Connect with us

Sat Mag

Reflections on South Asia



By Uditha Devapriya

The most populated and densely populated region in Asia, South Asia is a sprawling mass of land and sea. It covers around five million square kilometres, or 3.5 percent of the world’s land surface, and houses a quarter of humanity. Within its frontiers, eight countries shelter a dazzling potpourri of ethnicities, faiths, dialects, cultural and behavioural patterns, alternating between conflict and coexistence.

Nations thrive on borders, and borders define their state of being, as they do elsewhere. In South Asia, however, communities define themselves beyond borders. Very few ethnic groups find themselves unable to claim a home in more than one country, and among those exceptions are the Sinhalese. Yet even the Sinhalese are wedded to other ethnic groups, by virtue of the past.

South Asia is defined by a country, the most populous after China, and an ocean that bears its name, the largest after the Pacific and the Atlantic. But South Asia isn’t only India, just as the Indian Ocean isn’t South Asia: occupying 20 percent of the world’s sea surface or a total of 118 million square kilometres, it covers the East African coast to the west and the Arabian Peninsula to the northwest, extending from Thailand to Australia to the east and the fringes of the sea covered by the North Atlantic Treaty to the south. If not the busiest ocean in the world, it is the most contested: the sea, after all, accounts for more than 90 percent of trade and commerce, and it depends on shipping containers and freighters.

The Indian Ocean links West Asia with the South China Sea, and it is there that containers and freighters matter. According to Brookings Institute, no fewer than 36 million oil barrels pass through it every day. That’s 40 percent of global oil supplies, or 64 percent of oil trade.

Oil is big business, but that’s not all there is to the Indian Ocean.

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, in the 15th century, the area witnessed several waves of trade and proselytisation, above all from the Arabs. Milo Kearney puts it in his study of the rise of maritime commerce in the region that it was the Sumerians, the first people in history to create a civilisation of their own, who gained control of trade over a significant part of the Indian Ocean somewhere in the third or fourth millennium BC.

When the ox-drawn plough was invented in the fourth millennium BC, the Sumerians harvested a surplus of wheat and barley that they proceeded to trade for other goods. This brought to life an advanced social structure, based on carefully defined hierarchies of power and authority and a flourishing mercantile community. From the links the latter established with the Indus Valley, they spread wide and far through their intermediaries, to Spain to the West, in the Atlantic, and to China to the East, in the Pacific.

By the second millennium BC the Mediterranean was rapidly coming into contact with the Indian Ocean. Then as now, the key to gaining control of trade in the area was the monsoon: the southwest from May to September, the northeast from October to November. Although figuring in the works of early Greek writers, Herodotus included, it isn’t until Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BC that, as Ephraim Lytle puts it, “[m]ore reliable and detailed information begins to emerge.”

However vague and unreliable these may seem to us, they are the precursors to more descriptive accounts of ambassadors, traders, and historians that we get in later times, in particular during the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Hellenistic Egypt. If we are to believe Kosmas Indikopleustes, the Europeans, Chinese, and Persians, and even Ethiopians were vying for access to trade over the sea.

With maritime commerce, however, comes the prospect of piracy; then as now, as the Rig Veda tells us, ships had to be secured from the gaze of seaborne outlaws along the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden. From the Greeks to the Romans to the Arabs, the key to all these attempts to wrest control of the region was the monsoon. Shifting between two cycles or seasons, the monsoon is, as Robert Kaplan notes, “more than just a storm system.”

When the Roman General Gallus sailed up the Nile to the frontiers of Ethiopia, Strabo of Amasia, the geographer accompanying him, heard of more than 120 Western merchant ships setting sail to India from the port of Myos Hormos in the Red Sea using seasonal winds. Constructed by the Ptolemies in the third century BC, it was this port which afforded traders to the West of the Suez a passage to the Indian Ocean. Trade from such places enabled the rise of an entire exchange system that flourished at the time of the Mauryans in India and the Qin Emperors in China. Through commerce, the Indian Ocean “held a central position.”

