Connect with us

Features

Are We Making Rational Decisions in the Rice Sector

Published

on

M. P. Dhanapala

former Director, Rice Research and Development

The agrochemicals, inclusive of chemical fertilizers, are to be replaced by non toxic organic manure and other environmental friendly products based on the expert advice that the modern agricultural products are toxic due to indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. An example frequently cited was the Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) of unknown origin in the North Central Province. Also, some critics insist that those who promote agrochemicals are rewarded by multinational companies involved in the agrochemical industry.

As a result, agrochemicals in agriculture was a topic debated in the media by policy makers. their advisors, specialist doctors, university professors, professionals of organic agriculture, scientists, politicians, leaders of farmer organizations etc. The above allegations were refuted as inaccurate, inconclusive and unscientific (Pethiyagoda, R., U-tube seminar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGe6ld2q1vs). According to some scientists, the causal agent of CKDu was concluded as high concentration of Fluoride ion (Fl-) in drinking water. As a rice scientist, I have some issues bothering me in this whole dispute; especially in the area of chemical fertilizer, the most indispensable, one and only input, that increases productivity of crops.

Rice farming is the least remunerative of all occupations in Sri Lanka; the farmers in the past were involved in rice farming because of the social dignity, the pride of not consuming imported rice (Beven, 1914, Tropical Agriculturist, 1914 Dec.). Also, farming is considered an independent profession; it is a fact that one has to pay respect when dealing with the farming community.

Organic manure issue

Some critics insist that we have lost the organic manure technology practised 3000 years ago; probably a documentation failure. It would be great if we could recover the old technology from somewhere. However, in the recent past, as documented in the scientific journal “Tropical Agriculturist”, incorporation of bulk organic matter was recommended as early as in 1914 for rice fields to circumvent disintegration and deterioration of soil structure due to puddling during land preparation (Harrison, 1914). The nutritional status of the organic material concerned was not quantified or discussed. This recommendation was made during the British era, around the inception of the Department of Agriculture, and it is valid even today.

In the 1940s, farmers did cultivate traditional varieties with green manure, farmyard manure, compost, soybean cake, fishmeal etc. as organic manure but no specific recommendations were recorded. The targeted rice yield then was 15 bushels per acre (0.75 t/ha.) but realized only a national average of less than 13 bushels/acre (< 0.65 t/ha). The government then had to import two thirds of the rice requirement of the country to feed the population (Tropical Agriculturist, 1945 July – Sept.). The rice ration book continued till the modern varieties were developed and established. The present day advisors and policy makers may be unaware of or have ignored that the rice ration book each citizen had with 52 weekly stamps, to obtain the imported (Milchard/white raw) rice ration from the nearby cooperative shop.

Incorporation of paddy straw into fields was emphasized just before the turn of the century to sustain soil fertility and organic content of the soil, especially when the cropping intensity increased with the release of high potential short duration rice varieties. This recommendation was complemented with site specific soil test-based fertilizer recommendations, using the regional recommendations as guidelines, to prevent indiscriminate use of fertilizer. Also, the researchers were vigilant to keep the high organic soils with poor and impeded drainage (wet zone) devoid of organic manure while taking precautions to prevent straw/crop residue becoming a primary inoculum of diseases.

We have no doubt that organic manure improves physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. Organic manure has colloids, composed of protein rich material with negatively charged amino acids, and help to buid up the soil structure and cation exchange capacity (CEC) thus improving the nutrient retention power of the soil. Organic manures are not known as rich sources of plant nutrients. The nutrient contents and efficiency of different sources of organic manure are shown in Table 1.

The nutrient content of organic manure from the above sources in Sri Lanka cannot be significantly different from values in Table 1, unless there had been some other additives are incorporated in the process of manufacture.

Now, let us consider the nutrient recommendation for the most popular group of rice varieties (3.5 month) grown under irrigation in the dry-zone.

