Saturday, June 25, 2016

The cultural bourgeoisie or: the dog that licked its tail

Lionel Wendt is booked throughout the year, I’ve been told. This obviously means that it can’t be booked even one week in advance, unless fortune is kind to you. But fortune, as the poets would say, is fickle, and so is talent, and not surprisingly what we get this week at Wendt may not be as great or good as what we got last week. In the end, money talks, and whatever the quality of the production – ranging from the good to the bad to the downright obscure – the show still goes on. I can’t remember the last time I visited there. I think it was for Namel Weeramuni’s The Dictator. I rather liked that play, I remember.

And it’s not just Lionel Wendt. Every other cultural centre nearby likes to play hard to get. What binds them all together is the kind of tastes they appeal to. Just the other day, for instance, a friend of mine told me he’d visited Kala Bavana. No, not for an exhibition, but for purposes of examining what it represented. All he’d seen, in an otherwise empty hall, were portraits of this country’s Presidents and Prime Ministers, almost none of which really brought to his mind the person who was depicted. This friend of mine had gone, so he tells me, outside for a breather.

Now outside Kala Bavana we have an open air gallery, which is to say a bunch of artistes who have little to nothing else to do and would be considered as “bums” by the kind of people who venerate Lionel Wendt and all those other places which kowtow to higher tastes. My friend, thankfully, wasn’t one of these people, and so went around questioning and examining those painters. Needless to say, for him they were more fun, more invigorating, and more to the point than the kind of exhibition which (for the most) haunts those other indoor galleries. I suppose we should be grateful to John Keells for allowing these ladies and gentlemen to emerge from the indifference of the street corner to “Kala Pola” once every year. But that’s another story.

The problem with those who have tastes they deem higher than everyone else’s is that all those tastes are pretended, not felt. They are not very clear about the kind they want to get across, but they feel (and intensely so) that they must make everyone else, in every other part of this small country, kowtow to what they like. If they come up with a new, landmark interpretation of Hamlet they impose that on everyone, from adolescents who stage their annual festivals for the Bard at their schools to thespians who study him in Universities. And yet, not once do these refined ladies and gentlemen feel what they’re preaching.

Some years ago I attended a classical music concert, organised by the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka and led by a prominent German conductor whose name I unfortunately don’t remember now. Conversation in such closeted shows (closeted because not everyone could afford the ticket and because in this digital age, your average Joe would rather download or buy Beethoven than listen to him at a concert) is seldom continuous, as O. Henry would put it, and so I had to bear up with what those refined ladies and gentlemen around me were speaking to each other, jumping from one topic to another in rapid succession.

They were catching up on their children and grandchildren, on how their so-and-so met another’s so-and-so at this particular school and how that meant a friendship between two families for life (though we know how much one family backstabs the other in private). Gossiping too figured in, a trait which contrary to popular perception is current among the social well-to-dos. They then started talking about the concert, about how their so-and-so’s child was playing the violin and how thrilled that so-and-so was to meet the German conductor. It all seemed well and normal for such a crowd, and anyway, I was looking forward to hearing Beethoven’s Fifth, above everything else the Second Movement.

Well, Beethoven’s Fifth came and so did that wonderful Second Movement, but I looked in vain for the ladies and gentlemen beside me to speak excitedly about it. All I heard were some snores. Yes, they were sleeping. They’d wake up, I guessed, by the time the entire performance was over. A pity, because the orchestra played the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute and I don’t think anyone with any sense could have slept to that, not because it’s upbeat but because Mozart is less serious (even in his most serious work) than Beethoven. I know Mozart’s music influenced lullabies the world over, but I don’t think what was played at this concert could have put anyone to sleep.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we let the chauffeurs of these refined ladies and gentlemen in, instead of those they drive to innumerable coffee shops and concerts and exhibitions who pretend to know things half of which they can’t even guess. And it’s not just because they pretend, but because their tastes can be quite peculiar at times. I can’t imagine, for instance, how and why these people could find AnandaDrama’s Dracula un-amusing and overrated when I found it intensely funny (the funniness, perhaps, was on account of its chaotic structure, which was precisely what the others didn’t like). I liked the decision to bring together the characters of Jonathan Harker and Renfield, and I liked how deliberately clumsy some actors were in changing their costumes to other characters while onstage.

Perhaps they have their own variety of humour and comedy which they consider amusing above everything else, or perhaps their definitions of comedy are so stunted that they can laugh at either the most insufferable, scatological innuendos or the most incoherently articulated archaisms. I was at a Shakespeare competition last year, that annual interschool festival of the Bard which opens every August or so, and I couldn’t help but be stupefied at how people were laughing at an actor (a kid, of course) who was playing a court jester in the wildest way possible. That is not to say that Shakespeare is all about dialogues or that he didn’t value swiftness of movement (which is what Elizabethan theatre was originally about), but when the person who’s supposed to make you laugh does so, not through those lines which are genuinely funny (for Shakespeare’s audience, at least), but through exaggerated gestures and delivery, I can’t imagine whose tastes were worse: the producers of that skit or the audience.

On the other hand these same ladies and gentlemen (and kids, of course, for the kids of today grow up emulating the adults) find humour in the least funny of situations. I am talking about Sinhala films and the tendency of the most popular among them to tickle you into laughter. It was all fine and well when Joe Abeywickrama made you laugh without garbling his sentences (in one film he even says, defiantly I should think, that Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy are his cousins, which I wouldn’t consider garbled, only funny), but terrible when we’re made to laugh on account of scatological jokes which rely more on movement than on the lines themselves. It would seem then that the same mandarins who frequent Lionel Wendt find solace in other quarters in undoubtedly the most plebeian of cultural preferences.

