Connectivism and higher education
By Panduka Karunanayake
Connectivism is the term used to denote a new way of human learning in contemporary digital society that appears to be rapidly replacing older ways of learning. It is an emergent property of the Digital Age. It has emerged on a background of three global trends, viz., the new nature of knowledge, the wide availability of information & communication technology (ICT), and the new nature of employment. These three global trends owe their existence to the digital revolution and globalisation, which are inextricably intertwined. Wherever in the global village these trends may permeate, we can expect connectivism to follow.
While the phenomenon must have gradually emerged in the last several decades, the term itself is still relatively new. It was first used by psychologist George Siemens less than 20 years ago, and it is still not widely used – nor the phenomenon widely appreciated – even in higher education circles. But its importance is enormous, because of its wide reach and the significant changes it engenders. It has affected several fields already, including learning theories, the structure of organisations, and pedagogical practices in higher education – all of which are crucial for universities.
However, it is important to keep in mind that this is only how things are – not necessarily how things should be. The question of whether connectivism is good or bad is a different issue, and that is still quite open.
But whether or not connectivism is desirable, it cannot be ignored. We need to understand and make appropriate responses to it, in accordance with our own societal values and goals – much like with regard to globalisation itself. Just because we ignore connectivism, it will not simply disappear; instead, our own practices would merely become ineffective and irrelevant with time, our own goals would remain unfulfilled in the end, and our own values would be lost. To some extent, this is already happening.
The purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to connectivism and explain its importance within higher education, with a view to creating awareness and encouraging appropriate responses in the academia and even among intellectuals in general.
Underlying global trends
The three underlying global trends of the Digital Age that have formed the background for the emergence of connectivism are the new nature of knowledge, the wide availability of ICT, and the new nature of employment in contemporary knowledge society.
Knowledge has always played a pivotal role in all human societies – not just in the so-called knowledge societies. That is because one of the important causative or contributory factors to human social behaviour is that society’s culture, and culture is driven by human knowledge. Knowledge has always had an ephemeral and tentative quality, although the general human tendency has been to deny this and give it an artificial air of permanence – as evident in terms like ‘gospel truth’, ‘truths written in stone’, ‘scientific facts’, ‘proven’ or ‘evidence-based’ practices, and so on.
The new nature of knowledge has unceremoniously kicked out this unconscious denial – not by design but by accident. The ephemeral nature of knowledge is now quite obvious – and intensified and even justified. Today, knowledge doubles approximately every 72 days, and the ‘half-life’ of knowledge (i.e., the time after which it is outdated and incorrect, even if it is not discarded) has shrunk. We are compelled to keep chasing after more knowledge, both because new knowledge emerges and also because pre-existing knowledge quickly loses its currency (i.e., its validity and uptodateness). If we don’t join this ‘chase’, we would quickly because irrelevant and ineffective.
As the Red Queen says in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
This new nature of knowledge is closely entwined with the widespread availability of new ICT – indeed, it is hard to decide which is the cause and which is the effect. We have a plethora of ICT-related methods of acquiring new knowledge, starting with Wikipedia a few decades ago, through to a multitude of online sources of information and platforms of learning, both formal and informal. Crucial to higher education in this regard has been the advent of massive open and online courses (MOOCs), which occurred during the first decade of this century. But of course, not all of these sources are reliable (or more precisely, they are not equally reliable).
Particularly important in this regard is the arrival of Web 2.0: when Internet users became both its consumers (by downloading content) and producers (by uploading content, such as text, images, videos and so on). As a result, both consumption and production of knowledge have become ‘democratised’, enormously diversified, and hugely variable with regard to reliability and usefulness. Standardisation of knowledge, which was once unreservedly given over to ‘experts’, has now become almost unattainable and, in a post-modern world, even questionable.
The new nature of employment of today is the result of the globalisation of capital and production as well as the new nature of knowledge, which has made obtaining knowledge with currency a never-ending chase. In today’s workplace, employees change their jobs frequently. They also seek new types of employment in unpredictable fields (i.e., not strictly in line with their previous training, subject of graduation, etc.) and often go and fit very well into fields that are unrelated to their previous employment or even qualifications. Transferable skills have become the only set of truly necessary skills – because everything else can be readily acquired, has a shrunken half-life, or can be easily hired. The only essential learning one must possess is ‘learning to learn’.
As a result of all this, there is a general tendency to overlook or ignore ‘expertise’ in knowledge and instead value ‘currency’ of knowledge. Whether or not knowledge is considered effective for a specified purpose is given more value than whether or not it is inherently correct in the bigger picture.
What is actually ‘new’ in connectivism?
It is important to understand exactly what is ‘new’ about connectivism. After all, we already do seek new knowledge and use ICT in our work, extend beyond our original disciplinary ‘comfort zone’ through various multi-disciplinary programmes of work (‘combinatorial creativity’), and teach using online platforms such as Zoom. So, isn’t this also ‘connectivism’? What is the qualitative difference between our current practice and connectivism?
The simplest way to understand this difference is by beginning with the participants. The participants (or more precisely, the terms of participation) in the two systems are different. Let me name the participants in our current higher education system as a Group, and those in connectivism as a Network. According to the terms of participation, the same person may belong to different Groups and Networks at the same time.
