“I was in Grade Four when Sunil Ariyaratne wrote ‘Sakura Mal Pipila’. That song first made me realise how abstract music could be. In later years, as he and Nanda Malini went on to endeavours like Sathyaye Geethaya and Pavana, I matured. Even now, when you listen to ‘Perahera Enawa’, you feel nothing but admiration for a man who rebelled against tradition and order in what he wrote.
By Uditha Devapriya
Tissa Abeysekara once called Bandula Nanayakkarawasam “the brightest spark in the fifth generation of contemporary Sinhala songwriters.” He didn’t name the five generations, but he did observe that their ancestry began with Ananda Samarakoon. With this we can try to chart the evolution of 20th century songwriters in terms of the singers who embodied those generations: Samarakoon, Sunil Shantha, Amaradeva, Victor Ratnayake, and T. M. Jayaratne, Sanath Nandasiri, and Neela Wickramasinghe among others.
By doing so we can also discern the cultural, social, and political impulses that distinguished each of these periods: Samarakoon by the gramophone Tower Hall culture; Shantha by the Hela Havula, led by its two chief heralds Munidasa Cumaratunga and Raphael Tennakoon; Amaradeva by the post-war generation of lyricists, Mahagama Sekara, Madawala S. Ratnayake, and Chandrarathna Manawasinghe being the definitive trio; Victor by the first post-1956 generation wave, epitomised by Premakeerthi de Alwis, K. D. K. Dharmawardena, Sunil Ariyaratne, and Ajantha Ranasinghe; and those who followed them among the second post-1956 generation, among them Bandula Nanayakkarawasam, Lucian Bulathsinghala, Buddhadasa Galappaththy, and the great Ratna Sri Wijesinghe. I see Jackson Anthony has described Nanayakkarawasam as the last of his kind. If he’s not quite the last of his kind, he’s certainly the last anyone will be able to equal.
It’s important to locate Nanayakkarawasam in the wider social and cultural landscape of the country. The generation who followed the likes of Sunil Ariyaratne and Ajantha Ranasinghe were witnesses to some of the most widely felt changes in the economy: the adoption of free market policies, the privatisation of the cinema that democratised cultural tastes and standards, and the introduction of television that would eventually cripple the theatre and cinema. While earlier generations had found employment in the universities (Ariyaratne) and journalism (Ranasinghe), the new artistes, by dint of these vast changes, were compelled to seek refuge in the private sector; the State could no longer insure them against the vagaries of the economy. In this context, Nanayakkarawasam would take the occasional leave from his bank, come to Colombo, and record his show aboard the SLBC.
In fact, most of these artistes, working from nine to five, had to prioritise their employment over their artistic pursuits. Nanayakkarawasam was no exception. Palitha Perera, reflecting on his days in the SLBC, remembers trying to get the man “to do his own programmes in Colombo” and failing to entice him to leave his fulltime job at the bank.
The biggest irony was when Madawala S. Ratnayake decided to take Nanayakkarawasam to his programme Yawwana Samajaya; as with other attempts, this too failed to get the man to leave his banking career. For Palitha though, it was more a fortunate coincidence than a missed opportunity: “Given what happened to the SLBC later on, it was Bandula’s luck that he didn’t end up wasting away here.” I’m sure that Bandula, being the self-effacing man he is, would disagree, but I am convinced, given the plight the likes of Palitha fell into in later years, that it was his luck which kept him away.
Nanayakkarawasam was born in Galle, around two or three kilometres from town. His childhood was, in his own words, quite fortunate in terms of the education he received. His first encounter with music had been a large Mullard radio bought by his uncle, a connoisseur of the arts who had apparently been a collector of rare items and instruments. “Since we lived at a time when not even the richest families from our neighbourhood owned a radio, big or small, owning a Mullard was certainly a big deal.”
The contraption had entranced young Bandula in more ways than one. “Back then we had just two local services run by one station, Radio Ceylon. It was on this radio that I first ‘obtained’ an education in music. I was also the youngest in my family by a wide margin, my podi akka being eight years older than me. Naturally, I was a bit of a loner in my house, and in my free time, which I never lacked even when I was at school, I used to place my ears on it and listen to songs.” He jokingly tells me that he once believed that the singers and announcers who sang and spoke were hidden in that device: “So when I listened to it during a thunderstorm and loku akka warned me that when lightning struck it would break apart, I honestly believed her. At the time I would have been five.”