For the truth of the matter is (and not everyone will admit this), the cultural bourgeoisie have transformed. The social content of this bourgeoisie has changed: earlier they came from the upper crust, but now social mobility has enabled the middle class to join their ranks. Now mobility is a good thing, but the problem is that this balloons the number of the cultural mandarins, which is not such a good thing. You know the kind of mandarins I am talking about: whose aesthetic tastes are at best pretended and who host annual “events” on their social calendar to let the rest of the country know that they still exist and what they like should be what others should like as well. It can get insufferable at times, unfortunately.

The problem becomes more acute when the non-bourgeoisie prostitute their talent to win the attention of these mandarins. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and most of the time it ends up making a mess of itself. Not because these directors, painters, musicians, writers, and what-not lack perception, but because they confuse refinement for sophistication and think the more serious and abstract they are, the more appreciated they will be by the cultural bourgeoisie. That this doesn’t happen all the time, because those refined ladies and gentlemen only pretend to know and respond to abstractions, we know. Which explains, in part at least, why some among the non-bourgeois artistes in this country don’t produce great works of art. We’ve conditioned ourselves to privilege the cultural mandarins so much that we’ve forgotten what good art is: not, for instance, postmodernism garbed in sex, murder, and incest, but a coherent work which appeals to a common denominator without insulting their intelligence. (I’ll return to this later.)

And in case you’re wondering, yes, the cultural bourgeoisie pretend to be the highest common factor while they are actually the lowest common denominator. Their tastes in comedy would, I believe, be more than enough to prove just how self-deluding their tastes in everything else are. The social transformation they underwent thanks to 1956 (after which even the rural middle class ended up as the bourgeoisie) ensured that they retained their aristocratic, pretended tastes while also cultivating other more puerile preferences. When considering how the old bourgeoisie – the kind that patronised the Lionel Wendt back in the day, including Lionel Wendt himself – have assimilated themselves with this new bourgeoisie, one can understand how retrograde and incoherent their outlook on art and culture can be: a dilemma considering that they are, for the most, the patrons of that same art and culture.

The social content of the cultural bourgeoisie today is at odds with their tastes. They talk of one thing, pretend to dislike another thing, and end up liking the latter. They are violent, sometimes spontaneous, in their preferences, but they don’t admit it (how could they – they pride on themselves as the last vestiges of the anglicised, refined social class which 1956 threw to the dust, whose role was to tame those savages who couldn’t speak English as well as they could), which is a pity because they could have done so much more if they didn’t hide in their proverbial well. And if they didn’t indulge in their snobbery so much. (Because yes, they are snobbish.)

Some years back I had to interview two painters – an aunt and a niece – and I was talking with them about how they’d painted before but never really realised they had it “in them” to exhibit their work to the public. The aunt seemed hurt as she related to me the ignominy she’d suffered earlier, when, thinking that she wasn’t that talented, she gave all her paintings to her maid at no charge. “Now I can’t ask for them back,” she told me, with a tinge of bitterness in her voice, “and I wish I’d never given her them in the first place.” She smiled again moments later. That was a good interview, I remember.

I haven’t come across other artists who handed their paintings to their maids and thought no end of their talent in later years, but if there are, my guesses are that they’d regret what they did all the same. Not because they handed in their paintings to some chic Roger Fry or John Ruskin but because it was the maid, that philistine of a woman who doesn’t know half the things about art that the elite think they do, who got to keep them. That would be like capitulating before the savage. And for free! Sacré bleu indeed. Because, let’s face facts here, since when did the manservant, maid, chauffeur, and butler even start guessing about the aesthetic merit of a work of art the way their masters and mistresses do?

Class consciousness is a rather silly thing, some people tell me. It doesn’t exist apparently, and for that reason no constructive criticism of art would factor in the gap between the haves and have-nots. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. As Ananda Coomaraswamy observed a long time ago, we’ve divided Art between objects used on a daily basis and creative items aimed at the discriminating minority. We see this division everyday and in every art-form, from films to paintings to plays. The best artists don’t take sides in the divide between these two, but (like those wonderful painters outside Kala Bavana) appeal to the common interest without demeaning themselves before the absolutely lowest common denominator. I know that’s a vague way of putting it, but that is because there’s really no other way of putting it.

I return to those wonderful street artists and I quote what Dhanuka Bandara once wrote of them:

Although I have serious reservations about commercialized art, for art to survive there must be a market and the artists are more often than not forced to concede to the pressures exerted upon them by the market. I was told by one artist at Art Street that if a "customer" does not find anything to his or her liking at the Art Street, they (the artists) are willing to produce a work that fits the requirements of the customer! At Art Street art can be ordered like clothes! This is the sort of thing that the '43 Group did not have to deal with. The artistic freedom that they enjoyed—given that almost all of them came from affluent backgrounds—is a luxury that most Sri Lankan artists cannot afford. Some of the artists at the Art Street are professional artists and have no other means of income. It is therefore unfair for us to expect them to produce works without making concessions to popular demand. I was quite glad to hear that at Art Street the business is generally good.

Like Dhanuka I also have reservations about how art is being commercialised. But for the refined ladies and gentlemen, such commercialisation must necessarily mean art without a capital A, which isn’t necessarily the case. To make matters worse they don’t realise that the same artists they deem as their influences in what they (pretend to) do in the name of promoting Art didn’t imagine they were drawing for a discriminating minority. The sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of da Vinci weren’t spontaneous outbursts of genius, but preconceived expressions which were made (for the most) for mass consumption. They were not done for free, but nor were they done with the express purpose of making money. Michelangelo, for instance, settled for 10,000 ducats for his commission to make the tomb of Pope Julius II, but if his letters and correspondences are anything to go by, he spent that entire amount by the time he finished it.

