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Sat Mag

Professor Ashley Halpe, the great humanitarian I knew – II



By Rohana R. Wasala
(Continued from June 19, 2021/SATMAG)

Although I could have enrolled for the external degree programme as a private candidate without revealing my job on the strength of my results at the GCE AL exam alone, which I did after completing my training and after being posted to a school, I did so as a specialist trained secondary school teacher (At that time, trained teachers had to have only two passes at the AL, in addition to their training certificate to register for an external degree programme). The reason for this was the prevalent belief among teachers that the ‘trained graduate’ status improved a teacher’s prospects for career advancement.  

Now, I realized that doing English Special (Honours) was not as easy as doing the GAQ, which I did through self-study with the assistance of my friends as described above. Their help turned me into a de facto internal student. Now after passing the GAQ with the necessary grades, I wanted to explore the possibility of becoming a de jure internal student of the university for completing my degree. (A flash-forward: A few years after I completed my English Honours as an external student, Professor Halpe succeeded, towards the later ‘70s, in persuading the country’s educational authorities to introduce a scheme under which trained government school teachers who had passed the GAQ with English as external students of the university to be admitted to the English department as internal students. So, that attractive concession was still in the future and didn’t apply to me.)



 I found that the authorities of the Department of Education that I approached with my problem did not know how to help me or were just not interested. In my desperation, as much as in my youthful naivety, I wrote a personal letter to Professor Halpe, whom I had never even seen before, but had heard good spoken about, from my friends. In that letter, I explained my educational ambition and the particular circumstances that prevented me from entering a university as a fulltime student. Written communication took several days at that time. But, to my pleasant surprise, I got a duly signed typewritten reply from Professor Halpe by return of post as we used to say in those days of snail mail. This was around 1972-73. Considering the still unsettled state of the whole country and the rough weather that I heard later, Professor Halpe was himself experiencing in his professional life, on account of the so-called university reorganization plan launched by the government of the day, this prompt reply to my letter demonstrated his genuine concern with the youth of the country. He responded with the suggestion that I continue my degree studies as an external candidate while employed and that he would do whatever he could to ease my lot as a student reading for a degree in English. He concluded the letter asking me to come and meet him at Peradeniya on a day that he suggested. 

To again anticipate things at this point, sometime after I joined the teaching cadre at the university having completed my degree as already explained, Professor Halpe surprised me one day by revealing something that he had never told me before. It was the day that the first batch of English trained school teachers who had passed the GAQ with English as external students were admitted to the English department of the university to complete their degree as a concessionary measure introduced by the Ministry of Education under the UNP government of J. R. Jayewardene. Commenting on the arrival of that additional batch of students, Professor Halpe said, “They are here because of you, Rohana!” I thought he was joking, for he used to enjoy lighter moments with us. But, somewhat perplexed, I asked him, “How?, sir”. “You remember the letter of distress you sent me, years ago?”, he said with a touch of humour. “Yes, I do, sir”, I answered. “And I asked you to come and meet me?” “Yes, sir, I came here and met you for the first time in my life,” I replied. Professor Halpe then told us (Kumar Abeysekera, a colleague, was with us) that he remembered that letter when he ran across the permanent secretary to a particular ministry who was a powerful civil functionary of the new government at a party. I faintly remember that he mentioned the name Paskaralingam, but my memory may not be accurate on this point. The university reorganization plan of the previous UF government was in the process of being dismantled. Professor Halpe’s accidental encounter with the official was at a function held in Colombo which was attended by some government higher-ups and some members from the diplomatic community. He said that he suggested to the influential civil servant, “Can’t you make some arrangement to allow English trained teachers from government schools who have passed the GAQ as external candidates to enter the university, to finalise their degree, while they are on study leave?” The official had promptly replied, “Why not?”. We were witnessing the ultimate result! (Professor Halpe said that definitely more people had to have got involved in the matter and complicated administrative and fiscal procedures to have been carried out before his suggestion was thus followed through, but that the idea germinated in his mind by my letter played a seminal role in the whole process.)


Meeting Prof

Let me again go further back in my narrative to the time that the professor and I were strangers to each other. Meeting Professor Halpe on the campus as I did around 1972-73 was easy, because I had been frequenting the place over the past year or so, in the company of my helpful old and new friends. I had even read in the library, sneaking in there with my former schoolmate already mentioned and others who were internal students. I used to rush there soon after school on two or three days every week, and on most weekends; and often at meal times I ate at the common dining room of the hall of residence where my friend was lodged. Pointing to the unfailing leafy vegetable dish – maelluma -, he’d say: “kapang, tanakola tama kanta thiyenne. Eat, there’s only grass to eat”. But the fare was still (in the early ‘70s) quite satisfactory with lots of meat and veggies and in abundant quantities, too, (not unwelcome circumstances for the voracious omnivore that I was then, unlike the controlled eater I am today). Even at that time the university retained  in this department something of what had inspired the 19-year-old Halpe who arrived at Peradeniya in 1952 as one among the first batch of Arts students to feel the place to be “very much a bowl of plenty and the perfection of a dream..” (as he poetically described in an article published in the Sunday Times Plus/June 30, 2013 to mark the Golden Jubilee celebration of the 1963 entrants of the university). 

