KB: Farewell to a theatre archeologist
By Saumya Liyanage
“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”
Popularly known as KB, Kapuru Banda Herath, a talented playwright and theatre director, passed away in the early hours of 29 January 2023. Unlike other celebrities, and popular television stars who update their sardonic profiles on Facebook, KB died at the National Hospital, Colombo. KB’s death did not create any turbulence,or receive state attention.
KB died after a battle with a chronic disease. While he was breathing his last, some people were in the streets demanding the abolition of the draconian tax regime, and the release of student leaders behind bars. But the majority did not know that KB, a playwright and director in modern Sri Lankan theatre, had passed away. They did not know who KB Herath was or what he had written or produced for theatre. The tax issue has led to turmoil with the cost of living rising. The local government polls are around the corner. A few bereaved theatergoers, actors, writers and artists gathered at the funeral parlour, where his remains were kept. KB left the Sinhala Theatre unnoticed.
When I received the news about KB’s demise, I was with my students, working for a new musical theatre at the University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) Colombo. KB was one of the visiting lecturers at the Department of Theatre Ballet and Modern Dance, Faculty of Dance and Drama, UVPA, Colombo, where I have been working since 2007. When I was the Head of the Department, I invited KB to visit UVPA and teach scriptwriting, and directing to our undergraduates. KB was among the few playwrights who shared their knowledge with our students. He spent a lot of time and energy with students, guiding them in writing and dramaturgy. KB was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of the Visual and Performing Arts, in 2022, recognising his contribution to theatre and television.
I intend to write this essay for two reasons. One is that KB was one of the leading playwrights and directors in the modern Sri Lankan theatre. Secondly, as a writer, he excavated the dominant historical narratives and restructured them to unveil political and social contexts of his time. In this sense, KB was an important writer who reinterpreted some of the popular hegemonic narratives of history, kinships, and family sagas, or dynasty of Sri Lanka, and turned those narratives into powerful political allegories for proscenium theatre.
Text and Meaning
KB Herath started his theatre career with the production, titled Delowaka Kathava, in 1968. Yet, his presence as a playwright and director attracted a wider audience after his play Sudu Karal, in 1979. Hence, KB and his contemporaries are identified by some theatre critics as ‘theatre makers of the 1970s.’ KB has been bracketed with his peers such as Simon Navagaththegama, Hemasiri Liyanage, Vijitha Gunaratne, Gamini Haththotuwegama, Bandula Withanage, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Parakrama Niriella and others. Many of these playwrights actively engaged in theatre making in that era. 1971 saw the first JVP uprising to topple the second Bandaranaike’s government and it was crushed with Indian support (DeVotta, 2007). It is observed that most of the ’70s playwrights were believers in social transformation through arts. They and directors were also inspired by the revolutionary changes taking place in Latin America and elsewhere. Hence, the theatre makers in the ’70s, employed their theatre practice in favour of social change, and KB was among them. They were of the view that theatre was a powerful tool to influence people’s minds and shape their thinking, but that should be done through artistic means. They, save a few, rejected the propagandist practice of theatre and tried to find ways and means of doing it with aesthetically refined ways. Therefore, KB believed that good theatre consisted in the aesthetically refined play script and its literal sublimity.
KB and his contemporaries used chronicles of Sri Lankan history and folklore to develop their political parables on stage. In a way, that was reminiscent of what Sarachchandra did in 1956 to find ‘Sinhala theatre’ and its ‘indigenous identity.’ Sarachchandra used the Mahavamsa chronicle to write his plays and touched upon some of the relevant and uniform themes of human life of his time. Similarly, playwrights in the ’70s also used folklore and other chronicles to dramatise the politically-charged and socially relevant themes of the ’70s. When Sarachcahandra did so with his own aesthetics to find a uniform theatre for the Sinhala speaking masses, ’70s playwrights wanted to do it through their socialist realism derived from their Marxist ideology. KB chose the same path, exploring Sinhala chronicles to narrate contemporary socio-political realities. Many of his plays such as Dona Katharina (1995), Deveni Mahinda (1998) and Vāsudewa (1999) are based on such narratives retold in theatrical excellence to depict his own people and time. Similar to his predecessors of theatre of revolt in the ’70s, KB saw theatre as a medium to communicate political ideologies by reinterpreting and staging historical narratives. For him, theatre was an ideological transaction or a community action (Kershaw, 2002) between the playwright and the audience.
