Duminda’s release from prison overshadows Ranil’s return to parliament
by Rajan Philips
June 24 was Poson Poya Day. The Daily Mirror and the Daily News editorially reminded Sri Lankans of the significance of Poson, the most important Buddhist festival after Vesak. It was on this day, 2300 years ago, King Devanampiya Tissa encountered Emperor Asoka’s son Arahat Mahinda in the jungles of Mihintale. Their encounter led to Sri Lanka’s first formal religious conversion led by the King himself and ministered by the missionary prince from India.
The Daily Mirror editorial called on its readers “to contemplate on the teachings of the Buddha,” as Sri Lankans struggle through all the horrors of 2021, and tried to end on a calypso note that Sri Lankans today should do their part so that future generations can proudly sing (with Harry Belafonte) – “Oh, island in the sun; Willed to us by our fathers’ hands; All our days we will sing in praise; Of your forests, waters and your shining sand.” The Daily News was more solemn, drawing attention to the symbiosis between Buddhist ethos and the protection of the environment, and calling on Sri Lankans to not only protect their much blessed island but also save the accursed planet.
Poya Day Pardons
Presumably unbeknownst to either newspaper, Sri Lanka’s President was thinking of his own contribution to mark Poson in this year of horrors. The President chose to pardon and free Duminda Silva from the life sentence he was serving for murder. Albeit Mr. Silva was one of 93 prisoners who were pardoned that day including 16 LTTE detainees. But his pardon, although not unexpected, came as national shock given its daring and its timing. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) lost no time in requesting the President to confirm if due process had been followed in the granting of pardon, including a report by High Court Trial Judges, the Attorney General’s opinion, and the recommendation of the Minister of Justice.
It was left to Sumana Premachandra to strike a personal and religious note and reprove the “injustice” of granting presidential pardon “on the most auspicious day of ‘Poson Poya’.” Sumana Premachandra is the widow of former SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra who was killed by gunfire during the Local Government election on October 8, 2011. Duminda Silva and four others were convicted of that crime and given life sentences by the Colombo High Court in 2016, which was convincingly upheld by the Supreme Court two years later in a landmark ruling on election violence including murder.
This is the second pardon given by the current President in less than two years. The first, was in March 2020 at the onset of Covid-19, when he pardoned the former Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of eight civilians, including three children, in Mirusuvil in April 2000. That conviction and death sentence were also affirmed on appeal by the Supreme Court in 2019. Unlike Sergeant Ratnayake, Duminda Silva is wealthy with influential family connections. He is also a Catholic, just like Jude Jayamaha whom President Sirisena pardoned in November 2019, in his last days in office.
Jayamaha was facing death sentence for brutally murdering a Swedish-Sri Lankan teenage girl, and his conviction and sentence were also affirmed by the Supreme Court. There was national outrage then, and Sirisena made it worse by clumsily lying that a Catholic Bishop had pleaded on Jayamaha’s behalf. This time, a Catholic excuse is unlikely, so the reason for pardon will likely be Poson compassion. But what about mercy and compassion for others, the four convicted and sentenced along with Duminda Silva, not to mention hundreds of others who have no one to pull any strings for them?
What is shocking is the impudence behind this pardon. Perhaps, it should not be shocking. Clearly, the President gives far greater weight to his personal IOUs than what he owes the country. It may be that to his mind, it is the country that owes him everything, not the other way around. After all, he gave up his US citizenship for the sake of hapless Sri Lankans. And issuing any and all pardons is a key part of presidential powers. That was the short-lived Trump Doctrine in America and it is finding application in Sri Lanka. Institutionally, it is possible that the government has been shaken by recent court rulings that went against the government, and wanted to get Duminda’s pardon out of the way before new insurmountable roadblocks came up.