By the way, the phrase ‘a bowl of plenty’ (comparable to the  ‘Pun Kalasa’- the Full Pot – in our Eastern  cultural tradition symbolising prosperity and plenteousness) is obviously an adaptation of the ‘Cornucopia or the Horn of Plenty’ of Western classical antiquity that stood for agricultural abundance and life sustaining nature. Professor Halpe uses one of his own paintings to decorate the cover of the poetry collection ‘Silent arbiters…, where he juxtaposes the Pun Kalasa with the image of a skull. 

My unique association with Professor Halpe started somewhere around 1972/1973 and remained close and unbroken until, in 1982, I resigned from Peradeniya and left Sri Lanka to go to the Sultanate of Oman to serve there under the Ministry of Education of that country. When I returned to Sri Lanka in 1999 and resumed teaching at Peradeniya on a visiting basis, Professor Halpe had retired, but was occasionally seen on the campus, himself doing visiting. As both of us were only visiting, and were longer occupied with doing our own things than was usual in the past, our meetings were few and far between. The visiting work, I was sure, he cherished for the opportunity it gave him to enjoy some more time in the paradisiacal environs of the scenic Peradeniya campus, where he had spent most of his youth and adult life. For an aesthete like Professor Halpe, the Peradeniya campus premises could not but be paradise! I remember Dr Kandiah once remark, “If I had to choose between paradise and Peradeniya, I’d choose Peradeniya”! The university is located in an extremely picturesque setting on the banks of the Mahaveli that traverses a part of the lower Hantana mountain range. The following extract from the aforementioned Sunday Times Plus column verbally recreates the vernal splendour that all those who studied, taught, worked and lived on the Peradeniya campus have experienced, unless they were stone-dead to natural beauty: 


Beauty of Peradniya

“The Peradeniya campus is beautiful at all times of the year, but particularly in the months of Duruthu and Bak, which correspond to Spring in colder climates. Then, it is like a vast pavilion decked gaily as if for a festival, with festoons of flowers hanging over- head, and yellow petals falling lightly from them to rest on the cool green grass and make a carpet for the feet, while bougainvilleas twine themselves into multi- coloured trellises all around. The shimmering vault of the noonday sky resounds to the cry of the kovula, rising higher and higher up the scale, and ending in a crescendo of longing.”  

In the same context he describes the architectural magnificence of the university buildings thus: “Peradeniya was all planned, its variations of Kandyan architecture daringly blended with elements from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa as well as infusions of inspirations and models from the modern world.” Professor Halpe’s delineation of the exquisite beauty of the architectural and horticultural features of the Peradeniya campus reminds one of the legendary ‘University Architect’ Shirley D’Alwis who designed those buildings. It was said of him that he wanted to so plan them as to make them blend with the grandeur of the natural landscape. However, the UK trained ‘University Architect’ died in 1952 in which Halpe entered university.

The thought of Shirley D’Alwis reminded me of the the memorial monument built in honour of him at the roundabout not far from the tennis courts. Some gruesome images from a later time (1986-90) associated with that spot on the campus that have been seared into my memory reverted my mind to the earlier era that mostly features in this article. The early ‘70’s proved a particularly dangerous time for my generation because of the murderous violence unleashed in the wake of the Che Guevara inspired JVP uprising. Unprecedented violence between the rebellious youth and the security forces swept the country to the utter dismay of ordinary people who were looking forward to a bright future for the country following the landslide electoral victory scored by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the head of an alliance of left parties led by the SLFP (the United Front) in 1970. It was in that election that I voted for the first time as a new voter. The rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by the government, killing nearly 5000 barely armed rebels according to unofficial figures, though the government sources put the number at 1200. Sri Lanka was declared a people’s republic in 1972 under a new constitution. 


University reorganisation

A drastic university reorganization programme, among many changes introduced by the government including the republican constitution after the abortive JVP insurrection of 1971, turned all the existing universities into campuses of a single university, and the Peradeniya University became the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Sri Lanka. Most students believed that, under this programme, Professor Halpe got dislodged from his accustomed Peradeniya to the Vidyalankara University at Kelaniya (the University of Kelaniya today) along with the famed Department of English; they thought that it was engineered by certain influential people just to spite him. As a result of this ‘dislocation’, Professor Halpe was going to be at Peradeniya only on one or two days of the week. He had to move his young family to Colombo, which must have been very inconvenient to them. It was under these circumstances that I met Professor Halpe for the first time.

The day I met Professor Halpe for the first time 50 years ago, is still fresh in my mind. I was immediately struck by his oval Shakespearean visage – at around forty he still had something of his youthful rotundity – with a prematurely receding hairline, but a fairly abundant crop of shoulder-length flowing grey hair that was uniformly pepper coloured. When I told him that I received my school education in a rural school called Poramadulla Central, he reassured me: “That’s no problem. I am also from a village school”, he told me, “I studied at De Mazenod College, Kandana.” Perhaps, he was exaggerating the facts a bit to put me at my ease, for that school was not such a rural school as he made it out to be. Later I found that he was better known as a past student of St. Peter’s College, Colombo, but he could have attended De Mazenod before he went there. 


Concerning my problem, Professor Halpe suggested that I should get a transfer to a school close to the university so he could arrange for me to attend at least some lectures, and also to make use of the central library – all this to be made available to me unofficially, though against the rules, in view of my exceptional situation, as a special favour offered with the consent of the other lecturers in the English department, which he promised to secure for me by appealing to them on my behalf. He himself was, at that point, being transferred to the Vidyalankara university under the university reorganization programme, and was going to operate from Colombo, and would be available at Peradeniya for a couple of lectures each week. 

