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Midweek Review

Book Review: ‘I Faced It All’

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Reviewed by Austin Fernando

“I faced it all” is the autobiography of KC Logeswaran (Logesh to us), one of the most senior and prominent public servants, famous district administrator, who faced terror, Secretary- Ministry of Telecom/Media, Secretary- Police Commission and Ambassador to South Korea, Governor- Western and Wayamba Provinces. He enjoyed associating with people of all nationalities and religions as a good Hindu. The book describes all these, and more.

Logeswaran had completed writing the book in 2014 and added the Governor’s Experiences subsequently. Though he was a moderate person, he thought his writing was blunt. He appreciates Dhammike Amarasinghe for saving him from the pitfalls of being aggressive following the latter’s advice.

The title of the book is from Frank Sinatra’s ‘I did it my way.’ ‘I faced it all’ covers history, experiences, persons, events, institutions, etc. The book (960 pages) is the story of Logesh the public servant, with occasional familial interactions. His memory expands even to minor episodes e. g., bribing a clerk with a meal to get his arrears or the transfer of a hapless colt.

Logesh commences his career as a teacher in Gampola and later joins as a Divisional Revenue Officer. It was his parental preference, too. The administrative evolution is touched by Logesh in a synopsis while discussing the DROs service (pages 11-13). He does so also about posts/telecommunication (Pg 487), Police (Pgs 646-649), Vavuniya District Development (Pgs. 18-24) .

His achievements are many in diverse fields but when sharing experiences he highlights certain postings with glee, e.g. district administration, Telecommunication Ministry, Police Commission, Governor, etc. Nevertheless, in all writings, there is a broad underlying spectrum of public service. Always he dissects history, tradition, gains and losses, issues of co-existence, influences, political and bureaucratic messes-up, etc.

The career from 1960 to 1975 is the foundation to prove that a generalist, given the opportunities and incentives could reach greater heights and make a meaningful contribution to others’ lives. His experiences, activities, and achievements are described with names, offices, events, places, legal references, etc. They project the understanding of serving he had learned from seniors who taught many a lesson (eg. Neville Jayaweera, PH Premawardhane, Lal Wijepala. D Nesiah), colleagues (Lionel Fernando, Neville Piyadigama. K Shanmugalingam, N Pathmanadan, Faiz Mohideen), politicians (President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Minister PP Devaraj, Parliamentarian C Sunderalingam, et al) and even acknowledges the contribution of his subordinates Prema, Mangala, and Thevy. He remembers officers who worked with him everywhere, and he has a story to tell on most of them. This is one reason for the book being voluminous.

The experiences he has simply unraveled in dealing with serious issues (e.g. agriculture or planning, privatisation, procurements, provincial administration, etc.) are appropriate lessons to many public officers, who lack his aptitude, though they are amply blessed with high technology/information systems. Logesh proves that a developed personality, communication skills, serious study, and especially bosses’ influence build strength to counter trepidation and anxiety in public officers.

Reading him, on the whole, can reinforce incumbent public officials, guide them in the future. I may pick three important arenas from his book.

First is the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). There was a demand for restructuring them. Logesh speaks much from pages 486-574 about his experiences in the telecom industry, especially working with an affable minister to whom Logesh has dedicated his book in recognition of his foresight. He had to operate with the Minister’s private staff, policymakers, foreign stakeholders, expert staff, procurement managers, et al. He states that no undue influence was made by the honest Minister on procurements during his 5-year tenure as Secretary. This ought to make the incumbent Secretaries, inundated with pressures in dealing with sugar, garlic, land, and other procurements, jealous of Logesh! Treasury officials currently battling with SOEs must read these pages, to learn how Logesh responded to SOEs’ issues.

The second area is on the National Police Commission. It should not be missed, by policemen, police administrators, and politicians from President downwards. His focus on leadership of the Police Commission to make it independent, and refers especially to Chairmen Ranjith Abeysuriya and Neville Piyadigama. Concurrently, he signifies mixed experiences on the Udalagama Commission, and the conflicting status of the Bhagawathi Committee, which finally collapsed to the dismay of foreign commentators.

