Religion, politics, morality
By Prof. Charles Sarvan, Germany
is in the practising
Writing is sometimes an attempt at righting, but the intention here is only to share some thoughts on the inter-relation between religion, politics and morality in (non-private) life. In an earlier article, I suggested a slogan: “Religious doctrine is divine; religion is human.” More clearly but less neatly, religious doctrine is either divine (Jesus Christ) or from a very special human being: neither the saintly Buddha nor the Prophet Mohammed claimed divine status. Since religion with its hierarchy and rituals, ceremonies and myths is an edifice erected and elaborated over time by humans, is it surprising that it is deployed to serve human ends – secular, political and economic? Is it surprising that religion, supposed to be ‘other-worldly’, is used as a fig-leaf by humans to hide their very ‘this-worldly’ wishes and ambitions? Is it strange that religion as practised often (most certainly not always) contradicts, indeed is in conflict with, religious doctrine? The memoir of Bloke Modisane (banned in apartheid South Africa) is titled Blame Me on History. Borrowing that title, some who follow religion, rather than religious doctrine, implicitly say: “Blame me on God. It’s the wish and will, if not the command, of God. I have no choice but to obey. My obedience proves my piety”: one definition of ‘religiosity’ is, “an intense, excessive, or fervent religiousness”.
For centuries, the West claimed their conquest of other peoples was in order to carry out God’s wish that they be civilized. Kipling in his poem, ‘The white man’s burden’, urged the USA to conquer the Philippines – for the sake of the latter! The “natives” were, in Kipling’s words, but half devils and half children. Often, to be civilized meant that one was Christian; to be a Christian was to be civilized. Religion was the cloak under which imperialism hid its real nature and purpose. As for the civilizing mission, I turn to Mark Twain’s Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (Chapter XX1): “In many countries we have chained the savage and starved him to death; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness [compared] to it. In many countries we have burned the savage at the stake; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death is loving-kindness to it. In more than one country we have hunted the savage and his little children and their mother with dogs and guns through the woods and swamps for an afternoon’s sport, and filled the region with happy laughter over their sprawling and stumbling flight, and their wild supplications for mercy; but this method we do not mind, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it. In many countries we have taken the savage’s land from him, and made him our slave, and lashed him every day, and broken his pride, and made death his only friend, and overworked him till he dropped in his tracks; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it […] There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages” (end of quote).
Sri Lankan Buddhists
In the days of the British Raj, Richard Congreve, Bishop of Oxford, declared: “God has entrusted India to us to hold it for Him, and we have no right to give it up”: see, Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Oxford University Press, 1983. It’s as if the British wished to bestow freedom on India but were prevented by the will of the Almighty. Similarly, Prime Minister Golda Meir asserted that Israel “exists as the fulfilment of a promise made by God Himself”. God made a promise and, after centuries and much suffering, fulfilled it. Such using of heavenly sanction for earthly ends is not uncommon. The popular religious belief among many Sri Lankan Buddhists is that the Buddha miraculously visited the Island thrice, and decreed that it should in its entirety become the land where his doctrine would be preserved in its pristine purity. Therefore, Sri Lankan Buddhists have no choice but to turn this wish into reality: the wishes of the immortal become convenient commands for mortals. Blame us on the Buddha. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, Buddhism is not a universal religion, available to all, but associated with one particular group, the Sinhalese. Religious doctrine turned into religion has been racialized. In a personal message to me Graham E. Fuller, author of A World Without Islam, says that despite his Christian upbringing, “it is ultimately Buddhism which has contributed to my personal, most basic world and spiritual views today”. However, he now finds that Buddhists are not “an exception to the bloody link between religion and violence”.
All religious doctrines teach and uphold lofty ideals such as love, compassion, kindness, generosity. They enjoin inclusion, rather than exclusion and subordination. Far more than the beauties of nature, what makes a country truly beautiful is the degree to which religious doctrine is practised; the nature and state of its political and civic society: see, among others, Israeli Avishai Margalit’s book titled ‘The Decent Society’. Since all religious doctrines teach a moral life, those who follow and practice religious doctrine lead good and decent lives. On the other hand, those who practise ‘religion’ rather than living by religious doctrine, can lead immoral, even cruel and destructive, lives. In all religious doctrines, crimes are also sins but, ironically and unfortunately, in religion itself crimes such as expropriation and expulsion, assault and murder – even rape – can become signs of one’s righteousness. The religiose interpret, distort and pervert religious doctrine to suit their attitudes and actions.
What the Buddha preached was the product of intense thought and analysis, leading to understanding. That which is now practised and expressed as a religion was originally taught as a behavioural code: lucid and rational; moral, ethical and philosophic. In simple and simplistic terms, the Buddha worked back from effect to cause, and then forward to the eradication or amelioration of (negative) effects. Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, stressed mercy and the making of peace. A Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed is: You will not enter paradise until you believe. And you will not believe until you love one another. In other words, salvation is through love. Of the Five Pillars of Islam, the Third is Zakat, the giving of alms. The compassion and generosity of Islamic doctrine also urges men to marry widows, thus extending to them protection and support in a difficult and dangerous world. To Gandhi, religion and morality are inseparably bound up with each other: “God is Truth and Love. God is Ethics and Morality”. All religious doctrines stress morality but morality and ethics are often absent in religion. In the folk tale ‘Monkey’ by Wu Ch’eng-en (CE 1500-1580), the Buddha deplores: “greed, slaughter, lust and lying have long prevailed. There is no respect for Buddha’s teaching, no striving towards good works” (translated into English by Arthur Walley, Grove Press, New York, 1970, page 283). The Buddha also admonishes that it’s better to save one life than to build a seven-storeyed temple in his honour: pages 194 and 256. But why turn to a folk tale when the Buddha himself said: “Many who wear the saffron robe have evil traits and lack restraint” (The Dhammapada)?
