The period from 1837 to 1901 has been described as the Victorian era. Generally disparaged, often caricatured, Victorianism today invites censure of what is felt to be its puritan value system. At the same time, there is no doubt that Britain underwent a radical transformation. Some of the most discernible achievements in English history transpired in the era: England becoming the first urban nation in 1851; Anglicanism being relegated in favour of more aggressive denominations such as Methodism; and public schools gaining stature as institutions where students had to conform to codes of behaviour the adherence to which became known as “playing the game.”
Sri Lanka could not have escaped these trends, and for better or worse, it did not. Rapid urbanisation on the one hand and the establishment of a segmented education system which distinguished between the many and the few on the other were two of the most distinctive achievements of the era. The Tory-Whig power contests, in that regard, were decisively won by the latter; Macaulay, who glorified a nation of brown sahibs, was a Whig; his denigration of the Anglican Church as “the Tory party of prayers” indicated that in every realm, including education, Anglicanism had lost its monopoly. The achievements and the setbacks of this era, political or cultural, thus bore the stamp of Evangelical-Whig-Victorian England.
But it’s a testament to the ambivalence of these decades that these two historical eventualities – urbanisation and education – bred their own contradictions. Both gave rise to social forces that could not be more opposed to imperialism. It was this which facilitated the transition, in the 19th century, from traditional to “modern” Buddhism. It was also this which led to the rise of the labour movement; in working class activity as in education, the tendency was to oppose colonialism from the standpoint of liberal British values. Buddhism thus became “Protestant,” and labour agitation became shaped by the rise of the Labour Party in the home country.
Since the traditional arts received little to no recognition and had to depend on (foreign) patronage, the Buddhist revival and the labour movement provided an impetus through which the cultural landscape could be revived. The link between the polity and clergy broken, there was a secularisation of both; the Amarapura Nikaya, for instance, which had shirked secular authorities, now went as far as to seek “formal recognition by the colonial authorities,” while the Vidyodaya Pirivena was reported to have “solicited the friendship and patronage of colonial governments.”
As with most plantation enclaves, the tendency in Ceylon was to turn into what R.T. Smith, in his model of evolutionary change in Third World colonies, noted as a Creole society “rooted in the political and economic dominance of the metropolitan power”
In fact, so powerful were the links between these two unlikely forces – colonial officials and Buddhist monks –Kalukodayawe Pannasekera Thera, head of the Pirivena, is reported to have felt as if “he went to heaven” upon receiving a prize from Governor Robert Chalmers (who oversaw the jailing of temperance leaders in 1915). This was later described by H. L. Seneviratne in ‘The Work of Kings’ as the pragmatic face of the Buddhist clergy, as opposed to the ideological face of the Vidyalankara Pirivena. To understand the dichotomy here, one must understand that the clergy had both a conciliatory and hostile attitude towards colonialism: they were belittled by, yet borrowed and at times emulated, “the organisational forms, tactics and expedience” of missionary bodies. It was a rather complex relationship.
The shift from the hill country to Colombo was most pronounced in the latter part of the 19th century: the population in the capital grew from 30,000 in 1824 to 154,000 in 1901, which had to do with the growth of the working class. However, while there was a distinct working class consciousness, the urban proletariat was never rooted in the city. They were only partly “committed” to the metropolis, and remained bonded to the communities they hailed from. It has been ascertained that this gave a measure of autonomy to the urban workers not enjoyed by the estate workers.
As with most plantation enclaves, the tendency in Ceylon was to turn into what R.T. Smith, in his model of evolutionary change in Third World colonies, noted as a Creole society “rooted in the political and economic dominance of the metropolitan power.” In other words, the metropole existed apart from the plantations which sustained it. However, at the same time, it could not exist apart from the urban proletariat. Here, urbanisation played its part in bringing about a cultural revival through two related developments: the establishment of Buddhist schools in the towns and the gradual transformation of culture into an urban/petty bourgeois cosmetic.
