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Midweek Review

‘Truth and Science’ has won the US presidential election;

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will America win the world through it?

By Rohana R. Wasala

America is the most religious and the most nationalistic country in the world, in addition to being a global superpower. When the Democrats who fought the election on a platform of ‘Truth and Science’ defeated the Republicans who were guided or misguided by a person/a cult figure (instead of a coherent policy) whom many popular polls described as mendacious and ignorant on top of being an indecent narcissistic exemplar of religious and nationalistic extremism, racism and misogyny, it is natural for a world, persecuted by America’s hegemonic political economic and military power, to breathe a sigh of relief. Democratic Party’s Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been declared President and Vice-President elects respectively, beating Republican Party’s Donald Trump, incumbent President, and his Vice-President and running mate Mike Pence. Sri Lanka is, no doubt, currently sharing that universal sense of consolation. Although some anti-national, NGO-dominated social media are trying in vain to turn that hopeful feeling to gloomy apprehension by drumming up a certain unfounded ‘Kamala Harris’ phobia, signs are that, probably, average Sri Lankans cannot wish a better person to be in that post to channel America’s influence in their region in a universally beneficent direction. My purpose here is to take a look at hypocritical religiosity and nationalism-turned-racism (versions of fundamentalist religion and racist jingoism, respectively), both at the service of despicable value-free politics, that Truth and Science successfully challenged at the recent US presidential election. 

Religion is about human ‘spirituality’. Spirituality is ‘the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things’, in other words, with the mind as distinct from the body. So, it is appropriate to approach the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a psychological point of view. Some psychologists assume religious fundamentalism to be ‘a collection of infallible beliefs or principles that provide guidance regarding how to obtain salvation. Religious fundamentalists believe in the superiority of their religious teachings, and in a strict division between righteous people and evildoers…… This belief system regulates religious thoughts, but also all conceptions regarding the self, others, and the world’ (frontiers.org). Isn’t every religion fundamentalist by nature in this sense? But there are two kinds of religious fundamentalism in my opinion, harmless and harmful. What should concern us is the latter. The more a religion tends towards harmful religious fundamentalism, the more it resembles a cult that thrives on unhinged minds. A cult, we know, is ‘a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object’. (Both dictionary definitions given in this paragraph are from google.com)

The rise of Christian fundamentalism in America in the 19th century as a Protestant movement to counter theological liberalism and cultural modernism can be described as the advocacy of a return to the basic ‘infallible beliefs or principles ….’ of the Christian faith. That was harmless fundamentalism and was viewed as something positive. Actually, the term fundamentalism as originally applied to Christianity in America had non-violent, ‘you mind your own business, we mind ours’ connotations; the word acquired the current pejorative meaning in the media when it began to be connected with violent Islamic movements in the Middle East in the 1970s decade, a most conspicuous event among which was the 1979 Iran Revolution, that toppled the US-backed Shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, during President Jimmy Carter’s last year in office. The latter, now 96, congratulated president elect Joe Biden and vice-president elect Kamala Harris as the media reported November 8.  

Religious fundamentalism becomes a problem when any religion claims monopoly over  

Truth (whatever that is), superiority over other faiths regardless of whether they also make similar claims about themselves, seeks to rescue the ‘misguided’ adherents of those faiths from allegedly false and evil beliefs and practices through coercion where conversion through conviction doesn’t work, or even resorts to violence to have its way with people, evoking divine authority to justify it. Religions are intrinsically political, but rarely democratically so. Religion and politics make a violently explosive mixture. (‘Politics has killed its thousands, but religion has slain its tens of thousands’. – Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey, ‘Religion kills’ ‘Religion poisons everything’ – British intellectual and socio-cultural and political critic Christopher Hitchens.) The Founding Fathers of the USA including Thomas Jefferson sought to establish a ‘wall of separation between the State and the Church’ to keep civil government free from the interferences of the Catholic clergy. The concept was termed ‘secularism’ only in the 19th century by British reformer George Jacob Holyoake.

Religious interference in what should come within exclusive state purview, for example public education, has persisted even into the third millennium, in America. A survey conducted in 2006 by Zogby International for the Discovery Institute found that approximately 70% of Americans approved of the view that biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also ‘the scientific evidence against it’ in contrast to 21% who held the opinion that only evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it must be taught in schools. This is the result of benighted ignorance – inexcusable in those who claim to be the greatest democracy and the only superpower in the world – that is at the root of religious fundamentalism. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says that ‘the theory of evolution is actually a fact – as incontrovertible a fact as any in science’. There isn’t any scientific evidence against it. Prof. Dawkins makes ‘a personal summary of the evidence’ available to support this factual reality in his fascinating  book ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, Bantam Press, GB, 2009. The plain but profound final sentence of the book is worth quoting: ‘We are surrounded by endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random natural selection – the only game in town, the greatest show on Earth’. 

In his book ‘Against Religion’ (Scribe Publications, Brunswick, VIC, Australia, 2007), Dr Tamas Pataki of the University of Melbourne makes a philosophical critique of religion, which goes beyond the neighbourhood of what, according to him, may be called psychology of religion. Pataki adopts religious scholar and philosopher John Haldane’s brief characterization of religion: ‘religion is best characterised as a system of beliefs and practices directed towards a transcendent reality in relation to which persons seek solutions to the observed facts of moral and physical evil, limitation and vulnerability, particularly and especially death.’ 

