Comment: Vasantha Senanayake’s Transcending Sita
“We shall always strive to delve and to dive
To search the immeasurable universe
For answers in a naïve hope to somehow satisfy
The acutely churning void
Who am I? And wherefrom?
The unanswered question, of ends without beginnings
The daughter of the earth
Born of the maroon soil of Mithila …”
Thus begins the story of Sita of Ramayana fame, as introduced by Vasantha Senanayake in verse throughout of four Books titled Of Innocence, Intrigues, Infringements and Invincibility, covering 147 pages.
I will start my comment by saying the book is unique: larger in size, illustrated by black and white sketches and each Book prefaced with a wonderful colour drawing – all of a doe eyed woman. So also the cover. These drawings and paintings are Vasantha’s mother’s. Thus the book I have before me which I admire, is also a work of art – in its illustrations; in its writing.
Title and chief protagonist
I was intrigued by the title: Transcending Sita. I sought the exact meaning of ‘transcending’ and found it to be: ‘be or go beyond the range or limits of a field of activity or conceptual sphere.’ It can also mean ‘go beyond, rise above, cut across and surpass.’ You reader of this comment and the book itself can reach your own interpretation. For me it means that the story of Sita, particularly her behaviour and nature have been viewed, studied, analyzed by Vasantha, different to the usual interpretations. He has gone beyond the concepts, opinions and ideas so far held and expressed. He gives a fresh interpretation to Sita and the story of her lover-husband and abductor; the test of sanctity she voluntarily undergoes and the affirmation of her purity. It is her story in Vasantha’s poem, narrated by her.
First of all who is Sita? She is the female protagonist in the first epic poem ever recited and later written down – the Ramayana. We well know her story and Lanka features in it because Ravana who kidnapped her was a king of Lanka. She epitomizes purity of body, morality and spirit and is an example to all womankind.
Vasantha in his narrative poem has centre-staged Sita; the light of analysis and interest he focuses on her. That is remarkable and most interesting because the Ramayana gives so much importance to Rama, Ravana and Lakshmana, one of Rama’s three brothers, not forgetting Hanuman. The Ramayana to us was Rama and Ravana and the battles that ensued. True, the entire story is because of Sita and her abduction by Ravana. But she was secondary in the epic poem of long ago and modern day films. Vasantha brings her up front and thus her stoicism and purity are made more important than the bravery of the two male opponents. Her purity and patience are the crux of the story. Thus womanhood is upheld; more important than victory in war.
My surmise explained above is stated by Vasantha in his Introduction. “I speak not of the Ramayana itself, which dedicates itself to the glories of men … My focus is on the silent heroine, A poetic rendition of her life and my visualized triumphs and disasters faced by a single woman, without whom there really is no tale to tell.” This positive highlighting of women we deeply appreciate, especially so when eastern society was so patriarchal then and even now.
As you well know The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. It is traditionally attributed to the authorship of the sage Valmiki and dated to around 500 BCE to 100 BCE. The Hindu gods come in and thus the religious significance of the epic. It became a metaphor for the final triumph of the righteous.
Valmiki is said to be the first poet. Vasantha, in his Introduction, contests the fact that the story of Rama and Sita was first narrated by Valmiki. He states “,,,even though the great Valmiki may have been the first to quill it down using his mastery of language and poetry, the actual events were of a prior age.” He says he has read of other versions of the story. He mentions a Jataka story and thus brings in Buddhism. However, he assures the reader: “this is neither meant to be a religious nor historical account, it is merely my visualization of a most powerful feminine entity in the best loved and best known story of the Indian Sub-Continent and perhaps even South East Asia. It is to be enjoyed for its content as literature, and must not be taken to be as religious dogma nor for historic nor chronological perfection.” Reading through this newest version of the epic poem proves all he says.
I must first say that I was lost in wonder and praise as I read Vasantha’s ‘epic’ in verse. Poetry is so different to prose writing and even free verse needs great skill and I dare say, an inherent ability, which is developed through time. The language in Vasantha’s story told in poetic form is simple and the story flows effortlessly, almost like prose but taking on the format of verse.
The writing is terse and precise. There isn’t much imagery or metaphor. That does not reduce the value of the writing as images are created in the mind by the lines of verse and the entire story is a metaphor for womanhood excelling in honour and purity.
I was very keen to see how Vasantha dealt with the fire incident where Sita agrees to walk through flames to prove her chastity was intact though living under Ravana’s control.
Why must I swear a sacred oath?
And swear upon some god
My word, and my word alone
Does that not count at all?
Thousands of men, wanting to test the virtue of one woman
I pray, the fire shall not shield, I much prefer to burn
And now the fire is roaring madly
I walk into the flames so slowly, praying to goddess Parvathi
Take me to thy divine abode, take me! Oh take me!
Entranced, but I feel wood giving way and I move instinctively
Ever slowly through a wall of reddened flame
You will see here that language is used simply and straightforwardly with no embellishment; sans poetic devises, extravagant phrases, dramatics, climaxes and flights of fancy. That is Vasantha’s style of writing. And it is effective; it is powerful. Maybe he wanted the story/incident described to be fully appreciated by the reader and not led astray by extravagant and decorative language. Too much emphasis on the language may even have reduced the impact of the incidents, and conveyed a sense of artifice.