One definition of ‘religiosity’ is that it’s “an intense, excessive or fervent religiousness”. This kind of religiousness creates convictions and feelings which can lead to intolerance, even to violence, and so to the contradiction between ‘divine’ religious doctrine and (human-created) religion. The religiose can violate the doctrines of their own religion. For example, yet another Hadith of the Prophet says that he is not a believer who eats his fill while his neighbour remains hungry by his side. Yet extreme Islamic groups are filled not with mercy and compassion but with anger and hatred, leading to injury and death. Their main concern is not with those who suffer but with “infidels” and with Muslims who think and believe differently.
The ostensible and ostentatious glorification of god can be nothing more than a vaunting of one’s own wealth and power. I was once shown a temple in India built by a wealthy family. It was entirely of marble, and stood surrounded by mass, abject, poverty – a poverty so ubiquitous in some countries that one no longer sees, much less reacts to, it. In a poem titled ‘Inside of King’s College Chapel’, William Wordsworth, radical turned arch-conservative, urged we must not reproach the architect with “vain expense” because God rejects those offerings made after careful financial calculation. Here one sees the alliance between religion, and the powerful and the wealthy. Pope John fought against Communism in Eastern Europe but turned away from people’s liberation movements in South and Central America. Earlier in time, there are pictures of nuns and priests giving the Nazi salute at parades. To ask whether Jesus Christ who lived in the first century, CE, was a socialist is to fall into anachronism but his greatest love and concern were for the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalised. Indeed, he saw material wealth as a hindrance to spiritual salvation. Feed the starving, clothe those in rags, give shelter to the homeless.
The Buddha too in ‘The Dhammapada’ advises us to lighten our boat of material things and desires so that it travels better. From my reading, it would appear that many (I do not say all) extreme Christian groups in the USA have no objection to excessive wealth. The Christian-right supports ‘big business’; is against the termination of pregnancy, gun-control and measures to protect the environment. They object to the state stepping in to help the disadvantaged in spheres such as medical-care, schooling, housing and transport, seeing in such measures the bogey of “socialism”. Christ was a radical, and that is why the Jewish establishment, led by the priests, had him crucified. But those on the religious-right turn him into a conservative and a capitalist. (The Stoic philosopher and emperor, Marcus Aurelius, noted that what was bad for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees, but selfishness and the greed for immediate gain override such consideration.) In Sri Lanka, the clergy urge the crowning of Buddhism: power and prestige for the religion means power and prestige for its clergy. I cite from my article, ‘Waving the flag’: “In a certain context Karl Marx said: If this is Marxism, then I’m not a Marxist. Similarly, one can imagine Christ saying that of Christianity or the Buddha, ‘the Soul of Utmost Compassion’, sadly saying, if this is Buddhism, then I’m not a Buddhist.”
Since it’s mentioned above, I turn to the environment and quote from Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home by Pope Francis. The earth is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor (page 7). To commit crimes against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and God (page 10). We no longer speak the language of fraternity with the world but one of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on our needs (pages 11-12). “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years” (page 28). My article on it appeared on 6 September 2015 both in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ and in the Sunday Times, and I quote from it:
“Pope Francis is the head of the largest religious denomination, numbering about 1.2 billion people, and this appeal has been translated into several of the world’s languages. His wish and attempt is “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (italics added). The violence in our hearts is “reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (p. 7). What the Pope attempts is a conversion, an ecological conversion though, as I will attempt to show later, the Pope implicitly argues that a truly religious life, whatever the religion, is one in harmony with nature and the environment. He defines ecology as the study of the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop (p. 69). With characteristic modesty, he does not claim to dispose of questions here ‘once and for all’ but accepts they will be “reframed and enriched again and again” (p. 14). I see Pope Francis as coming within a noble tradition, one which goes back to the Buddha and to Christ; to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. (I am not a Catholic.)”
The religiose (again, as distinct from those who follow religious doctrine) tend to think that atheists, having no hope of reward; fearing no damnation or unfortunate rebirth, are immoral.
This, of course, is naïve and incorrect: the highly religious can be very immoral while some atheists have led noble, exemplary lives. (The Buddha believed in nobility but this ‘nobility’ was not by birth and caste but one that was earned through character, conduct and contribution.) Professor Louise Antony has published statements by some leading thinkers who happen to be atheists under the title Philosophers Without Gods, Oxford University Press. One definition of “humanist” is that it’s “an adjective relating to a philosophy asserting human dignity and man’s capacity for fulfilment through reason and scientific method”. It has been noted that countries which are not overtly religious – Scandinavia, Holland, New Zealand, etc. – have a far better humanist record than those which loudly proclaim their religious piety. They are superior in human rights, in care for their citizens, in providing health and social care, public transport, in minority rights and others that enable a decent and good life. In the USA white supremacists crudely and violently proclaim that they are Christians, followers of Gentle Jesus. In Sri Lanka, what incenses and mobilises Buddhist monks is not widespread poverty and misery; not domestic and state violence; alcoholism; the degradation of the environment; crime and corruption but non-Buddhist, non-Sinhalese population-groups.
. If the highest expression of religion is in the practising of morality (Gandhi), the best form of worship of God or the gods is to try to live by religious doctrine, actively caring for our only home, the planet.
Sri Lanka’s national anthem was composed by Ananda Samarakoon who had been a student of Rabindranath Tagore at Santhiniketan, ‘The Abode of Peace’. Born in 1911, Mr Samarakoon committed suicide in 1962. One recalls with deep regret and sorrow (not to mention irony) the following lines from his anthem
In wisdom and strength renewed,
Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended,
In love enfolded…
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
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