Scottish philosopher and academic John Haldane was a papal advisor to the Vatican. Obviously, he is not anti-religion; he is pro-religion.

 

He believes in the necessity of religion as a foundational political principle that fosters values like respect for others’ rights, and support for their well-being in multicultural multi-religious societies which are the global norm today for most countries; religion, according to him, is the best, and indeed, the only source of such ideas. Critics of religion argue that religions differ on what they consider to be moral and good, and instead of promoting goodwill and compassion towards people of other religions, sow feelings of mutual alienation, suspicion, and disunity, and egoistic self-absorption. Religious fundamentalism of both the benign and the malign kinds aggravate such attitudes.   

According to Pataki, criticising religion is a complicated matter because there is so much diversity within religions. He writes: ‘The historical denominational differences are bad enough, but recent developments have completely erased any hope of perspicuous demarcation. Today the ineluctable longing for group identity drives even those who divest religion of its defining doctrinal content to religious affiliation. The denial of the Resurrection and the Deity is no bar to identifying as a Christian. Iris Murdoch (Irish British novelist and philosopher deeply concerned about good and evil) enjoined a Christianity without God or divine Jesus, a kind of Christian Buddhism. Unbelief has become belief.’

Pataki’s critical discussion is predicated on people that he describes as ‘religiose’, who include most of the groups currently identified as fundamentalist, among others. Another factor that forms an obstacle to criticism of religion is that it, like politics, cuts across a range of absolutely different fields: ideology/doctrine, practices, rituals, institutions, movements, attitudes, votaries, and priests. The evils of religion examined in the book are conspicuous in the three well known Abrahamic monotheisms, according to Pataki’s thinking.

Religion is not all bad, though, as already suggested. To many people religion is invaluable as the deepest expression of human worth and moral well-being. It is also an inexhaustible source of consolation for them in personally and socially distressful, emotionally draining situations such as bereavement and natural catastrophes. However, Pataki adds reservations to this: ‘There is no metric for religion at its best, but it is not hard to measure it at its worst, in the tenebrous collapse of reason and in corpses. Besides, it is obviously more important today to confront religion at its worst and most dangerous. The good takes care of itself.’ The further a religion is from blind irrationality and intrinsic violence, the greater is its potential as a socio-cultural institution for the general good of the community concerned.

Pataki describes ten characteristics of religious fundamentalism, which I will set down here – with my own elaborations given in parentheses, in some cases, as I understand them (Some of these were accidentally revealed during the US election): Religious fundamentalists are counter-modernists; they advocate religious, cultural and political isolationism; they are assertive, clamorous, and often violent, (but they play the victim card when confronted); fundamentalists believe that they are the Elect of their god, the Chosen people, the Saved, etc; they display public marks of distinction, which they think are necessary to maintain their superiority and distinctive identity (so, they may wear special body marks, adopt a special dress code, and use names that reveal their specific religious identity); religious fundamentalists believe that (as theirs is the one true religion and the one exclusively blameless way of life) these must not allow any inroads to be made into their domain from other religions (or secularist institutions, religious pluralism is unthinkable for them). A sixth characteristic belief that fundamentalists commonly share is that there is only one inerrant holy book, and one inerrant prophet or charismatic leader (both of which they have been divinely favoured with). They also believe that law and authority come from God and that God’s law surpasses human law. Yet another fundamentalist characteristic is the preoccupation with controlling female sexuality; unbreachable segregation must be established between men and women. Pataki identifies the ninth characteristic of fundamentalists as their major concern with the sexual behaviour of individuals; the fear of and opposition to homosexuality. The tenth characteristic of fundamentalists is that their religious fundamentalism is inseparable from their nationalism (nationalism of the evil kind, racism, the ‘all for ourselves and nothing for other people’ doctrine usually adopted by Americans that Noam Chomsky criticises in in his book ‘Who Rules the World’, 2016).  

For me, evidence for the last point mentioned came from the tail end of Donald Trump’s election campaign. The nationalism slogan was loudly chanted on the stages of both camps, Democratic and Republican. There is nothing wrong with that. Good nationalism should be commended. Racism that passes for nationalism is what is bad. On the Republican side, the identity between the wrong kind of nationalism (white racism) and what can be described as religious fundamentalism in terms of the characteristics given above, was particularly conspicuous. Paula White, Trump’s spiritual adviser, held a number of prayer services invoking divine blessings for his victory even as his defeat had become a certainty by the final stages of the counting process which was still in progress in the wake of the just concluded presidential election. She, apparently, engaged in battle with the ‘demonic confederacies’ that were allegedly trying to steal Trump’s victory (cf. ‘a strict division between righteous people and evildoers’ in the second paragraph from the beginning of this essay). She loudly chanted: ‘Strike Strike…. I Strike the ground……..until you have Victory…..I hear a sound of Victory…I hear an overabundance of Rain and Victory in the Quarters of Heaven…..I hear Shouting and Singing…. Angels are being released……are being despatched…’ etc. Then she broke into speaking in tongues (directly communicating with God) like Paul did after Christ resurrected: ‘Amanda, Atha, Rasa, Baka, Ambo, Rike, Eka, Anda, Anda, Manda… I hear the sound of Victory, etc’.  Trump lost in spite of all this. The Democrat Joe Biden, who, on his part, presumably, made as passionate a supplication for divine intervention for his victory, won the election. But his no nonsense main campaign slogan ‘Battle for the Soul of the Nation Our Best Days Still Lie Ahead No Malarkey! Build Back Better Unite for a Better America’ had little to do with religion. 

