By Uditha Devapriya
The protests at Galle Face have been continuing for more than a month now. Initially aimed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his band of brothers, the infiltration of certain groups has diluted the tone and trajectory of the demonstrations. Over the last few weeks, the country at large has taken part in one discussion after another. These discussions have centred on topics like minority rights, the abduction of journalists, and the need for a clearer foreign policy. Once considered taboo, they have led to heated debates, both within and outside the protests. One incident that has epitomised these developments has been the blindfolding of the statue of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, just opposite Shangri-La Hotel.
For mainstream scholars and popular writers, the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka – a crisis that long predates the Rajapaksas – can be traced back to the enactment of Sinhala Only. While it’s important to place the Sinhala Only Act in its proper context – it was an abomination of a far more progressive demand for the replacement of English by Sinhala and Tamil, a proposal made by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – Bandaranaike continues to be associated with its worst excesses, including the 30-year civil war. Those who supported the blindfolding of the statue thus imply that the backwardness of vital sectors in the country – including education and, presumably, foreign policy – can be traced back to his decisions.
Whether Sinhala Only, as implemented in 1956, adversely affected education in the long term is a matter for debate. Yet the rhetoric surrounding the Bandaranaike years implies that it also contributed to the deterioration of our foreign relations. High on anti-imperialist and anti-Western rhetoric, so the detractors say, Bandaranaike’s foreign policy sagged and brought about no tangible benefits to the country. Thus, while quick to condemn Western aggression against the Nasser government’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Bandaranaike was slower to react to China’s quelling of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, claiming that it was an internal matter best left to the parties concerned.
Revisionist accounts have it that Sri Lanka’s leap from a pro-Western to a nonaligned and multipronged foreign policy spelt out the end of our relations with the West, depriving us of critical Western support during the Cold War. The implication here is that under the 1956-1959 regime foreign policy became more insular, much like the Bandaranaike government’s language policies. While such a view may find favour with those who believe that the roots of our crisis lie in that era, the historical reality was more complex. Far from turning insular and inward, it was the policies of that regime that freed the island from dependence on one or more power blocs, eventually taking its foreign relations in a new direction.
Across much of the Third World, the indigenous ruling elite actively worked on achieving a synthesis between tradition and modernity. In her study of Third World feminism, Kumari Jayawardena notes a paradox that was crucial to the trajectory of nationalism: while defying the strictures of colonialism, Third World nationalists, drawn from the ruling elite, tried to chart a middle-path between Western concepts like representative government on the one hand and the need to uphold a traditional order on the other.
Throughout her work, Jayawardena divides the Third World, particularly in Asia, into two kinds of societies: those in which the local bourgeoisie achieved this sort of synthesis and those in which they could not, and did not. In this scheme of things, India and Sri Lanka were studies in contrast. In India, colonialism gave birth to a dependent elite, but one linked to industry. When the Congress Party began opposing British rule, Nehru’s leadership enticed local capitalists to join forces with them. Though hardly independent of imperialism, Indian industrialists struck an alliance with Nehru, lending him crucial support even as he set about nationalising vital sectors in the economy after independence.
The situation was different in Sri Lanka. What little industry the country had at the time of independence was limited to the plantation sector. Hector Abhayavardhana has estimated that by 1953, “the output of plantations contributed about 40 percent of national income.” Most plantation enclaves were foreign owned, in itself not a bad thing, except that profits had to be repatriated abroad. Moreover, because of its dependence on commodities, the country’s terms of trade began fluctuating wildly after independence, so much so that by the 1960s, after two decades of failing to industrialize, foreign reserves and terms of trade depleted alarmingly, triggering a severe balance of payments crisis.
“Throughout the Third World,” Dayan Jayatilleka has observed, “the anti-imperialist leadership was also a modernising one.” This was not so in Sri Lanka. Jayatilleka goes on to observe that Sri Lanka’s bourgeoisie was both culturally Westernised and socially and economically conservative: thus, while securing their economic interests through policies which, inter alia, restricted the franchise and then, when it was clear that the franchise could no longer be restricted, ensured a transition of power from the colonial State that made the civil service, defence, and foreign policy planks of the State subservient to the British government, the bourgeoisie pandered to majoritarian sentiment. There was nothing contradictory about this: as I have noted before, their social conditioning did not blind them to the cultural and religious myths of the majority, the Sinhalese.