I ask him whether he looked for the lyrics in a song. “Not really. We first hear a tune, then a voice, then a name. It was in my time that people like Victor Ratnayake and Sanath Nandasiri emerged. Amaradeva came before them. As a child I went for Victor’s songs because of his voice.” I put to him that the likes of Victor emerged as a result of the efforts Amaradeva made. “Yes. It was thanks to Victor that we realised how poetic Amaradeva’s lyrics were. But poetry didn’t figure highly in me then.”
His interest in the arts developed beyond music. His father, a firm leftist and an avid reader, would give him as much as 100 rupees to buy books. “I used to go to a store owned by a man called Lionel and purchase as much as I could, because back then a book cost four rupees.” He would get hooked on to Russian literature, which he says made him see the world in a different light, even through translation. “We had novels, short story collections, and poetry published by Progress Publishers. I indulged in them all.”
Young Bandula was sent to Richmond College, where his teachers inculcated in him a wider appreciation of what he’d grown to love. “One of my English teachers was a man called W. S. Bandara. He introduced me to the English translations of Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. It was then that I realised how woefully inadequate our translators were. Of course there were exceptions like K. G. Karunathilaka, but barring them the others didn’t feel the text they were working on.”
Apparently the radio figured so much in his life that he couldn’t really do without it even when studying. “A man called Jinasena lent me some flexible wires, which I then used on an American speaker which belonged to my uncle. Our house overlooked a wel yaya. When I listened to the radio in my room while studying Arithmetic, that wel yaya was always in my sight. That was the kind of childhood and education I had.” As he grew up though, it wasn’t just songs that he listened to but other programmes too: E. W. Adikaram’s Vidya Dahanaya, Mahinda Ranaweera’s Sithijaya, Lucien Bulathsinghala’s Sandella, H. M. Gunasekera’s Irida Sangrahaya, and Tissa Abeysekara’s Art Magazine. It should be mentioned that Bandula got to host Irida Sangrahaya in the 1980s, “a happy coincidence given that my father, who grew up listening to Gunasekara with me, was now listening to his son presenting it.”
Curious as to what his tastes were, I then ask whether he differentiated between “low” and “high” art. “That came later. But back then we read and we exchanged newspapers with our neighbours.
So we weren’t completely ignorant of this divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. For instance, I came across Jayawilal Wilegoda’s articles on the cinema. Wilegoda lambasted Sinhala films that imitated Bollywood. People like him were asking questions like how a popular verse like ‘jeevithaye kanthare thurunu wiyali walle uthura gala yayi adare’ made sense, when they didn’t. By the time we grew up and passed adolescence, we knew about this divide. The important thing is it didn’t intimidate us.”
Bandula’s reference to films isn’t arbitrary: even the cinema had entranced him. To put all his encounters here would be impossible, though. Suffice it to say that he entertained the idea of being a scriptwriter at one point, even getting into the Sri Lanka Television Training Institute (or SLTTI) along with Sumitra Rahubadda, K. B. Herath, and Douglas Siriwardena. “I was taught by Tissa Abeysekara.” Notwithstanding his stints at the SLTTI, though, he didn’t get to become a full time scriptwriter until later, with a TV adaptation of T. B. Ilangaratne’s Vilambita, directed by Lakshman Wijesekara and telecast on Swarnavahini.
He gets back to his musical career. “I was in Grade Four when Sunil Ariyaratne wrote ‘Sakura Mal Pipila’. That song first made me realise how abstract music could be. In later years, as he and Nanda Malini went on to endeavours like Sathyaye Geethaya and Pavana, I matured. Even now, when you listen to ‘Perahera Enawa’, you feel nothing but admiration for a man who rebelled against tradition and order in what he wrote. The two of them taught me about the potential of a song. I can’t write about the things they explored with such vigour, but that doesn’t take away my admiration for them.”
It was under these circumstances that Nanayakkarawasam began what would become a very popular programme , in 2011. Rae Ira Pana picked up audiences so fast it defied the findings of the ratings agencies, which consistently demeaned it. Having shifted from one channel to another, it ended “for good” in 2015 and transformed into its own live show on March 10, 2017 at Nelum Pokuna, followed by a second show in November at the Polgolla Mahinda Rajapaksa Auditorium; two years later, on March 10, Bandula hosted a third show at the Karapitiya Auditorium in Galle, and on October 12 that year he organised a fourth at the BMICH. Nanayakkarawasam found in them all an ideal opportunity to do what he did from his days at the SLBC in the 1980s: tell us the story behind an objet d’art.