Buddhist schools, until the late 19th century, were limited to Pirivenas. The colonial office ensured that it never displayed an overt attitude of hostility towards them while at the same time undermining their base. In fact, officials were often more dismissive than contemptuous of them. “The education afforded by the native priesthood in their temples and colleges scarcely merits any notice,” observed Colebrooke, and this, as Malalgoda notes, “remained the official attitude towards monastic schools.” As such the establishment of the first non-monastic Buddhist school in Dodanduwa in 1869 seems to have been viewed, not with alarm, but with indifference. The coming of the Theosophists and the propping up of BTS schools in and around Colombo, though, was a more serious affair, and here the officials became less apathetic.
The Theosophists had to contend with two ideological foes: the colonial officials (obviously) and the very clergy that had helped to promote their views. This had to do with the laicisation of the Theosophical society, and the fact that the schools built by the society hardly resembled their monastic counterparts.
The schools were modelled on missionary institutions, and they were populated by foreign educationists because of whom the monks “had no significant role.” The rifts it resulted in, firstly between Colonel Olcott and Migetuwatte Gunananda in the mid-1880s and between Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala in the mid-1890, were in that sense inevitable, and they led to a curious hybridisation in a segment in the education sector that was at once embracive of, and alien to, the Buddhism propagated by the clergy and lay preachers such as Dharmapala.
Writing decades later, Nalin de Silva drew a distinction between “Buddhism proper” and “Olcott Buddhism.” Pivotal to his distinction was the thesis that, while reformist, the latter worked “within the framework of a Judaic Christian chintanaya.” It comes to no surprise, therefore, that given this process of hybridisation Olcott unleashed, the cultural revival reached its peak, not in the restoration of a pre-colonial Buddhist utopia, but a hybrid artefact in the form of nurti theatre.
As Kamalika Pieris observes in her biography of P. de S. Kularatne, principal at Ananda College at the time, the plays of Charles Dias and John de Silva, especially Dutugemuna and Wessantara, were performed in the school to which these later “brought unprecedented publicity.” But was it love for theatre, for country, or for the garish costumes in them that appealed to the urban petty bourgeoisie? I am inclined to believe that it was a complex mixture of all three factors. There was a nationalistic streak in these plays, no doubt: de Silva and Dias were regarded as trying to “rekindle the dying embers of patriotism,” which attracted the notice of officials for what was felt to be their object of “creating a spirit of nationalism.”
At the same time, however, we need to be reminded that Dias and de Silva were more than just “sincere nationalists” (as Sarachchandra once called them); their goal was, as noted by Garret Field, “not nationalist but capitalist: sell records to make a profit.” To that end de Silva staged, not only dramatisations of Sinhala Buddhist history, but also Sinhalese adaptations of that most English of all playwrights, Shakespeare: Othello (1909), The Merchant of Venice (1909) and King Lear (1913). Was there anything “local” and “cultural” in their works, then?
Rapid urbanisation on the one hand and the establishment of a segmented education system which distinguished between the many and the few on the other were two of the most distinctive achievements of the era
Neither Sarachchandra nor Charles Abeysekara seemed to think so. The former faulted it for having killed the nadagama, which, according to the latter, “had more intrinsic roots in the native tradition.” Abeysekara was resentful: for him nurti, hailed for its nationalistic overtones, was limited by its social base, “the Sinhala educated urban petty bourgeoisie.” He identified the factors that drove it: insistence on the use of Sinhala, condemnation of Western values, and resort to a fierce nationalism that, curiously, brought together both Buddhist and Christian Sinhalese.
The desire to make a profit seemed to have propelled nationalism there, and the “social base” behind nurti kept on coming for more and more garish works. How garish did they have to be? So garish that, Pieris writes, when an adaptation of a play by Harsha Deva titled ‘Nagananda’ was staged at Ananda, with less action and “still less glitter,” the audience “remained puzzled and fascinated... neither amused nor deeply stirred.” The audience wanted to be entertained. In that sense, nurti was the definitive product of a society still reeling from Victorianism; uncritical of the past, they promoted puritanical values, vilified the outsider, and, as the years went by, propped up, not a cultural tradition, but a cultural mishmash.