Sunday, October 25, 2015

Precept and Practice: The Strange Case of Colonel Olcott

About 10 years ago, there was a debate between two writers in a prominent national newspaper. The debate went on for several weeks with its two contenders, Professor Nalin de Silva and Tissa Devendra. In the end though, it went nowhere.

It started with Professor Nalin. He was writing about "Olcott Buddhism". He was at loggerheads with Devendra over one point: whether the institutions and ideology represented by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott stunted the Buddhism which would have been an instrument of national regeneration. That it did not was what he opined. That Olcott Buddhism was needed to revive Buddhism was what Devendra opined.

The historian's role is to record history. Can anyone say that he's free from prejudice? Can anyone point at history books and claim "objectivity" for them? Of course not. That's why comment is needed, not because history is open but because those who record it are selective. This is as true a statement as it's going to get when it comes to our history, not just because those who've recorded have not let go of their political preferences but because they have managed to insert those preferences in subtle, even mischievous ways.

The point is that Colonel Henry Steel Olcott deserves reassessment. The point is that, in the attempt to lionise him and his movement, some facts were deliberately skewed. The point is that we were taught that he was a national hero.

But was there another side to him? Was there perhaps a flaw in his movement and revival, which we never missed but opted to forget because that would have tarnished his popular image? To ask this is to look back at his movement and its context and then judge Professor Nalin's contention.

To begin with, what Colonel Olcott ushered in was a revival. But he was not responsible for its inception, for the simple reason that he came here because of the Panadura Vaadaya. What happened at Panadura was the culmination of a series of debates between Christian and Buddhist priests.

The revival which followed this was not without its critics. Migetuwatte Gunananda Thera, who had led the priests to victory at Panadura, later disagreed with Colonel Olcott and the Theosophist movement. But by then (around the late 1880s), what was done was done and dusted: Theosophy won, and with it Colonel Olcott's revivalist movement. This is important notwithstanding its demerits because on it rests the argument that what dominated the Buddhist discourse thereafter was Olcott's Buddhism. Not Anagarika Dharmapala's.

And on this rests another thesis: that Colonel Olcott triumphed at the exact point the Anagarika failed: the preaching of a religion which could embrace all and exclude none. Maybe that's how Theosophists managed to throw out religion altogether when referring to Buddhism and instead called it a "philosophy". Philosophies are not static. They are subject to change. Religions, on the other hand, need missions to spread their gospel (largely static), and as Professor H. L. Seneviratne observed in his Work of Kings, the mission here needed a missionary. The missionary needed a leader. That leader was not Colonel Olcott. He was the Anagarika.

But where Theosophy won was also where it lost. To understand why, one needs to understand what Colonel Olcott stood for. He was not a Buddhist, a point acknowledged by almost everyone from Professor Nalin to Victor Ivan. Put simply, he saw Buddhism under Western eyes. How so?

It's to do with what he wrote and founded, at one level. The Buddhist Catechism, which he compiled, was a virtual copy of Luther's Small Catechism. Buddhists didn't go to Sunday Schools before his movement began them. That they coincided with Christian Sunday Schools is all too obvious. To top all that the curriculum he implemented in the schools he founded were, barring a few subjects here and there which catered to the “vernacular” Buddhist crowd, largely imitative of the liberal arts tradition of the (mostly Christian) West.

It follows from all this that the kind of Buddhism Colonel Olcott went after was both imitative and rootless. What those who lionise him forget is that this same “universal Buddhism” they venerate was and is responsible for the culture of disengagement that has pursued Buddhists here to date. More relevantly, they forget the contribution towards the same racialist ideology they find in the Anagarika's movement by (what else?) Olcott's movement.

What was this contribution, incidentally?

No religious movement is possible without continuous engagement with its roots. What Colonel Olcott's program failed to account for was that inasmuch as Buddhism needed to be all-embracive, it couldn't be sustained for long without placing it in a specific culture. Rootless and therefore virtually castrated, the Buddhism he conceptualised managed to split precept and practice to an extent whereby there could be no engagement with it. Gunadasa Amarasekera pointed this out when he observed that what it created was a "culturally divorced Buddhist elite no different from the westernised Christian class".

When Amarasekera compared the "Buddhist elite" to the "westernised Christian class", he was not dabbling in bigoted polemics. It is well known that those who financed and patronised Colonel Olcott's movement were no different in their social position to their Christian counterparts. There are temples and schools founded by those who were arrack renters by profession, for instance. When their descendants became politically active and led our independence struggle, they began "using" Buddhism.

What aided and aggravated this was the split between temple and state accompanied by the Kandyan Convention. True, a clause in the Convention purported to safeguard Buddhism, but by and by that was violated. And thus two trends – the rift between precept and practice and the rift between Buddhism and the state – contributed to the "rhetoricisation" of religion for political expedience which has become the norm today.

Here lies the tragedy of contemporary Buddhism: the split between the tenet and its practice, echoing the split between temple and state. The one aggravated the other, and while the latter split was needed in the interests of ethnic harmony, the former sought new channels of venting out frustration.

Students at Ananda College (courtesy: "Twentieth
Century Impressions of Ceylon")
What were the results of this? Extremist political organisations that rise and  fall? Ideologues and populists who badmouth other faiths and then backtrack on Buddhism when in power? Perhaps.

The problem wasn't Anagarika Dharmapala's chauvinism (only), hence. It was the fact that we looked at Buddhism through and allowed its revival to be led under Western eyes. Most of those who headed Olcott's schools (as principals or patrons), after all, were not “indigenous” Buddhists. They were "born-again" so to speak, and this largely helped to do away with any form of racialism. Tragically however, they failed to account for the cultural context in which Buddhism here was placed, and this more or less provoked the same racialism which Colonel Olcott tried to rid his movement of.

There's more, but we must end here. With an ultimatum.