How viral did it become exactly? “People would come up to me showing me their pen drives and saying that they had recorded every, or every other, Rae Ira Pana show since 2011. I was just dumbfounded, because the ratings didn’t show it as a popular programme at all. I knew then that such agency findings, while scientific and verifiable, were in no way a measure of actual popularity outside the numbers. When it was jettisoned from one radio station after another, and when it evolved into its own live event, I came to realise it could be used to bring people together for worthy causes.”
What about now? According to Bandula, the Sinhala lyric is progressively deteriorating in quality. I ask him whether this is because our generation isn’t as receptive to the abstract in art as his had been. He tells me he doesn’t think so. “We’ve commercialised music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we’re confused about what a popular song is. When was the last time you heard a meaningful bus sinduwa?”
I suggest here that things would certainly have been better in his time, but he agrees only half heartedly. “You suggested earlier that we’ve de-sensitised ourselves so much that we can’t appreciate art. This isn’t something new. In my day, to give you an example, there was a vocalist called Piyasiri Wijeratne. He isn’t remembered today because he wasn’t a very prodigious artiste. In later years, Tissa Abeysekara would observe that Piyasiri possessed one of the best voices in this country. But did we recognise him then? No.”
I see his point. Blaming some imaginary malaise for the “cultural desert” we seem to find ourselves stranded in today blinds us, to an extent at least, to the fact that in each and every epoch our music “industry” has faced a huge deficit.
Besides, and this is putting it mildly, I don’t hear Nanayakkarawasam much on the bus.
That should tell us something.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
One Night with Brigitte Bardot
By Helasingha Bandara
His editor once instructed Premakeerthi to compile factual information for an essay on Brigitte Bardot, a famous French actress, the sex symbol of the Western cinema at the time, to feature in a newspaper the following day. Being limited by the lack of resources, at a time before the information revolution hit Sri Lanka, Premakeerthi spent a whole night researching and writing about the life and works of Brigitte Bardot. When the article was finally ready, he entitled it “one night with Brigitte Bardot”. This amazing little story is a prime example of Premakeerthi’s incomparable creativity that drew attention of both listeners and readers, generally thousands of fans.
Born Samaraweera Mudalige Don Premakeerthi de Alwis on 3 June 1947, commonly known as Premakeerthi de Alwis, was a Sri Lankan radio and television presenter, journalist, poet, painter and lyricist. With his assassination on 31 July 1989 at the tender age of 42, allegedly by the killers of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (the JVP), Sri Lanka lost one of the most versatile artistes that she has ever produced.
While looking at his unique abilities and the desire to be different from the norm, the main purpose of this article is to lament his death from a different perspective on his 31st death anniversary that falls on 31 July 2020.
Among the crowd gathered at the guillotining of Antonie Lavosier, the French chemist who discovered Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen and Silicon and was most noted for his discovery of the role Oxygen plays in combustion, one spectator who himself was a scientist was said to have cried. During the French revolution, thousands of aristocrats and government servants were executed by guillotine, some were accused of being party to the oppressive rule of the French monarchy and to the misuse of stolen public wealth for a personal high life and others, unfortunately, for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. When the jubilant crowd questioned why he was crying he said, “it took only a second to cut that head but the majority morons do not realise that it takes a million years to grow one such as that. I am terribly sad”.
In a similar vein, I am writing this article with a heavy heart for the nation’s loss. Taking life cannot be justified by any means. Premakeerthi’s murder however, can only be described as a joy killing of some cowboys who did not have an iota of understanding of the value of the person they were murdering. To this day the nation is puzzled as to why Premakeerthi, a harmless artiste, not even a revolutionary writer but a sensitive lyricist was wasted by some marauding beasts.
A robber, robs and kills another person hoping to live happily ever after with whatever he robbed from the dead person, be it money or jewellery. He does so without realising that he may be killed on the way home after the robbery, by a road accident or of a snake bite. The killers whoever they were, may have killed Premakeerthi, with the wishful thinking of living many years to come with power and wealth. Those who planned Premakeerthi’s assassination were soon dead or if still alive, are dying daily for their entire life without achieving the individual purposes of the killing because Premakeerthi lives on for ever, not alone, but surrounded by the hearts of millions of Sri Lankans who belong to the present day and the yesteryear.
