Sunday, October 30, 2016

Wesley College encounters the Bard

I remember a conversation I had with Professor Carlo Fonseka about four years ago. We were talking about how the arts, in the long run at least, could help explain the social and political in ways that the social sciences could not. Inevitably, he brought up Shakespeare. I am not an unconditional fan of the Bard, but I alluded to Julius Caesar and implicitly encouraged the Professor to bring up an example of what I felt to be that play’s take on political intrigue.

As expected, he referred that most referred-to sequence in it, when Mark Antony, in an attempt to turn the mob against their self-appointed saviours, inflames the Romans against Brutus, Cassius, and the other assassinators of Caesar in front of his mutilated body. To add flavour to his reference, Professor Carlo turned to me and exclaimed, “Eh miniha mulu loketama e avasthawedi vachalayon gana kiya dunna” (at that moment, the man taught the entire world who demagogues really were). Since then, needless to say, Julius Caesar has remained my favourite work of the Bard.

And it’s not hard to see why. It’s not typical even by Shakespeare’s standards: it lacks the decor and metaphors which adorn his other tragedies and historical plays. It deceives us into believing that its characters are embodiments of virtue or vice, when in fact they occupy an intricate universe in which nothing is as it seems. Antony’s speech is probably the best example for this, but the truth of the matter is that when it comes to filming, staging, and even commenting on the play, you have to be mindful of the many complexities that Shakespeare, in his wisdom and wit, dipped it in.

All this came to me the other week as I watched the boys of the Drama Society of Wesley College take me back to that moment when Brutus, in a fit of remorse, questions himself as to whether Caesar should be assassinated. The date: Thursday, October 20. The time: about 7.30 pm. The place: the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre, Borella. The boys from Wesley had christened the event: “Chorus and the Bard.” It was, admittedly, less about the former than the latter, but for the purpose of this review let’s forget that.

“Chorus and the Bard” was a follow-up, and an apt one at that, to the school’s triumph at this year’s Interschool Shakespeare Drama Competition (ISDC), where after six years they passed out into the finals. They would lose a battle but win a war: St Peter’s clinched the trophy, but Wesley clinched the award for Best Actor.

Last Thursday, going by this, was the perfect opportunity for the boys to relive their moment, albeit in a more nuanced setting. They did that not by merely re-enacting their moment at the ISDC, but by bringing in another array of talent that deserved the public gaze: the school Choir.

The show began with a whimper. It soon picked up, thanks to a carefully sketched out schedule, as it accelerated with the songs chosen and sung. Three rather soft and nuanced pieces followed a medley performed by the Choir. The latter, which lasted for about five items, was led by the Choir Trainer at Wesley, Ms Rachel Halliday, who I saw last year at the Festival of Choirs and who draw vast reserves of energy, pomp, and verve from her singers. They entranced us with a torrent of items by Queen, from “We Are the Champions” to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That was immediately followed up by a five-member performance. All in all, entertaining.

The first half was done. Before the second half however, someone spoke: Kevin Cruz, who’d trained Wesley at this year’s Competition, and who was handed more than one token of appreciation by his cast during the intermission.

Cruz reflected on accomplishment. He argued that despite the many challenges, obstacles, and out-of-the-blue coincidences that overwhelm the performing arts, what matters is what comes out through the performer’s perseverance.

And to add flavour to his speech (which, by his own admission, he had not expected to deliver), he drew from personal experience. He recounted an incident from several years ago, when he’d staged Julius Caesar with another team and had staged the moment and aftermath of Caesar’s murder. Apparently the roads had been quite deserted back then, so he’d been forced to carry a particularly large prop all the way home, in the dead of the night.

As luck would have it, he’d been stopped. By a police officer. “It was not the best encounter I could have asked for. To start things off, my hands were covered in red. I was carrying Caesar’s mantle. To make matters worse, I was a Tamil, which in those days aroused suspicion at once. And to make matters even worse, I was carrying the daggers used to kill Caesar with me.” The audience laughed at the bathos and the irony, and he laughed with them.

The show then proceeded to its second half. The boys from Wesley performed (as with “Shakes2016”) sections from Act II of the play, bringing out Brutus’ feelings of remorse and the crisis of conscience he undergoes on the night before Caesar’s murder. I am no actor, so I am not fit to judge the individual veracities of the cast, but I will say this: in keeping with Cruz’s flair for colour, I saw a vibrant if not dazzling take on Brutus’ transformation into a murderer and Caesar’s downfall. Much of that on account, no doubt, of the actor playing the murderer, Taariq Jurangpathy.

Taariq was a marvel. He looked confused but didn’t betray it. He seemed caught in a flux of emotions but retained a superficial calm. In keeping with his character, he rationalised his crime in terms of the greater good (Caesar’s death representing to him the end of tyranny) but gave the impression, subtly and surely, that he was spurred by a sense of self-worth rather than the altruism he displays to the world outside.

Brutus, the way I see it, confirms what Orwell said of Gandhi: “Sainthood is the one thing that human beings must avoid.” Caesar’s murderers are all beasts and exist for the sake of their instincts, but Brutus stands out as a veritable hypocrite, the idealist who expects others to bow down to him because of his ideals. In other words, he is a saint with all the vices of a self-righteous, overconfident egoist.

While this didn’t come out in its entirety in what Wesley staged, nevertheless I saw enough of a contradiction between the assassin and the victim to draw inferences. Brutus was stately, regal, charming (Taariq, it must be said, has the kind of face that could almost be described as Roman), while Caesar was stout, confused, indulgent (at odds with the usual image of the man as thin, sallow, sour-faced, and essentially weak).

That contradiction probably made up for the absenting of Brutus’ conversation with Portia (which in the play is used as a counterpart to the tempestuous, frenzied dialogue between Caesar and Calpurnia later on), and in the end explained the barely hidden contempt indulged by the assassins against the Emperor. And as those assassins rounded up on an immobile Caesar, I could only gasp: here was colour, vibrancy, and to my relief, a flourish to an otherwise melodramatic sequence. A friend of mine put it best: “They were like vultures rounding up on their prey.” Aptly put.

I am not a good judge and certainly not fit to judge productions like this, so I leave the task of assessing its merits to another, more suitable critic. That, however, does not preclude comment. So I will comment.

The props, the colours, and the looming sense of death, despair, and revolution were all brought out by the cast, not to mention the twists and turns of character that our protagonist undergoes (all in the short space of half-an-hour, mind you). The rest of the cast took risks and got emboldened. In the end, they too added colour. As they should.

At one point it was hard to take Cassius and his schemers apart, they blended with each other so well that they performed their role (unearthing Brutus’ “baser instincts”) excellently. It is impossible to do justice to a play without performing it in its entirety, but the boys at Wesley proved that with enough sensitivity, they could give out the illusion of staging such a play in under half-an-hour.

“Chorus and the Bard” ended, by the way, with another speech. Wasaam Ismail, thespian, presenter, and lecturer, who’d been coveted as Best Actor at the ISDC in 2006 and had been involved with the Wesleyites at this year’s Competition, spoke. Like Cruz, he was caught off-guard, again not prepared for a speech. Like Cruz, he delivered one impromptu, this time opting for a theme as perennial as it is unanswerable: what is the use of drama and the theatre?

Wasaam didn’t answer it directly. Instead, he reflected. Academics, he conceded, were important, but drawing from personal experience he argued that they did not, do not, and will not define us for who we are. More than anything else, the theatre erases away fear, that irrepressible menace which keeps us from achieving our potential. Fittingly therefore, he ended with an appeal: “Do your homework, maintain good grades, but know that marks aren’t the be-all and end-all of your life.” It was, all in all, a fitting end to a show that was closing in on a bang.

“Chorus and the Bard”, at the end of the day, delivered. I liked and took to it. I’m sure that everyone who came to watch it, including the Chief Guest (Elizabeth Sophie Balsa, the Ambassador for Brazil) and Guest of Honour (Yashoda Wimaladharma) encountered the untouchable, which only the acutest voices and gestures could convey to a lay audience.

It would be an understatement to say that Wesley did just that, so I conclude: I can only relish the thought that they’ll perform the whole of what I firmly consider to be one of Shakespeare’s most atypical and likeable plays.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, October 30 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The man who grinned

Human beings are peculiar creatures. They smile only when politeness compels them to and they drown in sorrow, anger, and envy all the time. They don’t laugh as much as they should, simply because they feel that rebels against the principle of refinement (which is that you should break into laughter only as a conditioned response). That’s silly I agree, but then again being the peculiar creatures we are, we have endowed this world of ours with enough politeness to make ourselves substitute refinement and surface-allure for honesty. Whoever wrote that only children can laugh honestly clearly deplored this state of affairs.