The ideology of the local elite, in both countries, reflected the economic framework they operated within. In India, the existence of an industrial bourgeoisie could lay down the groundwork for a cosmopolitan elite, of which Nehru was the definitive hallmark. These elites helped bolster India’s image internationally, which in turn helped the government conceive a foreign policy that adhered to a middle-path. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the bourgeoisie remained dependent on a colonial framework. Linked to a plantation sector devoid of science, industry, and modernity, they lacked the intellectual initiative to chart a cohesive foreign policy. To quote Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka lacked a Nehru.
The election of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike changed this situation considerably. In many ways an intellectual counterpart of Nehru – both had studied in England, and both had taken part in their countries’ independence struggles, though from different political vantage points – Bandaranaike turned Sri Lanka away from its dependence on power blocs. Though informed by pressing domestic needs, like the nationalisation of the port and airport, Bandaranaike remained committed to a nonaligned foreign policy. This did not make him the hazy idealist historians make him out to be; au contraire, it made him realize the practical limits within which he had to work. Thus, while speaking in support of the Palestinian cause, he made it clear that his government did not oppose the existence of Israel.
To be sure, we must be careful when passing judgment on Bandaranaike’s policies. As far as foreign relations were concerned, he was Nehruvian. Yet in domestic policy, particularly on the language issue, Bandaranaike failed to tap into the progressive potential of the reforms that had been advocated for years and decades by the Marxist Left. The latter, for their part, stood by those proposals, only to be washed away when they continued to defy the zeitgeist of the times. With a section of the Left, including the LSSP and the Communist Party, caving into the pressures of parliamentary politics later, the original demand for two languages instead of English turned into demands to enthrone one, Sinhala.
This paradox, between the SLFP-MEP’s cosmopolitan foreign policy and what many consider to be its insular domestic policies, has still not been studied or evaluated properly. A useful starting point would be James Manor’s biography.Far from indicting Bandaranaike for the troubles that were to follow Sinhala Only, Manor traces the problems of the Sri Lankan polity, vis-à-vis the contests between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, to the flaws of the elite leadership. Bandaranaike, he notes, stood with and apart from this crowd: as a scion of the bourgeoisie, he was a member of the elite class; as a scion of the old bourgeoisie that had spurned the new, he was incapable of becoming their equal. Manor engages in more than a little psychoanalysis when assessing where Bandaranaike went wrong, and though it’s hard to exonerate him, it’s clear that Sinhala Only was the logical successor to the years and decades of majoritarianism that had been unleashed by his peers in the Ceylon National Congress: a tendency which, in 1921, had compelled Ponnambalam Ramanathan to leave that body.All this goes to show that, far from contributing to any “backwardness” in the country’s foreign policy, the Bandaranaike era laid down a clear path which continues to be taken today. The negative consequences of his policies are as much a testament to his personal flaws as they are to the limitations of the elite leadership in Sri Lanka, of which he was a part. It is this, rather than the substance of his government’s foreign relations, that are to blame for the policy turnarounds, indeed the absence of any coherent policy, that bedevil the country today. Going by the logic of the protesters, we would need to blindfold several other statues, and not just Bandaranaike’s, well beyond Galle Face Green.
The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at email@example.com
D. S. Senanayake and Indian Tamil question
By Uditha Devapriya
In his recent work on D. S. Senanayake, K. M. de Silva explores certain controversial aspects of Ceylon’s lurch into independent statehood. Among these is the issue of the fate of the country’s Indian Tamils. Brought to the island from South India amidst conditions of famine and mass starvation in the early part of the 19th century, Indian Tamil workers replaced Sinhalese and resident Tamil labour in the island. Governed by a semifeudal set-up that shut them out from the world outside, Indian Tamil labour grew up in a world of their own. It was their tragic fate that while the colonial government feigned little interest in their welfare, their lives lay in the hands of that government.De Silva ends his account of Senanayake with the following ultimatum:
“Sixty five years after his death today, D. S. clearly ranks as the greatest Sri Lankan political figure of the twentieth century, the one individual in Sri Lanka’s political leadership over the past 60 years who cannot be held responsible, in any substantial way, for Sri Lanka’s recent violent ethnic conflict and its associated political crises.”