I told him that, in fact, I had already tried to get a transfer to a school nearer to Peradeniya, but that I couldn’t persuade even the head of the school where I served then to agree to release me. So that avenue was closed. Professor Halpe promised to put me in touch with his predecessor, emeritus professor H.A. Passe, for help in English (which was my principal subject). The latter was then living alone in a house at Mahaiyawa (where the car sales are today).

Professor Halpe similarly directed me to Professor Merlin Peris, for me to consult regarding Western Classical Culture (my subsidiary subject). So a few days later, one hot afternoon, I trudged up a hilly road, to go and see Professor Peris at his quarters at Dangolla (which involved a steep ascent from near Getambe). He welcomed me with a delicious bowl of ice cream, before he asked me the purpose of my calling on him. He became a very inspiring source of generous help for me in WCC. In later years I particularly admired his desire to make his expertise in western classical literature relevant to the local culture and history.

He claims he has detected Greek motifs in the Jataka Stories, and Greek mythological elements in the Mahavamsa. Sensitivity to local cultures and history was something I admired in all those generous university teachers that I approached for help. 

 It was past three o’clock one afternoon when I  made it to Professor emeritus Dr Passe’s. His only companions were two dogs (a small breed). They walked to and from the door with him, and lay spread eagled on the floor at his feet, their paws with overgrown toenails protruding like the tines of forks. Listening to the clicking noise that their paws made on the polished cement floor, when they walked, Dr Passe said, “They are suffering because their toenails are grown too long and their paws have no firm grip on the floor. Sometimes, their legs tend to slip sideways, making them fall, when they try to run.  I’ve asked a man to come and trim them”. Professor Halpe had spoken to him about me. “Ashley told me about you”, Dr Passe said, “I like to guide young English enthusiasts like you”. Dr Passe, who was a Burgher, I thought, like his predecessor Professor Ludowyk, spoke English with what struck me as a  native British accent. “I have always insisted that standards must be maintained at any cost”, he said. This is something that Professor Halpe also used to stress. In the following years I met Dr Passe many times. I even borrowed books from his private library with the knowledge of Professor Halpe, and duly returned them.

Both Professor Halpe and Dr Kandiah were sincerely concerned with and selflessly dedicated to the welfare of all the young university students, with whom they had great empathy, while being completely neutral about their usually left or anti-establishment politics. Both of them made us feel warmly welcome. At the beginning of our stint as instructors, Dr Kandiah drove three of us (me and two colleagues, Kumar A and Kingley F) one day in his brand new white Subaru hatchback almost all over the sprawling 800 acre campus precincts house-hunting for us, and found us a temporary place to stay. Later, we three found separate apartments. I found accommodation in a room in Akbar-Nell Hall adjoining the faculty of engineering. Professor Halpe took us for a ‘hopper treat’ with a beer at a prestigious restaurant in the ground -floor of the Queen’s Hotel building in Kandy. Noticing that the waiter had not brought any cutlery with the food, he called him and asked him to bring some. “Let him be civilized”, he said to us smiling cheerfully. We didn’t know whether he was serious or being funny. I don’t remember if we, including our host, used the forks and spoons that the man brought, or just used our fingers, to eat.

When the Halpes moved to Colombo (where they resided at Thimbirigasyaya)  as a result of his removal from Peradeniya, Professor Halpe’s work was divided between (Kelaniya) Vidyalankara and Peradeniya campuses. The day or two he spent at Peradeniya every week, he spent at his quarters at Meewatura, right behind the Akbar-Nell Hall. It was a ‘C’ house, something less than what he was entitled to as a senior professor. Probably this was partly due to the discrimination he was subjected to by those that resented him being at Peradeniya.  Professor Halpe made the house available to the two of us, Kumar and me, to stay for free.  I moved into it from the Akbar-Nell Hall nearby, and Kumar joined me from somewhere else. Then later, an old friend of Professor Halpe, a university colleague of his vintage, just returned from the ‘States’ (America), came to stay there, apparently on a long sojourn at Peradeniya courtesy his benevolent host. Kumar and I had no truck with him, as he seemed aloof, even when his friend was around. 

A little digression: Kumar Abeysekera played the role of the old man Chubukov (father of Natalia) with the late Dr Neil Halpe of the Medical Faculty teaching staff playing the nervous hypochondriac suitor Lomov in Anton Chekhov’s hilarious one act play of 1889/90 ‘The Proposal’ under the direction of Professor Halpe in 1979, as I can recollect. The play was staged in an auditorium, in the engineering faculty probably, but I don’t remember the venue so well. Nor can I remember who played the female character Natalia. When this happened, I had left Professor Halpe’s house to get married. My spouse and I attended the staging of the play as newly-weds.

On the morning of the second day he spent at Meewatura with us every week, we shared ‘bed-tea’ with him, which I routinely made for Kumar and myself on other days  (The first day he was with us at Meewatura, Professor Halpe was not available for this, as he travelled to work from Colombo on that day.) He surprised us one morning by bringing us two cups of bed-tea to our room upstairs. Fortunately, we were both awake; I was just preparing to go downstairs to the kitchen to do my daily bed-tea making. He handed us the tea, and said, quite casually, “You take your own time; I am going a bit early today”. This was before the coming of his friend. 

