is dawning a more authentic understanding of masculinity. A recent study found that men who had more education generally consumed less meat. Those subjects, who subscribed to new or more progressive ideas of masculinity, had a positive relation with less meat attachment, more willingness to reduce meat consumption, and a more positive perspective on vegetarians.

This is further evidenced by another paper, published in the journal Appetite, which examined the compelling link between meat, gender and class status. Part of the research involved offering participants a “beast burger” presented as either meat-based or vegetarian. The highest demand for the meat option came “from those who rated themselves lower in socioeconomic status.” Meat, to the extent that it’s associated with power, becomes “substitutable for the status they lack.” The lower you are on the totem pole, the more likely you are to cling to the old-fashioned symbols of masculinity – like meat.

Unraveling the strong cultural association between men and meat is critical to the prospects of global sustainability. So, come on out all you closet male vegans and vegetarians. The earth is even more threatened than your fragile male egos. Admit it: real men do eat “ghasphoos” and are lovin’ it.

 

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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