However, KB lived in an era when the theatre was fully understood as a matter of text, which played a key role in theatrical representation.
When Sarachchandra propagated modern Sinhala theatre as an ‘aesthetic transaction’ between proscenium and the audience member, playwrights and directors in the ’70s, in general, shared some of the co-values that Sarachchandra envisioned in his theatre philosophy. His liberal humanism and Sanskrit aesthetic theories influenced some of the ’70s theatre makers including KB. Writing about KB’s theatre and his ‘theatrical vision’, one writer has said KB was a writer who had a vision filtered through his village life and his heightened artistic ability developed through his education and his contemporaries he has associated with’ (Author translation Chandrasiri, 2003, pp. 237–259).
KB’s theatrical intervention should not be limited to liberal humanistic value systems, and his textual intervention in modern Sri Lankan theatre deserves recognition.
Death of the Author
KB’s theatre was a text-based theatre, which is again framed within the proscenium arch. His political discourse was based on his historical narratives written and structured in such a way that the dramatic theatre was enhanced through the culmination of the tragic hero.
People visited KB’s theatre not because his theatre is more performative and visually appealing to them but because they grasped aesthetic sentiments through the dialogical structures perceived through the text. This phenomenon has been a dominant element in KB’s plays. His text dominated dramatic action on stage. As stated above, the era when KB started writing plays and producing them for the stage was dominated by literary excellence that resulted from liberal humanism. In this discourse, the text and its characters, dramatic actions, culmination, and resolution were predominant dramatic elements governed through centuries old Aristotelian narratology. KB’s intervention was no exception. His textual narratives were also composed in such a way that the Aristotelian narratives were completed and fulfilled and finally the cathartic experience of the audience was achieved.
KB’s theatre is discussed as a powerful dramatic enactment but has been explored to discuss its logocentric meaning through the textual narratives. For KB, theatre is all about text, which is essential to create socio-political meanings through which his ideological stances could be transferred to the spectator. Writing about his theatre work, Gamini Haththotuwegama once said, “K. B. Herath is a dramatist, who is a grim, macabre, sardonic excavator of unpleasant “truth” about family, marriage, women, religion” (Haththotuwegama, 1998, p. 157). What does Haththotuwegama intend to convey through this statement? As I see, his intention is to point out how KB explored the tragedy of family, women, marriage, and religion, which are the basis of all these social entanglements. Yet, KB stuck to the logo-centric textuality, where the theatre is taking place within his own text instead of stage. KB was a poet, who viewed this theatre as a tapestry of poetic enactment through which his characters and the dramatic action were merely enacted through his text. The modern Sinhala theatre was doomed when KB shifted from live theatre to television. Although he was still a believer in the domination of text in the theatre practice, this era of text and the dramatic theatre was overridden by the postdramatic theatre in the world. I never heard theatre makers or playwrights of his generation discuss the paradigmatic changes taking place over the past five decades in theatre and performance studies in many countries including those in Asia, Australasia, the UK and the US. KB still stuck to his text-based theatre which gave the pleasure and salvation in his literary kingdom, as it were. During the past few decades, ‘the performative turn of the arts’ has marked the significant rupture of the traditional notion of literature, playwriting and theatre. The artistes and their work of art have become more performative than ever before. Literary text evolved into hyper-text. Rather than reading on paper, poetry recitals and readings came to be performed. Bodies of actors and dancers ceased to be space where the playwright’s ideas and thoughts were projected or conveyed through symbols. The performer’s body itself has become a text, elevating its inherent subjugation to the literary text. KB must have been aware of such paradigmatic changes happening in the post-democratic, post-dramatic era of the world. Yet, he seemed to stick to his own passion of the authorship and the meaning maker of his own text while aligning himself with his predecessors of Sri Lankan modern theatre.
