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Christianity, Buddhism and Common Morality

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Panadura Vadaya Part 11 (Contd.)

Dr D. Chandraratna

Initially the Sinhalese were not actively opposed to missionary work because as far as morality was concerned they saw a bright side in co-existence. The Christian missionaries were a bit perplexed as to the sangfroid manner in which ordinary Buddhists perceived Christianity. For them both were similar in terms of morals. Respect or allegiance to both religions was not an issue of such importance to them. Buddhism has always been a syncretic system whereby alien elements were absorbed without much acrimony.

Allegiance shown to one was not necessarily a rejection of the other. Similarities in the two belief systems were also appreciated. Even Rev Gogerly of the Wesleyan faith was not puzzled by it; he in fact saw similarities between the two religions, in sacrifices made by Jesus similar to Gautama Buddha in his various sansaric births. While Missionaries took opposite stances, the adherents saw the benevolence, reverence, virtue and goodness in both systems as beneficial to mankind.

Buddhist monks saw the missionaries as similar religious virtuosi as themselves who preached to the uninstructed. Given the colonial inferiority felt by the bhikkus some were very happy to entertain and court friendships with the Europeans preachers. Turnour, the Government Agent of Central Province wrote, ‘Nothing can exceed the good taste and tact evinced by Buddhistical church in Ceylon with Europeans, as long as they are treated with the courtesy, that is due to them’.

Two monks in particular, Karathota Dhammananda and Bovala Dhammananda, gave their assistance in translating Christian scriptures without hesitation. Missions have recorded instances of ‘banamaduwa’ given to the missionary preachers but bhikkus were perplexed when church premises were refused rather indignantly. Hardy wrote that there were many occasions that he sought night shelter in a pansala and even temporary shelter from the heat of the day sometimes. There were many occasions, Murdoch noted in his diary, when he was fed from the alms bowl and given tobacco or some other ‘luxury’ to express their satisfaction at his visit.

Signs of Strain between Christians and Buddhists

In and around the 1850’s the Buddhist reaction to Christianity changed. The long periods of State neglect, indifference, and even hurt endured by the monkhood and the laity wore them down. The attacks by the missionaries were considered distasteful and even unjust. To label Buddhist traditional practices as ‘horrifying’, ‘abominable’ ‘evil and wicked’ were pretentious in the extreme. It even provoked Governor Horton to write to the head of the Wesleyan Mission Benjamin Clough to desist from such derogatory comments and even ordered to withdraw a tract because public disaffection to the coloniser can lead to serious consequences as was happening in India at the time. In 1852 Governor Anderson also wrote to the Colombo Archdeacon to ‘not repeat language so violent and offensive as calculated to excite and exasperate the whole Buddhist population’. These showed the nervousness of the administrators, conscious of their continued indifference and neglect to the demands made by the Buddhist for over half a century of British colonialism.

Ironically the printing press, which was the weapon that the missionaries used firstly to castigate Buddhism as profane and evil began to be used by the Buddhists in their counterattack. Being skilled in Sinhalese the monks commanded a hefty advantage over the adversary. The missionaries in turn had to be acutely proficient to rebut the Buddhist scholars. Two missionaries of the Wesleyan church, Reverend Gogerly and Spence Hardy, began reading Sinhalese Buddhist literature and Pali sources unabashedly under the tutelage of Buddhist monks in order to put their knowledge into practical use.

A Sinhalese treatise by the name Kristiani Prajnapthi was re-published by Gogerly in 1853 to refute the Buddhist doctrine and establish the Christian ‘truth’. The title of Part 1 was ‘Buddhism is not a True Religion’. Gogerly’s protégé, David de Silva, followed Gogerly in writing shorter tracts with more punch in a style to excite the average reader. The anti Buddhist material coming from Baddegama mission catapulted Galle and Matara into becoming Buddhist fortresses due to the sagacity and popularity of monks in the lineage starting from Mulkirigala. While the Buddhist press questioned the existence of an eternal god, eternal soul, divine creation and original sin the Christians railed the Hindu- Buddhist cosmology, popular cults and exorcist practices existent in popular Buddhism.

