Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Almost home: Why we aren’t quite there


The third and last in a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

Because of certain fortuitous and unfortunate circumstances, those who want to engage in our local theatre are hindered from pursuing it once school is over. This is true in particular for regions and districts and provinces which privilege hard subjects over softer ones, i.e. science and commerce over the arts. It’s significant to note, for instance, that in Colombo, Kandy, and Galle the ratios of commerce and science students to arts students have always been above 2, while those ratios in Moneragala (which has consistently recorded the highest Gini coefficient at 0.53) has always been below 0.6. Let’s face it: numbers don’t lie, even if they indicate a relationship between social status and choice of University subjects which we are at times told doesn’t exist. In Colombo especially, this relationship is profound, potent, unassailable.

The English theatre is more fortunate because its members, or coterie as I like to identify them, are socially insured against poverty when they opt for the stage. Especially when it comes to the themes they opt for – musical comedies, satires and farces, socially relevant dramas – they always have veritable reserves of actors, producers, and writers who pursue other careers while pursuing the stage. No one is a full time producer in this country, except those who’ve been active for more than 20 or 30 years (think of Jith Pieris and Jerome de Silva). But they are insured against an unstable industry because that coterie which patronises them are always there, particularly if it’s a musical comedy or light-hearted farce. The problems of the Sinhala theatre are more complex, more intriguing. Here’s an attempt at a sketch.

It’s fashionable now and then to indict an art form as practiced by a certain milieu, in formerly colonial societies, as being elitist. The conventional discourse here, then, is that the English theatre, as practiced by the Wendites, is cut off from the people, while the Sinhala theatre panders to the people. If this were indeed true, it’s inscrutable that the latter must be ailed with a dearth of dedicated, energetic schoolboys and schoolgirls who wish to pursue it after they leave school, like their counterparts in the English theatre. Obviously it’s not a problem of numbers, but rather a problem of a dichotomy between numerical strength and lack of unity. The typical English Drama Society of a typical school, particularly in the Big Cities, is different from its Sinhala counterpart because there are fewer people in the former. Consequently, there’s a broader sense of unity, of togetherness, which big numbers can’t replicate.


More often than not there’s a symbiotic relationship between certain Clubs and Societies and the monetary power of the English theatre. These Societies are entrenched financially, and their members are often found in other Clubs which are as financially sound. All that goes back to the English Drama Societies, which are partly funded, by these other Clubs, and which are housed by members and participants who come from backgrounds that are amenable to the theatre. It’s a circle that never stops going round and round, in one sense, and it explains at least to an extent the potency of the English theatre, at school and elsewhere, and why Drama Societies are able to stage their productions for the public if those productions happen to be in English. (One can think of Around the World in Eighty Days, Dracula, and Kensuke’s Kingdom, all of which were produced through these Societies.)

Let’s look at the numbers again. An average production would normally cost anywhere between 500,000 to 1.5 million rupees, and that’s just for one or two shows. Numbers are inescapable and so are big budgets, particularly in these hard, harsh times, and they necessitate sponsors. Unfortunately even institutions which patronise and sponsor the arts, and concerts and shows and so on, think twice about financing Sinhala productions, be it a drama or even a felicitation ceremony, because they fear they won’t get a proper audience. That’s the kind of fear they think they can evade through English productions; this is true of musical comedies but true also of any school production that involves huge casts, marketable plots, and the Lionel Wendt. I find the latter alluring too, so that may explain why sponsors are easier to get for them. (And as if to add insult to injury the sponsors admit this point candidly; just the other day a boy told me that he had approached one of them for an exhibition of the evolution of the Sinhala theatre and had been informed that they prefer to sponsor events organised for English-speaking audiences.)

These reasons in themselves are not, of course, enough to explain why our schoolchildren leave our theatre rather quickly. There’s another reason: in the Big Cities, most if not many of those who join Drama Societies (Sinhala) tend to come from streams and to study subjects which are not immediately connected with the theatre. It’s pertinent to note that we are duplicitous when it comes to the arts: we want to adorn our houses with paintings and music but don’t want our children to be painters and musicians. Similarly, when we opt for harder subjects – Science, Maths, Commerce – and when we join a Society, what we do after school, or whether we continue with the activities these Societies engaged in, depends on what those subjects by default ordain as our careers. The lucky ones, even if they do these hard subjects, resolve and manage to be “freelance” artists and writers. But they are rare.

And because they study hard subjects, how they get into these Societies is as arbitrary as how they get out of them: more often than not, all it takes for them to be scriptwriters and actors (the latter more than the former) is a chance encounter with an official or a teacher who discerns his or her penchant for the arts (because the arts, unlike science and commerce, is rather instinctive; you don’t study it, you GET it) and then takes him or her in. Such chance encounters aren’t as rare as you’d think they are, and they explain how the members of Drama Societies get in (whatever the language), but because of how condescended the Sinhala theatre is, it’s not considered a safe, veritable, worthwhile option even as a hobby once school is done with. Contrast that with how members of the English Societies come back.

We are living in a world of freelancers and one hit wonders. Our movies, which were once housed by thespians, have now partially abandoned the theatre and, like the advertising industry, begun to take in models, some of whom have no real idea about the intricacies of acting. This is not to imply that our models are unintelligent. They are not. But for the most they come with a background in photography (because the model was built to be photographed, if not filmed for a matter of seconds or minutes); the level of commitment needed for a 30-second commercial is different to the level required for a 90-minute film. Sometimes these models make the transition sleekly (think of Rithika Kodithuwakku), but in these cases they understand the medium.

What we lack isn’t just a network of practitioners and performers, but something more: a mechanism to encourage more practitioners and performers from our schools, particularly in the Big Cities. This is important because in those Big Cities the rift between those who go for hard subjects and those who opt for softer subjects has never been wider before. Such a rift can only negatively impact those who wish to indulge in a form of theatre that is at once quantitatively superior and frequently condescended. The Sinhala theatre is suffering at present, not for want of good performers and writers, but because of that accursed tendency of our schoolboys and schoolgirls to drop out once they’re done with their studies, owing to reasons I’ve sketched above. And this affects drama more than any other medium, since the theatre is one of the most expensive art forms. Debaters, novelists, and poets, in whatever language, can follow what they do even if they don’t pursue it as their careers (a debater can be a doctor, an engineer, or a scientist, for instance), while a dramatist has to expend effort on his or her work, and turn it at least into a part-time commitment.

What these reflections bring me to is a simple, potent, unassailable fact: we are haphazard, random, chaotic, and uncommitted when it comes to our local theatre. Particularly in our schools. It’s fatally easy and convenient to pinpoint certain facts and figures as the reasons for this malaise, but the truth, as always, is more diverse and multifaceted than that. In the end it’s all to do with that crude, inscrutable mixture of reverence and condescension with which we treat our own art forms.

Perhaps the irony is that we are more willing to exhibit Pirandello and Beckett and Shaw in English than in Sinhala, despite the many creative ways in which these playwrights and their works have been adapted and reworked by our producers and actors. We prefer spectacle to subtlety, and in the English theatre, within or outside our schools, we are explicit about our excitement. And let’s face it: numbers may not lie, and big numbers may be alluring, but the more people there are on a boat, the more likely it is that they will bicker, fight amongst themselves, and fall into the water. In a manner of speaking, no matter how inapt that metaphor may be, this is what’s happening to our local theatre. Inside and outside our schools.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 17 2017

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sanuka Wickramasinghe: Something of a sketch

One never really gets to a sensibility, particularly when it comes to a person who makes a profession out of his or her voice. Vocalists are sometimes too good to hate, at other times too bad to love, and frequently too mediocre, too average, to care about. Most of them, you love to hate, while others, you grow to love. Interviews, biographical sketches, profile photographs, Facebook correspondences, and text messages, not to mention phone conversations: these can capture something of a portrait with respect to such personalities. But they are not enough. To capture a sensibility, an outlook, a worldview, of such a figure, what is needed is not a sketchy pen portrait in a newspaper, but an attempt at understanding his or her sensibilities.