The third is his writings on devolution in two chapters with experiences as Governor of the Western and Wayam

ba Provinces. The complexities in management, legal issues, conflicts with the centre and even among bureaucrats, political approaches and subtle operational tactics, coordinating problems with the district administration, political undercurrents, etc., open one’s mind to new vistas. Humor is shared by Logesh on the posting of Governors by lottery, but the subtle message was on political manipulation.

Logesh’s autobiography though focused on his public service career, encompasses history, nature, administration in a broader manner. It shares how political and administrative conflicts were solved with mutual consent, political infighting, mistakes made, and how superior directions worked at all levels. My advice to all new Governors is they should at least read the two chapters ‘The Gubernatorial Garb’ and ‘Hasthishilapura’. It is because we hear of Governors assuming they are the Provincial Mini-Presidents, or ‘Pocket editions of the President,’ which is not, and reading Logesh might put them into the proper gauge.

As for the secrets of Logesh’s success, the autobiography shows his commitment, managing the strengths, understanding weaknesses in him as well as others, constructively handling the opportunities, and facing threats sans fear. His story is a case of honesty, dedication, hard work, enthusiasm, and fearless perseverance. These reflect throughout the book.

He has been appreciative of his bosses like Neville Jayaweera, PH Premawardhane, et al. who showed the path for success. Most experiences, especially while in district administration are lessons to juniors and officers like District Secretaries. He has appreciated and expressed gratitude for their assistance.

All chapters give vivid descriptions of bureaucrats of differing levels, politicians of different calibers, and hues. One good example is the chapter identified as Steeplechase. The experiences he has gained as the Assistant Director of Planning, the operations of District Development Councils, development planning, involvements of the Political Authorities, the peculiarities of politicians are given in detail.

Logesh has not shied away from describing the difficulties, anxieties, griefs, and challenges he has faced. Young readers of this book will learn that there will be disappointments in life, but hard-won achievements will compensate for all that. The book may remind us with apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that Logesh’s footprints are left on the sands of time, for us to follow and enjoy.

Though Logesh has titled the book ‘I faced it all,’ it is more. It fits into Frank Sinatra’s song ‘I did it my way.’The 960 pages showcase his official life. It covers his travels in the north-south-west and foreign lands. His story shows a few regrets, but chartering a planned course and showing the readers how to take a careful step each time. He knew how much to chew, and when to chew. He was hale and hearty, and we knew it as a friend, colleague, Governor, and even as a retiree.

Logesh shows humility expecting his children to finish the line by adding “and stood tall’. They need not bother, Logesh has very explicitly done so by being so. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and, therefroe, read Logesh’s book and you will not regret it.



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Midweek Review

Possible link between TID head’s arrest and Easter Sunday massacre baffles retired DIG

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Retired DIG Priyantha Jayakody, one-time police spokesman, last Saturday (07) advised the police on how to deal with the current wave of protests. Jayakody addressed the media in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declaring a State of Emergency following police crackdown on protests near the Parliament. The retired top cop urged his former colleagues not to give into illegal orders, under any circumstances. Jayakody is the first retired top cop to declare his support for the ongoing countrywide campaign for political reforms.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Actor Jehan Appuhamy carried a life-sized cross on his shoulder from Katuwapitiya, in the Katana electorate, to the entrance of the President’s Office (Old Parliament), Galle Face, where a high profile ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign was underway.

The three-day trek began at the St. Sebastian Church premises, on April 19, where exactly three years ago Achchi Muhammadu Muhammadu Hasthun detonated his suicide device, killing over 100. Hasthun is widely believed to be one of the bomb makers, responsible for six suicide blasts, in the space of 20 minutes, beginning at 8.45 am on that particular day. The first detonation occurred at the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Colombo, Kochchikade, at 8.45 am. Other blasts ripped through Kingsbury, Colombo, at 8.47 am, St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, also at 8.47, Shangri-La, Colombo at 8.54, Cinnamon Grand, Colombo at 9 and Zion Church, Batticaloa at 9.05.

