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No contaminated fertilizer please: Vroom vroom in Colombo

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Headline in The Island of Friday October 29 gladdened Cass’ heart: “Unions threaten to cripple port to foil bid to bring in contaminated fertiliser.” Three hearty cheers! Congrats! So happy port workers at least realise the potential damage of unloading the Chinese organic fertiliser!

Readers would consider Cassandra fully deranged, in cuckoo land, when you read her cheering and congratulating a strike, a crippling one at that, within a vital entry point to the city. But what else to do, aney? The government is trembling at the wagged finger of the Chinese Ambassador pronouncing that the organic fertiliser determinedly shipped by them to this experimenting-with-vital-agriculture-country is good and to be trusted. The results of scientific tests conducted by our experts not to be trusted? So declared the Chinese ambassador. He wants a second opinion. The government may have taken the shipment in and even distributed it, since we seem to be beholden to China. Never mind that result would be disastrous and our land ‘infected’ forever. Our agricultural lands, already damaged by the hurried ban of inorganic fertilisers, would have been further damaged with dangerous Chinese microrganisms invading it. So, the people have taken it into their hands to defend the country. Shows people have no trust in decisions taken. It will finally fall on The People to save the country: us Ordinaries – the active.

The Chinese Ambassador has blacklisted a government bank too!

Dune racing

It is sand racing, isn’t it? Good for the oil rich Middle East with its vast acres of sand. But it seems that it will become one of our sporting events. To participate in this desert recreational sport you need a dune buggy or beach buggy which is a ‘recreational motor vehicle with large wheels and wide tyres.’ Goes without saying that dune racing is a rich man’s sport as the buggies guzzle petrol. More pertinently, wise heads of government and institutions led by the UN are urgently trying to reduce greenhouse gases and thus global warming. And in this country with more beggars, the sport is being introduced by no less a person than the Minister of Sports. Venue? The Port City. It must be really large to have a race track too. Cass never looks that way on her infrequent forays to the Fort.

While the country is burning – economically, politically and with a certain rise in C19 infection, dune racing will be introduced. A picture of ‘dune racing’ enlivened the front page of The Island of October 29, with an apparently enjoying Namal Rajapaksa, Prassana Ranatunge spreading himself in a red buggy, Was the female buggy rider the Pot and Pavithra, who was present on the occasion as Minister of Transport? So bracing, so spirit uplifting, so giving of hope to have the youthful Minister promising the rich elite of this country fun on the dunes. We once upon a time heard racing cars whiz and vroom at night around Colombo Fort and Kollupitiya. Then daytime sports car races in Colombo Fort causing disruption to offices, and in Kandy against the Mahanayake’s advice. What Marie Antoinnete did not say but is ascribed to have, can be altered to suit our country situation: Thrill to racing on the sands if you have no money to take a bus nor strength to walk

Continuing love affair (read sycophantic adoration)

“PM expresses appreciation to China for its continued support” through its Ambassador for supporting Sri Lanka in the fight against Covid-19 by providing vaccine. What about other countries, and most importantly the WHO that helped immensely by sending us vaccines that have been tested and re-tested and passed as at least 90 percent effective against Covid 19.

Aluthgamage shares blame generously

Admitting on 28 October that “as a government they had failed to market the concept of organic fertiliser.” Minister of Agriculture, Mahindananda Aluthgamage (MA) apportioned blame on the Ministries of Health and Environment. “The Minister said the two crucial ministries had done virtually nothing to promote organic agriculture.” (Wise they were). He added that 70 percent of chemical fertiliser was wasted due to overuse. (As much as that? Unsubstantiated statistic?). A bad carpenter blames his tools; and in the kindergarten it’s always a case of “Miss, why catch me? Manel, Yoges and Fatima are also to be blamed.”

Though the Minister says this, the farmers do not agree. They viciously battered, bruised and burnt only his effigy. Once Cass spied another bobbing figure held aloft but it definitely was not of either of the two ministers MA points to as equally responsible for destroying the agriculture of the country – its backbone.

Other burning issues

Cass’ heart lies with the farmers. Her stomach too depends on them. However, her empathy for the plight of the farmers sans inorganic fertiliser and pesticides et all, is not dictated to by her stomach but by both her heart and mind. They have reason to be disheartened and gather in protests, turning more vituperative and cruel to the effigies they hold loft and vent their wrath on. One thing is certain. The Minister of Agriculture had better not go sightseeing in rural areas, especially in moonlight. He will not only see stars but fireworks too. Very probably explosive.

Global food is prophesied to be in short supply, or at least not abundant due to Covid related restrictions. In Sri Lanka this shortfall in agricultural produce has an added damaging impetus to it: shortage of inorganic fertilisers, weedicides etc., that farmers and our cultivated grounds have got accustomed to. So, we are going to be facing shortages; some unfortunates actual starvation. No imports possible since other countries too will be pinched for food. Even otherwise we have no money to import food. The Cassandra Cry of ‘I see starvation and death’ is not necessary since these two conditions stare everyone in the face excepting the biggest ones and their acolytes. Professed know-alls whispering in the Prez’ ears, contrary to scientific data, have driven us into the arms of greater poverty and worse – protests and probably them getting out of control. Of course, the army is ready to be called out. Is that what we want?

A Sunday newspaper writer gave voice to a doubt or suspicion that has been festering in non-sycophantic minds. Is the present farmers’ dilemma a maneuvered situation so they throw up their ploughs and seed and let money grabbers take over their land for cash crops like corn, haatha variya, to name but two?

What an unholy mess we are in!

Heat in the cool

The President was promised a strong taste of messiness in the city by the Clyde in the West Lowlands of Scotland: he was to be accorded a greatly (un)welcome reception when he landed in Glasgow for COPS 26. Cass means here the cries of the hordes of Tamil protesters who were supposed to have travelled from all over the UK to brandish Tiger Flags and hurl abuse at him.

A stunner

We the public of this Socialist, etc., Republic of (Un)Free Sri Lanka received a resounding presidential slap in the face, Cass here refers to the appointment of that controversial monk – twice convicted by courts of law and out of prison due to a presidential pardon – to head the 11th Presidential Task Force to study and report on making One Country One Law.

She will not only singe her fingers but burn herself too, including her boats if she comments on this issue. Mum’s the word is safest but she just have to speak up as a person descended from Kandyan Kingdom ancestors. Cass hopes very strongly that the enlightened Kandyan Laws of Marriage and Divorce giving due place to women’s rights, will not be struck off. Who knows what the lopsided task force with not one single woman to represent 52.1 percent of the population nor one Tamil to represent the Tamil population will report on? The TF under a yellow robe will render under Caesar what Caesar commands.

Media reports: “Sabry likely to quit justice portfolio” on account of the appointment. It should read not ‘likely’ but ‘will certainly’. The slap on his face is far more resounding and insulting than the slap the public received.

So, we Ordinaries will lumber along from one shock to another; from one setback to another. Only silver lining is the vaccination drive.



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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