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The musings of ‘Kothu’ as National brand



by B. Nimal Veerasingham

A YouTube parody song that I watched recently, captures the conversation between the Mission Control and the two astronauts just landed on Mars.

Mission Control:

Have you safely landed?

Astronauts: Yes – No worries – we have brought the packed lunch as well.

Mission Control:



Yes – in case you want to know – its ‘Pittu’ in banana leaf, with mutton curry, Liver fry, a day-old fish curry, brinjal moju, Katta sambal and omelette.

The people in the Mission Control nod in unison, figuring more gastronomy than astronomy.

At the present times of intense globalization and interdependence of borderless goods and services, where demarcation lines are in unknown territory, the question of ‘National foods’ have become very much muddled. The glory days of TV cooking shows place the presenters and chefs into celebrity status drawing millions of viewers into trying the same in their own kitchens. The TV celebrity Chefs dominate the culinary experiments, fusing regional and ethnic flavours into altogether new food cultures, behaviour, preparation, procurement, and consumption; questioning the authenticity, both sides of the realms. Quite logically, food adventuring leads to new cultures and lands, the print and visual media conjoins culinary tourism with this new ‘unknown’, ‘exotic’ and ‘authentic’ experiment into spinning an industry of its own, infusing center of tourism with novelty food adventuring.

Food Culture

The popularity of food culture, both in the East and the West, bring to light the food adventurer’s accomplishment at having discovered the ‘hidden’, to their own enrichment and pleasure. Jamie Oliver’s ‘American Road Trip’ or Anthony Bourdain’s ‘No Reservation’ or Andrew Zimmern’s ‘Bizarre World’ accomplishes this effort of loosely commodifying, while the original gatekeepers and their lived histories quite often overlooked as to how ownership is identified.

The so-called food patriotism in aligning or claiming to be the rightful owners of a particular food always created an uncomfortable dilemma; sort of bad taste in the mouth, when tracing the origins with impartiality. Italians lead the pack as being the undisputed Global foodies, holding the rightful ownership for pasta to spaghetti and pizza to cannoli, and anything in between numbering more than 100s if not 1000s of delicacies. In the 50’s, Author Prezzolini questioned as to ‘What is the glory of Dante compared to spaghetti?’, continuing, ‘the spaghetti has entered many American homes where the name Dante is never pronounced’. It is very interesting that Dante who is one of the greatest philosophers, theologian and considered as the father of the Italian Language is being compared to mundane palatal taste that is rightfully at times overcomes fine liturgies of human worthiness. The culinary identity to the DNA is so strong that simply dressing like pizza or wearing a chef hat would propagate Italian identity in the Global stage, as witnessed in the recently held Euro Cup.

Pasta and Chicken Tikka Masala

But claiming authenticity is not a straightforward process, but a complicated one. The origins of pasta, as not simply having Asian origins, but born out of Mediterranean melting pot, would certainly bring back protesting gladiators in the streets of Rome. Long before Marco Polo, the so-called pioneer of East-West exchange brought forward the spectrum of pollination regarding starchy pasta versions, there were pioneers from variety of convergences, who made it even harder for the so-called authenticity to carry the day. Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (10th Century), a member of the Norman King Roger ll’s court in Palermo (Southern Italy) identified pasta as ‘Itriyya’. Interestingly a Jewish Doctor’s medical text in an Arabic journal appeared for the same, two centuries earlier where we now call ‘Tunisia’.

Chicken Tikka-Masala as the national food of UK is another episode of 360° split jump on a gymnastic beam, in this meringue of food spasms. Chicken Tikka Masala, not being a mainstay of continental India, introduced by Bengali chefs in the likes of Shakespearean era Fleet Street Pubs, where culinary tastes are vigorously tested before placed in podium. The past U.K Foreign Secretary’s proclamation on Chicken Tikka Masala as being the National food of the U.K, clearly surpasses the arguments of colonised and colonizer, indigenous or imported.

