Sunday, July 3, 2016

Lessons learnt and taught by Dhanuka Bandara

courtesy: slwakes
Some time ago I thought of writing about our cultural bourgeoisie. Nothing much, just some anecdotes about the kind of people who frequented Colombo and the metropolis and thought it their prerogative to judge every work of art as though their word was final. It wasn’t, of course, and because of this I was forced to conclude that the bourgeoisie, because of their self-inhibitions and social conditioning, couldn’t make up the intelligentsia of the country. They spoke, wrote, and pretended to behave well, but at the end of the day, their judgments were as crass, inflated, and biased as yours or mine. For this reason perhaps, I contended that we need to look beyond them to discover our cultural and literary discourse.

And then I remembered Dhanuka Bandara.


Well, Malinda Seneviratne describes him as follows: “He has a kind of confidence in expression, wit, and ability to dissect that is rare in one so young.” Doesn’t explain his credentials or qualifications, but goes a long way in establishing his worth for what it is. For the fact of the matter is, Dhanuka, with his education and views on art, may turn out to be the kind of critic we’ve been lacking in this country for the past few decades: the kind that possesses a keen eye for detail, a regard for subtlety and nuance, and an appreciation of all things local and foreign.

This is his story.

For someone who can wax eloquent about T. S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky, Dhanuka surprisingly wasn’t well versed in English at a young age. Characteristically, he remarks “I don’t know why anyone should be so interested about me!” (we should be, of course, and I’ll explain why later) before reflecting on his childhood. “When I was small, my parents bought me copies of Kumaratunga Munidasa’s Magul Kama and Heensaraya, both of which were standard texts for students. That was my first real brush with literature, and not a very happy brush, because looking back I feel that they were rather awkward choices for someone who was in Year Three.”

Dhanuka is clearly someone who views whatever he obtains critically, and he minces no words when describing his childhood encounters with literature. “After Magul Kama and Heensaraya, which I confess were obscurantist and certainly not recommendable to young schoolchildren, I came across a translation of ‘Anna Karenina’ which I asked my parents to buy for me. Back then I didn’t really know how to rate a translated text, so I unconditionally took in the entire book. In later years though, when I read through Tolstoy’s original, I realised how much of a bad translation it was. I guess I can say the same thing of the other translations I came across during that time.”

He attended St Sylvester’s College, where he matured as a student who bristled with ideas. I’m sure he’d be the first to confess that he was self-taught, and he is: “I didn’t come from an English-speaking background, which was a blessing for me. I literally taught myself how to read and write in that language while at school. Looking back, I admit that all that helped me gain a bilingual education, something I recommend very highly for every child today.” In Grade Nine, after some trysts with Russian novelists – Ostrovksy, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol – adolescent novels (“I was a boy, after all!”), and Martin Wickramasinghe, he turned to Marx.

Knowing how appealing Marx would have been for boys his age at the time, I jokingly quip “Everyone’s a Red at 20!” at which he laughs. “Marx was my first intellectual ballast. The things he wrote – about surplus-value or ‘athirekka vatinakama’ – were like the gospel truth for me, and like a prophet I used to propound his ideas to my classmates, who thought I was either a madman or a messiah,” he grins. From Marx, consequently, he would turn to postmodernism.

“Postmodernism was a different kettle of fish altogether. Derrida once identified three thinkers responsible for what he called a ‘rupture’ in Western epistemology: Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. You notice the seeds of postmodernism in these three. By the time I entered Grade 10 I was reading them, and needless to say they had a profound influence on me: Nietzsche with his exhortation that God was dead, Marx with his almost scientific rationalisation of industrial society, and Freud with his emphasis on psychology as the index of humanity.” All that had been complemented by his experience with what later became the first local philosophical think-tank dedicated to the postmodern tradition, the X-Group.

“The X-Group published a magazine called ‘London’, in which people like Deepthi Kumara Gunarathne and Liyanage Amarakeerthi discussed Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes, the intellectual giants of postmodernism. It’s not easy to translate them, and I wouldn’t say that the X-Group was completely successful at it, but the important thing is that they made an attempt. Because of this, both students and adults began dabbling in philosophy rather seriously. I suppose we must be grateful to them because they helped us see Western philosophy in a more nuanced, though slightly obscurantist, way.”

