The Olcott Oration delivered to the Old Boys Association of Ananda College (November 2020, Perth, Western Australia)
by Dr D Chandraratna
It can be gauged from the Buddhist publications in and around 1880s that the ordinary Sinhalese were experiencing an acute sense of despair and disquiet that colonialism had brought about a social degeneration evidenced by increased consumption of liquor and associated problems of family violence, cattle stealing, gambling, and crime. Even the colonial civil servants from numerous districts complained to the Governor that social disorganization was affecting administration, revenue collection and policing. The Sinhalese Buddhist revivalist movement and a proper assessment of Col Olcott’s contribution must be understood in this context of the rising tide of Sinhala nationalism, Buddhist confrontation with Colonialism, Christian missionary activity and increasing westernization.
The elite Buddhists including those culturally identified with the foreigner were not unaware that there was an imminent collapse of the civilizational heritage of the Sinhala people. Western civilization alongside cultural assimilation was sweeping though the country The protest against the social degeneration was a combined protest of all strata reflected in the mushrooming of many grass roots organisations such as gramaarakshka sabhas, Sucharithodaya/ Sucharithawardana samagamas in addition to the already existing temperence (amadyapa) associations. Calling for athma shakthi or self-confidence in the people, newspapers, pamphlets, theatre and drama, enjoined an appeal to stem the degeneration of Sri Lankan society. The colonial administration was conscious of the rising discontent but continued as usual by labelling the village leadership as rowdies intent on sedition.
It was a time that the missionaries and even scholars such as Max Weber characterized all indological and Orient as primitive and their belief systems as irrational and superstitious. The British colonial state was admittedly Christian and the disabilities and intolerance that the Buddhists in Ceylon experienced were the same as the Hindus in India. Whereas in India the role of the missionaries was insignificant in the structure of colonial domination in Ceylon it was a formidable feature of what is called ‘the colonial difference’. The Buddhists and the Hindus attracted the Orientalist racism and the colonial regime was not yet ready to accept even nominally the faith of the vast majority of its subject population on equal terms. The ‘superior truth’ of the colonialist rested on the formal structure of subordination for reasons of political dominance and ideological hegemony.
The colonial state was far from the declared fairness and impartiality when it came to religion because it was inseparable from the Christian faith. Converting the heathens was another way of serving the needs of the colonial government. Imperialism was the will of the God. There was no impartial religious policy and the conventions and treaties agreed to by the colonial Office in 1815 were limited to paper only. Though the discrimination faced by the Buddhist was questioned even in the Legislative Council by non-Buddhist Sri Lankans, these fell on deaf ears. The Ceylonese legislators being non-Buddhists their pleas were muted and response by the administration came to nothing.
The successful confrontations with the missionaries in the 1860’s and 70’s and the accompanying argumentation lifted the spirits of the Sinhalese and gave Buddhists some strength of purpose. They were outspoken about the injustices such as the privileges granted to Christian missionaries, and the denial of the rights that Buddhist were entitled to being the majority. The intimate association of the colonial state with a particular religion made their claims to neutrality hollow. The colonial fairness and neutrality was only in relations with different sects of the Christian faith. The agitation made by the Christian Liberation Society asking for a separation of the state from the Anglican faith kept the Buddhists and the Hindus out of the agitation. The Colonial Secretary was convinced that if the Ecclesiastical department was disestablished the natives would lose respect for Christianity and he remained unmoved.
Despite these protestations the state relationship with Christianity continued untrammelled as before. The missionaries were paid by the public purse even though many missionaries were known to be fraudulent in their account keeping; the colonial civil servants participated in religious activities, and were encouraged even to preach. However much the Buddhists complained that the taxes collected from the Buddhists were used to provide education to the non-Buddhists the state maintained that the latter were unable to provide a modern secular education and evaded the issue. Conversion was commonplace and the Buddhist sangha were helpless to stem the erosion of their religion through material inducement. Preferential treatment in appointing headmen was no secret and in fact the Headmen were more useful than Christian priests for obvious reasons. Resistance to conversion by Headmen often resulted in dismissal from office.
The Arrival of the Theosophists
The theosophists entered the scene ‘at the right historical moment when Buddhists were demoralized at the disestablishment of their religion and the power of the missions’. To have white champions of Buddhism who had an understanding of western ways and a conception as to how Buddhism could move towards modernity roused the Buddhists to practical action’. It was a psychological boost of immense consequence to the inferiority complex of the subordinate subjects.