Chilli’s crowning moment

Chilli-pepper is another mother of all decorum that hits home curry base harder. Who would ever accept that chilli-pepper (capsicum annuum) that matches native peppercorn in heat units, is native to South America and the Portuguese introduced it to the Indian sub-continent in 15th century to create a pungent heat to their profitability? The world’s raw green chili pepper production stands roughly around 40 million tons today, half of which produced in China.

Food pervades a wide spectrum of social, political, and economic discourse, and at times questions the ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ labelling by the faithful, while retaining a fundamental relativity and background, many times evolutionary. Anthropologists argue that food is a moral thought, sponsors human contact and permeates nationalist barriers society tries to impose. There is good reason on the merit of the Hindustani saying, ‘Every two miles the water (taste) changes; and every four, the language’.

Wheat loyalists

The influence of wheat in Asian culinary consumption, though second to rice, is phenomenal. Though China and India lead in the production, their populations consume most, as such the West has found a niche export market through their advanced productive methodologies. Imported wheat, though contains less nutrients than rice, has the advantage of providing instant carbohydrate energy with longer shelf life. It provides greater flexibility and exceptional creative maneuverability through its high gluten content.

The use of advanced technology in agriculture production of the West has allowed Wheat to be stored for longer period, to fend off shipping time to far away destinations. Bleaching is a process that greatly enhances this prorogue, which critics points that nutrients are shelved out and put back artificially, a practice banned by regulators in EU.

Sri Lankan timeline

Wheat, also called ‘American flour’ or ‘Godamba’, on the street and households, is so popular though not produced but imported mostly from the West. The first encounter with Europeans at the shores of the Island, records what will become the country’s eventual obsession. The ‘Rajawali’ thus describes, ‘and now it came to pass, in the month of April, in the Christian year 1552, that a ship from Portugal in the Jambu-dwipa arrived…. For their food, they eat Budhu gal (a sort of white stone), and they drank blood (meaning unleavened bread and port wine).

From that accidental encounter with the group led by the son of Governor of Goa Francisco D’Almeida, the obsession for the gluttonous white wheat flour grew beyond the established guidelines of hereditary cuisines. The diversity and influence propagated by the three colonisers on the inhabitants gave birth to experimental fusion of many culinary delights.

The romance with white or bleached ‘American’ wheat is not simply a page marker for the scribes. it could be measured, where the small Island ranked as the 16th largest purchaser from the US markets in the 80s. Along with sprung variety of short-eats or street food, not to mention as an alternative to anything and everything the native rice flour could call shots.

That brings about the invention of the most popular street food of all times – ‘Kothu Roti’ or ‘Kothu’ in short. The glory of ‘Kothu’ (Meaning chop in Tamil) and it’s burst into variations and reinventions as a highly acclaimed food fusion, wholly, or being a side dining enhancer, has mostly resulted with the spread of Diaspora to all corners of the Globe within the last five decades.

Kothu’s humble beginnings

In the 70’s, one of the grand culinary experience the streets of Colombo could offer is the grandiose ‘Biryani’ – mutton, beef, or chicken of your choice, specialised by the Muslim eateries. The experience is though compact and not on quantity, was a delicious burst of contrasting gustatory sensations – fluffy steaming, sometimes intermittently coloured rice, fried chicken, boiled egg, green chili\onion\cilantro sambol, pickle, cucumber salad. It did safely transition above a notch, outside the everyday home experience.

But something else was brewing in the 70’s in the East, initially as an experiment, most likely through the influence on the exposure and convulsion of fine gastronomical creativity. Or maybe an accidental decoction of natural elements already found in the days’ cooking. ‘Veechu Roti’ (Veechu means ‘throwing/stretching in Tamil) is made from the ‘Godamba’ or ‘American flour’ is a great puller by itself without any chopping. Freshly made thin and stretchy ‘Veechu Roti’ with thickened mutton/beef gravy is a transitional experience by its own then. So, its natural that someone decided to mix both factors together, to make it as an alternate to ‘Biryani’ to snare the taste buds. The brightly lit, flat hot iron plate or griddle where the ‘veechu roti’ was made, has multifunctional dimensions; first to divide the massaged glutenous flour ball into equal portions with generous amount of oil, stretch to the limits and toast it in folded flat square shape.

