The young who take to Sanuka, and do not take to Amaradeva, and the old who take to the latter and not to the former, are at the end of the day the one and the same. The rift between these two demographics goes beyond just age differences. But how do you separate the one from the other? By the following yardstick: those who dote on Sanuka are purveyors of the popular culture, while those who dote on Amaradeva are purveyors of the formal culture.
By formal, I am distinguishing it from the tastes of those who follow, and subscribe to, the music of Lionel Ranwala, Piyasiri Wijeratne, and from more recent times, Rohana Baddage and Bandula Wijeweera. As such we come across a differentiation: between janapriya for popular, and jana for what we consider to be the folk culture, though it is, in fact, a formalised variant thereof.
This distinction is vital when we delve into the cultural, social, economic, and political backdrops to those cultures. I have tried to the best of my ability to rationalise those backdrops and their relation to the art forms consumed by those who hailed from them - especially regarding the petty bourgeoisie - but based on the responses I got I was not, I believe now, clear enough. The truth is that Sri Lanka’s predicament, economic or social, can be rooted in its inability to prop up an able bourgeoisie who could be to their culture what the liberal Bengalis had been to theirs in their Renaissance. The bourgeoisie, through syndicates, cartels, and other schemes which ended up creating what Kumari Jayawardena refers to as a “dynastic democracy” in Sri Lanka, took off from taverns and tolls and rents but never made it beyond a pre-industrial economy.
When the landowning aristocracy of a colonial society - particularly a society like ours or India’s - gains through capitalist enterprise, the conflict between their interests and those of the Colonial Office tend to deepen to such an extent that the former begin to protest; eventually, their protests find an equivalent in the cultural sphere through the literature of that period. Thus in Bengal we find the novels of Bankim Chatterjee, which like the novels of W. A. Silva were rooted in the romances of Walter Scott and Rider Haggard. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the interests of the propertied class and of the Colonial Office were one and the same. Macaulay, in his bid to turn the natives into brown sahibs (“English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”), had brought about in Sri Lanka what he could not bring about in India: the creation of a Westernised, “civilised” bourgeoisie whose loyalty to the Empire was beyond doubt. As such the militant nationalist liberal bourgeoisie in India were never to be found in Ceylon, and as Tissa Abeysekara notes, we had no Motilal Nehru who could burn his Saville Row suits as a disavowal of Western tastes, opinions, morals, and intellect.
What we had, instead, was a powerful but stymied milieu, petty bourgeoisie in their tastes and opinions and what not, and aspiring to be a nationalist bourgeoisie. The traditional elite – the sangha, veda, guru, and govi of Bandaranaike’s pancha maha balavegaya (kamkaru was an addition necessitated by the rise of labour in the 20th century; they had no elite status in traditional society) – were superseded by a moneyed class, who in turn sought to overcome and overturn the old Mudliyars and Muhandirams whom the British had hitherto privileged. As scholars, including Professor Jayawardena, have noted, just as there was a division between the privileged gentry and these new capitalist upstarts, there was also a division within the latter class. Between the cautious conservatism of D. B. Jayatilake, D. S. Senanayake, and the founders (most of them, at least) of the Temperance Movement and the activism and at times chauvinistic rhetoric of Anagarika Dharmapala, for instance, there was a virtually unbridgeable chasm. (The fact that Dharmapala was never allowed in as a member of the Abstinence Union is a sign of this rift, which grew over the years.)
The art forms which this milieu, particularly the more nationalistic among them, affirmed and purveyed were hybridised, though not always so: they watched the plays of John de Silva and Charles Dias and read the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena. It would be a mistake to consider these as urban artists and writers, but their appeal was broadly of an urban, quasi-sophisticated (because hybrid) kind. It was not the praja shalawa in a village where these artists gathered, but the Tower Hall at Maradana, which over the years became a rallying point for patriotism to such an extent that the then Inspector-General of Police, H. L. Dowbiggin, wrote that he believed that de Silva’s plays were produced “with the object of creating a spirit of nationalism.” The Tower Hall was not restricted to the elite, but they opened up, not to the peasantry per se, but instead to the Sinhalese-speaking lower middle class and the urban workers: in short, the milieu which has historically been at the forefront of social and political upheavals elsewhere, particularly in continental Europe. It cannot be said that the peasantry, for whom art was not something to go out and watch after paying for a ticket, weren’t affected by this surge of patriotism in the cultural sphere, but the impact of these works of art would have been felt acutely by a more urbane milieu.