In addition to those planned blasts, there were two explosions – one at the Tropical Inn Guest House, Dehiwela, where one terrorist triggered his explosive device, and the last blast at Dematagoda, where Fatima Ibrahim, the wife of Inshaf Ibrahim (the Cinnamon Grand bomber), blew herself up, killing three police commandos. The blast also claimed the lives of her three young sons and her unborn child.

Actor Appuhamy’s endeavor received the blessings of the Catholic Church, campaigning for justice. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference has repeatedly demanded that the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday massacre, as well as those who failed to thwart the conspiracy, due to sheer negligence, or some other reasons, be punished, regardless of their standing in the society.

Appuhamy completed a 25-mile long journey, on April 21, on the 13th day of the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign. A group of Catholics joined a protest launched opposite Temple Trees, three days later, demanding justice for the Easter Sunday carnage. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference members, and the Archbishop of Colombo, Rt. Rev. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, has pledged their support for the ongoing campaign, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the entire Cabinet-of-Ministers, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Quite a number of Catholics displayed placards, demanding justice for the Easter Sunday victims, an issue that has sharply divided the country, experiencing the worst-ever post- independence economic-political and social crisis.

Retired Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Priyantha Jayakody, in an open letter, addressed to Defence Secretary, retired Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, published in Annidda, in its May Day edition, has questioned the failure on the part of the incumbent dispensation to bring the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday massacre to justice. Jayakody also queried the inordinate delay in completing the high profile investigations, launched during the yahapalana administration, into the alleged attempts to assassinate the then President Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the incumbent President.

The current dispensation couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for not adequately addressing the grievances of the Catholic Church, Jayakody told The Island. It would be a grave mistake on the government’s part to believe the issues, at hand, would be forgotten in a couple of years, therefore the current protests could be ignored. Jayakody, who had served the Police Department for almost 40 years, retired in late April 2021.

Namal Kumara affair

Ex-DIG Jayakody asserted that the arrest of DIG Nalaka Silva, the head of the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) on Oct 25, 2018, over his alleged involvement in an attempt to assassinate President Maithripala Sirisena and incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (then an ordinary citizen) may have facilitated the Easter Sunday suicide mission. Declaring that at the time of Silva’s arrest, the officer had been tracking the would-be Shangri-La bomber, and the leader of the suicide squad, Zahran Hashim, Jayakody questioned whether the investigator was falsely implicated in an alleged assassination plot to clear the way for the dastardly suicide attacks.

Jayakody emphasized that the conspirators had intervened when the investigation reached a crucial stage. Did the government pay sufficient attention to the unwarranted delay at the Attorney General’s Department, in respect of its failure to deal with Zahran Hashim’s file? The National Catholic Committee for Justice, in a missive, dated July 12, 2021, addressed to President Goabaya Rajapaksa, referred to the conduct of the Attorney General’s Department. The Committee pointed out to the President, the PCoI (Presidential Commission of Inquiry) recommendation to the Public Service Commission (PSC) that disciplinary action be taken against State Counsel Malik Azees and Deputy Solicitor General Azad Navavi (PCoI Final Report, Vol 01, p 329).

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) arrested Silva after having questioned him over a period of five days. At the time of his arrest, Silva had been suspended on the instructions issued by the National Police Commission (NPC).

Jayakody pointed out how within 24 hours after the TID Chief’s arrest, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the Cabinet-of-Ministers, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In spite of Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as the Prime Minister, he couldn’t prove a simple majority in Parliament. A disappointed President Sirisena had no option but to dissolve Parliament, on Nov 09, 2018, and set January 05, 2019 as date for parliamentary election. But, the Supreme Court intervention restored Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership. Thus President Sirisena’s plan for January 05, poll was thwarted; thereby the stage was set for scheduled presidential election.

