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Emplacing Senake Bandaranayake’s archaeology in an intellectual tradition

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by Prof Jagath Weerasinghe

Former Director of Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya

(Text of speech delivered by Prof Jagath Weerasinghe the seventh commemoration of eminent archaeologist Professor emeritus Senake Bandaranayake at the auditorium of Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Kelaniya on 08 March, 2022)

On the 7th anniversary of Senake Bandaranayake’s death, how should he be remembered? What form and content should we commemorate him in, with the understanding that commemoration is, by necessity, a mourning process fraught with inevitable misrepresentations presented with self-assuring phrases of the one who enunciates the commemoration? Calling one of your mentors, who is also a great scholar-citizen, to remembrance in public is essentially a political gesture that can only be written in the enunciator’s anxieties. The loss of the hero’s presence, which we are mourning, gives the enunciator an opportunity to impose her/his anxieties on the other. For this writer there is no other way to commemorate anyone than by rewriting the commentated in one’s own anxieties, struggles, aspirations for existence and change. The anxiety that underpins any commemorative exercise is based on the insurmountable gap that exists between the necessarily incomplete knowledge of someone or something and the incapacity of discourse to encapsulate that totality within a notion of ‘truth’; this is a fundamental human predicament. And, I am speaking of my mentor, my teacher, my professor Senake Bandaranayake with deep sense of this limitation, which, however, provides an unlimited space for creative and imaginative speculations of love, mourning, fear, respect, and loss.

I am going to talk about him from two perspectives––Bandaranayake, the person, and what kind of personality he was, and Bandaranayake the scholar-citizen. My proposition is that as a scholar-citizen he fought head-on with the remnants of colonial-modernity that was undermining the aspirations of postcolonial modernity that seeks to transcend colonial era shekels, deceptive legacies of the colonial era, such as ethnic margins that define the other, positivist claims that abound in history and archaeology, and that there is a past to be discovered, to name a few.

I would first speak about Bandaranayake with a glance fixed on his modes of thought production from a position that intersects the private and the public in his persona. For me, Bandaranayake was a singular phenomenon, there was none like him before him, and there would be none like him in the future; when considered in relation to Sri Lankan scholarship in archaeology, he was an originary thinker (not just original). I am not proposing, by using the signifier, “singular’ that he was not within a history, but, on the contrary; he was a in fact a full-fledged complex result of the historical time/moment that produced him. He was well aware of the privileged position he had inherited, he was after all a ‘Dias Bandaranayake’, and he knew how the world received and intercepted and reacted to that privilege, he was also aware of the false or deceiving promises that the postcolonial modernity has offered to the younger generations, and he knew his limits in remedying or intervening with that. He was aware of the deceptive modernist construction of the idea of “I” in a singular form, a remnant from Enlightenment era thinking; the deceptiveness of the notion of ‘independent ‘I’. His critique of this ‘I’ was intuitive and was coming from the understanding that knowledge on the past is complex and variegated, and that truths on past events are hard to grasp, or even impossible. His critical sense about the notions of ‘I’ did not come from Michel Foucault’s ‘Archaeology of Knowledge’ or Jacques Derrida’s ‘of Grammatology’ or Jean Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular in the Plural’. He was not attracted to those French thinkers.

However, while I am speaking commendably of his sense of his own limits, while being linked, by birth, to the higher echelons of political power coteries of the country, there were many occasions that he and I argued on this matter.

Let me give you one incident. Once, having sensed this aspect in his thoughts, I insisted that he should prepare a white paper on archaeological activities, I claimed, that for us archaeology is going to be very different from what it is to you. The social landscape of archaeologists has been totally turned upside down by you and your friend, Roland Silva, and in this social landscape we would be struggling to do many things, achieve many things through archaeology, such as buying property, getting married, going abroad, securing positions, making a name, etc. We are children of working-class families from the rural and suburban petit bourgeois, unlike you, or Siran Deraniyagala or Roland Silva. Our archaeology, art history can potentially end up as populist, subservient to existing hegemonies and ultimately serving vested self-interests, unless you intervene now. He didn’t counter me, instead he had his usual charming smile, and said, “Jagath, you can’t save the world, let history take its course. Think of Horton Plaine, its ecology has remained somewhat unchanged while the rest of the island was experiencing major changes. Build a Horton Plaine for you and your colleagues”. Today, I say the same thing to my younger colleagues, when they are so angry or upset with something, some development in the field of archaeology. The Horton Plains, the redoubt that Bandaranayake envisioned for Sri Lankan archaeology and archaeologists is the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology.