Perhaps that’s why the cinema, for all intents and purposes, was born partly out of a desire to keep us happy. Entertainment for those first pioneers of the medium wasn’t just about adventures and princes dashing to save pretty damsels in the desert, but had to do more significantly with the ability of the actor(s) to thrill, raise hairs, and evoke laughter. Chaplin is of course the first such name that comes to mind, though there were others: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and that irrepressible duo Laurel and Hardy (who are imitated, again and again, by both the amateur and the professional: Jayantha Chandrasiri went for them in his depiction of the two police officers in his latest play, Hankithi Dahathuna).

Which brings me to Sri Lanka. We are “blessed” with humorists. Their CV apparently is to keep us entranced to the screen by whatever means necessary. For better or worse, this includes every imaginable attempt at compelling laughs from us, which at the end of the day deteriorates into exercises in puerile comedy. Yes, you know what I am talking about: turning the most mundane activity into a source of confusion so much that we’re supposed to laugh not because we feel like we want to, but because we feel like we ought to. There probably are a hundred or so examples for this that one comes across in our films, but that’s for another article, another time.

This week’s star was a humorist. In more ways than one. He didn’t force us to laugh. Didn’t need to. All he did was to turn everyday situations into veritable sources of humour. Moreover, he didn’t just act. He sang. He had a voice that could express sobriety in times of rhetoric and emotion in times of reason. He dabbled in the best of both worlds, without really clinging to either. And above everything else, he had that one key signature which no one in his field could claim to: the ability to make us think that even in the most rational and reasonable decisions he made, he’d always end up making a mess of things without batting an eyelid.

Who was he? Freddie Silva.

If Gamini Fonseka was the “sakvithi” of our cinema, then Freddie was its “vikata raja”. He specialised as a humorist, but never went beyond secondary roles. Unlike, say, Joe Abeywickrama, he was versatile only in comedy. I personally doubt that this unique man, who was almost always grinning and up to some mischief, could be made use of as a villain or lover, because by the time his career ended, he’d appeared in over 300 of the 850 films screened in the first 50 years of our cinema. Not an achievement that can easily be surpassed, you must admit.

Freddie was an only child. He was born on May 18, 1938 in Moratuwa and was christened as Halpeliyanage Morris Joseph de Silva. His father was an overseer for the Urban Council and his mother was a member of the Salvation Army. Both had been nearly fanatical in their devotion to faith, which they doubtless would have felt as having an impact on their son. As things turned out, however, what they expected was not what they got: young Freddie not only showed an indifference to religion, he indulged in probably the two least religious activities a child from his background could engage with: singing and dancing.

There’s a story about how he entered his field, written and recorded by many. Apparently Freddie had been taken to the birthday party of the then Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala, by a relative. By that time he’d practised singing so well that he’d gained a reputation in his village. Alanson Mendis had composed a tune for young Freddie to sing at the party, titled “Bar Bar Bar.” He did just that in front of his Prime Minister and what’s more, gained a standing ovation not just for his singing but also for his dancing. The response had been so overwhelming that Kotelawala had asked him point-blank, “Do you dance with springs on your legs, boy?” The idealistic young man had replied, “Sir, I am looking for a job.” The Prime Minister had replied back, “Singing is the only job you are fit for.”

Kotelawala would have been erratic there, but he meant what he said. He gave Freddie a letter of recommendation, which the young and budding artiste took to Livy Wijemanne. Livy read the letter, looked at Freddie, and took him in to broadcasting. Two songs followed: “Mottapala” and a version of “Bar Bar Bar” composed by P. L. A. Somapala.

His singing career deserves an article to itself, and can hardly be done justice to in the space of one paragraph. He collaborated with Somapala, Victor Ratnayake, and even Premasiri Khemadasa, but for schoolboys who grew back then and even children from my generation, I am willing to bet that he achieved an apotheosis when he got together with Premakeerthi de Alwis.

Premakeerthi was no ivory tower poet. What he wrote, he wrote for us. And what we wrote for us, he wrote to make us think about life. Humour figured somewhere in there, which is where Freddie triumphed.

Listen to those songs even today – “Boru Kakul Karaya”, “Aron Mama”, “Handa Mama”, and “Kalu Kumbiya” – and you will at once understand how the man entranced his listeners. “Boru Kakul Karaya” is a meditation on those who walk on stilts (metaphorically), who are perched up high and are inflated by arrogance. “Aron Mama” is about the crass art of gossiping. “Handa Mama” is about those who seek accomplishment and those who idle. “Kalu Kumbiya” is about how we should all strive for more, like the black ant and unlike the more offensive red ant. Like I said, Premakeerthi was no ivory tower poet. It would be wrong to suggest that these songs struck us purely because of the vocalist, but I can say this much: no other vocalist could have done justice to them.

To understand this, one should look at his film credits. After some stints at broadcasting, the man met K. A. W. Perera in 1963. Perera had by that time gone beyond writing dialogues and scripts, and was toying with the idea of making it as a director himself. Through some mutual acquaintances, Freddie had been introduced to the man, who had eventually taken him in to what would become his debut, Suhada Sohoruyo (which Perera co-directed with L. S. Ramachandran). Acting alongside the likes of Vijitha Mallika, Sandya Kumari, Rukmani Devi, Asoka Ponnamperuma, and Henry Jayasena, it augured well for Freddie: he’d be cast as the irrepressible comic sidekick for the rest of his career.

There was a time when you just couldn’t watch a comedy here without the man. That was expected. Freddie was blessed with enough and more attributes to warrant continuous involvement with our cinema: he was short, he was almost always grinning, and even in the most serious things he did, he managed to dish out humour. For that reason perhaps, he could never be more than a sidekick: in the eighties, for instance, he was constantly featured alongside Vijaya Kumaratunga in comedy after comedy. He was never in want of money, nor fame. He got both, he enjoyed both, but more importantly, he lived for art.

That love for art never left him. He could sometimes underestimate himself. Premakeerthi de Alwis’ “Kundumani”, for instance, is a song that can’t be performed the way Freddie did: tuned perfectly to a Carnatic melody, the man sings it almost as well as a Tamil person would, a feat rare among Sinhala singers at the time. Perhaps he lived for art before he lived for life, and perhaps this explains the prodigious output he was able to give us. We may never know.

Freddie Silva left us 15 years ago, on October 29. Had he lived, he would have been 78. He wouldn’t have been making more films and he wouldn’t have been acting, but he probably would have been more cherished than he was upon his death. As things stood however, his death passed by without unnerving us.

Revata de Silva, in an illuminating tribute to the man, explained why: “We are a ‘gunamaku’ (ungrateful) society.” I’d be willing to agree. Freddie made us laugh. So did Chaplin. Chaplin’s death attracted millions. Freddie’s did not.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, October 26 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Justice for (our) children

There are fundamental differences between expediency and fairness when it comes to the legal process of a country. They approximate to the difference between the individual and the larger community: ideally, a justice system must balance these two conflicting interests out in a way that ensures due process for the individual and security for society.

The problem is that they form part of a debate that remains irresolvable for the simple reason that they were always meant to oppose one another. It’s impossible after all to guarantee fair treatment for the individual, if he or she makes use of that to escape justice, and it’s impossible to guarantee security for a community if that involves impunity for the wielders and dispensers of justice in terms of arresting, assessing, and punishing alleged offenders.

Last week I dwelt on corporal punishment. Implied in my column was the assertion that a country’s education system reflects its legal system, and by the latter I don’t include the judiciary only: I include also the police, the armed forces, the extrajudicial arm created to ensure security for the country, and other dispensers of justice appointed formally or informally by the State. The argument basically therefore was this: if you drill the notion that “Might is Right” into the minds of the children by subjecting them to the cane, you’ll end up breeding two kinds of citizens: those who wield the baton and those who resist the baton. I’m not talking about Sri Lanka alone, of course.

This week I’ll be focusing on another more pertinent but no less related issue: justice for children. By that I include everything and anything, but for the purpose of specificity I shall focus on one key theme: what recourse do our children have to the legal system of this country? Or more to the point, is that recourse sufficient, and are the provisions contains in our statute books adequate to the task of recognising juvenile offenders as children first and criminals second?

Human rights and individual justice are not merely pretty words. History, it must be said, doesn’t paint a pretty picture when it comes to how they’ve been misused, contorted, and neglected. It’s difficult to even begin to imagine how and why the legal system and relevant authorities in a society conveniently ignore the rights of the child, but it has happened and is happening. Even now. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on three broad areas, pertaining to our country: the statistics, the legal lacuna, and broad imperatives needed to set things right.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is not immutable. It interweaves areas and pertinent issues connected to children. It’s hard to pinpoint which areas are more important and which areas are not, but for me, affirming rights just doesn’t make sense without providing for a proper, cohesive resort which the accused and the victim can use. In other words, the Convention recognises the need to establish Juvenile Courts, not just to try offenders but to ensure that victims of abuse, neglect, and other heinous crimes committed against them achieve equity.