When all is said and done, it is up to the American people, as Americans, to choose their ruler/s for the next four years; they are doing that now. On the face of it, especially to us outsiders, the winning margin of four million votes according to estimates at the time of writing (Biden’s 74 to Trump ‘s 70 million) is a bit disappointing; the gap should have been wider, we feel, given the  unpopularity of the latter, deepened by the anti-Trump stance of the media and Trump’s own apparent personal perverseness, his unconcealed white supremacist bravado and his sexist prejudice displayed against his own near and dear ones. However, only his 70 million or more supporters know what endeared him to them. Outsiders cannot decide for Americans. The best we may expect from the incoming US administration is that they appreciate this reality in respect of Sri Lanka when considering whether or not to continue or modify the established tradition of intervention and interference in its affairs in pursuit of their geopolitical ends in its region as an essential part of their grand scheme of serving their own national interest back home. 

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Midweek Review

A philosopher emperor

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by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

 

The titles of books can be misleading. I recall the surprise of a colleague when she saw me carrying a work titled ‘Why is Sex Fun?’ In that book, biologist Jared Diamond explores why human sexual behaviour is so very different from that of animals, even though we are descended from them and still retain some of their behavioural characteristics. The book’s subtitle is ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. The title of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s work, ‘Religion Without God’ (Harvard University Press), seems to be a contradiction, if not an absurdity. Can an atheistic doctrine (the negating particle ‘a’ + theo) be called a religion? But then atheist Einstein said he was religious: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty … this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.” Some have argued that in true Buddhism, that is, as it was preached, there are no gods; even that Buddhism is not a religion but a set of moral precepts and wise, compassionate guidance. So much depends on our definition and concept of terms.

The title of the work that occupies us here, ‘How to Think like a Roman Emperor’ by Donald Robertson (New York, 2019), can initially be misleading. Did all Roman emperors think alike? Not being a Roman emperor, how can I possibly think like one? Again, the book’s subtitle clarifies: ‘The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius’. This brings us to Aurelius (121 – 180 CE) and to Stoicism. Admittedly, I have long admired Marcus Aurelius and, to alter words from Ben Jonson, have honoured him “this side of idolatry”. As a note has it, “Marcus Aurelius was the first prominent example of a philosopher king. His Stoic tome ‘Meditations’, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.”

Socrates, at his trial at which he chose death, said that an unexamined life was not worth living. Aurelius began each morning by thinking about, planning and preparing for the day. The second phase was when he, as emperor, had to act. Finally, at night he reviewed the day and his conduct during it. The ‘Meditations’ was not written for others: it was a kind of “stock taking” of himself, his reactions and behaviour. Aurelius warns himself not to become a Caesar, that is, a dictator. He tried, as far as custom and circumstances permitted, to reduce the pomp which surrounded him (Pope Francis comes to mind) preferring a simple, unpretentious life. As the Greeks knew, we can never see our own face, except by reflection in a mirror. A true friend can act as a mirror, showing us as we really are. Aurelius, therefore, welcomed criticism. Severe on himself, he was patient and kind towards others. As history shows, this extended even to those who had rebelled against him. I wonder if Forster’s comment in his novel, ‘A Passage to India’, that truth is not truth unless spoken gently, derives from the words and example of Marcus Aurelius. Truth, if spoken unkindly, serves only to alienate and antagonise. It may silence the other but does not convince or persuade. In his ‘Meditations’, Aurelius records and rebukes himself when he falls short of the standards he has set himself. The emperor wondered how he could estimate the worth of an individual, and decided it was by seeing to what things that person gave value. In modern terms, it doesn’t mean we must not take an interest in cricket, fashion or food but how much importance and value do we place on such things? Aurelius as emperor couldn’t retreat to his library but had to act. When war broke out on the frontier, he left the safety and comfort of Rome and placed himself at the front with his soldiers. Nor was he solemn and humourless. He is reported to have been good-humoured, affectionate, and close to his family and friends. Before age and responsibilities burdened him, he had hobbies and, as was expected of Roman youths and young men, was active in sports.

At the end, knowing that he was dying; that doctors and medicines couldn’t help, the Emperor calmly and courageously declined food and drink so as not to engage in a futile prolongation of the inevitable. Such an attitude and action are the result of long and serious thought, and preparation: in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (Act 1, Scene 4) it’s said of a man that he faced his own execution as one who had “studied” how to die. Aurelius must have known the Latin saying that someone who is not afraid of death cannot be enslaved. Changing time and place, John Donne in a sonnet that begins “Death be not proud” argues that since a person can die only once, having killed him, it’s Death that dies. And in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Act 2, Scene 2) Caesar says: “Cowards die many times before their deaths”. As he was dying, Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, managed to send a text message to his wife in the language he loved, Latin. It consisted of two words: Noli timere (Don’t fear).