Premakeerthi has written over 4,000 songs including songs for over 200 Sri Lankan films. Despite his versatility in other areas of the creative field, Premakeerthi’s legacy lives for his gigantic contribution to the Sinhala music landscape. It is astonishing to hear his name in every television musical programme, even thirty years after his death. In every programme, the top notch songs they select to play have his name as the writer of the song. At the peak of his career as a song writer in the 70s and 80s he has written songs for all leading singers of the era. The unique difference in his song writing has been that the songs he wrote for the leading singers were the most popular by those singers. Some examples are: aadaraye ulpatha vu amma by Victor Rathnayaka, Samanalaya Mala ha lamaya se by Edward Jayakodi, mulu muhudama handai by Priya Sooriyasena, etha dilisena hiru sandu rantharu by H.R. Jothipala, Kundumani by Freddie Silva, obe prema nagare by J.A. Milton Perera, eda re guwan thotupaledi maa by Milton Mallawaaracchci, Surangita Duka hithuna by Nanda Malani, Maa ekkala amanapawa wee dabara by Malani Bulathsinghala, ananthayata ma igilena by Srimathi Thilakarathna, lowa nisasala wee by Niranjala Sarojini, ran Samanaliya, punchi kekuliyo by Sunil Edirisingha, Bangali Walalu by Angeline Gunathilaka and Thetiya medda kalu karapu by M.S. Fernando.
Premakeerthi grew up, schooled and lived in Colombo. He was known as a non-reader. His formal education was average. The million-dollar question is how he could visualise the rural setting, depict the culture and behaviours of rural people and use their language with such accuracy and poignancy. His close friends including Victor Rathnayaka and Saman Athaudahetti believe that he was naturally gifted by a habit from a previous birth or his acute power of observation made him rich with ideas.
To finish my task today I would take a different example that is not usually drawn as a song to highlight his greatness as a lyricist.
Muthu Warusawata themilaa
Pini ihiruna wel eliye
Muthu sahalin dotha piru
This song in my view is incomparable with any other song written to romanticise the rural setting and existence. Rain is described in many different forms in the Singhala folklore. Maha Wessa (heavy rain) is a Morasoorana wessa in an area where there is Mora and Dombasooran wessa in another where there is no Mora but Domba. The same rain in a different part of the island is Naa kapana wessa and dharanipatha wessa elsewhere. The softer version of the rain is poda wessa, pinipoda wessa, siripoda wessa, malwarusawa but muthu warusawa is intriguing. Etymological origins aside, only a poet with piercing eyes and a vivid imagination sees a pearl rain. Just before the sky opens up for the so called maha wessa, for a couple of minutes, large momentary drops of water fall on the lotus leaves that cover the entire surface of the village tank and turn into smithereens making a pearl rain. What a glorious sight!
Premakeerthi must have taken muthu sahal (pearl rice) from muthu samba that has replaced muthu maanikkam (muthu menik), a rare variety of rice grown in the dry zone of Sri Lanka for personal consumption.
Although Punchi Menike, Podi menike, Lokumenike, Heen Menike, Sudu Menike, Kalu Menike, Muthu Menike and Ran Menike are replaced with Ireshas, Ureshas, Nadeeshas, Yogishas, Gayashas etc. today, Muthumenike still epitomises the redda hette clad, unspoiled, dignified and naturally pretty village lassie.
Any youth from the village would have the irresistible urge to run back to his lover in the village immediately after hearing this song. Colloquialism combined with alliteration heighten the melodious quality of the song. The seamless blend of Victor Rathnayaka’s gentle voice and his piercing ability to sing and Prem’s blissfully breath-taking choice of imagery would make these songs continue to be played for generations to come.
The worthless existence of the killers of Premakeerthi would long be forgotten whilst Premakeerthi’s legacy lives on.
The Esela Perehera of yore
By Rajitha Ratwatte
I am told the Dalada Perehera is on in my hometown. I have some incredible memories and despite all the cruelty to elephants’ rhetoric that is dished out, mostly by people who are either paid to do so, or do not understand the relationship that can be built up by humans and elephants, I have included an extract from my book. The names of the elephants are those that I grew up with. These are memories from the early 1970’s and I hope you can leave your inhibitions behind and simply enjoy them for what they are; happy memories from another era.