A perusal of the document will convince anyone of how significant this all was to its drafters. Article 19 reflects on protecting children from violence perpetrated by their own parents or whoever appointed to be in (legal) charge of them (guardians, teachers, what-not). Article 37 reflects on shielding them from torture and negligence, in particular when it comes to their encounters with a society’s justice system.

While the Convention was drafted 20 years ago and while things have changed, nevertheless the text speaks for itself: they were not meant to be cast in stone but to be subjected to revision and assessment. That, I suspect, is what the drafters clearly intended with the concluding Article: only if the laws of a country surpass the Convention will they override it. Otherwise, the Convention takes precedence.

Given this context, how do the laws in Sri Lanka fare?

First and foremost, the statistics are sobering. A UNICEF report commissioned and released in 2013 reveals it all: from a total of about 70 cases collected from Batticoloa, Jaffna, Nuwara Eliya, Anuradhapura, Moneragela, Matara, and Kegalle (which generally rank low in educational, social, and economic indicators), it was concluded that statutory rape among girls was closely intertwined with the issue of early marriage (despite Sri Lanka’s generally liberal marriage culture, there still are instances of girls being married early on for fear that lack of educational qualifications would deprive them of opportunity for life).

And that’s just one figure. The records in 2012 show 758 children who were sexually molested and another 745 who were sexually abused. There were nine cases of incest by a family member, in addition 22 cases of child murders, 54 child abductions, 10 attempted murders and 247 cases of child assault. From 2011 to 2012, the National Child Protection Agency (NCPA) collected more than 20,000 complaints, an almost unprecedented amount until then.

Which brings one to another pertinent point: children can encounter the law in more ways than one. Broadly, they can be perpetrators. They can also be victims. And just as importantly, they can be witnesses to crimes perpetrated by others. With all this, one would expect authorities in the country to be more broadminded when it comes to handling such children. As the case stands, however, they have not.

That brings up the second broad area I identified above: the legal lacuna in Sri Lanka.

The problem becomes evident at once when one considers the tangle we’ve succumbed to when it comes to defining the age limits of a child (for legal purposes). A person is said to be criminally responsible only if he or she has attained or passed the age of 8, as set out by the Penal Code of 1883. A judge has the discretion to try a person as a criminal if he or she is between the ages of 8 and 12, if that judge can ascertain whether he or she has attained a sufficient level of maturity and understanding as to the consequences of his or her conduct. Those between 12 and 16 can be held as criminally accountable even if it that point is not conclusively ascertained, while those between 16 and 18 are regarded as adults. (However, no one below the age of 18 can be sentenced to death.)

This was compounded by another classification made by the Children and Young Persons Ordinance (or CYPO). According to the CYPO, for the purposes of juvenile justice (which was not recognised properly under the Penal Code), those considered as children are below the age of 14, and those considered as young persons are between the ages of 14 and 16.

A study by the Lawyers for Human Rights and Development (LHRD) in 1998 concluded that this double classification has led to much confusion and can, in the long run, explain the confused state of juvenile justice in the country. This has to do with the absence of proper mechanisms through which a child can claim justice: in particular, the lack of a cohesive system to which children can resort (either as offenders or as victims) when it comes to determining their cases. That helps surface probably the most important, if not deplorable, lacuna Sri Lanka faces at present: the absence of a proper network of Juvenile Courts.

But what exactly are Juvenile Courts? A brief look at history would suffice. From the socially conscious novels of Charles Dickens to the establishment of the first Children’s Courts (or in other words, special Courts for child offenders and victims), a key theme that runs through this discourse is that there’s always a rift between retributive and restorative justice. The former is aimed at punishment, the latter at rehabilitation. Going by Aristotle’s dictum on equality (comparing like with like, never with unlike), it seems manifestly self-evident that the more children are subjected to retribution, the more likely it is that they’ll relapse to old habits after their ordeal is done. There’s a term for this, by the way: recidivism.

The 20th century was more or less the Age of Enlightenment when it came to legal systems and processes. To flip through what happened, those processes finally and cohesively differentiated between adults and children, most starkly through the establishment of the first Juvenile Courts the civilised world ever saw. The tussle over juvenile delinquency was until then largely decided from the misconception that children were immature adults, who needed to be treated as elders to compel their growth and development.

The first Juvenile Court was established in 1899, one year before the dawn of the century, in Illinois and in arguably the country that was seeing industrialisation on a scale unparalleled by any other part of the world, the United States. The thinking behind it was simple: if you treat children as children, and if you want to ensure justice for them, then the method of attaining justice that they resort to must be amenable to their worldview and level of understanding.

While the first few decades of the century saw no real difference between Juvenile and normal Courts, nevertheless the former congealed into a class of their own, guided by one stark principle: for children to be guaranteed justice, either as offenders or as victims, there must not only be an exclusion of features all too common in other Courts (such as that perennial image of the bespectacled, old, and strict judge thrashing his gavel on the table), but also an inclusion of features that would directly appeal to a child, such as (inter alia) play areas and counsellors.

Sri Lanka doesn’t lack statutory provisions when it comes to juvenile justice. The Penal Code was enacted in 1883. About half a century later, the government enacted the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPO), alluded to before. Despite the confusion created by its definition of children and young persons, in later years it filled a much deplored gap by empowering Juvenile Courts (hereafter referred to as JC).

The problem, however, was that they would be created within a Magistrate’s Court: in other words, Magistrates would be empowered to act as Juvenile Court judges (Sections 2 and 3). As with all statutes, the CYPO defined what a JC was, what its jurisdiction entailed, and who would be competent to preside over children’s cases.

That was hardly adequate, for several reasons. First and foremost, the atmosphere of these Magistrate’s Courts (hereafter referred to as MC). Until about five years ago, out of the more than 70 MCs located throughout the country only one could be considered as a Children’s Court (hereafter referred to as CC). That was in Bambalapitiya. Even there, the Court was hardly adequate to suit an individual child’s level of understanding. More often than not, proceedings would be presided by the type of authority figures that Dickens wrote about, so much so that in the long run, the judges were perceived as variants of Mr Bumble and Mr and Mrs Soweberry, rather than the kindly, genial individuals they should have been.

This was not, of course, limited to child offenders: child victims faced even more issues. Among these, one can point at the impossible delays cases were subjected to (sometimes by more than 10 years), instances in which the police and other officials were privileged more than the child as witnesses, the fact that hearings were open to the public and hence were harrowing to that child, and the stigma attached to him or her when encountering the law.

And that’s just a foretaste to arguably the biggest problem: the fact that police officers have and continue to be known for their brutality towards young persons. As I implied in last week’s column, a quick reading of Basil Fernando’s Narrative of Justice in Sri Lanka would dispel the myth that children in this country are regarded as innocent cherubs: there have been instances when police authorities have mutilated, beaten, and done other unspeakable things against them for the simplest and most trivial offences. And it’s not just teenagers I’m talking about here: even children as young as 10 or 12 have had their bones and organs crushed, broken, and mutilated beyond repair by errant police officers.

In 2010, in reaction to calls made by concerned authorities on these counts, the first-ever JC was established in Battaramulla. Barely a year later, another such Court was built in Jaffna. The importance of these two, when it comes to the final reckoning, can’t be discounted. They were needed and not only to try out child offences, but also to ensure that cases involving children were processed and concluded quickly.

Five years after both Courts were established however, the general sentiment seems to be that more should be built, ideally in areas identified by that aforementioned UNICEF report but also extending to other districts.

And that sums up the third broad area I sought to delve into in this column: the imperatives needed for improvement. Personally I don’t think we are far behind when it comes to ensuring juvenile justice. It’s just that, thanks to that culture of complacency which has invaded our public sector, we are more satisfied in smirking at past accomplishments. We shouldn’t be.

The President correctly identified that the responsibility for the protection of children lay with the entire nation, or more pertinently with us. His message however was contorted to mean that that responsibility belonged to the private sphere, when clearly it should extend to the public sector.

There’s no point in coming up with documents, statistics, and statutes if they are not worked on. And there’s no point correcting our young(er) generation if you end up instilling in them either a blind love or a bitter hatred against authority, both being rooted in that aforementioned fear of officialdom inculcated in them at an early age (thanks in part to corporal punishment, but also to early encounters with the law).

Briefly put, if we don’t look after our kids, no one will. Period.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Written for: Ceylon Today, October 26 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

Premaranjith Tilakaratne’s encounters

I’ve come to believe that the performing arts are “blessed” with their share of knaves, pretenders, jokers, and idiots. It’s not a perfect industry. For every yuga purushaya you will come across a great many amateurs. For every pioneer you will come across a great many petty artistes. That is why history bestows posterity on a select few and that is why the bad and the mediocre surpass the good and the great by a considerable margin. Inevitable, some will say. True, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

I suppose that is why we need those who can undress and dissect. Such people are endowed with that rare gift called integrity, which makes them constitutionally incapable of compromising on their conception of art to please the Establishment.