The present recommendation per hectare is 105 kg Nitrogen (N), 25 kg Phosphorus (P2O5) and and 35 kg of Potash (K2O) (Page 15, Fertilizer Recommendation for Rice, Department of Agriculture, 2013). As an example, we will examine the requirement of the most controversial nutrient component, nitrogen (N), in this recommendation. To meet this N requirement, the farmer should have around 13 tons of moisture free compost (0.8% N) for one hectare of land, assuming that the harvested straw of the previous season is not incorporated in to the soil.

If the compost available has 20 percent moisture, this figure would be little more than16 tons. The farmer then will have to pay for and carry in the field a little more than three tons of water on his back for every hectare of rice land cultivated. Additionally, there are peak requirements of N at different growth stages of the crop to promote yield components of the plant. The compost, once applied, will release N consistently, irrespective of the peak requirements of the crop growth stages and may continue this process even beyond the life-span of the crop as long as the mineralization process continues.

This example may be too much of an exaggeration, but the advisors/policy makers should know how inappropriate it is, to substitute a technology, more relevant for home gardening, for extensive paddy cultivation; this probably will be the reason behind the denial of compost culture by commercially oriented rice cultivators. Besides, it is unethical to force on the farmers, a new technology unfamiliar to them altogether. The organic farming specialists can demonstrate in large scale field trials their intended package of practices, specifically in different agro-ecological regions, to ascertain its appropriateness; feasibility, economic viability, sustainability and other advantages, to convince and gain farmer acceptance.

The total package of the proposed organic rice farming may include other options; green manure crops, wormi-compost, bio films, effective microbes, bio-gas residual products, N fixing microbes, organic extracts of unknown origin and ingredient etc., but none of these technologies were field tested and demonstrated with modern rice varieties.

One good example of Inappropriate Technologies is “The System of Rice Intensification (SRI)” introduced in Sri Lanka around the turn of the Century. It was some form of environment friendly, water saving organic farming project with labor intensive field operations, specially the transplanting procedure aimed at the exploitation of potential plant growth and the tillering (production of side shoots) capacity in rice to maximize yield. After a few years lapse, no farmers involved in the project could be traced to review its progress. If a technology is appropriate, you may notice lateral spread of the technology from farmer to farmer without any extension effort.

Inorganic Nitrogen as a Plant Nutrient

In the beginnig of the 20th Century, application of Nitrogen (N) to improve rice yields was attempted using theAmerican experience of Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) in upland crops (Soybean). Nagaoka (1905) and, Daikuhara and Imaseki (1907) reported the superiority of Ammonium Sulphate ((NH4)2SO4) to NaNO3 as the source of N for rice. Subsequently, the basic investigations on application of N for rice were made in Japan, India, Hawai etc. confirming the superiority of the Ammonium form of N (NH4+) in rice, the process of nitrification and ammonification under different soil moisture regimes and the Nitrite (NO2-) toxicity when the concentration exceeds five to six parts per million (5-6 ppm) upon submergence of aerobic/nitrate rich soil etc.. One should realize that N in submerged soil, irrespective of its source (organic or inorganic), exists in the form of Ammonium ion (NH4+), a fact established universally.

Joachim (1927) stressed the importance of liberal manuring to improve yields at the onset of genetic improvement of crops, particularly when pure-line selection was initiated with traditional rice varieties. However, excessive manuring succumbs the rice crop to diseases (Blast and Brown spot); the crop tends to grow excessively vegetative and lodges prematurely affecting yield. Though some improvement of N response was developed by introducing disease tolerant ‘H’ varieties from the late 1950s, the basic defects of the traditional plant type, leafiness and lodging, prevailed. The introduction of new plant type (modern varieties) improved significantly the harvest index of the plant and the grain yield response to added N. A new source of N, Urea (46 % N), was introduced in the early 1970s to contain soil acidity developed by the regular use of Ammonium Sulphate (21% N) and Urea is being utilized extensively thereafter as the major source of N.