The American flour’s highly glutinous content allows the stretching to paper thin size. Then use the same flat base griddle to mix the diced roti with egg, onions, green chilli, spices, curry leaves, choice of available vegetables and of course generous amount of mutton/beef/chicken curry, with plenty of gravy. The melodious sound bite, at times at the discretional musical personality of the ‘Kothu Chef’, arising from the banging or chopping of the metal cleavers over the griddle, evenly flip the semi soggy mixture. The sound bites also served as a marketing tool inviting the passersby. It also served as a barometer to the larger neighborhood, as to how young or dead the night is, to have a late snack or a forum with friends.

In the 70s, any youngster living at Batticaloa would scrap the last cent out of his pocket to have the ‘Kothu’ delight at ‘Rasheediya’s’, ‘Hadjiars’, Hotel de Paris or many other in the suburbs, without a blink. The richness of Batticaloa ‘Kothu’ then, was derived from the aromatic explosion of the mutton/beef curry, deeply seeped, and thickened in array of spices. Only the richness of the curry will carry the ‘Kothu’, and nothing else. Literally there was no unsaturated pieces of roti, but fully soaked in aromatic gravy. On top of it, you will be given an extra small dish of gravy to soak it further. To enjoy it with full senses, it must be eaten by hand to say the least, because a fork won’t hold that swampy mixer on the first place.

‘Kothu’ became the choice of meal while travelling on the Batticaloa night train to Colombo during the same period. At a time when travelling by bus with accommodative dinner stops to Colombo is unheard of, a 10-hour train journey starting at 8.00PM needed fuel for the commuter. The ‘buffet’ compartment is hardly reachable due to the absolute crowding, besides it had mostly bread and tea on the top list. As a result, quite logically, Night mail train as it was called then, provided another experience of smelling the aromatics arising from the ‘Kothu’ parcels consumed everywhere from compartment corridors and floor. Those who studied or worked in Colombo during that time, searched in vain to experience a similar feast of the senses in the Capital city, until they are back home by the Batti ‘Kothu’ labs.

Kothu in the world stage

Today the humble ‘Kothu’ has exploded into creative culinary variations with fine dining experience, mostly where the diaspora has expanded its roots, due to the availability of diverse sources for the base-curry. Iddiyapa Kothu, Pittu Kothu, ‘Kudal Kothu’ (Intestine), Liver Kothu, Seafood Kothu, Dolphin Kothu, Chilli-chicken Kothu, Tandoori Kothu, Poutine Kothu, Calamari kothu, Shawarma Kothu, just to name a few. Literally the choice and richness of the curry dominates the outcome and satisfaction of the consumer. Roti at this stage only functions as an enhancer of the experience.

There are many commentators, critiques, restaurants, and eateries highlight the ‘Kothu’ as a Sri Lankan street food in the Global culinary scene, everywhere from Europe, North America, Australia to Asia. The Indian observers sometimes compares this to South Indian ‘Kothu Parota’, though varies mostly on the richness and fiery intensity of the Sri Lankan curry base.

From its meagre beginning, the growth of ‘Kothu’ in some ways compensates the decline of Tea from its glory days as the national showcase, though not in anyway directly compared. The times of the boomers are getting out of steam, while the affluent generation ‘X’rs, ‘Y’rs, and millennials are in full force, willing to adventure newer creations to upsurge exotic experiences from culinary realms. The servings of ‘Kothu’ at Wedding receptions to 5-star hotel buffet menus, trade exhibitions to summer picnic tables, reiterates its earned place, tested by fire, of course. This is not in any way interrelating territorial dimension with handed down traditions. As a commodity of sensory delight in the global culinary theatre, ‘Kothu’ highlights the elevation of Sri Lankan unique food experience. Like the Italian spaghetti and the UK’s Chicken Tikka Masala, its evolution from the fusion of imported ‘American flour’, with its own rich and fiery curry brand has created a symbol easily associated with and traced to Sri Lanka. Thanks to the pioneers who wouldn’t have dreamt or envisioned, but the ‘Kothu’ has become the national brand of Sri Lanka in the world stage.