Naturally, this tends to win them both friends and enemies, and if they linger long enough with that sense of integrity, they gain more of the latter and become, for the lack of a better term, loners. That is indeed cause for lament, but not forever: integrity becomes its own virtue, gets vindicated, and in the end, gets these artistes and commentators noticed, venerated, and respected once again.

I first heard of Premaranjith Tilakaratne through an article I’d written on the late Tissa Abeysekara. To make a long story short: I got contacted by a friend of his domiciled abroad (who’d read it), got him to email me some contacts of his, and eventually called them all to ask after Abeysekara. One of those contacts (who lived in Mattegoda) asked me to contact Premaranjith. Yes, I’d heard of the man before, though vaguely, and partly out of a desire to meet him I called him. I went down to meet him not long after. I was not disappointed.

But first: who is Premaranjith Tilakaratne? He was a playwright, scriptwriter, and lyricist. For me personally, he remains a raconteur, a commentator, and above all else a de-mystifier of myths pertaining to the performing arts. That last point, incidentally, won him enemies but also respect. I remember how difficult it was to meet the man (he lives in Malabe, and his house, my mother and I learnt, is not easy to reach) and how eager he was to meet us. That drove me to ask questions and delve into his biography. He didn’t keep anything back.

He was born in Ratnapura in 1937. His father had been a teacher (and a strict one at that), who’d instilled a sense of discipline in him. He was educated initially at Sri Palee College in Horana, which had been structured along the lines of Tagore’s Shanthiniketan and which had been an eye-opener for him. Apparently classes ran on Saturday and halted only on Sundays and Wednesdays. “That proved to be a formidable obstacle for us, because it was at that school that we fell in love with the movies,” he smiles.

Schools, one must concede, are remembered for certain memories and these include “playing hooky.” Given the schedule at Sri Palee, Premaranjith and his friends would resort to just that on Saturdays, when they’d skip classes and go to the theatre for the 10.30 show. Not that it had been that easy, of course: his father was not only a strict iskole mahaththaya, but was opposed to films on principle.

Predictably, the son rebelled against the father. Was it tough? “Not really,” he remembers, “True, I’d argue with him and I’d upset him considerably, but that didn’t stop me. I’d borrow money from him and I’d bike with my classmates to watch the latest shows in town.” They’d been caught more than once, he reflects, though that didn’t stop their love for what was then considered a puerile art. Most of the films they’d see during this time were flicks imported from Bollywood, which had captivated the adventurer in them and would no doubt awaken adolescence.

His father however, had not been opposed to the performing arts in general, taking his errant son to watch Nurti plays. Premaranjith, though, had not been receptive to his tastes: “He went for morality plays. The films I watched, by contrast, were all glamorous, epic, and Christian: Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, and Ben Hur. Occasionally I went for Hindi classics too, like Do Bigha Zameen and Bharat Matha.” Not surprisingly, young Premaranjith would have been entranced by the larger-than-life decor in these flicks, which influenced and shaped his later career and life.

J. R. Jayewardene greets the cast and crew
of 'Sri Wickrema'
In the meantime, time flew by. Premaranjith was shifted from Sri Palee to Dharmapala Vidyalaya in Kottawa, in 1956. “That was of course a monumental year politically and socially. Bandaranaike had inaugurated swabasha. Universities felt this first when they had to change their curriculum and textbooks to suit what was then referred to as the ‘age of the common man.’ Dharmapala, however, managed to resist this yuga peraliya and remained an English medium school.” He remembers studying textbooks prescribed by the British, “in particular, G. C. Mendis’ history books and the tales of English kings and queens.” Dharmapala had also got him into contact with Tissa Abeysekara. That, however, is for another narrative.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Premaranjith Tilakaratne never became a full time professional artiste. His father had wanted him to enter the Civil Service. He had eventually entered the government sector, following it up with some stints at the theatre. “How I got into scripting and directing plays is interesting,” he confesses, “Wickrema Bogoda, whom I’d befriended at Dharmapala, went to watch a couple of rehearsals of Sugathapala de Silva’s Boarding Karayo with me. Now Bogoda would later join Sugathapala’s troupe 'Ape Kattiya', but before that, upon seeing the man stage the play, I was enchanted by the idea of striking my own path.”

Chandra Kaluarachchi and Wickrama Bogoda
in 'Wahalak Nethi Geyak'
Things moved fast thereafter. His first play, Vaguru Bima, was staged in 1963. They were followed by a veritable torrent: Wahalak Nethi Geyak (1964), Thoththa Baba (1965), Ammai Appai (1966), Kontare (1967), Julie (1977), and a novel take on a Nurti tragedy, Sri Wickrema (staged during J. R. Jayewardene’s presidency). Typical for giants in general, these had attracted censure even in his time: Thoththa Baba had been banned for its homosexual subtext, while his take on Sri Wickrema, given that the government of the day had patronised it on account of the fact that it was staged at Tower Hall, raised rumours that he was currying favour with the big shots in power at the time.

Such baseless slander, however, couldn’t stop critics from praising his work. By his own confession, he’d attracted quite a number of favourable reviews from the English press (while most of his contemporaries made use of the vernacular press). As I flip through the archives, I realise how correct he is: A. J. Gunawardena, Tissa Devendra, and Wimal Dissanayake have all rated his plays highly.

While I haven’t seen his work for myself (unlike what his contemporaries did, he did not stage them frequently), they nevertheless captivate me in terms of the themes they engender: in particular, Wahalak Nathi Geyak, which dwells on the conflict between the expedient, ambitious father and the principled son, perhaps a contortion of the tussles Premaranjith had experienced as a child. It bagged awards for its script and acting at that year’s State Drama Festival.

Perhaps it’s a result of all his encounters, wild and divergent as they are, but I sense a hard to infer, harder to solidify character in the man. He is a nationalist but he spurns tradition. When I talk with him about our jathaka stories, for instance, he is quick to exclaim, “What’s there in them that merits attention, as a literature?” When I dwell on our epics, he is quick to retort, “We don’t have epics here, only episodes.” He clearly is not the steadfast, ramrod nationalist others his age usually are, and he is ever ready to criticise culture with respect to what he feels to be our inability to absorb the best of the outside world.

I ask him to explain. “Well, to give you an example from my time, there was a culture of rubbishing Indian films on account of their artificiality. Thespians, poets, and writers were all championing a return to the local and the particular in a bid to restore what was ours. I don’t see anything wrong in such an exercise, but the moment you cut yourself from the rest of the world, you will not progress one inch. Speaking for myself, I was not part of the anti-Indian bandwagon, not because I didn’t love our history and way of life but because we, as artistes and performers, have so much to learn from them and from the West.” This in turn explains his distaste for those who grovel before critics: “It’s all fine and well to please the newspaperman, but what about your audiences?”

I put to him that the Western cinema has progressed precisely because it has captivated the audience, and he agrees. “When I adapted West Side Story in Kontare, which is by far my most colourful play, not many agreed with what I was doing. They thought I would imitate Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. I did not. Their story was rooted in the clash between immigrants and Americans. My story, on the other hand, was rooted in a clash between Colombo people and outside folk.” A lesson on adaptation perhaps, one which compels the man to open up another point: “We are not ivory towers. We are human beings. If we don’t realise that, we will continue to create cults, venerate symbols, and go nowhere.”

Since that day I have frequently kept in touch with the man. He remains indelible in the truest sense of that term: not prone to fame the way some of his contemporaries were, and yet as perceptive as (if not more so than) those who clinched awards and trophies by the dozen in his day. He is not classifiable. By all accounts, his story (which he chronicles in his autobiography Durgaya, published some months back) deserves continuous assessment. By us.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, October 23 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Sooriya Village rises

I’ve always believed that the performing arts are predicated on collaboration, along with a sense of togetherness and camaraderie that goes beyond the confines of individuality. Nietzsche said as much when he contended, for better or for worse, that music (considered the most universal of all the arts) embodied the collective. Institutionalising the medium and pigeonholing it to a set of formalised lectures, and that conducted by professors and academics more concerned with results than actual merit, is therefore futile. And self-defeating.

Forget that, though. Take another issue: the relationship between the arts and commerce. Some see nothing but a conflict between the two. Others argue for compromise, more often than not on the former for the sake of the latter. Few, very few in fact, privilege reason over rhetoric and argue for a link in-between. Sure, it’s not always easy to infer such a link and bring about a model (any model) that empowers these two variables, but it is my contention that most creative souls out there have what it takes to turn their creativity into income. Money, however, shouldn’t be the primary motive. Especially when it comes to tapping into potential and encouraging young blood to unleash creativity.

Both these points came to me the other day when I visited the Sooriya Village. It’s not an institution and it’s not somewhere you can seek isolation in. It clearly is founded and predicated on creativity, for ALL the performing arts. Yes, it’s impossible to think of such a place, if at all because we’re so inflated with noise and with a need for alienation. But then, the Sooriya Village isn’t there for your typical music class, lecture, or practice session. There’s a horde of other amenities to look out for. Starting with this: there’s no place like it anywhere else here.

