Sparks from the Notes of a Vagabond Mind
The Sri Lankan film director and writer, Tissa Abeysekara, is one of our greatest storytellers in both Sinhala and English. Two of the best examples are his short novel, Bringing Tony Home, published in 1998; and In My Kingdom of the Sun and the Holy Peak of 2004. These are landmarks in Sri Lankan literature. His latest work, Ayalea Giya Sithaka Satahan (Notes of a Vagabond Mind), this time in Sinhala, is a new genre in itself; part autobiographical memoir, part cultural commentary, an exploration of history through myths, folklore, archaeology and written documentation.
On reading this new book, I was immediately reminded of R. A. Brohier’s books Seeing Ceylon (1965) and Discovering Ceylon (1973) and of Martin Wickramasinghe’s Kalunkla Seveema (In Search of a Panacea) (1950). The reflections which follow are not a proper review but more a set of reactions, as idiosyncratic and personal as the book itself.
Tissa is an outstanding writer both Sinhala and English, with a gift for poetic expression which began in his childhood and has become more powerful and sophisticated as he has aged. This book, neither predominantly academic nor poetical, is written in a language which uses both modes. Nor is it chronological or methodological in its research and reflections. With profound insight and no apparent effort, Tissa deconstructs modern Sri Lankan discourses, showing us how hybrid is our island culture, indicating our weaknesses but not condemning us for the narrow-mindedness of our preoccupations.
The first section of the book deals with the Kotte period, followed by a series of pieces on contemporary Sri Lankan music, then poetry and finally thoughts on visual arts, national traits and cinema. It appears sometimes to be a collection of articles; sometimes a meditation on his personal work and interactions with world culture, art and history; and sometimes a conflation of his internal discourse with the unfolding of events during his lifetime. Flashbacks into the thousands of years of Sri Lankan history occur in the midst of commentaries on present day subjects, moving back and forth like a cultural time machine.
The early part of this book about the historical Kotte period is politically the most interesting. Unlike other kingdoms of the past, whose ruins are now international tourist attractions, no physical traces remain of the Kotte era but a rich literature, especially the Sandesha Kavya (message poetry), has survived to the present day. The Kotte kingdom ended when it was overthrown by the Portuguese in 1505.
Tissa is struck by the fact that hardly any of the surviving complexes of temples and religious institutions from later periods have any trace of secular life. Seeking such evidence, Tissa has discovered in the historical and archaeological records that the first traces of secular life are found from the Sigiriya and Polunnaruwa periods onward. During the Polunnaruwa era, King Prakkramabahu tried to enhance the feudal system by developing and building up secular life, but many historians have observed that these large scale projects took ordinary people off the land in service to the king, leaving no one to tend or harvest their crops. As a result these schemes were unpopular with the farmers and craftspeople and overall did not succeed. The last of these failures at secular innovation was during the reign of the last king of the Kandyan era, Sri Wickramarajasinghe.
Despite considerable complex archaeological and historical evidence, the ethno-nationalist project of recent decades channels interpretations of our island’s past into the narrow lens of Sinhala-only accomplishments, considering the Mahavamsa to be the sole authoritative text on Sri Lankan history. From the works of archaeologists H.C.P. Bell, Senarath Paranavithana and Daraniyagala to those of Sudharshan Senevirathne and the parallel investigations of many historians, a much wider perspective is opened on our past and present. Surely the time is long overdue for Sri Lankan scholars and cultural commentators to initiate analyses similar to those of the Indian Subaltern Studies Group. So far, Sri Lankan academics have followed in the intellectual footsteps of colonial historian, accepting their imperial misinterpretations. We have failed to generate any truly post-colonial studies of our social or cultural evolution, unwilling to go beyond the ethno-nationalist glorification of a Sinhala-only viewpoint.
By contrast, Tissa tracks the events of our history cinematically, moving through maps, folklore, historical and archaeological studies, interpreting as he goes along in a vivid personal manner. Whether we agree with him or not, his argument is so interesting and clever that we await the evidence which will confirm his speculations.
In the second part of the book, Tissa looks at developments in Sri Lankan music from the 1940s to the present time. He covers what is known as the gramophone phenomenon, the policies of the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the attempts to develop and experiment with musical traditions by a range of different composers and performing musicians. He is particularly interested in the work of Devar Sooriyasena, Ananda Samarkoon, Sunil Shanta, C.T Fernando, B.S. Perera and Neville Fernando. These artists were experimenting with Western music in combination with Sri Lankan and Indian folk traditions. At the time the acceptable music was predominantly Hindustani and little space was available for other approaches. Nonetheless, many of the songs these composers wrote became and remain popular. Tissa’s observation about the obligatory piano in the middle class sitting room for the dissemination of gramophone and radio songs adds a class dimension to his analysis. However, I am sorry to see that Premasiri Kemadasa’s and Sarath Dasanayake’s film music, the wonderful Clarence Wijewardane and other popular groups are left out of the account.
As most access to music was available through the radio, Tissa looks at some of the internal struggles within the SLBC, where various individuals promoted certain music according to their personal interests and connections rather than the inherent quality of the compositions. Tissa points out how many of these selections and approaches actually damaged the development of Sri Lankan music. (If, by comparison, we look at the development of West African music during the same period, infused with influences from Latin America, the blues, jazz, etc., we can appreciate what a loss it has been to our tradition for apparatchiks to impede the freedom of creative musicians through rigid broadcasting policies.)