Popular myths can make heroes out of parvenus, turning them overnight into figures deserving of accolade and posterity. They are venerated and they breed cults. True, they may not have nourished those cults, but the fact is that for the most, they are created with or without their sanction. In that context, it makes good (business) sense to shrug away the other side to the leader of the cult. Which is why history is and always will be full of frill.

Professor Nalin made the following observation about Olcott: "It could be said that he was instrumental in separating Buddhism from Sinhala Buddhism, and as a consequence a group of people emerged who would think of themselves as Sinhalas and Buddhists separately.” In this revelation he may have split hairs and badmouthed sacred cows (and Colonel Olcott, as evidenced by the epithet “Olcott thuma” used by adherents in his schools and elsewhere, is a sacred cow to the teeth). But he spoke the truth.

Whether we like it or not therefore, the Professor's argument holds water. Makes sense to acknowledge it. Makes sense to note it down. And makes sense to revisit history with it.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Ritualising parable and playing with death

Review of Indika Ferdinando's "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno", staged on October 10 and 11 at the Asoka Vidyalaya Gymnasium.

Indika Ferdinando's play "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno" doesn't really have a beginning and an end. There's a story, true, and for the most that develops and moves towards a conclusion. But this is on a superficial level. Indika injects so much into his production, that much of what he's contributed can be missed by the spectator. Put simply, "Signno" demands something new of its audience: that they adapt their notions of the theatre. Why? Because "Signno" is not just a play. It's an experiment. And like all experiments, it tries to create a precedent.

Labels do scant justice to works of art, but with Indika's play they help. He himself has described "Signno" as a "ritualistic parable". The term captures both the traditional and the modern in one go. Aptly. Incorporating elements of the ritual and contemporary theatre, after all, is the thrust of Indika's experiment. But setting the parameters of this experiment, and thereby assessing the final product in terms of those parameters, is challenging for any reviewer.

The label raises questions. "A parable to what?" one can ask. "To everything," one may reply. Indika Ferdinando's play delves into the political, the religious, and the social in ways words can't do justice to. By opting for English as its language (a necessity perhaps, because the play is basically his thesis for Monash University), he interweaves the best of both worlds, with an acute and incisive eye for detail with both the traditional and the contemporary. And so, his "parable" isn't constricted but rather is all-encompassing, encountering new avenues and fighting against the flow of the narrative itself.

The "story" is a challenge in itself. One can't reveal everything, but at a glance it delves into a series of encounters between Death and Life, giving way to a virtual lesson on the lure of power and all its intrigues.

People aren't what they seem. They aren't static and for this reason the human condition enriches any work of art. Indika, it must be said, knows this. He has put in morbid humour in ways that evade categorisation. And in this he is spot on, because the play's resolution (if there ever is a resolution) depends on the encounter between its main players, Signno and Death (Vasavarthi Mara), where the one transmutes into the other: a standoff which confounds the very meaning of standoff.

Does Signno ever repent? Does his triumph over Death augur well? Does Signno's actions provide some message to be taken to heart by us? And above everything else, is there any real resolution in the end? These are questions which spectators (or, as Indika prefers to call them, "experiencers") will no doubt ask and will no doubt get little to no replies to. A "given", since "Signno" does not flow as conventional theatre usually does, and is meant not to answer or resolve, but to accentuate.

This is where the cast aced. Big time. Saumya Liyanage as "Death" was towering, constantly peppering his role with humour and ferocity (whenever he announces himself, his “entourage” shriek and howl with fear). Without losing his grip on a story that teetered between the larger-than-life and the down-to-earth, he made his final encounter with Signno all the more predictable and at the same time tortuous, which rid the ending of any unneeded "final victory" and instead injected a final, ironic twist into it.

Stefan Tirimanne as Signno was more dynamic, thanks to a script that transformed him not once but thrice. Lending conviction to his first transformation – from a suicidal nobody to a soon-to-be messiah – he then went haywire (as per the script) and craftily outsmarted Death. And here he went through his second transformation – to a power-hungry magician.

By disobeying moral sanction (he imprisons Death and presents himself as God), he invites invasion from angel and demon, and here he faces defeat. But no: through a THIRD transformation (best unrevealed here), he embodied the real twist of the play. The plotline, after all, has him as Faust and Mara as Mephistopheles. But the ending, with its twists and convolutions and unresolved note, pitted the two against one another and (shockingly) turned the one INTO the other.

The rest of the cast were excellent, particularly two players: Saviour Kanishka as the narrator, who offers comment and appears more the silent, engaged raconteur; and Jithendra Vidyapathi as an effete Salu Paaliya, who repeatedly tries to push his "alternative narrative" into the audience, but forgets it when he's allowed to do so (the interaction between these two provides much of the play's humour, which threatens to jar at some points but never does, a testament no doubt to how Indika has scripted his experiment). The rest of the cast did wonders, playing multiple roles while accounting for their differing personalities.

At the beginning of "Signno", Salu Paaliya questions why the play lionises the villain and badmouths the hero. True, but in the story there's no real hero. Correspondingly, there's no real villain either. Signno turns out to be as flawed as everyone he tries to escape from at the beginning, but this doesn't make him a complete villain either.

In his final address to the audience, he makes it clear that he has no moral compunction. There's no good and bad in Indika's universe: people exist, and they reveal their emotions and prejudices without inhibition (observe the sequence where Signno and Death visits a dying old man, who asks after each of his children and then exclaims "Apo, she's here too?" comically when asking after his wife).

While the characters assume forever-evolving identities, they sometimes can and do startle. Signno's transformations and Death's final act of submission to him testify to that. Moreover, in Salu Paliya's intrusions into the play, one notices a subtle invitation to comment to the audience, a comment on the play's no-care attitude of questioning and challenging its own flow. Which is where the experiment gains weight, and that by shattering the rift between audience and actor.