One rather warm afternoon, I lay prone in my bed resting on my elbows trying to read a book (it was the red coloured paperback edition of  Shakespeare’s sonnets by J. Dover Wilson entitled “The Sonnets”) which was propped against a pillow. I had left the door and the windows open. I didn’t know that Professor Halpe, who had just come back from a lecture, was looking at me, until he said with searing sarcasm: “That’s a perfect position to read, Rohana, especially when you read serious stuff like Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, and walked to his room, before I could form anything coherent in my mind to say in defence of myself. Another victim of his sarcastic humour was his old friend, who had come from the States. This person used to spend at least ten minutes each time washing his hands at the wash stand, while the water was flowing freely from the open tap, probably trying to cool himself. He did this umpteen times. One day Professor Halpe, watching him performing this wasteful ritual, smilingly commented: “P……. is a perfectionist at the wash stand..”

One morning, about nine o’clock, as we were approaching the central canteen for our breakfast, we saw him coming from Colombo, dressed in his usual bush shirt and slacks, a cloth bag slung over one shoulder, having got down from the train at the Sarasavi Uyana station near the Agriculture Faculty, and walking briskly towards the Arts Theatre, eating a snack for breakfast. He was rushing for his lecture that morning. He never put on airs. That was why he was so popularly respected by the general mass of students and teachers.

Years later, in personal conversation, referring, without a hint of malice, to the petty personal jealousies, academic rivalries, moral hypocrisies and intellectual deceptions that sometimes plagued life among the denizens at the otherwise salubrious Peradeniya, and that eventually evicted him from there for a brief three or four years, he told me “and this also is one of the dark places of this country”. He was parodying the philosophical Marlow, the tough seaman, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Sitting cross-legged in darkness one evening in his ship The Nellie at the Thames estuary, Marlow has just told a couple of his fellow sailors listening to “one of his inconclusive experiences” that “messengers of the might within the land, bearers of the sacred fire” …. “had gone out of that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch..”, etc. This image of the sacred fire is important. Peradeniya was indeed a source of the sacred fire of a different type (intellectual stimulation, knowledge seeking, science, creative arts, etc), something alluded to in the name NAVASILU, the academic publication/magazine that Professor Halpe started after being landed in Kelaniya (Vidyalankara). The name is Sinhala, nava (new), silu (flames), meaning ‘new flames of creativity’. He had this penchant for choosing names that reflected aspects of national culture. The name of the house he built on Riverdale Road, Aniewatte, Kandy is “Varama”, a word which means “assurance or confirmation” (of achievement and protection); that word is rich in associations in secular and religious Sinhala literature.

The last time I met Professor Halpe was in July-August 1997, I think. It was a chance meeting. I was reaching the end of my annual vacation from Oman. It was at Gatembe on the day of the ‘water cutting ceremony’ of the Kandy Esala perahera, that is, the day of the final day perahera, which marked the end of the annual event that year. My wife and our two children were with me. We met Professor Halpe and his daughter Haasini there. A large crowd of people were waiting there to witness the water cutting ritual that was going to be performed there at the ford of the Mahaveli after the arrival of the diya kaepum perahera from Kandy. The sound of music from the approaching perahera was heard from a distance. Professor Halpe had come with Haasini, who was waiting there to report on the event for the TNL or the Young Asia TV (I am not very clear about which TV channel it was). While chatting with us Haasini referred to the popular belief that it rains (miraculously) when the water cutting takes place; she seemed to empathise with that belief. When Professor Halpe learned that my son was going to sit for his OL exam at the end of the year, he said: “Don’t put too much pressure on the child. It is enough if he passes the exam with the minimum number of credits that would qualify him for the AL. He should reserve his energies for the more important AL hurdle.” Sound advice for a parent, so characteristic of the  always humane Professor Halpe.  

Finally, we have already seen how Professor Halpe let his own conscience torture him while thinking about “young bodies tangled in monsoon scrub…” in that first book of poems “Silent Arbiters…..” (1976). These are the final lines of “April 1971”:

I sit through night hours 

trying wonted work, compelled 

into blank inattentions 

by these images 

young bodies tangled in monsoon scrub 

or rotting in river shallows, awaiting 

the kind impartial fish, 

and those not dead– 

numb, splotched faces, souls 

ravaged by all their miseries and defeats.  

Professor Halpe never expressed any personal venom or nurtured any vindictive thoughts about the gratuitous harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by his detractors. Neither did he slacken the pace of his ‘wonted work’ (which, in his case, was nothing if not utterly committed and service oriented). In the year 1976, Professor Halpe was still ‘doing time’ for no crime done in that period of adversity while based in what I’d call his punishment station Kelaniya (Vidyalankara university). In the same year he inaugurated the scholarly publication NAVASILU under the auspices of the English Association of Sri Lanka: Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, which he led at the time. I remember him soliciting sufficiently ‘heavy stuff’ (meaning serious research articles) to be featured in it.

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Sat Mag

Colonial bourgeoisie and Sinhala cultural revival



The Birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama


By Uditha Devapriya

The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka did not form a monolithic class. They were divided horizontally as well as vertically: horizontally on the basis of income and inheritance, and vertically on the basis of primordial attachments, such as caste ideology. Various factors, mainly economic, conspired as much to unify the bourgeoisie as they did to divide them, distinguishing them by their homogeneity as much as by their heterogeneity.

Sri Lanka’s transition to a plantation economy took place under British rule (1796-1948). While it’s not really accurate to say that prior to British rule the country, especially parts of the Kandyan kingdom, remained cut off from monetary exchange (a thesis that has been questioned by S. B. D. de Silva in his work on colonial underdevelopment), the British sped up the consolidation of a plantation colony, dominated by import-export trade. The creation of a new economy facilitated the formation of a new elite that found ways of building up wealth and prestige from road toll and arrack rents, plantation profits, investments in urban property, and entry into the civil service and the professions.