What we see here, shorn of its grandiloquent finesse, is an attempt at absolution. De Silva posits that at the time of independence, Sri Lanka encountered two forms of nationalism: Ceylonese and Sinhala Buddhist. The one was inclusive, the other not so. De Silva suggests that D. S. Senanayake exemplified the former tendency: in his refusal to mix state politics with religion and his pursuit of a multi-ethnic and multicultural polity, the historian suggests that Senanayake envisioned a stable, and orderly, future for the country. At the same time, pragmatist that he was, he accepted – “in a decidedly low profiled way” – the government’s “special responsibility for the fostering of Buddhism.”
Senanayake’s contradictory attitude to Buddhism was well known. He oversaw the restoration of a number of culturally significant sites, including the Mahiyangana Dagaba, and, as Minister of Agriculture and Lands, organised ambitious resettlement schemes which favoured a Sinhala agrarian population. At the same time, he was wary of Buddhist monks, particularly Buddhist monks harbouring radical Marxist tendencies, involving themselves in politics. De Silva traces this to his pragmatism, which could supposedly balance the historical roots of a Buddhist civilisation with the needs of a modern, secular polity. My aim here is to assess this view on the basis of Senanayake’s, and the Ceylon National Congress’s, response to the question of the statehood of Indian Tamil or estate Tamil labour.
Kumari Jayawardena has described plantation workers as “the largest concentration of resident labour” in British Ceylon. From 1825, there was a continuous recruitment of Indian workers to the island, organised under a Pioneer Force to undertake the construction and repair of public works. The opening up of coffee and tea plantations diverted them to the hill country, where they gradually replaced Sinhalese labour.The need to ensure a steady supply of labour at home led the Indian government, in 1839, to impose restrictions, if not complete bans, on the emigration of Indian workers to other colonies. Hector Abhayavardhana has noted that the embargo was imposed on the grounds of “unsatisfactory conditions” in countries like Ceylon. Eight years later the ban was lifted on the assurance that working conditions for workers would improve. From then on, there was a sustained campaign, from the Indian government’s side, against the Ceylonese colonial government’s moves towards restricting the rights of Indian labour.
A number of factors led the comprador Sinhalese bourgeoisie to call for the curtailment of those rights. Any hopes for a coalition of Sinhalese and Tamil bourgeoisies had ended in 1921 with Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s departure from the Ceylon National Congress. Yet, despite this, the Sinhala and Tamil communities were still seen as constituting a majority in the country. This extended to Indian Tamils as well. In 1927 the CNC rejected a resolution against the granting of the franchise to their population. The following year it rejected all proposals to restrict their right to vote. The depression of the 1930s changed all that: thus, 10 years after the CNC rejected resolutions to restrict the rights of Indian Tamils, it passed an amendment that excluded them from the country’s Village Committees.In 1934 A. E. Goonesinghe proposed that preference be extended to Ceylonese in employment at government departments. This was passed and endorsed by the State Council. The Indian government responded bitterly, in effect halting Indian migration to Ceylonese plantations. Hector Abhayavardhana has observed that the labour shortage which resulted from this led to somewhat heated debates between the two countries over the granting of the franchise to Indian Tamils at Village Committee level. It is here, he notes, that the Indo-Ceylon problem, as it came to be known later, originated.