Regi Siriwardena called this a “belated and weak bourgeoisie”, approximating to a “trading and handicraft petty bourgeoisie”, whose stand was less against imperialism (though they were radical anti-imperialists) than against their Tamil and Muslim counterparts (whose business interests were never aligned with theirs: the 1915 riots, for instance, surged once some railway workers had an argument with a neighbouring tea kiosk owner, a Muslim, after he had decided to raise the price of a cup of tea). They were, simply put, neither here nor there. They needed a guiding star, in fact a searchlight, to help them come to terms with themselves and with what they wanted to become later on. That guiding star and searchlight, who deserves treatment elsewhere, was Anagarika Dharmapala. Shed away his racist invectives, his controversial slogans aimed at the Tamils and the Muslims, and you come across the only real militant nationalist from the bourgeoisie who envisioned a self-sufficient, industrialised economy. (This aspect to the Anagarika has never properly been examined.)
On the other hand, the nationalist revival which transpired after the intrusion of the Theosophists on the one hand and British rationalism on the other (where Henry Steel Olcott and Robert Ingersoll met was where the Buddhist rationalist movement began; to this day, we have leading intellectuals who equate the one with the other, a legacy of the historical coincidence of faith and scepticism during the revival) needed the help and support of the newly emerging bourgeoisie. George Bond’s account of the Buddhist revival and the ideological splits and amalgamations (“The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka”) is useful for those who wish to examine how the bourgeoisie were at once with, and against, the political consequences of the movement: how, for instance, the more conservative elements of the Ceylon National Congress, including Jayatilake and Senanayake, were in favour of a division between the clergy and the laity, as a means of preserving certain vested privileges (which is not, by the way, an indictment on these people, venerated as heroes today), while the Anagarika clearly was not.
Added to this was another phenomenon: while the British sought to do away with remnants of the past in their colonies, and especially in India and Sri Lanka (being the Crown Colonies we unfortunately were), they could not do away with the exotic elements of that past. The Kandyan dress, the perahera, the caste-ism so rampant in the days of the kings, remained more or less as they were, with slight modifications. As the bourgeoisie evolved from the “betel bag” to the “coffee store” (Spence Hardy), they did not or could not let go of these familiar, archaic elements of the same culture they were now, thanks to their willingness to be Westernised, ostensibly repudiating. This rather strange dichotomy – repudiation versus affirmation – continues with the descendants of this bourgeoisie: you see it every time a member of that class, while welcoming a political sphere free of myths and lies, jaunts off to a temple or kovil, no matter how uncomfortably misaligned they are in those places, to perform a baaraya.
Perhaps because of their cultural conditioning, no matter how hard they tried, the bourgeoisie were unable to be the brown sahibs they tried to be. (The closest to a Macaulay the colonies produced was a Sinhalese: Dandris de Silva Gunaratna, who was praised by Macaulay himself as being his closest imitator.) They could not think on their own, and in not being able to think on their own, they couldn’t produce a culture of their own, barring the habits and customs of the British they aped. This necessitated a catalogue of cultural objects, and those objects, which required sponsorship, were sponsored lavishly by them. Initially, the help they provided extended to the building of temples, libraries, and hospitals, and were done out of a need to appear honourable in front of the British (to gain knighthoods). As time passed, and as their offspring began to rebel against their conservatism, this supportive streak eventually shifted and congealed to a colossal revival of cultural artefacts. From Dandris de Silva to Charles Jacob Peiris, and from Charles Jacob Peiris to Amaradeva, you come across a gradual, but radical, transformation: from the anglicised crust of the bourgeoisie to the indigenous, but sophisticated, roots of the petty bourgeoisie.