Sanuka Wickramasinghe is something of an enigma. Even now. His voice conveys a kind of contemporary excitement that makes it his signature, and ours. It’s not the sort of excitement which turns him into a romantic or a spurned lover or an idealist, all three of whom you see every day, everywhere, on TV and over the radio. In fact it would be a mistake to label someone like him as a romantic or a radical. His is a voice that’s chic but reverential, that’s out-there but in-here, that’s daring but guarded. His two most recent songs – both released on YouTube, both massive hits there and everywhere else – convey this strange blend of conflicting aesthetic elements, and it’s to be seen even in his lyrics. Sanuka is the New Voice, but it’s not really New. To be New there must be an Old and a rejection of the Old. Sanuka doesn’t reject it; he is downright indifferent to it. He is, and performs with, his own standards.

The male pop voice in here evolved with Neville Fernando, moved into Clarence Wijewardena, and found its way through Jothipala in the seventies, Rookantha Gunathilake in the eighties, and a horde of names in the nineties (culminating with Athma Liyanage and Sangeeth Wijesuriya on the one hand and Athula Adikari, among a great many others, on the other) before meeting the new century, the new millennium, with Bathiya and Santhush, who in turn gave way to Iraj Weerarathne and a set of pretenders who never transcend their imitativeness and hence paled away. Sanuka is the New Voice because he surpasses all these; he is no longer trying to imitate, to pay homage. He’s done that, but now he’s through with it. His “Saragaye” was, I think, the ultimate culmination, though he hasn’t stopped. It’s the most breathtaking local love song I have listened to since Kashyapa Dissanayake’s and Nelu Adikari’s “Ahasata Sonduruda”. It’s sincere, sentimental, but not sappy.

As good and popular as they were, neither Bathiya and Santhush nor Iraj had the luxury of the Web to help them reach a wider audience, because that wider audience didn’t surf online. They had their collaborators – Nilar Cassim and Wasantha Dukgannarala were their most frequently opted for lyricists – and they had their production houses. But they had to fight, and fight hard for every inch to win us over. (Tissa Abeysekera was one of the few commentators, during their time, who recognised Bathiya and Santhush for the pop revolutionaries they were, and would go out of his way to defend them.) What they fought for, they won, even if in later years they deteriorated. Sanuka comes from this line, this tradition, so to speak. He is a New Voice because he no longer makes it necessary to defy that line to gain new territory.

What’s so obvious and yet enigmatic about Sanuka is that no one understands him, or more specifically why they like him. They’re tantalisingly short of not even GETTING him. And for the record, some people don’t. They like his conception of the medium he’s in – the melodies, the vocal range, the lyrics – and he himself has pointed out in several interviews that the sleek amalgamation of all these elements is what makes him so popular, and varied, but that’s a despicably easy cop-out. Of course it’s the melody, the vocal range, and the lyrics that make up any vocalist, popular or not. What else could there be? I think the more appropriate answer is that he can paddle several genres: pop, rap, baila, even devotional. Here a brief perusal of his work, and the reactions they have gleaned, might help us get it, and get him.

If there’s an almost eternal sense of youth in Sanuka’s work it’s because he started young and is still very much young. His first real song, a tribute to his mother titled (what else?) “Amma”, debuted on YouTube in April 2011, and as of today counts in almost 60,000 views; it was followed eight months later by a cover version of “Hallelujah” and a further year and eight months later by another cover, this time of Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors”. These two were, to be sure, largely derivative, but they did open up his range, before he moved into the Great Theme of encountered love with “Mal Wiyan”, on February 2015 (it presently counts in more than 515,000 views).

An attempt at a rap single (“Oluwa Wikarayai”) was deliberately absurd but also stunning; it invited comments as positive as “I don’t know the language, but I love your style” and “You rap better than most” which compelled a return after his next effort, “Sihinaye” (shot like a commercial, and manifestly a lesser work). “His Tin” (April 2016) was also breathtakingly refreshing, if not a minor, rap single, but it’ll probably be remembered as the song that came before his first big hit, “Saragaye” (August 2016), which as of today courts more than 1,060,000 views. His next single came a year later, an unusually lengthy interval for him but one which yielded another hit: “Perawadanak”, which schoolboys and even schoolgirls I know are still swooning over. Paraphrasing those two YouTube comments, it showed that he was better than most even to those who didn’t even know his language; an achievement in itself since, after all, rap doesn’t thrive on a language (it’s formally self-referential) while pop singles do.

“Saragaye” and “Perawadanak” and even “Mal Wiyan” represent Sanuka at his best, his most appealing. They are all about encounters – short, temporary, never properly fulfilled – and they end abruptly, sometimes happily, often unhappily. “Perawadanak” isn’t even a love song: it’s a carefully crafted, promising love story that is tragically stalled midway. People like it because they’re tired of listening to the same ditties on romance again and again. They are tired of coming across lovers crooning over insurmountable, impenetrable walls (literal and metaphorical) and they are fatigued by the onslaught of cheap, unappealing music videos. They don’t want the vocalist to be his own star. Sanuka isn’t. That’s where his package is.

And that’s where his sense of mystery comes from. In an interview with one of those banal but disconcertingly popular gossip websites he has openly refused to disclose his age. He’s a teenage heartthrob, a contemporary Brian Hyland and Paul Anka: puppy love is what he’s got, and we like him all the more for it. We don’t care for how old or how young he is because we’re so enflamed by what he represents: the deepest, most potent dreams of romance we never dare to have, simply because we’ve never encountered it beyond a few glimpses. Hyland sang of a girl named Ginny he met “a couple of days ago”. That’s the kind of crisp, terse love stories Sanuka tells us. Because of that, he appeals not to youth, but to adolescence. Quite obviously, the fact that “Saragaye” spurred schoolboy bands in several schools, especially his own indicates, that we’re into something new. And someone new. Here. Now.

Photo of Sanuka by Flexus Labs

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, October 15 2017

Friday, October 13, 2017

The 'exoticisation' of our culture

Someone once noted not too long ago that modernity was the West’s way of measuring itself against the Other, the rest of the world. It was a way of assessing progress, for the most material, which is why the transition in the 17th and 18th centuries from the Inquisition to the Reformation and then to the Enlightenment is so significant. The truth is that the West, particularly continental Europe, saw a fading away of its (for the most) theological systems of thought in favour of a rational, economistic conception of the relationship between the individual and the world. Whatever the critics might say, this was founded on a Judeo-Christian tradition (as Nalin de Silva has noted, its system of logic was no less different to science and Marxism), and it would not have blossomed into the Industrial Revolution without the Inquisition or the Reformation, the latter of which, particularly through Calvin and Luther, substituted collective salvation for individual repentance.

Gandhi once offered an amusing riposte to someone who asked him as to what he thought of Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” Hidden beneath the amusement and the wit was a blunt, if not brash, comment on the dichotomy between the real and the ideal at the heart of that civilisation. Those who have read Fernand Braudel will no doubt believe that all civilisations were essentially one, that the world was not always divided between China and India on the one hand and continental France and Britain on the other. True. But then differences were bound to arise, partly because of the economic strength of the latter and also because that economic strength brought about a pressing need to make comparisons, to feel superior, to exert force on the Other. Contemporary imperialism at its strongest, most insidious.