It was not such a pious era (be the piety real or otherwise) and it was before the long arm of the law ensured that all Liquor shops were closed for the entire duration of the Perehera.
First, we used to go to the respective temples that we were working for and in the courtyards of these temples begin dressing the elephants. The elephant’s dress consisted of a large drape to cover most of the back and legs, a front piece with eye holes covering the head and trunk and two coverings for the ears. The cloth of these dresses where ancient tapestries and they were very carefully stored over the years and taken out only for the festival. The first time we put Tikiri into a dress she proceeded to rip off the head covering and the ear coverings and tore them to shreds before we could stop her. This resulted in a terrible black mark and we were given another dress only after we used extreme pressure and lots of influence!
The lesser elephants wore only the dress and it got more and more elaborate as the animal’s role in the pageant gained more significance. For instance, the elephant who led the procession and carried the king’s official who was in charge of deciding on the route (the route got longer each day until on the last night it covered almost all the streets of Kandy) was always a male and preferably a tusker. His robes were of silk with gold brocade and he often had a car battery (now replaced by LED lights and a much lighter power source due to a suggestion from yours truly – duly implemented by the late Mohan Panabokke the Basnayake Nilame of the Maha Vishnu temple) tied on his shoulders with a series of light bulbs (somewhat like Christmas tree lights) fitted to the front piece. Since all the street lights where always switched off and the procession was lit by flares carried by bearers it took on a truly magnificent air. As for the tusker who carried the actual tooth relic, two other tuskers always flanked him, and his robes defied description!
The temple courtyards were often over 500 years old and had large stone paving and were mysterious and mystical places. Once the dressing was completed, we had a little time before the first of the cannons from the main temple would boom out, informing us that we had to go out into the road and take up our pre-determined positions. This was not time wasted. Another favourite pastime of these “moral scum” that were elephant keepers (a popular opinion) was to keep the local taverns well patronised. This is where I (the owner’s son) and not very popular at most times because I may report any misdemeanour that went on, came into my own. One by one they would come up to me and say, “could you keep an eye on the elephant ” (Keepers rarely used the name given by the owner, instead they referred to the elephant by the owners’ last name) and off they would go to imbibe. Often, I would be left in the darkened temple courtyard, lit only by the flickering light of the “chulu” lanterns with eight huge elephants. The elephants were always excited and restless and the nervous energy emanating from them combined with the low light and the general mysticism associated with the temple courtyard made for a truly unique cocktail of emotions, the main one being just how insignificant we humans are in the greater scheme of things!
And so, the procession would start. Most keepers had to be dragged around the route by the chains of their elephants, they were so drunk. There is more than one story of elephants having to pick their mahouts up in their trunks and carry them home and deposit them outside their houses before quietly going into their stables and waiting for daybreak. Most elephants were so well trained that once they were guided into their position in the procession they would hold their station perfectly, there were many stops and starts, and find their way back to the respective temple courtyards at the end.
But not so Tikiri! Tikiri wanted to dance with the dancers who led the way, she wanted to overtake all the slowpokes and see what was happening up ahead, sometimes she wanted to go back, presumably to pay homage to the tooth relic that was carried at the rear end of the procession. Keeping Tikiri in station took 4four strong men. We had to hold her from either side and one hold her tail while the fourth had to walk in front to keep from overtaking the others. Tikiri was a relative baby under training and we were only allowed in because my uncle was the chief trustee of the temple and his nephew promised better results after each disaster. This actually got beyond a joke and we had to hire the services of Banda ……… more of that later.
Going to the procession was fairly uneventful. The streets of Kandy were thronged with people and the Police were out in force. They would direct traffic and take the occasional kick at a passing hooligan (their opinion) who couldn’t keep onto the jammed and overflowing pavements. Elephant keepers and the guardians of the law were never the best of friends, it was a fairly common sight to see a magnificently uniformed custodian of the law hastily abandoning his position in the middle of the road where he was imperiously directing traffic until a few moments previously as there was this elephant bearing straight down on him. This elephant that didn’t respond to his command to keep left and who’s keeper was playing a flute and flirting with a pretty girl he was giving a lift to instead of keeping his eyes on the road! The keeper always knew where his elephant was going. What the lawman didn’t know was that the keeper was directing his charge straight at the uniform with those silent commands that you can give with your foot while riding…………Profuse apologies, intermingled with female laughter would always follow but woe betide the unfortunate elephant keeper who got caught under the influence without his elephant by his side.