A Group is made up of members who have fulfilled predetermined criteria for membership and recruitment (such as educational qualifications and admission criteria), are bound by practices of standardisation (such as disciplinary standards, subject benchmarks and professional codes), and are therefore sharing a ‘sameness’. The knowledge they receive or give may be new, but it is controlled by standards, academic practices and so on; in other words, it is standardised and ‘revealed’ to newcomers, who ‘accumulate it’ by transfer, while new knowledge is ‘additive’ in the sense that it is built on exisiting knowledge in a systematic and predictable fashion (except during Kuhn’s paradigm shifts). This is epitomised even in the concept of the curriculum, which is based on the assumption that knowledge is some sort of ‘certain’ entity, that it can be gradually ‘revealed’ to newcomers, that those who fulfill criteria of acquisition can be ‘certified’ as knowledgeable, and that the possession of the degree certificate can ‘vouch’ for this.
On the other hand, a Network is made up of a wide diversity of people: educated as well as uneducated, qualified and unqualified, knowledgeable and not, novice and expert, traditional and iconoclastic, conservative and maverick, and so on. They not only seek knowledge but also add to it. New knowledge is not additive but unpredictable and ‘emergent’ in this complex, chaotic scenario. Those who seek as well as create knowledge are autonomous and not bound by rules of training, recruitment or standardisation. It is this unrestricted, ungovernable ‘openness’ and the resulting diversity that make connectivism qualitatively totally different to what we ourselves are doing with technology at the moment.
This is also the reason why, in recent times, ‘expertise’ has taken a back seat and has been replaced by ‘currency’. Currency in this sense is highly specific to the task at hand and is a neverending chase – what has currency today (or for one task) could easily lose it tomorrow (or be useless in another task).
Implications for learning
What are the implications of connectivism for learning?
First, it highlights the importance of lifelong learning. In the nineteenth century, persons who left school or university could reasonably expect to complete their full working life with the set of knowledge that they possessed at the start of their career – a person who ‘completes’ education back then could have been considered ‘a finished product’. Today, persons leaving schools and universities should expect to keep learning, so much so that what they know would become entirely overhauled in about twenty years.
Secondly, learning and working are inseparable; both are but one process. We can no longer recruit employees because they ‘know things’, but because they can ‘learn and do things’. As a result, the instrumental value of knowledge far outstrips any intrinsic value it may possess. The single most valued quality of knowledge is its currency – which, importantly, also happens to have a short half-life.
Thirdly, the process of learning becomes more important than the content of learning, because we are aware that the currency of the current content of knowledge will soon be lost. The ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts becomes a core skill, because it gives us access to new knowledge, including innovating. The capacity to know more is more important than what is known. Maintaining and nurturing connectedness become crucial.
Fourthly, while current technology merely facilitates learning (e.g., databases, online learning), in connectivism it will also shape our learning. It will ‘off-load’ much of the learning – from our minds onto devices, databases, etc. Learning will begin to reside in non-human appliances. An evocative, mundane example is the rise of the calculator (which is now part of even our mobile phones) and the simultaneous redundancy of basic mathematics skills in the general population. Today, not even a cashier in a shop can make a simple addition, even with pen and paper – he too needs a calculator to ‘do the math’! Some people who are used to digital clocks cannot tell the time by looking at the traditional clock face, because the latter requires knowing the multiplication table for 5. In both these examples, learning has shifted from our minds to appliances. With artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, this will become even more commonplace and crucial.
Fifthly, the organisation must become a learning organism. It must pay attention to needs such as knowledge management. The need for trust, collaboration and accountability among its employees becomes crucial – without this, not only would the organisation be static and unsuccessful, but even the employees would become outdated, unskilled and unemployable. It is no longer the case that one knowledgeable person ‘knows’, but that an organisation as a whole learns and knows.
Sixthly, new sciences like complexity science, chaos theory, network science and studying uncertainty will become extremely important – they will be the new ‘basic sciences’ of the workplace. A university that does not have these subjects will likely become obsolete or, at best, a repository of ‘old knowledge’.
Seventhly, there are major implications of connectivism to older learning theories (which were mostly derived from Psychology and Anthropology). Knowledge is no longer ‘brain-based’, because it may reside in devices, databases, etc. The human mind may therefore have to leave its basic rules of operation, like simplicity, parsimony and regularity; instead, it will need to learn how to deal with complexity and uncertainty.
Implications for higher education
Higher education must learn about connectivism, for two reasons. First, we must learn and adjust to this, to stay in the knowledge field (i.e., to be effective scholars). We must also carefully study its implications to our teaching practices and take care to impart relevant skills to our students (i.e., to be effective teachers).
Secondly, it is crucial to remember that this is only an account of how things are – not necessarily how things should be. As academics, one of our most crucial roles is in this latter aspect: analysing situations, imagining alternatives, evaluating choices, and justifying judgements. In particular, connectivism is closely entwined with the march of globalisation, the rise of neoliberal economics, the changing nature of industries, the new nature of knowledge, and the evolving demands made on the workforce. It is therefore directly originating from, and serves the agenda of, the power-wielding segments of global industry and has the potential to reproduce and intensify the inequities at the global level. As academics, we have a crucial role to understand and critically evaluate these ‘umbilical cord connections’ of connectivism. What is more, in the wake of climate change that is driven by these global trends, this becomes a huge responsibility that we owe to our future generations.
In short, we must simultaneously understand and adopt connectivism where we must, as well as critique and shape it for the benefit of the wider society and future generations.
The purpose of this article was to create an awareness of connectivism, so that we can collectively explore these implications, especially to the field of higher education. We need to be prepared to face a future with connectivism, including connectivist learning theories, and help the wider society to reap the benefits and navigate the minefield thereof, as well as speak up for the future generations. Ignoring connectivism is not an option.
(The writer teaches Medicine in the University of Colombo.)
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
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