Though I am in no way a specialist in either, I am struck by important similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. For a start, the cornerstone of both is rationality. The Buddha lived from 563 – 483 BCE and Zeno, credited with being the founder of Stoicism, from 334 – 262 BCE. And long before Alexander the Great reached India in 326 BCE, there were links between India and the West. Did Asian Buddhism play a role in the development of Western Stoicism? If research has been done in this area, it has not received publicity: the most effective way of “sinking” a book is to ignore it. Take, for example, Martin Bernal’s thesis in his ‘Black Athena’ that the roots of Western Classical civilization were Afro-Asian. So too, many a male must have been outraged by Martin Stone when he argued in ‘When God was a Woman’ that the first divinities before whom we bowed our heads or prostrated ourselves were female, particularly the ‘mother goddess’. In Sri Lanka, that lucid and refreshing, if radical, work by Dr K S Palihakkara, ‘Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’ (Stamford Lake publishers, Pannipitiya) has not excited much, if any, public discussion. Dr Palihakkara’s declared effort was to rescue and cleanse Buddhism from the accretion over time of “myths and miracles and metaphysics”: these took away what was unique to Buddhism, making it more like other religions.

So much of our attitude to life and death depends on our eschatology, our ideas and beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Stoics were atheists believing that at death we disintegrate into and merge with the material, a material which is itself constantly changing. Whether there’s a similarity here with Buddhism, I leave to the reader. The cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy, as of Buddhism, include wisdom (the product of reason and thought), moderation and justice. With Buddhism, it’s not mere verbal and public protestation but actual practice, and so it was with the Stoics. Stoicism was a way of life, assiduously trained in; exemplified by character and conduct.

While in Islam representations of the Prophet are forbidden, Christianity has many paintings and sculptures of Jesus; Jesus with different expression, including pain, even agony. In contrast, the Buddha is almost invariably depicted as being serene. When we lived in Bonn, I used to admire the swans on the Rhine, their sedateness and dignity but, looking more carefully, one saw that these were the result of their feet working constantly, often against the current. So too, the serenity of the Buddha is the result of thought and effort: as is the calm associated with the Stoic.

Anger is temporary madness. Because a deranged person is not controlled by reason, it follows that someone who is angry, someone whose anger is not under control is, for the duration, mad. True Buddhists and Stoics do not give in to anger; they remain detached; free and above this “madness”.

Stoic calmness, the result of mental control, must not be mistaken for emotionlessness. To feel pain and sorrow is human: what counts is our reaction to them. The operative word here is “acceptance”. Sorrow, while it has its impact on us, must be met with wisdom; pain, with acceptance. (Related to acceptance is the key term and concept of relinquishment.) Thorns hurt, and the Bible advises us not to increase the pain by kicking against them. The Stoic image was of a dog tied to a cart: the dog can either walk along or make things worse for itself by struggling, futilely and painfully. A 20th century philosopher asked for the courage to change those things which can be changed; the serenity to accept what can’t be altered, and the wisdom to know the difference. Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, brings in modern terms and concepts to an understanding of Marcus Aurelius, among them the Stoic reserve-clause. Our expectations are ‘reserved’ for what is within our sphere of control: the rest is up to chance or, as believers would say, “Deo volente” or “Deo gratis”. (When I asked a friend why he often said “Inshallah” though he had never been a Muslim and was in fact a thorough atheist, he replied that it was in a philosophical and not in a religious sense: “If my effort and chance will it”.) As with emotions, so with our desires: of importance to the Stoics was (a) what we desired; (b) to what degree, and (c) how we set about achieving these desires.

Central to Buddhism and Stoicism is an awareness of transience, known in the former as “Anicca”. Heraclitus (500 BCE) famously declared that all is flux. We cannot step into the same river twice because fresh waters are ever flowing in. For better or worse, we are not the same as we were several, or even a few, years ago. We change, others change, relationships change, the world around us changes. All is flux. And as T S Eliot, borrowing from Hinduism, writes in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, only a fool fixed in his folly thinks he can turn the wheel on which he turns.

I read that there’s a tribe which mourns birth and celebrates death, and Shakespeare in his major tragedy ‘King Lear’ suggests with ironic wit that all infants cry when they are born because they have come to this world! Freud suggested that in as much as we have an instinct for preservation and survival, there can also be a wish for death, for a return to a previous state of non-existence: see terms such as ‘Todestriebe’ and ‘Thanatos’. James Thomson in his poem, ‘City of Dreadful Night’ writes:

This little life is all we must endure,

The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,

We fall asleep and never wake again;

Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,

Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh…

 

 

“And the cessation / of life’s peacock scream / will be relief” (Liebetraut Sarvan).

In Book 1 of his ‘Histories’, Herodotus relates the story of a mother who, full of love for and pride in her two sons, prays in the evening to the goddess Hera that she bestows on them “the greatest blessing” that can fall on mortals. The goddess answers the prayer, and the young men are found in the morning – dead. Diagones (412 – 323 BCE) who had a sharp sense of ‘humour’ requested that his dead body be thrown over the city walls so that the wild animals could have a meal: no longer having consciousness, what was done to his body didn’t matter. Respect for a corpse; gravestones and monuments; memorial services, prayers and rituals are for the living, and not for the dead. Buddhist nirvana means the final deliverance from suffering and sorrow: an escape into freedom effected by ceasing to be.