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A legend who rewrote Sri Lankan history: Eulogy for Dr. Deraniyagala



By Tharindu Muthukumarana

(Tharindu Muthukumarana Author of the award-winning book “The Life of Last Proboscideans: Elephants”

On Tuesday, 05 October, 2021, as the sun rose above the horizon it may have felt like a usual day in Sri Lanka. But the morning broke a tragic news as it gloomed the nation and it left a deep void in the field of archeology. It was for none other than to the demise of Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala.Anyone who has an interest in the history of Sri Lanka doesn’t need an introduction to Deraniyagala and his service. I find him, that rather than investing his energy on archaeology he invested his soul. This set an example for every human to work hard with integrity on what you had embarked on.

Budding of an archaeologist along with his father

When thinking about Paleoanthropology in Africa the renowned Leakey family comes to our head where the parents and their children had done remarkable research in that criterion. If that so, in Asia it would be the Deraniyagala lineage that had the astounding research on Paleoanthropology.

On 1st March,1942, Siran Deraniyagala was born in Ratnapura as the third son of parents, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala and Prini Molamure. His grandfather was Sir Paul Edward Pieris Deraniyagala alias, Sir Paul E. Pieris who served as a District Judge in Matara, Kegalle, Kandy and Kalutara. Though Sir Pieris was professionally linked to the legal field, he had a passion on doing research on 16th -19th century history in Sri Lanka and made notable publications related to those. His work was well reputed that he received various awards and honours from western countries including the Knight Bachelor on Queen’s Birthday Honours 1952.

Siran’s father, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala was a zoologist who also specialied in paleontology. After the brief discoveries in 19th -20th century on paleolithic remains by Paul Sarasin, Fritz Sarasin, Charles Hartley and Edward James Wayland, it was Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala that did intense research on the paleontology of Sri Lanka. It was his research that opened the door to the prehistoric chapter in Sri Lanka. Young Siran used to accommodate on his father’s research expeditions which inspired the youngster to follow his father’s footsteps.

As a passionate youth after completing his education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he obtained a BA and MA in Architecture and Sanskrit. He completed a postgraduate diploma at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. He passed with distinction and was awarded the Gordon Childe Prize.

Sri Lankan statesman the late. Lakshman Kadirgamar once said in his speech at the Oxford Union, describing himself, that “Oxford was the icing on the cake… but the cake was backed at home”- referring to Sri Lanka. I think this quote also applies to Deraniyagala as well, since his first experience with archeology is linked with his father’s expeditions prior to university education.

Embarking on great expeditions

Deraniyagala joined the Archaeological Department in 1968 as Assistant Commissioner in charge of excavations. His functioning in the latter capacity was primarily research-oriented with emphasis on Sri Lanka’s prehistoric period (beyond 1000 BC) while pioneering in its protohistoric (1000-500 BC) and early historic (500 BC-300 AD) archaeology as well. The substance of his contribution to knowledge is set out in the abstract to his PhD at Harvard University in 1988. Doctoral dissertation was based on his research excavation in ancient shore dunes at Iranamadu Formation which trace back to more than 130,000 years ago. The thesis has been hailed as a landmark in the archeology of South Asia, and it has transformed Sri Lankan prehistoric studies. In later time he was awarded with honoris causa doctorates from Sabaragamuwa and Peradeniya Universities.

He was well known for research on Anuradhapura citadel and at Fa Hien cave. Deraniyagala’s work continued as Adviser in Research Excavtions (1983-92) and as Deputy Director-General and the Director-General (1992-2001) to Archaeological Department. Deraniyagala’s position as the Director General marked a milestone in the Archeology Department, which it was the only time where father and son had served that position. Even after retirement Deraniyagala never gave up his work-related to archeology; instead, he did continue and at most time he had a busy schedule.

