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Sat Mag

The playwright and the novelist

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Notes on culture:

By Uditha Devapriya

Sir Chittampalam Gardiner was a man to be reckoned with. With a sure eye for what would work and what wouldn’t, he had built a sprawling empire in the movie industry. By instinct he knew what people wanted, the kind of tastes they pandered to.

Movies meant big business those days. They invariably conformed to a certain pattern: men and women chasing after one another through song and dance, heroes and villains facing each other in a final skirmish, good triumphing over evil, innocence over cynicism. Primitive though they may have been, these nevertheless determined the fortunes of directors, actors, and technicians. As such they stuck to the same formula, and gave audiences more of the same. Gardiner knew this, and hence knew which horse to back.

Lester James Peries’s first encounter with Gardiner has to be situated in this context. Chitra Lanka, the “company” Lester and his acolytes had set up for his debut, Rekava, needed money. They had no one else to turn to. Thus with six reels of film in a bag, they went to meet Gardiner and his wife at the Regal, on “a dreary dismal morning.” In the darkness of the hall, no one said a word when they projected the film. They were nervous. If he said no, they had nothing else to do but wrap up production.

After much rising of tension, they sighed with inexorable relief as Gardiner asked them to come up to his office. There, beside Lady Gardiner, he wrote a cheque for Rs. 125,000 for the three mavericks: Lester, Willie Blake, and Titus Thotawatte. Not a particularly bulky man, he was nevertheless wont to making papal pronouncements. He chose this moment to make one of them: “I have just seen,” he declared, “the finest Sinhalese film ever made.” Lester’s heart fluttered: could it be that that the biggest movie mogul of Sri Lanka had liked Rekava that much? Apparently not: “Do you know that Seda Sulang will be an all time great?” he asked them quixotically. He had seen it in Madras a few days earlier.

The cultural renaissance which flowered in 1950s Sri Lanka took time to make itself felt in the cinema, and Gardiner’s comment in its own way proves it. Both Sarachchandra and Martin Wickramasinghe had made their mark years before Lester James Peries returned to Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe had by then been acknowledged as the man of letters in, and of, the country, as much as Faulkner and Steinbeck, through their stories of rural society, had in the United States. Sarachchandra, who rated Wickramasinghe’s work highly in The Sinhalese Novel, had begun to experiment more boldly onstage, seeking inspiration in not just kabuki, but also Sinhala and South Indian folk drama.

In order to do justice to Lester Peries’s contribution to the cinema, we must juxtapose the playwright with the novelist. It is in the confluence of their worldviews, as different as they may have been, that we see the renaissance of the 1950s run its course and reach its peak, thereby shaping the trajectory of the cinema.

By the turn of the century, the theatre had found a receptive audience among sections of the urban working class and petty trading class. Its literary equivalent was to be found in the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena, under whom the written word became a tool of propaganda for Sinhala nationalism. The Sinhala stage – really a hybrid one, representing a melange of Parsi and rural folk drama – became Janus-faced: it valorised traditional values while subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of the past. Thus John de Silva’s Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, while celebrating the heroism and martyrdom of Madduma Bandara and Ehelepola Kumarihamy, made no mention of the defection of their patriarch to British territory, and transformed the king into a non-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist pretender.

Sinhala nationalism, the ideology of small time traders, merchants, and vast swathes of the urban working class, became rooted for a while in these plays. As Frantz Fanon has observed, “[t]he history of national liberation struggles shows that generally these struggles are preceded by an increase in expressions of culture.”

This proved to be true of the small time trading class espousing anti-imperialism: the seeds of their opposition could be found more at the Tower Hall than at the Legislative Council. Their mode of protest remained at best a cultural affair, though as the case of Anagarika Dharmapala (a scion of a family of merchants) showed, such protests could go beyond a cultural framework and question the very basis of colonial rule.

What then of the novel? We need to examine its evolution in the West. Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel, argued that as a mode of narrative the novel was rooted in the emergence of the bourgeoisie; it’s more than just symbolic, after all, that it established itself definitively in 1847 and 1848, a period of unending revolution throughout the continent.

Edward Said would take up this argument in Culture and Imperialism decades later. Regi Siriwardena, however, disagreed. In a largely negative review of Said’s book, he argued that inasmuch as the bourgeoisie contributed to the growth of the novel, it gained popularity at the same time in societies where the aristocracy still held sway, the most obvious example being 18th century France. Siriwardena fails, in my opinion, to make a distinction between the evolution and the popularisation of the novel; either way, there’s no denying the role of the bourgeoisie in the West in the growth of narrative fiction.

The development of the novel, as with the theatre, played out differently in countries like Sri Lanka. Under conditions of plantation colonialism, newspapers and periodicals came to be owned by a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and European businessmen on the other, though a rentier elite later took over: D. R. Wijewardene, for instance, bought the Dinamina in 1914 from a Sinhala scholar five years after it had been started.