Does Indika succeed in this? Yes and no. "Signno" treats its audience as silent onlookers for the most. Its actors rarely address them, except for Salu Paliya and (in his final soliloquy) Signno himself. To his credit, Indika uses several external devices (the "eating sequence" was doubtlessly enjoyed by the audience, and the spraying of fragrances throughout the play was unexpected). But were these enough?

For this writer, where Indika aced his own show was not with those on-the-surface devices, but in several subtle moments in the play where he broke the rift between audience and performance and turned the former into a bunch of "experiencers". “More than anything, I want the audience to feel what they’re watching” was what he said of his goal in "Signno" in an earlier interview. While the eating sequences did achieve that (literally), it was momentary: everyone ate, returned to their seats, and went on with the rest of the play.

On the other hand, in the conversations between the narrator and Salu Paliya, the latter's insistence on reconfiguring the story for himself, and of course Signno's “apotheosis” (which does away with the good/bad dichotomy viewers might have read into the narrative), there was an erasure of the audience/performance barrier. It was with these and not with those peeled off, raw devices that the playwright achieved his goal. Laudably.

There are probably a hundred or so questions viewers will ask of Indika Ferdinando's play. "Could it have been shortened?" is one of them. A question put rightly, because for a story that set Death and Life against each other, the intrusions of other characters and plotlines jarred (in parts). For the most however, an experiment of this sort won where it wanted to end, and with a script and cast that did justice to its director's eclectic, morbid vision.

Yes, Indika won. So did Signno. And so did Death. "How confusing!" Salu Paliya can blurt out. Rightly.

Note: This review was originally sent for publication to THE NATION. This was on Tuesday. On Wednesday the company wound up for reasons which are still unknown in their entirety. My apologies to Indika for not having been able to publicise in print what I have written in words.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

'Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka': Prasanna Vithanage's near-apotheosis

Labelling works of art with tags is conventional and easy. Dissecting them is not. Critics are wont to paint them with their own likes and dislikes. Nothing wrong there, but rarely does one come across a work of art that’s so well crafted, so meticulous in pacing, and narrated with enough respect for the lay audience, that no amount of reviews can get to its originality.

Prasanna Vithanage knows pacing. He knows flow. He knows his craft enough to appreciate that for all those preconceived notions of cinema writers love to rant and rave about, originality and individuality are what finally count. True, individuality is something to be met with most of our independent filmmakers. Vithanage, however, is of a different brand. Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, which premiered here about two months ago, adds to his CV something we’ve been wanting for quite a long time: an apotheosis. Well, it's not exactly an apotheosis. But it's something close. Very close.

There’s a “story” in Vithanage’s latest film (released originally in 2012). What story there is, though, is free of frill. Translated (and transposed) from a short tale by Dostoyevsky (“The Meek One”), the plot follows a pawnbroker and his obsessive but undefined love for a girl from a different milieu. That’s probably where the story begins, but that’s also where it ends.

Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka goes beyond a narrative, hence. For those who come for action, for chronological narrative which shows much by way of on-the-surface plotline, this will disappoint. Not because the film is devoid of plot, but what little there is of one is used to interweave character and theme, enough to make us ask “What’s his/her motivation?” rather than “What will happen next?”

“A woman who loves, oh, a woman who loves idealises even the vices, even the villainies of the man she loves,” Dostoyevsky’s narrator tells us in the original tale. He is referring not to his wife but to his idealisation of her. The narrator loves his wife, but only if she is subordinate to him. She isn't, and that is where the story moves on towards its climax.

Vithanage doesn’t directly import that here. Wisely. What he does is to set his story against a theme he’s visited again and again: the war. By making his protagonist a former Sinhalese soldier and his lover a Tamil Christian, the director not only raises potential for conflict but more importantly deepens the impulses that run through his characters.

If this is all he did, though, it would have jarred. Mercifully, he desists from painting a black/white dichotomy between his two protagonists. He instead leaves his canvas open for other clashes, other opposites. For this though, he needs two points in his favour: the cast and the script. In both he has much to be thankful for.

First, the script. There’s hardly any dialogue or music. Lakshman Joseph de Saram’s contribution to the soundtrack, as little as it is, does its job with grace, accentuating contrast between love and hate and aspiration and despair that’s at the heart of the film. Other than de Saram’s theme though, music plays one role: to pit the insularity of the two (anti-)heroes against the fantasyland they hope to escape to. This is why we hear excerpts of popular music throughout the film. There’s irony there. Beautifully coloured.

The director distils this contrast the “morning after consummation”, when Sarathsiri (the man) embraces and caresses Selvi (the woman) before a window overlooking the Bogawantalawa hills, while a popular song is heard faintly in the background. The scene offers irony. M. D. Mahindapala, who has shown again that he is a cinematographer willing to reflect the director’s conception of his art without letting go of individuality, proves his mettle here. Brilliantly. A. Sreekar Prasad's editing captures contrast and irony excellently too, owing largely to how he eschews frill in scene after scene.

While the Sinhala/Tamil “split” has been discussed and even glossed over, the director has ensured that inasmuch as it provides room for psychological insight, it’s hardly enough. That is probably why, as opposed to his best work – Anantha Rathriya in particular, which was also based on a Russian short story – there’s a humanism here which tries to gush out, but which never actually does.

Here’s where the cast comes into play. Shyam Fernando as Sarathsiri portrays a character that broods on life without confessing till the end that he does so. Indeed, not until the last third of the story does he reveal his motive for his love (best unrevealed here). And yet, with all that, we’re not sure what he’s up to. He prefers to let go of his own identity, yes. But not for nothing. What’s his price then? Selvi’s love? We never really know.

Vithanage’s stories are based on guilt. It is guilt that moves his characters. Fernando is able to capture not only a man caught between desire and frigidity, but also a man who makes up his mind and opts for self-resolution just when what he’s set on doing abruptly shatters. All through that, he harbours guilt. When he unburdens himself of it, he thinks all is well. Not so.