The press belonging to Christian Mission in Kotte came into the hands of the ‘unknown’ Buddhists which was used in opposition to Christianity, and their numerous publications were condemned by the opponents as sheer blasphemy. Another press came up in Galle under Bulathgama Sumana in 1862 that was financed by the Siamese King Mongkut and a Kandyan Chief from Uva. Galle publications were directed by Hikkaduwe Sumangala a respected scholar, then in his 30’s who demonstrated his skills in the Adhikamasa and Sav Sath Dam controversies. Mohotivatte Gunananda, five years Hikkaduwe’s senior, a relatively unknown monk soon arrived on the scene to became the leading champion of the Christian Buddhist confrontation.

Mohottivatte

popularly known as Migettuvatte Gunananda, though born in the Southern province lived at Deepaduththaramaya in Kotahena, a temple founded by his uncle and teacher Sinigama Dhirakkandha. His experience in Colombo where monks were made unwelcome in the Colombo suburbs had a hardened attitude towards the Christian missionaries. His verbal skill, language fluency, dexterity as a preacher with zeal far exceeded that of his adversaries. His organization called Sasanabhivurdhi Dayaka Dharma Sangamaya happened to be the once unknown new owner of the Church Missionary Press.

Migettuvatte

published a reply to Gogerly’s Kristiani Prajnapthi in the new Press in Durlabha Vinodiniya which was a monthly periodical which triggered a rival periodical by Gogerly, Sudharma Prakaranaya. These periodicals sometimes did not survive for long and a spate of such magazines arrived in quick succession. The Kristiani Vada Mardanaya 1862, Samyak Dharshanaya by Migettuwatte, and Bauddha Vaksharaya and Sumathi Sangrahaya, Labdhi Tulawa by Hikkaduwe from the Galle Lamkopakara Press to which the Wesleyans replied with Bauddha Vakya Khandanaya and Satya Dvajaya as a counter publication.

As the publications proliferated the topics widened and the scholastic nature improved, Gogerly, anointed ‘as the first Pali scholar known, resplendent as a preacher shone’ (Spence Hardy) died soon after and he was replaced by Hardy himself who had returned to the island after a lapse of 15 years. Hardy’s tenure was short and eventually the Baddegama Wesleyan Mission passed over to Gogerly’s pupil, David de Silva, who became the principal adversary of Migettuvatte in the years to come. The British missionaries who were adept at public debate and dialogue were keen on public discussion of religious subjects but the response so far from the Buddhist monks remained lukewarm.

Public debates:

The end of an outwardly friendly relationship

The Buddhist monks, at first were not eager to enter into public debate with the Europeans but when the Missionaries exceeded their limits by frequenting the temples on popular festival days and addressing their dayaka community the monks were naturally irritated. Intrusions by missionaries with pamphlets prepared well in advance to discourage the Buddhist public became far too frequent.

The first encounter with the missionaries took place at Baddegama on November 21, 1864 when a few missionaries from the nearby church mission challenged the monks in the temple in their own premises, which was accepted by the irritated monks and fixed the debate for February 8, 1865. On that appointed day the missionaries were no less surprised by the enormous crowd of around 2,000 well organized by Bulathgama. Led by Hikkaduwe there were present the ablest monks from the Galle precincts.

The supporters of Christian missionaries present numbered around 60 to 70. The show of strength was hard to comprehend to the missionaries. It was not really in the debating format but an exchange of letters on questions and answers, which were published later. Another similar exchange was held at Varagoda, Kelaniya in the same format followed by a real public debate at Udanvita in 1866. A proper ‘debate’ was held at Gampola, for the first time, in January 1871.

The Famous Panadura Debate

The third of the series and by far the most famous proper debate was held at Panadura from Aug. 26th and 28, 1873, at Panadura in the presence of 5,000-7,000 people on the first day and over 10,000 the second day. The impact of the Baddegama debate had given both missionaries and the Buddhists a jolt and both parties were eager to marshal forces for a fierce contest at Panadura. The spokespersons for the Christians became a ‘painful’ affair to match Migettuvatte, a ‘consummate master of public haranguing’, which was no easy task. David de Silva the student of Rev Gogerly, though learned was a poor orator and F.S Sirimanne, a catechist at the CMS, better orator, assisted by Samuel Perera, a Sinhalese Minister were chosen. The Wesleyan Mission at Baddegama went on a spree just on the eve of the great event attacking the Buddhist monks as less intelligent, having an appearance of great vacancy, verging on imbecility and mental inertness. (Hardy, Eastern Monachism). The missionaries dared the monks to come out in open so that they could be humiliated in public.