The Supreme Court delivered politely wrapped strictures on the Port City legislation, after government lawyers made fools of themselves trying to defend the indefensible. And the government was forced to backtrack on the Bill. More damning was the ruling of the Court of Appeal in granting bail to former CID Chief Shani Abeysekera, after rejecting the Attorney General’s spurious excuses which had been shamefully marshalled to please political masters. A month earlier, on May 21, the Supreme Court had delivered another broadside against police brutality and custodial killing in its ruling on the fundamental rights case of 17 year old Sandun Malinga who was fatally beaten while in police custody in May 2014.
The government could not have missed the judicial writing on the wall. It must have realized that the recommendation by the wayward Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimisation directing the Attorney General to re-appeal to the Supreme Court for a review of Duminda Silva’s conviction, is not a serious proposition and will only backfire, given the current trend of court rulings. The surer way to fulfill the President’s personal IOU is to issue a presidential pardon on the Poson Poya Day. ‘Look before you leap’ has never been this government’s maxim. Leap first and see later is its modus operandi. Even Poya days are not spared from its leaps.
If you remember the pre-poya/poya holidays of old, you would have noticed that it was on pre-Poson day, Wednesday, June 23, that Ranil Wickremesinghe returned to parliament as the UNP’s sole National List MP, nearly one year after his and his Party’s electoral rout. If Mr. Wickremesinghe and his followers were thinking that returning to parliament on the day before Poson was a sublimely auspicious political omen, they must surely feel let down by what the President did the very next day of Poson Poya.
Before being overshadowed by Duminda Silva’s presidential pardon, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return to parliament has been generating quite a number of mixed reactions. There have been welcoming anticipations which have been followed by positive comments on his first day speech (inaptly called by some as ‘maiden speech’ – there is nothing maiden about him after 40 years as MP). Those who welcome him believe that RW has the experience and the wisdom to contribute positively to help the country steer the way out of the dystopic mess that the present government has created. The same charitable voices carry no small amount of caution that Mr. Wickremesinghe should stay away from his old games, short or long, and help parliament to collectively do its job of checking and balancing – not only executive power, but also executive incompetence and inaction.
On the other hand, there have been cynical commentaries and suspicions that RW is returning to parliament to become Leader of the Opposition again in connivance with his longtime and convenient political foil, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current Prime Minister without any 19A powers. And there have also been strong and justifiable political criticisms that his return to parliament will only disrupt the Opposition, that it is intended to divide the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) by poaching SJB MPs to rejoin the old UNP, and will ultimately make matters easier than they should be for the government.
In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Wickremesinghe, whose last job was as Prime Minister under the 19th Amendment, contended that “the (current) Prime Minister and the cabinet should take over the responsibility of controlling the pandemic.” There was no reference to the President or the 20th Amendment in the speech. Whether it is the typical RW snub of someone who used to call him “Sir” in the past and has since become President, or whether he was making a constitutional point, is irrelevant given the grave situation the country is in.
Yet, as table talk goes, there are two Sri Lankan Presidents, Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who used to address Ranil Wickremesinghe as “Sir”, before they became Presidents. That RW was unable to work with (let alone ‘manage’) the former is much of the sad story of yahapalanaya. What he is going to do with the latter, in his new role as a lone ranger for the grand old party, was getting to be table talk in the Colombo political circles. That was until the President sprang the Duminda pardon, under a full moon, on an unsuspecting country.
If the presidential pardon has been a shocking experience to whatever moral sensibilities there are still in the country, the return of Ranil Wickremesinghe is a fitting anticlimax to the degenerative state of the country’s politics. Politics today has no pleasing prospect and is full of swarming dullards. Sri Lanka’s post-independence history is replete with missed opportunities by some very capable political leaders. But never before has there been an instance when an entire government was without competence on any of its files.
It is a tall order to expect anyone, however old, wise and experienced, to change the current state of affairs merely by being a lone MP in parliament. At the least, Mr. Wickremesinghe should try to disprove the cynical predictions of his many critics – that he has come back to play the same game with the Rajapaksas for himself, and for them. On the other hand, RW’s presence in parliament should, hopefully, put pressure on Sajith Premadasa and the SJB to demonstrate not only that they are an effective opposition in parliament, but also that they are capable of getting serious political traction in the country. As for the TNA and the JVP, perhaps more so for the TNA, they have been bitten before by their uncritical association with Ranil Wickremesinghe. They should think twice, if not ten times, before starting any new games with Mr. Wickremesinghe in parliament.