Nine years before WIjewardene’s takeover, A. Simon de Silva had written Meena, reputedly the first Sinhalese novel; a tale of love and intrigue, it had little in common with the later endeavours of W. A. Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena. The latter, for their part, popularised fiction among the same crowd patronising urbanised Nurti productions, and went beyond the likes of John de Silva by appealing to a rural middle class as well.

How the pioneers of the theatre and the novel in 20th century Sri Lanka – Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe – diverged from these trends is the subject of much conjecture. In their contrasting attitudes to the culture that underpinned their art, we see the paradox at the heart of the renaissance of the 1950s: like all cultural revivals, it took off from the past, yet had to be anchored in the future. Both playwright and novelist understood this duality, but at the same time their approach to it contradicted one another’s.

On the one hand there was Sarachchandra, who saw the Sinhala village as split between two worlds: that of ritual and that of religion. The two, he noted, could never come together. Far from enriching the performing arts, he felt that Theravada Buddhism contributed to their stagnation, and valorised a Sanskritised culture: one sees this even in his characterisation of temple art as narrative rather than emotive.

Like Ananda Coomaraswamy quoting the Culavagga, Dasadhamma Sutta, and Visuddhi Magga in support of his contention that Buddhism ignored the arts, Sarachchandra would view the resuscitation of folk drama and the revival of Buddhism as two different goals. It is ironic that a playwright who went, in much of his plays, for Buddhist parables should reprove religious ideology this way, but it is clear that his vision of the cultural revival pitted him against those who sought in that ideology the wellsprings of the revival.

On the other hand, there was Wickramasinghe, who championed a lesser literary tradition which had laid emphasis on popular, emotional, anti-Brahmanical Buddhism. He debunked Coomaraswamy’s thesis, and like Walpola Rahula claimed that Buddhism encouraged even men of the cloth to engage in cultural pursuits. Making a distinction between amusement and genuine art, he acknowledged the role played by the Buddhist temple in the flowering of the latter. For him, the Sanskritised Sinhala that scholars like Sarachchandra defended in the wake of “Sinhala Only” meant nothing to the ordinary man; on that basis, he defended those who agitated for parity of status for Tamil, accusing the monks who held protests against S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s proposal for the reasonable use of it of having “[t]reated the common man’s spoken Sinhalese as a vulgar language.”

Thus Sarachchandra’s ideal was oriented fundamentally to a ritualistic past rooted in a Brahmanical, Sanskritised tradition. While dismissive of Nurti, he sought to improve on it by incorporating the Buddhist parable with folk drama. Wickramasinghe’s ideal, by contrast, was oriented to a religious past devoid of Brahmanical trappings. In the realm of theatre, until a decade or so later, Sarachchandra’s ideal held sway; in the realm of literature, again until a decade or so later, it was Wickramasinghe’s that did.

When Chittampalam Gardiner raved about Seda Sulang to Lester James Peries, who was much, much younger than either of these cultural giants, the cinema had resisted these ideals. If in their conception of culture Sarachchandra differed from Wickramasinghe, in their critique of bioscope they were more or less alike. They relegated it as an amusement art, a point Sarachchandra underscored when he described Gamperaliya, a film he very much liked, as an opa pathika or a sui generis objet d’art.

Offering a critique of this thesis, Tissa Abeysekara argued that the cinema in Sri Lanka, no doubt epitomised by Lester, underwent the same cultural transformation that the theatre and the novel did. More Christianised than Sarachchandra, and certainly less rooted in the past than him or Wickramasinghe, Peries, not unlike much of the “43 Group” of which his brother, Ivan, had been a founding member, resorted to the visual arts to compensate for his linguistic handicap: just as Ivan had painted, he would film. There could thus be nothing opa pathika about the work he was engaged in; it was rooted, as much as Sarachchandra’s plays and Wickramasinghe’s novels had been, in the cultural revival.

The cinema has been faulted, rightly, as the most Western of all arts; it still hasn’t been “Easternised”, not even by the looming figures of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. In Sri Lanka as in Japan and India, it had to seek inspiration from two art forms rooted in the past. The purveyors of these art forms here both looked to the past, but their conception of it, though ostensibly similar, radically differed from one another. Gardiner may have preferred Seda Sulang to anything Peries could come up with, yet by the end of the decade and the beginning of the next, the revival that Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe had unleashed would find its way to the cinema hall. To these two cultural giants, and to their contrasting attitudes to tradition, Peries thus owes more a considerable debt.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

Covid – 19 or Avian Flu

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Culling chickens Picture Courtesy: Village Square

By the time you read this, lakhs of chickens will have died of Avian Flu. Some will have died naturally. Others will have been beaten to death or strangled.

