The latest news from Sri Lanka’s often bizarre domains of cultural politics is that Buddhism is under threat along with Sinhala culture. This however, is not due to the corrupt and violent politics that still remain the hallmark of the country’s mainstream politics or because of the unethical and anti-doctrinal work of marauding Buddhist monks who have become storm troopers causing bodily harm to people, disrupting court proceedings and vehicular traffic in the country putting Hitler’s dreaded Brown-shirts to shame. The apocalypse of Sinhala culture and the island’s Buddhism is supposed to happen as a result of Soprano Kishani Jayasinghe’s masterful rendition of the well-known Sinhala song, Danno Budunge within an operatic sensibility in a cultural program organized to mark the 68th anniversary of the country’s independence. Personally, I am thankful to the organizers of the event for attempting to do something out of the ordinary.
But going by the attacks on Jayasinghe orchestrated by sections of the mainstream media (see for example, the undignified assault by Derana TV) and the multitude of comments from unenlightened swaths of the social media, the doomsters’ main concern is that that Jayasinghe’s new rendition has insulted both Buddhism and Sinhala culture as they perceive these, and this act alone would bring the house that ‘Vijaya’ built, crashing down. Interestingly however, she also sang at the same event — in the same kind of musical sensibility — the old folk verse (paru kavi), “Matara gange inna kimbulige petiya”. That however, has by and large escaped the scorn and anger of doomsters. One can assume this is because the latter has no reference to Buddhism while the former has. Musically speaking, both were good examples for specific genres of songs which can be successfully reinterpreted within the parameters of an entirely different genre, if one was competent enough to know what to do.
The attacks have come from a certain sense of crude cultural nationalism tempered by a pronounced and very dangerous insularity which suggests everything seemingly ‘sacred’ in cultural or religious terms, should not and cannot change. It also assumes that cultural products somehow should not mix and must remain ‘pristine.’ In real life however, culture is not that simple. It changes, borrows and reinterprets as the only way in which it can survive over time. Most Sinhalas of my generation would know well enough that Angeline Goonatilake, H.R. Jothipala and Lata Walpola, among others, owe at least a part of their fame and popularity to numerous Sinhala songs they sang which were set to the music of Bollywood songs. Here, there was no interpretation as such but a mere act of mimicry, which was nevertheless well done. But despite some opposition, there was no heartfelt anxiety at the time that the purity of Sinhala culture was being destroyed by this relentless borrowing from North Indian popular culture. This however is a much broader debate, which needs more time to engage with. What is interesting and of more immediate relevance is that the kind of virulent attacks Jaysinghe’s rendition has brought and the cultural wilderness from where they come from is so clearly negated by the social history of the song itself.
Without a doubt, Danno Budunge is a trans-generational cultural icon of the Sinhalas. It has remained popular, and its words and soothing melody relatively well-known to many people since it first came to the public sphere in the early 20th century (1902 or 1903). But the parochial religiosity infused into it upon which many of the recent criticisms against Jayasinhe’s rendition is based, is something very recent. It is the result of our cultural practices having been overshadowed by a sense of narrow exclusiveness embedded in a problematic and highly parochial historical consciousness. After all, this is a song written by a mortal for entertainment and not a hymn delivered by a divine being for the nation’s spiritual well-being. The lyrics of Danno Budunge were written by the well-known early 20th century Sinhala playwright, John de Silva as part of his play Sirisangabo where it was sung by three princes Sangha Tissa, Sangha Bodhi and Gotabhaya (not the Gota of recent ill-fame) as they approached the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura. It is essentially a description of what they saw and felt: flowing bodies of water, out of which sprang beautiful lotuses while swans swam around; monasteries where monks in search of Nirvana spent their time were in the vicinity; and enlightened sages were flying around magically across the sky, their shadows preventing the rays of the sun reaching the ground! And crucially, the people who are familiar with the words of the Buddha were expected to live according to the spirit of those words. Very simply, this is what de Silva’s lyrics essentially depicted. Such incredible imagination was meant to paint Anuradhapura as a heaven on earth.