This bourgeoisie differed in degree and substance from the traditional elite that hailed from the apex of the social hierarchy in the Kandyan kingdom. A two-way process followed: while the bourgeoisie gained wealth and prestige over the traditional elite, the latter either found themselves reduced to a semi-dependent elite, or adapted to a changing world.

While differences between these two elites had become pronounced by the middle of the 19th century, by the time of the Buddhist revival they were fading away. The bourgeoisie, for their part, did not completely reject the customs and habits of the old elite, as witnessed by nouveau riche govigama families marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy.

Given the all too fine distinctions which cropped up among the bourgeoisie as it grew and evolved in the 19th century, the Buddhist revival evolved in spurts and stages rather than in one giant leap. The question as to which class gave an impetus to the revival, then, is linked to the question of which class interests prevailed in the unfolding of that revival.

Different scholars have approached these issues from different, if only vaguely similar, vantage points. Thus Gananath Obeyesekere ascribes the revival to the dissemination of “Protestant Buddhist” values among the Sinhala bourgeoisie, Kumari Jayawardena to the ideology of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, and Michael Roberts to the adoption of Western notions of nationalism and forms of propaganda. These are important perspectives, and they shed light on the role of class interests in the unfolding of nationalist revivals in colonial society. Yet different as they may be, they are all premised on assumptions of one milieu’s (petty bourgeoisie) dependence on a dominating elite (comprador bourgeoisie), and of that dominating elite’s dependence on a colonial economic framework.

For perfectly plausible reasons, these hypotheses deny ideological autonomy on the part of both dependent and dominating classes. Thus Kumari Jayawardena distinguishes between the plantation bourgeoisie and the semi-industrial bourgeoisie, in relation to their response to the revival, on the basis of the relations between their methods of acquiring wealth and colonial economic constraints, so that elite families subscribe to a conservative reading of Buddhism moulded by their ties to plantation capital, while Anagarika Dharmapala, whose family was involved in industries “not totally dependent on colonial patronage”, espouses a more “reformist” reading in keeping with a radical approach to politics.

Simply put, to the extent that the bourgeoisie was locked into an economy dominated by colonial interests, it viewed the revival as an expression of its own ideology. The use of the plural is instructive here, in that the bourgeoisie, as Roberts notes, did not share a unifying ideology, and were in fact “more differentiated” than traditional elites.

This interpretation of the revival helps us glean the intricate links between the economic base of colonial society and the ideological superstructure of revivalist movements, avoiding the pitfalls of rationalising such movements on purely cultural grounds, as nationalists are wont to do. It also presents colonial history as a series of successive periods in which one set of class ideologies prevailed over others: a plantation bourgeois at the tail-end of the 19th century, and a petty bourgeois at the turn of the 20th.

Yet, despite the validity of these perspectives, they omit three factors pertinent to the triad of colonialism, cultural modernity, and nationalist revival: ideological agency on the part of the contending milieus (intra-class, between sections of the elite, and inter-class, between different elites), the contribution of “unrepresented” classes, most prominently the working class and peasantry, to that triad, and the part played by different artists and art forms with respect to the revival and its unfolding in the 20th century.

The latter point merits much consideration. In his study of the evolution of Sinhala music in the early 20th century, Garret Field observes that composers and playwrights were as moved by monetary reasons as by cultural ones. In Jayawardena’s view, artistes like Charles Dias and John de Silva “nibbled” at colonial rule, critiquing the decay of cultural values while paradoxically presenting a colonial reinterpretation of local history.

A good example of this would be de Silva’s Sri Wickrema. While lamenting the loss of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, it presents the last king of Kandy as a rapacious tyrant, a drunkard laggard: ironically, in line with propaganda about the monarch disseminated by colonial officials, in particular the Orientalist agent, John D’Oyly.

What is pertinent here is that the stunted ideology of nationalist elites found its expression in the stunted ideology of the objets d’art they exhibited, and that this ideology prevented these art forms from undergoing a modernist revolution which could question colonial rule without subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of culture. I posit three reasons for why the nurthi plays of John de Silva, among other objets, failed to make that important leap: their mass appeal, the high levels of capital investment they required, and the conflicting attitude of their patrons, some of whom hailed from the bourgeoisie, to colonial rule.

At the turn of the 20th century, with the bifurcation of nationalism into radical politics and cultural revival, it was possible for patrons of these arts to decry a lost heritage (Sinhala and Arya) while adhering to colonial conceptions of history. As Roberts puts it,

“The cultural awakening and the recoil against the Western world, then, took many forms. It was influenced and permeated by romanticism, populism, indigenism, and anti-Western sentiments. Its conceptual forms were more traditionalist than tradition; and more revivalist than traditionalist. It did not possess the solipsist complacency and self-confidence of those who rely on the traditional… Neither was it wholly traditionalist and restorative. Its principal activists were selective in the traditions they picked up.”

Roberts has noted elsewhere that, while calling for the end of British rule, nationalist elites resorted to Western modes of protest; thus, while nationalist liberators who sprang up in the Kandyan regions after their annexation by the British decried the Kandyan Convention as a betrayal of the Sinhala kingdom, nationalist agitators in the 20th century rationalised the Convention as a legal document which British officials had honoured more in the breach than the observation. Benedict Anderson has analysed these paradoxes in his study of what he calls the “last wave of nationalism”, which unfolded in the European colonies of Africa and Asia at the end of the 19th century. His thesis explains the paradoxical response to their own history by Sinhala nationalists; even in the act of decrying a lost pre-colonial heritage, these same nationalists subscribed to values promoted by colonisers. Hence Sri Wickrema is a plea for the restoration of a lost heritage, a condemnation of colonial “modernity”, yet it is also an indictment of a key figure associated with that heritage.

