Our national icons

7 February 2020 02:46 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



From 2013 I got the opportunity, the privilege you could say, of meeting some of Sri Lanka’s finest, most illustrious artistes: directors, scriptwriters, composers, singers and actors. I had no real purpose or objective in mind, except the overwhelming desire to get to know them and, if possible, write what they had to tell me on paper. Getting to publish them in print was what I wanted, and what I gradually did.

These were some of the best artistes out there, who’d spent the best part of their lives pursuing a passion without paying attention to their own welfare. In doing so, most of them let go of what could have been brilliant careers elsewhere, purely, to put it pithily, because they loved what they did. I don’t think highly of the arts in Sri Lanka, especially the cinema – much of what’s lauded as classics in the performing arts here, it has to be admitted, are mediocre – but there’s a great deal of what was done, and achieved, and to have done and achieved them in the space of 10 to 20 years was amazing.  

Perusing through their stories now, I wonder whether we’ve been grateful enough for what these people did. They didn’t lead stellar lives – the careers they gave up for the sake of what they ended up doing for the arts testify to that – and, had they gone ahead and focused less attention on acting, writing, singing, and directing, they might have prospered. What with lack of funds and budget deficits, the last thing on the government’s mind would have been to look after these people after they’d retired, even if the State, given the lack of philanthropy in Sri Lanka, does have a responsibility towards their welfare.  

Sure, we may not have a great many things to pin on ourselves and show to the world. But we have what we’ve got, and we have our share of movies, music, plays, and dances that we can confidently and justifiably show as ours. Just two weeks ago, Vajira Chitrasena was honoured with ‘Padma Sri’ by the government of India, an honour reserved for very few non-Indians. And yet, while this accolade is one among others that our artistes have got, I wonder whether honorary doctorates, civilian awards and lifetime achievement awards will ever be enough. I personally don’t think so: tokens of appreciation are hardly a substitute for gratitude. If what a lifetime’s worth of achievements and contributions to your country and culture deserve is a statuette with your name engraved in gold, what more can be said of a world, and a society, where appreciation amounts to a celebration of life once you die?  

Sri Lanka is not the United States. It’s not even India. Consequently, given the rather limited audience for movies, songs, and more limited than any other art, dancing, the market has to step in and provide a sort of livelihood for the artiste. Fortunately or unfortunately, most if not all of those artistes we now celebrate as icons came from an era where the market didn’t or couldn’t step in: what they did didn’t earn them a single cent. The balance that they couldn’t earn, they covered by selling their property. They also had to borrow, and when debts kept piling up, they had to turn to what little they had earned, which was precious little.  

There are solutions. Some would suggest tightening copyright laws. Given the laxity in enforcing intellectual property rights, it would make sense trying to do justice to the artiste by ensuring that a TV station showing reruns of a movie pays a fairly substantial amount as a percentage to the director. But this brings me back to my earlier point: we are not the US, and we are not India, our market is small, TV stations and media stations earn meagre revenues, so their capacity to pay fair amounts, however substantial, is severely limited.


Even if they could, they take time to make the payment. Satellite and Cable TV broadcasts not just foreign channels, but also videos on demand. The latter don’t pay much to the artiste whose works a subscriber like me can access for a nominal fee (about Rs.200), and the amount the station does pay, it defers for a long time: a matter of months, sometimes years.  

Private patronage and philanthropy, as I pointed out earlier, isn’t a viable solution either. The lack of philanthropy is tied, I think, to the prejudice with which we hold those who take to the arts: we lament students dancing, singing, and acting but we want dancers, singers, and actors to enliven our humdrum lives. It’s a paradox hardly unique or specific to Sri Lanka, but over here the problem has been accentuated by our small island mentality: we think we are great and we end up celebrating mediocrity. In the end the genuine artiste, he or she who creates out of a passion to so do, is neglected: not until he or she dies is his or her work celebrated for the great things they were. Obviously, the State should get involved. But the State has too much on its plate already.  


"Not endowed with a significant manufacturing sector, the country lacks a solid base on which the cultural industry can operate and artistes can find ways of earning a proper living"

And in many ways the problem is not the State’s, but ours. Sri Lanka has the worst of both worlds: we put so much emphasis on science and maths, yet only a minority end up doing either for their A/Levels and at university. The vast majority – 60% in fact, according to the latest statistics – choose commerce and arts. Even with science and maths, the emphasis is on theory rather than application, which neglects the issue of local industry.

Not endowed with a significant manufacturing sector, the country lacks a solid base on which the cultural industry can operate and artistes can find ways of earning a proper living. Back in the day, when prices were low and so were costs of living, this was not much of a problem for artistes: they lived, as Sumitra Peries told me, “easy lives, perhaps not the most convenient by modern standards, but certainly more easy than what life has come to today.”  
In other words, the problem of the arts in our country is inextricably interwoven with the problem of industry: for the arts to flourish in contemporary society, it must have a cushion, and that cushion can only come about with the establishment of a proper manufacturing base. There must be more research, a greater emphasis on technical education, and a diversification of subjects, for artistes to prosper. After all as Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnabivushana put it some years ago, a film industry does not arise from a social vacuum.  

Meanwhile, what would be a more immediate solution? I do not suggest that we all get together and raise funds for local artistes, partly because it’s difficult to do so but also because that’s not the point. What is the point? Simply, that if those artistes spent a lifetime shunning honours and giving to society what little they could – which, in most cases, was and is a hell of a lot more that what we, in this day and age, can contribute – they have a right to be heard, celebrated, and cherished. This is a privilege they have been denied, because a nation like ours doesn’t usually read, write, or observe. It wallows in self-congratulation, and it relegates the people who did something to the background. I’ve been told this by most of those I got talk with, in particular Tony Ranasinghe: “We’ve got so many who write up on our personal lives, but very few who’ve tried to dig into the worth of what we did.”  

I don’t blame the media. The media must earn to survive, like most of us, and it must splash racy stories and personal gossip on the front page, because those are what sell. On the other hand, I know that most full time hired hands at most papers manning the features desk or arts section don’t do a good job of exploring, and assessing, the multifaceted worth of the artiste. All we read of is their personal love stories. This has to do in a very big way with the salaries the writers earn: hardly enough. That deters and keeps away the true, genuine critic who can get into and write on the true value of our national icons.  

I am not of course suggesting that this is the only solution we have – far from it, in fact – but if we can put our pens and hearts where our mouths are, we’ll be doing all our icons a favour. 





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