How many do you think will be buried or burnt? Very few. Most of them will land on your plate, sold at reduced prices by the poultries.

So, what, you say. The newspapers have repeatedly told you that bird flu makes no difference to the quality of chicken you eat and, as long as you cook it, you will come to no harm.

This is utter rubbish and it is being doled out by two interested parties: the poultry industry themselves, so that they do not go completely bankrupt and you continue to buy the diseased dead birds. The second is the government itself: the Animal Husbandry Ministries, who are solely invented to see that India has more poultries, more slaughterhouses. The more animals are eaten, the more successful the Ministry is. Their mandate is NOT sick people. Their mandate is to see that people keep buying chickens, diseased or not. The mandate for looking after sick people belongs to the Ministry of Health. And never the twain shall meet.

Every article will tell you that no humans have ever had Avian Flu. And that it can’t spread from bird to human. This is not true.

If Avian Flu was not zoonotic why are the birds being killed under the Infectious and Contagious Diseases Prevention Act 2009. The word zoonotic means a disease that can be transmitted to a human by an animal. Do you think any government cares when a bird suffers? The only time they wake up is when they know that the disease of the bird can be transmitted to a human. It was first detected in 18 humans in 1997 working in a live bird market in Hong Kong (again Chinese). The strain was identified as H5N1- the same strain that is in India now – with a high mortality rate. Six of the 18 humans died.

Bird Flu has spread across the country. Every single state has it and lakhs are being killed from Himachal Pradesh to Kerala.

You, who cower in fear of COVID – this is also a viral flu disease: Avian Influenza. The Influenza Type A virus has several strains. When it first came to India it was H1N1. Fourteen years later this massive outbreak is from the mutated virus now called H5N1 and H8N1.

Just as syphilis, in every language, means the disease of foreigners, every government believes that Avian Flu comes from migratory birds from a different country, who spread it as their faeces drop from the air and straight into the poultries. That country may never have had bird flu, but their birds have developed it as they fly towards India?

I find it far more likely that the poultries give it to the migratory birds, who have no resistance and so they die. According to the US Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six countries are considered the permanent centres for H5N1 virus in poultry. We top the list followed by China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Egypt. In each of these countries you have to see the horrific conditions that chickens are normally kept in to understand why they fall prey so quickly to Avian Flu.

In India the poultries are like hells on earth. The chickens are kept in filthy small cages unable to move, with sliced off beaks and toes to prevent them from picking each other’s feathers. They are full of sores. Most of them have had rounds of other common diseases: Encephalomyelitis, Chicken Anaemia Virus Infection, Chlamydiosis, Infectious Bronchitis, Infectious Bursal Disease, Infectious Coryza, Infectious Laryngotracheitis, tick fever or Spirochaetosis, Avian Leucosis.

They have permanent diarrhoea, some have bloody diarrhoea from a parasite called coccidia. Most of them cannot walk without extreme difficulty and many have rickets. They have warts and a thick discharge from their eyes, they have pus filled abscesses on their necks and feet. Many of them have diabetes, and a large number have tuberculosis and they can hardly breathe in the damp poisonous air that pervades the poultry. They inhale their own dried faeces. They have a deficiency of Vitamin A and manganese, which makes them lame with swollen eyes. They cough and sneeze. They have round worms and tape worms, lice and fleas, ticks and mites. They live on a diet of antibiotics and dried food with sawdust in it.

They die often of heart attacks.

Every now and then they are wiped out by the contagious fowl pox, fowl cholera or Ranikhet disease.

How could you think that these diseased unhappy creatures would not get Avian flu?

How does it spread to humans? From those people who work in poultries – which is how COVID started. And those who eat poultry products.

The WHO started by saying that there is no evidence that the virus can spread through food – provided it is cooked at more than 60 degree Celsius. What they have neglected to say is that the chicken is handled by you long before it is cooked. You buy the raw chicken from an open street vendor, touch it with your hands, put it into your fridge, put it in various utensils, which are not washed at boiling temperatures but with ordinary tap water. You cut it and splice it and then cook it. By then the virus is in a hundred places and you could have become a carrier.

Even WHO has now diluted its own message and warns that these new mutant viruses could turn into another pandemic. H5N1 has already proven to be very dangerous to humans.

When the disease spreads to humans, it affects the respiratory tract illness, and its symptom include Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, similar to one caused by Covid-19. You will start with fever, cough and a sore throat. You can have abdominal pain and diarrhoea. All these symptoms are similar to Covid.

There have been no tests for it in India. The government labs are now rolling out a test to see whether you have COVID or Avian Flu. There is no vaccine or treatment.