Cultural imperialism is nothing without the cultural aspect to it, and that aspect comes out most strongly with respect to how different civilisations casually demarcated as the “Other” are depicted, represented, patronised, and condescended to. Even today. The first few decades of British rule in India, before the Mutiny of 1857, involved an exchange of cultural artefacts, in fact two ways of life. The colonialist found it to his liking to be Indian, to go around town inspecting the ways of life he had intruded on, to make himself a part of the people he had invaded. It was roughly the same phenomenon that unfolded itself in Sri Lanka, with the main bone of contention here being the promise made by the invaders to protect Buddhism and act in place of the deposed King. Stewart-Mackenzie overtly made it his mission to convert our “heathens” to Christianity, thus severing the ties between State and faith. The latter part of the 19th century saw a reversal of this trend, with Sir William Gregory and Sir Arthur Gordon explicitly recognising the place of Buddhism and emphasising neutral relations between their government and our faith.

Naturally this concurrent system of condescending to and denigrating a culture, as defined by the Other, could only result in an insidious history of looting and expatriation of artefacts on the one hand and conversion and destruction of the people on the other. What was material about our way of life – the Koh-i-Noor, the Nassak Diamond, Shah Jahan’s Royal Jade Wine Cup – was what was also exotic about it, while what was superficially not material, and therefore based on ideas and ideology – faith, feudalism, casteism – was what irked the colonialist into either doing away with it altogether, by force, or (as with the caste system) transforming and then contorting it for their own benefit. How else could such a “barbaric” and “primitive” system of governance as feudalism not give way to capitalism in colonised Ceylon, and how else could the system of casteism which British intellectuals had pondered over and deplored be retained to produce a horde of brown sahibs and Nobodies and Somebodies whose lineage continues today, and who are responsible for many of the economic shortfalls we are suffering at present? How else indeed!

In Forster’s A Passage to India the British officials and their wives laugh when Mrs Moore and Miss Quested demand that they get to know Indians. Forster’s novel indicts a conception of India drawn and then shattered by the West. Quested and Moore, the latter more than the former, are bored by the Westerner’s attempts to be polite and to retain their identity amidst the natives. It’s this otherness and aloofness that explains the mixture of amusement, condescension, imitativeness, and patronage which marks much of the relationship between the Orient and the Occident. They want us, they want to overwhelm us, but they can’t because they don’t know us. Because they don’t know us, and because their economic and political strength has made it their prerogative to conquer the rest of the world, they maintain a split personality with respect to how they treat us, and in the end “exoticise” us.

A friend of mine pointed out to me recently that all politics is culture, and all culture is politics. Correct. Nothing that is cultural can be cut off from the political, the social. The Mutiny was as much a political statement as the theft of the Koh-i-Noor, and the Uva Wellassa Rebellion was as much a political statement as the destruction of the temple. They are all connected, and interconnected in diverse, intriguing ways. If one is to divide the one from the other one inadvertently conceals the many other interrelationships that make up modernity, especially those between cultural exploitation on the one hand and political exploitation on the other. It’s confusing, in a vague and indiscriminate sense, which is why making sense of the mess we’re in, and sorting out that mess, involves understanding what those interrelationships are.

Because spatial constrains prevent me from delving into them, I’ll talk about them in next week’s column. Suffice it to say that these interrelationships and even dichotomies, at their most basic, differentiate between the old and the new, not as we know them today, but as the cultural imperialists and the wagers of cultural wars identify it: a tool demarcating what is knowledge and what is not. In turn this has, as I will point out, subsisted on the notion that all knowledge is what the West has made of it, which the East can only emulate. It’s a line of thinking, sinister and prone to all sorts of mischievous extrapolations, which was there during Arthur Balfour’s time in the 19th century. It’s a line of thinking that’s found its way to modernity courtesy of realpolitik diplomacy. Arthur Balfour is dead, but his intellectual heirs live today. They continue their assessment of the Other, the Orient, based on their assumptions of what we know, and do not know, and even willingly profess ignorance about.

A perusal of Henry Kissinger’s essay “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy”, referenced in Edward Said’s monumental book Orientalism, indicates quite clearly that, for the West, the problems of the Third World weren’t problems of exploitation, cultural or political (in any case, such a gap between those two does not exist); rather, it was a problem with the East’s inability to be accurate. All those years, decades, and centuries of oppression and looting and condescension can, for Balfour and for Kissinger, be put down to one simplistic reason: we can’t think, we can’t reason.

Why and how is this wrong? What other dichotomies does it open us to? What of the gap between modernity as defined by them and modernity as defined by us? What place has globalisation got in the midst of all these distortions? More importantly, how do we differentiate between a modernity we have no choice but to embrace and an uprooted sensibility referred to as modernity which we have to recognise and do away with? All these are pertinent, as questions and as food for thought, and they deserve more than a cursory paragraph. They deserve an entire sketch. Next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 13 2017

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Marching towards home: Where our children are


The second of a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

What is great about our local theatre – Sinhala and Tamil – is that it’s so relevant and contemporary. It’s always strived to extrapolate, to think beyond the present and to predict what’s out there, what’s unforeseeable. It’s not sustained by nostalgia, although there’s enough and more of that, too: one of the more inscrutable qualities about our playwrights is that they are as adamantly reverent of their veterans as they are disdainful of the conception of the medium those veterans idealised. The latter were in turn dejected sticking to one form of the theatre, which is why they absorbed from new playwrights from elsewhere and which is why we evolved rather quickly after 1956, even more so, in fact, than the cinema, which for 20 years remained with Lester James Peries, and literature, which for 10 years remained with Martin Wickramasinghe. It didn’t take long for Sarachchandra to be upended by Sugathapala de Silva, in turn to be followed by Gunawardena, Premaranjith Tilakaratne, Nawagaththegama, and Bandaranayake.

That our schoolboys idealise serious plays about serious themes and ideas which make people laugh indicates, not surprisingly, how idiosyncratic we are about the social and the personal, the relevant and the irreverent, with respect to the Sinhala theatre. In Preston Sturges’s beautiful screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels our hero, a director of escapist, shallow musicals and comedies, defiantly leaves Hollywood to lead a life of penury so that he can direct socially relevant dramas. Along the way he meets a girl who loves comedies and in particular those directed by the hero; he questions her choices and asks whether the world has spurned comedies at a time of depression and squalor (“Don't you think with the world in its present condition, with death snarling at you from every street corner, that people are a little allergic to comedies?”), only to be given the defiant reply, “No.” Laughter is the best medicine, the only antidote, which can convey serious themes without wringing controversy. It gets us to think, to reflect, without those contortions and distortions typical of any art form when made to be facilely courageous and profound.

In terms of “ideology” we have moved beyond Sarachchandra – who stood for an ideology of moral upliftment – and Sugathapala de Silva – who stood for an ideology of commitment – and we have even passed the seventies and eighties and nineties, when Sinhala theatre was for the most the prerogative of the Left. It’s interesting to note that our generation, and today’s schoolchildren, tend to affirm and side with actors, scriptwriters, directors, and producers who can make us laugh without cutting corners. It’s not the kind of humour you come across a conventional “tea party” comedy of manners. The closest our English theatre can and does get to such a form of humour is when its own actors relapse into the vernacular, sleekly and efficiently: many of the skits in IdeaCouch’s The Garage Show contain this quality, for instance.


But then there’s humour and there’s humour, the one forced and contrived, the other natural and spontaneous. In the theatre spontaneity is almost always the consequence of preparation, not improvisation. It’s hard to improvise on stage because it’s live, not because it’s impossible, and in comedy what matters is the correct timing, the correct cue. Of the two broadly definable genres onstage, therefore, comedy is the default quality of the medium. Not because it’s greater or lesser than drama, but because it’s easier to make people laugh out of a tragedy gone wrong than it is to wring tears out of a comedy gone wrong. (In fact very few comedies ever go wrong; they are the result of either careful planning or careless miscalculation.) Humour is always felt, never expressly projected, which is why our political satires are so shallow. They always resort to the same tricks and dichotomies: the big fat nationalist versus the young, bespectacled, idealistic understudy, one which our English playwrights alludes to frequently as well.