Murders, exhumations, sacking: hence never a dull day in Paradise
Greatly saddened and given to discussion were Cass and her batch of friends on reading about the death of a 42-year-old Tamil domestic servant come to slave in a rich home in Colombo to support her very poor family in far-away Badulla. She worked at the home of teledrama producer cum businesswoman Sudharma Nethicumara. We have seen and read about this near socialite who was often featured in newspapers, and who, some time ago, invited the then First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa as chief guest for a film event.
The very unfortunate servant was accused of stealing a gold ring of Mrs Nethicumara’s. We friends imagined how in high dudgeon the rich lady would have summoned the police pronto and ordered the arrest of the by now petrified with fear ‘Letchimi’. That was on May 11. We wonder whether she was even questioned before she was forced away; guilty before proven thus on the word of the powerful employer. Cass makes bold to add the epithet ‘heartless’ here. And now three poor innocent children are without their mother.
The woman died after being admitted to hospital having complained she suffered difficulty in breathing. The life of a young mother given to compensate for a lost ring which could very well have been misplaced by the owner and not been stolen. Power, influence, greed, affluence – against stark poverty, ignorance and helplessness with no one to intervene. The IGP ordered the Police Special Investigation Unit to conduct an investigation; this prompted by suspicion raised by the Tamil woman’s relatives and other parties, the newspaper reported. Were the ‘other parties’ good Samaritans moved like Cass and her friends by this sad tragedy?
We hope against hope that the enquiry will proceed justly and equitably with no giving into political or money clout. Also, if the woman was found to have succumbed to injuries, won’t the employer too have to be investigated? Some remedial steps have been taken. A Sub Inspector, two Police Sergeants and Constable have been interdicted and three other police officers including two women transferred. But the crux of the matter is the result of investigation into the cause of death of the woman.
Messengers found guilty The Island
of Tuesday May 23 carried the following headline “State Minister won’t be probed” with subheading: “Allowing Chinese carrying two passports to enter SL.” Monday’s TV news elaborated on this story: a Chinese person presented himself at the Katunayake Intl Airport Immigration Desk with two passports and when questioned, the Chinese turned unruly. As a TV newsreader reported: State Minister of Urban Development and Housing, Arundika Fernando, had allegedly intervened in the matter and requested the Chinese be allowed to enter the country.
Public Security Minister, Tiran Alles, announced at a media briefing that the immigration officers at Katunayake who were involved in the fracas would be questioned and dealt with suitably. When questioned about the State Minister Arundika Fernando’s involvement and probably being guilty of influencing the immigration officers, Minister Alles replied: “regardless of representations made by politicians, or anybody else, including the media, public officials have to carry out their duties and functions properly.
” Of course yes, but how about being coerced by a politician to act contrary to rules. Public officials are harassed by unscrupulous politicians and they do as told to save their jobs. Additionally how can a person who influenced the incorrect decision go scot free? He too is guilty. But we in this fair Isle invariably see the hapless messengers being caught, quartered and even slaughtered and interfering politicians and those with clout going completely free: the sender of the message escapes all censorship.
Another exhumation leading to … probably nothing
Courts have allowed the exhumation of the laid-to-rest body of Dinesh Schafter on May 25 to help investigators into his suspicious death in hospital after he was found strangled in his car in the deserted Kanatta cemetery premises. The death of this very humane businessman just before he enplaned for Britain sent shock waves around the country. Now another sacrilege. Bearable by his family and millions of Sri Lankans if some solid evidence is found to determine the cause of his death/brutal murder. We feel doubly sad about this bit of news since we are, justifiably sceptical and doubtful about the usefulness of this disturbance to a body laid to rest.