It is clear that the 16 t/ha compost requirement (105 kg N) of the example discussed in the previous section can be fulfilled with 230 kilograms of Urea. Furthermore, the crop requirement at different growth stages can be met by split application of Urea, as the N content of Urea will be available to the plant shortly after its field application.

Urea, (CO(NH2)2), is an organic compound denied in organic farming with molecular structure composed of Carbon, Oxygen and two Amine groups with no toxic elements. The amine groups are apparently converted to ammonium ion (NH4+) by soil microbes under anaerobic conditions and get adsorbed to the cation exchange complex. Any source of N, whether organic or inorganic, undergoes the same process of ammonification in submerged soils to form ammonium ion. If the soil is rich in CEC, the ammonium ion is kept tightly bound to the Soil Cation Exchange Complex and leaching and contamination of ground water will be contained or minimized.

As it is, the most appropriate solution to the current crisis is the recommendation of organic-inorganic combination of fertilizers as recommended by the Department of Agriculture. This will enhance the efficiency of both factors, organic and inorganic, synergistically and prolong the availability of N for crop growth without contamination of groumd water. Also, the quantity of N can be reduced substantially without affecting the performance of the crop as the N component is thereby efficiently utilized.

Also, some scientists are investigating atmospheric N fixing microbes, specifically in the root zone soil (rhizosphere) and within the plant (endophytic). If this is a realistic goal and if the naturally occuring microbes can fix N beyond their biological limits, we are fortunate as the atmosphere around us is full of Nitrogen (80 %). To observe N fixing soil microbial activity, there were some rice plots maintained for more than 30 years at the RRDI, Batalagoda, without added fertilizer.

Intuitively, by judging from the rice yields, I infer that the microbes associated in the soil of these plots are not capable of fixing more than 40 kg N per hectare, probably the biological limit of microbes and that too will be diminished when the crop requirement is met with added Nitrogen. Similarly, the inoculated rice plants with endophytic bacteria to fulfil the N requirement of rice would be a long shot. There were other concepts considered promising in atmospheric N fixation in rice but were abandoned prematurely as the technologies were found to be inappropriate, e.g. Azolla-Anabinae complex and root nodulation in Sesbania spp. etc.

Any rubbish product should not be converted to compost/organic manure as some sources are contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic products. The animal waste may carry residues of antibiotics used as growth promoters. The danger of developing antibiotic tolerant/resistant human pathogenic bacteria by free exposure to antibiotic residues or by exchange of genetic material (conjugation) among bacterial mutants with human pathogens is not ruled-out.

The current status of rice production in the country was achieved through mutual development of related technologies for more than a century. It is not a matter to be ruled-out by the so-called expert advisors with one stroke of a pen; as a result of transition to nontoxic organic rice cultivation, the loss incurred in national rice production will be colossal. This is not the time to learn organic rice cultivation with text book experience of experts with no field experimental evidence. The incidence of COVID 19 and other natural calamities (floods, droughts etc.) would affect global rice production adversely and a surplus production in rice exporting countries cannot be predicted. In this scenario, national food security for Sri Lanka could be further threatened disastrously through this adventure in organic farming that has been launched almost overnight, without any foresight whatsoever.

In the past, we had an excellent Agricultural Extension and Education System composed of regular Technical Working Group Meetings, Research-Extension Dialogues, Inservice Training Programs, Field Visits etc., and a well qualified, dedicated set of extension staff promoted the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in rice production. This system should be revitalized to sustain food security of the country.