Roman merchants ramped up trade in spices and luxury goods, with Roman coinage making its way to India. During Claudius’s reign, the monsoon diverted off course a ship belonging to a tax collector, Annius Plocamus, to the port of Sri Lanka; though both the Romans and Greeks had heard of this country, Taprobane, it was a freedman of Plocamus who first came into contact with it. The envoys sent back to Rome by the king of Taprobane at the time — Vasabha, Vankanasika Tissa, or Chandra Mukhasiva — were, as one scholar has averred, not Sinhalese but Tamil, with their leader, Rachias, serving as a chief courtier.

Arab engagement with the Indian Ocean began somewhere in the eighth century AD, peaking in the 11th and 12th before ebbing somewhere in the 14th. It did not die down completely: the Mughals remained in power until the 17th century, and with the patronage of the Kandyan kings, Arabs continued as traders and advisors, and even courtiers, in Sri Lanka, long after Portuguese and Dutch conquest.

The Europeans of these centuries were not like the Greeks and the Romans before them; for them, the Indian Ocean represented “the imaginary treasure house of unlimited wealth.” As Eric Wolf has observed in his Europe and the People Without History, it was their voyages to Asia that really sparked off their voyages to Africa and America.

By the time they sailed to the Indian Ocean in the 15th century AD, power was in the hands of tributary overlords — these were hardly feudal states in the European sense — with far larger populations and population densities and far greater levels of productivity than in Europe. The fate of 400 years of European conquest of this stretch of sea was sealed with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India in 1497 AD; eight years later, the first Portuguese fleet found its way to Sri Lanka, unleashing three waves of colonialism that ended, on paper at least, towards the second half of the 20th century.

Geography survives history. The littoral states, chokepoints, and sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean remain as they were when the Arabs came into contact with them a thousand years ago. But the politics governing them has changed, dramatically.

From a peripheral outpost in the Cold War — one which underlay a fundamental imbalance of power between the US and the Soviet Union, as the latter was to learn later on — South Asia has evolved into a hotbed of tension between India and Pakistan to the northeast and India and China to the northwest today. The return of the Taliban has merely exacerbated these tensions to an entirely new level, as events there foretell.

Ved Malik has called South Asia a “unified security zone”, and indeed ever since K. M. Panikkar claimed that the Indian Ocean should remain Indian, the entire area, extending to the corners of the Horn of Africa and the Seychelles, has become trapped in a security quagmire. When Barry Buzan formulated his theory of regional security complexes, he took as his unit of analysis the Indian subcontinent; in his assertion that states fear neighbouring states more than distant ones, he described the existential threat that subcontinent continues to face, even now.

To understand South Asia, we must understand its history before we do its geography. This is essential, not because geography is a secondary concern, but because history can help us understand the geopolitics of the region today. The two great wars of the last century were defined by the Atlantic and the Pacific. Not so the wars of the future, if they are waged at all and if they involve India and China athwart the Indian Ocean.

Someone called Europe an idea; Gandhi called Western civilisation a good idea. But South Asia is more than just an idea, good or bad: it is a tangible reality, playing host to a potpourri of ethnicities that have somehow learnt to live with one another. The problems of the coming decade — the rise of China and the return of the Taliban, to mention two — will be decided in this theatre. It is time we see the players, and start making some decisions.

The writer can be reached at

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sat Mag

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

Continue Reading

Sat Mag

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!

Continue Reading

Sat Mag

A Bronze Lineage: Kannagi/Pattini and Karaikkal Ammaiyar of Polonnaruwa



Kannagi: Tissa Ranasinghe 1984 Bronze - solid caste Diamensions – 75cm Prof. gananath Obeysekara’s collection Published on cover of Cult of the goddess Pattini by Prof. Obeysekara (source – nevil Weerarathne (2013) The sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe, The national trust Sri Lanka. P.28.

“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.


Continue Reading