Protect yourself. Don’t eat chicken or eggs. Close down the illegal street vendors. I have done that in my constituency.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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Sat Mag

Locating Anoja

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By Uditha Devapriya

 

The first generation of actors who made their way to the Sri Lankan film industry, hailed, for the most, from suburban, lower middle-class, and Anglicised backgrounds. They entered the industry, despite opposition from their parents, who saw acting as an unworthy, unbecoming profession. Not surprisingly their prospects were limited, and most of them had to learn on their own, often through a patron or a mentor; this was, after all, a medium quite unlike any other, groundbreaking, innovative, and accused then as now of being too Western. Perhaps the latter association unnerved a conservative middle-class who linked it to a Westernised middle-class residing in either Colombo or the immediate periphery.

These first generation actors did not make the transition from stage hall to movie hall their successors did in later years. Many had dabbled in the theatre at school, yet few returned to it. Indeed, despite the symbiotic link between the theatre and film in the early days of our cinema, actors, in general, and actresses in particular, gained no more than a rudimentary smattering of experience in either medium. The Prema Ganegodas and the Malini Fonsekas came later, much later; until then actors continued to defy parental strictures, taking part in beauty contests, being selected by the few (mostly Colombo-based) producers and directors in vogue at the time, and finding a home of sorts in one of the studios.

Indeed, though it lacked a proper financial base, Sri Lanka boasted of its own studio system, with rivalries between producers compelling aspiring actresses to stick to one company or another. Shanthi Lekha’s career is a case in point here: K. Gunaratnam’s most coveted if not most popular actress, she was offered her first role in Sujatha on condition that she not take part in films produced by other companies. Such contractual obligations survived the change of government in 1956 and even the 1965 National Film Commission: as late as 1966, Lester James Peries had to obtain permission from Robin Tampoe to take Swineetha Weerasinghe onboard Delovak Athara. This trend would continue until the 1970s.

If 1956 didn’t entirely change this landscape, it certainly changed the perspective. The rural middle-class, forced into the background until then, made their way to the performing arts industries. Whereas earlier they would have had to defy their elders to act directly in film, now they had a safer intermediary: the theatre. Not every actress took that path; from this period one hears of Malini Fonseka among the big names that did. Yet many kept coming to the cinema through the stage hall: Leonie Kotelawala, Anula Karunathilaka, even the great Denawaka Hamine. Bilingual at most, they were a far cry from the heavily Anglicised urban-suburban middle-class who were dominating the industry then.

Naturally this second generation looked up to the first, just as the third generation following them looked up to the second. That third generation emerged somewhere in the mid-1970s – a period different to the 1960s – and their entry to the cinema differed considerably, if not significantly, from the second and first. By then, largely thanks to the expansion of the film industry and the curtailment of film imports, a rural lower middle-class were growing up on the likes of Malini Fonseka and Swarna Mallawarachchi. If they did not want to be like them, they wanted to be with them. Yet bereft of opportunity and away and apart from the milieu that Fonseka and Mallawarachchi had grown up in, few of them could hope to, and few ever did, make it to the city. Among that few was Anoja Weerasinghe.

I have seen Anoja in a great many films – the good, the bad, the passable – and from them four stick indelibly in my memory: Keli Madala, Siri Medura, Janelaya, and Seilama. It’s not a coincidence that Keli Madala and Maldeniye Simion (which I have not seen) were directed by D. B. Nihalsinghe. Nihalsinghe had been at the forefront of the industry in the 1970s, less as a director than as an administrator, overseeing the biggest overhaul of the sector since its genesis in the 1940s. The National Film Corporation, of which he became the founding CEO, had identified the Indian blockbuster as a negative influence, curtailed imports from Madras and Delhi, brought in films from continental Europe, and attempted unsuccessfully to strike a deal with a major Hollywood studio. Thanks to his efforts, larger numbers of Sinhala films began invading theatres far, far away from Colombo and the Kelani Valley.

Growing up in Badulla and attending school there and later in Moneragala – the two poorest districts in Sri Lanka – Anoja remembers seeing one film in particular: Welikathara, no less than Nihalsinghe’s directorial debut. The first Sinhala film shot in Cinemascope, it required a wide screen the likes of which were not available in theatres outside Colombo at the time. Forced to adapt, theatre owners screened it through conventional projectors, distorting the image. Despite this, Welikathara’s interest transcended its technical limitations. For Anoja it seemed like a baptism of fire: “from then on,” she recalls, “I resolved to see as many Sinhala films as possible, and to enter the industry.”

If in the city she discovered the cinema, in the village back home she was discovering the theatre. She didn’t receive any formal training until much later, but as a child, she tells me, she kept an “intimate bond with the stage hall.” Artistically inclined, her parents encouraged her penchant for the theatre. In Badulla and in Moneragala, not surprisingly, “I took part in several concerts and plays.” The first of those plays, “staged when I had turned five or six”, had her play out the role of a Japanese princess. Her first real theatrical performance came much later, when she had turned 13. The latter had impressed a visiting MP so much that he had praised her. The MP, she recalls, “came from the city”, and his comments had struck her visibly. In response, “I could only stare and gape at him.”