And then there’s the issue of novelty versus banality: it’s much easier to keep audiences here transfixed on comedies and skits that obsess over the same form of slapstick (the wrong accent, the wrong costume for the wrong gender, a play-within-a-play gone horribly wrong because of miscast actors, etc.), and it’s much easier for a drama, in that sense, to become obscurantist (which, incidentally, can be said of our films too, especially our art-house avant-garde films). In the former instance what comes out is a contorted but refreshing form of novelty: we’ve seen the same slapstick routines in other plays before, but we are alright with it; in the latter instance what comes out is banality: the same themes, once reworked, induce boredom, indifference, sometimes anger.

Part of the reason why our playwrights turn political and resort to symbols and caricatures is that, obviously, they want to circumvent censorship. The more direct they are, the more likely it is that the Censor Board (a remnant of the past if ever there was one) will censure and block it. Directness is the preserve of the madly honest, and our political playwrights are for the most not mad, only honest. The capitalist is Big and Fat, the worker Thin and Sallow. (I capitalise these terms because the producers do a pretty good job of doing so onstage as well, without spelling them out overtly to audiences.) In Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Mora the titular protagonist is shot at in the end, but doesn’t die. Why? Because the truth can’t die: it survives and grows. Likewise the Dragon in Makarakshaya dies off to be replaced by the Burgomaster; we have so many dragons, but many more Burgomasters. The message is potent, but vague.

Which is why some of these symbols and caricatures evoke laughter, sometimes intentionally, often not. A few plays do, with extraordinary resolve, keep us transfixed and deeply depressed throughout – some of Bandaranayake’s plays, like Trojan Kanathawo, are like that – but they are unfortunately rare. Rajitha Dissanayake’s POLITICAL plays are more the rule than the exception here, since they subsist on a contrapuntal mixture of anger and laughter. His best intentions are undone by what those intentions lead up to, a point summed up by my friend Dhanuka Bandara: “I strongly feel that he has much more to offer, a fact that his older plays attest to.” Again, this goes back to my earlier contention: in any art form, especially in the theatre, comedy is the default form of expression, not tragedy, because tragedy is the consequence of meticulous planning, while comedy can both be planned and also undo the most carefully constructed dramas. There’s a name for this latter phenomenon, by the way: bathos.


Our schoolboys and schoolgirls believe that there’s something new and innovative and exciting about plays that make you laugh and make you think about people who live without homes and sanitation and even employment, at the same time, because they are fascinated by what’s being staged and also repelled by the way these articulate their intentions. They want something new out of what they believe is already new. They are the new purveyors, who are enamoured of what their predecessors do but want to go beyond. “For exactly what kind of play?” I asked one of these schoolboys the other day. Momentarily stymied, he finally settled on an answer: “One that involves music and dance and laughter and at the same time provokes you to think.” A play that does all that is pretty much like a film that eventually becomes a parody of its own genre, its own kind. The new theatre, which these boys idealise, is provocative but spontaneous, aware of its own falsifications but not overtly joyful about it. That conversation, incidentally, got me talking with two other boys, about the kind of plays they not only like but also write.

Both these boys had, in fact, scripted their own plays at their school (note: very few children take to scripting these days: they prefer acting, naturally I suppose). One delved into a stock tragicomic situation: a dying family elder being fought over by his prodigal sons and daughters (the undercurrents of tension and hilarity were there). The other too presented a stock situation: three men, all three two-faced and duplicitous, on a boat. But while they are, in a manner of speaking, stock, their treatment at the hands of these young scriptwriters bespeak to a higher sense of self-confidence in them: there’s no proper resolution in either production, and the fact of there not being a proper resolution compels both laughter and reflection, the amalgamation of which, as we all know, is pathos (“කරුණාරසය”). Pathos has always been fresh, current, relevant because it stands against both indifferent humour and over-the-top seriousness.

For all their intentions and efforts, however, these boys are doomed to forego on their conception of the theatre, not because they’re discouraged from engaging in those conceptions but because they’re institutionally discouraged from indulging in the theatre in the first place. There are reasons for this, clearly. Pathos has almost never been the preserve of the Wendt because the Wendites are content in being formally conservative and facilely novel, a sensibility that lacks that revolutionary, tongue-in-cheek daring to be found in your typical Sinhala stage production. It’s a new way of looking at old themes and ideas, a new way of looking at the world in fact. Why it’s so hard to come by, and why our children find it difficult to engage with it, is a completely different topic, one which I intend to explore. Next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 12 2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

‘Pilibimbu 2017’: Beyond the eye of the beholder

I know very little about photography, the science or the art. What little I know I learnt from my father and certain texts written by people who weren’t practitioners in the field by any stretch of the imagination. Of the latter, Susan Sontag’s On Photography and, in part at least, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida captured my imagination. But these were largely on theory, and were no more and no less than two conceptions or two theses about an intriguing craft. Because of my childhood infatuation with Sontag (one which I never really grew out of), nevertheless, her take on the subject enflamed me. This is not about Sontag, Barthes, their books, or the state of photography in Sri Lanka, however.

Sontag’s claim that photography indicates our desire to capture, to collate, and to preserve for posterity is true when it comes to our relations with not just our friends and families but also our world. It’s so potent, as a veritable symbol of conquest that is, that we refer to it as though it were a gun: we shoot, we go after, we capture. Her other claim, largely implied, that the world as such is divided into two cultures, between those who embrace the field and those who detest it, echoes that simplistic dichotomy between civilizations which are active, ruthless, go-getting, and civilizations which are passive, submissive, pacifist. We are divided even within ourselves: we like to shoot, but we don’t like to be shot. In other words, we like to do, to take, but we don’t like to be, to give.

I’d like to think that Sri Lanka has moved away from the first and into the second of these cultures. The digital era has democratised our desire to preserve, to archive, and cameras have helped us preserve and archive our past, at least partially. Strangely enough, though, the world of photography in this country is limited largely to the birthday party, the graduation, the wedding. Children take to photography, yes, but for the most because of their own desire to be with others, to cohabit and intermingle and be a part of something they are invited to, and also to make money and see their work in the public domain. Commercial photography has never been more saturated here, before. School societies and clubs have a large say in this trend, naturally. This piece is about one such Club.

It all began in 1946 when a Photographic and Cinematographic Society was launched at Ananda College, Colombo. Initially it had delved into both photography and cinema (as the name implies), but for some reason the two had gone their separate ways, with the club morphing into what it is today. With no proper record or written history, unfortunately, it is difficult to chart its evolution. What we do know is that for over half a century, the Society and the school gave out some of Sri Lanka’s top-notch cameramen and directors, of whom the “D. B.” brothers (Nihalsinghe and Suranimala) stand out considerably. That it did served both the still and the moving image can be gleaned from the fact that Nihalsinghe wound up abandoning a career in Economics for the cinema.

On the 10th, 11th, and 12th of October (that is, today, tomorrow, and the day after), the Society will unveil its annual showcase event, Pilibimbu (loosely but not accurately translatable as “Reflections”), on the first two dates as an Exhibition at the J. D. A. Gallery in Horton Place, Colombo 7, and on the third as a Day at the Kularatne Hall in Ananda. Not being a practitioner of photography by a long shot I can only hope, as I will, to sketch out what the boys involved in this endeavour have gone through and will bring out. To this end, I talked with the Presidents of the Club from the last three years: Kavindu Hasaranga (2017), Yashodha Liyanage (2016), and Avarjana Panditha (2015). Here’s what they had to say and here’s what we can expect, this week, from them.