Over his lifetime, he had been awarded with many local and international awards. On 7th September 2020 the Department of Archaeology opened its research and teaching museum named after Siran Deraniyagala.

Transparency on research

Research involves molding facts out of observations. It is a common thing that some facts that are composed get subjected to criticism. This could be due to various reasons. In 1988 Deraniyagala found potsherds belonging to 600-500 BC with Brahmi inscriptions. Many foreign experts did not believe it because it was known at that time Brahmi inscriptions were absent before the Asokan period (268-232 BC). Deraniyagala invited experts from Cambridge University to come and study the excavation site to check whether he was wrong. As those foreign experts came and researched on that site, even they later agreed on Deraniyagala’s theory. Similar incident happened at Kuruwita Batatotalena Cave excavation by Deraniyagala.

These events signify Lord Buddha’s quote: “Be your own lamp, seek no other refuge but yourself, let truth be your light”.

Farewell of the legend

It is eye-opening to notice that just one day after the 49th death anniversary (October 4th) of Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala passed away. He was 79 years old at the time. His funeral was held at his residence “Ekneligoda Walauwwa” on 10/6/2021. The President’s condolence message was read by the Governor of Sabaragamuwa Province Tikiri Kobbekaduwa.

Initially Sri Lankans were mostly proud of their 2,500 years old history but thanks to Siran Deraniyagala and his father a 38,000 years old history got unveiled.

Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, Sir may you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

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Hope that lies in the Pandora Box



The Pandora Papers have moved away from the focus of politics and the fight against corruption.

We can await the report of the Bribery and Corruption Commission, which has its own way of giving innocence to the guilty; much more than the fighters against corruption ever expect. But that is the stuff of Saubhagya.

The Pandora Papers (PP) have also shown the great delight of Nirupama Rajapaksa – Nadesan, in settling down with her children in London. That is just one big success story of the PP. There will be much more success to follow from the PP, with the Rajapaksa politics moving on to bigger dominance in this Siri Lankava, running in circles of disaster to find foreign exchange, despite the big promises of the Central Bank’s Nivard Cabraal.

It was far away from the PP that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa admitted with courage, of his and the government’s failure to keep up with the promises given to the people and the country. His words at an important military ceremony, where he was proudly draped in a civilian suit, and played some cricket, too, were rich with reality. It was not only him, but all Ministers and Members of Parliament that should accept this failure, he said.

Those words were the stuff of a President, who after nearly two years in office and power, decided to tell the people of the realities of governance.

What these words revealed were not the stuff of the PP. but the very stuff of the Pandora Box. It was the box from which all the evil flew out, when opened by Pandora herself. The President and the Government are certainly the victims today of the Pandora Evil, which is far beyond the great expectations of the Saubhagye Dekma.

The government is just now in a great Pandora Dance. With the removal of all gazette notifications on the price of essentials, it is certainly free of the burdens of price control and support for the people. This began with the new prices of rice. It is not a Gotabaya achievement, but an achievement of Dudley Sirisena and the Rice Mafia.

The Pandora Box has much more to follow. It is the box of business, merchants and dealers – who may be the mafia, too.  Surely, what government would raise the price of gas used in domestic cooking by more than a thousand rupees? It is the stuff of the Pandora Mafia. Just watch out, it can even rise by another thousand rupees very soon — could this be the Gammanpila Pandora Player?

Did Saubhagya Governance ever want to raise the price of bread? What nonsense. The government – ministers and MPs want to keep it down. But the evil that flowed from the Pandora Box made it rise. Who was the Pandora Bread/Flour minister?

Not only bread, milk powder, too. Would any MP, Minister or even a President, want to raise the price of powdered milk, which is part of a child’s daily diet? Never. This price increase is also the work of the Pandora Box – Kiri Piti – Mafia, which is much more powerful than the mafia of political corruption.

All this is certainly far away from the promises that candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the other Rajapaksas, too, gave to the people before the presidential and general elections. They never thought that the evil of the Pandora Box would hunt them so well.