K. M. de Silva has argued that the decision to restrict Indian Tamils from Village Committees was taken on the grounds that Indian Tamils “never formed an integral part of the village community served by such committees and could not possibly benefit from the social objectives these councils were designed to serve.” He also points out that Indian officials did not object to the measure, which had actually been passed in 1889 and, in its original draft, had excluded Burghers and Europeans as well, until 1937. That year the Minister of Local Government S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike oversaw a more comprehensive amendment that achieved the worst of both world: Burghers and Europeans were allowed to vote at Village Councils, but the exclusion of Indian Tamils remained in place.De Silva also notes other factors, such as G. G. Ponnambalam’s intervention in the matter, and Kandyan demands for administrative autonomy, as having exacerbated Sinhala fears of Indian Tamil domination and pushed them to endorse further restrictions. Accurate as this is, it ignores two points: Ponnambalam’s volte-face over the question of Indian Tamil rights between 1945 and 1948, and the decision taken in 1940 by the Chief Secretary of Ceylon to restrict employment at government departments to Ceylonese locals.
The latter decision compelled Jawaharlal Nehru to travel to Ceylon, amidst much debate in India, and try to reach an agreement with the Sinhalese leadership. Having failed to achieve such an agreement, Nehru, despite the pleas of the LSSP, which had garnered the support of Indian Tamils, greenlit the formation of the Ceylon Indian Congress.The decision to establish an Indian Congress Party for plantation Tamils in Ceylon held certain implications for not just Indo-Lanka, but also Sinhalese-Tamil relations. During the depression years, popular hatred of the colonial regime had extended to moneylenders and merchants, all of whom hailed from minority and foreign communities and were more or less seen as beneficiaries of colonial largesse. In setting up a party for themselves, Indian Tamils became linked to that network of moneylenders and merchants. This had the effect of reinforcing communal fears against them, while fanning communalism among their ranks. The LSSP’s critique of the Ceylon Congress Party, hence, was that its formation pre-empted a joint alliance of estate Tamils and other deprived classes.
These developments drew a wedge between the Indian and Ceylonese leadership. Each side was determined not to surrender to the other. While the Ceylon National Congress and the UNP, under D. S. Senanayake, proposed one restriction after another on plantation Tamils and their desire for Ceylonese statehood, the Indian Congress Party, and Nehru, called for a relaxation of qualifications for nationality. These restrictions centred on three principles or tests: residence, means, and compliance with the laws of Ceylon.More than a difference in personality determined the course of disagreements over these principles between the two leaders. while Nehru put a negative construction on the means test for citizenship, Senanayake defined it more positively, with conditions like “an assured income of a reasonable amount” that betrayed an elitist, if not patriarchal, attitude to the question of statehood for a deprived community.
In all fairness, it must be pointed out that Senanayake’s hardening stance on the question of citizenship for Indian Tamils can be ascribed, at least in part, to the decision of two Indian Tamil State Council officials to oppose the Ceylon Independence Bill. That, however, does not explain his views on the Indian Tamil question before 1945.In any case, Senanayake’s dithering over these issues did not do him any favours in the long run. He and Nehru held a series of talks that ended in a stalemate, from which Indo-Ceylon relations never fully recovered. In passing a series of Acts designed to restrict, if not exclude, an entire community from the franchise, moreover, he demonstrated his unwillingness to continue these discussions or build up on them. For their part the British government kept themselves out of these developments. This was to be expected: they preferred the UNP in power in Ceylon, and were wary of Nehru’s leadership.
Is K. M. de Silva’s assessment of Senanayake and his involvement in the Indian Tamil controversy fair, in that sense? Without in any way condoning the Indian leadership’s interventions, which exacerbated the issue, my view is that Senanayake, and the bulk of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie, did contribute much to the problem.The depression years proved that a comprador and Westernised bourgeoisie as well as the leadership of the Labour movement could turn chauvinist. It was left to the LSSP, which identified the limitations of the Labour movement and sought to transcend them, to try and bring together an alliance of deprived communities, cutting across ethnic lines. This included Indian Tamils. Tragically for the country, however, the intrigues of the comprador elite, and of the Indian political leadership, put an end to hopes of such an alliance.