Apparently Pilibimbu had been the sequel to a technical competition the Society had organised earlier this year, Oculus, held on May 19 at the Kularatne Hall. Oculus itself has a colourful history behind it, in fact. “In 2001, we launched a magazine that doubled as an Exhibition. Pilimbimbu, as it was called even back then, was the first competition of its kind organised by a school in Sri Lanka. However, it only delved into the artistic potential of those who took part in it. Photography is much more than an art. It involves physics and it involves technology. That’s why we organised Oculus 14 years later. The aim was to get participants through the mechanics of the subject through a series of tests and activities that gave way to a workshop attended by leading local photographers.” Kavindu moved on to another topic here: how the subject is sustained at his school.

Being the current president he obviously had a great many things to say on the topic. And in what he had to say, I noticed one name cropping up frequently: the lecturer, and in more ways than one the guide and shaper of the Society, Boopathy Nalin Wickramage. I first came across the name through a teacher who had apparently been a friend of his at University. I remembered what this teacher told me: “He is as bold as life, if not bolder.” Now I’m sure Boopathy will understand, that is if he’s reading this, but for now I’m more interested in how his students view him. I therefore asked all three at-one-point-presidents to explain how they’re taken through the subject they’ve taken to, by him.

Apparently Boopathy is less a teacher or “sir” and more an “aiya” to them. Kavindu spoke first: “We have lectures once a week. He takes us through everything, starting from how to hold a camera. In fact he offers us a virtual diploma in the subject, even though it’s not a professional qualification per se. By the time the aspiring photographer at our school completes Boopathy’s three-year course, he’s qualified to strike out on his own.” Yashodha interjected here: “He is more than a teacher. As students, we are lucky to have him.” Followed by Avarjana: “He teaches less and guides more. He takes a different approach during each of those three years. He is a marvel to study under, to be honest.”

What piques my interest when it comes to Boopathy and the way he’s teaching these students is how careful he is when bringing art and science together with respect to his field. If there’s just one thing I know about photography, it’s that, despite the democratisation drive it’s been steamrollered by in this very digital era, it’s the first art form which evolved out of physics. The cinema came later, and was an amalgamation of the still image (a heavily technical medium) and the theatre (the most primeval medium of them all, as I’ve pointed out before). While it does emphasise on the visual, the what’s-seen and the what’s-hidden-beneath, it also emphasises on the how-it’s-taken and the how-best-it-can-be-taken, pertinent questions for any art form, I believe, a point which Boopathy himself noted in an article in the Ravaya and included in the Pilbimbu Souvenir of 2015, “A Critique of the Art of Photography in Sri Lanka.”

I therefore asked Yashodha and Avarjana to expound their views, fermented as they are, on this contentious matter. Yashodha answered first: “You can’t separate art from technology when it comes to this profession.” Avarjana elaborated: “Photography tests your ability to formalise the creative process. You may be able to envision the perfect shot, but if you can’t handle your device, be it a DSLR or your iPhone, what your naked eye beholds will be lost. Forever. In other words, once you marginalise the mechanics of your craft, you lose the photographer in you.” Reminds me of advertising, another for the most creative field where concentration is as important as imagination, and reminds me of what Sumitra Peries, another veteran in the cinema who followed photography early on and later moved into editing (she’s the best “visualiser” our film industry has), once told me: “Art is nothing less than the formalised expression of a felt experience.”

It’s a curse when you think about it, but modernity has all but completely separated the doers from the thinkers. As I pointed out in my article on Bhava and Harasara Pranamaya two weeks ago, this is probably the worst dichotomy our world operates on, reinforced by the lamentations and the nostalgia the past compels from us. It’s difficult to think of lyricists who can compose as well as sing because there aren’t any. The counterargument to that, basically that is, is that such iconoclastic polyglots were hard to get even then, but the real argument here is that the past bred so many practitioners of a given field, who were acquainted with every facet to that field that their absence today is disheartening to say the least. This argument can obviously be extended to our photographers, today.

“It’s a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia,” Sontag once wrote (On Photography). Times change and with them so do tastes, but nostalgia and sentimental value don’t. In this digital age we can truly, sincerely, and madly ensure posterity for a photograph, if at all because digitalisation keeps it from deteriorating, from ageing, from mellowing. But that nostalgic value, be it with respect to a birthday party, a graduation wedding, or even a leopard at Yala, remains. Always. That’s one point the boys at the Society, at Ananda, with these three events and especially with Pilibimbu, have strived to bring out. It’s a test of their success, or failure, whether they have succeeded on this point, and whether we take to it, today, tomorrow, and the day after.

Photos courtesy of: The Photographic Art Society of Ananda College

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The sound of shtick: Some notes on comedy

There are sequences of great comedy in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) that I laughed at until my sides ached. They are two of the funniest American movies I’ve ever seen, a superlative I’m only too willing to concede since the conception of comedy they work on is dumb but not cheap, high-strung but not highbrow, potent but not intellectualised. And yet, the former isn’t in the top 50 of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American comedies and the latter isn’t even on that list. (Some of Woody Allen’s other works are, but they aren’t as funny.) Perhaps the Americans are as serious about their slapstick as we are unserious about our tragedies. It’s a haphazard confusion of identity, and it tells us almost everything we need to know how comedy, as a genre, has gone up and at the same time suffered.

Of these two Bogdanovich’s film is clearly the lesser work, not because it’s not funny at all but because it’s a lopsided tribute to the American screwball comedy of the twenties, thirties, and forties. It’s also not funny throughout; watching it today and identifying where it gets its timing right and where it doesn’t is a litmus test on what is, and what should not be, shtick. Shtick is dumb, clean fun. It doesn’t depend on drawn out dialogues because it tends to lose its edge, its punch, the moment you concede ground to long stretches of sound or silence.

The punch as such in comedy, and great comedy at that, comes from a sense of carefree carefulness, or mock carefulness: the sort that one notices in Chaplin’s best sequences, like the eating of the shoe-soup in The Gold Rush or the opening sequence of havoc and chaos atop a newly unveiled statue in City Lights. In The Great Dictator what is funny are the “individual acts of grace” (as Susan Sontag described them), like the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin) dancing with a globe, clearly dreaming of world domination, or the Jewish barber (also Chaplin) engaged in a haircut to the tune of Brahm’s Hungarian Dance Number Five. What is not funny, on the other hand, are the sequences of overdrawn political chicanery, like the protagonist’s love interest Hannah (Paulette Godard) being pelted with tomatoes by Storm Troopers. These are carefully planned, but rather too carefully. Consequently, they lose that punch.

It’s the same story with What’s Up, Doc? Lionel Abel, in his monumental book on what he conceived of as a new form of theatre, the meta-theatre, argued that the Western play was and is unable to thrive on characters who aren’t aware that they are characters set against a narrative. This is as true for Shakespeare as it is for Racine, Moliere, and Voltaire, and it is especially true for comedy, which flourishes because of those familiar elements of confusion, deception, impersonation, and humour. Not for one moment do the characters in a comedy think they are outside a narrative. They provide us with the laughs, cheap or potent, and they make those accessible to us. They are so aware, so self-conscious, that they don’t care. We don’t care either.

Tragedy at its worst is melodrama, and we have come across misconceived melodrama and tragedy in the cinema too (Ed Wood’s Glen and Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room) in which case they are inadvertently transformed to camp: effective but cheap humour. The theatre at its inception, then, is comedy: it is its default quality, its default tone. Drama is therefore a corollary, and once its rules are subverted, intentionally or unconsciously, it is restored to the domain of comedy. Again, one can make the case that this is true also for the movies. One comes across so many instances of directors trying to be serious, highbrow, and then failing so spectacularly that we snigger. This is valid even for the art house movie: it’s serious, frequently philosophical and profound, but when it fails to convey its meaning properly, we sometimes confuse it for unintended humour, and laugh.