For the truth of the matter is, contrary to what the cultural bourgeoisie like you to think, these artistes were not detached from economic realities. Nor were they hindered by them. The conception of Art which the cultural bourgeoisie venerate is that of a refined set of artists who enjoy the luxury of time and are quite untouched by economic realities, which may, at one level, explain the woeful dearth of quality among painters, writers, and even playwrights who come from this social milieu. This doesn’t even escape the poets, apparently: I enjoy the poetry of Malinda Seneviratne and Vihanga Perera, but these are people who remain engaged with their societies, while most of the other English poets (self-proclaimed) do little more than translate essentially anglophile experiences to a local setting – a disaster, in other words.

Because, let’s face it, these people think that Art must be preconceived, packaged, and marketed with as many layers of meaning as possible, the problem obviously being that those layers of meaning don’t seem to make sense to the vast majority of people who end up reading them. They are like those ladies and gentlemen from the old school of posh and elegance we see at concerts, who come and go not so much to enjoy Mozart as to raise small talk and conversation with their peers from their cosmopolitan Ithaca. Their offspring are more up with the times, less prone to the kind of packaged (and marketed) nonsense which apparently goes by the name of Art, but the problem with them is that these youngsters are more spontaneous. This curious generation gap – between the elders who are pretentiously refined with their tastes and the youngsters who indulge in raw and unpeeled (and un-capitalised) art – isn’t discernible at first, but it’s there alright.

Even I can’t explain this gap, and the only way I can account for it is by thinking of the stratification within the bourgeoisie – between the old rich from the propertied class and the new rich from the professional class. The old rich now are as dead as the dodo – you find them snoring at concerts and chatting with the Ambassador of some elegant place at book launches – while the new rich, through the money they earn, specialise in whatever field they are in and pretend to know every other field. I suspect it wasn’t a disaster when we let financiers decide on the prices of paintings and other cultural objects once upon a happier time, because we knew that their estimation of the value of those objects was correct. But the professional class today is different. It is the offspring of this class who rebel against the tastes of the old rich while conforming to their standards of propriety and refinement – which is why you’ll find them enjoying Shakespeare and Tennyson Cooray at the same time.

And for once I am thankful for this. Not because I think Tennyson Cooray is great or funny, but because we don’t need pretentiousness. My only regret is that in seven cases out of 10 these children of the new bourgeoisie grow up embracing the aesthetic tastes of the old bourgeoisie, a prospect which fills me with gloom because history has outmoded the old bourgeoisie. And thus we have a combination of submission to and rejection of haute couture, which in turn explains much of the schizophrenia of the new bourgeoisie. They are lost, not only because they are confused, but because they remain in a twilight zone, hovering between two worlds without belonging to either.

20 years ago a film by K. A. W. Perera, for example, would have been considered puerile by the refined bourgeoisie, but times change and so do mentalities. Perera was a genius, despite the puerile nature of his stories, not because he convinced us to watch his films long after we realised that the experience stamped on them was forged, but because he transformed the unreality of that same experience and made us react to it anyway (because, after all, a good film makes us react to it, without merely making us reflect). The same could be said of a film by Udayakantha Warnasuriya and the comedies of Vijaya Nandasiri, the latter of whom (it must be said) finds himself in variations of the same film all the time. But the sons and daughters of the generation that spurned Janaka saha Manju now openly laugh at Suhada Koka, in what some consider as a regression in taste. They seem to find that film amusing and they prefer it to art-house cinema.

And you know what? I find such films amusing too, though not all the time (neither Ranjan Ramanayake nor, to a certain extent, Bandu Samarasinghe makes me laugh), and I revel in the Jekyll/Hyde existence of these people. Some of them are talented, very much so, and I appreciate the way they value spontaneity over artifice (I saw this in their reactions to Prasanna Vithanage’s latest film – more on that later), but the lesser talents among them try to hold on to that same twilight zone I referred to earlier.

I would want them to appreciate the deliberately spontaneous to the painfully pretentious, to not laugh at actors who think that an incoherent drawl can evoke laughter, and to think superficial comedy as good insofar only as it doesn’t rely on gestures and action alone to make people laugh. I want honesty, in what they do and how they react, but not to the extent of rubbishing intelligence. I want them, in other words, to be the child who stands apart from the rest of those refined ladies and gentlemen as he shouts “But he has nothing on him!” at the Emperor.

Why do I want all these, you ask? Simply because for good art (with or without a capital A) to flourish there must be a good audience who’ll react to it well, and we’re not going to have a good audience as long as the artists who paint well are forced to eke an existence in the streets. For if we take what Ananda Coomaraswamy once said, art represents the coincidence of beauty and utility, and not the apotheosis of a cultivated sensibility detached from social reality. By this I am not trashing the affluent class – all the great artists in the ’43 Group, like Keyt and Peries, came from there – but trying to point out that art can’t be sustained with artifice but must exist notwithstanding it.

There’s more fun, after all, in paintings drawn by someone who can explain his inspiration for them than those who (like some of the more refined artists I’ve talked to) prefer to make their work as obscure as possible (the most common argument they make is that their inspiration can’t be explained in words – but if it can’t be explained, then who’s to say that painting is genuine?). In large part, this shift in attitude among audiences is due to free education, that is to say the spate of social reforms 1956 gave effect to, which resulted in the upliftment of the non-bourgeoisie and their transformation into a quasi-bilingual bourgeoisie. This was that professional bourgeoisie I referred to before: in their manners and habits they are now almost completely assimilated to the old rich, but in terms of taste they are still very much far off, and thankfully so.

But good audiences do not a good work of art make. They may value spontaneity over artifice but that doesn’t mean art is completely free from artifice. All in all, their reactions to certain art-house and middle-of-the-road films released here show that they can be quite unforgiving when they appraise a scene or sequence. I came across this the other day in a film which had a sequence where a character candidly remarks that a fiancée emanates a fragrance which was there on that fiancée a few days before. “Sure ekata oka anga hodala naha!” a rather well-to-do gentleman shouted, and there was laughter throughout the audience. When I heard this I was outraged, not so much because he’d laughed – they say that audiences at the Venice Film Festival are worse – as that he’d chosen to disregard the (crudely conceived) metaphor in that line of dialogue and gone for its immediate, superficial meaning.