Given these conceptions of life and death, it is not surprising that suicide (not on impulse; not in despair or in a state of temporary madness) was accepted; indeed, in certain situations it was admired and highly honoured. Shakespeare’s Hamlet contemplating suicide and the “sleep” that follows it, saw death as a “consummation” devoutly to be wished for. Each individual must decide, with utmost clarity and calmness “whether the time is come to take leave of life” (‘Meditations’, Book 3). Or as Aurelius expresses it elsewhere, the chimney smokes and I leave the room (Book 5). To the Stoics, lamentation at death was for the loss that the living experienced, and not for the departed:

 

No motion has she now, no force

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course With rocks, and stones, and trees

(William Wordsworth)

 

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) wrote: “I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world.” And so I return to the serenity of the Buddha and to the calm of Stoicism: the aim of both was (through rational thought and conscious, controlled, behaviour) to minimise pain and to increase peace and happiness. Both Buddhism and Stoicism are positive and life-enhancing.

Addendum.

I draw attention to what I wrote in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ (1 February 2018) under the caption ‘Religious doctrine and religion’. If we say that Christianity is a gentle, or Buddhism a compassionate, religion what we mean is these faiths as they were taught – most certainly, not as they are practiced in private and public life. I suggested a distinction between religious doctrine and religion with its rituals, paraphernalia, hierarchy, myths and superstitions. Religious doctrine has a divine or semi-divine origin or is from an exalted, exceptional, individual. Simplifying, one could say: “Religious doctrine is ‘divine’ but religion is a human construct”.

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Midweek Review

Heisnam Kanhailal (1941-2016): Remembering a Theatrical Legacy

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Sabitri demonstrates walking upstream during an actor training workshop at NSD, 2010. Photo credit Saumya Liyanage.

 

by Dr Saumya Liyanage

Victor Thoudam, one of my closest friends, was a student at the National School of Drama (NSD) New Delhi, India; he was about to launch his latest performance in Imphal, Manipur amidst Covid-19 pandemic. I contacted Victor to congratulate him on his work. During our conversation, I asked him about Kanhailal, a visionary director and writer I met in 2010 in New Delhi. He said, “Kanhailal is no more with us”. I was saddened and felt lost while remembering my short but worthy conversation I had had with Kanhailal in the early winter days of 2010 at the NSD. I have associated with Indian theatre directors from the northeastern region, and I had fruitful conversations with three of them during my visits to NSD. One was theatre and film actor Adil Hussain. Other two were theatre directors and writers Heisnam Kanhailal and Ratan Thiyam. Since 2010, I have had spoken with my Indian colleagues and nobody informed me that Kanhailal has passed away. Then I asked Victor about Ratan Thiyam, and he said, “He is getting old but is still active in theatre”.

 

NSD Years

It was winter in New Delhi and the chilly wind was unbearable when travelling at night in a trishaw for a play or a movie. But Bharath Rang Mahothsav (BRM), the International Theatre Festival, organised by the NSD, provided warmth and the motivation for me to witness regional and global theatre trends. The International theatre festival was on at several theatres around the school, including Abhimunch; theatre productions from all over the world and every part of India were being staged in the evening. There were also dance experimentations and other happenings in various non-conventional performance spaces in the school premises.

After watching plays at night, students, teachers, actors, and directors would gather around a bonfire outside the school premises, sipping milk tea, eating samosas and discussing what they have seen. On such an occasion, my colleagues at NSD, Prof. Robindas, and Adil Hussain got me to watch a play from the Manipur region. The Director was Heisnam Kanhailal. During my breakfast at the crowded canteen of the NSD, students also insisted that I see Kanhailal’s production and Ratan Thiyam’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken. NSD staff was generous enough to provide me free tickets to watch all the plays during the festival.

Ratan Thiyam

It was the first time I saw Ratan Thiyam’s theatre work. The hall was packed with students, theatergoers, critics, and laymen. Some spectators were even sitting on the floor. Ratan Thiyam was very famous in Delhi. I was mesmerized by Ratan Thiyam’s theatrical approach to Ibsen’s play. It was adapted and produced in a Manipoorian style with mind blowing sets and costumes. Ratan’s actors, their rigor in performing on stage, are unforgettable. But critics like Rustom Bharucha argue that Ratan’s theatre is more festival centric and elaborate colours and sets which overpowers the real essence of his theatre. As Bharucha further emphasizes, Ratan Thiyam creates a theatrical extravaganza or an ‘invented tradition’ through which an imagined ‘Manipooriness’ and indigeneity is created for the cultural centers such as New Delhi and elsewhere.

Kanhailal and Indigenous Theatre

The theatre has stunned me twice so far. The first one is the play titled Othello in Black and White directed by Royston Abel. It was staged at the BRM festival before 2010. cannot remember the exact date. My colleague Adil Hussain played the key role in it. His performance as Othello was fantastic. The second was the Manipur play, adapted from a folk tale, and directed by Heisnam Kanhailal. It was very simple and minimalistic. The key role was played by a matured actress. Later I found that she was the collaborator and lifelong partner of Kanhailal’s plays, Sabitri. Today, I vaguely remember the play as I saw this production way back in 2010.