The funniest movies I’ve seen from the last 50 years – including Manhattan Murder Mystery and What’s Up, Doc, as well as Freaky Friday, The Return of the Pink Panther, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Charade, Singin’ in the Rain, Sullivan’s Travels, and Bringing Up Baby – are largely American, if not continental, almost never British, and unashamedly spontaneous.

From Sri Lanka the only real comedies, that breathe like these do, were once the preserve of Joe Abeywickrama (who gave the impression of being disorderly even though he was not) and then of Vijaya Nandasiri (who gave the impression of being orderly even though he was not). The movies they were in, i.e. the best of them – Joe with Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya with the Raja Manthri series – were also spontaneous, at times scatological, and light in tone, without ever becoming condescending.

The chief function of a comedy, in the movies that is, was to secure invincibility for its protagonists. We see this in the work of the first great silent era comedians – Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton – and even in the first few talkie comedians – Laurel and Hardy, almost every character in the screwball comedies of the thirties – before the talkies substituted sophistication for wit and did away with this function. Even Chaplin’s forays into sound weren’t completely successful in this respect, which is why The Great Dictator invites both laughs and censure. (How can one turn the slaughter of the Jews into an effective comedy, anyway?) The Tom-and-Jerry routine of injuries without any harm and Rube Goldberg-like violent slapstick crept into the movies too; so when the movies rediscovered the primeval function of comedy, it rediscovered this routine and offered a hundred or so variations on it.

In What’s Up, Doc the most effective sequences are those which allude to these routines, which offer invincibility and suspend our disbelief with a casual disregard for our need to believe what we are seeing in front of us. Conversely, the least effective sequences are those which are prolonged with dialogues and monologues that do go somewhere but don’t contain that much desired sense of invincibility. Sometimes the most funny lines, and scenes, cohabit with the least funny ones, such as the following exchange, under a dinner table, between our two heroes:

Judy: So far so good huh?

Howard: Don’t you understand anything?

Judy: Like what?

Howard: Like Eunice!

Judy: Oh I don’t understand Eunice at all.

Howard: She will be here any minute!

Judy: You have got to stop repeating yourself!

Howard, played by Ryan O’Neal, is the hard-done-by clumsy and forgetful character here, yet he isn’t made to breathe properly:

Howard: I am not repeating myself... I am not repeating myself... Oh god I am repeating myself!

On the other hand Judy, played by Barbara Streisand, is more fleshed out, anarchic in the delivery of her lines; she is the only real invincible character in the plot:

Judy: Oh Steve, you don’t want to marry Eunice.

Howard: I’m not Steve, I’m Howard!

Judy: Well neither of you wants to marry Eunice!

Howard’s bumptiousness is strikingly ineffective as a whole, simply because he’s not fleshed out. He is self-referential, almost always making us aware that he is who he is. Judy on the other hand, like all the great comedic figures who come alive onscreen (one can include Raja Manthri, from here), has no back-story, no real preparation. She comes, she wrecks havoc and chaos (“But why to me? Why? Why? Why?” Howard asks in another sequence, distraught, to which she replies, “Because you look cute in your pyjamas, Steve”) The least funny scenes in What’s Up, Doc are piled up with adrenaline-induced slapstick – the car chase towards the end is so packed up that we can’t laugh, since we’re obviously overwhelmed – while the funniest scenes concentrate the energy, the vivacity, between a set number of characters, Judy and Howard’s fiancée, the hysterical and bossy Eunice (Madeleine Kahn), included.

But comedy isn’t just played out for laughs. It serves another function: restoring the absurd to the profound. Under careful supervision, all it takes to fulfil this function is one witty line, wittily scripted and wittily delivered. Some of the most facilely scientific science-fiction movies contain this quality – The Thing from Outer Space, The Blob, Forbidden Planet, but not Plan 9 from Outer Space, which was meant to be so serious with a horde of unserious actors that it became an unintended comedy – a quality which, incidentally, found its way to the science-fiction films of the sixties and seventies. Like the 1978 remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which contains one of the most hilarious deadpan exchanges in the history of the genre:

Elizabeth: I have seen these flowers all over. They’re growing like parasites on other plants, all of a sudden. Where are they coming from?

Nancy: Outer space.

Jack: They're not from outer space.

Nancy: Why not, Jack?

Jack: They're not from outer space.

Nancy: Why?

Jack: What are you talking about? A space flower?

Nancy: Well why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?

Jack: I've never expected metal ships.

Which brings me back to my earlier contention: the theatre at the outset, though it bifurcated in later years into tragedy and comedy, was comedic. Tragedy was real, alive, and even in the most allegorical and mythological narratives and plots. Comedy, on the other hand, existed outside the bounds of reality and verisimilitude. One sketchy article isn’t enough to convey my thoughts on the matter, so suffice it to say that the best movies that promise laughs and deliver on what is promised are cheerfully, confidently, invincible and dumb. That’s the main if not the only quality which divides tragedy from humour: the ability to wade through cynicism and melodrama while restoring the joyfully unserious to the facilely profound.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

English: Our way or their way?

Because of the colonial baggage it’s associated with, English as a language is both a hiramanaye and kaduwa. It allures us and distances us. We love it and are afraid of it. We want it but can’t have it. At the same time. Concurrently. English Our Way is the official policy regarding the teaching of the language in our schools, and I believe in our universities too. The concept as such is easy: Sri Lanka must get rid of its colonial baggage and that by being empowered to speak the colonialist’s language the way its people want. Warts and all. Taken it itself, there’s nothing wrong with this line of thinking. The proverbial devil, however, and as always, is in the details.

The problem with English Our Way, which I have written on elsewhere and have explored with unabated interest, is roughly the same problem with affirmative action policies, no matter how well structured and well intentioned they are, since at the end of the day both reward and even subsidise mediocrity. It’s one thing to praise your child when he or she plays the piano, it’s another thing to think of sending him or her to Juilliard even before the basics are picked up and mastered. English Our Way (which I will refer to as “EOW” hereafter) substitutes complacency for precision, encouragement for pedagogy, and, probably worse of all, staticity for dynamism. A language can’t be predicated purely on how a collective wields it, after all.

In Sri Lanka and at the outset, English is still very much a marker of distinction, status, and privilege, as opposed to ability. The irony is that language being a great leveller has almost always been used, not to communicate, but to divide. The bigger irony with respect to English, however, is that its function as a social divider is based on how it is spoken. Not how it’s read or written. That’s why we still haven’t produced a great prose stylist, a great poet or novelist or even playwright, in English. Snobbery is and always will be, when based on a language, dependent on how the snobs, or the “uppities” as I call them, articulate. Not on how they write, not on whether they’ve read, and not on whether they’re productive. It’s less a matter of learning to wield it at all than of learning to get through the elocution class.

A language is nothing if it isn’t made to live, to breathe. English, in our country that is, hasn’t been made to live and breathe for a long, long time, particularly at the hands of those who insist on speaking it for the purpose of social mobility. It’s largely a variant of my earlier argument for cultural modernity: if we don’t take to the world outside without losing our grip on our cultural sphere, we can’t progress one inch.

The problem with English here is that we are divided between the gama and the city. Those in the gama, proverbially speaking, are legitimately interested in gaining worldly knowledge (in terms of literature, philosophy, popular culture, etc) for the betterment of their society. They lack the requisite skills in lingua franca, however. Those in the city, again proverbially speaking, are less interested in worldly knowledge than in spawning their peers. They have those skills. It’s a division between those who can do but don’t have, and those who can’t do but do have. The one aren’t endowed but can do wonders, while the others are but, pathetically, can’t.