According to Jayakody, the arrest of the TID Chief, over alleged assassination plots, automatically crippled the unit. Those who had been attached to the TID were looked down, both by other police officers and men, as well as the public.

The retired top cop questioned the role played by the media, particularly the television channels, in propagating claims made by police informant Namal Kumara, as regards alleged plots to assassinate President Sirisena and incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Pujith Jayasundera, who had served as the yahapalana IGP, is on record as having told the PCoI that Namal Kumara was paid by the Presidential Secretariat. Jayasundera quoted Dr. Saman Kithalawarachchi, the then Chairman of the Presidential Narcotics Bureau, as having told him that Namal Kumara served as a lecturer and was paid by the Presidential Secretariat.

Jayakody, in his open letter to Gen. Gunaratn, asked for the status of the investigation launched, following Namal Kumara’s unprecedented claims. “The people have a right to know. The government, under siege over the economic fallout, should come clean,” Jayakody stressed, adding that the ongoing countrywide protests reflected the crisis the country is in today.

Key issues

The Police Department owed an explanation to the public regarding the status of the investigation into the disgraced TID Chief’s alleged involvement in planned political assassinations. DIG Jayakody said that the incumbent dispensation, having repeatedly assured justice for the Easter Sunday victims, was yet to bring a critically important investigation into the Namal Kumara affair, to a successful conclusion. The need for a thorough investigation into the constitutional coup, perpetrated by President Maithripala Sirisena immediately after DIG Silva’s arrest, cannot be ignored. Would Zahran Hashim have gone ahead with the attacks if the constitutional coup succeeded? DIG Jayakody raised the following unresolved accusations leveled by Namal Kunara:

* DIG Silva dispatched a police hit squad, that had been assigned the task of carrying out VIP assassination, to Batticaloa

* DIG Silva sought special weapons used by snipers

* DIG Silva conspired with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

* Involvement of Thushara Peiris, a person living overseas, in the assassination conspiracy

*Conspiracy to involve ‘Makandure Madush’ in the conspiracy

Suspected drug baron, Samarasinghe Arachchige Madush Lakshitha, alias ‘Makandure Madush,’ was shot dead in the early hours of Oct 21, 2020. Madush was killed, under controversial circumstances, while being in police custody. At the time of the incident, Madush had been in the custody of the Colombo Crime Division (CCD). The police claimed that Madush received gunshot injuries at the Lakshitha Sevana apartment complex at Applewatta, in Maligawatta. Madush was brought to Colombo on May 05, 2019, from Dubai, where he was arrested on February 05, 2019.

Jayakody questioned the rationale in Namal Kumara’s accusations, TID Chief’s arrest and delivering a crippling blow to investigations into Zahran Hashim’s outfit. Finally, the wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had been the alleged target of a police assassination attempt, won an opportunity to contest the 2019 presidential election, on the SLPP ticket. Gotabaya Rajapaksa received the mandate of 6.9 mn votes whereas the other claimed target, Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the SLFP leader, contested the 2020 General Election. Sirisena re-entered Parliament having contested the Polonnaruwa electoral district. The SLFP group, in the current Parliament, comprised 14 lawmakers, including one National List MP. Except for Angajan Ramanathan, elected on the SLFP ticket (Jaffna District), the remaining 13 entered Parliament on the SLPP ticket.

Ex-DIG Jayakody said that in the wake of the SLPP victory, they expected rapid progress, not only in the Easter Sunday massacre probe, but also investigations into the Namal Kumara affair. Jayakody compared the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks, and the Namal Kumara affair, with that of the 1962 coup attempt meant to remove the then Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike from power. Jayakody recalled how top military personnel, who had been accused of the bid to assassinate Premier Bandaranaike, were dealt with the following investigations. Unfortunately, investigations into Namal Kumara’s disclosure hadn’t been completed, even over three and half years after the arrest of TID Chief.