Dependent as these objets were on “colonial capital”, for a more meaningful analysis, they should be compared with art forms that were not no dependent on such capital.

In the decorative arts, breaks with the past transpired more rapidly, and thoroughly, than they did in the realm of literature and theatre. As Sunil Goonesekara has observed, by the time of the revival in the early 20th century important debates had sprung up about which mode of painting best suited the country. On the one hand, there was the studio painter, who looked up to styles established in European art academies; on the other hand, there were the traditional Kandyan painters, a vanishing group even then; on yet another hand, there were lithographers reproducing Buddhist parables, whose figurehead, Sarlis, exuded a style that was, as Goonasekera puts it, “not wholly native nor wholly other.”

Perhaps the most obvious reason why painting was able to undergo a modernist revolution faster than could theatre and literature was that it did not fit the three criteria applicable to the latter two art forms: it lacked a mass audience, it did not require high levels of capital investment, and it did not need the patronage of elites tied to colonialism.

Underscoring this was the even simpler fact that painting was a visual art, and that unlike theatre and literature it could dispense with the written word. If John Berger’s dictum that we see before we speak is indeed true, and what we see establishes our place in the world more quickly than can the printed word, modernism in art swamped Sri Lanka more rapidly than either the theatre or the press because it was cut off from print capitalism; simply put, it was easier to defy canons of taste in painting, because the painter did not have to borrow European notions of modernity that nationalists and revivalists had been innovating on from the tail-end of the 19th century. He did not need a “text.” He had frescoes, lithographs, and murals to work from. The revival may have thrived on the polemic, but it breathed through the canvas. This is, perhaps, a point seldom appreciated, if at all. Yet it is true.

Anne Blackburn has cautioned against viewing the Buddhist revival solely as a response to colonialism by nationalists. In painting, we come across a new way of viewing the revival: neither a collective rejection of the West, nor a total acceptance of colonial canons of taste and propriety, but rather a break from both. This obviously opens up new lines of discussion and interpretation as regards colonialism in Sri Lanka, a topic that for far too long has been viewed through a class, caste, or elite lens by scholars and students.

The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

Enblish Experiment: Bold or Barmy?



London comes alive after the easing of lockdown


By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Only time will tell whether the ‘English Experiment’, which started as 19 July dawned, would be a success or a failure. There were count-down clocks in many a place, mostly in night clubs, as they could open for business after a break that looked like eternity. Jubilant young, sans face masks, hugged and danced, physical distancing already being a distant memory. A carnival atmosphere erupted right across England as ‘Freedom Day’ dawned. It was only in England, not right across the UK, which is made up of four countries, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with devolved administrations, health being one of those devolved functions and the Secretary of Health of Her Majesty’s government looking after health issues only in England. It is these oddities that I love about Britain!

‘Freedom Day’, already postponed once from 21 June, could not have come at a worse time and already the Opposition is holding the knife to the government’s throat. Failure is likely to result in a disaster. The Secretary of Health, who was largely responsible for introducing the regulations 16 months ago, was caught breaking his own rules by smooching with a female aide in his office! Like one of our politicians, he tried to remain in office but was forced to resign. His successor tested positive two days before ‘Freedom Day’. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who were in close contact, attempted to avoid isolation by trying to take part in a trial but public opinion forced them to isolate from the day before freedom!

On average, over 40,000 cases are diagnosed daily, almost all being due to the more infectious Delta variant. However, hospital admissions remain low and the NHS is able to manage comfortably unlike in the previous waves, as there are only around 4000 patients with Covid, in hospitals throughout UK. But this comes at a cost; millions remaining on waiting lists for elective procedures that had to be cancelled to accommodate the emergency admissions. More importantly, death rates remain very low, averaging around 40 per day, which is almost certainly due to the commendable vaccination programme. Already almost 90% of the adult population has had one dose and 70% both doses of the vaccine.

The major problem at the moment is the large number of cases diagnosed daily with a significant number of contacts being instructed to isolate at home, being identified mostly through the ‘NHS app’. One of the reasons for the increased number of cases is, no doubt, due to allowing large crowds at sporting events, like the just concluded Euro 2000. Even the most optimistic of experts agree that with the relaxation of preventive measures like face masks and physical distancing, the number of cases is bound to increase further, at least in the short term. Although no longer mandatory, the government is requesting the public to adhere to physical distancing and wearing face masks in enclosed spaces. In short, the government has shifted the responsibility to the public in the hope that there would be satisfactory compliance.

On the other hand, if most people behave irresponsibly, there is the real risk of another wave, which may be difficult to control. Although working from home is no longer the norm, if significant numbers are made to isolate, normal work would not resume. Due to staff isolation, already there have been some supermarket closures and cancellation of public transport. During the weekend Preceding the ‘Freedom Day’, a few lines of the world-famous London Underground were not functioning. Therefore, success is not guaranteed and failure would make it look like the government decision being barmy!