Cass says she is sceptical and yes without hope that the case will be brought to a close with the discovery of how he died, who murdered him and importantly who ordered the murder. It could prove how he was suffocated. Or, it could even prove he took his life, as rumour had it. But Cass repeats she is doubtful the case sees closure so that family, friends and even persons like Cass can feel sadness at the death but heave sighs of relief that the murderer/s and instigators are identified and will face due justice.
Scepticism, the lack of hope and doubts are because of sure-fire cases where exhumations proved useless, just further trauma to loved ones and disturbance to the dead. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s body was exhumed on Sept 27, 2016, seven years after his terrible assassination. Was there closure? Were the murderers and those who gave orders to murder named, blamed and punished? The same questions are asked about Wasim Thajudeen, whose body was exhumed on August 10, 2015. In this case, it was almost drawn to an end after much had happened before, including evidence made to disappear, etc. Then kaput.
What happened? To Cass’ jaundiced eye, ear, mind and the sense organs of millions of others, the intention to exhume was good; evidence would have been collected but within this evidence prominent names would have surfaced. So, a quick retreat; no more investigation, case closed again. All this suffering and no peace to even the dead, sorry – murdered. VVIP names must have cropped up. So shut the case immediately. Is it going to be a repetition with the case of much respected and much loved Dinesh Shafter?
Speak independently and out you go!
The Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) – Janaka Ratnayake – has been in hot water with his Minister and the government on various issues; even debarred from his own office, it being sealed and placed out of bounds. But he battled on. His latest ‘crime’ has been his criticising the electricity tariffs and saying that a 27% reduction could easily be implemented. Now, his continuing in his position is being debated in the public domain and scheduled for debate in Parliament on May 24. Cass lauds the Opposition parties who support Ratnayake and will vote against the motion brought forth in Parliament. She hurrrays the MPs who have spoken for the Chairman PUCSL. He seems to be one official who does what needs to be done in the service of the people and is no slipper licker or even Sir-er of those in power. May the nay votes exceed the SLPP aye votes for his dismissal from his post.
Indians and of Indian descent in the news
Prime Minister Modi has been given a rousing welcome to Australia and he will speak to a hugely packed audience in Sydney. The thought that flashes through the mind is that we were streets ahead of India just three decades ago. While India is being courted internationally and Modi feted, Sri Lanka is looked askance as a failed state; sparingly assisted and its people suffering immensely while those who pushed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean to penury and begging are continuing to live luxurious lives and bubbling with hope for future power.
If you watched Rishi Sunak among top leaders of the world at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima and heard him deliver his address excellently, you would have shared pride with him and his Indian ancestors as a co-South Asian. But he faces a problem at home.
The Home Secretary of Britain, Suella Braverman, also of Indian descent, has landed herself in another tight spot and people of her own Party and others are thirsting for her blood; demanding she be relieved of her Cabinet post. She was caught speed driving and given a ticket which entailed she attend driving classes or sessions. She tried dodging it by sending an aide instead of her or to have the lessons on–line. No, and outing were the answers. She was made to leave by Ms Truss when she was PM for another misdemeanour. Then with Rishi Sunak succeeding her, he got Suella into his Cabinet. Now he faces the music and has to make a very difficult decision.
A spot of obscenity
Janet Daley writes in the Daily Telegraph of May 13: “America’s dream is dying. That is why Trump may still win. Class mobility is what built the United States. This is no more. The ex-president is master at channelling the anger of those left behind.” She goes on to make herself better understood, and I quote: “Among all the absurd delusional things that Donald Trump has said in his second incarnation as a prospective president, there is one statement which should – by all standards of conventional wisdom – have put an end to his campaign.
In his deposition for the civil case in which he was found guilty of sexually assaulting E Jean Carroll, he was asked to comment on the notorious Access Hollywood tape in which he is heard to say that powerful men were able to ‘grab women’ in their genitals (he used another word) with impunity. He explained that this was simply a historical truth: for millions of years it had been the case that male ‘stars’ could do whatever they wanted to women – and then he added ‘unfortunately or fortunately’…
Can you imagine any American politician (let alone a presidential candidate) or public figure – any celebrity in any sphere – saying that without his career being vapourised? So what is going on? There is clearly a significant proportion of the American population that not only rejects the Liberal consensus but is so enraged by it that it will enthusiastically support views that are brazenly offensive.”