Dhanuka clearly has an eye for literature and philosophy. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the two have cohabited in him in ways which no biographical sketch can do justice to. What’s even more remarkable is that he’s come to appreciate the fact that neither of them can be sustained or added to without a concomitant appreciation of the “local” and “national”, something he highlights when he tells me that he learnt what he did while at school through translations. “They were imperfect, and from an early age I realised how they were being translated to our society verbatim, without any refinement. You can’t do that and expect to get away with it always.” That probably explains the failure of the X-Group to leave behind a discernible mark in the country’s intellectual discourse. Not that Dhanuka criticises them wholeheartedly: “They didn’t make a lasting impact, but to be honest, who in human history did?”

I put to him here that while his education in Western epistemology was vital to his later education at Peradeniya, he couldn’t have prospered intellectually if it hadn’t been for his ability to wield both English and Sinhala. He agrees. “I was surprised but not completely so when I came across passages in the texts I read which drew up a clear link between Western and Eastern philosophy. Nietzsche talked about a god who knows how to dance in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, who if one thinks about it could have been Krishna, while in Ecce Homo he derived considerable influence from Eastern mysticism. And let’s not forget Schopenhauer, who was manifestly influenced by Buddhism in his writings. So you can’t really divide West and East. Such a divide is at best a construct.”

Dhanuka used to contribute to “The Nation” and “Ceylon Today”, the latter of which he wrote to prodigiously on everything, from the cinema to the theatre to D. H. Lawrence’s brief sojourn in Sri Lanka. In all of his pieces you can sense how unconventional he is, how brash his opinions can get. “It’s fun to have an opinion when it comes to the arts,” he says by way of explaining this, “That’s something you can’t get out of a lecture. Peradeniya gave me the anchor I needed, and I am grateful, but to this day I find reviewing a work of art or discussing it over a cup of tea more invigorating than a classroom discussion.” Being a lecturer himself, he no doubt practices what he preaches on this count at his job. “If a student were to come up to me and say that James Joyce wrote rubbish, I’d encourage him to continue and then argue with him. That’s something rote teaching and learning can never impart: a love for argument.”

Given his penchant for brash, frank judgments, I ask him as to what he thinks constitutes a good novel, film, or play. Dhanuka’s answer is that a work of art should come out despite its moral content. “I wouldn’t praise a film, for instance, just because it affirms multiculturalism or in other ways contains a good message.”

According to him, most critics (and audiences) today have foregone on what he calls the “inherent aesthetic merit” of an objet d’art. “Surprisingly not many literary critics contended that a work of art should be assessed on its own merits. Harold Bloom once wrote of ‘aesthetic autonomy’, but that was it. That explains why we’ve become so bankrupt as spectators and reviewers, why we can’t respond to a play or novel or film properly.”

I wrote before that people like Dhanuka should interest us, and are therefore important to our intellectual and even cultural firmament though that may not be obvious. To me they represent the alternative to the cultural bourgeoisie, as the critics who understand the complexity of what they’re reviewing.

I remember Malinda Seneviratne once remarking to me that notwithstanding the supposed dominance of the so-called intelligentsia who frequent literary festivals in and around the metropolis, those who came from bilingual backgrounds and were educated in both worlds – English and the “vernacular” – were better versed in everything the dominant literati pretended to know. Dhanuka and a great many like him can talk about Foucault, Althusser, and so on, and have mastered postmodern jargon with ease. On the other hand, they haven’t let go of their roots, as the so-called intelligentsia have, and because of this they remain legitimate in their claims about tradition, culture, and modernity.

Dhanuka’s views on the arts certainly merit more than a passing glance, and as for his frankness, suffice it to say that we’re lacking courage among our critics, and people like him may well be the kind we should be looking for. That they don’t write as prodigiously as those who end up typing opinion pieces on the arts (which have no real merit) do shouldn’t be discouraging, obviously. As always, there’s room for hope. One should then hope.

Written for: The Island LEISURE, July 3 2016