The sequence of Selvi “escaping” Sarath for good (“I could never be the wife you wanted me to be,” she informs us in a voiceover later) may appear contrived  (it did for me), which probably is why it's a little disjointed. But filmmakers are not documentarians. They are not life-chroniclers. 

Selvi isn't your conventional lover. No two words about it, Anjali Patil does her justice there. She is raw. She doesn’t mince words. Above everything else, she is young and her portrayal of a “meek one” turning defiant is memorable because of that. The twists and turns she undergoes, the torment she embodies in an in-your-face manner can’t be described. They should be watched.
She grips reality. But barely. Unlike Sarath, Selvi has no real self. She loves the stuff of popular cinema (her adulation of Vijay comes into the story more than once), but beyond that she has no real character of her own. Her husband does what he can do: project his self into hers, and in doing so trying to infuse it into a woman who loathes everything he stands for.

This is why the humanism that pulsates in Vithanage’s work never gushes out here. And it’s not only because of Selvi’s “act of defiance”. It’s embedded elsewhere: in Sarath’s mundane life (he watches wrestling matches, which offers as much escapism as does the cricket match from Ira Madiyama), the scenes of marriage life between Selvi and Sarath, and the brief intrusion of Sarath’s friend Gamini into the story. There is guilt, but unlike in Pawuru Walalu that guilt doesn't transmute into redemption: it instead gets perpetuated until Sarath reaches his “of-sorts” catharsis.

So with a cast and script like this, how does “style” count? Labelling films with tags does little justice to critic or director. Labels are fine and well, but only if used with a pinch of salt. That doesn’t prevent comment, however.

Vithanage’s craft in his latest film depends on two things: his deliberate use of austerity and his thematisation of memory as a tool of guilt-unburdening. Those are not unique to this film. They are there in his other work. In here however, it inhabits in an almost insular world. That may be a strength, since the story consequently gains in concentration and energy what it would have lost had there been other characters and plotlines. On the other hand, it totters along at some points. That is a weakness.

There's more.

When Selvi breaks into a final frenzy after Sarath confesses why he left the Army, we see that same inexplicable break from sanity and embrace of madness to be seen in many of Bergman’s female characters. Bibi Andersson from Persona, for instance.

The comparison to Bergman doesn’t end at that. As with his most austere work, there is a sense of despair here. Not at guilt, but at its persistence. Vithanage’s two heroes try to escape their pasts, but can never do so. And there Selvi is Sarath’s equal: they cannot reconcile because they are restrained by past and guilt from doing so. Madness isn't merely a choice for Selvi, hence. She has nothing else to embrace.

On the other hand, Sarathsiri is a Meursault who’s fallen in love. He is motive-less. He exists for no reason, but at the same time struggles with a need for meaning. In his closeted affirmation of and thirst for life, he almost becomes a Bressonian hero. Like Bresson’s protagonists, he lives for nothing (or anything). Like them, he seeks meaning only when it starts eluding him. There is motive here, true. But we see that barely. And only towards the end.

Does he reach what he tries to grasp though? That’ll depend on how the viewer interprets the ending.
In short, the heroes of Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka don’t merely live in a void. They EXIST in one. That however doesn’t preclude them from conducting their own lives in the “out there” and “beyond”, and as a result the austerity that Vithanage injects into his narrative embodies life, passionless though it is. Probably that’s where he attains a near-apotheosis.

There are those who’ll complain that there’s hardly any music or action. They are correct. Inasmuch as a story of this sort needs a plot, Vithanage has defied convention. He is to be applauded for this, no doubt. Whether his adaptation of Dostoyevsky is as successful as Anantha Rathriya, however, is for another debate. A film should firstly be assessed against its own merits. And Vithanage’s film wins on that count. Big time. But not perfectly.

Postscript: Most reviews (in Sinhala or English) of Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka have focused on the civil war. Granted, that IS a part of the film, but there's so much more to the plot that's missed by the critic in his/her attempt to make a "greatest film about the 30-year-old war" out of Prasanna Vithanage's latest work.

Works of art have an "inherent aesthetic merit" (Dhanuka Bandara uses that term, and in this I agree with him) that does not transcend the context in which the work in question is placed but at the same time demands that the work be assessed not JUST politically but on so many other levels endemic to the medium of the work of art in question.

Contextualising Vithanage's film on the "civil war" platform and thereby lavishing adjectives on it does his film and work up-to it little service.

Will our critics learn? One hopes so. Fervently.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Between Tenor and Bass

On Friday, October 2, at Bishops College Auditorium, there was a celebration of choir-singing and choir-tradition, an encounter between audience and recitation which would have jarred but didn't. The Western Music Society of Royal College put together and presented "Festival of Choirs". Eight schools participated. Everyone sang. Some danced. No one improvised. To perfection? Almost.

The event-label was spot on, in particular for what it embodied. "Festival" precludes judgment and a final verdict that can and does impede on talent. There was a talent-unbuckling. Throughout. Naturally then, no one presided. No one flaunted. Everyone had a role. From every group. It was (in the end) all about “the collective”. Rightly.

What unfolded thereafter was a celebration of taste and colour. True, as a show "aimed at" Colombo it could have succumbed to insularity. It didn't. What we saw instead was a repudiation of individuality and an embracement of variety. But for this, two things had to factor in. The show had to be synchronised well, and it had to interweave past and present.

Was that what happened? Certainly. The arrangement was planned excellently, and because of that what transpired from one performance to the other seemed smoothly preconceived.

"Festival of Choirs" opened with Verdi, exemplifying choir-tradition head-on. "Va, pensiero" after all is made for choir-recital and Royal College rendered it plaintively. Those who had heard it before and even those who hadn't would have been transfixed, so harrowing was the recital. It paved the way for the rest of the night, hovering between past and present, high and low, tenor and bass.