In other words, they laugh at art-house films made here. In other words, they differentiate between the foreign and the local cinema. In other words, they go for commercialised pulp fiction, much of which can be found abroad. In other words, they prefer to criticise a film like Asoka Handagama’s Let Her Cry based on sequences which betray the crass impatience of the director rather than praise the efforts expended by him in other scenes. I call that a tragedy, because insofar as the bourgeoisie privileges spontaneity they seem to privilege it with regard only to the local product.

And here, I found the answer to my question: Why do the bourgeoisie laugh at and genuinely enjoy Konsthapal Punyasoma and Rae Daniel Dawal Migel, which has moments of crudeness beyond comparison? Because these films contain moments of hilarity which the bourgeoisie inadvertently associate with the local product (mostly the cinema, it should be said). When they come across a sequence in a serious film which gives off a meaning quite opposite to what was intended, they laugh again. Just like that.

Which is why, at the end of the day, this bourgeoisie cannot and will not, with certain exceptions of course, produce great works of art or great artists. And I’m not talking about the bourgeoisie of the past. Ivan Peries and his brother Lester, to give two examples, were great artists who depicted their country even though they could speak neither Sinhala nor Tamil and were not from the village. But no one with any sense would consider them “bourgeois” today, because they went beyond many of their contemporaries to translate their country to the world outside. Lester especially, in the three films he made for Ceylon Theatres – Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha, and Nidhanaya – proved that with the necessary capital he could churn out stories which were common, coherent, and timeless.

Rajpal Abeynayake implied once that the Colombo literati were back-patters, essentially a set of cousins and brothers and in other ways associates who praised each other without really going into the merits of their work. He pointed at the Gratiaen Awards, not surprisingly, and noted that even some of the judges who presided over that event were not fit to be called as such. I agree. In contrast the Gratiaen Awards of 2014 (held in 2015) was more illuminating: none of the five nominees were from the Establishment, and the winner was Vihanga Perera, that poet who prefers to keep his lines as direct and provocative as possible:

While 999 men were killed, their penises cut
Where was this guide, the Buddha:
The worldly compassionate one?
Where – more the question – was the police:
Polishing the interiors of their gun?

There’s more fun in these verses than there is in those of some of the other poets who win tokens at the Gratiaen, which is to say that they try to root false, unfelt experiences in local settings and fail miserably. Wordsworth wrote about daffodils, these people write about frangipani and try to keep their verses as mystical and obscurantist as possible – precisely because for these people, obscurantism equals genius. Incidentally, the same thing could be said of our films, much of which win awards but rarely capture any felt experiences. (This is not to belittle those who do try, like Sanjeewa Pushpakumara in Flying Fish, but then again trying is not enough, as we know.)

Vihanga Perera won in 2014 and 2015 for his poetry. Malinda Seneviratne won in 2013 for his poetry. Both Malinda and Vihanga, despite their ideological differences, are bilingual and come from bilingual backgrounds. Bilingualism isn’t a necessary factor in determining how rooted an artist is in his setting, but the truth is that it’s a factor nevertheless. Malinda is as good in his prose (and Vihanga is too), better than most of his counterparts from the Establishment, a fact I suspect he uses to his advantage when he lampoons them:

Kolombians classify those around them as “English Speaking” and “Non English speaking”. Their offspring can barely manage “enna”, “giya”, or “awa” but beyond that any Sinhala word would be a tongue twister. Kolombians moms spend most of their mornings in a gym, toning their figures (having dropped their kids at school - kids who are assured only of a minimum pass for Sinhala, that too with gruelling effort!).  They spend the rest of the day on Facebook and at flagship stores. Watching Kolombian moms at kiddie’s birthday bashes is super entertainment.  They get stressed out trying to figure out how on earth the kids would pass Sinhala.

Caricature, yes, but bordering on reality nevertheless. When I interviewed Malinda sometime back he told me, in his own special way, that self-proclaimed literati of Colombo couldn’t produce a great work of art, that this was applicable to the entire cultural scene in Sri Lanka, and that he had hope in the bilingual writers who communicate in English but come from vernacular backgrounds. When he told me this I went through the names of other people, writers and poets and critics, I’d interviewed, and I remembered Dhanuka Bandara, who told me as I ended talking with him that what helped him become the perceptive critic he is was the fact that his parents weren’t conversant in English and he grew up embracing the best of both languages.

The truth then is that while good audiences may come from the cultural bourgeoisie, great artists can hope to come (in this age of swabasha) only from the bilingual middle to lower class (which is not to belittle the exceptional people who come from affluent backgrounds). They may come from non-popular schools which don’t organise annual festivals for the Bard, they may come from backgrounds which the bourgeoisie love to deride as “backward”, and they may even have to climb steps which the bourgeoisie, by dint of their wealth and privilege, don’t have to. But at the end of the day, they’ll be vindicated, if at all because what the bourgeoisie have in bucks they lack in artiness.

I am yet to come across, for instance, a proper, perceptive take on culture and society by any of these Establishment writers, but I relish the reviews and pieces of the likes of Dhanuka and Vihanga. Reading the former’s articles makes one regret the fact that he doesn’t write anymore – who else, after all, could have written on Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry like this:

To the best of my knowledge, the class assumptions that underpin Ranasinghe's poems have never been called in question. Her poetry is taught at schools and the school teachers who, more often than not, take an absolutely uncritical approach to what they teach and consider prescribed texts sacrosanct and immune to negative criticism, never bring to the attention of the students Ranasinghe's alarmingly superficial and classist readings of Sri Lankan socio-political realities.