The theosophists were not a very significant organisation in the west. It was the resurgence movements of indigenous religions in countries such as Sri Lanka, India Thailand, Tibet and so on that paved the way for the theosophists to enter Asia. In India theosophists were rejected as a religion and if not for their espousal of larger political objectives they would not have survived. Generally their role in these countries was cultural and ideological and of course the support they extended to the local indigenous religions made a notable difference. The principal motto of Theosophists was universal brotherhood and that had appeal in societies such as ours that differentiated people on immutable criteria. They were also rationalizing the Eastern religious traditions and rites. Madam Blavatsky stated in India that, ‘her aim was to drive into the wooden heads of the Anglo-Saxons that in matters of metaphysical speculation the East is entitled to the same respect as the West’. This message was given to packed houses throughout India and Sri Lanka and was received with much enthusiasm. They also harped on the evil association of Christianity with racism, and vehemently blasted colonialism and the illegal occupation of countries. An assault by the whites on imperialism was most appealing to the masses.
Some of the authors of Sri Lankan historiography contend that the Asian reawakening of traditional religions was due to outside forces such as Western theosophical movement. It is only partly true. A Western movement defending traditional religions and Asian cultures at a time that westernization had brought them into disrepute gave the Colonialists a headache. The colonial structure of subordination was complete with the proselytization orchestrated through education and the missionaries were the principal agents in that drive for cultural hegemony. Though the British were openly promoting secular education they could not afford to divorce education from the political purposes of colonial domination. For them education was moral advancement and that was possible only though Christianity. The way that the heathen could be saved from damnation was though education and it was their second objective of civilizing the primitives of Asia.
The arrival of the Theosophists in Sri Lanka is significant not only because of the fact that they were a western organization capable of questioning the civilizing mission and the ideology of colonialism. Hikkaduwe who wrote to Olcott in India was quite aware of the role that the white men and women could play in Sri Lanka and that was in their specific role in education and not on the Buddhist faith as such. While rejecting the essentials of theosophy the Sri Lankans were happy for theosophists to undertake the educational role much coveted by a laity in search of modernity. The bhikkus Bulathgama, Walane, Hikkaduwe, Weligama, Migettuwatte, and Dodanduwe
who were committed educationists were encouraged by the arrival of Olcott. Hikkaduwe Sumangala by that time had an international reputation as an authoritative person after the Great debates of the 1860’s. Most importantly he stated that the theosophists should spearhead the spread of education among Buddhist boys and girls and in securing that toleration and freedom from persecution reinvigorate Buddhist civilization. Availing themselves of the benefits of secular education on Western principles was the one only path to a modern, secular society.
Theosophists and Buddhist Education
At the arrival of the theosophists there were only four schools receiving grant in aid and the rest were missionary and government schools. In the missionary schools the children were taught that Buddhism was a dark superstition and in the government schools no religious instructions were given. The American missionaries dominated the Northern peninsula where all students were compelled to follow Christian instruction. The theosophists embarked on there allotted task with vigour by undertaking fund raising campaigns for new schools with the active participation of the sangha. The BTS and its network of branches undertook the Buddhist educational movement. The Christian missionaries now faced a better-organized opposition and the sangha were also active participants in the educational movement. The Buddhist schools faced difficulties as the state favoured missionary schools being favoured in the employment market. Even the Buddhists who were relatively affluent sent their children to the missionary and state schools.
The Theosophists were useful to the Sinhalese Buddhists in ways of promoting peace and cooperation among the various divisions of the Sinhala society. Their notion of universal brotherhood was especially appealing to the lower castes in the Society. They were also sending a message to the sangha as to the nikaya divisions that were so ingrained in the Buddhist monkhood. The hostility and the uppishness of the Kandyan Siamese sect made Olcott and theosophists most welcome in the Amarapura and low country sects. The increasing interest in oriental studies in the West, the creation of the Oriental languages commission in 1902 gave a major boost to the activities of the sangha in the country. As far as the doctrine of the theosophists was concerned they were no experts on Buddhism and Olcott’s occult practices and hypnotic powers he claimed to possess did not enthuse the locals. In fact he accused Migettuwatte of a plot to expose him and fled to India once to ‘sail away from the wily fowler’.