The Christian missionaries badly miscalculated the situation. Spence Hardy who led the Christian side did not gauge the Buddhist enthusiasm correctly. The attacks of monks that he had earlier directed galvanized the so-called ‘indifferent laymen to get closer to the monks’. The monks themselves took the challenge seriously devoting time for research and preparation. The monks nuanced in matters such as karma, nirvana, Buddhahood, rebirth, resurrection etc., in their day- to- day preaching were more than prepared to ridicule the essentials of Christianity; Divine Providence, eternal God, creation versus natural evolution.

The missionaries were concentrating on the Hindu- Buddhist cosmology, the weakest link, incompatible with general knowledge of science at the time. But the Christians were equally vulnerable to the same charge in their belief system. When David de Silva sarcastically asked Migettuvatte why the Western explorers failed to find Maha Meru in their exploits, Migettuvatte returned the brickbat asking David de Silva whether any of the explorers found the Garden of Eden. On many other counts the same tactics were used by both parties about the omniscience of God, historicity of recorded events in both doctrines. Being two belief systems it is natural that logic, science and reason cannot assist both on many counts but debates and ridicule have immense emotive appeal to the ordinary person. It is to be expected therefore that when Migettuvatte concluded his words cries of Sadhu Sadhu emanated from the thousands of highly affected followers. It was apparently up to Hikkaduwe and Migettuvatte to beckon the agitated crowd to keep the peace.

Help from Free thinkers

and Theosophists

Around this time there were Europeans, who raised issue with theistic doctrines and free thinkers who cast a fascinating eye at Eastern mysticism in addition to their interest in dead languages such as Pali and Sanskrit. These developments in the West came to the attention of the Sinhala literati. The Sinhala periodical Vibhajjavadaya edited by D.P Wijesinghe published some of their accounts in Sinhala, which caught the eye of the monks. Correspondence and exchange of printed material gave an impetus to the efforts of Buddhist monks to lift their own morale and also the possibility of using the Westerner to demand their due

from the colonizing Europeans. Sinhala Buddhists were yearning for white European assistance to confront the colonizers. The Bishop of Colombo, Reginald Copleston, obviously irritated by the impetus Buddhist monks were receiving from some quarters made his disquiet public. He said to call Sri Lankan monks as ‘brothers of intellect’, by some Europeans animated by an ill judged but insignificant controversy in a sleepy town by the name of Panadura, was damaging Christianity. This doubtless was a reference to Henry Olcott, Founder of the Theosophical Society and Madame Blavatsky whose booklets had been sent to Migettuvatte prior to the Panadura event.

Spence Hardy before leaving Ceylon wrote that, ‘The cross must triumph. The time will come when the vihara will be deserted, the dagoba unhonoured, and the bana unread’. His optimism was short lived and the new Bishop of Colombo conceded upon assuming his duties in 1874, that, ‘there is little doubt that Buddhism is far more vigorous in Ceylon than it was a 150 years ago’.

= This article is written in appreciation of two of my academic friends who have rendered their due to foster scholarship in Sri Lanka.

=Late Kitsiri Malagoda, my contemperory at Peradeniya, and later in our academic circle on Sri Lanka Down Under sadly passed away a few years ago. His seminal work was Buddhism in Sinhalese Society 1750-1900, Cambridge University Press.

= P.V.J Jayasekera’s (Retired Professor of History) Confrontations with Colonialism Vol 1, Vijitha Yapa Publication, which is also used by me in writing this article, is an outstanding contribution to Sri Lankan History and is of immense theoretical depth.



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

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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!

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Hope that lies in the Pandora Box

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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!

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Cops, criminals, and cultural contours

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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

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