Dhanuka isn’t only concerned with English literature – talk with him about Martin Wickramasinghe and Asoka Handagama’s cinema and he will wax eloquent – and to me this remains his greatest strength. I find solace in his writings because he isn’t only talking about Wordsworth or Shelley or Ingmar Bergman (his favourite filmmaker). To talk with him is to remember that, despite his deficiencies in Sinhala, Regi Siriwardena (our foremost critic) never overlooked the local culture, the culture which bred Maname and Rekava and Sinhabahu in his time. Which isn’t to say that Dhanuka makes the mistake of praising local culture uncritically: his review of Thanha Rathi Raga, which I personally thought was a good film, is an eye-opener, and his criticism of what he terms as the “sex pathology” of the films of directors like Handagama is certainly worth a read.

So do we have hope yet? I would say yes and no. We don’t see Dhanuka in print now and Malinda doesn’t write on the arts as much as he does on politics (which isn’t to say that his political commentaries are bad – far from it). Malinda is Malinda, however, and he can get his articles published anywhere. But the likes of Dhanuka will not and cannot, unless a benefactor recognises their talent, get their words on print, precisely because the media (and here I come to another point) is housed by the same cultural bourgeoisie I was talking about all this time – the sort of publishers and editors and writers who pay deference to the cultural bourgeoisie and are inflexible on what kind of talent they allow aboard. We must be thankful to social media and the blogosphere, I suppose, because those are outlets through which these writers can communicate what they want to say to the world outside.

That still doesn’t condone what the media does, though. A friend of mine who rarely lets others know what he thinks told me, for instance, that the media gives free publicity to criminals and little to no exposure to original talent. He also could have said that the media also (for the most) rubbishes creativity and encourages mediocrity. Sheaf through the daily papers – not the news section, but the features section – and you’ll see what he was talking about. Hardly a review, be it of a film or play or exhibition, which can be called “commendable”. Hardly a piece which doesn’t linger on gossip and small talk, which doesn’t fill page after page with photos that would double up for a magazine for models rather than for the general public who end up reading them. I know I’m being a little cruel here, but it’s the truth: the media has been gobbled up by the cultural bourgeoisie, and we have to condition ourselves to accept that their word is final.

But do we really have to? Let’s not forget that there are newspapers which still appreciate their audience, the public, like “The Nation” (even with its revised format) and “The Island”. There are still writers (however small in number) who appreciate local talent. That they are in the blessed minority shouldn’t deter anyone. So no, I don’t think we have to kowtow to those editors and writers who think that the features section of a newspaper should double up as a gossip column for those who think no end of themselves as arbiters of Art and Culture in this country.

So to sum up: the cultural bourgeoisie will implicitly privilege the foreign. Always. Sure, they will reject this allegation, but it’s the truth. And why? Because they end up enjoying the lowest common denominator of any art-form in the country (especially the cinema) and unconsciously measure every local objet d’art on the basis of how it conforms to this denominator. Their reaction to art-house films and their crude attitude to street art proves this, I’m sure. So you will see them at Regal or Savoy laughing at what should have given room for reflection. You will see them hobnobbing with the self-proclaimed literati and newspaper columnists while the true writers, the true talents, waste away prostituting themselves in other industries. I know they’ll be vindicated in the end, though, not because that should be the case but because we are feeling the effects of swabasha invading the cultural scene of Colombo.

I know people who’ll read this and think that I’m saying Rae Daniel Dawal Migel is trash, but I’m not. All I’m saying is that there’s something terribly wrong with a society which judges every work of art produced by the “native” (and by that term I include everyone, from Sunil Soma Peiris to Vimukthi Jayasundera) with the same criterion used to praise a Vijaya Nandasiri comedy. Hardly anyone I know from the bourgeoisie, for instance, bothered to watch Indika Ferdinando’s Ho Gana Pokuna, in my opinion this year’s best film and one which blended together the arty and the commercial quite remarkably. I didn’t read many reviews of that film. But in the end, it clinched the Best Film Award from Derana last month. Divine justice, I should think.

Ho Gana Pokuna may well be the most delightful film made here in the last five years (an argument I’m willing to risk my life for), but I don’t see the attention concentrated on it which I saw with, for instance, Ranja and Sinhaya, both of which were terrible movies, terrible not because they aren’t films but because they sustain the myth that every film made in Sri Lanka by a Sri Lankan must evoke raw, crude laughter. Whatever happened to those good old days, where directors of commercial films actually told a story which made audiences think and react to it?

With Ranja you know you’re getting the usual Ranjan Ramanayake deal, and to a lesser extent the same can be said of Sinhaya (I haven’t seen Maya, and I wonder how that’ll turn out). On the other hand, even the likes of K. A. W. Perera (whom I talked about earlier) told stories. The cultural bourgeoisie used to like that. So did the rest of the country. But not anymore. The bourgeoisie don’t want stories from the local cinema, they want fun. They don’t want to think, they want to laugh. To a lesser extent, they expect the same from the Western cinema, but these same people who’ll laugh at a Prasanna Vithanage or Asoka Handagama film they misunderstood will never, for one moment, doubt the sanctity and seriousness of a Hollywood love story.

The best works of art, made by amateurs and which went on to win awards, it must be said, were marginalised in their day. People laughed at Rekava, and the more vituperative of them wished they’d spent the money they’d bought the ticket with on feeding crows. Maname, Sinhabahu, and the best works of Henry Jayasena and Gunasena Galappaththi were enjoyed initially by the Sinhala-speaking lower middle class, while their inclusion in school syllabi in later years extended their audience, however begrudgingly, to the sons and daughters of Cinnamon Gardens. For the better, I should think.

No one can get close to a George Keyt or Ivan Peries, but back in the day those who appreciated them were natives or foreigners. None of the uprooted ones really paid any attention to them. The fact that they do today doesn’t condone what their ancestors did, and for this reason, what they’re doing today to the cultural scene of this country can’t be set aside. Not that easily.