Before everything else, however, it has a history that can’t really be charted to the dot, simply because the concept behind it was always there: vague, amorphous, forever changing.

Sooriya of course (as music lovers here would know) was named after that pioneer in music and record labels in Sri Lanka, Gerald Wickremesooriya. He had a house in Kollupitiya. After his death, it was initially decided to turn that house into a museum dedicated to all what he’d done. Now ideas tend to morph and evolve, so soon enough those who’d sketched out a museum proposed other more ambitious projects. All in all, they sketched out a book and a film on the man. This meant a compilation of every artiste, record, and archive collected throughout his career, a project that would take time but would be worth it in the end.

So they went on collecting. They went on compiling. In the end they hit on another plan. A music village.

In 2012, Gerald’s family bought a house in Skelton Road, Colombo 5. It was converted into a school for special needs kids. As events transpired, it was eventually decided to bring the village concept there. The inevitable debates, arguments, and conversations flowed: should they rent the house or should they fund it themselves? The original idea was then shelved in favour of a “centre” for artistes (from whatever medium in the performing arts) to come, practise, and if necessary, perform. It would be an artiste’s village, open and free for everyone and anyone.

That was then. Last year, Gerald’s grandson Sanchitha left for Morocco. He was there to witness arguably the world’s most vibrant religious music festival, in Fez. Given that he was a fan of religious music in general, he was entranced by the idea of a group of musicians and like-minded artistes coming together. This emboldened his and his family’s (by now concrete) project for an artiste’s village, and not surprisingly, things moved fast after his return to Sri Lanka.

I sat down with Sanchitha some weeks ago, to get his side of the story and to find out for myself what this out of the blue place was all about. He was firm on one point at the inception: there’s no catch to this place. “When we started sketching out the project a lot of people were baffled. They couldn’t take to the idea. They didn’t understand the concept.” That’s not a problem endemic to this alone, of course. “Even the Vihara Maha Devi Park has ample space for aspiring artistes to go and perform. There’s no legal barrier to stop them. And yet, how many do you see go there and unleash their creativity? Is it to do with fear or discomfort? Or is it to do with the fact that artistes here are being taken advantage of? I wish I knew.”

As for the Village itself, suffice it to say that it’s not your typical performing arts centre. There’s a library, a rehearsal room, a lecture room packed with iMac computers, and an open space in the garden to perform. I asked Sanchitha as to whether these are amenable to only music, and he replied that they are not. “We don’t push you into music. If you are into the cinema, drumming, basically anything in this vast, interminable terrain referred to as the performing arts, feel free to come here.” How? “Simply by going to our site at thesooriyavillage.lk and booking our facilities in advance.”

I was surprised at the charges for them. The practice room (packed with soundproof walls) fetches for about 600 rupees an hour, while after the third hour it goes down to 500. The Apple computers fetch for about 500 an hour, and with them you can basically do anything: create and edit visuals, compose music, even design landscapes. You can also order private sessions outside for anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000, while public performances are, well, completely free. And in keeping with the village concept, rooms are let out to those who want to live through what they create, for no more than 1,500 a night. “Quite cheap!” was what my friend Muzar Lye (who knows more about these things than I ever could) uttered.

This compels two questions. The first, how has the public taken to it? Sanchitha was prompt with his reply: “The response was amazing. We had two launches here. The first was a private dinner. The second was a public exhibition of this site. The public launch was not marketed in the media and it was only mentioned in our Facebook page. It’s hard to imagine, but more than 250 people came for it, even after paying a 500 rupee entrance fee!”

I was frankly surprised that there hadn’t been any preconceived marketing plan as such, so I prompt him on that matter. Again, he was quick with his reply. “We didn’t publicise the Village. We didn’t run articles. We didn’t advertise. We relied on word of mouth. That worked. Call us unconventional, but my family and I look for gloss only after getting things done. I personally am a believer in karma, and I believe that if what you set out to do is ordained by this universe, you’ve got to trust the general order of things to turn your plan into reality. If you start pondering on funds, marketing, and publicity, you’re not going anywhere. First do. Then look for returns.”

That brings up my second question: given that most of what Sanchitha and his family wanted is done, how have they looked for funds? I suspected the answer and I was not disappointed. “We have a restaurant here. It can accommodate up to a hundred guests and it has literally become a cash cow for us.” Apparently it’s managed to milk up a minimum of 80,000 rupees a day. Not an easy to get figure, one must concede, particularly since it’s been no more than two months since it was opened.

A passionate food lover himself, Sanchitha sketched out what went into the menu and this in conjunction with their culinary consultant, Koluu Ranawake. “It’s packed every Friday night,” he smiles. Not that there haven’t been problems: “We get guests who ask us to ‘lower the music’, that is any practice or jam session that may be in play elsewhere. I’ve personally told them that this is not your typical restaurant, and is situated in a complex that more or less operates on sound and music. If you don’t like that, too bad, go somewhere else.”

Apparently the Village captivated quite a number of veteran artistes. To name a few, Billy Fernando and his band, Anthony Surendra, Dinesh Subasinghe (“Who more or less lives here now”), Kishani Jayasinghe (“Who will start her upcoming Colombo Opera Company here”), and even the Colombo Symphony Orchestra (“Which booked the practice room for rehearsals for three consecutive days”) have come, seen, and booked.

All fine and well no doubt, but sometimes it has let in performers and groups who’ve tried to move away from the village concept. “Not too long ago a group of performers and artistes wanted to book this place for more than a month to conduct some music classes. I politely told them that the Village is not a formal institution.” Mercifully though, such (unfortunate) encounters have been, if at all, rare and far in-between.

There’s probably a lot more I can write, but for now I shall desist. There’s a time to write, after all, and a time to intoxicate oneself with experience. The Sooriya Village, going by the preview, looks great. It will take in and entertain. It will entrance and encourage. For those who love music and for those attached to that vast, interminable terrain referred to as the performing arts, hence, this is the place to go. And now’s the time to do that.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, October 23 2016

Friday, October 21, 2016

A brief tribute to Bandula Vithanage

Asal Wesiyo may not have been the funniest sitcom aired here, but it certainly was (and is) funny. It depends for the most on coincidence and mistaken identity, the kind of humour that differentiates Chaplin and Buster Keaton from Jerry Lewis and the kind of humour we took to at once. We didn’t have to contort ourselves to laugh and we certainly didn’t consider the characters resident in the series as outside our empathy.

We were, in short, moved to spontaneous laughter, and if this wasn’t enough, we’d remember each and every episode long after they were aired. The characters were real, they derived flesh and blood from whatever situation they were in, and yes, most of them lived on deception. If that didn’t leave room for humour, I can’t imagine what would.

The series, aired in the eighties (the golden era of teledramas, one can surmise), was directed by Bandula Vithanage. Vithanage was, like many from his generation, an aficionado of Shakespeare. He took to the Bard as easily as you and I would take to Herge’s comics, but that didn’t make him blind to the audiences he targeted and that didn't make him blind to the kind of tastes they indulged in.

No one who has watched Asal Wesiyo, for instance, could mistake the subtle coincidences that it thrived on: how the father (Hemasiri Liyanage) parades himself as a lawyer (when he’s just a perakadoru mahaththaya) and how his younger son (Sriyantha Mendis) makes out that he’s an engineer (when he’s just a mechanic). Not only their landlady (played by the inimitable Ellen Sylvester, who left us too soon) but even the perakadoru mahaththaya’s elder son (Suminda Sirisena) is blind to all that until the very end.

Sure, it’s hard to imagine how or assume that such deceptions could thrive on more than 10 episodes, but the truth of the matter may be that Vithanage, whose plays are reputed for their ramrod veneer of refinement, didn’t mistake humour for superficial one-liners and catchphrases. Vithanage knew that humour was at its inception based on flesh and blood, not superficialities. For that reason, the episodes didn’t feel elongated. Not many sitcoms aired here can claim to such an achievement.

He was better known as a playwright but that didn’t stop him from exploring other, less explored paths. He exhibited distaste for the cinema but he ended up playing one or two roles in films that have since gained cult status. He was as capable of playing out a refined monk as he was of playing out cold, menacing villains. He knew the best of both worlds (Sinhala and English) and this opened him up to adaptations of plays that, while not exactly popular, have gained a status in the minds of the (serious) theatre practitioner.

Bandula Vithanage was born on September 11, 1940, at a time when the world had spurned colonialism and countries were striving to reclaim lost identities. Educated initially at the game iskole in Athuruwella in Bentota, and later at Carey College Colombo, young Vithanage completed his A/Levels at Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda. And here he faced a curious anomaly: while his primary education had been in English, he opted for Sinhala in his later studies.