What the locals could not accomplish the Western Theosophists did with a flourish. Theosophists in their publications attempted to rationally elucidate the concepts of kamma, nirvana, and rebirth while refuting the charges of fatalism, nihilism and pessimism accusations. By the end of the 19 th century however it is fair to say that Buddhism and Theosophy parted company. Anagarika Dharmapala, Vidyodaya Pirivena, Migettuwatte, Siyam Nikaya, Maha Bodhi Society together created a rift between the Buddhist laity and the theosophists. Nevertheless Col Olcott went on to produce the Buddhist catechism replacing Bauddha Adahilla of Migettuwatte` and Hikkaduwe Sumangala always appreciated Olcott for his educational endevour for the Buddhist children in the island.
(to be concluded)
Prof P.V.J.Jayasekera’s Confrontations with Colonialism, (2017) and Kumari Jayawardena’s Nobodies to Somebodies (2015),
‘Perils of a Profession’ jolts scandal-ridden police
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Retired Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Merril Gunaratne quoted the then Air Force Commander Air Marshal Walter Fernando as having said at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, chaired by the then President JRJ, in the mid-80s: “It is not a laughing matter for me.” Fernando was responding to the late Lalith Athulathmudali, the then National Security Minister whose comment on an incident in Vavuniya that claimed the lives of several airmen dismayed the Air Marshal. Gunaratne had been there as the top intelligence representative.
Fernando served as the Commander of the Air Force from May 1, 1986, to July 1, 1990. Fernando retired a few weeks after the eruption of Eelam War II. It would be pertinent to mention his only son Squadron Leader A.P.W. Fernando, was among those killed when the LTTE brought down the Chinese-built Y8 flying over the Elephant Pass area, on July 5, 1992.
The revealing anecdote was one among many such disclosures in Gunaratne’s latest book ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this month. Gunaratne asserted that the Air Force Commander resented the Minister’s comment that apparently belittled the service.
The author of two previous books ‘Dilemma of an Island ‘ and ‘Cop in the Cross Fire,’ released in 2001 and 2011, respectively, the outspoken retired top cop couldn’t have launched his third at a better time than when the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PcoI), into the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, is on the verge of concluding its high profile inquiry. Gunaratne certainly didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the PCoI last year.
The question is whether perhaps the worst ever intelligence failure facilitated the coordinated suicide attacks on six targets on the morning of April 21, 2019? Or could it have been thwarted if the Attorney General’s Department acted swiftly, and decisively, when the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) brought the growing threat, posed by the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) leader Zahran Hashim, to its notice, in July 2017?
Kudos from retired Maj. Gen.
In his latest work, Gunaratne, whose illustrious career spanning 35 years included a significant period with the premier intelligence service, dealt with precision the deterioration of the once proud police service. In spite of ‘Perils of a Profession’ being rather short, the revelations, therein, are certainly explosive. There hadn’t been such disclosure in the past, by any other retired law enforcement officer.
Gunaratne’s writing skills received the acclaim of retired Maj. Gen. Lalin Fernando, an admirable writer himself. In a brief commendation of Gunaratne’s third book, Fernando asserted: “No gazetted police officer has shown his ability to write as lucidly on real concerns of the police, from professional competence to welfare of the beat constable.”
Having joined the police, in July 1965, Gunaratne served the department during a turbulent time, before leaving the service, as a Senior DIG. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion nine years after the author’s retirement, in 2000.
‘Perils of a Profession’ dealt aggressively with the deterioration of the service, over the years, resulting in an unprecedented crisis. The writer, without hesitation, blamed the politicians and the police for the degeneration of the department to such a pathetic state that today the once proud Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) is under investigation for dealing in heroin.
Retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, now in charge of the police, in his capacity as the Public Security Minister, should peruse ‘Perils of a Profession’ without further delay. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the police coming under a retired military officer, though the last government made a desperate bid to secure the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as Law and Order Minister. The senior partner of the yahapalana administration wanted Fonseka to replace Sagala Ratnayake, one of the beleaguered UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s close associates. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not only brought the police under a retired Rear Admiral, he named retired Gen. Jagath Alwis, his first choice as the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), as the new Secretary, Ministry of Public Order.
