By Jehan Perera
“There is a conversation between Lord Buddha and his disciple Ananda in which Ananda declares, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’ The Buddha replies: Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.”
Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2)
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reassured the people that he has no intention diverting from the democratic path and resorting to the military to govern the country. Although he was brought to power by an alliance of political parties, led by the SLPP, the President has not sought membership in any of those parties. He can be considered to be the first non-party president of Sri Lanka and, therefore, free from the obligations that bind a member of a political party to be subjected to the interests of the party. On the other hand, the lack of a party base can make the President less effective as he has no party to carry out his vision and plans and bring them to fruition on the ground.
The speculation about the nexus between the President and the military, and the increasing role of the military in governance, arises from the fact that the President has no alternative power base to fall back upon. The president spent most of his working life as a member of the military. He experienced two major periods of violence during his time in the military, during the JVP insurrection of 1987-89 and the LTTE war that preceded and followed the end of it. The bonds of trust and friendship forged in the course of events where one’s very life is at risk are among the most permanent in human relations. This has led the President to entrust major responsibilities to his former mates in the military.
Following his victory at the Presidential election of 2019, the President has appointed a large number of military personnel, both retired and serving, to key positions in the state machinery. His period of governance is seeing a substantial increase in the military budget which continues to exceed those of education and health combined. This heavy investment in the military is not a new development but is part of a trend that has seen gradual increase. Today, salaries allocated to the military are about one half that of the total allocated to the public service. With conditions of peace having been restored for more than a decade there needs to be a reconsideration of these continuing investments.
The President has reaffirmed that the polity he presides over is a democracy. He has recommitted himself not to resort to military rule. This is being put into practice. There was concern in the country about two months ago when the country was put under a State of Emergency to deal with the shortage of food and fertiliser that had suddenly come into prominence. The declaration of emergency was supplemented by the immediate appointment of a Commissioner General for essential services who, as it turned out to be, was a retired military officer. Soon the general population had the satisfaction of witnessing raids on hoarders in which the raiding parties were accompanied by members of the security forces.
It needs to be noted that the state of emergency has been permitted to lapse. There was no request to Parliament to extend it. With the lapsing of the emergency, the post of Commissioner General of Essential Services has also been terminated. The lapsing of the emergency without renewal may be due to the observation that the high profile raids that were carried out failed to bring down the price of the hoarded commodities. The crisis has worsened in the meantime and the price of rice is at an all time high. This would be a salutary lesson that economic problems cannot be resolved by the military or the use of force. These are problems that require the attention of experts in the field who make plans on a scientific and rational basis.
In his speech, the President said he had taken up office to make a positive difference, even a revolutionary one, and this was something he would continue to strive for. The President’s decision to ban the import of chemical fertilisers overnight has been controversial. The President stated that his concern was for the health of the people who needed to eat poison-free food, and for farmers to be free from the kidney disease blamed on overuse of chemical fertiliser. These are commendable aspirations that are accepted by the majority of the population. On the other hand, yields of food crops have dropped due to the absence of fertilisers and the hurried attempt to import organic fertiliser has generated further problems.
Another matter that the President brought up in his speech was his appointment of a presidential task force to recommend ways and means to become one country with one law. The slogan ‘One country, One law’ was a winning formula in November 2019, just six months after the Easter bombing. There was a sense among the ethnic and religious majority community at that time that the ethnic and religious minorities had too much space to hide and engage in anti-national actions, and for which the government received the overwhelming mandate of the ethnic and religious majority community. The president explained his choice of the Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara as Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the grounds that he had been campaigning for ‘One country, One law’ for the past five years.
At a recent meeting of the Collective for Ethnic and Religious Harmony these matters were discussed by the highest level of Buddhist and other members of the clergy. They agreed that the priority should be to ensure the equality of all citizens and to build amity between the ethnic and religious communities. They found the appointment of the Ven Gnanasara to have been extremely controversial. Even strong supporters of the president and of the concept of one country, one law have been put off by the appointment of the Chairman. The ‘One country, One law’ concept implies that the law should be equal to all. The second is that it can impact upon the personal laws of the ethnic and religious communities. Those who are tasked with leading a process of reform should have credentials that match their mandates or else the whole exercise can be discredited.
The core of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision of revolutionary change ought to be to bridge the gap between the ethnic and religious communities that has led to years of strife from the time of Independence down to the present day. The religious clergy present and the civil society leaders invited by former speaker Karu Jayasuriya, the Convener of the Collective for Ethnic and Religious Harmony, were non-partisan and non-political. The former speaker who has eschewed party politics spoke of a change of direction which the religious and civil society leaders present were in accord with. With their learning, experience and all-encompassing vision, the membership of this group can be President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s kalyana mithuro in his quest for revolutionary change.
“No one can possess the whole truth or satisfy his or her every desire, since that pretension would lead to nullifying others by denying their rights.” — Pope Francis in his Encyclical – Fratelli Tutti (fraternity and social friendship)
Rising farce of Family Power
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.
A tribute to vajira
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 email@example.com
It’s all about France in 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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