Going to the movies had not been easy. In the Sinhala village of the 1970s, it was considered almost a ritual. “My friends and I would invariably pick on the 6.30 show and we’d invariably go for as many screenings as we could.” The challenge was to sample the latest movies, all of them if possible, and this Anoja attempted to balance with her studies. But for a Sinhala lower middle-class village girl with very few prospects outside her home, there was really no world beyond the actors, the actresses, and the directors she consumed. From seeing them to being with them would take some years, but in the end she managed to make it with a bit role in Yasapalitha Nanayakkara’s Tak Tik Tuk.

Yasapalitha Nanayakkara released Tak Tik Tuk a year after he wrapped up work on another film that featured Anoja in a more prominent role, Monarathanne, where she found herself acting opposite not just Vijaya Kumaratunga and Malini Fonseka, but also the grande dame of the Sinhala cinema herself, Rukmani Devi. Anoja had lasted for just 30 seconds in Tak Tik Tuk; here her performance spanned the entirety of the production. Filled as it was with the great Khemadasa’s music and an uncharacteristically restrained performance by Rukmani, Monarathanne proved to be Anoja’s second baptism of fire after her encounter years ago with Welikathara. Nanayakkara, however, came and went; following him, soon to become Anoja’s mentor, was Welikathara’s director, D. B. Nihalsinghe.

To list down all of Anoja’s credits here would be pointless, both for reasons of space and for the simple fact that not all of them reveal her potential well. I can think of four films – all of which I’ve listed above – and I can think of one other which really brought out her thespian prowess: Jackson Anthony’s Julietge Bhoomikawa. Anthony released his film somewhere in 1998, eight years after Lever Brothers sponsored a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Drama (LAMDA). That milestone had come two years after she had won the Silver Peacock for Best Actress at the 11th International Film Festival in New Delhi. The winning performance had been in another film by Nihalsinghe, Maldeniye Simion.

At this point in the interview Anoja opts to reflect on Nihalsinghe. She is noticeably eager. “I was like a ball of clay under him, to be honest,” she recalls. “He moulded me. To this day, I can’t explain how he did it, and how I played for him, whether in Maldeniye Simion or in Keli Madala. Contrary to most accounts of him, he was quite gentle if not soft-spoken, careful with his players. When he instructed me, he lowered his voice so much that the actor beside me couldn’t hear what he was saying. In a very subtle manner he managed to draw out the character he wanted me to play. Working for him, acting for him, was always a pleasure. He got out what he wanted, and I gave out what I could.”

Nihalsinghe, in fact, retained his trust in her so much that he went against both producer and storywriter when he suggested her for Maldeniye Simion. “Arawwala Nandimitra, who wrote the original novel, and the producers, among whom was Vijaya Ramanayake, opposed his choice. They tried to back out. But Nihalsinghe held firm. He told them that if he couldn’t have me for the film, he would not make it. However begrudgingly, they relented, and in the end admitted they had been quite wrong about me.”

Just what makes Anoja’s acting tick? Part of her charm, I think, lies in how well she has been able, not to emulate, but to invert, Malini Fonseka. The contrast between the two comes off vividly in Parakrama Niriella’s Siri Medura. Critics have invariably compared Anoja to Swarna Mallawarachchi, but to me the analogy remains superficial at best and misleading at worst. Swarna’s forte in the 1980s (her best period) lay in how well she inverted the stereotype of the good village girl corrupted by the immoral city man. It is in how she fights back, and (as with Dadayama) dies or (as with Kadapathaka Chaya) becomes a female counterpart of the chauvinists she’s battling, that her élan comes out.

Anoja’s élan is of a different order, and I wrap up this tribute to her by recalling the endings of Seilama and Nihalsinghe’s Keli Madala, which have her as defeated protagonists; whereas Swarna emerges triumphant, even in death, Anoja can only despair and give up, though this does not make her defeat any less poignant. To me the finest performance she’s given will always be the final sequence in Siri Medura; there, with just one take, she gives completely into hysterics and runs off, shocked that she’s just killed not just the man she loved, but the woman who intervened to break up their relationship. It is a master-class in acting, and in its own way, a testament to how well that third generation I wrote of at the beginning sprang up, and carved a place for themselves, in the annals of our cinema.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

Hela Havula marks 80th Anniversary

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By K. A. I. Kalyanaratne

Vice President, Hela Havula
Senior Manager, Publications
The Postgraduate Institute of
Management
University of Sri Jayewardenepura
The need to regulate and
standardize language