Obviously however, it is a long distance from Anuradhapura of de Silva’s idealized imagination and the cultural wilderness and relative intolerance of real-time contemporary Colombo. Thankfully, there are no more sages (arahats) floating across Lanka’s cotemporary skies. If there were, the shockwaves of present day cultural politics and crudity as well as their inherent lack of vision would have dragged the sages towards the merciless earth. And that would have been the end of their search for bliss.
Interestingly, de Silva’s Catholic background has much do with the social history of the song though it was written much after he had adopted Buddhist and Hindu practices in his personal life. As a person who went through a formal Christian education and also coming from such a religious home environment and given the nature of his times, he must have been familiar with church music as well as western classical music which seem to be the foundation for the music of Danno Budunge. Even today, in whatever rendition it is sung, it sounds more like a Christian hymn than a Buddhist devotional verse. Though not a musician by training, it is fairly obvious that de Silva wanted his song to be set to the kind of music he was familiar with and admired, and also felt could create the mood he was hoping to create in his play. This, he obviously managed to do. According to some sources, many of de Silva’s songs were set to music by a Hindustani musician known as Vishvanath Laugi who might also have helped with Danno Budunge (see, World Music: The Rough Guide – Latin and North America, Caribbean, India and Pacific; Vol. 2; 2000, p 231).
De Silva’s words and the song itself became popular as his play captured the imagination of the people who were looking towards Tower Hall and other theatre productions of the time for new forms of entertainment. By the 1920s, the song was made popular by the Tower Hall singer, Hubert Rajapaksha. Recordings of this version were made by Cargills Ceylon Ltd in the 1920 on vinyl records, and some copies have survived to-date. The operatic tenor of Rajapaksha’s rendition is unmistakable though I suspect he was singing without the benefit of the kind of formal training exhibited very clearly by Kishani Jayasinghe. But fortunately for him, given the times, no one was after his blood, arguing that he was going to bring down Sinhala culture and Buddhism. Interestingly, Kishani Jayasinghe rendition brings the song much closer to Rajapaksha’s original melody, which is now almost forgotten.
Since it first emerged, Danno Budunge has remained a perennial cultural artifact that simply would not go away. It was at times used as a kind of a ‘national song’ when there was no designated ‘national anthem’ mostly due to its instant local recognition. But more importantly, it was a true hybrid product which owes its existence to nuanced borrowings from different cultural sources and had the ability to cater to varied tastes at different times. Even the lyrics are highly Sasnskritized, and it takes some effort to work out the Sinhala and the Sanskrit, and to fathom the overall meaning. Since the 1920s, different people have sung this song at different times. It varies from the renditions in the different productions of the de Silva’s play, some of which we do not know much about, to well-known performances initially on Radio Ceylon, and then on a much wider scale as recording technology expanded. W.D. Amaradeva and Rukmini Devi are among those radio artists who gave the song their own flavor and signature over time. In other words, while the words and the general structure of the melody have remained constant, its tune has been interpreted by different artists at different times in keeping with their times as well as the nature of their training, the genres of music they were located in and their personal preferences. At none of those times, neither Sinhala culture nor institutionalized Buddhism came crumbling down.
It is this history and this reality of cultural accommodation which have been such an important foundation of Sinhala culture which the virulent critics of Kishani Jayasinghe’s rendition have forgotten about. What she did was merely to add yet another rendition to the various interpretations of a perennial song. What was different was the time. She was singing at a time when our country and our entire cultural-landscape have been hijacked by a vocal and powerful coterie of cultural puritans with a very reductionist understanding of culture as a process as well as the history of Sinhala culture and Sri Lanka’s traditions of cultural accommodation more specifically. Even in a nominally democratic setup, political and cultural choices are supposed to be a matter of option, which people are supposedly free to exercise. Admittedly, many of our people do not have a taste for opera music. This is hardly surprising in an extended cultural landscape where Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti or any other tenor or soprano would be unheard of. Fair enough. So one can listen to many others whose music one can relate to and is more palatable, including the multitude of popular songs from the 1960s set to Bollywood melodies. But that unfamiliarity of global cultural products and the distance one may legitimately have from the tastes for such unfamiliar products cannot be an excuse for the shrill and undignified claims of cultural apocalypse and the demonization of decent people.
All I can advise such doomsters is to make themselves more familiar with the words of the Buddha himself in whose name much of this posturing is brought about: Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. May the triple gem bless them and may sanity prevail upon our once enlightened land!