However, the Rubicon had to be crossed sometime and we cannot be dictated by a virus forever. A new normal has to be established but whether this is the right time is the question asked by many. Perhaps, doing this at a time when things are not optimal is barmy. On the other hand, it can be construed as a bold step by a government determined to get the country back to normal again. It is pretty obvious that the whole world is watching, with bated breath, whether the ‘English Experiment’ will be a success.

It is entirely possible that with the continuing energetic campaign of vaccination, which is reducing morbidity and the mortality rates considerably, and the rapid spread of the virus which too would lead to the production of antibodies, a wall of immunity would develop soon, ‘taming’ the virus. The hope is that after a temporary phase of worsening, Covid-19 would be ‘tamed’ to be like seasonal flu. In the winter months, there are around 200 deaths daily due to the flu virus in spite of the vaccination of vulnerable people, but the country is not shut down. The hope is that a similar equilibrium would be established.

The UK has the infrastructure to conduct surveys and gather very accurate information. As the four countries of the UK are moving at different paces, comparisons can be made and lessons learnt. Also, the issue of vaccine hesitancy and resultant harm could be established. London, unfortunately, has the lowest level of vaccination, standing around 65% for the first dose and 45% for the second. Ethnicity also seems to play an important part. In those over 50 years, 95% of Whites have had the vaccine compared to only 75% of Blacks. The percentage for South Asians is around 87%. It is well known that most of the deaths occur in those not vaccinated. As no vaccine gives 100% protection, unfortunately, a few get Covid even after full vaccination but the disease tends to be milder and deaths rare. It is regrettable that there is a tiny number of deaths due to the vaccines as well.

It is expected that the entire adult population of the UK as well as vulnerable children will be fully vaccinated by the end of September. It is very likely that we will know which direction the epidemic is heading and whether the ‘English Experiment’ is a success by the end of October. I hope that it be a success for the sake of Sri Lanka, too.

After having overcome many difficulties, the vaccination campaign in Sri Lanka seems to be gathering momentum, at last, and it is very likely that the vast majority of the adult population would be fully vaccinated by September or October. If the ‘English Experiment’ is proved to be a success, then Sri Lanka will be in a position to open the country to tourism; many in the West are itching to get out to sunnier climes, to escape the drab winter. This would, no doubt, help Sri Lanka to get out of the economic quagmire.

Let us hope that the ‘English Experiment’ is bold, not barmy!

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Sat Mag

Master gardener’s role in transforming Singapore into ‘garden city’



By B. Nimal Veerasingham

Soil from time immemorial has been regarded the womb of mother earth – creating, shaping, and nurturing life. Recognising the pivotal role soil plays in sustaining life through greenery, water, food, ecology, weather and organisms, human livelihood continues on its familiar path. Life, which originated from the earth, is recycled as ‘ashes to ashes – earth to earth’, while most earthly elements are present in the human genome. The cycle of life continues.

The most visible extensions of soil are arboreal and tropical, deciduous and dense canopies. Greenery became the pulse of human existence, incubating larger settlements and civilisations. There is nothing possibly more satisfying than witnessing mother nature in one’s own backyard, or, for that matter, every available public space.

In 1965, when the father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), a Cambridge educated Lawyer, started off with a clean slate in a Singapore separated from Malaysia, which paved the way for an economic revolution, his inheritance was a forlorn nation. There was no reliable water source to even dream of greening the landscape. After all, redeeming masses from exploitation, crime, disorderliness while ushering in economic growth and hope was a more immediate requirement than providing secondary sustainable green space for the sake of livability and healthier environment. ‘Let’s put the house in order and fire the economic engine, and we will create an environment, both aesthetic and an internalised social asset for the citizenry to appreciate livability’, was the order in which the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula placed its priorities.

The founding father LKY envisioned a wholesome meritocratic outline, long term social and economic planning as opposed to populist policy, at times shaped by the evolving experiences elsewhere, to shape what others might have defined as daydream.

Green historians strolling through the landscape of Singapore might come across the obvious milestone, envisioned in 1967 and started with the very first official ‘Tree planting day’ in November 1971. LKY foresaw this attempt, to transform the country into First World standards, as per his memoir ‘From Third World to First’. But is there something that is not visible other than the obvious?

The majority, almost 70 percent of Singapore’s population is made up of those with Chinese ancestry. Confucianism is the backbone of Chinese thinking and lifestyle in many respects. It speaks strongly of the rhythm of nature’s ability to sustain life, both its biological and socio-cultural renditions. Its holistic organic continuum makes nature interdependent and interrelated to all aspects of harmonious human life. Landscaped, planned gardens or efforts to incorporate soil and greenery, are part of this grand equation, to bring nature closer to home. It is no secret that LKY strongly adopted practical realities including in early thinking, in his efforts to make Singapore a ‘garden city’, or the later attempt to place the ‘city in a garden’.

The art of harmonising nature with human lives by way of landscaped gardens by the Chinese Emperors has been observed well over 3,000 years ago, earliest recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Many features were added to synchronise waterways, vegetation, rocks, galleries, etc., besides the earthen or wall backdrops to add an element of surprise to suddenly unfolding spectacular scenery far and near. Explorers like Marco Polo (1300 AC) and early Jesuit priests (1600 AC) wrote in detail about the Chinese gardens which later became the inspiration for landscaped gardens among European royalty.