No different in Sri Lanka with male dominance and license to act grossly. On that dubious note, Cass says bye for another week
Popular Sinhala Cinema – III – Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
by Laleen Jayamanne
( Continued From Wednesday)
The Multi-Ethnic fan base
Gamini Fonseka, who introduced action (fights) with a new image of proletarian muscular masculinity into Sinhala cinema, was loved by both the Sinhala and Tamil male films fans for those reasons. His film Sarungale, where he played a rather sedentary Tamil Clerk (he spoke Tamil), was especially significant in this cross-cultural context. I read an account of how Tamil fans surrounded him on a platform once, when he got off the Jaffna train to stretch his legs, while returning from the film shoot there. He is that rare Sinhala artiste who spoken of wanting to appeal to the Tamil audience as well.
I have read that Gamini visited Tamil cinema halls with his cinematographer to observe the responses of the fans to Indian super stars. The super star Gamini Fonseka’s film persona as well as his ethical values must be remembered here. When Gunaratnam was murdered there was fear that it was too dangerous to attend his funeral as one might also be targeted by the JVP. Siva Sivanathan who worked for Gunaratnam described how Gamini insisted on walking in the funeral procession with the family, to honor this visionary film producer who had contributed greatly to the development of Lankan cinema and industrial development more broadly and built so many bridges between the North and the South.
Siva Sivanandan’s long experience as a film director and distributor for Gunaratnam was appreciated by Nihalsinha, the General Manager of the SFC who then hired him as Assistant General Manager of the vital revenue generating distribution wing of the new institution. He worked with great success for ten years, before emigrating to Canada with his family. Somasiri Munasinghe, in his tribute to Svianandan after his recent death, says that he left behind a whole library of publications, rare journals, news-paper clippings, etc, all linked to the Lankan film industry and multi-ethnic history from its beginning.
In another country this invaluable collection would have been swiftly obtained by a university library in the interest of future research. I am hoping that it’s still not too late for this to happen through a Lankan University. If that were to happen and along with oral history interviews with the several generations of older journalists who grew up with those film songs and films or rediscovered them laters, then we might get a more nuanced understanding of what has been achieved by our robust and dedicated multi-ethnic artists and technicians, working together under great odds.
Understanding the historical diversity of Lankan popular hybrid traditions of mass culture especially, can offer a corrective to the darker and violently self-destructive actions of virulent Sinhala Nationalism pursuing cultural purity and burning down cinemas and studios owned by Tamils and in the process also destroying a large number of their own Sinhala films stored in these very studios.
These acts of profound violence are not simply the work of crazed mobs, as some say. They are simply the impoverished, poorly educated lumpen proletariat mostly, given electoral roles identifying Tamil property. They are the weaponised end in a long chain of command, activated by nationalist state policies and ideology of an ethno-nationalist state. This deeply rooted ideology treats minorities as second class citizens, a threat to the majority and therefore not part of the culture.
Sound of Pure Sinhala Bera
Ethnomusicological research into Lankan music, by foreign scholars and locals alike tend to follow the official ethno-nationalist narrative of a ‘Pure, Original Sinhala’ sound, say as in Kandyan drumming. It is then differentiated from the Southern, more hybridised Yakbera, for example. The researchers almost completely ignore the decisive influence of mass culture (Nurti plays, the vast reach of radio, gramophone records, films, cassettes, Television and the digital technology) in creating hybrid sonic worlds in this small island nation from the early 20th Century for over one hundred years.
The intellectual and political project of creating ‘pure traditions or apema sindu, rendered in the one correct, pure accent, (swara) of the Sinhala folk, their language and religion or music and films, ends up freezing traditions from evolving. Traditions need replenishing by being open to outside influences. Sound, even more than language itself, is fluid, never stable, given that the speed of sound (though not as fast as light), has the power to instantly penetrate us and vibrate our very nervous system directly like our drumming does.