In his open letter, Jayakody posed the following questions to Gen. Gunaratne: (i) Would you disclose the current status of the investigations into claims made by Namal Kumara (ii) Would you explain why cases hadn’t been filed in court against ex-DIG Nalaka Silva or other suspects involved in the alleged assassination attempts (iii) Have the investigators succeeded in verifying the claims made by Namal Kumara? If the accusations could be verified, what delayed all suspects being arrested? In respect of those who had been arrested so far, what caused the delay in the government moving court against them? (vi) Have the investigators realized that there is no basis for Namal Kumara’s accusations? If so, why a case hadn’t been filed against the former police informant over making false accusation and finally (vii) Could you explain the failure on the part of the government to conduct investigations speedily in spite of one of the two main targets of ex-DIG Nalaka Silva, as alleged by Namal Kumara, is serving the incumbent administration as the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and the other leader of a constituent party and a lawmaker.

Cardinal’s stand

The government should be mindful of the consequences of further delay in bringing the investigations into a conclusion. The widely held belief that the incumbent dispensation deliberately delayed, or undermined the investigations, may cause quite a serious situation, particularly against the backdrop of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) taking up the issue last year. Sri Lanka Co Chairs at the UNHRC, too, have taken up the issue.

Jayakody warned that unless the government, at least now, dealt with the Namal Kumara affair properly, the public would believe it was related to the Easter Sunday conspiracy. According to Jayakody, the public are gravely suspicious of Namal Kumara ‘drama’ being the precursor for later developments. Jayakody questioned Gen. Gunaratne’s response to Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s repeated demands for justice. Referring to Gen. Gunaratne’s recent response to the Cardinal’s public criticism of the handling of the Easter Sunday investigations, Jayakody asserted that the Defence Secretary’s advice to the Cardinal that he should inform the CID of any relevant information without making public statements sounded like a challenge. Jayakody emphasized that the Cardinal had taken the issue beyond the CID against the backdrop of growing suspicions that justice couldn’t be expected under the current dispensation.

Jayakody, identifying himself as a Catholic, drew the government’s attention to the Cardinal’s fight, both here and abroad, that has attracted the attention of the international community. The retired top cop stressed that the government hadn’t so far been able to counter the spate of issues raised by the Catholic Church regarding the Easter Sunday massacre. Instead of challenging the Catholic Church, the government should answer pertinent questions.

Responding to The Island queries, Jayakody emphasized that he didn’t want to issue a character certificate to DIG Nalaka Silva. Jayakody said the issue at hand is whether Namal Kumara, at the behest of some interested party/parties, directed a spate of allegations, at the then TID Chief Silva, to create an environment conducive for law enforcement authorities to move against DIG Silva. Had Silva received the wrath of the powers that be, as he pursued the now proscribed National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) responsible for the Easter Sunday massacre?

The Easter Sunday massacre created an environment that undermined the yahapalana administration. The public responded to the SLPP’s assurances to ensure security in the run-up to the 2019 Presidential Election. Three years later, those who vowed to deal with extremism and terrorism are under fire over the failure to unravel the Easter Sunday mystery.

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Midweek Review

A Bronze Lineage: Kannagi/Pattini and Karaikkal Ammaiyar of Polonnaruwa

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“Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere. Metal is a conductor of all matter … and thought is born more from metal than stone…”

Deleuze and Guattari, A 1000 Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

By Laleen Jayamanne

Professor Gananath Obeyesekere commissioned Tissa Ranasinghe to sculpt in bronze the figure of Kannagi/Pattini, a glistening photograph of which is on the deep blue-black cover of his magnificent book The Cult of the Goddess Pattini. Kannagi/Pattini are the two forms of a South Indian mother goddess worshipped by Tamil Hindus of South India and Sri Lanka and Buddhists, whose human origins are in the Tamil epic Silappadikaram, in which she is the main protagonist. The book, decades in the making, was published by Chicago University Press in 1984, one year after the July ‘83 anti -Tamil pogrom, at the beginning of the civil-war in Sri Lanka. I have read on the internet that Ranasinghe was originally commissioned (I don’t know by whom), to make a large bronze statue of Kannagi to commemorate the 1958 ‘race riots’ in the wake of the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike government making Sinhala the sole national language of Ceylon, thus demoting the status of Tamil as one of the languages of the country. This commission was never realized and it would appear that Obeyesekere’s commission revived the idea on a miniature scale at a critical juncture in the nation’s interracial history.