KB’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s modern theatre and, especially text-based theatre, is immense and he explored uncanny elements of the so-called Sinhala dynasty and revealed unpleasant tragedies of men and women whose lives have been more or less hidden in the popular histories. During his last years, KB worked as a writer for other media including soap-operas, developing episodic stories to entertain the masses. However, due to his involvement in television and writing teledramas, much of his creative energy was drawn into popular narratives and shallow entertainment. Yet, KB was a playwright who brought tragic elements to Sinhala speaking modern theatre. He believed theatre to be a forceful medium to change people’s destinies. He directed his artistic virtuosity to create theatre on stage and made his audience empathise with his protagonists and experience the catharsis at the end. But as Hans-Thies Lehman asserts, ‘Dramatic theatre ends when these elements are no longer the regulating principle but merely one possible variant of theatrical art’ (Lehmann 2006, p. 22).
Chandrasiri, B. (Ed.). (2003). Dramatists in the ’70s (9th ed., pp. 237–259). Department of Cultural Affairs. (Original work published)
DeVotta, N. (2007). Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology: implications for politics and conflict resolution in Sri Lanka. Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Washington
Haththotuwegama, G. (1998). Unresolved Contradictions Paradoxical Discourse and Alternative Strategies in the Post-Colonial Sinhala Theatre. In R. Abeypala, A. Vickramasighe, & V. Pathiraja (Eds.), Abhinaya (pp. 130–169). Sethsiripaya, Baththaramulla: Sinhala Drama Panel, Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
Kershaw, B. (2002). The Politics of Performance. Routledge.
Lehmann, Hans-Thies. (2006). Postdramatic theatre. London; New York: Routledge.
(The writer is Professor in Drama and Theatre at the Department of Theatre Ballet and Modern Dance, Faculty of Dance and Drama, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo.)
Post-war military matters and concerns
This year’s annual Indian Navy–Sri Lanka Navy bilateral maritime Exercise SLINEX was conducted amidst political turmoil here. The six-day SLINEX, the 10th edition of the series commenced three days after the launch of a public protest campaign near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana. The two-phased exercise involved several Indian vessels INS Kiltan (Advanced Anti-Submarine Warfare Corvette) and INS Savitri (Offshore Patrol Vessel), SLNS Gajabahu (Advance Offshore Patrol Vessel/The one in which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took refuge on July 09) and SLNS Sagara (OPV). In addition, Indian Navy Chetak helicopter and Dornier Maritime Patrol Aircraft and SLAF Dornier and BELL 412 helicopters participated in the exercise. The Exercise featured the Special Forces of the two Navies. The previous edition of SLINEX was conducted in Visakhapatnam from 7-12 March 2022.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Indian Defence Research Wing (government website) recently declared that Australia would provide a former Royal Australian Air Force Beechcraft KA 350 King Air (registration A32-673) to Sri Lanka on a request made by India. The KA350 King Air is a modern twin-engine turboprop aircraft.
The story, posted on 16 May, four days after Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Paul Stephens, officially informed President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the move, was headlined ‘Australia to donate Beechcraft KA 350 to Sri Lanka upon India’s request.’
HC Stephens was accompanied by Deputy High Commissioner Ms. Lalita Kapur, First Secretary Brett Zehnder and Defence Advisor Captain Ian Cain. The meeting took place at the Presidential Secretariat, the scene of violent confrontation between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration and the protest movement, a year ago.
The Indian website asserted that the Australian move mirrored New Delhi’s bid to strengthen security ties with Sri Lanka as part of its Indian Ocean outreach. According to the website, the deployment is meant to boost Sri Lanka’s sovereign aerial maritime surveillance capability. In terms of the agreement between the two governments, the donor would support the operation of the aircraft for a period of 12 months.
The President’s Media Division (PMD) announced: “The gift of the aircraft is part of the Australian Government’s commitment to strengthening and enhancing the cooperation and collaboration that is the foundation of the strong bilateral relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka. A key focus of this relationship remains the continued cooperation on countering all forms of transnational crime, including drug smuggling, as well as strengthening border management through intelligence sharing and the deterrence, disruption, interception and return of maritime people smuggling ventures under the border security operation, known as Operation Sovereign Borders.”
Operation Sovereign Borders is a high profile military led mission, launched in 2013, to thwart illegal entry of would-be asylum seekers. The change of governments, over the past decade, hasn’t undermined the high profile operation as major political parties are committed to block illegal migration whatever the consequences.
The donation of the aircraft is in line with the understanding the two countries reached following a visit undertaken by Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, from June 19-21 last year, amidst deepening political turmoil here. She met the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris. A year later, Wickremesinghe is at the helm and Gotabaya Rajapaksa ousted by a US-backed protest campaign, as alleged by former Minister Wimal Weerawansa, a claim denied by the US mission here, but not denied by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, a key protagonist referred to by the accuser.
