Monday, August 1, 2016

On giants who live beyond their critics

Premaranjith Tilakaratne, playwright, writer, translator, de-mystifier of myths associated with the arts, and raconteur, got his autobiography published recently. The book (titled "Durgaya") basically recounts his entire life from his childhood, the good, the bad, and the painfully true. This article is not about Premaranjith or that book, though.

He once told me, about a year back, that he didn’t want to hide anything, and that he wanted to tell his story to everyone. I consider myself fortunate to have come across this man, not just because he did something in his life but also because what he did spoke for itself. I think he put it best: “I was never wont to promoting myself. I had other things to do, like my job.” Apt.

I remembered this the other day when I came across a young singer on TV challenging Amaradeva and Nanda Malini. He basically trashed the two while pointing out that there were better singers from his generation and what’s more, he dared them to prove otherwise. Arrogance comes off and manifests itself in strange ways, I thought to myself as I flipped channels. I’m not sure whether Amaradeva and Nanda Malini saw his challenge or replied to it, but if they didn’t I wouldn’t be surprised: giants have better things to do than reply to ants, after all.

Giants. Yes, that’s a notoriously difficult word, difficult to define. It takes all sorts of giants (self-proclaimed or otherwise) to make the world, and my guess is that Premaranjith, Amaradeva, and Nanda Malini were deserving of that title in that they didn’t need to resort to promotion to get their work recognised. They weren’t alone, of course: at a time when sensationalism was unheard of, almost everyone from their time who contributed to our cinema, music, literature, drama, painting, and pretty much everything else could be tagged with that word. That man who posed that challenge, clearly, was no giant.

Premaranjith Tilakaratne
And he’s not the only one. A few months ago, I came across another insufferable young artiste (whose name eludes me, I’m afraid) who came up with a classic. According to this young gentleman, the likes of Mahagama Sekara emerged because there was no one to criticise them the way my generation could. In other words, there wasn’t a media back then to facilitate proper, constructive critique of the veterans. Now my knowledge of Sinhala is at best limited and poetry, I concede, isn’t my thing, but with all due respect, I think that young man was misguided. If not myopic. Reminds me of another “veteran” young singer who got reputed for refusing to worship Amaradeva (I will not reveal his name here).

When we’re young we think we know everything. Well, almost everything. We think we know more than our elders and for this reason, we find it difficult to resist the urge to best them. We don’t fail every time of course, and I am not for the thesis that age equals wisdom, but most of the time those who try to pass themselves off as the betters of their elders do so clumsily. There are more ways than one of skinning a cat, after all.

Some say we live in a culture which precludes critique and fosters hosanna-singers. I wouldn’t disagree. But there are reasons for that, prime among them the fact that we are a small country and consequently everyone knows everyone else to such an extent that we feel bad when criticising someone we know. On the other hand, I don’t believe that a constructive, critical media is the be-all and end-all cure for this, because after all even with such a thing we still inhabit a culture where the YOUNG veterans get plenty of space, praise, and accolade without as much as a hum or whimper criticising their lesser work. In fact, I’d say that BECAUSE of this same media, the kind of self-promotion our youngsters see in the veterans get perpetuated EVEN MORE. Conceding this as a fact, I believe, is a first step in combating it.

But I don’t see reason to give up on hope. Or to say that our young artistes are bad. John Keats was 25 when he died, let’s not forget. No one can say he wrote crap. True, his experience was limited and this led some commentators to remark that he was an “escapist”, but then look at Sekara: he was 47 when he died, but by then he had equalled our best poets. And let’s not forget that these same people, though they became the veterans eventually, went against the grain and critiqued veterans from THEIR time.

So no, I don’t have an issue with critique. I do however have an issue with those who conflate critique with arrogance. I also have an issue with hypocrites, i.e. those who launch tirades against others they think indulged in self-promotion when they themselves are guilty of that same crime.

And you know what? By and by, these same “critics” roughly cater to the same crowd their elders served, i.e. the bilingual, vernacular audiences. That means they are competitors. Makes sense to go on a tirade, hence. Makes sense to launch attack, because at the end of the day these people are out there to grab audiences and change tastes. That is why, I suppose, we haven’t seen even an iota of this arrogance coming from the “other side” to this country’s cultural firmament, i.e. the English-speaking, Cinnamon Gardens writers, playwrights, musicians, painters, you-name-it. Give them SOME credit for not perpetuating at least THAT kind of arrogance.

I haven’t read Premaranjith Tilakaratne’s autobiography. I look forward to buying a copy. I know I won’t come across attempts at self-promotion. I also know that there’ll be honesty and what little critique of others he’ll pack in will be sincere and more to the point, free of arrogance. The same, I believe, can be said of Amaradeva, of Nanda Malini, and of countless other “veterans” who will continue to treat irreverence with silence and fortitude.

To those who challenge them openly and to those who point-blank refuse to worship them when the moment demands it, hence, I have just two words. Grow up.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, July 31 2016