(The writer is a former Director Rice Research Development of the Batalagoda Rice Research Station with postgraduate (Msc and PhD qualifications from the U.S. and Japan) with over 50-years experience in rice breeding at home and abroad)



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

A legend who rewrote Sri Lankan history: Eulogy for Dr. Deraniyagala

Published

on

By Tharindu Muthukumarana

(Tharindu Muthukumarana Author of the award-winning book “The Life of Last Proboscideans: Elephants” tharinduele@gmail.com)

On Tuesday, 05 October, 2021, as the sun rose above the horizon it may have felt like a usual day in Sri Lanka. But the morning broke a tragic news as it gloomed the nation and it left a deep void in the field of archeology. It was for none other than to the demise of Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala.Anyone who has an interest in the history of Sri Lanka doesn’t need an introduction to Deraniyagala and his service. I find him, that rather than investing his energy on archaeology he invested his soul. This set an example for every human to work hard with integrity on what you had embarked on.

Budding of an archaeologist along with his father

When thinking about Paleoanthropology in Africa the renowned Leakey family comes to our head where the parents and their children had done remarkable research in that criterion. If that so, in Asia it would be the Deraniyagala lineage that had the astounding research on Paleoanthropology.

On 1st March,1942, Siran Deraniyagala was born in Ratnapura as the third son of parents, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala and Prini Molamure. His grandfather was Sir Paul Edward Pieris Deraniyagala alias, Sir Paul E. Pieris who served as a District Judge in Matara, Kegalle, Kandy and Kalutara. Though Sir Pieris was professionally linked to the legal field, he had a passion on doing research on 16th -19th century history in Sri Lanka and made notable publications related to those. His work was well reputed that he received various awards and honours from western countries including the Knight Bachelor on Queen’s Birthday Honours 1952.

Siran’s father, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala was a zoologist who also specialied in paleontology. After the brief discoveries in 19th -20th century on paleolithic remains by Paul Sarasin, Fritz Sarasin, Charles Hartley and Edward James Wayland, it was Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala that did intense research on the paleontology of Sri Lanka. It was his research that opened the door to the prehistoric chapter in Sri Lanka. Young Siran used to accommodate on his father’s research expeditions which inspired the youngster to follow his father’s footsteps.

As a passionate youth after completing his education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he obtained a BA and MA in Architecture and Sanskrit. He completed a postgraduate diploma at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. He passed with distinction and was awarded the Gordon Childe Prize.

Sri Lankan statesman the late. Lakshman Kadirgamar once said in his speech at the Oxford Union, describing himself, that “Oxford was the icing on the cake… but the cake was backed at home”- referring to Sri Lanka. I think this quote also applies to Deraniyagala as well, since his first experience with archeology is linked with his father’s expeditions prior to university education.

Embarking on great expeditions

Deraniyagala joined the Archaeological Department in 1968 as Assistant Commissioner in charge of excavations. His functioning in the latter capacity was primarily research-oriented with emphasis on Sri Lanka’s prehistoric period (beyond 1000 BC) while pioneering in its protohistoric (1000-500 BC) and early historic (500 BC-300 AD) archaeology as well. The substance of his contribution to knowledge is set out in the abstract to his PhD at Harvard University in 1988. Doctoral dissertation was based on his research excavation in ancient shore dunes at Iranamadu Formation which trace back to more than 130,000 years ago. The thesis has been hailed as a landmark in the archeology of South Asia, and it has transformed Sri Lankan prehistoric studies. In later time he was awarded with honoris causa doctorates from Sabaragamuwa and Peradeniya Universities.

He was well known for research on Anuradhapura citadel and at Fa Hien cave. Deraniyagala’s work continued as Adviser in Research Excavtions (1983-92) and as Deputy Director-General and the Director-General (1992-2001) to Archaeological Department. Deraniyagala’s position as the Director General marked a milestone in the Archeology Department, which it was the only time where father and son had served that position. Even after retirement Deraniyagala never gave up his work-related to archeology; instead, he did continue and at most time he had a busy schedule.

Over his lifetime, he had been awarded with many local and international awards. On 7th September 2020 the Department of Archaeology opened its research and teaching museum named after Siran Deraniyagala.