In April and June 2014, Sri Lanka took delivery of two 38.2 m long Australian patrol boats and they were commissioned as SLNS Mihikatha and SLNS Ratnadeepa. Both vessels are in service today. It would be pertinent to mention that the talks, on the transferring of vessels, were finalized in Colombo when the then Australian Premier Tony Abbott visited Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government of Meeting (CHOGM). The Australian move was made in the wake of the UK going all out against Sri Lanka over the accountability issues.
In the following year, the then Sri Lanka’s shameless government co-sponsored the US–led accountability resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against one’s own country.
India, Australia strategy
In late August last year, Australia announced an unprecedented move to pay for a part of Sri Lankan military’s fuel requirement. Australian High Commissioner in Colombo Paul Stephens tweeted:
“Australia is pleased to be working with India to provide fuel to Sri Lanka’s Navy and Air Force. It will help our long-standing cooperation, against transnational crime, to continue. As Indian Ocean neighbours, all three countries share a commitment to preserving regional security.”
India and Australian joint approach here should be examined against the backdrop of ‘Quad’ strategy in relation to Sri Lanka. However, India pursues its own policy in terms of India’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR),’ as well as ‘Priority One’ partner. ‘Quad’ security alliance meant to counter growing Chinese influence consists of the US, Japan, Australia and India. Sri Lanka has been caught up in the China vs ‘Quad’ battle and Sri Lanka’s dependence on Chinese investments made the situation worse.
The US has included Sri Lanka in its military exercises programme while the other ‘Quad’ member Japan entered into the ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ Agreement in October 2015.
Sri Lanka took delivery of a Dornier 228 maritime patrol aircraft, from India, in mid-August last year. The SLAF declared that India made available the aircraft in response to a request made during the Yahapalana administration (2015-2019). India assured that another Dornier would be supplied within two years after the deployment of the first naval Dornier – a short takeoff and landing multirole light transport aircraft with a turboprop twin-engine, in production since 1981.
An Indian statement said: “The aircraft would act as a force multiplier, enabling Sri Lanka to tackle multiple challenges, such as human and drug trafficking, smuggling and other organized forms of crime, in its coastal waters, more effectively. Induction of the aircraft is timely in view of the current challenges to Sri Lanka’s maritime security.”
Bankrupt Sri Lanka should be grateful for Australian and Indian stepped up assistance at a time the country is experiencing a deepening economic-political-social crisis. Obviously, the crisis here can be a push factor for more Sri Lankans to risk their lives to reach foreign lands. However, the military’s growing dependence on foreign assistance must be a matter for concern for all as there is always the danger of being smothered by the giant neighbour or being unnecessarily dragged into a wider conflict between between the Quad on one side and Russia and China on the other.
Recently, India announced further help to the SLAF. The announcement was made during the four-day official visit of Chief of Air Staff Indian Air Force Air Chief Marshal V. R. Chaudhari earlier this month. The Indian air chief was here on the invitation of SLAF Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana.
During the visit, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari laid the foundation stone for the construction of the India-Sri Lanka Friendship Auditorium at the Air Force Academy, Trincomalee. In line with New Delhi’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy,’ the project would be carried out under a 250 mn LKR grant assistance from India. The Indian air chief also donated AN-32 propellers to the SLAF, at the China Bay Air Force Academy, and at the National Defence College training aids were donated to students.
In addition to massive economic assistance provided in the recent past to Sri Lanka struggling on the financial front, the Indian investment, in the defence sector, is rapidly growing.
Deputy High Commissioner Vinod K. Jacob, in late February this year, underscored the Indian investment when he addressed the Indian Navy-trained Sri Lankan military personnel on board Offshore Patrol vessel Sukanya in Colombo. The Indian High Commission quoted Jacob as having stressed that training is the strongest and most enduring pillar of bilateral defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka. The Deputy High Commissioner declared that India offered approximately 1500 training slots every year, to Sri Lanka, financed through a special programme with an annual allocation of USD 7 million.