To go back to the Pandora story of Greek legend, there is still hope for us. While all the evil from the Pandora Box had escaped before it was closed, Hope still remained trapped in the box. That is the Hope that is left for the Sri Lanka people.

Let us not allow this Hope to be trapped in a box at the Rajavasala. We can be glad about Gotabaya’s admission of failure. But our larger Hope will be in a political escape from the wider Rajapaksa governance —  moving next from Basil to Namal. Let’s keep praying for the escape of Pandora Hope for us. Even a little hope can help us a long way!

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Cops, criminals, and cultural contours



By Uditha Devapriya

In Michael Mann’s Heat, one of the best heist thrillers ever made, the protagonist is a cop called Hanna, played by Al Pacino. The other character, a thief called McCauley, is played by Robert de Niro. Hanna and McCauley meet for the first time at the end of the first half of the movie. Hanna, who works for the LAPD, has been investigating a series of high-profile crimes for days. He guesses McCauley is the culprit, but has no real proof.

Convinced that he is the man they are looking for, Hanna tails him one night and gets him to pull over. Instead of arresting him, though, he offers to buy McCauley coffee. They then go over to a diner, where the two of them sit in front of each other.

What unfolds thereafter is not a conversation, but a charade. The detective and the thief start talking at cross-purposes. Weary, numbed, and tempered by the weight of their work, they engage in casual banter. Like countless conversations from a Jean-Luc Godard film, this doesn’t make sense; they ramble on and on, and then suddenly stop.

It is when we step back and reflect on these two that we realise what the scene is trying to tell us: the detective has come to a point in his career where he depends on the thieves he tails. It’s the same story with the other guy: he’s been involved in so many crimes that he’s almost relieved to talk to a man of the law. Their meeting is thus marked out less by hostility than by empathy. It’s a meeting of the minds.

The face-off is intriguing to me because it reminds me of a similar conversation from a film made 25 years earlier, in Sri Lanka. D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara also pits a police-officer against a criminal, this time a drug kingpin. In the scene I am talking about, that officer, like Al Pacino’s detective, encounters the kingpin in full form at his office. By this point each of them has realised what the other wants: like the lawyer and his ex-client in Cape Fear, each knows only too well that the other is seeking the upper hand.

The sequence at the police station establishes this relationship. As one salty witticism gives way to another, we sense the revulsion underlying the conversation; the two are talking at cross-purposes, only barely concealing their contempt for each other.

Yet while the scene serves a different function from the diner episode in Heat – whereas the latter sequence shows how dependent the cop has become on the thief, here it reveals the hostility between the two men – it stands out almost like the other does. That has much to do, I think, with the acting: neither Al Pacino nor Robert de Niro had made much of a name for themselves when Welikathara came out, but seeing Gamini Fonseka play the cop and Joe Abeywickrama the criminal, you do tend to compare. To make such a comparison is to acknowledge that Welikathara represented a high point for our cinema.


may well be the most Americanised Sinhala film ever made. Whereas most Sinhala films had been distinctly continental until then, hardly any director had ventured into Hollywood territory. What makes Nihalsinghe’s film fascinating, in that sense, is how far he conceived its story along the lines of a typical American thriller.

My interest in the movie as a critic, however, has less to do with its cinematic merit than the spotlight it throws on an era when such cosmopolitan objets d’art were more the norm than the exception. Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Nihalsinghe’s film, I felt it apt to ponder why, from achieving such heights then, we have slid down so badly now.

Perhaps it’s best that we restate the problem: how could the kind of acting exemplified in a movie like Heat become the norm there today, whereas the sort exemplified in Welikathara has turned out to be the dismal exception here? I am not just suggesting that our art forms have deteriorated in quality – though this is exactly what has happened – but that there are many reasons that can explain such a decline. Where have our arts gone? Why hasn’t it still realised its potential? What can revive it? Who can revive it?

