The seventies in Britain are remembered as the era of Edward Heath, the donkey jacket, and the Austin Allegro. It is also remembered by my friend Michael O’Leary as the era of crappy, god-awful music, as can be inferred from those singles which won at the Eurovision Contest: Lulu’s “Boom Bang-a-Bang” in 1969, Dana’s “All Kinds of Everything” in 1970, and the Brotherhood of Man’s “Save Your Kisses For Me” in 1976. This was the era of colour, of vivacity, but also of kitsch and of sober economic downturns. Sri Lanka faced economic and cultural downturns like this in that decade, and before Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, we would unleash a new free market to change it. The seventies are naturally remembered today as a decade of stringent rationing. This applied even to the arts. (Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ravindra Randeniya, when they went to London over The God King, found they had to reckon with their country’s harsh, at times irrational foreign exchange restrictions).
Hope, or the lack thereof, thus became the definitive factor of this period. Jana and janapriya, for one instant, soon began to cohabit, particularly in music. Clarence Wijewardena, H. D. Premaratne, and the Ummagga Jathakaya all conspired to give us Sikuruliya, which brought together Vijaya Kumaratunga and Joe Abeywickrama, two different faces from two different cinematic eras. The middle class, squeezed beyond endurance, fell down a few notches, so the populist “peechan” art they patronised reflected their own masscult, antiestablishment attitudes and concerns. Jothipala was their monarch, their hero. He had a voice and that voice fitted virtually every actor who lip-synced to it, from Joe to Vijaya. Amaradeva had tried to collaborate with him once before, towards the end of the sixties, but owing to their different worldviews and ways of working, the maestro had to retreat, annoyed. He tried his luck again in 1976, and he succeeded with the first of two hits which got them together, “Kanden Kandata.” Despite the primitiveness of the technology (Lester Peries, recounting his experience getting the recording done for the music from The God King in London, observed that we were 30 years behind them), despite the uneasiness of the paradox between these two cultural sensibilities, janapriya slowly began assimilating jana.
A prosperous decade
All that changed with the election of J. R. Jayewardene and his administration’s ushering in of a newer, more prosperous decade. As laid down in Yashorawaya and several other novels by the late Somaweera Senanayake, what the eighties did was give birth to a new middle class. This was the offspring of a more traditionalist generation, the sort which preferred Amaradeva to Clarence and Jothipala but which listened to both. This latter generation had worked as government bureaucrats. They were now idealising careers in the private sector for their children. They would have worked as customs officers and nurses, and were now nurturing dreams of their children becoming attorneys and doctors. It was a turbulent time, far removed from the fifties and sixties. Cultural fusion was not impossible to get at this point, and in this era, of advertising and instant noodles (Prima made its headway here), the popular effectively met the highbrow. Ajantha Ranasinghe had written for Jothipala before; now he would do the same for the pop voice of the eighties, Rookantha Goonethilake. Amaradeva had not worked with Clarence before; the latter would become the first person to both write and compose for the maestro, with “Sasara Gewa Yana.” The advertising industry also broke down distinctions between the serious and the popular: Neela Wickramasinghe sang for Vogue Jewellers, Indrani Perera sang for Link Kesha, while Clarence found himself composing jingles for Edna, Atlas, Keells, and Singer.
The tragedy here is that we have no one to continue from where Amaradeva and his descendants left off
Improvement in technology
Another thing happened: the technology improved. The jana sensibility had thrived on what was available. Amaradeva and Victor Ratnayake were satisfied with what they had, and what they got. The janapriya sensibility, of Clarence and The Moonstones and the Three Sisters, on the other hand, depended on formal, technical, and technological innovations. Clarence’s rise thus coincided with the record label, through Sooriya. It was a trend that would follow well into the eighties, during which time Singlanka and Tharanga would revolutionise the cassette industry and emancipate established players like Sanath Nandasiri and T. M. Jayaratne and also new entrants, particularly from the janapriya culture, like Rookantha Goonethilake. From Rookantha we come to Athula Adikari and Bathiya and Santhush, exponents of the pre-internet popular culture, who found their niche in newly established, technology-driven production houses.