Language is the key instrument that binds a society, and provides the linkages to maintain the societal structure in its different fronts. Therefore, it is an utmost social responsibility of a community to regulate its language so that it would be able to meet these laudable objectives. The view that change being the order of the day everything is changing, and, therefore, it is futile to regulate a language is shallow and shortsighted. Change is inevitable, and it is a phenomenon of nature. However, a language should not be changed just for the sake of changing, unless the necessity arises for a change. Most of the changes that have taken place recently are not born out of necessity, but due to other factors including blind and naked ignorance and slothfulness to find the correct usage. Laws, rules, regulations, and procedures bring order and system to a society and its elements. In the same manner, grammar, idiom and syntax bring precision and clarity to any language whose objective is to convey a sender’s message to the recipients exactly in the same manner he/she wishes to transmit it. Politics is an honorable ‘game’. But it is now played mostly by ‘dirty fellows’. Likewise over-democratization of language has made this all-important human invention ‘a dumping ground for all sorts of garbage in the guise of language and literature’.

Establishment of Language Organizations

Among a host of cultural elements, it is the language that stands as a monolith ensuring the identity of a particular community. Each language has its own set of grammar, usage, idioms and its fundamentals on word formations. Further, it is this identity that needs to be preserved. This identity becomes more important in languages like Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi as their nouns are declinable and their verbs are conjugatable. They, in fact, preserve and sustain the identity and uniqueness of these languages. Realizing the predicament as to how these languages would behave, sans their identities, many communities have formed organizations to preserve the respective identities while doing their utmost to enlarge their vocabulary as well as diversify and develop their literature. Three such organizations formed in our sub-continental region are:

The Hela Havula

– Formed by the literary giant Cumaratunga Munidasa in 1941, and presently governed by an act of Parliament, referred to as the Hela Havula (Incorporation) Act No. 38 of 1992. An important legal provision in the Hela Havula Act being the prevalence of Sinhala in the case of any inconsistency in any legal interpretation of the law. The bedrock of the Hela Havula Act is, invariably,

The Central Hindi Directorate –

set up with the objective of fulfilling the constitutional obligations of Article 351 (of the Constitution of India) to develop and propagate the cause of Hindi language, all over the country and abroad.

Central Institute of Classical Tamil – an organization that is functioning in Chennai for the development of the Tamil language. This is an independent organization functioning under the Ministry of Human Resource Development Department.

Similar developments were taking place almost during the same period in the West as well, and some of the more conspicuous associations being:

The Académiefrançaise – the French Academy

, – considered as the pre-eminent French Council for matters pertaining to the French language. Its primary role is to regulate the French language by determining standards of acceptable grammar and vocabulary, as well as adapting to linguistic change by adding new words and updating the meanings of existing ones. As the spread of English has had much influence on other national languages, one of the main tasks of the French Academy is focused on lessening the influx of English terms into French by choosing or inventing French equivalents.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language

is the organization established for the furtherance and advancement of the Hebrew language. The Academy of the Hebrew Language was formed by Hemda Ben-Yehuda. His main industry revolved around the colossal enterprise of reviving the Hebrew language by gathering into one volume all Hebrew words.
Formation of the Hela Havula

The formation of the Hela Havula, on January 11, 1941, is a day to remember as this significant event impacted heavily on the preservation of the Sinhala language and its idiom in the last 80 years. Its founder the late Cumaratunga Munidasa was ably supported by many an erudite scholar including Jayantha Weerasekara -critique and journalist, Raphael Tennekoon – editor, grammarian, poet and elucidator, Amarasiri Gunawardana (Amarasiri Gunawadu) – grammarian, poet and elucidator. There were a host of others who joined the movement later and contributed substantially towards the furtherance of the Hela Havula objectives. They represented people from all walks of life.

The listing of all of them is an exhaustive exercise. However, to name a few in order to show the variety and richness of the association, it included the active participation of such personalities as Rev. Kodagoda Gnanaloka Thero – linguist, grammarian, editor and expositionist, Father Marcelline Jayakody – musician poet and lyricist, Father Moses Perera – hymn writer,