The earlier garden concepts were mostly undertaken by rulers who not only created the same for relaxation and pleasure, but also to impress others. This is no different from the present-day home gardeners. The same is true in a sense, of Singapore’s ambitious economic agenda. They realised the need to impress investors, distinguishing themselves from other developing countries, while also softening the harshness of urbanisation for its population. An orderly, manicured and planned green abode without litter, graffiti, or crime, provides an ambiance of a desirable, well-organised destination for investors and visitors. ‘Clean & Green’ became the slogan where land was specifically set aside for tree planting, green buffers and park development; even overhead foot bridges, lamp posts and flyovers were camouflaged with creepers and climbers to transform the dreary concrete jungle into life.

LKY, at the beginning, turned towards schoolchildren to fight entrenched old habits, getting them involved in valuing greenery, thereby taking the message home to the grown-ups, to prevent walking over plants and grass, trampling flowerbeds and saplings and damaging with motor vehicles. Whether his interest in green ecology was inborn or born out of necessity is hard to gauge, but he poured over many models and of ecosystems around the world during his many overseas visits. He discovered that in Paris a drainage system was built below the pavements to sustain broad tree-lined boulevards, and the reason rolling meadows of New Zealand cannot be replicated in Singapore.

In fact, he brought two experts from New Zealand under the ‘Colombo Plan’ technical assistance programme to learn how rain water dripping from an equatorial forest as found in New Zealand, replace torrential rain that washes away the topsoil in Singapore, with its tree canopy. He frequently sent out expert teams all along the equator to find different vegetation that could thrive locally. He even trapped rainwater falling on the roadways, filtering the grime and oil to water the vegetation under the flyovers, in some cases even splitting the flyovers for sunlight to reach underneath. Hardheaded and pragmatic, he was not ideological or dogmatic, but willing to try many methods to get at what worked best. ‘A well-kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders, the people’s ability to work hard, organize and to be systematic,’ he would say.

Fundamental to any dream of greening is water. There was no natural water source in Singapore. The entire water supply had to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet, imported water was cut down by more than 50 percent, and Singapore became a world leader in reclaimed water technology, setting up rainwater reservoirs and desalination.

Providing gracious natural amenities all across the city state was also a matter of equality, thought the planners, where a network of over 300 parks and four nature reserves were created spreading over the island almost the size of Colombo. Singapore was consistently ranked within top 10 of world’s greenest cities by leading global organisations, with further ambitious plans for cleaner energy models in transportation, public buildings and landfills by 2030.

The economic engine was in full swing in the late 1980s as the City State was ready to expand the green movement to provide greater space for leisure activities and to rejuvenate the population with parks and connecting green corridors, allocating more than half a billion Singapore dollars.

The annual tree planting week, which eventually expanded into the clean and green campaign, was aimed at providing a mental and physical stimuli for the population, in a tropical garden city setting. LKY mentioned the initiative as a crucial strategy for the wellbeing of Singapore, and never missed an annual tree planting event until his death at the age of 91. The campaign grew from 150,000 in 1974 to almost 1.4 million in 2014. The 162-year-old Singapore Botanical garden, being the crown green jewel, glares in its testimony as being the only tropical garden honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Being ranked high in UN Human Development index as well as having the second highest GDP per capita in the world with longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality was no accident. As one of four Asian Tiger economies with limited land area (728 Sq KM), Singapore continuously evolves from labour intensive industries to high end technological incubators and brain intensive software industries with less labour. Their economic innovation exemplified in diversifying digital technological opportunities is key to staying ahead of others to ensure economic supremacy. As part of this evolution, Singapore has started exporting expertise of urban industrial parks and residential complexes through its subsidiaries of national agencies, notably to China and Indonesia.

For all its glory of using nature for the benefit of the population’s physical and mental well being and productivity, there are critics who associate the attempts with social engineering and the state’s heavy-handed interference in individual freedom. They weigh in with arguments of Confucian influence where the elders or the State knows best and decides for the rest. Some critics point out that the whole green revolution is a pretext to keep the population within the watchful perimeters of large housing estates (91 percent home ownership), where they are watched, controlled and given directions.

But to all critics, Singaporean planners’ response is that the City State simply follows what the democratically elected lawmakers have enacted as statutes; the rule of law prevails. Corruption of any sort is severely dealt with. Nepotism and ethnic favoritism are legally barred and diligently followed in all areas of civic administration, to the books.

As the interwoven tropical topography of the region was ideal for spices, empires vied for control for supremacy over the aromatic gold, which changed the economic prospects of the region forever. Though the forced takeovers provided trading infrastructures and routes, the economic base needed to be reinvented with times, towards the long-term betterment of its inhabitants.

Among its pioneer influence of relevance, four dominant trees could be highlighted for their stronghold in Singapore from the time it was founded as a British Trading Post by Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Nutmeg and rubber trees changed the industrial world in two different but intrinsic ways, with economic expansion and industrial dynamism. Raffles himself planted Nutmeg trees after claiming Singapore, the spice that revolutionized baking globally. Singapore Botanical Gardens became the leading exporter of Rubber seeds whereby Malaya supplied almost half of the entire world supply of rubber. Banyan and Rain (Samanea saman) trees, known for their vast reach and circumference, have no promising economic purpose, limited to providing shade.

What the model of Singapore foretells in terms of an economic miracle is that, as Lee Kuan Yew found out from his vast exposure and experience as the Chief Gardener of Singapore, the economic diversity and resilience of the likes of nutmeg and rubber trees have to be replicated and developed. But the characters of the Rain and Banyan tree in particular have to be avoided at all cost in order for the model to work, let alone succeed.

Like the parasitic Banyan tree eventually kills its host, corruption in any form would kill the very foundation of any economic model––borrowed, replicated or home-grown.

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