(The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pains of Parliamentary Culture
Thirteen may be considered an unlucky number by many. But not for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, just now. He has 13 Cabinet Ministers. It is a powwow for the new players in government, who are swinging their tails in support of President Gotabaya.It was well known that the SLFP would be in this Gota-Ranil team. Nimal Siripala de Silva continued his record of unproductive presence in Cabinets of Ministers. Others from the SLFP too have questionable records of service. They showed the SLFP’s desire to be a part of mis-governance, under a non-elected Prime Minister. Hanging on to elephant Ranil’s tail.
But there must be some pain in the SJB ranks as we see Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara in the new Cabinet ranks of the Gota-Ranil team. They were among the most active and well-informed MPs of the SJB ranks in Parliament. Ranil will certainly have new strength with their presence in the Cabinet, but how will they recall their recent vocal support for the Gota Go Home activists at Galle Face?
What can these two SJB activists think of being ministers in a Cabinet led by the world’s only unelected Prime Minister in a democracy built on the votes of the people?
Is the structure of this new slowly expanding Cabinet, the stuff of Ranil W’s call for a change in our parliamentary culture? He said so after his own government ranks saw the defeat of the woman SJP MP – Rohini Kaviratne, by the SLPP’s Ajith Rajapaksa – who has said he does to belong to the Medmulana Rajapaksa clan. What Ranil failed was in preventing Basil Rajapaksa in ensuring the defeat of a woman MP to be a Deputy Speaker in a Parliament of 74 years. Parliamentary culture in Sri Lanka certainly needs much change as we see a continuing departure from the interests of the people and society, and more interests in the benefits to MPs. How much of the recent discussions in Parliament have been about the goon attacks on peaceful protesters near Temple Trees and Galle Face?
The attacks on the homes and properties of many MPs, after the Temple Trees initiated attack on peaceful and democratic protesters on 09 May are certainly regrettable and deserve condemnation. But the present parliamentary culture is certainly giving much more importance to this violence than to the months of hardship that the people of this country have been facing with the shortage of food, fuel and medicines, and the continuously rising cost of living to the people.It is this parliamentary culture that arranged for the issuance of fuel to the luxury vehicles of MPs from a Police Filling Station, while millions of vehicle owners – cars, buses, three-wheels, motorcycles – were painfully waiting for fuel?
The Parliamentary system, especially after 1997 and the JRJ Presidency, has been moving away from the process of social decency, to that of a crooked parliamentary supremacy. Some MPs who have felt the pains of today’s realities are now calling for lunch packets at market prices, and not the special delights at the parliamentary restaurant. It is good to know that MPs can also feel the taste of food that ordinary people consume!
Do the people of this country have to give any vehicles to MPs for travelling, whether to Parliament or elsewhere? Can’t they travel by bus or train, taxis and even three-wheelers? Where is the travel reality of the people who voted for them? Why should luxury vehicles be given to them; constantly painful to the people? Let’s us just member how very senior MPs in the past came to parliament from Galle, Matara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Jaffna and elsewhere by public transport, and how Mr. W. Dahanayake left Temple Trees by public bus, after his defeat from the position of PM.Do the MPs of Sri Lanka have special health needs that require treatment in Singapore and other global centers away from the health services in this country that serve the people, even with much hardship?
The current realities that have come to light from the actions of the youth at Galle Face, and many other places in the country, have raised issues of more importance than parliamentary culture alone. But, the very crooked culture that prevails in our parliamentary system – a culture that is against a woman Deputy Speaker, and has only 12 women MPs in a 225 member House, while women are 52% of the population, needs major changes.What we need are changes that will restore and build a good democracy, as the fighters for independence, and the early leaders and activists in the parliamentary process sought until the declines from the 1950s and much more after 1977.The call for a change in parliamentary culture has come from a Prime Minister who has made a gross mockery of the democratic process – in the current Gota-Ranil alliance of Crooked Politics. The mood and activity of the people that have seen much of the Rajapaksa Rajavasala be pushed away from power, must certainly continue till a true democracy is fully restored.This will certainly be very painful, as the people suffer from so much want in food, fuel, medicines and honest services, and a Parliament that is largely removed from the realities of good governance. Let’s suffer these pains for many more months, and hopefully not years!