Security sector reforms
Last week’s midweek piece, titled ‘Blind security reforms: Assurance to US on the size of military’, attracted the attention of quite a number of military officers, including the retired. They queried whether a proper and cohesive assessment has been made before the declaration that the 200,000 plus wartime strength (2009) would be reduced to 135,000 by 2024 and 100,000 by 2030.
One retired General, who had served the infantry and considered one of the foremost battlefield strategists, pointed out that the projected downsizing/right sizing of the Army, should be studied, taking into consideration the current strength. “Do not forget we are already down to 160,000 officers and men,” the retired General said, while another pointed out AWOL (‘absence without leave’ seems to be quite a problem). A retired General Officer Commanding (GoC) of a fighting division on the Vanni front emphasized the need to examine how the proposed reduction would affect post-war deployment and what is the land mass of ‘Eelam State’ (north east districts) and in relation to the drop in ground strength.
In the absence of a cohesive strategy, in relation to vital sectors, including defence, Sri Lanka seems to have neglected matters of utmost importance. Against the backdrop of a worsening situation, regardless of the USD 2.9 bn IMF package, spread over a period of 48 months, Sri Lanka cannot ignore the need to be cautious and be ready to meet any eventuality. In line with the Army, the Navy and Air Force are also to be slimmer and the fact that the downsizing of overall military strength takes place at a time of great political uncertainty and economic upheaval.
In March, Deputy Indian High Commissioner Jacob underscored the importance of Indo-Lanka relations on the basis of five areas of particular significance in the immediate short and medium term objectives.
Addressing Indian and Sri Lankan military personnel, onboard Sukanya, Jacob declared: “First is the potential for economic and financial cooperation by building on the Indian support to the people of Sri Lanka, in 2022, to the tune of USD 4 billion. The Indian HC quoted Jacob as having emphasized that focus could be laid on areas, such as trade, in national currencies, ease of investments and strengthening financial cooperation. “Second, the two sides are working towards increasing air, ferry, digital and energy connectivity. Third, a new type of development cooperation partnership, building on the existing multi-billion portfolio with special emphasis on vulnerable communities, is required. Fourth, both sides need to enhance people to people exchanges, particularly in tourist movements. Fifth, it is essential to strengthen the cultural, religious, music, movie and sporting links for mutual benefit.”
The Indian High Commission media statements present a clear picture of Indo-Lanka developments. A recent Indian High Commission statement that dealt with a visit undertaken by Indian Navy Ship ‘Batti Malv’ to Trincomalee disclosed hitherto unknown information.
Let me reproduce the relevant section from the media statement dated 17 May. The statement issued soon after the vessel departed Trincomalee made an important reference to further Indian support. “The visit of the Indian ship Batti Malv, a fast patrol craft, is also significant in view of the potential for cooperation between India and Sri Lanka for augmenting capabilities of Sri Lanka Navy in similar fast patrol craft for efficiently addressing shared challenges for maritime security in the region,” the High Commission stated.
However, the statement issued by SLN, on that particular ship visit, didn’t make any reference to the possibility of a similar type vessel being made available to Sri Lanka. The locally built 46 m long vessel, crewed by five officers and 54 men, was inducted into the Indian Navy in July 2006, the year Sri Lanka launched a combined forces campaign to eradicate the LTTE.
Since the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE, in May 2009, India gradually advanced its relationship with a series of military visits at different levels, though the progress was slow. But, over the past several years, there has been a steady enhancement of the relationship which sort of coincided with the deterioration of the national economy.
The Indian Western Fleet visited Colombo and the China-managed Hambantota port, in the second week of March, last year, as Sri Lanka was heading for an unprecedented crisis over the collapse of supply chains.
Four ships of the Western Fleet under the charge of Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet (FOCWF),
Rear Admiral Sameer Saxena visited Sri Lanka. The indigenous guided missile frigate BRAHMAPUTRA along with frigate TALWAR entered Hambantota port while advanced indigenous destroyer INS CHENNAI and frigate TEG entered Colombo harbour. In spite of being invited to join a reception, onboard INS Chennai, on 10 March, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa skipped the event. Instead, Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris represented the President. The other notable invitee was Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeyawardena.
A few weeks later, the Indian High Commission had to deny reports of Indian military deployment here in the wake of the eruption of public anger, near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana. In brief statements, issued in English, Sinhala and Tamil, the High Commission of India strongly denied, what it called, blatantly false and completely baseless reports in a section of media that India is dispatching its soldiers to Sri Lanka.