Ranasinghe and Obeyesekere clearly had decided, fittingly, that the sculpture would be the final scene of mourning, a gesture lamenting the death of her husband, Kovalan, after her remarkable heroic action. The protagonist of the Tamil epic (Kannagi to the Hindus and Pattini to the Sinhala), in her rage against the king of Madura (for killing Kovalan), tore her left breast, throwing it at the city, destroying it with the ensuing fire.

The sculpture shows the single breasted Kannagi (her self-mutilation a sign of her rage and super human power), lamenting beside her murdered husband’s mutilated body. In choosing to represent the Hindu, Tamil version of the legend for the cover of the book on the Pattini mother goddess cult of the Sinhala folk, centred on the Gammaduwa ritual, Obeyesekere and Ranasinghe have emphasised the syncretic nature of popular religious practices in the case of Hinduism and Buddhism as they are practised in Sri Lanka.

Appadurai’s review of Obeysekere’s book

Arjun Appadurai in his review characterises Obeyesekere’s book in the following way:

“This is a book of unusual scope, quality, and scholarly significance. Ostensibly a description and analysis of a single cult in Sri Lanka, it is in fact a major symbolic, psychological, and ethno-historical study of practical religion in Sri Lanka, and of the relationship of that island to Indic culture and society. It is the product of two decades of field research by Sri Lanka’s most distinguished anthropological interpreter, and its combination of textual analysis, ethnographic sensitivity, and methodological catholicity makes it something of a blockbuster”.

My interest here is to take up what Appadurai calls the relationship of the island to Indic culture and society in order to find a way to discuss a possible link between Kannagi and the 11th Century bronze sculpture of Karaikkal Ammaiyar which is the subject of Sarath Chandrajeewa’s small book, “Emaciated female playing the cymbals: A study of an ancient Hindu bronze figurine in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka” (2020). The deep history of the co-penetration of Hindu and Buddhist cultures, in relation to bronze sculpture in the late Anuradhapura period has been researched by Chandrajeewa in his doctoral thesis conducted in Russia, on the Veragala Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture (also published in an elegant book), one among the famous Lankan Bronzes made under the influence of Mahayana Buddhism practised at the Abhayagiri Vihara in the late Anuradhapura period.

These world famous Lankan bronzes were exhibited globally and I saw them here in Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1994. The small bronze sculpture, of a female musician, identified as Karaikkal Ammaiyar, poet-saint in the Shiva Bhakti (devotional), tradition, according to Chandrajeewa’s analysis, is in a folk idiom made during the Chola rule centred in Polonnaruwa. As a mother goddess, she is worshipped in South India where there are refined, elegant bronze statues of her included in the book. I feel that studying this old ascetic female figure of Karaikkal Ammaiyar, from 11th Century Polonnaruwa period, just might suggest some ways of thinking about female subjectivity, trauma and therapeutic performance modes done under duress, in our time. And perhaps, in so doing, female artists may be able to find new means of expressing new ideas and emotions, which are currently emerging in the most surprising of ways on the streets of Sri Lanka, among its youth or as they call themselves, the ‘Y generation’, especially, people born in the 90’s and now are 30ish.