A Bronze Lineage: Kannagi/Pattini and Karaikkal Ammaiyar of Polonnaruwa
“Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere. Metal is a conductor of all matter … and thought is born more from metal than stone…” Deleuze and Guattari, A 1000 Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
Perhaps one needs to have a propensity for seeing movement in seemingly static forms like sculpture, to view Tissa’s Kannagi as if it were a film, an image in movement. For that to happen, the mind itself will have to become filmic in some sense. What is the Potential energy exchanged between these two Lankan sculptures of Tamil Hindu saint-poets, who were worshipped as mother goddesses, across epochs? Kannagi’s rage filled contemporary lament (1984) and Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s ecstatic singing (11th century). One is by Sri Lanka’s preeminent modern sculptor and the other by an unknown craftsman, among many such in our deeply syncretic historical past. To begin to respond to such a question I think we need to go even deeper into Indian art and cultural history in a non-linear manner. In fact as far back as to the Dancing Girl of the Indus Valley civilization of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. She is the by-now famous, tiny bronze figure, just above four inches tall (in the National Museum, in Delhi), bedecked in ornaments, lots of bangles and necklaces, naked, with hair held in an elaborate bun. Her arms are disproportionately long. The tubular right arm forms a large triangle by the placement of the hand on her hip. This triangle is the aniconic sign of the yoni, an abstract form encoding female sexuality predating the Aryans and Hinduism.
We see such a triangle formed by one of Kannagi’s arms held up high in a gesture of lament in Tissa’s bronze too. Similarly, but more strongly, with Karaikkal Ammaiyar, depending on the angle at which one views the figurine, we see her tubular arms forming two large symmetrical triangles with her upper body, even as she plays the cymbals and sings in an ecstatic mode. This triangular form of the yoni is dynamic, produced through movements and gestures. In contrast, a later Hindu version of the yoni as hole in which the stone lingam sits has a binary structure, a weighty symbol without any movement. According to Kosambi the terracotta figurines found in the pre-Aryan Indus valley civilization prove that the worship of the mother-goddess to have been prominent there. It is reasonable to surmise that the little bronze Dancing Girl is a product of this ancient matriarchal culture. Deleuze and Guattari’s comment that ‘thought is born more from metal than stone’ makes perfect sense here.All three female icons exhibit a high degree of abstraction therefore of poetic energy. That is to say, their capacity of suggestion (dhvani), is manifold. None of these three sculptures of female figures can be theorised within an idea of an aesthetics of the beautiful. Rather, trying to theorise them through a theory of rasa at least opens up a way of engaging with them as dynamic forms where their powers of suggestion vary according to the degree of urgency and creative energy we as artists, critics, and theorists might bring to our engagement with them. That they are all engaged in modes of performance is central to the kinetic dynamism they display. The triangulated arms of the dancing girl, the singing musician, and the lamenting woman are expressive. Their precise, formalised, highly abstract gestures (angika abhinaya), address us eloquently. The lone dancing girl is now part of an aberrant bronze lineage of older exemplary iconic female poets expressing three ages of life. They offer three angles of perception not strictly geometric but rather more organic and yet abstract enough in bronze, for aesthetic thought to wrestle with. A threesome is more suggestive of dynamism than the strict binary structure of the stone phallus in the stone hole. Also to be able to see an old woman not as a witch or a hag but as a vital figure singing, is most exhilarating.