No, I’m not being puritanical here. I’m not saying that every film made here must be the equivalent of a Nidhanaya or Anantha Rathriya. But I think it reflects badly on a society when its cultural bourgeoisie create the yardstick by which good works of art are assessed on the basis of how they approximate to their preposterous notions of comedy, humour, and third-rate quality which they believe characterises the entire national cultural scene. It’s time they began to think, without just looking for fun in the local product. It’s time they appreciated the good and the bad in what our artists churn out and stop favouring one class over another. For what is there, in the work of the Colombo literati and painter which can be said to surpass that of the outsider, the “baiya”, who chooses the street over the gallery, the small hall over the elegant theatre?

This isn’t what bothers me the most, though. What bothers me is how otherwise original talent somehow manages to kowtow to those refined ladies and gentlemen. I liked the earlier Prasanna Vithanage, for instance – who gave us Anantha Rathriya and Purahanda Kaluwara and even Ira Madiyama – but I didn’t like Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, in my opinion his weakest. Vithanage’s biggest motif (which is so big that it might as well be his personal signature) is his deliberate use of austerity. He uses it well in his first four films, but in his most recent work, one gets the feeling that he’s made his story austere for one reason: to project some formal realism into an otherwise contrived story. Why? To make it appealing to that sophisticated bourgeoisie, I can only conclude.

Now critics who really don’t see anything wrong with this will, of course, at once consider the austerity as a sign of genius. “A masterly crafted narrative,” one reviewer writes of it. “Perhaps no other contemporary film has explored Sri Lanka’s post-war political narratives as subtly, craftily, and deeply,” another writes of it (I very much doubt that these adjectives and adverbs can salvage an otherwise terrible film, though). Vithanage attempted an existential meditation on love and alienation in (his idea of) post-war Sri Lanka – an experiment that tried to curry favour with the refined intelligentsia of Colombo, but which was rejected by the not-so-indulgent sections of that same intelligentsia. (That sex scene, for instance, provoked laughter from the audience, with one gentleman commenting that it was the worst he’d seen in years.)

Incidentally, the same thing could be said of Asoka Handagama. The person who gave us Ini Avan four years ago has now given us Let Her Cry – a film which takes us back to Aksharaya, undoubtedly the weakest he ever made. Aksharaya was controversial, yes, but I don’t think a controversial film is necessarily a great film. Not because the director challenges tradition, but because he challenges it so clumsily that one is forced to concede ground to the puritans, however distastefully. Handagama chose to locate his film in the urban upper class of Colombo – not the best milieu to place your film in if it’s going to question tradition and morality – and ended up with garbled metaphors and awkward dialogues. A friend of mine called it “weak”, which I personally think was putting it too kindly.

For Aksharaya was more than just weak: riddled as it was with experiences and dialogues which didn’t even once feel genuine, it was more a philosophical tract than a coherent film. His meditation on upper class morality would have worked if it wasn’t so caricatured, if it didn’t imagine that the urban bourgeoisie were no different to traditionalists from other parts of the country. Of course Handagama isn’t wrong in imagining that the sexual freedom of the bourgeoisie is as inhibited as that of the rural folk, but even factoring this in, I felt that his depiction of the upper class was, at best, wild. The cultural bourgeoisie would have loved it, of course, but that audiences from that class would have laughed at it, I’m sure.

The problem with these filmmakers is that they think they should pay obeisance to those who’re deemed to be more sophisticated than them, if by sophisticated they mean knowledge of English. But I beg to differ – Handagama’s best work doesn’t attempt to prove that he’s their equal – and I think Aksharaya is a good example for the fact that no local artist worth his salt should aim the social canvas of his work exclusively at the sophisticated crowd. The fact that some of the actors in the film came from that same crowd, moreover, doesn’t automatically make the film per se relevant to their class.

The best parts of Aksharaya weren’t the sequences of our young protagonist – Isham Samzudeen before Udayakantha Warnasuriya cast in Ran Kevita – with his parents or his friend, but those of him with Saumya Liyanage (and his daughter). It’s no coincidence that the only time the film’s dialogues relapse to Sinhala was when Liyanage was around, and it’s no surprise that he virtually stole the show (which is why remains among the best and most expressive actors we have today).

Aksharaya was a personal statement: the script doesn’t try concealing that. It’s also so self-important that we fail to react to it after a point, so much so that we don’t watch it because we want to: rather, we watch it because we seem to visualise the director himself pointing at the symbols and metaphors of every scene and sequence. We’re intrigued by those symbols, not by the story. And this is the film’s biggest weakness. The sequences of the boy and his friend, to give one example, really get us nowhere (unless you count the boy’s act of murder, after which we don’t see the friend anymore – fare thee well, boy!), while what the dialogues they spoke at their school were laughable, with little to no concrete motives for their actions evident at all.

Why, for instance, did the friend bring a CD containing nude photos of women to school and then blurt out “I’m afraid” when the boy demands that they look at them in the computer lab – why bring the CD to school at all, then? And why did the director fill an otherwise intriguing sequence at the computer lab with dialogues that seemed horrendously out of place (“Why do you call these photos dirty?” one squeaks in, to which the other replies, “These are photos of dirty women,” to which in turn the other retorts, “They are beautiful”). I know we’re supposed to be taken in by the fact that these are children and, at their age, they probably don’t know what pornography is, but even accounting for that point, did we really need to listen to those self-important, bombastic dialogues which stated the painfully obvious? Do we need to see that sequence in the computer lab? Wasn’t it there because Handagama wants us to see its subtext so starkly, just like Antonioni in Blow-Up wanted us to witness the existential dilemma of his protagonist at every corner of his plot?