From "Footloose" (performed by Elizabeth Moir) to Billy Joel (Royal College) and from "Master Sir" (Asian International) to "Living on a Prayer" (Wesley College), there was a frequent travelling-back-and-forth without wallowing in the "then" or "now". No one looked unfamiliar with what they were doing. No one faltered. Granted, there were voices that rang out and some that could be heard above the rest. But not once did that dilute the collective-thrust which dominated the evening.

Everyone had been briefed well, by the way, and here the teachers played a part. Not every school was "accompanied", but whenever they were the student/teacher divide blurred. Wesley College's choir-mistress in particular sang along with the children. She made them drop inhibition, injecting verve into a couple of songs which demanded energy and nothing but. Not surprisingly, she stood apart. Noticeably.

The show didn't only teeter between past and present. It also bridged tradition and culture. To make things all the more vibrant everyone coupled music with movement, a "needed" even when recital was paramount and everything else was frill. People sang, yes. That didn't stop them from emoting though, and that without losing track of whatever was being played out.

And here the venue helped. Bishops College Auditorium doesn't stretch. It's structured to bring audience and performer(s) together. For a musical show of this sort, that's needed. Whatever was played therefore caught on with a crowd that was a microcosm of the "out there" and "beyond": old, young, middle-aged, appreciative of past and present, and willing to embrace the new without forgoing the old.

So how did the performances fare? "Festival of Choirs" was (as mentioned before) not geared at verdicts given through arbitrary judgment. There were no winners and losers. There was instead talent-unbuckling, and on that score no one went overboard. True, there was passion. Enough and more. That didn't license energy-overflow though. Thankfully then, everyone showed restraint. And grace.

As the show moved on however, that restrained almost shattered. A largely Western medley gave way to a more "regional" and “modern” track. That congealed into a transition from "classical" to "plebeian". The performers did this subtly, even if this meant a deviation from the original program (as per the souvenir). Without that, the shift from restraint to openness would have jarred. Badly.

In this context "other factors" weighed in. The performers never showed what they had gone through for the finale. The presenters (Imaadh Dole and Shechem Sumanthiran) interjected commentary without becoming an adjunct to the show, while the audience clapped when applause was wanted and were overwhelmed when they needed to be. There were those who couldn't make it, whose absences were regretted openly. But they were acknowledged and thanked, enough to make it seem as though they were looking on, well and truly present.

As the performances drew to a close everyone got together. The senior members of the participating schools showed solidarity by performing a number. Together. There was no need for tributes, hence. No need to insert adjectives and award-adornment. Solidarity counted. And triumphed. All the way.

Before he wrote of insanity and long before he himself became insane, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of music. He contended that music threw out man's individuality and instead championed the union of man with man through the human condition, filled as it was with joy and suffering. His theory, studied by music lovers for ages to come, was that music embodied the collective. He didn't "assess" choirs, but he might have found in their unyielding solidarity a confirmation of that same argument.

"Festival of Choirs" echoed this. Subtly. It inhabited a twilight between trial and perfection. Everyone exuded harmony, and rightly so. Royal College moreover affirmed Nietzsche's joy-and-suffering duality and that by ending their souvenir with a quote by Victor Hugo: "music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent".

Now here's the clincher: what more inexpressible thing is there, which music cannot (and will not) ignore, than the human condition?

Royal College must thus be congratulated. They created and sustained a show unhampered by talent-verdicts. True, everyone sang and danced. True, there was talent there. But those who thronged to see the show heard and saw what "came out". Those claps weren't decor, after all. They were free of frill. Genuine. As such awards weren’t needed. At all.

There was sanity, hence. And contentment. Everywhere.

Photos courtesy of Buhusuru Ranasinghe and the Media Unit of Royal College

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Reforms, my foot!

Power resists delegation. Whenever there’s concentration of authority in one person, there’s usually pandering to individuals, aid showered on whoever’s (more) willing to backbend before those same individuals, and of course nepotism based on family-and-friend structures which pile up one by one and never seem to go away. Particularly in Sri Lanka, this is a truism as persistent as it is timeless.

Daham Sirisena came under a lot of flak. Rightly. He offered justification for what he did but then went on a tangent and countered “My family is not like the Rajapaksas!” If he or those who support(ed) his argument really thought that deviation from the present regime is enough, they are mistaken. There are different shades to nepotism and for this reason “We are not the Rajapaksas” never was nor will be enough as justification. Period.

That’s done and dusted though. Daham Sirisena can heave a sigh of relief hence, not because of the time factor but because of other (more serious) issues which have cropped up. Badly.

Sri Lanka and South Asia for that matter are not unknown for their lavish displays of worshipping and kowtowing to power-figures. Put simply, that’s patronage. That this was rampant in Rajapaksa’s time is all too obvious. Does this mean the current government is any better? Well, yes and no. Going by recent events however, we’d be personally inclined towards “no”, not only because “deviation from the Rajapaksas” is not enough here too, but because those surrounding Maithripala Sirisena are going on with a (despicably) good job of “doing” a Rajapaksa. Again.

Do we really need banners and cutouts praising Sirisena for “saving the nation from the imperialist's trap”? Does this year’s conduct on Sri Lanka’s part at the UN General Assembly warrant anything other than moderate praise, moderate not because what was done was inadequate but because the president himself argued that he need not be accorded excessive praise? But what do we see instead? Minister after minister kowtowing to the president, the same president in fact who defected from his predecessor because of how HIS government was paying obeisance to him and his family.

This isn't all. As has been reported, not even the United National Party (UNP) has freed itself from nepotism-taint. Well yes, putting in qualified people with credentials isn't really favouritism. But the fact that these appointments were made after highly suspicious processes that had been implemented in ways which call for further investigation should move everyone into asking, "More of the same old?"

There are questions here that will and won't get asked. Naturally. Rhetoricising improvement is what politicians are known for, and not just here. "Yahapalanaya" however is not an end in itself, especially not when it's paraded about as a word used by those with an axe to grind with Rajapaksa. There's more to be done here. Much more.