Coming back after a long night, was another matter entirely. We would all be very tired and except for a very very small percentage of us the rest would be paralytic, therefore it was mainly up to the elephants to find their way home. The people who had been to watch would also be very merry and full of “Dutch courage”. They who had shown a healthy respect for the size and strength of an elephant would now be overwhelmed by affection for these magnificent creatures. Farmer KiriBanda would stumble up to an Elephant with words of endearment and attempt to bestow a drunken kiss. Most elephants knew about this and would gently step out of the way and keep going but not Tikiri. Tikiri’s eyes would light up, here was sport. She would let him lean on her and then sidestep smartly resulting in a dull thud as the gentleman hit the tar macadam of the road. If she was in a bad mood Tikiri would take a swing at the revellers with her trunk and many a man has reached instant sobriety while sailing in a graceful arc across the crowded streets of Kandy in most cases in a state of semi nudity, because their sarongs would always detach themselves. Fortunately, we never had anything worse than a minor bruising, the gods must really have been watching over us.
Sometimes we had the odd visiting elephant who had become over excited to escort home. Some of the Elephants who came for the procession would come from very remote villages. They had never seen so many humans or been exposed to all this noise and excitement. They would panic and get hysterical and become uncontrollable. If it got really bad a vet would be called with a tranquilizer but those were the early days of tranquilizer and Mahouts were wary of them. One of the popular theories were that the tranquiliser robbed the elephants of their strength and a once tranquilised elephant would be useless for work thereafter. Anyway, the first step when an elephant got over excited was to secure it using chains to a nearby tree or lamppost. Once the procession was over and the streets were clear we would tie the troubled one onto two others (one on either side) and lead him down to our bathing spot near the river where he would be stabled for a few days with plenty of food and water and allowed to calm down. The big bulls would be used for escort duties and Rani who could hold her own with most bulls would be used on occasion. This was one task that I was never allowed to participate in because as the keepers said, ” this is not one of ours and it doesn’t know you”. I really think it was on the instructions of my father who allowed me a free rein but drew the line on some things.
We used to get paid for our services during the ten nights of the festival. Not exorbitant sums of money as in the present day but mostly with a sack of “paddy” from the temple fields. The final day procession however was done for us to obtain merit from the gods and no one accepted any payment for this. It was hard work because we had just finished the final night (the longest route which took until the early hours of the morning) and it would be hot and humid as the weather is at that time of the year and we would all be weary. We did it without a second thought though and when I think of it we must have been as strong as the elephants themselves.
The Queens hotel in Kandy was the place where all the VIP’s watched the pageant. One of my uncles used always reserve a suite and invite all his friends and business associates and have an endless party for 10 nights and a day. All of us were under instructions to put on our best show when we were passing the Queens and we did. I always had one eye cocked at the overhanging balconies where all the pretty girls used lean out of taking in the spectacle. I was considered a bit of a wild child, for I was associating with all those elephant keepers, this I must confess had a certain appeal to some extremely pretty cousins of mine and their friends. One year when I was passing the Queens I was walking behind Tikiri (on tail duty) but we had Banda then and we didn’t need to hang on to her tail. Therefore, I was checking out the balconies and sure enough there were the girls I was looking for and they were waving vigorously and calling out. I gave a nonchalant wave and prepared to look busy with this important task that I had in hand, but they continued waving and calling out and the calls were getting frantic. Fortunately, I diverted my gaze and looked directly above my head where Tikiri’s tail had been lifted and she was about the deposit her last meal on my head. This of course was what the girls were trying to convey to me and I thought I had a fan club!!!!!
Pavilions, grounds, and gyms: Reflections on the ‘postmodern elite’
By Uditha Devapriya
After lunch one Friday last February, a few weeks before the Royal-Thomian, Lakshman Gunasekara, the ever genial, nondescript editor and journalist, called me a member of the postmodern elite. The conversation had meandered to personal anecdotes after a heavy, enlightening discussion on history, politics, and economics. The invariable question, “What school did you attend?”, had cropped up. I had duly answered.
I’m not a product of a public school; I hail from a less intimidating background. Just what was “postmodern” about the rising tide of international schools, however, intrigued me. So I questioned him. He argued, convincingly, that such institutions have become symbolic of the new consumerist elite, or what Sanjana Hattotuwa in an article over a conversation with Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda calls “the new capitalism.” What was so postmodern about this elite? Simply the fact that they employ new, different methods of acquiring economic, social, cultural, even political capital, and that this difference is reflected in their lifestyle and behaviour; what they do, where they are, and where they go to. Including, of course, the schools and universities they study at.