Vasantha Senanayake (b June 28, 1973), a great grandson of D S Senanayake, took to politics at a young age and was in the United National Party. He served as State Minister in two ministries. He changed parties but says now he has given up politics and means to concentrate on his creative writing. All the better, I applaud. How can a person of sensibility be in the melee of present day local politics? The body of Sri Lankan writing will improve with persons of sensitivity and skill moving to creative writing.
Transcending Sita was published this year by Godage & Brothers (Pvt) Ltd and is priced at Rs 1350/=. It is well worth possessing this unique book which can also grace one’s coffee table.
Obtaining fresh mandate unavoidable requirement
by Jehan Perera
The government’s plans for reviving the economy show signs of working out for the time being. The long-awaited IMF loan is about to be granted. This would enable the government to access other loans to tide over the current economic difficulties. The challenge will be to ensure that both the old loans and new ones will be repayable. To this end the government has begun to implement its new tax policy which increases the tax burden significantly on income earners who can barely make ends meet, even without the taxes, in the aftermath of the rise in price levels. The government is also giving signals that it plans to downsize the government bureaucracy and loss-making state enterprises. These are reforms that may be necessary to balance the budget, but they are not likely to gain the government the favour of the affected people. The World Bank has warned that many are at risk of falling back into poverty, with 40 percent of the population living on less than 225 rupees per person per day.
The problem for the government is that the economic policies, required to stabilize the economy, are not popular ones. They are also politically difficult ones. The failure to analyse the past does not help us to ascertain reasons for our failures and also avoids taking action against those who had misused, or damaged, the system unfairly. The costs of this economic restructuring, to make the country financially viable, is falling heavily, if not disproportionately, on those who are middle class and below. Fixed income earners are particularly affected as they bear a double burden in being taxed at higher levels, at a time when the cost of living has soared. Unlike those in the business sector, and independent professionals, who can pass on cost increases to their clients, those in fixed incomes find it impossible to make ends meet. Emigration statistics show that over 1.2 million people, or five percent of the population, left the country, for foreign employment, last year.
The economic hardships, experienced by the people, has led to the mobilization of traditional trade unions and professionals’ organisations. They are all up in arms against the government’s income generation, at their expense. Last week’s strike, described as a token strike, was successful in that it evoked a conciliatory response from the government. Many workers did not keep away from work, perhaps due to the apprehension that they might not only lose their jobs, but also their properties, as threatened by one government member, who is close to the President. There was a precedent for this in 1981 when the government warned striking workers that they would be sacked. The government carried out its threat and over 40,000 government officials lost their jobs. They and their families were condemned to a long time in penury. The rest of society went along with the repression as the government was one with an overwhelming mandate from the people.
The striking unions have explained their decision to temporarily discontinue their strike action due to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s willingness to reconsider their economic grievances. More than 40 trade unions, in several sectors, joined the strike. They explained they had been compelled to resort to strike action as there was no positive response from the government to their demands. Due to the strike, services such as health, posts, and railways were affected. Workers in other sectors, including education, port, power, water supply, petroleum, road development, and banking services, also joined the strike. The striking unions have said they would take up the President’s offer to discuss their concerns with the government and temporarily called a halt to their strike action. This would give the government an opportunity to rethink its strategy. Unlike the government in 1981 this one has no popular mandate. In the aftermath of the protest movement, it has only a legal mandate.
So far, the government has been unyielding in the face of public discontent. Public protests have been suppressed. Protest leaders have been arrested and price and tax hikes have gone ahead as planned. The government has been justifying the rigid positions it has been taking on the basis of its prioritization of economic recovery for which both political stability and financial resources are necessary. However, by refusing to heed public opinion the government has been putting itself on a course of confrontation with organized forces, be they trade unions or political parties. The severity of the economic burden, placed on the larger section of society, even as other sectors of society appear to be relatively unaffected, creates a perception of injustice that needs to be mitigated. Engaging in discussion with the trade unions and reconsidering its approach to those who have been involved in public protests could be peace making gestures in the current situation.
On the other hand, exacerbating the political crisis is the government’s continuing refusal to hold the local government elections, as scheduled, on two occasions now by the Elections Commission and demanded by law. The government’s stance is even in contradiction to the Supreme Court’s directives that the government should release the financial resources necessary for the purpose leading to an ever-widening opposition to it. The government’s determination to thwart the local government elections stems from its pragmatic concerns regarding its ability to fare well at them. Public opinion polls show the government parties obtaining much lower support than the opposition parties. Except for the President, the rest of the government consists of the same political parties and government members that faced the wrath of the people’s movement a year ago and had to resign in ignominy.