He doubtless revelled in this twilight, bilingual world, and his interest in the theatre was furthered by his encounter with Shakespeare (more on that later). In the meantime, he entered Colombo University and eventually came under the influence of Ediriweera Sarachchandra. This was in the early sixties. His first experience onstage while at University was through P. Velikala’s production of Rathnavali, in 1963. Barely two years later, he produced his first play, Megha Garjana, a translation of Harold Pinter’s The Collection.

His career picked up gradually just as he’d obtained his Master's Degree in Dramaturgy and Acting. Two more plays followed: Simon Navagaththegama’s Gangavak, Sapaththu Kabalak saha Maranayak (which was the first that Vithanage directed and which bagged top honours at that year’s State Drama Festival) in 1971, and an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s political reading of Becket three years later. Becket had a massive cast, with the titular protagonist (the Archbishop) and antagonist (Henry II) played respectively by Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Lucien Bulathsinghala.

All these were serious plays, of course. So were his adaptations of the Bard’s work, most notably Venisiye Velenda (which he coproduced with that other impenetrable Shakespeare aficionado, Tony Ranasinghe) and Macbeth but also including Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and A Comedy of Errors. His fascination with 20th century American playwrights got him into adaptations of Thornton Wilder’s work, including Senehebara Dolly (based on a musical in turn based on Wilder’s The Matchmaker) and Hiru Dahasa (based on his Our Town), the latter of which marked his niece Yashoda Wimaladharma’s debut onstage.

He was there when television invaded our country, working up to produce several memorable teledramas for the Rupavahini Corporation (including Asal Wesiyo). Later, much later, he echoed the theme of mistaken identity and trivial coincidences in Allapu Gedara. He didn’t shy away from films, though by his own account he wasn’t a fan of the cinema either: he worked with and assisted Vasantha Obeyesekere in Wes Gaththo, and later acted in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ahas Gawwa. Vithanage and Obeyesekere no doubt remained friends after their initial encounter, which probably explains how the latter “staged” Hiru Dahasa as a diegetic element in Theertha Yathra (which coincidentally had Yashoda play the main role, in both play and film).

From all this, the man emerged as a translator. He gained a reputation for making language the only criterion by which his plays could be termed “indigenous”: from Becket to Hiru Dahasa, while the characters speak in Sinhala and engage in experiences that were localised, nevertheless in terms of the sentiments indulged and costumes worn by them, they were more properly located in the source text. We see this curious contradiction in translated plays even today, though that didn’t seem to have bothered Vithanage.

As for Vithanage the actor, as I implied before he could be versatile. He gave the impression of being a man who rarely smiled, was serious to a fault, and could be menacing if he so wished. At other times however, that impression was deceptive, for he could easily show us that men who rarely smiled were as menacing as they were confused, and showed us just that by (how else?) playing out confused, absent-minded, but well-meaning old men. Just as strongly, he could also portray strong, determined men, for more than anything else, he exuded a sense of resolve which could end disputes and privilege reason over emotion in whatever situation he was placed in.

For all those reasons, he naturally became a veteran early on. He indulged in both drama and comedy. He was not entranced by fame the way some of his colleagues would have been. He didn’t or rather couldn’t build a cult to himself as those he worked with and worked under could, but that didn’t bother him. He preferred to experiment. And it worked. After all, no one who has watched his teledramas, in particular Asal Wesiyo, can claim that he couldn’t do the most basic and yet difficult thing a man of his calibre should be able to: make us laugh, and that by neither forcing us to nor resorting to quick, immediate humour.

And you know what? We are still laughing.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, October 19 2016

Thursday, October 20, 2016

To spare or not to spare?

When the President speaks, everyone listens. Last week he spoke on corporal punishment. He justified instances of teachers and principals losing their temper and then went on to note that they, being the flawed humans they are, must be cut some slack on account of the impossibility of handling more than 30 students at the same time in one class. He could have said more, but he did not. Not surprisingly perhaps, he said all this as part of a speech delivered at a Teachers Felicitation Ceremony held at Nelum Pokuna.

This week’s column is not about whether the President of a modern democracy can or must deliver such speeches. It’s about whether the fact that teachers are as human as you and I are should shield them from legal reforms when it comes to the upbringing of children. There’s a literature that spans decades and even centuries over this area. Meanwhile, commentators from both sides of the divide have spoken vociferously and have, for the lack of a better way of putting it, simplified that divide in terms of the East/West dichotomy that dictates the thrust of debates over more compelling socio-political issues.

Which is why, when examining a topic as contentious as corporal punishment (in schools), one must privilege reason and look at what each side has to say. Some say that it contributes to a culture of strict, ramrod discipline. Others say that it marginalises those who are by nature errant as students, who can only be moulded by less harsh methods. Few, very few in fact, look beyond the rhetoric of debate and base their arguments on tested, empirical evidence.

Before delving into that evidence though, what are the arguments and the perspectives? More importantly, what is the issue? Corporal punishment, of course. But what does that term indicate? In a broad sense, it includes all forms of punishment (mental and physical) inflicted on a student for an infringement of a preconceived rule. It’s usually touted as a last resort, but more often than not is resorted to whenever and wherever a teacher loses his or her temper over the student’s intransigence.

The problem is compounded when we think of the role of the teacher. Teachers, in the most basic sense, are considered as taking the place of the parent (or in legal parlance, “in loco parentis”). In other words, if corporal punishment is considered the norm inside the house, then it is considered a norm inside the school. Long considered the most immediate and quick method of enforcing discipline, it’s easy to see how and why, regardless of the point that at law and in principal it’s the last resort, it’s used frequently: in the absence of other more expedient measures, it guarantees compliance at once.

In Sri Lanka, corporal punishment traces its origins to the Penal Code of 1883, Article 82 of which absolves a guardian (or any person acting as such lawfully) when he or she inflicts punishment on a child, if that act of inflicting the punishment is committed “in good faith.”

Now “in good faith” is probably one of the most vague legal phrases out there, but for the purposes of my column this much will suffice: despite the later reforms which invaded the Penal Code (not least being Article 308A, which explicitly provided for the offence of cruelty against children), there were subtle exceptions that shielded teachers whenever they chose to inflict punishment (Article 314, for instance, which is about the offence of “criminal force”, conveniently inserts a caveat: a schoolmaster in the “reasonable exercise of his discretion as master” who flogs a student is not, for all intents and purposes, committing that offence).

I believe that this concurrent, schizophrenic attitude of support for and opposition to corporal punishment probably explains why the contemporary discourse on it is so confusing. It has become so schizophrenic that commentators from both sides of the divide have sustained a stark, black-and-white dichotomy when it comes to the debate.

How does this dichotomy go? Simple. If you support corporal punishment, you are an outdated, unenlightened savage who hasn’t kept up with the times. If you oppose corporal punishment, you are a Westernised, enlightened gentleman who privileges the dignity of the child over the greater, collective good. That this dichotomy is as simplistic as the moral triumph of John Keating in Dead Poets Society, and that it has served to blur the intricacies of the debate even more, we should not doubt.

Which brings me to another more pertinent point: what exactly are the arguments for and against caning, flogging, kneeling down, and other forms of physical punishment?

Briefly put, those who oppose corporal punishment see it in terms of the dignity of the child. Children are wayward. They make mistakes and that has less to do with intention than with an underdeveloped mentality. Among the responses I managed to collect on this point, some were quite vociferous: just as children need to be corrected, that does not absolve teachers who think this calls for disproportionate punishment. Far from being perfect, such teachers can be and are flawed, which cogently explains how students who committed no crime can, in the general order of things, be punished and flogged by mistake.

No less a person than the President (in that aforementioned speech) gave an instance where he had been caned for a mistake committed by another student. The most vociferous response to this came from a friend of mine, who quite eloquently said that when such instances of punishment for uncommitted crimes go unnoticed, they add to a society in which even upholders of the law either punish innocents or blow relatively trivial crimes out of proportion and torture the offenders.

That is correct. One need only flip through Basil Fernando’s harrowing Narrative of Justice in Sri Lanka to realise that this country is chock-a-block with glaring instances of injustice and disproportionate punishment meted out against innocents.

The message given to students when they are punished out of proportion, quite obviously, is that there shouldn’t be recourse to appeal when authority is involved, or in other words, that authority figures are beyond reproach and hence, even if a crime was not committed, some past sin may have compelled the student to be pulled up and punished (the reference to past sins takes a new dimension when considering the attitude of compliance fostered in Sri Lanka, perhaps a result of the privileged status of Buddhism and multiculturalism).

Do these arguments indicate in any way the primeval, sadistic urges of those who mete out such punishments? Not necessarily. It’s reasonable to surmise that far from enjoying the infliction of those punishments, the teachers involved are driven by an honest desire to retain discipline and efficiency in an institution which is by default run on uniformity and standardised procedures. That however doesn’t license the continuity of harsh sanctions thrown at students, if such sanctions result in their dignity being compromised on considerably. In simpler terms, we can conclude: the discourse against corporal punishment has mainly to do with the individuality of the child.