Ven. Thirikunamale Ananda Anunayaka Thera, editor and poet, (teacher, , poet and editor and lexicographer, Manahanama Dissanayake – editor, journalist and poet, W. M (Wema) Perera – teacher and editor, Sunil Santha – lyricist and musician, Sir Raazeek Zaruk – lawyer, Jayamaha Wellala – poet, Hubert Dissanayake – writer, poet and lyricist, Alau Isi Sebi Hela – teacher, writer, poet and expositionist, Prof. (doctor, lyricist), Mohotti Don David -journalist and editor, Prof. Vinnie Vitharana -university don, author and expositionist, Aelian de Silav – engineer, linguist, editor and critique, – writer and critique, – teacher, author and poet, D.V. Richard De Silva – teacher, and author, K B (Ku.Be) Jayasuriya – teacher and author, P. C. Rathnayake -teacher and writer, Gamini Thilakawardana – author, poet and journalis, Hubert Dissanayake – writer and lyricist, Anandapiya Kudathihi – editor, journalist and poet, Gunapala Senadeera – educationist, expositionist and poet, Jayasekara Abeyruwan – author, P.B. Balasuriya – teacher and writer, A. D. (A. Do) Chandrasekara – teacher and author, Hemasiri Kumaratunga – writer and critique, D. D, N (Da Du Na) Weerakoon – writer and editor, K. A. S. Kalyanaratne (Sumanadas Kalanaruwan) – critique and poet and Bandusena Gunasekara – university don, writer and editor, Hemasiri Cumaratunga – editor, writer and critique, Amarasiri Ponnamperuma – ayurvedic physician, poet and editor.

Hela Havula and its main objectives

It is in the light of the above one needs to look at the main objectives of the Hela Havula, which marks its 80th anniversary on January 11, 2021. It is expected to fulfil the following?

(a) to promote and develop the Sinhala language, literature and culture;

(b) to protect the rights and interests of the Sinhala people;

(c) to organize and hold seminars and conferences at the national and international

level;

(d) to promote research in languages and to give publicity to literary works;

(e) to foster unity and to promote the dissemination of the traditional spiritual values among the Sinhala people; and

(f) to do such other acts and things as are conducive or incidental to the attainment of all or any of the above objects.

 

Relevance of reviewing the 80-year march of the Hela Havula

Viewing in retrospect the 80-year march of an organization that was committed to doing its utmost for the sustainability and progress of a language and its literature is, indeed, a healthy way of ascertaining how far it had tread, and whether its objectives have been met as expected. It is, in fact, an exercise in self-criticism, which helps pointing out the weaknesses one needs to overcome, and the strengths one needs to sharpen. Such a review would also provide an opportunity for those who intend joining the movement to assess if it has served and whether it would serve a useful purpose in the years to come.

Planning and reforming the Sinhala language


The Hela Havula, therefore, as the organization responsible for the sustenance and propagation of the Sinhala language (as no other institute or organization has assumed this role) has taken over the responsibility for the planning as well as establishing the norms of the language.

Planning calls for the initial task of researching and discovering the norms and rules that were used and adopted by the writers of the past. This, in fact, is researching or probing into the rules and norms that referred to by Einar Ingval Haugen, (American linguist, author and professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Harvard University), as language planning and corpus planning. Haugen, later labeled the former category Codification or Standardization procedure, and the latter Elaboration or the functional development of the language.

Preparing the platform to launch the Hela Havula

The normal approach followed in forming an association is to consider its ingredients/components only after it is launched. But the more prudent method would be to prepare the platform before launching of the movement, as a movement cannot exist, sustain and survive unless the necessary conditions prevail for its establishment and continuance. Kumaratunga didn’t want to take chances in the launching of the Hela Havula. He being a visionary par excellence, foresaw the components and the background for such a movement to thrive sans any hiccups. It is due to this visionary thinking that the Hela Havula, has survived for a period of eighty (80) long years, amidst grave challenges. Among the many ingredients that were needed for the Hela Havula to thrive, the following were considered as more important and essential.:

(a)

Unearthing the correct Sinhala idiom and usage: As the Hela Havula was established mainly for the continuity and furtherance of the correct Sinhala idiom and usage, Kumaratunga studied in entirety the classics (both prose and verse) of yesteryear, and fished out the correct usage the current Sinhala language should follow. Herein Gurulugomi’s Amavatura and Dharmapradeepikawa were held in high esteem as they projected the personality the Sinhala language should possess.

(b)

Establishing the methodology to be followed in the exposition of classical Sinhala literary works. It was only after Kumaratunga’s exposition of Sinhala classics such as Sasadava (Sasada Vivaranaya) and Mayura Sandesaya (Mayura Sandesa Vivaranaya) that the later scholars adopted the methodology for undertaking similar expositions in the future.

(c)

Bringing order to the Sinhala grammar through the two seminal works Vyakarana Vivaranaya and Kriya Vivaranaya. In the introduction to the Vyakarana Vivaranaya Kumaratunga says “Grammar is the laws that regulate a language. … Therefore, what the grammarian should do is to study the laws of grammar by studying the usage of the language, winnow the (chaff), ascertain the conspicuous peculiarities and reproduce them concisely. ” Introduction to Vyakarana Vivaranaya, 1937). Kriya Vivaranaya, an exposition of the Sinhala verb, is an unparalleled study, and a unique scholarly work which has not been matched or superseded by any other subsequent expositions on the Sinhala verb. Verbs represent the most knotty and complex grammatical category in any language. Precision in any language, for that matter, is determined by the preciseness of its verbal expressions. It is the verb that gives meaning to a sentence.

