The late Tissa Abeysekara, in an essay on Lester James Peries, candidly noted that the cultural renaissance which swept over our film industry, after 1956, was never dependent on the State. He wrote this as a response to an observation by Ashis Nandy that for a revolution in the cinema to unfold itself more properly, the filmmaker as such had to look to the Government of the day for moral and financial support. The problem with this assumption is that it leaves out the stark, ubiquitous fact that no Government, in any part of the world, will get involved with a country’s cultural sphere unless and until that cultural sphere is turned into a vassal of the dominant ideology of that particular country. 1956 was a process that traces its origins to Anagarika Dharmapala, and it found its roots, for an intermittent period, with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. But those roots were never properly nourished. They couldn’t be.
What happened in Sri Lanka was that we confused the destruction of any structure, elitist or otherwise, for a cultural renaissance
And why? Because, regardless of the time or place, the cultural doesn’t belong to the political, though it is also never completely independent of the political either. The latter is driven by expedience, by the need to capture rhetoric and transform it into policy and action. When these two seemingly incongruous fields of human enterprise get together, there can be no reconciliation, no proper bond between them, until the cultural is made to follow its own independent course and the political is brought in to help it follow that course, from the sidelines. As Gunadasa Amarasekara rightly notes in Anagarika Dharmapala Marxwadiyekda, what began as a flowering of our innate cultural and social sensibilities was evicted and virtually castrated by political hacks. 1956 was not opposed to English, nor was it romantically inclined towards the past. Those who thought it was, and who voted for their leaders in the hopes of dislodging the elite through it, were doomed to commit hara-kiri, because (as Regi Siriwardena frequently observed) 1956 didn’t represent the dislodgment of the elite, rather the substitution of a more insidious form of class elitism for that which had existed until then. The discrepancy the multitude and the few intensified in a more subtle, less discernible form. I firmly believe that we are still paying the price for our sins.
The single best process (political or otherwise) inaugurated after independence was free education, because despite the problems and the shortcomings that would stunt it over the decades, it helped to push the people to embrace that modernity
In search of our roots
The revolution, of course, had to start from somewhere. That somewhere was not the Buddhist Renaissance which both Colonel Olcott and Dharmapala inaugurated right before they parted ways. That somewhere was not the search for the hela basa that Munidasa Cumaratunga launched, successfully, until it spawned a veritable horde of poets, writers, and linguists ranging from Wimal Balagalle (who turned 93 last Friday) to Siri Gunasinghe (barring Gunadasa Amarasekara, the last of the bilingual literati, who died several months back). It began instead as an independent, autonomous search for our roots that we have been hankering after ever since the West, and even the East, began invading us. It’s convenient to contend that there is a global conspiracy against the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, but what is convenient isn’t necessary what is true. The truth, therefore, is more complex, more multifarious.
This assault on our civilisation took on three broad fronts; against the faith, the language, and the culture. The latter was more or less a sum-total of the former two, but it incorporated many other elements as well. History and heritage, let’s not forget, are never exclusively predicated on the clergy or the wielders of the mother tongue, though both form an integral part of any civilisation. Consequently, the local assault against the foreign assault congealed into those three fronts. It is my contention that any attempt at a Buddhist Renaissance was distorted by the Theosophists. It is also my contention that the many attempts of Munidasa Cumaratunga to resuscitate our language, the hela basa that had been castrated by Sanskrit impurities, were stalled by what Tissa Abeysekara once referred to as the pothe guras; the academics and the intellectuals who were opposed to, inter alia, the experiments that Sunil Shantha was indulging in and the attempts made by the likes of Prof. Balagalle to take the Sinhala language to the 20th century through Ferdinand de Saussure. The cultural sphere – comprising poets who borrowed, but also strayed from our conventional metrical forms as well as novelists who propagated religious tracts through narrative fiction (Piyadasa Sirisena’s early works come to mind here) – was at its inception politically zealous. When that political zeal found its equivalent in the political sphere with Bandaranaike, the cultural sphere was, for the time being, abandoned.