When Artaud writes how an actor should impact upon the audience member and should vibrate her body similar to a serpent feeling the vibration of the floor, Sabitri’s lyrical body and stylized movements directly communicated with me. Rejecting the mundane theatre conventions, Kanhailal’s actors used human voice in its fullest capacity and tonal variations, and the lyrical body movements to convey the meanings of a human story. This masterpiece exceeded my generic understanding of proscenium theatre and was a vibratory theatrical experience with a minimum effort of extraordinary theatre effects.

After watching this play, I was eagerly waiting to have a discussion with Kanhailal. My friend Victor came, the following day, with a photocopied book. It was about Kanhailal’s theatre practice written by Prof. Rustom Bharucha. It was The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa (1992). Because it was out of print. It was a precious present for me as I started reading Kanhailal’s theatre career and his practice. With the support of NSD staff, I managed to get an appointment from Khaneilal to meet him for a discussion. I met him at the NSD with his wife Sabitri and had a long discussion on his theatre, his beliefs, his practice, and training regime of actors in Kalakshetra, theatre ensemble located in Imphal, Manipur.

Third Theatre

For Bharucha, Kanhailal’s ‘poor theatre’ (meaning the avoidance of excessive theatre technology or other auxiliary material) is a powerful political idiom which captures the indigenous sentiment and oppression of people live in Imphal, Manipur. Writing about Kanhailal ’s famous theatre work, Pebet (1975), Bharucha contends that as a theatre director, Kanhailal questions the idea of janmabhumi, the patriotic ideology created by the dominants, used as an oppressive tool to suppress the marginalised communities (Bharucha 1992). In this play, mother Pebet (a small extinct bird) is disgracefully attacked by her own children after being manipulated by her opponents. When this play was first performed, it was considered not only as anti-Hindu production but also a theatre work promoting anti-Indian sentiment.

Kanhailal and Sabitri conducted several actor training sessions for graduate students during my stay at the NSD. These sessions consisted of learning from nature and working with various natural metaphors to create imaginative bodily movements. Most of the time, Kanhailal appeared as a guru, discussing and explaining things to students while Sabitri demonstrated all the exercises they discussed in class. One of the exciting acting exercises that I observed was walking upstream in a river. Sabitri’s body was a flexible tool although she was in her later fifties at the time. She started showing students how to imagine a shallow river and wade it. Students were then asked to imitate Sabitri and her body movements. Workshop went for two hours followed by a discussion.

Similar to other theatre practitioners in the new era of Indian theatre, Kanhailal has been inspired by European Avant Guards such as Grotowski’s corporeal theatre and also Badal Sirkar’s approaches to communal theatre coined as ‘third theatre’ in India (Nair, 2007, Hirsch and Brustein, 1970, Brahma Prakash, 2010). While his contemporary theatre director Ratan Thiyam’s theatre was criticized as ‘reinvention of tradition’ and meant to please for the cultural centres in India, Kanhailal’s theatre is minimalistic and dominates non-verbal theatricalities opposed to established proscenium, middle class theatres. However, Bharucha is critical of being non-verbal and the domination and overemphasis of pre-expressivity of Kanhailal’s theatre. As he argues ‘Kanhailal seems to have overstressed non-verbalism and the physicality of his actor’s training at the expense of confronting the spoken word […] The instincts and reflexes of Kanhailal’s actors are extremely sharp, but their minds have been somewhat numbed by their essentially dream-like response to performance.’ (Bharucha, 1992, p. 19). Kanhailal’s theatre is unique in that he borrows most of his materials from his inherent Meitei tradition and its folklore. Yet, these folk tales and fables are transformed into political idioms through lyrical and corporeal works of actors. As a theatre producer, Kanhailal rejects elaborate sets, costumes, music, stage props, make-up, or stage light. His theatre can be performed either on conventional proscenium theatre or any space where people can gather. This simplistic and minimalistic nature lays emphasis on actors’ contribution, their mannerisms, and vocal capacity to impress the audience more than anything else. Hence, Kanhailal creates a powerful and unique theatre mode through which our senses are filled with a novel theatrical experience.

Conclusion

Kanhailal’s theatre and Sabitri’s performances have been well received by many critics, theatre scholars in India and abroad. Kanhailal received the Padma Sri Civilian Award in 2004 and later in 2016 he received the highest Padma Bhushan Civilian Award from the Government of India. Kanhailal and his collaborative partner Sabitri have created over 20 productions during their theatre career. Most of these productions have been performed in major cities in India and at international theatre festivals. Sabitri as an actresss has received many awards and accolades including Best Actress awards at Cairo International Theatre Festival, Natya Rathna and other state wards such as Padma Sri and Sangeeth Natak Academy Award.

Working and dedicating one’s life and energy to sustaining a community-based theatre is a difficult exercise. Kanhilal and Sabitri have both succeeded in their endeavour. Many students who graduate from the NSD are attracted to more popular entertainment industries such as television and cinema. But theatre artists such as Ratan Thiyam or Kanhailal were not drawn towards those popular expressions. Instead, they dedicated their lives to creating a form of ephemeral arts, whose original quality cannot be preserved in another form.

(The author wishes to thank Himansi Dehigama for assistance in preparing this article.)

Reference

Bharucha, R. (1992). The Indigenous Theatre of Kanhailal. New Theatre Quarterly, 8(29), pp.10–22.

Brahma Prakash (2010). Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 27(1), pp.175–179.