While the vocabulary of the precise traditional mudras (gestures), are unavailable to contemporary artists, the arms and the hands when formalised might provide an experimental field for movement. And here we might think of what Bertolt Brecht said about gesture or ‘gestus’, both gist, as well as an intensive condensed utterance, as in Mother Courage’s silent scream, when she realises that while she haggled for some money in the midst of war, her daughter was killed. That silent cry was produced by Helena Weigel, the great Brechtian actor, through a bodily posture producing extreme tension in the entirety of her spine. Even in these essentially silent forms we can synesthetically feel their sound, their eloquence. Bronze is close to brass, also an alloy, and music and rhythm have a metallurgical origin too. These two saint-poets of India were indeed poets, devotees of Shiva Nataraja, they sang in the vernacular, local languages to make sense of their predicaments as women and against caste and other hierarchies enforced by the Brahmin priests who controlled their access to temple and ritual. Akka Mahadevi, for example, was among the most popular of Indian saint-poets whose poetry has been made into popular songs across modern India. And it is no accident that the first feminist collective press in English, in India, was called ‘Kali for Women’. Indian feminists also have Durga in her iconic form as an ‘Ashurmardhani’. While Kali and Durga are canonical, their folk origins and propensity for violent action make them outsiders in the canonical order of the universe of male Hindu gods. Anger and rage appear not to be traits of Pattini perhaps because she has been created to assuage male psycho-sexual anxieties. She is what psychoanalysis calls ‘the good mother’.
Certainly Sunil Ariyaratne’s take on her as Kannagi and her legend is neo-traditionalist in the extreme, a film with lots of pretty cloth, lovely costumes and mass spectacle and even some professional Indian dancing thrown in, done by an Indian duo, with archaic Sinhala dialogue from once upon a time when patriarchy reigned. Ariyaratne’s skill as a Professor of Sinhala literature has been wasted in creating this anachronistic feudal language at a time when young Sinhala speakers are inventing a new vernacular, mixing with panache English and Sinhala, to express complex ideas and slang too. In sharp contrast to Ariyaratne’s Kannagi, Tissa Ranasinghe with Gananath Obeyesekere have, decades ago, opened up a way to approach an archetype for contemporary rewriting, rewiring. One wonders what happened to Ariyaratne who directed Sarungale with Gamini Fonseka as a Tamil Clerk. Fonseka was loved by Tamil proletariat fans, just as much as by the Sinhala ones, they would have known that he spoke Tamil and wanted to be popular like MGR! I gather that Ariyaratne studied Tamil while living in South India and I have read a wonderful informative essay he wrote (Divaina, 8/5/94), on the bronze statues that guard the magnificent oceanfront Marina in Chennai, while he was living there. He tells us that there is one of Kannagi there, which is reproduced in his essay. It shows her standing tall and strong, stepping out with one hand extended in front with an accusatory index finger against the king of Madura and the other raised holding her famous anklet, ready to dash on the ground. He tells us that she is there among other bronze statues of male poets and the famous female poet Avvaiyar, who have all contributed to Dravidian culture. Further more, that all of these bronze artists and the epic heroine Kannagi and Fr Pope, an English missionary who translated Tamil classics into English, stand facing Tamil Nadu rather than the Indian ocean, unlike Lankan ones of politicians in front of the old Parliament house now the site of digital projections of political slogans. The Tamil bronze statues of poets and the highly valued English translator of Tamil, he says, are addressing the Tamil people. This metallurgical imagination of India and Sri Lanka can teach us not only the importance of cross-cultural exchanges but also what Walter Benjamin called, ‘Epic Memory’, as distinct from personal remembrance or ‘novelistic memory’. That distinction would require another essay to get at its richness. The lineage of bronze feels still alive, I am discovering much to my surprise and it would appear that we can’t afford to forget it.
The ecstatic, old, ascetic, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, sitting playing her cymbals and singing is still full of spiritual energy and power because she shows that to create one must be able to transmute base metal into energy (the rhythmic sound of her cymbals), by playing with fire. Young women artists, not just an old scholar like me, may get some feel for her creative energy by observing how the singing ascetic Bhakti poet, Karraikkal Ammaiyar of Polonnaruwa, has been forged in fire by an unknown craftsman-artist. Her spiky headdress with flowers, framing her face, appears to be like her hair and also rays of the sun. Though her eyes are wide open she also appears to be floating in her full-throated song. Though she appears as a singular figure in this one remnant sculpture, in the small relief sculpture decorating Shiva Nataraja’s large pedestal, she is part of a small musical ensemble, playing in unison with the cosmic dance. She is an agent of epic memory.
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