Against that background, another disclosure made by Gunaratne, regarding certain law enforcement officers thwarting Minister Ratnayake’s efforts at reforming the police, should be examined. That particular anecdote revealed how serving officers resented Ratnayake’s bid to secure the retired intelligence officer’s expertise. Perhaps Ratnayake hadn’t been aware of Wickremesinghe’s resentment towards Gunaratne whose controversial assessments on matters of national importance exasperated him.
‘Cop in the Cross Fire’ revealed how Wickremesinghe’s own views on national security matters clashed with those of Gunaratne during the latter’s tenure as an ‘advisor’ – 2002-2004. Gunaratne’s bold assessment, in his capacity as an ‘advisor’ on the rapid increase in the fighting cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), after the signing of the highly controversial Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), finalized in Feb 2002, without the knowledge of President Kumaratunga, and much of his own government, quite angered the then Premier Wickremesinghe.
Gunaratne questioned security/intelligence strategies that had been in place, or were in the process of development when the NTJ struck in April 2019, in spite of receiving specific information from neighbouring India. The writer dealt expertly with the weakening of the police, including the premier intelligence apparatus over the years under whatever name it was called. In Chapter 7, titled ‘Moving into intelligence from normal police work,’ Gunaratne disclosed how Athulathmudali re-named what was then called Intelligence Services Division (ISD). Whatever, the country’s premier intelligence network was called, a senior policeman had been always at its helm.
In Gunaratne’s assessment, the Special Branch (SB) of the CID and the Military Intelligence (MI) played a relatively lower role when compared with that of the premier apparatus, called the State Intelligence Service (SIS), at the time the NTJ struck. That resulted in the SIS being placed under Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally, formerly of the MI. Interestingly, the then Premier Wickermesinghe found fault with the then Brigadier Sally for the writer’s reportage of the recovery of explosives in the north and the arrest of some suspects in the early 2016. The premier intelligence service had always been under a senior police officer. At the time the NTJ struck, SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena had been at the helm of the SIS. The proceedings undertaken by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the on-going PCoI revealed the existence of a special relationship between the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the SIS Chief.
Did the close association between the Commander-in-Chief and his spy chief, too, contribute to the overall deterioration of the security setup? The PSC, in its report tabled in Parliament on Oct 23 found fault with Jayawardena for the pathetic handling of the available Indian intelligence until the NTJ terrorists went on the rampage.
Gunaratne blamed an appointment of a novice as the head of the premier intelligence service, after the 1994 presidential election, for the rapid deterioration of the apparatus. Although, the author refrained from naming the officer, the recipient of the coveted post of Director, SIS, was the late retired Senior Superintendent of Police T.V. Sumanasekera.
Nilantha Jayawardena, who is now literally on the mat for the Easter Sunday intelligence failure, too, had served the SIS even then. Gunaratne’s reference to SIS having wiretapping apparatus is certainly not necessary as the premier intelligence outfit couldn’t perform its legitimate duties without that particular capacity.
The deterioration of politics can be certainly compared with the current political setup. Having read, utterly contemptuous account of the top political leadership and members of the Parliament, the police and the Parliament seemed to be in the same predicament.
According to Gunaratne, the rot had set in the wake of the UNP landslide, in 1977. The author compared his experience as SSP, Kelaniya and SSP Kurunegala during the period 1977-1978 and how some of those who were represented in parliament violated the laws of the land, misused police and political interference made at the highest levels. Among those miscreants who had been named by the retired cop was the late Minister Cyril Mathew. Gunaratne explained how the UNP cleverly used and abused the police in its diabolical project. An influential section of the police, for obvious reasons, cooperated with the then political leadership much to the dismay of those who struggled to thwart constant and belligerent political interference. Gunaratne earned the wrath of some UNP lawmakers for refusing to cooperate with the ruling party’s strategy. Some took up Gunaratne’s conduct with no less a person than JRJ and in some instances with Premier Ranasinghe Premadasa.
With the UNP enjoying an unprecedented 5/6 parliamentary power, the dictatorial UNP administration expected the police to fall in line. They largely did. The situation deteriorated further in the wake of the 1982, more or less, rigged referendum, that allowed the UNP to retain a monstrous overwhelming 2/3 majority, till 1988.