Hirsch, F. and Brustein, R. (1970). The Third Theatre. Educational Theatre Journal, 22(1), p.113.

Kothari, S. and Panchal, G. (1984). The Rising Importance of Indigenous Theatre in India. Asian Theatre Journal, 1(1), p.112.

Nair, Sreenath. (2007). Poetics, Plays, and Performance: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 25(1), pp.165–168.

Rustom Bharucha (1992). The theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

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The rise of the Bonapartists:

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A political history of post-1977 Sri Lanka (Part I)

By Uditha Devapriya

Viewed in retrospect, the yahapalanaya regime seems almost a bad memory now, best forgotten. This is not to underrate its achievements, for the UNP-SLFP Unity Government did achieve certain things, like the Right to Information Act. It soon found out, however, that it couldn’t shield itself from its own reforms; that’s how 2015 led to 2019. Despite its laudable commitment to democratic rule, the yahapalanists reckoned without the popularity of the man they ousted at the ballot box. November 2019, in that sense, was a classic example of a populist resurrection, unparalleled in South Asia, though not in Asia: a government touting a neoliberal line giving way to a centre-right populist-personalist.

What went wrong with the yahapalanist experiment? Its fundamental error was its inability to think straight: the moment Maithripala Sirisena reinforced his power by wresting control of the SLFP from Mahinda Rajapaksa, he ceded space to the Joint Opposition.

Roughly, the same thing happened to the C. P. de Silva faction in 1970: after five years in power, it yielded to the same forces it had overthrown from its own party. The lesson de Silva learnt and the yahapalanists so far haven’t was that no progressive centre-left party can jettison its leftist faction while getting into a coalition with a rightwing monolith without having its credentials questioned at the ballot box. When voters responded by electing the leftist faction in 1970, the leader of the rightwing coalition, the UNP, faced electoral defeat. Dudley Senanayake had to step down, just as Ranil Wickremesinghe had to.

Deceptively conclusive as comparisons between 1970 and 2020 may be, however, there is an important distinction to make. The rightwing ideology the UNP under Dudley Senanayake, adhered to was qualitatively different to the rightwing ideology Senanayake’s successor J. R. Jayewardene embraced. The two Senanayakes, Jayewardene, and John Kotelawala lived and had been brought up in the shadow of the British Empire. Upon coming to power they oversaw a shift in their party ideology from Whitehall to Washington; this process reached its climax in the McCarthyist Kotelawala administration.

Jayewardene was the last of the Old Right leaders whose fortunes were tied directly to the plantation economy and whose ideology cohered with the Bretton Woods Keynesian Right of Richard Nixon and Ted Heath. The paradox at the heart of his presidency, and the shift to populism at the hands of his successors, has much to do with the transition from this Old Right to a New Right. I begin my two-part essay with that transition.

The New Right, or the neoliberal Right, came into prominence via the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on either side of the Atlantic. These two figures eschewed not only the leftist opposition, but also predecessors from their own parties; Ted Heath remained to the Left of Thatcher, for instance, while Gerald Ford criticised certain parts of Reagan’s reform programme (though eventually he extended his support).

In the industrialised economies of the West, to put it succinctly, the Old Right adhered as much to price controls, quantitative easing, and economic stimulus as did their rivals on the Left. By contrast, the New Right preferred low inflation even at the cost of full employment, the elimination of subsidies, and privatisation. Readers’ Digest called David Stockman “David the Budget Killer.” The epithet was not unjustified: at the Office of Management and Budget where he served as President during the first Reagan administration, Stockman oversaw the biggest rollback of the US state since the New Deal. Nixon famously claimed that we were all Keynesians, but Reagan enthroned monetarism. So did Thatcher.

How did that spill over to underdeveloped economies, particularly non-industrialised ones such as Sri Lanka’s? In the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, much of the Non-Aligned non-West suffered a full decade of unprecedented calamity in the form of famines, shortages, and inefficient, unresponsive bureaucracies. The governments of many of these countries opted for state-led industrialisation, which coupled with stagflation and incomplete land reforms at home failed to deliver on what it pledged and promised.

Indeed, laudable as Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s reforms were, they became mired in their own contradictions: as S. B. D. de Silva observed, they entrenched a class of intermediaries who benefited from the regime’s economic programme. “Nothing came out of [its] attempt to industrialise,” he recounted in his last interview in 2017, “because the industrialisation was really foreign exchange driven.” In other words, embedded in it were the seeds of its own electoral destruction, a fate accelerated by the jettisoning of the Left in 1975.

The transition from the Old to the New Right in the West led to the growth of finance capital, the deindustrialisation of Western economies and the shift to Free Trade Zones in the global periphery, and the enforcement of structural adjustment vis-à-vis the IMF, the latter revolving around four principles: economic stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation (Thomson, Kentikelenis, and Stubbs 2017).

Between 1970 and 1980, debt levels in Latin America alone rose by over a thousand percent. Structural adjustment, at the time lacking the kind of critique evolved by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty later, promised a way out of indebtedness which would lead to growth, development, low inflation, and free trade. The flip-side to these benefits, which its champions left out of the discussion, was widespread poverty, a widening income gap, high unemployment, and trade practices slanted and tilted heavily to the West.