Who are the new rich of Sri Lanka? The new rich are conspicuous in their choice of homes and vehicles. They are conspicuous in the way they flaunt those cosmetics: not only do they purchase the latest cars and min-ivans, they are adamant on flashing LED lights when the sun’s as clear as it can be and honking horns many times over when once would have sufficed. Such displays of wealth, however, are part of a mythical stereotype. They don’t reveal the real picture. The numbers don’t either. So what does?
Here I leave out the more dubious elements of the new rich, i.e. those who’ve made their way up through clandestine means. They too fit into the new rich, but I’m less interested in that luxury vehicle milieu than I am in their relationship with the old elite which once, as children long ago, attended elite institutions and chose elite occupations.
Much of this old elite have left those institutions and occupations; a new intermediate class has sprung up in their place. That intermediate class aspires to what the old elite once aspired to: they want their children to study at the same schools, choose the same subjects, and go up the same career ladder. They haven’t realised, though many of their children have, that these aspirations have become antiquated, and that a new elite have found out other ways of acquiring capital. It is this latter elite, really a middle class, I am supposedly a part of. Call it “postmodern” if you will.
The intermediate class, which aspires to the ranks of the old elite, is overwhelmingly rural or suburban. They tend to live in the same localities. Their economic capital is hardly adequate to join the postmodern elite. They can’t, for instance, enrol their children at an English medium international school; to do that they’d have to choke up LKR 100,000 every term, and their jobs – where they make anywhere between LKR 40,000 and LKR 80,000 a month – don’t afford them such an expensive luxury. I’ll come to this crowd later.
On the other hand, fee-levying institutions have become the preserve of a new postmodern middle class, plus an older elite whose family wealth and business interests continue to secure them a high place in society. The latter, of course, have also devised new ways of acquiring economic and social capital: they have kept up with the times.
Not all such institutions accommodate both groups, however, since international schools have trifurcated today: you have the expensive schools, the middleclass ones, and the low budget ones calling themselves “international” while merely offering the local syllabus in English. My school fell into the second category. At the time I began attending it the aspiring rich had already made their way in: children of wealthy bus owners, restaurateurs, and cloth merchants. More than half my A Level class had self-made businessmen as parents; the other half had corporate executives and professionals; I am told the situation is different in high-end international schools, which tend to be populated by children of diplomats, blue chip company CEOs, Harley Street type physicians, and the like.
However, though class compositions within these three types differ, they are still bound by the same goal: a Western oriented education aimed at a Western job market. They also tend to attract the same criticisms: they don’t enforce discipline properly, aren’t respectful of local traditions, and distance students from their cultural roots. I remember at least one editorial from an avowedly progressive and prominent English weekly which, at the time of a high-profile murder of a foreign student in Colombo, attributed the crime to “the conduct of international school yuppies.” That, of course, was an old order viscerally reacting against the new yuppies; nowhere in Sri Lanka, after all, is the gulf between these two generations more discernible than in the kind of schools they attended.
Within this new rich flaunting their wealth and sending their offspring to the most expensive institutions, there is a stratum that shares the aspirations of an older order. They are not members of a postmodern elite; they are members of an acquisitive middle class who want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the old elite.
A keen observer of Sri Lanka’s social landscape once told me that the elite schools are no longer housed by the children of their own distinguished old boys and girls; they are instead being filled up by the scions of new politicians, businessmen, and artists. The rest send their offspring to international schools. At least one or two established MPs from the Grand Old Party – the UNP, which historically has produced leaders from either of the two leading public schools in the country – I know have hailed from those leading public schools, yet send their offspring to expensive international schools, differentiating themselves from the new political class that opts for the public schools. Such violations of norms attract the most acute vitriol. Criticising the decision of a relative for choosing a yuppie enclave for his son, for instance, one Distinguished Old Boy told me that “they may be better at academics, but they lack proper facilities”, meaning pavilions, grounds, and gyms.