The late Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s short tenure as the President during the period 1993-1994 in the wake of Ranasinghe Premadasa’s May Day 1993 assassination, never really received much public attention. Wijetunga oversaw the party in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential polls in August and November, 1994, respectively. Wijetunga thwarted Wickremesinghe by facilitating the return of rebel Gamini Dissanayake back to the party. The author refrained from discussing Wijetunga’s political moves though he dealt harshly with the President’s destructive policy as regards the police. Gunaratne explained how the successful Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF), the late Lionel Karunasena, failed to prevent Wijetunga’s interference. The author examined Karunasena’s failure against the backdrop of his success in convincing JRJ and Premadasa not to interfere with the elite unit.
Gunaratne’s allegation, with regard to the shortsighted increase of the DIG cadre, from 11 to 30, overnight, and the number of Senior DIGs, from three to five, contributed to the overall deterioration of law enforcement, should be thoroughly examined. The accusation that Wijetunga lacked even the basic understanding of law enforcement thereby caused chaos in the overall administrative setup, by constant interference, should prompt a reappraisal of the whole department. Successive governments played politics with the police to varying degrees. After the change of governments, those who even vacated posts, or were moved out on disciplinary grounds, manipulated the utterly corrupt system to return to the service and secure backdated promotions. Backdoor promotions were routine and so widespread, higher ranks could be secured outside, what Gunaratne called, eligibility criteria.
A righteous IGP
‘Perils of a Profession’ explained how successive governments, since the 1977 general election, contributed to the ruination of the police department. Backdoor promotions had been a major cause of concern. Having dealt how he personally took up an alleged move to overtake him in the seniority line to pave the way for another, with President Premadasa, at an STF circuit bungalow, Gunaratne paid a glowing tribute to Cyril Herath, as the only IGP who had the strength to quit the service than play politics.
Gunaratne claimed he was present when Herath turned down an offer of an ambassadorial post from the then Defence Secretary Gen. Sepala Attygalle in the wake of the former’s decision to resign.
Gunaratne has quoted Herath as having told Attygalle: “Sir, I have not come to you with my resignation letter to canvas for an ambassadorial post.”
During PSC and PCoI proceedings, the alleged offer made by President Sirisena to the disgraced IGP Pujith Jayasundera to accept the responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage in return for a diplomatic posting, transpired. Obviously, Jayasundera declined the treacherous offer. The previous Rajapaksa administration named Mahinda Balasuriya, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Brazil, after he accepted responsibility for the police firing at a group of protesting Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FRZ) workers.
There certainly cannot be any other instance of a senior retired police officer coming out so strongly against the system at his own expense. Have you ever heard of any retired public servant objecting to a scheme that certainly benefited him at the taxpayers’ expense? Gunaratne discussed the controversial move to assign police personnel to retired IGPs and SDIGs for what the Association of Police Chiefs (APC) described as an effort to ‘maintain their reputation and dignity.’ The APC proposal that had been approved by the National Police Commission (NPC) on April 23, 2020, was the brainchild of retired SDIG Gamini Navaratne. The whole exercise was meant to provide a controversial facility on the basis that senior retired military officers enjoyed such a privilege.
Gunaratne’s thought-provoking opinions on law enforcement operations should be seriously examined. If the Public Security Ministry is genuinely interested in reforms, perhaps the Minister and Secretary can seek a Presidential Commission to make recommendations. Actually, Gunaratne has made some excellent proposals, first to arrest the decline and then improve the service. The police service has deteriorated to such an extent, it would be a herculean task to restore the standards to the pre-1977 period.
In fact, the blatant role the Office of the President had played, since the introduction of the JRJ Constitution in the ruination of the once public friendly service, shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. The deterioration of the police should be examined, taking into consideration extremely serious lapses on the part of the Attorney General’s Department in the run up to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Although, Gunaratne never referred to the AG’s Department lapses that may have given the NTJ the time and the space to mount near simultaneous suicide attacks on six unprotected targets.
A shocking injustice
‘Perils of a Profession’ is the story of incredulity. Having suffered in the hands of the UNP as a result of him being dubbed an SLFPer, Gunaratne, in the wake of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s victory in 1994, was targeted over his alleged role in the Batalanda torture chamber. In spite of Gunaratne being cleared by way of an investigation carried out by the police at the behest of the Presidential Commission that probed Batalanda, the top cop was placed on compulsory leave. Gunaratne speculated whether the then government sent him on compulsory leave to pave the way for Lucky Kodituwakku to succeed retiring IGP Rajaguru. Gunaratne questioned how Kodituwakku, having resigned, following a rather short career, returned in the wake of the People’s Alliance (PA) victory to take the top post.