The government’s response to the pressures it is under has been to repress the protest movement through police action that is especially intolerant of street protests. It has also put pressure on state institutions to conform to its will, regardless of the law. The decisions of the Election Commission to set dates for the local government elections have been disregarded once, and the elections now appear to have to be postponed yet again. The government is also defying summons upon its ministers by the Human Rights Commission which has been acting independently to hold the government to account to the best extent it can. The government’s refusal to abide by the judicial decision not to block financial resources for election purposes is a blow to the rule of law that will be to the longer-term detriment of the country. These are all negative trends that are recipes for future strife and lawlessness. These would have long term and unexpected implications not to the best for the development of the country or its values.
There are indications that President Wickremesinghe is cognizant of the precariousness of the situation. The accumulation of pressures needs to be avoided, be it for gas at homes or issues in the country. As an experienced political leader, student of international politics, he would be aware of the dangers posed by precipitating a clash involving the three branches of government. A confrontation with the judiciary, or a negation of its decisions, would erode the confidence in the entire legal system. It would damage the confidence of investors and the international community alike in the stability of the polity and its commitment to the rule of law. The public exhortations of the US ambassador with regard to the need to conduct the local government elections would have driven this point home.
It is also likely that the US position on the importance of holding elections on time is also held by the other Western countries and Japan. Sri Lanka is dependent on these countries, still the wealthiest in the world, for its economic sustenance, trade and aid, in the form of concessional financing and benefits, such as the GSP Plus tariff concession. Therefore, the pressures coming from both the ground level in the country and the international community, may push the government in the direction of elections and seeking a mandate from the people. Strengthening the legitimacy of the government to govern effectively and engage in problem solving in the national interest requires an electoral mandate. The mandate sought may not be at the local government level, where public opinion polls show the government at its weakest, but at the national level which the President can exercise at his discretion.
Sing-along… Down Memory Lane
Sing-alongs have turned out to be hugely popular, in the local showbiz scene, and, I would say, it’s mainly because they are family events, and also the opportunity given to guests to shine, in the vocal spotlight, for a minute, or two!
I first experienced a sing-along when I was invited to check out the famous Rhythm World Dance School sing-along evening.
It was, indeed, something different, with Sohan & The X-Periments doing the needful, and, today, Sohan and his outfit are considered the No.1 band for sing-along events.
I’m told that the first ever sing-along concert, in Sri Lanka, was held on 27th April, 1997, and it was called Down Memory Lane (DML), presented by the Moratuwa Arts Forum (MAF),
The year 2023 is a landmark year for the MAF and, I’m informed, they will be celebrating their Silver Jubilee with a memorable concert, on 29th April, 2023, at the Grand Bolgoda Resort, Moratuwa.
Due to the Covid pandemic, their sing-along series had to be cancelled, as well as their planned concert for 2019. However, the organisers say the delayed 25th Jubilee Celebration concert is poised to be a thriller, scheduled to be held on 29th April, 2023.
During the past 25 years, 18 DML concerts had been held, and the 25th Jubilee Celebration concert will be the 19th in the series.
Famous, and much-loved, ‘golden oldies’, will be sung by the audience of music lovers, at this two and a half hours programme.
Down Memory Lane was the brainchild of musician Priya Peiris, (of ‘Cock-a-Doodle-Do’ fame) and the MAF became the pioneers of sing-along concerts in Sri Lanka.
The repertoire of songs for the 25th Jubilee Celebration concert will include a vast selection of international favourites, Cowboy and old American Plantation hits, Calypsos, Negro Spirituals, everybody’s favourites, from the ’60s and ’70s era, Sinhala evergreens, etc.
Singers from the Moratuwa Arts Forum will be on stage to urge the audience to sing. The band Echo Steel will provide the musical accompaniment for the audience to join in the singing, supported by Brian Coorey, the left handed electric bass guitarist, and Ramany Soysa on grand piano.
The organisers say that every participant will get a free songbook. There would also be a raffle draw, with several prizes to be won,
Arun Dias Bandaranaike will be the master of ceremonies.
President of the Moratuwa Arts Forum, Melantha Perera, back from Australia, after a successful tour, says: “All music lovers, especially Golden Oldies enthusiasts, are cordially invited to come with their families, and friends, to have an enjoyable evening, and to experience heartwarming fellowship and bonhomie.”
Further details could be obtained from MAF Treasurer, Laksiri Fernando (077 376 22 75).
CATCH 22 for
‘Ranpota’ hitmaker Nimal Jayamanne has got a new outfit going, made up of veteran musicians.
The band is called CATCH 22 and they, officially, started performing at The Warehouse (TWH), on 2nd March 2023.
The members are Nimal Jayamanne, R. Sumith Jayaratne, Duminda Sellappruma, Keerthi Samarasekara and Sajith Mutucumarana.
Says Nimal: “I took this name (CATCH 22) as a mark of respect to the late and great Hassan Musafer, who was the drummer of the original Catch 22.
You could catch Nimal in action, on Thursday evenings, at TWH, from 7 pm onwards.
Till recently, Nimal, who underwent a cataract operation, on his left eye, last week, was with Warehouse Legends, and has this to say about them:
“Thank you Warehouse Legends for letting me be an active member of your team, during the past year and 14 days. I wish you all the best.”
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