It’s important to remember the historically informed important words of W.D. Amaradeva who, as a young violinist named Albert Perera, went to India with Baig Master and others to record music for Asokamala. This exposure led him to spend five years in India studying classical vocal raga music and the violin with a guru. It is after this rigorous training that he reinvented himself as Amaradeva. He said:
“Although we had a good folk culture, we did not have a developed musical tradition of our own. We did not have local musical instruments to play a melody even though we had a rich percussion tradition in Sri Lanka in the form of bera (drums).
But all instruments like the sitar, tabla and violin came from other countries. I wanted to fill this void. So, I started composing music for my country […] yet one cannot help being influenced by other types of music as well”.
Ranjith Kumara informed us that Baig Mater’s singing of Siri Buddhagaya was regularly heard all over the country, across villages and towns during Vesak and Sinhala new year festivities, played on the humble cassettes or blaring out on microphones at dansalas. Unlike Rukmani Devi’s voice, Baig Master’s voice was unmistakably accented with sonic traces of his mother tongue Urdu. And it remained so to the end. Would it not also be good then to hear Rukmani Devi sing that one Tamil song she is said to have recorded in a Tamil film and also hear Baig Master sing in Urdu or Tamil or HIndi (if there is a recording), during a national festive occasion? Perhaps at the Fourth of February independence celebration at Gall Face; a hybrid sonic gesture of reconciliation sanhindiyawa, mingling with the sounds of the Indian ocean.
After all, Baig Master did sing in Sinhala, at the 1948 Independence Day celebrations, with a sense of freedom in the air. This contemporary idea of ‘reconciliation’ was first created in South Africa after the white supremacist apartheid regime was defeated. But there was an allied concept essential to it, namely, ‘truth- telling’. The African leadership with Nelson Mandela thought there could be no reconciliation after such racial violence, without also acknowledging it truthfully and redressing the violence.
A Few Home-Truths
1.Sinhala Nationalists protested when the then Education Minister Badiuddin Mohamed arranged Baig Master to sing at the Non-Aligned Conference, saying he was not a Sinhala-Buddhist. When the minister threatened to resign, Mrs Bandranayake permitted him to sing to the gathering of world leaders among whom were Colonel Gaddafi, and other Arab and African Muslim leaders who received his Bodu Gee warmly.
2. When Baig Master performed for the Pakistani President Zia Ul Hak, he was so impressed that he wanted to take him back to Pakistan. When President Premadasa declined the offer, Zia arranged a tour in Pakistan for Master Baig.
3. He lived in a tiny overcrowded house and slept on the floor for forty years. As he lay dying in hospital, consoling his son Ishak, he had noted lightly that he finally had a bed!
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that D.S. Senanayaka (who later became the first Prime Minister), was the chief guest at the premier of Kadawuna Poronduwa (in January 1947 at the Kingsley cinema), as Minister of Agriculture and Lands and also Leader of the House under the State Council system of governance during the last stages of British rule. His presence along with business leaders denoted the importance of the event for Ceylon on the cusp of independence. Rukmani Devi, Eddie and BAW Jayamanne brothers and Mr Nayagam were celebrated for having dared to have produced the first film in Sinhala, under daunting conditions in India.
While the critics deplored the film’s dependence on Indian genres, the people, more receptive, gathered to see and hear it. It was screened in four cinemas in Colombo and in a large number of outer suburbs, while in Kandy, bus-loads of people arrived to view this historic film in a tent specially erected for the screening. Political patronage, Tamil entrepreneurship, Sinhala intellectual high disdain and robust popular mass appeal, were the jostling forces at play with the arrival of a multi-ethnic Lankan cinema and its film culture.