Gunaratne had no qualms in discussing perks and privileges enjoyed by the senior officers. The top layer seems to be having a good time. With a section of the department given special status, the others appear to be going ahead with their own projects. Last year’s exposure of the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) dealing in heroin is a grim reminder of the appalling state of affairs. The releasing of Easter Sunday terror suspect, Riyaj Bathiudeen, held by the CID in late Oct 2020, raised many an eyebrow. Let us hope the ‘Perils of a Profession’ really jolts the Public Security Ministry.
However, some may not buy Gunaratne’s narration. Critics may find fault with Gunaratne simply because some of the people he is now freely writing about are no longer alive. The author cannot deny the fact that he enjoyed the ride as the head of intelligence, under the UNP, for quite a long period, at a time the NIB was dubbed No Information Bureau.
The police top brass cannot absolve themselves of their failure to prevent the ‘83 riots. Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for that dastardly violence. Were the police taking orders from outside interests to cause a calamity here? The same thing happened in the run up to the Easter Sunday carnage and thereafter when Sinhala mobs went after ordinary Muslims. Both the police and the Army simply did not act even when mobs came in their hundreds on motorcycles from outside to places like Minuwangoda. Did the cops fire a single shot towards those rampaging mobs? Even our then big talking Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake did nothing.
Police had been always bumming those in power and this was a practice coming down from the colonial period. They were no angels prior to ‘77.
Whatever the shortcomings of President Wijetunga, he should receive the kudos for refusing to fix the election against Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in 1994. Normally the UNP was famous for stealing elections up to then.
The Curtain Falls
By Lynn Ockersz
Battered by ghoulish violence,
The towering citadel of democracy,
Stands desolate and forlorn,
Its glow dramatically dulled,
Its iconic status seriously in doubt,
And the realization dawns fast,
That a ruling idea has come crashing down.
Artistic mitigation of viral impact on education
PATOC 2020: Performing Arts in the Time of Corona
This international conference further created a platform for many administrators and policymakers to discuss and debate how to facilitate and develop infrastructure allowing for a better online learning experience. It also allowed academics to reconsider how Covid-19 has altered teaching, learning, and assessment methods, and how technology has intervened in the teaching and learning experience. In general, a majority of academics and researchers are still not in a position decide whether the changes happening in academic spheres and the intervention of technology to deliver subject content are to be fully accepted.
By Saumya Liyanage and Nipuni Sharada Pathirage
According to a recent report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), after more than twelve months of battling the pandemic, more than 75 million people worldwide have been infected by the coronavirus while 1.6 million deaths have been reported worldwide (Who.int, 2019). In late 2019, coronavirus was first found in the Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China and within a short period, it spread rapidly around the globe, hampering human interactions and mobility. Economic, political, and social activities have slowed down, and many cities, townships, and regional areas have been isolated.
Numerous political, economic and social issues have cropped up during this health crisis (Liyanage, 2020a, Liyanage, 2020b), and the education sector is paralyded (Kaufman, Brodeur and McGlone, 2020, Asia Society, 2020). For the last twelve months, teaching in schools and universities in Sri Lanka has been affected and online learning and teaching activities have been introduced. In order to sustain undergraduate education, universities have introduced online learning platforms to engage with their teaching, learning, and assessment activities. Students are also engaging in e-learning modes and academic activities, weekly meetings, lectures, conferences, and even symposia are also being transformed into online and virtual. The face-to-face engagement and tangibility of human interactions in performing arts education are becoming scarce.
Performing Arts and the Pandemic
The University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) is the only university in the country dedicated to undergraduate and postgraduate studies in music, dance, drama, and visual arts. The UVPA has also been affected by Covid-19 pandemic measures, and the health emergency adversely impacted the undergraduate activities in four Faculties of the University. It has particularly disrupted the teacher-disciple engagement, which is essential for learning performing arts. Live corporeal presence in performing arts learning has been altered by virtual bodily presence. These virtual bodies are accompanied by amplified human voices mixed with ambience generated through online technologies. Continual disruptions to the Internet, time lapses between the teacher and student, ambiguity of virtual presence, monologic narratives, narcissistic embarrassments, and the gaze of the ‘Other’ are becoming norms in the ‘new normalcy’ of the world.
