Monday, September 29, 2014

On giants decorated and undecorated

We celebrate superstardom. We have been told that “15-minutes-of-fame” has become something of a custom. Reality show after reality show enforces this message, so much so that we have got used to it. It has become second nature. Sensationalism and melodrama are the order of the day. That’s typical of our time. Dinesh Subasinghe once told me that we have, in effect, completely gone through the “Age of Melody”. We are hence in the “Age of Rhythm”, where slow, gradual movement is replaced by quick, shortcut nimbleness.

This is a world that has become globalised. Yet, one may be compelled to ask, have we ever globalised anything beyond poverty and consumerism? We talk of a North-South divide in this world. We point fingers at economic statistics, thinking that GDP growth implies happiness. We’ve had our share of Green Revolutions, privatisation, and nationalisation. None of them has worked. Advocates for these movements are, if at all, few in number today. And yet, even after all this time, we see certain immutable, firm monuments. They live on.

They are the giants, decorated and undecorated.

There comes a time when we must look back. This is where reflection, not nostalgia, is needed. We still have our icons to look back and reflect with. Amaradeva is with us. So are Lester James Peries and Gunadasa Amarasekera. But then, there are those monuments that have passed on. This year, indeed this month, we saw several cruelly snatched from us. There was Rebecca Nirmali. Her death came right before another legendary actress, Lauren Bacall, died miles away from here, in America. Two losses, both bearing equal gravity for their respective countries. Then there was Bandula Vithanage, not to mention Andrew Jayamanne.

I am not just thinking of film stars here, of course. There was Bala Tampoe, that quiet, dignified, but determined trade-unionist who showed us all what unionism and solidarity really meant in this country. There was Sam Wijesinghe, the ombudsman whose knowledge of parliamentary protocol, I’ve been told, would put to shame nearly every person who sits in parliament today. We commemorate their deaths. But who tends to the living?

There are tributes in plenty for those who die. Everyone wants to butt in with his or her two cents’ worth. That’s natural. Commemorative speeches, however, tend to become something of a joke at times. It isn’t hard to see why. There are those who read up on the “life” being commemorated on the very day he/she has to deliver that speech or write that article in praise of the dead. That’s not remembrance. That’s pomposity. Call it what you will. Tributes can do scant justice. Once in a while, we writers realise this too. “Are there watering halls in eternity?” Lester James Peries once asked in his tribute to Ajith Samaranayake. How relevant that question is. Can one ever limit to words what years and decades have accomplished? Not even Barack Obama, with his own eulogy (of sorts) of Gabriel García Márquez, could.

We forget the living. Having “eternalised” the dead, we leave behind those still among us. The way to pay tribute is not (only) through words. Stars need their instant, crass fame. Icons don’t. There’s a reason for that. They came from a slower, different age, when something was done for the love of it.

Artists and icons are remembered. Treasured. This is not owing to a penchant for nostalgia and day-dreaming on our part. What they scatter along their way and leave behind, we continue to cherish. They worked for the love of their art. Many berate the lack of any proper institutional framework (by the government) to preserve their legacy. They have just cause in regretting this. But I have often wondered whether we need a government for this. We are a self-sufficient, fiercely independent people. Not even 500 years of oppression could suppress what 2,500 years had wrought. Our icons are not forgotten. They live in us, in a big way. Thing is, we realise this too late. By that time, the icon is long dead and gone.

For me, the best sign of a school, a community, and in turn a country, is in how they celebrate their icons. We don’t see this happening enough. Tributes of the conventional mould come in. Frequently. Honorary doctorates fly here and there. Well deserving of the people they garland, no doubt. But then, as a friend once told me, we have forgotten some heroes. There is politics involved in this, of course. There must be a reason, after all, for the fact that Mahagama Sekera, easily among our most eclectic artists from the 20th century, is footnoted in our cultural discourse. And this isn’t all. Those who sing hosannas for dead and gone icons today would do well to reflect on the past to see how their predecessors vilified, criticised, and even humiliated these same icons. Marcelline Jayakody and Tissa Balasuriya are two names I can point out here. Sugathapala Senerath Yapa, still among us, is another. Again, there is politics involved. But that’s another story. Or maybe not.

I have reason to fear, despite all this. I worry about our children. They have forgotten. And are forgetting. I don’t wish to ring alarm bells here. Governments can do only so much. Perhaps the State does have an obligation to the Arts. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is this: come what may, our present generation have succumbed to a forget-game. Our icons are being laid aside in favour of blindly aping everything “foreign”. That’s cause for alarm, not to mention alarm bells. We have local talent in plenty. Icons there are enough and more of. Culture, though, is not a one-off thing. That which grows, and doesn’t remain static, will endure. Same thing with a country’s way of life. But a culture that pays scant regard to its icons might just as well wither too.

Bottom line: doctorates and words will do only so much. If we leave our present generation, if we disregard the fact that those who are to take the baton when we’re gone have forgotten our cultural heroes, there will soon be a void. A big one. So big that no attempt to fill it will succeed. I’m not being didactic here. I’m just stating things. Obvious things. That should be sobering enough. Let’s not just start from doctorates and words, then. Let’s start with our kids. Educating them, and inculcating in them a love for our real heroes (both decorated and undecorated), would be a good starting point. Otherwise, the writing will be on the wall.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, September 28 2014