Measuring facilities in terms of pavilions, grounds, and gyms seems unfair, and yet to them it isn’t. The criteria they use are the same used in a much earlier era by a much older elite. The underlying presumption is that academics alone won’t do; especially at a boys’ school, sports must play a big role, even at the cost of academics. I remember Goolbai Gunasekara lamenting this obsession with sports over studies. She wasn’t alone in her concern, and yet the old attitude, antiquated though it is, continues to prevail within the old public schools. It may be at one level a retread of muscular Christian values, which permeated English public schools and found their way to the prototypes of those institutions here. Whatever it is, the old order, and the acquisitive new middle class vying to stand with the old order, pander to the same myths, norms, and values, the same notions of what makes out for good facilities and what doesn’t.
Regardless of the differences between the schools attended by this crowd and the new postmodern crowd, though, one thread binds them together. It’s not easy to spot out, because the non-fee and fee-levying status of these two institutions suggests an equitable distribution of student wealth in public schools and a more disparate crowd in international enclaves. However, once you consider that these two are dominated by the rich – a section of the old elite plus the new political and business class in public schools, another section of the old elite plus the postmodern middle class in international schools – you’ll realise that disparities exist between students in both, though in different forms.
In the old public schools, an old (antique?) elite who reside in Colombo and its immediate neighbourhoods coexist with a new middle class (predominantly the sons and daughters of new politicians and businessmen) and lower middle class (Sinhala speaking, rural, if not suburban). The Grade Five Scholarship population hails from this lower middle class; their families are hardly the peers of the more affluent crowd who sit in the same class as their children, yet they happen to be quite influential within their communities.
The occupations of most of these parents fit them neatly within a rural petty bourgeoisie: principals, police officers, retired army officers, and the like. Even when the status of their occupations seems more modest, a post like a security guard at a private bank, in the city, can still help them stand apart from their neighbourhood.
By dint of their children gaining admission to elite schools, moreover, their position in those neighbourhoods rise up more; part of the reason why such students get so much pressured in their A Levels – to choose a conventional subject stream, like Bioscience and Maths – into doing conventional careers – medicine and engineering – is that if they don’t get through those streams and careers, they’ll lose face. Typical, in that sense, was the argument between a scholarship boy, who had gained admission six years earlier to a popular school in Colombo, and his mother, who bemoaned his lack of interest in studies and said “even those who failed their Scholarship Exam in the village school, and stayed back, have entered local universities.”
The disparities between students in international enclaves don’t need to be sketched out, because they’re self-evident. Particularly in “budget schools” like the one I went to, the gap between upper and lower middle-class students could get discernible. There was always, for instance, a group called to the principal’s office for not paying fees on time. That was a more empathetic time, when late payments, if the principal so wished it, could be made without incurring any surcharge. It’s an indication of the dread with which such encounters were viewed by our families, however, that the mere mention of us being called to the office rang alarm bells. We were too young to realise the reality of income gaps between ourselves. But those gaps were there, just as they are there in the elite schools; thus the new middle class and the postmodern elite, as far as where they obtain their education is concerned, both encounter roughly the same disparities.
I’ve been talking about old elites and new elites without explaining why talking about them is important and what we should do once we’re done talking about them. The truth is that Sri Lanka’s education system has always been artificially grafted on the country. Since its inception in the 1830s, when two colonial officials drew up a series of recommendations for the country’s political and administrative machinery, this system has operated on a division between the better off and the less well off.
Such divisions came out even in the categorisation of schools: superior versus elementary, private versus aided, English versus Sinhala and Tamil. They continue today: of 10,175 government schools, for instance, only 1,044, or less than 11%, offer Science stream A Levels classes. The fiction of equality between students – sustained by the perception of education in Sri Lanka as “free” – tends to hide such deplorable inequalities.
As a member of the postmodern elite, I realise and admit the harmful effects which the new international schools have wrought on the system. Contrary to the prognostications of their most fervent champions, these institutions have made inroads to the education sector by filling the needs of a moneyed class, whose worldview and social ethic differ only in degree, and not in substance, from that of a seemingly “less cultured” acquisitive middle class and political class that send their children to the old elite public schools.
And yet, critical as I am of the damage done by these enclaves, I am also aware that the public education system contains its own share of disparities and moreover does a poor job of pretending otherwise. The truth is that under the guise of equality, a virtue public schools like bandying about, elite schools push down hard on disadvantaged students (though that’s grist for another article). Pavilions, grounds, and gyms, however “good”, are not going to change that. The postmodern elite have sinned, and continue to sin. So do the older elite, and the aspirants to the older elite. Even in the schools they attend.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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