As a premiere institution for performing arts education in Sri Lanka, UVPA has been forced to deliver subject content through online platforms. Offering university education, especially performing arts, through distance learning is still a contested and provocative idea among academics and students (Simamora, 2020). While some academics argue that the only solution to continue undergraduate education during pandemic restriction is to introduce online platforms, others are still not convinced that these online platforms could be a wiser solution to the ongoing crisis of performing arts education. However, with the advent of the pandemic and its impact upon ongoing learning activities in Universities, research on delivering performing arts through online modes such as Zoom conferencing, Learning Management Systems (LMS), Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams have become a key topic for many research papers published (Demuyakor, 2020, DeWitt et al., 2013, Kindelan, 2010, Simamora, 2020). These discussions undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing debate about online learning and virtual experience in performing arts education in the higher education sector. The culmination of this debate at the UVPA Colombo was the two-day international conference organized by the Faculty of Dance and Drama, which took place on the 21st and 22nd of December via Zoom technology.
Facing daily pandemic measures and also converting and continuing traditional performing arts pedagogy on an online platform was a novel but challenging task for academics at the Faculty of Dance and Drama at UVPA Colombo. The methods of distance learning and technology were relatively new to both academics and students of the Faculty. During the first wave of the pandemic, academics attended workshops and seminars to identify the capacity of distance learning and exploring new methods and strategies of delivering performing arts content online. In this context, the Dean of the Faculty of Dance and Drama, Dr Indika Ferdinando came up with the idea of an online international conference to discuss and debate on various aspects of e-learning and performance practice. The action team of the conference and the Faculty web committee decided to use this opportunity as a space for discussing the impact of Covid-19 on performing arts education and practice particularly in Sri Lankan universities and explore how other stakeholders and institutions are grappling with the current situation.
The theme of the conference was Performing Arts in the Time of Corona: The Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on Performing Arts education and practice (PATOC). The PATOC International conference invited practitioners, academics, students, and researchers all over the world to present their abstracts on the theme. The online conference commenced on 21 December 2020 with Dr Indika Ferdinando delivering the welcome speech and spelling out the objectives of the event. The chief guest of the conference, the Vice-Chancellor of UVPA, Senior Professor Rohana P. Mahaliayanaarachchi delivered the inaugural speech about the therapeutic value of performing arts. There were three keynote speeches on both days: Prof. William Peterson from Flinders University, Kalakeerthi Ravibandhu Vidyapathy and Professor Adrian McNeil from Monash University delivered their keynote speeches. The first event of the PATOC conference was the keynote by Prof. William Peterson from Flinders University, South Australia and this session was chaired by Prof. Saumya Liyanage. Prof. Peterson discussed how a group of artists challenges the codependency of Covid-19 and suggests new ways of living, and practices creative arts in this pandemic time. The afternoon session of the day started with the keynote speech of one of the eminent dance practitioners and artists in Sri Lanka, Ravibandhu Vidyapathy, who suggested that dance practitioners should move to open spaces, use basic technical devices to create minimalist dance that glorify the aesthetics of artistically extended human movements and celebrate the dance art. This keynote session was chaired by Dr Anasuya Subasinghe. The second day of the conference started with another keynote speech delivered by Prof. Adrian McNeil from Monash University, Australia. This keynote session was chaired by Dr Priyeshni Peiris. Prof. McNeil discussed the impact of Covid-19 on the music industry considering two music festivals: St. Kilda Festival in Melbourne and the Swar Samrat Festival in Kolkata. Taking them as case studies, he concluded that universities have responsibilities to sustain and practice diverse musical heritages and find ways to cope with social and natural catastrophes.
Each day was designed with two parallel sessions consisting of blind-reviewed papers selected by a group of academics. Eight-minute-long PowerPoint presentations were recorded by researchers, and during the sessions the technical staff played them to avoid technical interruptions. There was a five-minute online Q&A session after each presentation and the presenter was asked to be online at this point to respond to the comments and questions for the presentation. To conclude the two-day online conference, a panel discussion was organised and it was chaired by Prof. Saumya Liyanage. The theme of the discussion was ‘Potential alternative modes of practicing and teaching performing arts during the pandemic’. Prof. William Peterson, Professor Adrian McNeil, Dr Or Kittikong and Dr. Chinthaka Maddegoda presented as panelists. Approximately 140 participants were registered for both days of the conference.