Transparency on research

Research involves molding facts out of observations. It is a common thing that some facts that are composed get subjected to criticism. This could be due to various reasons. In 1988 Deraniyagala found potsherds belonging to 600-500 BC with Brahmi inscriptions. Many foreign experts did not believe it because it was known at that time Brahmi inscriptions were absent before the Asokan period (268-232 BC). Deraniyagala invited experts from Cambridge University to come and study the excavation site to check whether he was wrong. As those foreign experts came and researched on that site, even they later agreed on Deraniyagala’s theory. Similar incident happened at Kuruwita Batatotalena Cave excavation by Deraniyagala.

These events signify Lord Buddha’s quote: “Be your own lamp, seek no other refuge but yourself, let truth be your light”.

Farewell of the legend

It is eye-opening to notice that just one day after the 49th death anniversary (October 4th) of Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala passed away. He was 79 years old at the time. His funeral was held at his residence “Ekneligoda Walauwwa” on 10/6/2021. The President’s condolence message was read by the Governor of Sabaragamuwa Province Tikiri Kobbekaduwa.

Initially Sri Lankans were mostly proud of their 2,500 years old history but thanks to Siran Deraniyagala and his father a 38,000 years old history got unveiled.

Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, Sir may you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

Continue Reading

Features

Hope that lies in the Pandora Box

Published

on

The Pandora Papers have moved away from the focus of politics and the fight against corruption.

We can await the report of the Bribery and Corruption Commission, which has its own way of giving innocence to the guilty; much more than the fighters against corruption ever expect. But that is the stuff of Saubhagya.

The Pandora Papers (PP) have also shown the great delight of Nirupama Rajapaksa – Nadesan, in settling down with her children in London. That is just one big success story of the PP. There will be much more success to follow from the PP, with the Rajapaksa politics moving on to bigger dominance in this Siri Lankava, running in circles of disaster to find foreign exchange, despite the big promises of the Central Bank’s Nivard Cabraal.

It was far away from the PP that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa admitted with courage, of his and the government’s failure to keep up with the promises given to the people and the country. His words at an important military ceremony, where he was proudly draped in a civilian suit, and played some cricket, too, were rich with reality. It was not only him, but all Ministers and Members of Parliament that should accept this failure, he said.

Those words were the stuff of a President, who after nearly two years in office and power, decided to tell the people of the realities of governance.

What these words revealed were not the stuff of the PP. but the very stuff of the Pandora Box. It was the box from which all the evil flew out, when opened by Pandora herself. The President and the Government are certainly the victims today of the Pandora Evil, which is far beyond the great expectations of the Saubhagye Dekma.

The government is just now in a great Pandora Dance. With the removal of all gazette notifications on the price of essentials, it is certainly free of the burdens of price control and support for the people. This began with the new prices of rice. It is not a Gotabaya achievement, but an achievement of Dudley Sirisena and the Rice Mafia.

The Pandora Box has much more to follow. It is the box of business, merchants and dealers – who may be the mafia, too.  Surely, what government would raise the price of gas used in domestic cooking by more than a thousand rupees? It is the stuff of the Pandora Mafia. Just watch out, it can even rise by another thousand rupees very soon — could this be the Gammanpila Pandora Player?

Did Saubhagya Governance ever want to raise the price of bread? What nonsense. The government – ministers and MPs want to keep it down. But the evil that flowed from the Pandora Box made it rise. Who was the Pandora Bread/Flour minister?

Not only bread, milk powder, too. Would any MP, Minister or even a President, want to raise the price of powdered milk, which is part of a child’s daily diet? Never. This price increase is also the work of the Pandora Box – Kiri Piti – Mafia, which is much more powerful than the mafia of political corruption.

All this is certainly far away from the promises that candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the other Rajapaksas, too, gave to the people before the presidential and general elections. They never thought that the evil of the Pandora Box would hunt them so well.

To go back to the Pandora story of Greek legend, there is still hope for us. While all the evil from the Pandora Box had escaped before it was closed, Hope still remained trapped in the box. That is the Hope that is left for the Sri Lanka people.