Earthbound mother goddess

The old ascetic female singer, Karraikkal Ammaiyar, like Kannagi/Pattini, is not a celestial figure like the canonical consorts of the male Hindu deities but terrestrial, an earthbound mother goddess figures from the folk traditions of India and Sri Lanka, in bronze. They were understood to be humans (whether fictional or actual) before their deification. And according to D. D. Kosambi the mathematician, statistician and historian of ancient India, Indian villages in the Deccan area show ample material evidence of ‘primitive icons,’ stones daubed in red, of a multitude of nameless mother goddess figures. He suggests that these folk practices of the adivasis were subsequently incorporated into more orthodox Patriarchal Brahmanical Hindu caste based religious rituals once the tribal forest dwellers were made indigent and brought into the oppressive Hindu caste system at its lowest end to perform essential tasks considered lowly. This large group of people refer to themselves as Dalit. He says, “Indian mother goddess temples are a direct growth from primitive tribal cults, each of local origin, later brahminised”.

His book, Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture, based on extensive fieldwork and brilliant philological analysis of Sanskrit texts, explores these ideas in detail with material evidence, including an array of diverse microliths.

What sort of historical legacy might this little known, non-canonical, folk, bronze sculpture of Karaikkal Ammaiyar in a Polonnaruwa museum suggest to contemporary women artists and performers? Is it even worth looking that far back into our traditions, beyond the modern moment of, say 43 Group and the 20th Century, to imagine how to perform the category of gender beyond the familiar, by now habitual, and perhaps a bit tired moves? What rigorous skills (in developing rich, complex, formal means of poetic abstraction), might it suggest to a receptive mind of a gifted feminist artist or two now? Unlike India, in the absence of hospitable rich local traditions to draw from for women, perhaps casting one’s mind’s eye further afield may not be such a bad thing.

Tough situation for young artists

I am of course not suggesting that women artists ought to start learning to cast bronze now. But rather that young gifted artists should try not to be too circumscribed by formulations often determined by globalised international research protocols, and themes, whether they be those set by the practitioners of American academic art history and its grants and publishing systems or the global art institutions, where artists do have a chance to exhibit and discuss their work. This is probably a tough situation to navigate for young artists. But the effort it takes to be open to one’s own traditions should not be dismissed as ‘oh it’s just traditional’, implying that one shouldn’t go there, as has been done in the past.

Academics and curators should try not to be gatekeepers but mentors who open up possibilities for young artists

The task, as I see it, would be to widen terms of reference and not just fit into researchers’ next book project, which is often determined by professional academic publishing priorities and teaching topics, art-world buzz-words/ideas established elsewhere in the global North.

An idea of the canonical Patriarchal Indian mother goddess popped up recently, in the most unexpected of places, in Asoka Handagama’s controversial film Alborada (2022, in English), about Pablo Neruda’s time in colonial Ceylon as the Chilean consul in 1929-31. There is a kitsch statue of the goddess Parvathi, the dutiful consort of Shiva, in the house that Neruda rents. He created a fantasy around the nameless Dalit woman, who cleaned his toilet daily and whom he raped by likening her to Parvathi. The official Facebook page for the film appears to consist of largely male responses to the film.

I have a general impression that they showed more interest in the figure of the Burmese woman who pursued Neruda relentlessly and whom he rejected violently, rather than with the mother goddess analogy in discussing the rape. Is that because she is presented as the castrating woman archetype, called a ‘Burmese Panther’, ‘the devil’, who arrives with a large knife and is then reduced to a state of melodramatic abjection as a doormat at Neruda’s feet, as though she was saying, ‘sagara jalaya madi anduva oba sanda’ and we are even shown a pool of tears on the floor in a literal minded manner. But at least she is allowed a dignified exit if not much else, our Asian sister, one might say, from Burumaya.

Professor Sunil Ariyaratne’s film, Paththini, a slick epic extravaganza, deals with the Kannagi legend and its Indian lineage just in order to reduce it to reinforcing a Sinhala Buddhist ideology of purity and virginity for women through the exemplary tale of Kannagi and her step-daughter Manimekala, who becomes a Tamil Buddhist. Her dearest wish is to be born a male in her next life so that she can indeed aspire to become a Buddha. The emphasis is on the preservation of virginity (pathiwatha), and the enthroning of male sexuality as the route to attaining Buddhahood.