For two days, academics, practitioners, postgraduate students and undergraduates from various institutions in the country and abroad shared their thoughts and research findings at the PATOC conference. Some quantitative research was presented at the conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on performing arts education, as well as the perspectives of academics and students on teaching-learning performing arts through online methods. Most of the papers asserted that physical distancing had affected the traditional systems of performing arts education and practice. Also these papers concluded that there are limitations of sustaining the collectiveness and the liveness of performing arts when delivering content through online modes. Some papers came up with innovative ideas to overcome these challenges. For instance a group of researchers introduced effective ways of using video materials and sound technology in performing arts education though the general conception of online technology was negative. While some papers emphasised the value and importance of embracing the new digital technology and virtual performance to sustain the industry, some researchers promoted solo performances as a new way of skill development in performing arts learning.
The role of performing arts as a medium of promoting social awareness, or as a therapy and tool for developing mental stability and reducing phobias during the pandemic were some of the key points shared. Researchers in general implied that performing arts educators and practitioners needed to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and to think out of the box to design alternative modes and practice.
Prof. Peterson at the final plenary session discussed the current crisis of arts and cultural studies in major universities in Australia and the challenges they faced in restructuring departments and reviewing existing theatre music and dance studies. It was evident that it is not only the pandemic that has challenged the existing performing arts education and industry but other socio-political forces are also in place to destabilise the sustainable progression of performing arts education. Dr Chinthaka Maddegoda, an academic working at the Faculty of Music further explored the pandemic situation and current declining gurukul or gharana traditions in teaching performing arts.
Dr Maddegoda emphasised that the current health crisis had created opportunities to liberate traditional teacher-centered learning, and opened up democratic spaces. Prof. Adrian McNeil raised several vital questions related to the declining cultural economy by comparing two global cultural venues namely Calcutta and Melbourne, Australia. As Prof. McNeil further argued, with the new normality, the reconfiguration of cultural practices and their discursive implications and reconfiguration of the idea of aesthetics in the new era of performing arts should also be revisited and reconsidered. Dr Or Kittikong from Khon Kaen University, Thailand, further discussed the limitations and also opportunities in teaching performing arts during corona pandemic measures. Her main concern was the issues pertaining to the failure of co-presence of student-teacher conundrum in the classroom setting. With governments imposing measures to maintain social distancing and other health rituals, performing arts teaching and performance practices are becoming social taboos. Some of the vital elements in performing arts such as collaborating, engaging, creating, communication, critiquing, and enacting are becoming alienated concepts.
The PATOC 2020, Performing Arts in the Time of Corona, online international conference brought various artistes, practitioners, scholars, and students who are currently working, studying, and conducting research on performing arts and its related disciplines into a single forum where they share their stories in the time of a pandemic. This international conference further created a platform for many administrators and policymakers to discuss and debate about how to facilitate and develop infrastructure allowing for a better online learning experience. It allowed academics to reconsider how Covid-19 has altered teaching, learning, and assessment methods, and how technology has intervened in the teaching and learning experience. In general, a majority of academics and researchers are still not in a position decide whether the changes happening in academic spheres and the intervention of technology to deliver subject content are to be fully accepted. However, with the pandemic situation and the lack of physical presence of students and teachers in the university premises, alternative e-learning is the only way to continue performing arts education and practice. Yet, it is worthwhile to note that the corporeal presence and its on-site contact with the audience are still vital elements for a successful development of the discipline.
The authors of this article wish to acknowledge the Vice Chancellor Senior Professor Rohana P. Mahaliyanaarachchi, the Dean, Faculty of Dance and Drama, Dr Indika Ferdinando, the PATOC 2020 conference committee members. Further, the authors wish to thank Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Seneviratne for proofreading this paper.
About authors: Prof. Saumya Liyanage is an actor and academic currently working as a Professor in theatre and drama, Faculty of Dance and Drama, UVPA, Colombo. Nipuni Sharada Pathirage is an actress and academic currently working as a probationary lecturer attached to the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Modern Dance, UVPA Colombo.
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