The arguments for it, by comparison, are more colourful and varied. Responses on this count range from “If I were not caned, I would not be where I am today” or “The teacher punished me for a reason, which made me a better human being” to “Children need to be disciplined in order to adapt them for the life to come after school.” “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is a frequently quoted line tossed out to justify caning and floggings, while the discourse against them is generally pooh-poohed on the grounds that it’s a “Western disease” (that is not a term I made up and that is a term that a distinguished writer and commentator used to defend those for punishment).

The main problem with these arguments, one can correctly infer, is that they are coloured by an artificial dichotomy between the East and the West. In other words, those for corporal punishment think that their opponents are Westernised and are considered more “enlightened” than them. That helps explain why they believe that corporal punishment is a Sri Lankan (or “Eastern”) method of instilling discipline, or why they believe that its abolition in the West (in particular, Britain and the United States) has led to a deterioration of values (whatever that means) in that part of the world.

This compels two points or problems.

The first. The assertion that our education system from its inception privileged caning and other forms of physical punishment is only half-true. Historical records do not show whether our pirivenas ever institutionalised caning and flogging the way they have been today. In fact one of the biggest myths surrounding this side of the debate is that caning is endemic to Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. While the ramrod austerity of Confucianism can explain the rigidity of the education systems in East Asian countries, that hardly explains the contemporary fascination with corporal punishment here.

The second. While historical records do not bear out the view of these commentators over pirivenas institutionalising physical punishment, they do point at how those who invaded this country privileged caning, flogging, and kneeling down as preferred sanctions for errors and crimes in the classroom. More than the Portuguese and the Dutch, it was the British who pioneered the modern education system in Sri Lanka. Until their arrival, we were complete strangers to the concept of public schools: needless to say, it is in these public schools that the image of the bespectacled, old principal holding the rattan cane was first formed.

Let’s not forget, after all, that the sections in the Penal Code absolving teachers were authored by Englishmen, not “natives.” Let’s not also forget that inasmuch as various Circulars issued by those in charge of education policy here (in particular, the Circulars of 1907 and of 1927, the latter being the first such issued by the Education Department on the subject) regulated the use of the cane and limited it to glaring instances of indiscipline, calls for abolition came much, much later, and could hardly be said to be “Westernised.” That is why some believe that the culture of caning students excessively, like our puritanical attitude to sex and divorce, was a result of “enlightened” laws drafted by Victorian men.

I suppose this makes the debate a tad easier to end: are you for a system of laws written and enforced by Victorians, however enlightened they may have been, or are you for the calls for reform made by bodies that have evolved considerably from the Victorian Era? Or in still other words, would you prefer to remain Westernised in the Victorian sense of that term or Westernised in the modern, civilised sense of that term? I abhor such simplifications, but for purposes of clarity I suspect that is what makes out for the ultimate resolution of this debate.

As for the argument that goes to the tune of “If it wasn’t for my teachers caning me, I wouldn’t be here”, suffice it to say that what holds well for one student may not hold for a great many others. If personal experience is anything to go by, I was not caned, flogged, or made to kneel down, nor for that matter were my friends (our school nominally banned corporal punishment), but none of us actually consider that as having degraded us, whether as human beings or as citizens of this country.

Teachers are imperfect. I am willing to bet that the vast majority of those we encountered in our schools scolded, punished, or sent out SOMEONE in our class for a crime he or she did not commit. Sooner or later, there will appear a student who will crack up. In this globalised world of ours, with access to other modes of civilization, there will be rebellion against authority. Wouldn’t it be better to correct the excesses of a system that has been instituted for over a century, rather than letting those excesses pass by without remedy and letting them contribute to an already fractured society?

One final point: those who compare our “idyllic” society with societies that are “deteriorating” in the West because of the abolition of corporal punishment there would do well to stop cherry-picking. They should look away from America and Britain. They should look to Finland. It’s not prone to race riots, ragging, and indiscipline that other more convenient countries are endowed with. Its schools are ranked among the best in the world. Those schools have defied conventional wisdom and done away with standardised tests. By all counts, they should be failing. They are not.

Now here’s the clincher: Finland banned corporal punishment in schools more than a century ago. Lawful chastisement (doublespeak for the “in good faith” punishments absolved by our Penal Code) was done away with in 1969. Parents and teachers can be sued for assault even under the Penal Code there, drafted just six years after ours was. Considering the relatively short time period between its enactment and the abolition of corporal punishment in schools (just 30 years), it would doubtless horrify educationists who continue to see deterioration in the West. Finland, if their assumptions hold true, should be failing.

And yet, it’s not. There’s zero tolerance on caning and flogging. Zero tolerance on physical punishment, period (and not just in schools: by 1983 corporal punishment was banned completely). Zero tolerance on teachers who take their “in loco parentis” status as a license to force students to comply.

If Finland is anything to go by, the West hasn’t fallen down. Not by a long shot.

The point is, cherry-picking serves no purpose. If you want to extol the virtues of corporal punishment, you’re looking into the wrong places. A regime of institutionalised punishment can’t hold much longer in a context where the rest of this globalised world has embraced less heinous methods. To conflate caning with discipline is wild, but to go on a tangent and claim that an essentially Victorian construct like our public schools continued a system of punishment that is endemic to our country is wilder.

We’re barking up the wrong tree, I believe. Time we realised this and moved on. Time we looked at our priorities and asked ourselves, “Do we really want our children to grow up and be better citizens, or do we want them to genuflect unconditionally before authority, WHATEVER that authority is?” The answer, I believe, shouldn’t be hard to answer. At all.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Written for: Ceylon Today, October 18 2016

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Victor Ratnayake: For the love of music

What do we do when we come across a song? Listen, of course. Subtext usually comes later, while the character as such of the singer, composer, and lyricist figure in even later. Not many would care to jot down the underlying message of a work of art the moment he or she hears, sees, or touches it: that’s saved for dessert (metaphorically speaking). Few, very few in fact, would hence care to converse with the artiste to get his or her side of the story on how works of art were conceived.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times, but the lyric as such has deteriorated here. Tune in to any radio channel today and chances are that you’ll come across songs about love (unrequited or fulfilled). There’s little to nothing timeless about them, except probably the fact that they’re sung and aired more often than not. What little message we receive, and what little spiritual, emotional, and aesthetic upliftment we get from hearing them are lost the moment we realise one perennial point: the next song in line will probably drill the same theme into our heads.

That is the main reason why we must go out and converse with the veterans. No, not to hear them deplore the status quo, but to get their perspectives, to understand why and how we have succumbed to crass commercialism today. They were known then and are cherished today. They are as beloved as they've always been and more importantly, they do not deplore today’s youth. At a time when those same youth tend to rubbish them, be it in their work or in their personal lives, that’s why we need to listen to giants.

Victor Ratnayake stands among those voices. He doesn’t need an introduction and doesn’t need hosannas. He is not easy to meet but that doesn’t make him unapproachable. He speaks frankly and minces no words when getting his points across. He is one of the few voices of sanity in his field. Consequently, he should be listened to.

A few weeks ago I met the man. I spoke with him. He had some things to say and these, I am sure, will leave us room for thought.

To start things off I mumbled about his childhood. He was adamant that we skip all that: “My life story has been written on so many times. It’s pointless delving into that again. I very much prefer to talk about my career.” Not being a fan of the conventional biographical sketch (except of course with people whose biographies have never got written), I agreed to his request and jumped to another chapter: his views on his craft.

Not knowing where to begin, I put across a question I always wanted to ask him: how does he differentiate between his work for radio and for films, given his vast experience in both? Victor was rather measured in his reply: “In films, the most we can be are background composers. We had to accede to the director’s vision. That’s not to say that we were debarred from contributing in our own way, but we worked from the premise that the director was creator and hence, couldn’t be overridden.”

I asked him to explain how he was able to rein in on his creativity in the cinema, and he readily complied: “I worked with Sunil Ariyaratne in Podi Malli and Sarungale. In the former, I based my melodies on the movements of the actors, while in the latter, given its outlook on Tamil culture and people, I went for Carnatic music. That would not have been possible had the directors insisted on what style I should go for and what melodies I should stick to and avoid.”

Creativity, according to Victor, is predicated on collaboration. That explains his stance on film music and his distaste for those who toss out bragging rights. “I have personally come across composers who’d boost themselves by claiming that if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have risen to where I am. That angered me. In this industry, you must first be human. Only then can you be an artiste. That explains why I don’t sing their songs now and why, out of the 1,450 SA concerts I’ve organised, not one single show has featured them.”

SA of course is another story altogether, deserving of not just an article but a whole book to itself, but for now it compels one question: given Victor’s preference for collaboration over authorship, how does he feel about the way things are going in the industry today?