The High Commission statement, dated 02 April, 2022, also condemned what it described as irresponsible reporting while expressing the belief those responsible for spreading rumours would desist from doing so.
Delhi’s assistance seemed vast with the Indian Navy actively engaged with Sri Lanka Navy in facilitating engagements, like Deck Landing Practice and Co-pilot experience on indigenous ALHand Sail Training Experience onboard INS Tarangini for SLAF/ SLN personnel in March 2022.
In line with India’s Neighbourhood First Policy, spares for SLNS Sagara, SLCG Suraksha and AN 32 are being provided, on grant basis, by New Delhi, to ensure, what the Indian High Commission called, optimal operational availability of the platform and thereby improve security in the region.
Sri Lanka should take stock of overall foreign military assistance to the post-war military as Sri Lanka faced growing international criticism over accountability issues. Canada has taken the anti-Sri Lanka project to a new extreme by declaring Tamils were subjected to genocide. In a bid to appease powerful Diaspora groups, Canadian parliament has targeted Sri Lanka with the declaration that two former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are war criminals, is a clear move to inspire countries, with large communities of Sri Lankan origin, to act in a similar fashion. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has pathetically failed to counter the Canadian project, built on the preposterous accusation that over 40,000 Tamils perished during the final phase of the combined security forces offensive on the Vanni east front. This is despite even UN internal documents placing casualties in the north, during the final phases of fighting, to be in the region of 7000.
Ceylon tree healing a cut: perfuming the striking axe
By Prof. Kirthi Tennakone
The genius British chemist Sir Humphry Davy scribbled a stanza in his notebook, saying he is like the fair Ceylon tree, which heals a cut and perfumes the axe by secreting an oil – a strange comparison.
That illustrious tree is on the verge of extinction. We cut down trees, feeding and protecting us. Yet trees are not after vengeance, they perspire (transpire) to save us from extinction.
Humphry Davy, one of the greatest exponents of the scientific method with a poetic inclination, was born in December 1778 in the remote coastal town of Penance, in Cornwall, England. While studying at the grammar school, he wrote poetry and wandered in the beaches and woods, but could not finish schooling. At sixteen, his father died. To support the family, Davy worked as an apprentice to an apothecary and acquainted a liking for chemistry. He pilfered chemicals from the shelves and did experiments at home, learning chemistry by himself. Noting his exceptional talent, an informed friend of his mother, introduced him to Thomas Beddoes, a physician philanthropist and prolific writer, noteworthy for controversial views. Deeply concerned about the poor suffering tuberculosis, he ran a hospital treating patients free and hoped to find a cure for the disease.
Dr. Beddoes employed Davy in his institute, devoted to studying the medicinal properties of gases. After day and night experimentation, Davy exclaimed breathing nitrous oxide (subsequently known as laughing gas) induces a pleasant calmness, suggesting a way to relieve the pain of operations.
The close associates of Dr. Beddoes were equally radical poets; Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They not only risked the repressive actions of the British Government by openly supporting the ideals of the French Revolution but volunteered as guinea pigs to test Davy’s hypothesis. Robert Southey after inhaling nitrous oxide, said “The atmospheres of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas”. Samuel Coleridge was more realistic. He described the experience of inhaling laughing gas as the sudden transfer from a chilly winter to a warm spring. William Wordsworth, another friend of Beddoes, visited Humphrey Davy and consented that poetry and chemistry are similar because both subjects deal with material things.
The invention of the first anesthetic agent and acclaim by eminent literary men qualified Humphry Davy, who had no college degree, for a professorship at the prestigious Royal Institution in London. There he performed extraordinarily. Today, we insist on a first-class degree for the same job!
At the Royal Institution, Davy made groundbreaking discoveries one after another. Isolated eight chemical elements for the first time, opened the field of electrochemistry and showed the world how to liquefy gases. He invented the safety lamp to light coal mines while preventing flammable gases existing there from catching fire explosively.
As a tradition, the Royal Institution presented lectures to the general public highlighting the achievements of science. Humphry Davy’s lectures were one of the most popular events in London, at that time. The theater was packed with people from all walks of life. Appreciating his intellect and stunning good looks, aristocratic women admired him. Men raising their hands volunteered lifting things to the podium.