First and foremost, perhaps the same people who hooted Rajapaksa when he claimed (unjustifiably, we note) that the government should foot his election bill should hoot louder when THEIR boss is being paraded about to the tune of 10 million rupees! Perhaps these hypocrites should be grilled on how they'll react to other excesses which we will or might see in the coming weeks. There's no saying when this will stop, after all.

For now, here's something to think about. No amount of allegations against predecessor can hide power-abuses in place currently. No amount of feel-good rhetoric aimed against Rajapaksa and his gang can fool people for long. If at all, what this government will be doing will be to play into that same gang's hand, by raising up issue after issue which leaves just one idea in the voter's head: "The present is not necessarily better than the past". Sad, yes. But if things go as they've gone these past few days, that'll be the only inevitability.

Moreover, the president must realise that for all their cheers over his New York "moment", those who fawn on him were, once upon a time, Rajapaksa's sycophants. Doesn't take much to conclude that they will probably ditch incumbent when his popularity starts to wane, just as they did to Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

President Sirisena should tame the sycophants, therefore. Especially when 10 million rupees have been spent. And especially when the rupee's down, prices are up, and everyone is wondering as to why New York warrants hurrah-boys and their concerns as citizens are being shown the door.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, October 10 2015

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Chitrasena troupe resurrects the 'child within'

When Chitrasena staged Kidurangana in 1956 and Karadiya five years later, "dance" was still new here. Largely ritualistic, it never congealed into ballet or other forms accessible in the West and East. What the guru did therefore was to interweave tradition and modernity by liberating it from confine, and for this he had three key strengths: he knew tradition, modernity, and how to wed the two as one.

So from Karadiya, he moved on. He and his wife Vajira not only invested energy in productions that demanded much but went for lighthearted plays that caught heart and eye. What was special about these latter productions was the audience they were aimed for. They were "for children", which is to say they were for children and those who grew up but never really "evaded" childhood.

Those productions gained appeal. Wildly. Naturally enough, the route they went through continued. And continues. To date.

From the 21st to the 24th of October, the Chitrasena Dance Company will stage Kumbi Kathawa at Bishops College Auditorium. It has been staged before, in 2007 and 2009. That's what makes the restaging all the more nostalgic, particularly for those who lived through the first two productions. On Tuesday, September 29, Heshma Wignaraja spoke and briefed on how the "play" was born.

She credited her mother Anjalika, who had conceived the story. Conceiving it hadn't been easy. What they hadn't reckoned with was the problems they'd face at the outset, beginning with the costumes. Kumbi Kathawa, after all, is about a tug-of-war between a colony of friendly ants and a mosquito, while the drama there comes up not through words (there are no dialogues) but through movement.

"Which is where we faced problems," Heshma said, "Beginning with this: costumes constrict movement."

Fortunately for them, Mahesh Umagiliya, their "designer", had approached the issue rationally. Having studied insect-anatomy and having factored in how costume would clash with movement in a play which demanded plenty of both, he found a solution. It was, Heshma explained, both pragmatic and ideal, because Mahesh adapted insect-anatomy to costume without constraining the human body. A compromise, if you will.

Then came the cast. Here's what Heshma had to say: "My mother loves children. She loves teaching them. That's largely how she opted for Tatiana Makarova's Brave Ant and how she exerted so much energy and time into rehearsals. The Chitrasena Dance Company itself enrols kids aged seven and above, and even for those younger we have a special class called 'Punchi Pada'.

"The problem with Kumbi Kathawa was that while we performed in September 2007, we started long before. Five years, to be specific. We tried keeping up with time but time never kept a tab on us. Naturally, our kids grew up. As did our crew. There were those inevitable challenges we had to face, particularly since we had to take in more kids and ensure that when we staged it, none of those same challenges 'showed'."

This had apparently been compounded by other issues. "Like I said, times change. When my cousins and I, and my aunt Upeka and my mother danced, we didn't busy ourselves elsewhere. We had 'other lives', yes. But we never neglected dancing. That's how we developed. How we sustained our art. We embraced dance as it was: raw and unrefined. Do we see that with kids or adults today? I'm not sure."

She elaborated. Children, she observed, used to go to school and engage in other interests afterwards. They had plenty of time for art. That's how Chitrasena's legacy grew with generations that fell under its gaze. On the other hand, children today not only deal with "after-school" that robs time and energy but also have to develop their interests within schools in an unnecessarily competitive framework.

"When we organised musical shows in our time," she remembered, "We brought our own props. We went on with the idea that art should be embraced and never used. Not so now. Kids today don't have to bring as much as a tea-set, because all that is demanded from and given by the administration! Meanwhile, they have one main motive: to compete with other schools. Did it intrude on our practices and rehearsals? Well, it didn't exactly clash with our vision, but I'd say it had an impact, however small that was."

Heshma talked for the most and for good reason. She's directing Kumbi Kathawa. Reflecting on 2007 and 2009, she became more optimistic. She was happier when she commented on the production itself.

The kids had grown up with the play. Those who'd played the ants of the story were now into other roles (while one of the ants, Heshma's son and Chitrasena's great-grandson Avi, wasn't even born during its first production). Kumbi Kathawa represents a "leap" from two-dimensional puppetry to a three-dimensional costumery. It also delves into what's missing in our dance tradition: facial expression. Dance here was about "svabavika mudra", and what the guru did with his children's productions (with their emphasis on movement and emotion) was a virtual act of defiance.

That's not all. A brief video shown by way of introduction to the play's story offered comment on ant-life. It reflected not only the themes of the production but more relevantly the traits that'll set the ants from the rest of the insects. Aptly.

Like humans, ants specialise. They don't multitask. Unlike (most of) us, they (like to) coexist. While these will be reflected in the "ants" who'll adorn Bishops College Auditorium, they will also affirm what Heshma implied earlier: that in a world which never seems to pay attention to values that make up who we are, time will nevertheless embrace and secure posterity for them.