I am amused whenever those who lived and were educated at elite institutions before the 1956 election and revolt contend that they lived in peace and amity because there were no linguistic barriers: both Sinhalese and Tamil, and Muslims and Burghers thrown in for good measure, spoke the same language. English. What’s forgotten here is that inasmuch what transpired after 1956 was an uprooted social process, what existed before it could hardly be referred to as an arcadia. No less a person than Regi Siriwardena, who himself was no basher of English, called a spade a spade when he cogently pointed out the mistake of this pre-1956 generation: confusing their privileged childhoods for the notion, and myth, that a completely English education had done away with the interethnic rifts which were to emerge in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. It’s in this context that what happened after swabasha must be assessed.

Swabasha wasn’t a misconceived project, but like EOW, its intentions, laudable as they were, concealed certain deplorable flaws. The thinking behind the movement that bred swabasha, which was contorted politically to yield Sinhala Only, was that no nation was going to develop without coming to terms with its history, its heritage. On the other hand this did not and does not mean a rubbishing of the colonialist’s language, or for that matter his customs. Anagarika Dharmapala, that much vilified national figure, was therefore careful in differentiating between absorbing the West and aping it: for him, we were preoccupied with the latter, not the former. That is why, as records indicate, he went to the extent of teaching the Sinhalese to eat with a fork and a spoon. Malinda Seneviratne wrote on this and observed the following: “Acquiring the weapons of the enemy or in the very least picking up mannerisms [makes] it harder for the enemy to distinguish himself/herself from the ‘rabble’.”

Naturally then, swabasha never meant “letting go” of English. But that’s what we did. Those who were elected to power, who then transformed a much needed social process to a narrow-minded, chauvinistic political process, made it a habit to condemn the elite and the language of the elite while wallowing in it. They praised the game iskole, the sangha, veda, guru, govi, and kamkaru, while ensuring that their kith and kin didn’t go to that celebrated iskole but would learn their letters and obtain their higher education in the big city school and overseas. This dichotomy between practice and precept has been sustained all these decades. Sadly. One comes across them in very many speeches, by our officials, even today, when they speak about the wretched and the helpless. These officials aren’t bothered by the wretched and the helpless, of course: they just want to turn their sympathy for them into political mileage.

By letting go of the lingua franca we gave into what those we fought against – the elite theoreticians and ivory tower scholars – had wanted all along: a different and more insidious form of social discrimination. What swabasha did was to hide away social divisions without really hiding them. By temporarily consoling the underprivileged, 1956 repressed their concerns and anxieties and at the same time sustained those divisions which had been ailing them until then. The problem wasn’t with the movement, clearly, but with the people who had been elected to direct it. It was as much an attempt at levelling our society as it was at getting that society closer to the kind of cultural modernity, rationality, and industrialisation that the likes of the Anagarika here and Tagore there, during the Bengal Renaissance, had envisioned.

It didn’t take long for those concerns and anxieties, of the underprivileged, to re-emerge. There’s a symbiotic relationship in any country between the language of the discriminating minority, the language of the rabble, and the insurrections and revolutions such a rift provokes. It happened in Russia, where the mother tongue was discarded in favour of French (which readers of War and Peace will know is what the aristocrats speak), and it happened in Sri Lanka, twice: in 1971 and 1988. While it would be simplistic to root these in language barriers, they did have a say, and still have a say. Because those who are rather mediocre in the language fear it, they believe that their inability is a sign that it shouldn’t be learnt at all, which is why the children of 1971 and 1988 are the hardcore radicals the children of 1956 were not. The latter were more often than not idealists, who genuinely believed that the country had opened up to them.

It has not. Not yet.

So after all these insurrections and calls to arms, after the stalled revolution that was 1956 was aborted, what do have today? A program that teaches us that language standards are very many, that there is no one standard or yardstick which can be used to assess ability and mediocrity. I am no originalist, and when it comes to English there probably are several standards (Indian, Jamaican, Singaporean, etc) which can be coupled with and separated from its birthplace. But there’s a difference between those countries and ours. That difference, which I pointed out above, is that we are still carrying that burdensome colonial baggage. India has, for the most, let go of this baggage: that’s why they aren’t bothered with diction and accents and even elocution (the latter of which I studied, and was chastened by). They don’t have the English-as-she-should-be-spoke mentality we do, which is how they developed over the years.

To be sure, not everything in India should be emulated, after all theirs is a vastly different territory. But when it comes to the dissemination of English, which is so voluminous that it deserves a less sketchy treatment than mine, our neighbours provide a good starting point. Which is where I rest my case, for now: the more you give into the notion that mediocrity in a powerful language is alright, the more you give into the rift between the uppities and the underprivileged, between the have-nots and the snobs. Language is still potent, a divider as opposed to a leveller. It remains a sign of cultural hegemony. Even in India, and especially in Sri Lanka. English Our Way, by the looks of it therefore, may well be an extension, no matter how well paved with intentions the road to it is, of what we saw after 1956, 1971, and 1988.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 6 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Away from a musical sensibility

The trouble with vilifying revolutionists is that those who vilify them happen to be those who’d themselves think twice of sticking to a particular cause or ideal. Malinda Seneviratne never belonged to this crowd, which is why his pieces on Nanda Malini and Sunil Ariyaratne deserve more than a cursory comment. However, where Malinda is wrong, and where those of us who think differently of these two musical sensibilities are not, is that humanity isn’t predicated on reflections on sorrow and oppression and exploitation; it’s not predicated on anything DEFINITIVE, come to think of it. The “larger humanity” he wrote of in his critique of Pawana comes out, if we are to take his criteria of aesthetic values, in the poetry of Sekera and much of the work of the lyricists who followed him, the early Ariyaratne included.

The main dividing line between the Old Left (the Communist Party, the LSSP, the NSSP) and the New Left (the JVP) was the fact that the former were theoreticians and the latter were, for the most, proactive agitators. (I am talking about the eighties.) Theoreticians tend to mumble and distort. They also tend to compromise. The splits between the Trotskyites and the Communists had been, naturally, ideological, but the split between the Old and the New was more potent, more emotive.

Ariyaratne and Malini (were) identified with this split. They were no longer aesthetes composing the poetry of love. They had become direct, provocative, and at times raw pamphleteers. The reason why they hit so many people was simply that those people were tired of theoreticians and elites and compromisers. They wanted someone, anyone, to transform rebellion into poetry. That’s what Ariyaratne did.

So by being direct, raw, and provocative, these two salvaged their political statements from the fogginess of the poetry their forbearers had dipped them in. Ranbanda Seneviratne compared the 1971 insurrectionists to the ula lena; Kularatne Ariyawansha compared the socially conscious protagonist of Sumitra Peries’ Yahalu Yeheli, Mudithalatha, to a woman of many mothers (“Eka Mawakage Duwa”); Sekera affirmed the act of dying alone, and uncared for, frequently. Such lyrics are at best obscurantist to those who want them to be more naked. It’s that form of nakedness one comes across in Wordsworth’s early work, even when he reflected on it later on:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, 
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times, 
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways 
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once 
The attraction of a country in romance!

I can identify strongly with Ariyaratne and Malini today because, like Wordsworth, they celebrated a country in romance (bloodied though it was), and because, unlike Wordsworth, they were not romantics when they chose to celebrate it. They knew what they were in for; their act of renouncing their earlier phase, in which they had celebrated different “facts of life” (so to speak), was conscious, willed, confirmed.