In one of his lectures, Davy showed a piece of potassium metal, first extracted and named by him and dropped it into water. Astounding the audience, the material caught fire with a purplish flame and exploded. People saw something dropped into water catch fire, for the first time. Seventy-odd years ago, I witnessed the same experiment as a seventh grader in a rural school and displayed by a teacher from South India. Today, the phenomenon is rarely demonstrated in chemistry classes in our schools. Students have no time or interest in experiencing inspirational fascinations. They hurry to tutors to cram the workings of the ‘covalent bond’ fitting atoms in organic molecules, merely to pass an exam and become specialists! No new discoveries of anesthetics or cures, but escalating fees for consultations. The problem seems to be that we do chemistry without poetry and specialization without empathy.
In 1820, Humphry Davy was elected president of the Royal Society unopposed. Despite its supremacy, the body functioned as a club of literary elites proud of a degree from Oxford after schooling in Eaton. Davy proposed changes to orient society’s affairs more towards scientific inquiry and promote greater public participation. Unfortunately, he met with opposition and criticism. Although his achievements were incomparable, he didn’t belong to the elite group.
Davy was a victim of jealousy. No man or woman succeeds in all endeavors. Yet just one failure suffices for adversaries to discredit him or her. In 1823, the British Admiralty requested Davy to find a solution to the problem of the corrosion of the copper- clad bottoms of naval vessels. He provided an ingenious method, but did not work in this particular case. Davy’s opponents diverted the incident to blemish his reputation in the eyes of the British Establishment.
Davy, in a depressed mood and not experienced enough to face criticism, drafted a verse. Telling us he is like the fair Ceylon plant, the Cingalese tree, which heals a cut by secreting a balmy oil to prevent its decay, while perfuming the axe, a poetic way of expressing his feelings. Possibly, this means, he was not defamed by the attacks of his enemies but instead blessed them.
Humphry Davy didn’t name the tree. Undoubtedly, he heard a story from his younger brother, John Davy, who visited Sri Lanka and looked at many things in our country, curiously and rationally.
John Davy, a surgeon and chemist was posted to Sri Lanka in 1816 as a physician for the British Armed Forces. However, his primary mission has been carrying out scientific investigations in the colony, conquered a year ago. During his nearly four years of occupation, he traveled all over the island, examining the natural environment, indigenous technologies and cultural practices in the country. While in Sri Lanka, he wrote to his brother frequently, presenting his experience in the alien land. On September 18, 1817, Humphry Davy, read a letter from his brother at the Proceedings of the Royal Society describing his journey to Adams Peak, accompanied by Alexander Moon, the Superintendent of Botanical Gardens, Kalutara. Both of them curious about flora in the Island, came to know the trees used by the inhabitants to extract resin.
When a Doona tree is incised, a pleasant smelling, clear resinous liquid secretes, wetting the axe. Our indigenous people (Veddas) were the first to use the resin as medicine and incense. They saw how the resin oozing after strike of an axe, closed and healed the cut. If the axe bruises the hand accidentally, they ran to a Doona tree and applied the resin and it worked. Later, to extract the resin, trees were wounded multiple times, but plants still survived because the exudate prevented the rot.
The local population exploited aboriginal technology for profit. To get more oil, they axed tree and burnt the wound, eventually killing the tree.
A craft and a paying export business in those days (the1800s), was tapping resin (gas dummala) from Doona (Shorea zeylanica) and related species of trees belonging to the family dipterocarpaceae (dipterocarps). Arabian traders purchased the product, used for making incense, perfumes and varnish and shipped it to Europe and China The thicker resinous oil secreted by the Dorana tree was used mainly for making paints.
Undoubtedly, John Davy, told his brother, what he learned in Sri Lanka. The “fair Cingalese tree of Davy” is certainly a Doona species, not cinnamon, as speculated by a European historian. Cinnamon doesn’t fit into the story.
Dipterocarps were the dominant species of trees in our forests and thickets everywhere centuries ago. Think for a moment about why there are so many villages and place names with prefixes; Hora, Dorana and Doona. For example, “Horana”, derived from “Hora Arana” means a forest of Hora trees. Today, a Hora tree is hard to spot in a village. As a child, I played with the spinning fruits of the Hora tree, not remotely maneuvered helicopter drones but later understood the mathematics of aerodynamics.