Handagama’s film is a postmodernist fantasy set in Sri Lanka, a pity because it could have been more intelligent, refreshing, and challenging had he taken those dialogues out, those metaphors out (except perhaps for that motif of museum artefacts, which I guess was supposed to bring out the fine line between reality and imagery), and given us a simple allegory about the sexual prudery of the affluent class.

That the parents of the boy aren’t any better in delivering the film’s message to the audience coherently can be seen as well. We come across the most awkward sex scenes ever conceived in a Sinhala film, awkward not because of the camerawork but because of all those metaphysical abstractions and rhetorical questions the wife asks the husband (the latter, played by Ravindra Randeniya in a role clearly not meant to be the highlight of his career, is intriguing nevertheless, the best character in the story after Saumya Liyanage’s, though he resembles a walking corpse – which is not a good thing to say about any character played by arguably the most methodical and passionate actor we have from his generation here).

The key thing with Aksharaya is that Handagama brought to it a lot of what he contributed to and learnt from the “X-Group” – Marxism, Derrida, Foucault, postmodernism. In an interview he confessed that the English title for the film – “A Letter of Fire” – was influenced by an observation made by Derrida that traumatic experiences couldn’t be interpreted through language but had to be inscribed in letters of fire. That is indeed acclaim-worthy, and it’s the audience’s fault if they fail to perceive how Handagama, throughout his narrative, drives home the point that trauma is a language unto itself, inexpressible through just words. (The failure of simple language to convey trauma, however, isn’t what makes Handagama rely on explicit metaphor as opposed to concise prose in his film – that is a weakness on his part, not the goal of his narrative).

But Aksharaya ended up being paraded by the cultural bourgeoisie as a bold statement against the Establishment, by which they meant the rural backwaters of tradition and culture. They railed against the puritans who railed against the film. As they should, of course: Handagama’s film is a complex objet d’art which deserves praise, not censure. But I wonder whether they railed against its critics because it was merit-worthy or because it was controversial. They would pretend not to laugh at scenes which were laughable, they would go on a tangent and disregard those lesser sequences and champion the film uncritically.

This practice of uncritically viewing films that rail against tradition is an unfortunate tendency among the bourgeoisie: but remember, Aksharaya was released a good 10 years back, and now we have a bourgeoisie which would be less uncritical of such films. Regardless of that however, they’d still probably parade themselves as the tamers of the savages, cautioning against the sexual prudery of the villagers and pointing at Handagama’s work as justifications for their campaign. They’d put away the fact that Aksharaya was not about the savages but about them, that is the prudery of the urban bourgeoisie. All they’d think is that Aksharaya was a modernist film, one which breaks apart from taboos and challenges authority.

Of course it was a modernist film, and a modernised one at that, but the bourgeoisie aren’t modernised – oh no, they’re just Westernised. That explains why, despite their ramblings about Wordsworth, despite their odes to frangipani, they can’t produce a genuine work or art, nor explain the true relevance of such a work in the first place. They are conditioned to (silently or loudly) laugh at the presentation of a film or painting, and not contemplate on the manner of that presentation. The class that bred Ananda Coomaraswamy and Deva Surya Sena are now confused, I’m forced to conclude. They are the lost generation, groping in the dark, the professionals and propertied gentry who can do no more than promote each other and promote their version of haute couture. They go for surface-allure, which is how they can laugh at Handagama’s film and still consider it as a supreme, bold statement that must be protected from the backward savages.

Many of the comedies that are staged at Lionel Wendt aren’t funny. They’re meant to evoke laughter by parodying the “savages”. There’s obviously a fine line to draw between de Lanerolle’s The Dictator and most modern comedies that revolve around a character’s inability to articulate English words properly. The Dictator had a character with such an inhibition, but de Lanerolle was making us aware of how the affluent intelligentsia poked fun at the man who couldn’t speak English (the “bumpkin”). The propertied intelligentsia of de Lanerolle’s day has now, thanks to 1956, morphed into the professional middle class, and still the laughter continues. By evoking humour on this level, I believe the playwright is shaming us.

Which is more than what one can say of comedies nowadays, which do the same thing not to shame but to promote snobbery. I spoke with Malinda about this once, and he agreed: “The so-called intelligentsia prey on the native’s inability to speak English properly,” he said. The language-gap between the native and the bourgeoisie is, in my opinion, evident most starkly in the theatre. The humour there is immediate and live. It is that crude humour that the bourgeoisie go for, despite the polished elegance of Lionel Wendt and despite their allegiance to the Bard. For truth be told, if an inability to articulate English properly was the rationale for their laughter, they should be laughing at, and not with, juvenile actors who confuse movement for humour in their renditions of Shakespeare's plays. But of course they don’t do that: to do so would be to laugh at the offspring of their own breed, and they don’t do such a thing, do they?

The tragedy of modern society is that it separates art from the artist. This happens with the multitude of artists for whom art isn’t a luxury but a way of life – they gain a name for themselves, neither through the media which ignores them for the most nor through the patrons of art who haunt those apotheosised Galleries and Halls, but through the ordinary, common art-lover you see every day. Anonymity, some would say, is the biggest insult to a talented artist, but anonymous they remain, while the discriminating minority, the so-called promoters of High Art, promote everything they stand for through the media which they control and their friends and associates they meet almost every day.

We’ve forgotten the human value of art, for contrary to what Barthes wrote, the author is not dead, and a creation owes its existence and validity to its creator. We’ve also forgotten the true role of that creator, which is to give form to an experience lived and felt. “Poetry,” wrote Regi Siriwardena, “can never give the moment of experience or sensation itself, only its subsequent shaping and ordering by the poet.” Reading most of what goes for “good poetry” here, though, I wondered whether form has preceded content and whether experience has been relegated to the dustbin. Authenticity, it seems, is expendable to these professors of English, poets, painters, and (to a lesser extent) filmmakers, and they are not too different to the Orientalists that Edward Said brilliantly described in his writings.