I suspected early on that I’d opened Pandora’s Box. I wasn’t surprised. Victor is temperamentally a nationalist, which probably has won him both friends and enemies. When talking about the industry, therefore, he was firm on his premise: a song is meant to be listened to and absorbed. “What do you get now?” he questioned me, “You get noise. Cacophony. Not surprisingly, there’s no meaning in the songs that come out today.”

According to Victor, this tragedy came out because of what he refers to as our “para gathi.” He clearly does not belong to the esoteric circle that believes in music as a secular art: for him, music reflects the “pibideema” (awakening) of a culture and a people, and if we cut the one from the other, there’s no anchorage for our cultural sensibilities. “People lament the passing of good lyricists and composers, but they are barking up the wrong tree. I can tell you quite authoritatively that there are good writers and musicians. They are not given a proper place. Naturally, they look to greener pastures.”

It’s not just that we’re culturally castrated. We also lack originality. “I’ve always lamented the practice of media stations, in television and over the radio, of promoting and rating youngsters on how well they sing songs performed by the likes of Jothipala, Baig, and Latha Walpola, among others. What are we telling those youngsters? Simply, that you can only attain perfection if you imitate past masters.”

He went on to add that television is to blame for this: “Reality shows are running riot these days. What do they do? They ask participants to imitate Jothipala and if possible, to dance quite awkwardly to his songs. And it’s not just teenagers. I know of a little boy, for instance, who scored points for performing Baig’s songs and continues to do so even today.”

In short, what we lack isn’t talent but a proper channel of venting that talent (or as the man himself quixotically pointed out, “Not how they sing but what they sing!”). To a considerable extent, that’s cut down on our ability to think and unleash creativity.

“Look at India, which is more than 50 times our size. It’s difficult to promote the kind of imitative culture we have here, because it takes time for whatever corrupting element there is to spread there. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is a virtual paradise for the imitator: the moment you release some germ, it becomes contagious at once. That is why we are susceptible to outside forces and why, after all this time, we remain a ‘para gathi’ people.”

Gunadasa Amarasekera once lamented that our reading public and intelligentsia have stopped growing. Victor agreed and argued that our music culture has become redundant to the point of extinction. “Just think back on the pioneers of the Sinhala song: from the melodies of Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha (who were both simple to a fault), to the raghadari tilt brought on by Amaradeva, right down to the Western and symphonic structures introduced by Somadasa Elvitigala and Khemadasa. You don’t get people like that anymore.”

Amarasekera rationalised this redundancy in terms of our habit of blindly aping the West, which Victor again agreed with: “We go for one of two trends: either remixing old songs or copying foreign melodies. Again, that shows how unoriginal we’ve become.”

He singled out politicians for this: “We are living under a system where licenses are granted to TV and radio stations in return for a substantial fee, because of which new channels are able to script in whatever rubbish they want us to listen to. If our politicians were farsighted enough, they would have regulated them to allocate some hours a day for educational, cultural, and religious programs.”

Given that he views a song as a cultural rallying point, what would he say to those who (like me) believe in the political aspect to art? I was surprised to hear the man rebuff it. “Mahagama Sekara was once approached by some Ministers to come up with lyrics to our first Republican Constitution in 1972. He was amused. I don’t blame him.”

I then asked him why he thought so. “How can you politicise a song? I refuse to subscribe to those pundits who turned music into protest slogans. Not because I don’t see any meaning in them, but because a song, by its own right, is supposed to make you understand why you are human. If all you do is pontificate on a political cause, you are sidelining if not isolating audiences who don’t agree with that cause.”

These are reflections. They leave room for thought. As we neared the end of our interview, Victor quoted Kumaratunga Munidasa: “Aluth aluth da nothanana jaathin lova nonagi.” He gave his two cents: “If we can’t think of our own, we can’t arise. There was a habit of aping other cultures in my time. We were responsible for getting that out. I’m sad to say that we’re seeing a return to that habit and what’s more, it’s returned so strongly that whatever we gained is on its way out. For good.

Words to ponder on, no doubt. We should start pondering, hence. Starting now.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, October 16 2016

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Villa Saffron Hikkaduwa: Be Entranced!

What comes to mind when you think of Hikkaduwa? The sand and the beaches, obviously. You think of the waves lapping on the shore, the people adorning the coastline, and the sense of being a Sri Lankan – even when you hail from outside.

There’s a charm to the South that virtually no other part of this country can hope to improve on, for the simple reason that when it comes to colour, vibrance, tradition, and culture, there’s no place like here. That is why people come and people stay, and why when they choose to stay, they mean to live in this most quaint and decorative regions of all of Sri Lanka.

Private villas aren’t exactly a new concept to this country. On the other hand, the amount of newcomers entering the market makes it impossible to standardise them in terms of quality, comfort, and hospitality. We have it all – the quintessential Sri Lankan sense of hominess and sense of being welcome at a place you’ll never hesitate to call your home – but what’s lacking is the right blend of comfort, cuisine, and quality to make your stay one which you will never forget.

Villa Saffron is located in Hikkaduwa, about two and a half kilometres to the south of the town. Set against the south-west shores of Sri Lanka, it’s touted as THE destination for travellers and guests (from here and elsewhere) who seek a local experience with all the perks and benefits available in this country.

The minute you set foot inside, you are virtually transported to paradise. What you see is what you get, not only with regard to the superficial cosmetics of the hospitality industry but also the natural bounty that only the South could offer: the palm trees swaying gently with the wind, the sound of the waves of the deep blue ocean, and the breath of the sea, entrancing you wherever you may be.

Villa Saffron was the brainchild of two furnishing enthusiasts, who began their journey in the mid-nineties by fusing old and new furnishings and restoring antiques. Eventually they moved into building and managing beautiful villas. One thing led to another, and more than two decades after they began their journey, they opened their first private villa along some beach property that they’d acquired before the tsunami.

That was then. Since that time they have not been idle. Villa Saffron currently boasts of five rooms and suites – the Garden Room and the Cinnamon, Tamarind, Vanilla, and Saffron Suites. Of these, a personal favourite may well be the characteristically labelled Saffron Suite, with its enviable combination of cosiness, luxury, and unparalleled views of the pristine blue sea. There are facilities and perks and these the Villa has in plenty, from WiFi to transport packages to and from the Airport to play facilities for kids. The rooms are all air-conditioned and fitted with king-sized beds, not to mention the usual amenities: en-suite bathrooms, hot and cold water, and a mini-bar. To top it all, the entire place was designed by the renowned architect C. Anjalendran.

And that’s not all. What strikes you about Villa Saffron is how deeply it’s engaged with the local culture: how, for instance, it ensures that its staff are well versed in the nuances of Sri Lankan hospitality. It’s all “localised”, so to speak, not just the feeling of warmth of elegance but even the food and other amenities provided by the hotel staff. As for the food, suffice it to say that there’s a combination of à la carte and preset menus, with choices ranging from the local to the foreign and including certain healthy items: for breakfast you will be served a customary glass of kola kenda along with fresh juice, while for lunch and dinner you will be enchanted by the aroma and taste of local seafood, ordered straight and fresh from the market in Dodanduwa.

Since January this year, Villa Saffron has been frequented by guests who’ve had nothing but praise and commendation for the entire site. “The staff are fabulous and go out of their way to make your stay enjoyable,” says one happy customer. “A wonderful hotel, with wonderful staff, amazing view, delicious food... Need I say more?” queries another. “Do NOT stay at this 5 room boutique hotel if you want to have the normal 5 star hotel offering that could be anywhere in the world,” describes yet another, who goes on to observe that “if you want a chilled experience of the highest quality,” Villa Saffron is THE place to go.

In fact what comes out of all these reviews is that the Villa isn’t your ordinary getaway spot. It’s not a hotel in that it’s not rigidly conceived as most hotels are: there’s fun, there’s elegance, and there’s freedom, all balanced out to provide comfort in the best possible way. And it’s not inbred and shutout either: you can venture out to see the usual sights prevalent in the South of Sri Lanka, with the Galle Fort just 20 minutes away and the Dodanduwa and Kothduwa Island Temples almost around the corner. The Kailash Yoga Studio, the famous Turtle Hatchery, and of course those countless surfing sites along the beach in Hikkaduwa (including the coast by the Villa itself) are some of the other tentative attractions you can look forward to.

Words, however, can only describe that much. The eyes were meant to see beyond frill and adjectives. One believes that Villa Saffron is no exception to this truth, which makes it almost compulsory that if you are curious, and if you wish to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of modern life, you must venture into a getaway spot that’s more than just a getaway spot. You must seek the best of both worlds: calm and peace, and adventure and decor. The South is the place for that, in particular Hikkaduwa, which boasts of those little, little amenities that you may specifically need.

Look no further, then. Look to Villa Saffron Hikkaduwa. The new kid in town, with just the right combination of looks, charm, and peace.

For more details, please visit its website at www.villasaffron.com or contact it through the following number (0777772744) and/or email address (info@villasaffron.com)

Written for: ESTEEM Magazine, September issue