The importance of these questions cannot be emphasised enough. A society’s popular culture is a fairly accurate gauge of its intellectual achievements. It is true that this remains a function of economic position; hence rich countries have more potential for high cultural achievements, whereas poorer countries do not. Yet that is not necessarily the case all the time: the Indian film industry, to give one example, is considerably more diverse, and much richer, than its counterparts in countries like Singapore.

India is a case in point for the view that the greater the size of the population, the more sophisticated a country’s popular culture will be. But that also is not always the case: as the recent resurgence in African cinema shows, a big population does not in itself contribute to the upliftment of a culture to the exclusion of more pertinent factors.

This is not to say that issues of economic development or population are secondary to those other factors. Affluent countries can afford superior works of art, while poorer countries (of which India is a prime example) are able to do so with a public that patronises commercial works of art, which helps subsidise more serious ventures. In that sense, the US enjoys the twin advantage of a powerful economy and a large audience.

But to acknowledge these points is not to deny the relevance of other reasons for the growth or decline of artistic standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, any attempt at diagnosing the problems of its culture must hence start from an appraisal of the post-1980 decline in the arts: a phenomenon reducible to neither economics nor demographics.

Three schools of thought have attempted to explain this decline. The first school views 1956 as the reason: by empowering everyone to enter our schools and universities, so their logic goes, cultural and artistic standards were compromised. That is another way of saying that if schools and universities remained shut to poorer classes, those standards would have been protected and fostered by an elite minority.

The second school argues that with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1978, the government’s hold over artistic quality was loosened, thereby debasing cultural yardsticks, transforming lowbrow into middlebrow art, and raising the latter to the status of highbrow art. To invert Marx’s dictum, what was once profane now became sacred.

I personally think this argument holds more water than the first – not least because the first school tries to frame 1956 as avoidable, which it was not, and fails to distinguish between its progressive and regressive aspects, which should not be done – but it does not explain a point the third school dwells on: the debasement of our education system because of, and paradoxically in spite of, various reforms enacted after 1956.

This is where the line between the progressive and regressive aspects of what transpired that year must be drawn: though there was a need to democratise schools and universities and they were democratised, barring crucial reforms in the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike government (pioneered by a set of brilliant educationists and scholars like Neil Kuruppu and Douglas Walatara) no attempts were made to maintain quality in them.

The results are there for all to see today: while certain schools and universities produce better thinkers than others, one does not come across such thinkers as often as one would want. That these trends have spilled over to the performing arts is a no-brainer: we don’t produce original artists too often either. “Manike Mage Hithe” offers the promise of what Sri Lanka’s popular culture should be, but such ventures are rare.

The third school consolidates the arguments of the first and the second: it acknowledges concerns over the negative aftershocks of 1956, as the first school does, while tracing the trajectory of cultural decline to the period after 1980, when the abandonment of the United Front education reforms multiplied those aftershocks, as the second school does.

Any critique of the country’s less than brilliant cultural scene today should take into account these factors when proposing viable solutions. In particular, it should identify exactly quality has come down and how best we can go about improving it.

It is fashionable to say that Sri Lanka’s cultural standards remained high until 1956. To me though, this is a deeply fallacious argument: a comprador society, which is what prevailed before 1956, does not produce a genuine culture. A culture must dig deep in search of roots. The problem is not that such a search stunted artistic development in the country, as those who idealise the pre-1956 status quo think, but rather that it did not go deep enough. That paved way for a massive flaw in our education system: the delinking of the performing arts from their literary roots, slowly since 1956 and more rapidly since 1980.

What I am arguing here is that as actors, directors, and even scriptwriters, we don’t read as much as we used to. In saying that, I am not denying there are other problems we have to look into with respect to Sri Lanka’s popular culture. But as the central issue, this problem requires immediate resolution. The sooner we realise our priorities there, the sooner we will be able to address a deplorable, though no less reversible, decline in artistic standards. All it takes to confirm the reality of such a decline, of course, is to see Welikathara, see Heat, and then ask why we used to have it so good, and how far back we have fallen today.

The writer can be reached at

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