Let us not allow this Hope to be trapped in a box at the Rajavasala. We can be glad about Gotabaya’s admission of failure. But our larger Hope will be in a political escape from the wider Rajapaksa governance —  moving next from Basil to Namal. Let’s keep praying for the escape of Pandora Hope for us. Even a little hope can help us a long way!

Continue Reading

Features

Cops, criminals, and cultural contours

Published

on

By Uditha Devapriya

In Michael Mann’s Heat, one of the best heist thrillers ever made, the protagonist is a cop called Hanna, played by Al Pacino. The other character, a thief called McCauley, is played by Robert de Niro. Hanna and McCauley meet for the first time at the end of the first half of the movie. Hanna, who works for the LAPD, has been investigating a series of high-profile crimes for days. He guesses McCauley is the culprit, but has no real proof.

Convinced that he is the man they are looking for, Hanna tails him one night and gets him to pull over. Instead of arresting him, though, he offers to buy McCauley coffee. They then go over to a diner, where the two of them sit in front of each other.

What unfolds thereafter is not a conversation, but a charade. The detective and the thief start talking at cross-purposes. Weary, numbed, and tempered by the weight of their work, they engage in casual banter. Like countless conversations from a Jean-Luc Godard film, this doesn’t make sense; they ramble on and on, and then suddenly stop.

It is when we step back and reflect on these two that we realise what the scene is trying to tell us: the detective has come to a point in his career where he depends on the thieves he tails. It’s the same story with the other guy: he’s been involved in so many crimes that he’s almost relieved to talk to a man of the law. Their meeting is thus marked out less by hostility than by empathy. It’s a meeting of the minds.

The face-off is intriguing to me because it reminds me of a similar conversation from a film made 25 years earlier, in Sri Lanka. D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara also pits a police-officer against a criminal, this time a drug kingpin. In the scene I am talking about, that officer, like Al Pacino’s detective, encounters the kingpin in full form at his office. By this point each of them has realised what the other wants: like the lawyer and his ex-client in Cape Fear, each knows only too well that the other is seeking the upper hand.

The sequence at the police station establishes this relationship. As one salty witticism gives way to another, we sense the revulsion underlying the conversation; the two are talking at cross-purposes, only barely concealing their contempt for each other.

Yet while the scene serves a different function from the diner episode in Heat – whereas the latter sequence shows how dependent the cop has become on the thief, here it reveals the hostility between the two men – it stands out almost like the other does. That has much to do, I think, with the acting: neither Al Pacino nor Robert de Niro had made much of a name for themselves when Welikathara came out, but seeing Gamini Fonseka play the cop and Joe Abeywickrama the criminal, you do tend to compare. To make such a comparison is to acknowledge that Welikathara represented a high point for our cinema.

Welikathara

may well be the most Americanised Sinhala film ever made. Whereas most Sinhala films had been distinctly continental until then, hardly any director had ventured into Hollywood territory. What makes Nihalsinghe’s film fascinating, in that sense, is how far he conceived its story along the lines of a typical American thriller.

My interest in the movie as a critic, however, has less to do with its cinematic merit than the spotlight it throws on an era when such cosmopolitan objets d’art were more the norm than the exception. Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Nihalsinghe’s film, I felt it apt to ponder why, from achieving such heights then, we have slid down so badly now.

Perhaps it’s best that we restate the problem: how could the kind of acting exemplified in a movie like Heat become the norm there today, whereas the sort exemplified in Welikathara has turned out to be the dismal exception here? I am not just suggesting that our art forms have deteriorated in quality – though this is exactly what has happened – but that there are many reasons that can explain such a decline. Where have our arts gone? Why hasn’t it still realised its potential? What can revive it? Who can revive it?