(d)

Introduction of creative works – both prose and verse – Kumaratunga showed how creative works could be produced in both prose and poetic (verse) forms. His Piya Samara (Remembering Father) is considered by the current day literati as a unique piece of writing composed in gee style. His poetic compositions done in different meters, exemplify clearly his in-depth knowledge of our poetic compositions. His ‘Kavi Shikshava’ and ‘Virith Vekiya’ are two seminal works that provide the Sinhala poets with a comprehensive knowledge on both poetic compositions as well as the closeness that needs to exist between the poetic subject and the meter selected to convey the meaning. He explicitly states that the meter or viritha is not secondary but a complimentary component of a poem.

(e)

Exposing the methodology for rendering foreign words into Sinhala. Other than the ‘indeclinable words’ (Nipatha pada) the rest of the words, nouns and verbs are declinable and conjugatable respectively. Kumaratunga exposed the three-way approach applicable for rendering of foreign words into Sinhala:

(i)

Sinhalising the foreign word by converting it to a declinable form, examples being basaya for bus, kulagiya for college

(ii) Rendering into Sinhala the foreign word by adopting Sinhala words that almost sound similar, examples being, talabamanaya for turbine, taliksuva for telescope, miyasiya for music, and Kamituwa for committee.

(iii)

Rendering of foreign words into Sinhala, based on Sinhala noun/verbal roots, examples being, sarasaviya for university, purapati for mayor, hediya for nurse, sirasthalaya for headline, lipigonuwa for file.

Responsibilities cast on the Hela Havula

As the main cultural component of a community is its language, over the years the Hela Hawula has strived hard to continue to maintain the correct Sinhala idiom by publishing a considerable number of works on grammar, based on the presumption that

“Grammar is the basis of a language, the framework on which ideas are hung, and the loftiest imagery of thought can fall flat if ungrammatically expressed. (The Right Way to Improve Your English by J.E. Metcalfe, Eliot Books UK, 1958). It is on record that celebrated writer G. K. Chesterton once said that ‘easy reading meant hard writing’. One could imagine then the task the late scholar Cumaratunga Munidasa and those of the Hela Havula undertook to discover/ unearth the Sinhala literary tradition, and create the desired standards in the language for present and future writers to produce their literary work including technological literature without causing confusion among the readership

This is what Cumaratunga Munidasa did through his Vyakarana Vivaranaya and the Kriya Vivaranaya. Elaborating and further explaining his expositions a gamut of linguistic works were produced by scholars of the Hela Havula. Among, these the following stand out as more prominent:

Honda Sinhala by Raphael Tennekoon
Sinhalaye Pada Bedeema by Arisen Ahubudu and Liyanage Jinadas
Jyeshta Sinhalaya by JayasekaraAbeyruwan
Vyakarana Visithura by Vini Vitharana
Akshara Shikshava by Srinath Ganewatte, and
Na-na-la-la Vahara by Anandapiya Kudathihi

Hela Vahara

by A. P. Gunaratne

 

It thus seems that on grammar and overall issues on the Sinhala language and literature it is the Hela Havula that is calling the shots.

However, a word of caution as the Hela Havula being the only organized body having the backing of a legally accepted framework, it needs to be more vigorous in its strategy and approach. It is admitted that in the prevailing circumstances it is extremely difficult to marshal the resources to sustain the movement in the desired vigour and rigour. However, the Hela Havula needs to be ever vigilant of its responsibilities and commitments. Realising the context in which it has to deliver the goods, those of the Hela Havula should be thorough and competent as it is destined to face daunting challenges. The following are a few vulgarisations that have recently crept into the language:

 

IncorrectCorrect

Divi magaDivi mangaDivi negumaDivi nengumaJaya gamuJaya ganimuViyath MagaViyath MangaSamagi Jana BalavegayaSamangi Jana BalavegayaNeganiya Nenganiya

Uniqueness of the Sinhala language and its alphabet

Professor Emeritus J. B. Dissanayaka has correctly realized the uniqueness and creativity of the Sinhala language and its alphabet. In his Encyclopaedia of the Sinhala Language he says “The numerous linguistic features that made Sinhala a unique Indo-Aryan language are remarkable. Suffice to say that they even modified the Brahmi script that they inherited from India by the addition of two sets of letters: the two vowels to denote the sounds [a] in English ‘and’ and ‘ant’, and a set of four nasalized consonants, which are unique in Sinhala. Hence, to eliminate the nasalized consonant ‘nga’ and use vulgarized words as ‘VIYATH MAGA’, SAMAGI JANA BALA VEGAYA’,’DIVI NEGUMA’, ‘DIVI MAGA’ and ‘NEGANIYA’ are, in short, heinous crimes.

 

 

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