With each era giving way to a glossier, glitzier innovation in the cultural sphere, however, something was bound to come about. That something, which in no way was the fault purely of these innovations, was the separation of the jana from the janapriya. They no longer met, in other words, and from the nineties onwards, the janapriya sensibility would thrive, would flourish, while the jana sensibility would stall.
How did this happen? There probably were more reasons than one. First and foremost, the prevalence of technology over literacy and the resultant fusion of technology and populist art forms. This was to be felt most vividly in the music industry, particularly through the rise of the cassette industry and production houses. With the shift from a literary sensibility to a sensibility conditioned by the profit motive, a shift necessitated by the new economy, there was a transformation in the way people, particularly young people, thought about art and culture. What this culture of technology over literacy thus privileged were the rhythms, the cadences, the ability to adjust your voice to the tone and pitch you wanted. What was lost in the richness of this technology was the richness of poetry. In this sense, Bathiya and Santhush, with their most frequently resorted to lyricists, Nilar M. Cassim and Wasantha Dukkgannarala, were the last icons from a bygone era, an era which fused words with melodies, poetry with motion.
There were other reasons. The eighties oversaw a shift in the way we thought about our history, our heritage, our literature. While a comprehensive critique of this is hard to obtain, it is possible to ascertain that there came about a transformation, and not a positive one at that, in the teaching of history. Briefly put, history was stripped of its richness, its vivacity, and reduced to a series of dates to memorise. For all its ills, the changes effected on the national syllabus by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government were not adverse like this. All it did was to replace history, its emphasis on memory, with social studies, especially through the textbooks drawn up by Neil Kuruppu. The idea of social studies was to enable students to learn about the history, geography, and society of their world: their village, their district, their country. Based on the Reggio Emilia approach, it did away with the dates-driven method of previous curricula and, for the first time, empowered students to draw up links between the culture and the arts, in particular literature. After the eighties though, this method was scrapped, and in its place, as we now see, came a horde of textbooks which teemed with error after error. Naturally enough, the jana sensibility was all but completely wiped out. This was to be expected, since in Neville Karunathilake’s words, “many schoolchildren are growing up without any knowledge of our culture, traditional values, and heritage.”
That’s not all. As opposed to the cultural monarchy we had in the sixties and seventies, from the eighties onwards we began to get used to the idea of a cultural democracy. This democracy thrived on three things: the opening up of art forms to everyone and anyone, the reduction in prices of musical instruments, and the proliferation of the janapriya sensibility among the youth. Schoolboy bands are on the rise. With each passing era, these schoolboys learnt to adulate and emulate a singer-hero. In this era, that hero is Sanuka Wickramasinghe. Sanuka, who can melodise as well as sing and write (he wrote “Mayam Kalawe”, performed by Nadeemal Perera), is something of a quirk: someone who, unlike the pop culture icons of yesteryear, has the ability to weave the highbrow and the populist together. I have written before on Sanuka, and I have observed how the image he has conjured, of the solitary, lonely, but fulfilled artiste, is miles away from the Boy Scout-ish charm and togetherness of Bathiya and Santhush. He embodies rebellion, yet with a welter of security. Hypocritical at one level, but enough for his fans to conclude, “He is THE voice for OUR generation!”
With each era giving way to a glossier, glitzier innovation in the cultural sphere, however, something was bound to come about
However, it is a little too late to be optimistic. Sanuka is Sanuka. He is the line that continues the tradition of Neville Fernando, Clarence, Jothipala, Rookantha, Bathiya and Santhush, and Iraj. While he is different from these voices, his own voice is a continuation of a particular tradition: the tradition that appeals to youth. The tragedy here is that we have no one to continue from where Amaradeva and his descendants left off. As I wrote before, that has a lot to do with our cultural attitudes, and the attitudes of the youth, who are more attuned with a secular, almost culture-less, and technology-driven variant of music. It is this tendency, among the young, which keeps the janapriya sensibility alive. For the jana sensibility to come alive like this, however, those attitudes must change. Starting from the way we teach ourselves how to regard our own history, heritage, and literature, there must be a paradigm shift. Otherwise, the absence of a jana sensibility will continue to deprive us of variety in the arts. We have Sanuka, we have Nadeemal, we have Sajith, but without those who will take the baton from Amaradeva, from Victor, from Amarasiri Peiris, we will wade on clueless.