The importance of these questions cannot be emphasised enough. A society’s popular culture is a fairly accurate gauge of its intellectual achievements. It is true that this remains a function of economic position; hence rich countries have more potential for high cultural achievements, whereas poorer countries do not. Yet that is not necessarily the case all the time: the Indian film industry, to give one example, is considerably more diverse, and much richer, than its counterparts in countries like Singapore.

India is a case in point for the view that the greater the size of the population, the more sophisticated a country’s popular culture will be. But that also is not always the case: as the recent resurgence in African cinema shows, a big population does not in itself contribute to the upliftment of a culture to the exclusion of more pertinent factors.

This is not to say that issues of economic development or population are secondary to those other factors. Affluent countries can afford superior works of art, while poorer countries (of which India is a prime example) are able to do so with a public that patronises commercial works of art, which helps subsidise more serious ventures. In that sense, the US enjoys the twin advantage of a powerful economy and a large audience.

But to acknowledge these points is not to deny the relevance of other reasons for the growth or decline of artistic standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, any attempt at diagnosing the problems of its culture must hence start from an appraisal of the post-1980 decline in the arts: a phenomenon reducible to neither economics nor demographics.

Three schools of thought have attempted to explain this decline. The first school views 1956 as the reason: by empowering everyone to enter our schools and universities, so their logic goes, cultural and artistic standards were compromised. That is another way of saying that if schools and universities remained shut to poorer classes, those standards would have been protected and fostered by an elite minority.

The second school argues that with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1978, the government’s hold over artistic quality was loosened, thereby debasing cultural yardsticks, transforming lowbrow into middlebrow art, and raising the latter to the status of highbrow art. To invert Marx’s dictum, what was once profane now became sacred.

I personally think this argument holds more water than the first – not least because the first school tries to frame 1956 as avoidable, which it was not, and fails to distinguish between its progressive and regressive aspects, which should not be done – but it does not explain a point the third school dwells on: the debasement of our education system because of, and paradoxically in spite of, various reforms enacted after 1956.

This is where the line between the progressive and regressive aspects of what transpired that year must be drawn: though there was a need to democratise schools and universities and they were democratised, barring crucial reforms in the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike government (pioneered by a set of brilliant educationists and scholars like Neil Kuruppu and Douglas Walatara) no attempts were made to maintain quality in them.

The results are there for all to see today: while certain schools and universities produce better thinkers than others, one does not come across such thinkers as often as one would want. That these trends have spilled over to the performing arts is a no-brainer: we don’t produce original artists too often either. “Manike Mage Hithe” offers the promise of what Sri Lanka’s popular culture should be, but such ventures are rare.

The third school consolidates the arguments of the first and the second: it acknowledges concerns over the negative aftershocks of 1956, as the first school does, while tracing the trajectory of cultural decline to the period after 1980, when the abandonment of the United Front education reforms multiplied those aftershocks, as the second school does.

Any critique of the country’s less than brilliant cultural scene today should take into account these factors when proposing viable solutions. In particular, it should identify exactly quality has come down and how best we can go about improving it.

It is fashionable to say that Sri Lanka’s cultural standards remained high until 1956. To me though, this is a deeply fallacious argument: a comprador society, which is what prevailed before 1956, does not produce a genuine culture. A culture must dig deep in search of roots. The problem is not that such a search stunted artistic development in the country, as those who idealise the pre-1956 status quo think, but rather that it did not go deep enough. That paved way for a massive flaw in our education system: the delinking of the performing arts from their literary roots, slowly since 1956 and more rapidly since 1980.

What I am arguing here is that as actors, directors, and even scriptwriters, we don’t read as much as we used to. In saying that, I am not denying there are other problems we have to look into with respect to Sri Lanka’s popular culture. But as the central issue, this problem requires immediate resolution. The sooner we realise our priorities there, the sooner we will be able to address a deplorable, though no less reversible, decline in artistic standards. All it takes to confirm the reality of such a decline, of course, is to see Welikathara, see Heat, and then ask why we used to have it so good, and how far back we have fallen today.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Continue Reading

Trending