Not unlike the World Bank prescription that preceded it, structural adjustment favoured the dismantling of local industry. But where the World Bank had prescribed the establishment of small cottage industries and continued emphasis on agriculture, the IMF recommended the privatisation of local industry AND agriculture to multinational corporations. This was in keeping with the new monetarist philosophy: reduce the money supply, lower marginal tax rates, maintain a minimal social safety net, and welcome the robber barons.

The East Asian economies grew against a different backdrop. Multinational companies until then were largely, if at all, limited to Central and Latin America: the United Fruit economies. In essence, the IMF and World Bank repackaged the United Fruit model and introduced it to countries newly embracing neoliberalism. Among these was Sri Lanka.

In a critique of Mangala Samaraweera’s maiden Budget Speech in 2017, Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out that inasmuch as the J. R. Jayewardene administration enacted open economic reforms, it did so within the framework of a centralised state. Therein lies a paradox I earlier alluded to of the Jayewardene presidency and, to an extent, of the Premadasa presidency: the dismantling of the economy did not follow from a dismantling of the state.

Yet this differed very little from what was happening in other countries enacting structural adjustment packages: economic liberalisation took place under the watch of a centralised, authoritarian state. Much of the reason for this has to do with the contradiction at the heart of structural adjustment itself: while it freed the economy, it shackled the majority, and to keep them from rising up in protest, it had to shackle dissent too.

It’s no cause for wonder, then, that many of the leaders of countries who would oversee the transition from state-led industrialisation to “export-oriented” MNC driven growth hailed from the Old Right. Jayewardene was no exception: an eloquent, shrewd populist, he made overtures to a virtuous society while entrenching a merchant class of robber barons.

Meanwhile, the rise of a civil society posing as an alternative to the private and the public sectors, but in reality aligned with the private sector, made it no longer possible for radical scholars, educated in the West, to get involved in policy implementation with the state. As Vinod Moonesinghe has noted in a paper on relations between civil society and government (“Civil society – government relations in Sri Lanka”), after 1983 there came about a steep rise in NGO numbers. Susantha Goonetilake (Recolonisation) has argued that the structures and relationships of power within and the activities of these enclaves came to reflect those of a private organisation more than of an institution affiliated to civil society.

In stark contrast to its earlier position of engagement with the public sector, civil society stood apart and aloof from the latter, inadvertently breaking away from its historical task of getting involved at the grassroots level in policy formulation and implementation. Ironically this served to speed up the government’s delinking from civil society: enmeshed in the private sector, NGOs ended up spouting postmodernist and post-Marxist rhetoric, offering no viable alternative to the UNP’s development paradigm.

Even more ironically, what that led to was a situation where, at the height of the second JVP insurrection, their most ubiquitous representatives took the side of the government over the rebels while taking the side of Tamil separatists over the government: a paradox, given that both groups were fighting the state over class as much as over ethnicity. The NGOs’ selective treatment of the JVP and the LTTE justifies the view that in the 1980s, ethnicity replaced class as the dominant topic of discussion by social scientists.

All this undoubtedly contributed to the separation of the state from the public sphere: a prerequisite of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation. Yet paradoxically, while that process of separation went ahead, it required as a lever an autocrat who could, and would, crack down on trade unions, appease a growing petty bourgeoisie and middle class, and in contradiction to the principles of nonalignment, ally with the West. This meant couching everything domestic in Cold War terms and slanting it to an anti-Marxist position: not for no reason, after all, did Jayewardene refer to the LTTE as a group of rebels fighting to establish a Marxist state in a BBC interview. Appeasing the middle-class with these methods was easy because the middle-class faced a dilemma: while it bemoaned the government’s authoritarianism, it was in no mood to revert to the autarkyism of the Bandaranaike era. It wanted more representation, while keeping the economy open.

At the heart of middle-class support for the Jayewardene presidencies, however, lay a fatal time bomb: its Buddhist constituency. When Jayewardene, in 1982, authorised the writing of a continuation of the Mahavamsa, he reaffirmed his regime’s commitment to a Buddhist polity. In an essay on the Jathika Chintanaya, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri argued that while in one way 1977 appeared to be “a symbolic marker of a new epoch”, in another it betrayed “a loss of something that is Sinhala Buddhist.” Supplementing this was the rift at the heart of J. R.’s reforms: political authoritarianism versus economic liberalisation. Both were viewed as betrayals of Buddhism, quoting Stanley Tambiah’s book; dharmista samajayak, after all, was as much the winning promise of Jayewardene’s campaign as it was the title of Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s critique of his regime’s breach of that promise.

The suburban Sinhala middle bourgeoisie of artists, artisans, and professionals responded lukewarmly to Jayewardene. The results of the 1989 election confirmed the scepticism with which they viewed the achievements and failures of his administration: more than 46% of the UNP’s votes came from a third of the country’s electorate, none of which comprised Colombo’s suburbs (except for the city and the Catholic belt to the north of Colombo), while 38% of the SLFP’s votes came from, inter alia, those suburbs. The new UNP candidate they viewed cynically; “they were not convinced that Premadasa represented adequate change” (Samarasinghe 1989). The SLFP’s popularity among state employees, in particular, showed when it won 49.5% of the postal vote. A crucial litmus test for Premadasa would therefore be how his presidency would be viewed by the Sinhala Buddhist middle-class.

To be continued next week…

 

(The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com)

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