The journalist-cinephiles on the ITN programs were unanimous in their view that both Rukmani Devi and Baig Master did not receive the care and support they deserved as figures of national (and even Indian) recognition, especially during the vulnerable later stages of their lives. While issuing stamps in their honour is a good thing, it is quite insufficient, given the magnitude of the reach of their haunting voices which still resonate politically as well. But Amaradeva and others who created a Sinhala light classical tradition, combining the rich Indian raga melodic patterns with folk songs, received generous state patronage.
Baig Master’s song Buddhan Saranan Gachchami, with lyrics by Karunarathne Abeyesekera and music by Anil Bishwar (an Indian), was 12 mins and 45 seconds long and was first performed in the Hindi film Angulimala, funded by the Thai government. In Ceylon, it was dubbed into Sinhala and the local version of the song commissioned by Gunaratnam. The film was a major success and the song, one of the most frequently requested on Radio Ceylon, according to Ariyasiri Withanage.
He associated with him and arranged the many song recitals at which Master Baig was a popular attraction right across the Sinhala areas of the country, where most of the shows opened with this devotional song. Of the many Bodu Gee he sang this was the favourite. Some Buddhist priests valued him and engaged with him and attended his funeral. This singular song, a collaboration among Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist artists of India and Lanka, is an example of what can be created when we abandon the stifling dead-end idea of ‘cultural purity’ promulgated by the ethno-nationalist state.
Listening now (after the Aragalaya), to the voices of Rukmani Devi and Baig Master singing love duets and shoka gee in those sweetly naive films (Sarala chithrapata) of the early Sinhala cinema just might resonate in a different way (if freed of high critical disdain), suggestive of our intricate cultural interconnections with India.
Al Haj Mohideen Baig and Rukmani Devi, in their highly skilled capacity to cross-sonic traditions and cultures and create hybrid fields of music touching our hearts and minds (hurda gochara and bhuddhi gochara songs, in the wonderful coinage of Ranjan de Silva), are exemplary artists for a confidently multi-ethnic Lanka open to the many creative influences of the sonic worlds at large. (Concluded)
New wine in old bottles: Anthropologising Sinhala middle-class
By Uditha Devapriya
Although it has always been something of a passing interest, anthropology has figured in my travels, studies, and writings over the last five years. My focus over these years has narrowed down to five areas: the different meanings that categories like race and ethnicity have acquired from the early historical period to the contemporary moment; the social, cultural, and political transformations of the colonial era, specifically the British Period and more specifically the early and middle British Periods; the folk revival of the mid-20th century, as exemplified by the work of Sunil Santha; the modern artistic and cultural movement, revolving around if not centring on the 43 Group; and the transformation or one could say transfiguration of social values that accompanied and continues to accompany the entry of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie to elite institutions.
Of these I would say that while the first four topics have engaged scholarly interest for years, if not decades, the fifth has not quite attracted the same interest. This may be because the topic is far more recent than the others. The Sinhala middle-class’s entry to elite institutions, specifically schools and the public sector or civil service, has been a fairly recent phenomenon: it can be dated, if at all, to the post-1956 period, when the language and education reforms undertaken by both SLFP and UNP governments – the former more than the latter – enabled a petty bourgeoisie to rise, if not to the top, then to the middle ranks of organisations that had been the preserve of a colonial elite and Anglicised middle-class for almost one and a half centuries.
My interest in this area grew because of two reasons. First, as a freelancer covering various school and commercial events, I inadvertently came face to face with people, particularly students and middle level executives and employees, whose values one simply could not associate with the history and character of the institutions they represented. That the most elite of schools in Colombo had sizeably non-English speaking populations did not, of course, come as a shock to me, yet it more or less fascinated me because of how such institutions continue to be associated with elite milieus and social classes. The reality is obviously much more different and complex, a fact I had to grapple with when it came to commercial firms and the country’s civil service as well.
Second, my travels to villages and far-flung communities in the country opened me up to the immense complexity of the social relationships, values, and mores governing them, and how far removed the reality these communities live through every day is from what is usually assumed or one could say imagined about them. Steven Kemper ends the last chapter of his brilliant study of advertising in Sri Lanka by recounting the lives and details of two families from suburban Colombo.