Sirisena in Thun Man Handiya, Ranjith in Charitha Thunak, and the ultimate symbol, for me, of the failure of the post-1956 youth to realise their aspirations, Sena in Akkara Paha
The Sinhala language didn’t evolve after the 19th century. With the diminishment of a language comes the diminishment of an entire collective. Three centuries of foreign domination, a great many preceding centuries of internal strife, had virtually laid the mawbasa to rest. Our schools and universities lacked proper curricula for own mother tongue, and had devoted considerable space to Sanskrit and Pali. The evolution of a culture, inclusive of language that is, cannot transpire unless it is connected to the outside world. The problem was that both the few who had power and the many who didn’t were lethargic and indifferent to this problem; the former because they didn’t speak, and indeed looked down on, the Sinhala language; and the latter because they were unmoored from modernity. The single best process (political or otherwise) inaugurated after independence was free education, because despite the problems and the shortcomings that would stunt it over the decades, it helped to push the people to embrace that modernity. Free education had been preceded by the emancipation of our intellectuals: the likes of Professor Senarath Paranavithana and Wimal Balagalle were already giants in their fields when the Kannangara Proposals were being implemented.
It began instead as an independent, autonomous search for our roots that we have been hankering after ever since the West, and even the East, began invading us
What 1956 lacked was a comparable generation of intellectuals and academics who were conversant with both the East and the West. 1956 wouldn’t have happened if that generation didn’t exist beforehand, if they hadn’t been fermented by a largely elitist education they themselves repudiated, rightly, later on. I am aware of the need to do away with elitist structures once a revolution, cultural or political, is ongoing, but ***what happened in Sri Lanka was that we confused the destruction of any structure, elitist or otherwise, for a cultural renaissance. Consequently, the rift between swabasha and non-swabasha, which in turn gave way to a three-pronged rift between the elites, the multitude who wielded the vernacular and refused to join the elites, and the multitude who acceded to them, was so overwhelming that what we got in the end was a social discrepancy between those who could speak English and those who could not. The earlier class hierarchies had ostensibly vanished, but their spirit endured.
Stricken with envy
The outcome of all this wasn’t a cultural renaissance. The outcome was an aberration; a culture of envy, on the part of those who wished to join the privileged. The writers and the poets who emerged after 1956 – Mahagama Sekera (Thun Man Handiya), K. Jayatilleke (Charitha Thunak), Madawala S. Ratnayake (Akkara Paha), to name a few – wrote of the new swabasha-wielding folk, who clamoured and hankered after social upliftment: Sirisena in Thun Man Handiya, Ranjith in Charitha Thunak, and the ultimate symbol, for me, of the failure of the post-1956 youth to realise their aspirations, Sena in Akkara Paha. While not all these characters and their real-life counterparts rebelled against their pasts to join the elite, they were more or less stricken with envy, with sadness, with poignant imaginings of what they would have been if they were born to privilege. It was an insane reversal of fortune, and our novelists, who were deeply connected with the ethos that made 1956 possible, more so than our filmmakers, punctured the idealism that year conceived with the harsh reality it later gave birth to. Our filmmakers were more rebellious, more brutal, in that respect, from Dharmasena Pathiraja, who came from roughly the same milieu which Wimal Balagalle had come from, to Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, our first political director and playwright who hailed completely from the generation of 1956.
There’s an interesting passage in The Play is the Thing where Henry Jayasena recounts a childhood encounter with Ananda Rajakaruna. Apparently Jayasena’s school had organised a literary contest at Kalutara at which speakers would condemn English and promote the vernacular. Rajakaruna, whose poems were considered a rallying point for nationalist activists, was a special guest. After the event was done, when he and Jayasena were talking with each other, they had heard the organisers of that same anti-English meeting speak in English, and eloquently. Jayasena tells us that Rajakaruna had got so angry that he stormed in and shouted, “You preach one thing and do another. You are what I would call total hypocrites.” For good measure, perhaps, he added, “What is wrong with our village children learning English? Isn’t it because of your superiority with your English that you are able to hold meetings of this nature and that people listen to you? It would have been much more honest if you told them the truth: that your knowledge of English is a big advantage!”
Rajakaruna had a point there. Not hard to see what it was. And what it continues to be.