The institutional paranoia which plays out through such decisions reflects an insecurity about the resilience and flexibility of Sri Lankan culture; the argument often being that a piece of art which seems experimental will be damaging to our culture. Such rigidity and fear may reflect subjection to the long history of sequential colonialisms, all of which denigrated and despised local traditions and culture and insisted on the superiority of those of Europe and elsewhere. Another example was the 43 Group, which included Lionel Wendt, George Keyts, Justine Daraniyagala, Ivan Peiris and Richard Gabriel, intellectual and artistic innovators strongly resisted and resented by the cultural authorities. The librarian and intellectual historian, H.A I. Gunathilake, assembled a large collection of articles written against The 43 Group which are now in the Peradiniya University library.
A further example pertains to Sri Lanka drama. In 1956 Professor Ediriweera Sarchchandra’s historical play Maname retold Buddhist Jataka stories and folk tales, combining the classical Sri Lankan poetic language with nadagam music, resuscitating the ancient form. Maname was massively popular with the cultural authorities and was declared to be authentically Sri Lankan, becaming the template or formula for subsequent productions. When Bandula Jayawardana wrote his adaptation of a Sophocles drama Berahanda (Sound of the Drum) in 1961 using colloquial expressions from the South and the language of ordinary people, there was a huge outcry. Bandula was condemned and his play severely criticised as not being authentically Sri Lankan since neither the language nor the music followed the established formats.
In this second part of the book, Tissa also talks a lot about jazz, its history and development in Sri Lanka. His ability to appreciate the trajectory of original Sri Lankan music, from Devar Sooriyasena to Harsha Makalanda to Pradeep Ratnayake, gives a picture of the scope and depth of cultural developments largely suppressed and ignored by the authorities. These insights are not abstract observations or opinions, but the reflections of a skilled filmmaker whose attention to detail avoids all superficial commentary and conveys a profound sensitivity to the music he discusses.
The third section of the book is about poetry: the folk poetry passed down through the generations as an oral tradition; the European and Sri Lankan classics; and modern political poetry including the Sri Lankan poets writing in English which has never been adequately appreciated. He also looks at the more obvious influence of traditional Indian and Tamil poetries in the development of Sri Lankan styles and formats. Tissa is interested in how modern poets have adapted classical Sinhala genres as well as those of English and Western poetry to address contemporary issues. His discussion includes the graffiti poems at Sigiriya; the classical Sinhala poems of the Parakumba siritha, Wannam and Nadagam; the Tower Hall Theatre songs to Ananda Samarakoon’s songs; Wordsworth; Regi Siriwardena; Gajaman nona; Sirilal Kodikara; Mahagama Seakara; Yasmin Gunarathne, Reyenzi Crazh; S. Mahinda and Pablo Neruda.
The fourth section of the book is a hodgepodge of articles on various subjects – everything from the nature of patriotism and our national anthem to questions of censorship and freedom of expression, from German expressionist cinema to the films of Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders. The chapters are not held together by a central argument, but are more like adventures in thought, cinematically cutting from one image to another, creating a mood but not a conclusion.
In these appreciations Tissa is trying to cohere the many strands of influence, style, genre, classical and hybrid forms and the politics of Sri Lankan life, sharing his personal emotional and intellectual responses and opening a wider appreciation of the rich context which gives rise to and sustains the essential dimensions of our historical and contemporary culture. He is interested in the way innovations disrupt received and official views, pushing the development and possibilities at different moments in the long history of an art form.
His attitude and arguments can be compared to those of E.J. Hobsbawm and T. O. Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. That analysis is relevant to the Sri Lankan experience in which certain individuals have introduced forms of art, music, literature, theatre and film claiming that they represent our traditions, when in reality they are only a matter of personal taste. These then become official and are considered to be rooted in history. To date there has been no systematic study which deals with the origins and perpetuation of our modern cultural discourses from the early 20th century to the present time. Although it is episodic and idiosyncratic, this new book from Tissa Abeysekera contributes significantly to the possibility of such a project.
Although a few of us are mentioned, what troubles me and is missing from this fascinating and engaging book is an interest in the experience of my own generation: the young people who have suffered most from the political upheavals, language policies, ethno-nationalism and civil wars which afflict our country and have impacted so heavily on us. True, he includes in his discussion of Sri Lankan cinema the work of Prasanna Vithanage, Ashoka Hadagama, Vimukthi Jayasundara, and Sudath Mahadeulawewa. But I am puzzled by the absence of any reference to the major events of 1958, 1971, 1983 and 1989, the huge numbers of creative people who have lost to exile and the present return to war. Many works of art, and art movements have been stimulated by and responded to these tumultuous times, amongst them the No Order Group Jagath Weresinghe, Chandragupta Theanuwara, Kingsley Gunathilaka and Anoli Perera. And where are the poets V. I. S. Jayapalan and Chearan, or the paintings of Shanatahnan and Kiko? One cannot expect a total catalogue perhaps, but the absence of these important contributions is strange and, to my view, very sad.
Perhaps even more surprising, key works of his own generation A. Sivanandan’s great novel When Memory Dies, the poetry of Dominic Jeewa and of M. S. Numann, the music of R. Muththuswamy have escaped his attention. Tissa seems equally unaware of the developments in Tamil and Muslim literature or even the contributions made by Tamil lyricists like Augustus Vineyagarathnem to Sinhala songs in the period he deals with.
Despite my delight in the scope and depth of this excellent book, it sparks such questions in my mind. I hope that Tissa will return to examine these strands in our history and discourses and provide as exciting and insightful an account of these missing elements, so essential to a comprehensive view of the country’s rich culture.