Kumbi Kathawa isn't just for kids, hence. It's for everyone. Even those whose childhood left long ago but whose "child within" yearns for resurrection. Especially now.

Photo courtesy of Luxmanan Nadaraja

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, October 10 2015

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nepotism isn't a label, period

There’s something in politics called “context”. Words are defined and redefined endlessly, and as such how one word holds true for one political “moment” may be quite different to how it’s defined in another. Relevance factors in too, which is probably why countries have multiple meanings for “ally” and “enemy”, those terms being defined according to geopolitics and not to how saintly or beastly countries are in their dealings.

Nepotism is different. It’s timeless. Space-less. True, context applies to it too. But for the most, it congeals into any form of favouritism granted to any relative or friend while in power. Daham Sirisena, who got lambasted for accompanying his father to the UN General Assembly last week, should know this. As of now though, his response hasn’t really been satisfactory. At all.

First of all, if the president’s family feels that they are being targeted in a witch-hunt they are wrong. True, relentless criticism can sometimes be equated with witch-hunts, but if Sirisena justified critique of the Rajapaksas with the “free media” label before he came to power, then getting that same weapon focussed on and against his family shouldn’t be cause for complaint. The president himself, let’s not forget, confirmed this in his July Declaration (in which he vowed never to let Mahinda Rajapaksa into power again), where he said that he welcomes criticism (“In a democratic country, criticism is essential”). No excuses here, then.

By allowing Daham Sirisena into the entourage that went to New York, the Sirisena administration risked two things. One was the inevitable comparison to the previous regime. True, commentators known for their anything-but-impartial love for the incumbent and hatred towards the predecessor tried to brush things off, saying (quite lamely) that his son did nothing more than “accompany the father.”

The past however, these people should realise, is not forgotten. Not that easily. Namal Rajapaksa and his brothers didn’t exactly get into parliament or into power in one go. There were steps taken. Decisions made. This isn’t to say they began their political journey by accompanying their father to official functions. But it is true that (never mind how they did it specifically) they did take baby steps (the pun’s intended) and hence calculated their moves to get into power. Anyone who brushes THIS off must be very, VERY stupid.

Daham (in his response on Facebook) seemed hurt. “I urge you all not to compare me and my family with the past regimes as we are far different from them,” he wrote, which obviously means that most of his critics DID compare them to the Rajapaksas. Such a comparison would be wild to make, but that’s only if you limit the comparison to the years 2010 to 2015. Take into account Namal Rajapaksa’s political circumstances in 2005 (when Mahinda was new to the presidency just as Sirisena is) and you’ll find that they were essentially no different to Daham’s.

Secondly, by responding as he did Daham not only put that proverbial foot in the mouth, but (worse) added fuel to fire by doing so AFTER President Sirisena’s media team cropped him and his son out of a photo of the Sri Lankan delegation at New York and hilariously photo-shopped it on Facebook. Not surprisingly, that gave the message that the “response” was little more than a face-saver (which also means, logically enough, that those who sanctioned the “crop-out” either were stupid or, like their predecessors, thought that people forget easily).

Moreover, what the response fails to take note of is the point that no leader of a country takes his or her family to a session of the General Assembly, not because of a law per se but because of an unwritten norm established there. Yes, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who set a precedent by taking wife and child with him, but by following it Sirisena’s message to the people is that classic line, “Same old! Same old!”

Perhaps the people were used to this before. But the response was the last straw. Even those who sympathised with the president were incensed. Justifiably.

What’s done and dusted in done and dusted. There’s really no point comparing Sirisena with Rajapaksa, come to think of it. But in one thing Daham falls in line with his much vilified predecessor. He is faintly displaying the same kind of response which Namal gave when he and his father were being pilloried on the political stage, before and after they were toppled. That’s bad. Doesn’t augur well.

There’s another thing. Namal was an elected MP. Daham is not. True, taking Namal to the UN (or anywhere else, for that matter) was considered “nepotism” back in the day, and by the same people who’ve gone dumb over this present issue. But he at least had the “elected” excuse. What excuse has Sirisena’s son got? He’s no minister, nor is he a government official!

Here’s the bottom line, hence.

Daham Sirisena committed an error. He was invited to a delegation and had, like every citizen of this country, a right to attend. That’s not the issue here though. The issue is that he was made (or made himself?) a part of the official delegation that participated at the New York summit. THAT’S what at stake here. THAT’S what being contended here, and hotly so.

If the president’s son considers the “I was invited” excuse reasonable enough to trivialise where he was (notwithstanding that he was at a function where family members not being taken to is the norm, not the exception), he’s mistaken. Sadly.

He needn’t apologise. He needn’t say “Sorry”. But he should acknowledge error. As should the president himself.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Theshan Alwis weds art and life

Stanley Kubrick was a great filmmaker. He was also a photographer, though whether “great” sums up his outlook on that art is debatable. He privileged authenticity in picture after picture, so much so that in the end he preferred capturing spontaneity in what he shot rather than allowing his subjects to “pose” and hence market appeal through his craftsmanship.

He wasn’t just a photographer, hence. He was a (virtual) naturalist. That’s why we celebrate him today, and not just as filmmaker.

The rift between spontaneity (“honesty”) and restraint (“artifice”) is probably one which every artist and not just photographers face. Theshan Alwis, an artist in his own right and more importantly one who’s infusing humanism into what he’s doing, would agree. He should know it well by now, after all.

He is the founder of “Humans of Sri Lanka”. That’s a poor approximation of what he does and embodies, but for now that’s what he’s best known as. “Humans of Sri Lanka”, those who know it well will tell you, has captured not just eye but heart too. Yes, that’s a clich├ęd way of putting it, but right now that is how its admirers and champions will describe it for you. It isn’t just a series of pithy portraits of Sri Lankans. It’s a portrait of an entire country.

This is Theshan’s story.