No more Hora, Doona and Dorana trees in Horanpella, Doonagaha and Doranagoda. A few of these in Sinharaja and other reserves need to be saved preciously.
Again, guess why there are more than one hundred villages and localities in Sri Lanka with the prefix “Dummala”. The fossilised resin of dipterocarp vegetation is dummala (bimdummala). The occurrence of dummala in the locality is the origin of these names. Tens of thousands of years ago, dipterocarp plants existed in abundance. Their resins, resistant to decomposition, accumulated in the soil as dummala.
The plant family dipterocarpacae is a fascinating evolutionary marvel. Originating in Africa more than 100 million years ago, they drifted to India, Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. While retaining primitive characters, the family diversified to suit the environment. In a dipterocarp – dominated rain forest, there are tall as well as short species of trees, trapping sunlight optimally and thereby capturing large quantities of carbon. They are the ‘thermostats’ of the planet.
The dominance of dipterocarps owes much to the wind dispersal of seeds. When the winged fruit falls after ripening, they spin like helicopter propellers and carried away by the wind. The average distance the fruit deposits on the ground is not too far from the base of the parent tree, but greater than the width of its canopy, so that the seedling is not shadowed by the parent. The roots of the parent tree extend a distance greater than the canopy width. Seeds deposited in the vicinity of the roots of the parent tree and beyond the extent of the canopy have a special advantage because roots harbor symbiotic fungi. Thus, the seeding gain ready access to sunlight and fungi in soil the promoting growth.
Dipterocarps, so common everywhere in our land until recent times, are now endangered. When John Davy visited Sri Lanka, there were no tea or rubber plantations. Clearing land for cultivation eliminated a good portion of trees. Unfortunately, despite inviting danger, the species yields quality wood. Therefore overexploited for timber, legally and illegally. Many truckloads of timber, would have been used to build one mansion out of unjustly earned money. Imagine the number of trees felled!
They are fast losing hold in other parts of the region because of extensive logging and the expansion of land use.
Dipterocarps survived natural catastrophes such as mega volcanic eruptions, glaciation and asteroid impacts. They have peacefully coexisted with dinosaurs for 65 million years; providing them; food, shade and oxygen. Contrastingly to humans, these mighty animals did not threaten their proliferation. Occasionally, a tree may have been injured by goring creatops (horned dinosaurs), but the oily resin secreted cured the injury.
After an asteroid impact on Earth in the month of June 65 million years ago, dinosaurs and many kinds of plants died out, but dipterocarps survived. Yet they struggle to escape the threat of humans.
Given, sufficient time, evolution is capable of achieving almost ‘anything’ not forbidden by the laws of nature. Through prolonged existence, dipterocarps have acquired and inherited unique characters to suit the environment. Their extinction would irreparably damage the rainforest ecosystem.
I was inspired to be fascinated by the wonders of dipterocarpaceae by my elder brother, the late Jayasumana Tennakone, who played with me, throwing Hora fruits into the air and watching how they spin. We were questioning, how it decides to rotate either clockwise or anticlockwise. Two decades later, the idea helped me fathom a concept in the theory of elementary particle physics.
A part of my ancestral village, Matikotumulla, in the Gampha District, goes by the name “Dummaladeniya”, a beautiful marshy area with paddy fields and a stream. My father walked us to this part of the village frequently. We picked up sizeable pieces of dummala from the stream. He said these are fossils of plants and cannot be minerals. Later, I was enthralled to learn dummala is derived from dipterocarpaceae.
Once, I walked miles in the wilderness to see a Dorana tree. What I saw was a giant tree on its deathbed, tortured by severely burned wounds!
(The author can be reached via email:firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Snoozing Sires
By Lynn Ockersz
In a decades-long blissful slumber,
Have these our flabby Sires been,
Charged with eyeing the public coffers,
But fixated more on survival tactics,
As dusty tax files rose in a spiral,
And Sharks made good their escape,
While Sprats were left behind,
To fend off brow-beating taxmen,
In a hurry to recoup un-fazing losses,
But better late than never,
And with the wise we hasten to add;
‘Good Morning Sires, glad you’ve woken,
On seeing the works of glorified salesmen,
Who struck it rich while you slumbered;
Get the Department to get its act together,
Seize those runaway Sharks in a drag-net,
And give back to the people their billions.’
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