One of these families trace their roots to Kandy, but have shifted to Colombo because one of their sons obtained admission to Royal College through a scholarship exam. Kemper, outsider though he is, grasps the significance of this achievement: the son, in effect, becomes for his parents a link to the city, and all that it represents. The upward aspiring Sinhala petty bourgeoisie has gained its place in the sun because elite institutions, in essence, have been opened for them.
Whether one can reduce such phenomena to the dynamics of a social milieu in pursuit of social advancement is of course highly debatable. My argument is that this is a two-way process: elite institutions have become more accessible for the petty bourgeoisie, and the petty bourgeoisie has become the new elite. They are, in effect, the new kingmakers: they have voted and brought to power both neoliberal and nationalist parties and presidential candidates. This places them in an interesting conundrum. Numerically they are stronger and more representative of the country than the elites that preceded them, but their willingness to adapt to and adopt elite attitudes has distanced them from the vast multitude of their countrymen. They are, in other words, conscious of their kinship with those below them on the social scale and their subservience, so to speak, to the urban middle-classes above them. In his introduction to Gamanaka Mula, Gunadasa Amarasekara critiques Martin Wickramasinghe for having focused more on the colonial bourgeoisie than the Sinhala middle-class. But Wickramasinghe does examine the latter in his Koggala Trilogy, and what is more examines their contradictory position in the colonial social order, specifically in the character of Aravinda, Malin Kabilana’s friend in Yuganthaya.
20th century Sinhala literature has not, I think, given us a more concrete, flesh-and-blood archetype of the Sinhala middle-class, with the pressures and paradoxes that continue to assail it even today, than Aravinda. In Yuganthaya Aravinda serves as a conscience for Malin Kabilana. But instead of appealing to Kabilana’s better instincts, Aravinda serves as a vessel for the colonial bourgeoisie.
At one point he implores Kabilana to abandon his radical politics and return to his father Simon’s class. In one particularly memorable and evocative episode – evocative in a Proustean sense – Aravinda smokes a cigar and dreams of living in a house in the Cinnamon Gardens. By this point we have been told of the immense hardships and difficulties his father had to wade through to educate his son and ensure a position for him. Yet Aravinda is not shown as bad or indifferent: he prescribes medicines free of charge for his villagers, to his father’s consternation.
Aravinda’s dilemma remains emblematic of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie both of his time and ours. This has spilt over to the cultural sphere as well, sometimes profoundly. Here the contradiction is between the cultural values on which the Sinhala rural petty bourgeoisie have been raised and the avowedly secular or non-Buddhist heritage of the elite institutions that have been opened for them. Perhaps no better example illustrates this more, for me, than a recent complaint, written by an Old Boy of an elite school and published in a prominent newspaper, that his school was becoming less secular and more ‘Sinhalised” and “Buddhicised.” These are pertinent concerns, especially in light of lingering fears of Sinhalisation and Buddhicisation in the country’s north and east.
Given these concerns, one is compelled to sympathise with the writer. But one is also forced to recognise the inevitability of such transformations, at a time when a mostly Sinhala and Buddhist petty bourgeoisie has entered these institutions. There is in any case an interesting afterword to this episode. When shown the article, a younger student from this same elite school, who is by his own definition a fervent Buddhist, questioned whether his school remained the preserve of the elite or whether it was a “school for the best.” He obviously associated “the best” with his milieu, the Sinhala and Buddhist middle-classes who have obtained entry to these institutions through merit-based examinations and assessments. His next point was even more interesting: that the best invariably are bringing with them what he calls “rural cultural values”, and that these, in effect, were shifting his school from its secular origins to a much more culturalised establishment.
Sociologists and anthropologists working in Sri Lanka, who are studying the Sinhala and Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, should I think take note of these observations. These should ideally form the basis of a study, a study that to me remains as relevant for our time as it is for all time, and indeed for all societies: the transformation of elite institutions at the hands of a nascent, emergent middle-class, in effect the new elites of countries such as ours.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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