He explains how he “got here”. “I was and still am a fan of quotes,” he smiles, “Quotes about life and living, that is. So I tweeted quips about life every day. Eventually, I gained popularity, to a point where people were sharing my tweets. Right now, I have more than 250,000 followers with about 12,000 tweets. So I took the next step. I joined Facebook.”

What happened next was unfathomable. “I found myself on Facebook, a completely different universe, mind you! My original intention was to consolidate what I’d learnt and done on Twitter. Instead, after surfing sometime and over some days, I came across a page.” It was, he remembers, “eye opening”. For those of you who’ve guessed the name of the page, you guessed right: it was “Humans of New York”.

After reading the “amazing” stories compiled on that page by its founder, Brandon Stanton, Theshan had been inspired. “I don’t like to mince my words, so I’ll say it right here: he was almost a hero to me. He still is. In his photographs and their accompanying captions, of life in general around and across New York, you don’t just see portraits of people. You see life itself being projected to millions around the world.” Not surprisingly, young Theshan was moved to “do my own thing” and resolved to do so at that point.

It happened in 2013, September to be specific. Theshan started his own page, fittingly titled “Humans of Sri Lanka” to differentiate it from the more regional outlook of Stanton’s page. “Getting those crucial likes from scratch is pretty hard for this kind of venture,” he explains, “but for me, this was worsened by the fact that no one had done what I was doing here before.”

He elaborates on what he means by this. “Sri Lankans, like human beings pretty much everywhere else (and probably more than in any other part of the world), love stories. They love listening to stories and narrating them. As such what I was doing was injecting that love for narratives into my page. The problem was in getting people to see it not as a revolutionary but an evolutionary concept, since all I was doing was putting our collective love for narrating into social media.”

Now “likes” on Facebook are a dime a dozen (as they say), but Theshan is convinced that people reacted from their heart to his page. “As the administrator, I know how likes are distributed among people from different parts of the world. I know the potential reach for the photos. So while you might see about a thousand likes for a photo, particularly a good one, it would probably have reached about 25,000 people on their newsfeeds.

“Moreover, I get insights into the true impact of a story and even into which geographical locations are most engaged with the posts. Interestingly, our second highest engagement is from Australia, followed by the United States and United Kingdom.”

It would however be wrong to say Theshan’s “concept” is “borrowed”. For one thing, Sri Lanka is not New York. As he himself admits it, “Our country has 2,500 years behind it, which means that nearly every photo we put has a past which goes beyond the on-the-surface story narrated by its subject(s). So if we have a photo of a nilame and we present his story, inevitably we reveal the perahera and its historical nuances to everyone who reads it.” Apt.

Theshan isn’t alone in this, by the way. Almost immediately after he started his page, people began asking whether they could team up with him. “I am liberal with that, but I value and want to work on a relationship of trust,” he explains, “So before anything else, if you want to partner up with me on this, we need to meet up. I don’t impose any restriction on you, but you must have an inborn penchant and interest for storytelling.”

This is where he comes to the “core” of his concept. “You would’ve already noticed it, but my page isn’t just or even mainly about pretty pictures. Content matters. That is why, whenever I scout for stories, I get people to talk openly and candidly. If they appear to be closeted and reserved and try giving me generic answers, I put out a list of questions on them. Not that photos aren’t privileged either, which is why I always tell people (before I record their stories) that I’m taking them.”

The values which his site stands for are pragmatic and at the same time laudable. Here’s a summing up: “The opinions given on HOSL are solely of an individual who has a freedom to think and speak like any other freeborn citizen. Any bias on gender, race or deductions made would be based solely on the reader’s own interpretation of facts. HOSL does not promote any gender discrimination or racist and religious division, but only wishes to highlight various issues/aspects in relation to Sri Lanka anthropology.”

He was also involved in two international projects. One, which involved the United Nations, was the UN Millennium Campaign which sought stories from several countries. “It was called ‘My World’,” Theshan remembers, “and we clamoured for stories throughout Colombo. It was fun, to put it mildly, and we were not really sponsored. We did it for the pleasure it entailed. I roamed around Colombo with two UN storytellers from New York and collected some amazing stories. Added to that, I was the translator for them, and I selected photographs were published at the UN Headquarters in New York.”

The second project was with the New York Times, and was less mundane. “The concept it revolved around was interesting. We had to come up with stories relating to people’s passwords. In other words, we had to conjure stories revolving around the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of passwords, or simply put the reason behind choosing a particular code. It could have been for Facebook, for your office computer, but rather than just revealing what it is, you’d explain why you decided on it.” The stories were published in the New York Times Magazine.

Theshan comes back to “Humans of Sri Lanka”. He sobers. And reflects. “I suppose it has been insightful for me, personally speaking. I admit it’s not easy, far from it in fact. Yes, you may consider my page to be a ‘trivial’. But it’s not. Brandon Stanton even wrote a book based on his stories. He has about 6,000 portraits. I have more than a hundred, and we average almost a picture a day. So yes, our next step would be to publish what our people have told and are telling us.”
And here he sums it all up. “Sri Lankans love to read. They love to share what they live through. More relevantly, they are willing to let go of their hopes and desires to others, because that’s what we are good at doing: sharing things. We also have a proud history behind us. What I’ve done is to bring all that together: in other words, to wed our love for stories with our love for telling them. The combination, you must admit, couldn’t be more perfect, particularly given we have more than 13,000 followers on Facebook alone!

“I hence don’t consider myself to be a businessman. We are not running this for profit. I’d like to think we’re rendering a service to the country. I’d love to think we are contributing what we have – whether it’s our history or culture or even the food we eat – to the world. Has the effort been worth all that? My god yes!”

Sri Lankans can count on one person then to act as their “ambassador”. He has a name. Theshan Alwis. We should say “Thank you”, we believe. And smile. Fittingly.

You can email Theshan Alwis and his page via if you are interested.