“We have turned into a cultural desert, the sort that Ananda Coomaraswamy warned against a hundred years or so ago ….
By Uditha Devapriya
The Island celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. By no means the oldest newspaper or publication in Sri Lanka, it is nevertheless by far the most intellectually stimulating of all the papers we have in this country. It was a favourite of Carlo Fonseka and Lester James Peries, both of whom swore by it in front of me. Dr Peries could never go without reading it, and Professor Carlo could never go without writing to it. A repository of facts, it has become a record of the country’s history. Its archival value is immense, which is why it is a pity one can’t delve into its past as much as one used to. As a writer, I have profited by it. So have millions of others. It is certainly an honour to be writing to it.
The history of The Island is at one level the history of the most transformative era Sri Lanka has witnessed and lived through. The paper began publication in 1981. Three years before, the most groundbreaking set of political, economic, and social changes had swept through the country, penetrating every corner and leaving no stone unturned.
The architect of this transformation, Sri Lanka’s first Executive President J. R. Jayewardene, summed up the zeitgeist of the era when he remarked that the only thing he could not do was to turn a man into a woman. One may not have agreed with what he was doing at the time, but then one could not be immune to it either. His reforms proved to be divisive, and in my opinion not a little flawed. But no one could help them, nor stop them.
I think it’s important to locate The Island in this specific historical context, for the simple reason that until it began publication there was no other large-scale independent paper in the country. The Left parties continued with their periodicals, and these were by and large influential – the circulation numbers of the Communist Party journal, Aththa, belied the fact that people passed the same copy of it around by the dozen – but in this new era, The Island proved to be a more influential source of opinion. Responding to the events of the day with much zest and enthusiasm, it became an alternative source of information. This was, after all, long, long before the advent of independent television and radio channels. Whatever its opinions regarding the political tumults of the day would have been, The Island proved itself more than equal to the task of covering ground everywhere.
How one approaches the times it began and the period in which it bloomed of course depends on how one views the politics of those times. For me, these were deeply divisive years. Censorship had become the order of the day and almost no one could, publicly, voice out their dissent to the way the country was being governed. If April 1971 proved that the State despite its veneer of confidence and security could be challenged by unarmed hordes, July 1980 showed that the State, with the “right people” at the top, could dispense with all norms of statesmanship and deploy unlimited powers against the Opposition. Against such a backdrop, it was only natural that the Opposition would fade away. Brutally beaten up and beaten back, anti-regime elements had no choice but to remain quiet.
The impact of such a state of affairs on the intellectual trajectory of the 1980s should not be underestimated. On the one hand, we saw what the Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmad more or less was warning against: the migration of Third World intellectuals from the Marxist Left to an intellectual space that was ostensibly “Left” but in reality anti-Marxist (pundits would later call it post- or neo-Marxist; I think Samir Amin was right when he dismissed them all as anything but Marxist), and on the other, the migration of a nascent Sinhala middle-class to a chauvinist, communalist, and racialist ideology. I have already noted this in a two-part piece on Jathika Chintanaya I wrote for the Sunday Island not too long ago. Suffice it to say that while Marxist scholars shifted to the NGO-cracy, Sinhala nationalists, despaired of socialist politics yet opposed to the UNP regime, moved to nationalist spaces.
The Island provided an opportunity for both these groups to contribute to the discussion. It is here that its real contribution comes out. Despite the strictures placed on newspapers and journals, particularly those published by the Left parties, The Island continued to give much space to (ex?) Marxist and (Sinhala) nationalist ideologues, enabling a climate of debate and discussion that, I like to think, continues to this day. That it remains the only paper Nalin de Silva thought fit to contribute to in English certainly tells us a lot about how it was viewed by his peers and contemporaries back in the day. On the other hand, that de Silva’s ideological foe, the late and lamented Carlo Fonseka, also contributed to it, and regularly, tells us that it was hardly what one would call an ideological mouthpiece for a certain group.
Of course, the paper did not stop with the 1980s. It continued to wage campaign after campaign in the name of the country and the people of the country, though I rather doubt that it considered itself explicitly a crusader for the country’s and the people’s interests back then. The UNP regimes of the 1980s and the 1990s eventually gave way to the UPFA and the SLFP, coinciding with the shift of the new ruling parties from the Marxism of their early days to a Radical Centre. Of course, what it transformed into all depends on your perspective. Yet whatever that perspective may be, politics in the country never stopped evolving, as Laksiri Jayasuriya has informed us in his fine book on the subject. And through all those divisive and transformative times, The Island continued to stick to its role.
Easily the most intellectual of all mainstream papers we have now, The Island is a piece of living history. I can’t really count the number of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists, not to mention scientists, artists, and other scholars who have contributed to its pages. We are living in terrible times: not so much the economic crisis as the lack of an intellectual climate and a near absence of debates and discussions. We have turned into a cultural desert, the sort that Ananda Coomaraswamy warned against a hundred years or so ago. The Island is, perhaps, the only hope we have, and the only oasis along that desert. One only hopes that it doesn’t turn into a mirage.
Rising farce of Family Power
Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.
He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.
He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.
“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,
“If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again. If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.
“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”
Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength. In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.
It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.
While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.
Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law? Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?
What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,
The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.
The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance. There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser – from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?
The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to
use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.
A tribute to vajira
By Uditha Devapriya
The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.
A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.
In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.
One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.
Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.
In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.
In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.
Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.
Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.
Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.
At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”
If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.
Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.
These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.
Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.
As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.
As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.
Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.
That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s all about France in Kandy !
This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.
A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.
All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.
Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.
Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.
To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.
Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar
comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives
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