In many ways I have been close to Senake Bandaranayake as one of his ‘found-in-the field’ students, nonetheless, talking of Bandaranayke, today, in this place, the Department of Archaeology of the Univeristy of Kelaniya, to an audience consisting mostly of his former students and their students, where he began his Sri Lankan phase of scholarly life, that doubled as teacher-scholar is challenging. Makes me nervous. The history that crossed paths wherein I met Senake Bandaranayake does not reside here. I am not fully privy to the histories that informs the internal dynamics of this place. But I am a hard core insider of archaeology-world of Sri Lanka, but yet I am an outsider to that as well. And I try to think of the kind of challenges that he might have felt here. My insider-outsider double gives me a vantage point of seeing this complex field of archaeology from a critical distance and to see our omissions, failings, and miss-steps that, in my opinion, have jaded the Bandaranayake’s vision.

The main challenge that he faced, I would claim, in the way I can think of it now, when considering the distance that has grown between his ideals in archaeology and the current archaeological practices, performed by some of his own students, I am prompted to see that challenge from a social perspective, from a class perspective. This is something that I began to sense since 2004. This place, the Department of Archaeology of the University of Kelaniya where he began to teach archaeology, art history and heritage to a class of students coming from a social background which is very different from his. As I said earlier, they came from a working-class background who had been schooled at Maha Vidyala and Madya Maha Vidyalas in Sinhala. They were mono lingual, spoke and read only Sinhala. Unlike us, for him his language of communication was English, his competency in Sinhala was very limited. Nonetheless, he was the mentor for two generations of archaeologists and art historians whose competency in English was limited as was his Sinhala. I know very well that he was very sympathetic to the quotidian struggles that impaired our academic activities, but, in retrospect, I would say for obvious reasons he could not see the gravity of the impact of those trivial struggles.

His idea of being a scholar citizen in Sri Lanka – at a post-colonial social-political environment defined by the anxieties emanating from postcolonial modernity – was starkly different from most of ours. Our notion of a scholar-citizen has been a rather two-dimensional one. For him doing archaeology, visiting art exhibitions, seeing great films, listening to music, reading literature, designing a publication or a poster, cooking, arranging a lecture hall with screens and multimedia equipment or arranging his office room with curtains and a few works of art were activities with thoughtful intellectual engagements. For him those were also rooted in a tradition of knowledge production. For him all those activities involved intellectual inputs, assessments, judgments that were premised on inclusionary and exclusionary normative processes. Siad differently, Bandaranayake knew that human actions are necessarily interpretive, and symbolic. Hence meaning is associative and context dependent. He always searched for meaning inductively. For him meaningful actions have to be found from within the context itself, not relying on a given document.

As a result, he would usually be anti-bureaucratic, anti-hierarchical, and anti-essentialist. But I must add a note to the last point, ‘being anti-essentialist’. He did believe in core values, in essences, but he, like Hegel, saw essences as historical, that means changing through time; essences sublating within themselves giving rise to new essences. In his mode of thought production, one could always sense the workings of an Hegelian unconscious.

He was, on every occasion, a product of his disciplines: of archaeology, of history and, also to a large extant of Marxism influenced social sensibilities. He was a descendent of an aristocratic family, with a substantial historical depth and memory, and at the same time he was a product of the emancipatory politics of 20th century Sri Lanka. In him, I saw a well-integrated personality, which I admired so much. Let me tell you two seemingly trivial incidents: he didn’t care about celebrating his birthday, he was in fact embarrassed by any idea of celebrating his birthday, I still remember how he cringed when someone proposed to have a ‘birthday party’, but he used to receive a cake form a friend on every birthday, and once he had me at his home to share a piece of that cake. He didn’t like religious rituals that much but enjoyed visiting Sri Mahabodhi and offer flowers to the tree, and once he explained his seemingly religious action, he said something like this, ‘I just like doing this’, and then, like an afterthought, he said, ‘doing this makes me part of the long history of humanity and a larger community of people’. An excellent example where I could see the private and public intersecting in his thinking and actions. Let me give you another incident, a very trivial one. Once in late 1990s, he walked into the lecture room in the upper floor of the old colonial building at the PGIAR. Our then Registrar, Mr. Dhanapala, had hung the screen for the projector, having shut the old window with a plyboard. Prof. Bandaranayake had one look at it and turned to me and said, “Jagath, the people would think that we have no civilization”

It took me a while to get the full hang of this comment. Why such a heavy response to such a simple thing? What he reacted to was, I realised later, the insensitive intervention, thus upsetting the ordered material culture of the old room. I would rephrase his comment in the following manner now: “People would think that we have lost our symbolic structures.” And, for sure, for most of the archaeologists of our generation and the ones that came after, there is no symbolic structure, the “name-of-the-father,” in the Lacanian sense. For most of us, there is no voice issuing the command “no.” In most cases, Sri Lankan archaeology in our hands has fallen back to “pre-Oedipal unbridled antiquarianism” . At this point, I would stop speaking about Bandaranayake the person and the normative qualms that uneased him and turn to Bandaranayake the archaeologist. (To be continued)



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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