For if we take the double jeopardy that the bourgeoisie are burdened with – they are promoted only by their own kind and they can’t think beyond their idealisations of our society – we can conclude that they’re pretentious, self-inflated, and inexperienced souls who not only lack experience but also imagination. Or maybe I’m wrong here: they lack experience but have plenty of imagination, which quite possibly is worse.

True, an imaginative writer can write without experience (isn’t that why we read John Keats’ poetry, and isn’t that why, because of his later political capitulation, Wordsworth’s best poetry was written during the French Revolution and not, as some of our own Professors of English would tell you, when he was singing praises of an imagined rural arcadia?), but as Rajpal Abeynayake points out there’s an “element of deception” in the works of some of our contemporary writers who’re either domiciled abroad or nested in Colombo (which amounts to the same thing, really), who imagine the experience in their novels and project it as the gospel truth not only to the intelligentsia and literati but also the media, the politicians, and (I kid you not) even the United Nations.

Sometime back I was invited to a play that wasn’t staged at Lionel Wendt but at a school gymnasium: Indika Ferdinando’s The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno, which I think was one of the best plays staged here in recent years. True, a gymnasium (in a school situated in the urban backwaters of Maradana, as the bourgeoisie would say) isn’t the best place to catch up on gossip and each other’s children, but Indika (I knew) was aiming at a different crowd, a point signified by the fact that the English-speaking audience were at Lionel Wendt watching the Workshop Players’ production of Les Miserables.

And I was correct: Signno was neither pretentious nor self-contained, and its outbursts of spontaneous energy (with Saumya Liyanage as the Grim Reaper, Vasavarti Mara) were refreshing to say the least – in other words, it was a play which gave a message we could all take home without an excess of metaphysical abstractions.

I needn’t say that the (English) press devoted more space to Les Miserables than to Signno, of course (from the English press only two critics – Dilshan Boange and myself – took the trouble of reviewing it). Why, I’d think to myself earlier, but now with the benefit of hindsight I know – because the critics who write to the dailies don’t bother to step outside Lionel Wendt, not because they’re snobs but because they don’t find the theatre outside the Wendt worthy of a review (not that much, anyway). Where the bourgeoisie go, they follow, to hell with merit and talent! (Incidentally this is not to demean Les Miserables, which I’m sure was great in its own special way.)

The sooner they disabuse their minds of this myth, the better it will be for everyone. The best artists are found outside the halls and galleries. They aren’t detached from their society. They may criticise tradition and taboo, and they are eloquent when they do that, but this still makes them more genuine than the discriminating minority that reside in a social void and sing hosannas for their cosmopolitan Ithacas and Utopias. The intelligent audience, who may even come from the bourgeoisie (for I am not saying there’s no hope for them), don’t want to perpetuate the haute couture of Cinnamon Gardens.

And why? Because the bourgeoisie of Cinnamon Gardens are hypocritical in their stance on sexuality, tradition, and morality. They think they stand apart from the puritanical savages from other parts of the country but they don’t: as I wrote before, they’re Westernised, not modernised. They still unconsciously wallow in myths and superstitions, they still believe in astrology, and they are the chief donors of the dhayaka sabawas and peraheras. They will tell you that they’ve developed and they’re rationalists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For the way they plan out their lives – their education, their marriages (because, like those rural savages, the bourgeoisie too are careful about the kind of people they want their children to be engaged to, be it based on educational or property qualifications or even the school the prospective spouse went to), and their families – prove how banal they are and how, despite their superficial sophistication, they cling to tradition. They are not courageous enough to break away completely from tradition, in other words. Those who want to break away from tradition must be rooted in that tradition, and the bourgeoisie aren’t rooted: they’re just inhibited by superstition and myths, which doesn’t amount to the same thing. (Doesn’t this explain the banality of those Westernised poets who think they write like Wordsworth as opposed to the infinitely more refreshing verses of Malinda Seneviratne and Vihanga Perera?)

What does all this leave us with? A stunted and embryonic bourgeoisie whose ancestors either emerged to join the propertied class as professionals or were rentiers who never moved beyond the plantation and resource-extracting industries, and hence never completely left their feudal way of looking at the world. I suppose it wouldn’t do much harm to consider them narrow-minded, because they are, oh yes, they are. Malinda’s articles on the Kolombians are all satirical, but there’s an oil of truth in them which I’m sure he comes across every day. That is why they will remain as the self-promoters that they are, the people who refuse to see that their Emperor has no clothes on, and the self-inflated artists who’re little more than dogs that lick their own tails.

Hope, I suspect, is a strong term, but there’s room for it even after all these reflections. The Great Tradition of this country will continue to come from where it always has been – the offspring of the professional bourgeoisie and, more pertinently, the lower middle class conversant in both languages or in the vernacular only. The more we demean them, the more powerful they’ll get. I know I’m indulging in wild extrapolations here, but I also know the truth that everyone will realise one day: the more we concede ground to the bourgeoisie, the more tempted everyone else will be to assess genuine works of art on the basis of the crass and the crude (which means that every serious film will be judged on the criterion used to evoke laughter in a Tennyson Cooray comedy).

We don’t want dogs that lick their own tails for our intelligentsia. We want bohemians, we want people who’ve lived what they write or paint or film or stage. We want those who haven’t shut themselves off from social reality, who’re engaged with the society they’re depicting or reproducing. We don’t want artifice, we want life. We will settle for nothing less and we will demand for nothing more. We can hence be content with art wedded to truth, which the ageing, snoring, and arrogant bourgeoisie can’t hope to attain. And if we can’t have the Wendt, we’ll be content with a gymnasium, if at all to drive the point we’ve been making all this time.

Written for: Night Owls, June 18, 22, and 25 2016