According to Kosambi the power of the tribal female folk deities, through their ‘unofficial’ proliferation, meant that there was room for women to struggle to find some degree of freedom in the domain of ritual and religious practices even under material constraints of tribal life.

Sinhala Buddhist culture

Given that Paththini is the only guardian mother goddess in Sinhala Buddhist culture it would be interesting to look at a minor figure cast in bronze such as Karaikkal Ammaiyar to see if her image can transmit any ideas to us now. Geeta Kapur the Indian art critic, theorist of modernism and curator, once told me that the way the limbs are modelled on the bronze figurine, the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro (2300-1750 BCE), and also on the Chola bronzes (9th-11th Century CE) are similar, that the limbs are in a tubular form, not sculpted realistically. This tubular form is also perceptible in the arms of the emaciated musician playing cymbals and singing as well. To perceive such similarities is important because they have a strong material basis in craft knowledge but their causality will remain forever obscure, given the vast epochs they straddle.

Nevertheless one can imagine, speculate on what they allow us to think about; the power of visual forms of abstraction, of iconic figures, archetypes of the mother goddess, across epochs in the one sub-continent of great aesthetic and linguistic diversity as in India and in a related adjacent country such as ours, with limited resources.

I feel that there is a powerful formal-conceptual-spiritual link one can draw between Ranasinghe’s sculpture of Kannagi and that of the Karaikkal Ammaiyar presented as an ascetic musician/singer who keeps a rhythmic beat with her cymbals and sings in great abandon, with her ‘eyes wide shut’.

Tissa Ranasinghe’s bronze Kannagi is a thoroughly contemporary icon of a mythical folk mother goddess. It is not a ‘beautiful’ pieta full of pathos. There is such a modern admixture or montage of rasas, rage (raudra), terror (bhayankara), disgust (bhibhatsa), heroism (Veera), evoked by her righteous cry. Whereas, in the state sponsored ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist pure womanhood, encoded in a recent film like Paththini by Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, the Sinhala variant of the goddess is embodied by the ‘pure wife’ Kannagi and her step-daughter Manimekalai, who becomes a Buddhist nun. There is a tradition to this in much liked Sinhala films such as Parasathu Mal (1966), by Gamini Fonseka and Ran Salu (1967), by Lester James Peries, both written by P. K. D. Seneviratne.

In both these films the character played by Anula Karunathilaka brings a new set of attributes into Sinhala cinema. She breaks certain sexual taboos and in Parasathu Mal expresses her anger against the feudal master who exploited her sexually and demands her rights and that of their ‘illegitimate’ daughter. In Ran Salu, however, the narrative problems are resolved by her choice of becoming a Buddhist nun, like Manimekala. While Punya Heendeniya plays the appealing ‘good Sinhala Buddhist woman’ role to perfection and wins the ideal husband, Karunathilaka offers an energetic foil to her, which has its own modern appeal. In relation to this distant history, Ariyaratne’s recent film reinforces feudal ideas of Buddhist, womanly purity, and appears to have linked up with nationalist Sinhala Buddhist state ideology of the postwar period. The mythic epic figure of Kannagi who in her rage enacts heroic justice is converted into an emblem of virginal purity. (To be Continued)

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Midweek Review

Breaking Free  

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By Lynn Ockersz

For 74 years in slavery suffered he,

But he didn’t quite know it,

Because their words were so syrupy,

And he was told to make do with crumbs,

That fell off their luxury food tables,

But there’s been this rude awakening,

Brought about by the stomach’s agony,

And a famine that’s ominously looming,

That’s made him see through things,

And realize that the fruits of his labour,

Have only enriched Fat Cats of standing,

While leaving him with measly earnings,

And what’s liberating about this revelation,

Is that it has freed him from servile thinking,

And taught him that before power,

He cannot ever go down on his knees,

Since humans are born equal in dignity.

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