It’s not the kind of youthful exuberance which Wordsworth, Coleridge, Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis embraced, certainly not the kind of privileged status these men enjoyed even when they were writing against the same institutions which helped them lead their privileged lives. For that reason alone, I think, their later self-exile to India, brief though it was, was not, as Malinda implies, a choice two turncoats would have made, but an eventuality they had to force themselves into.

In one sense the critics are right, though: while she renounced her earlier avatar, which I suppose every artist does at some point in his or her life, Malini downright spurned it. Writing seven years ago, Dr Ruwan Jayathunga noted the following:

“... she was unable to give leadership and make her music a powerful social force that could be a strong voice for social justice, since she did not believe in what she sang. Her music was dependent on the people’s requests. When they appealed for nationalism, she fulfilled the request with songs like ‘Me Sinhala Apage Ratai’. When the trend changed, she refused to perform it. When the trend was ‘anti open economic system’, her music changed accordingly despite the fact that she enjoyed the benefits of the market economy selling her music albums.”

Malinda summed up that last point rather acerbically, seven years before the doctor: 

“During those ‘I-can’t-sing-the-saundarya (aesthetic)’ days, when she thundered revolution from the many ‘Pawana’ concerts, she sold the ‘saundarya’ cassettes of her previous avatar on the side. So much for integrity and revolutionary ethics.”

There are more avenues than one open to the turncoat, or the mellowed revolutionist: becoming a Wordsworth, who celebrated the jingoism and the impassivity he had repudiated in his younger days; or becoming a Blake, Milton, or Dylan, who persists with so much revolutionary rhetoric that he or she is considered a parvenu, an outsider, a quirk.

Nanda Malini had refused to sing of nationalism. Now she was refusing to sing of revolution. The Pawana songs were recorded and released again, yes, but never with the kind of energetic fieriness she breathed into them the first time. As for Ariyaratne, he turned into a different sort of Wordsworth: the sort who celebrated a different kind of impassivity and inertia, which by the way is what makes for much of his lyrics in the nineties and the early 2000s. They had celebrated the otherness of radicalism. Now they were celebrating the otherness of themselves:

ඔබෙන් පෙරදා උගෙන කවිකම්
ලියූ කවි ගීතිකා
ඔබේ නාමෙන් හැඩූ කදුලින්
ගයමි මම කිවිදුනේ

And it’s a celebration not of themselves, but of their intertwined poetic sensibilities:

ඔබමයි කව්සිළුමිණ සැළලිහිණිය
කර ගරු තර කිරිඳු

That last song (“Obai Mage”) is a joyful rehash of the opening to the Pawana songs which compare the two of them to earlier, classical poets and their consorts, including, of course, Ranchagoda Lamaya (“Upasakamma”). Obviously, they couldn’t completely evade their political phase. The truth is that we couldn’t either:

දළදා මැදුර අධිකව මිල කල හැකිය
සිරි මහ බෝධිය ලංසුව පැහැදිලිය
කළුගල් වලට විකුණා ගෙන සීගිරිය
සීගිරි කුරැටු ගී බයිලා කල හැකිය

Nanda Malini has that rare, enviable ability to convey both infatuation and irony through her voice, as I pointed out last week. It’s that ability which keeps her from giving completely into anger, hate, or sorrow. She and Ariyaratne do criticise the clergy and the laity, but not with the kind of bitter cynicism that someone like, say, Sunil Perera, resorts to off air. The difference between the sarcasm in Perera’s contemporary work (“I Don’t Know Why”, “Lankawe Ape Lankawe”) and that of Ariyaratne’s earlier work is that the latter is creatively AMBIVALENT about it: while he does condemn the clergy for their impassivity when encountering crooks and standing up for them, he also softens the blow by writing about the clergymen who did, in fact, stand up for what was right in an earlier, as cruel, but gentler era:

රට දැය සමය රැක ගත්තේ චීවරයයි
රට දැය සමය සුරකින්නෙත් චීවරයයි
එවන් සසුන සමහර හිමිවරු නසතී
කුලගොත් ඥාති සංග්රaහ නිලතල සොයමින්

Coupled with Malini’s dexterity, Ariyaratne’s lyrics are so roundelay that they don’t mean what we think they do. That’s his single greatest achievement, one which takes us back to our rich poetic tradition of double entendres and metaphors and deliberate confusions of identity and ideology. Decades earlier, Sekera and Amaradeva resorted to this same tradition in their most vibrant work before they gave into more mundane themes. It’s that tradition which crops up in “Etha Gaw Ganan Durin”, which is less a celebration and more a satire of the fashion and the chic-ness the city inspires:

පුංචි ලංකා දීපයේ පැංචියන් ලවා අපේ
දෙව් ලියන් මැවූ විලාසිතා

Except that Ariyaratne doesn’t just satirise, he downright stabs:

උදේ හවා දෝත නගා 
එතෙරට වැඳ පුදල්ලා
කන්ට දෙතොත් බොන්ට දෙතොත් 
රට උගසට තියල්ලා

Much of Ariyaratne’s work after the nineties gives into this directness, but there was a part to him that refused to leave the indirectness, the ambivalence, of his early phase: the phase that gave us Sathyaye Geethaya, not Pawana. It’s a wholly provocative phase that greets us here, though provocative in a different sense: less political, more suggestive, by which I mean bordering on scatological, youthful silliness:

රෑට රෑට ඉහ ඉද්දර කොඳුර කොඳුර කවි කියන්න
පාට පාට පන් පැදුරේ මටත් ටිකක් ඉඩ තියන්න

One need not, of course, be a poet to identify what (or who) exactly Ariyaratne was writing about in “Gata Gata Awidin”, or to identify what he wrote about in “Nona”:

නෝනා... නාන්න නන් නාන්න නෝනා...
නෝනා... නොනා නොනා නේන්න නෝනා...

The silliness, which these lyrics inspire, is never justified, never rationalised, a point that I think adds to their youthful sense of frivolity. They set off rather lewd speculations, which the lyricist doesn’t rationalise either. In these post-Pawana songs the melody, moreover, is as playful, suggestive, and silly as the words. (Most of them were composed by their Pawana collaborator, Rohana Weerasinghe.)

Sunil Ariyaratne and Nanda Malini took us towards a new musical sensibility in the seventies and the eighties. With their new work, however, which sometimes brings them together and sometimes is worked on separately, the lyricist and the vocalist try to reconcile themselves to the creative indirectness that had inspired their earliest songs, “Sukiri Batillange Geethaya” and “Sakura Mal Pipila” included.

Decades later, having caved into a more political conception of their medium, and having had to flee, they tried, to varying degrees of success, to fit into what they had once been. They couldn’t be political, because that would have invited more censure. Instead they resorted to youthful silliness, turning at least briefly into their younger selves. They had embraced the radical; now they were embracing themselves. They had celebrated the political; now they were celebrating the aesthetic. They had turned into a new musical sensibility; now they were turning away from it. They still are.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A long way from home: Where our local theatre is

The first of a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

I go to the Wendt for the same reason that I go to the Regal, the Majestic, the Savoy, and closer to my hometown, the Tower in Moratuwa: a new experience, a new way of assessing myself and my relationship to the world I live in and the people I live with. What I go for is, unfortunately enough, not what I get, simply because our young playwrights, like our young filmmakers, are caught in a crevice between what their immediate ancestors did and what those among them who are still alive are doing. They’re afraid of trying something new, even though they’re young, because they believe that what is new isn’t necessarily what works. I would say this is what drives both English and Sinhala theatre, and I would say it’s especially truer of the latter.

The theatre works on self-dramatisation, self-consciousness. In a movie you know the actors you are watching are impersonating their characters, whether or not they are true to those characters (who may be fictional or real, like Kamal Addaraarachchi as Rohana Wijeweera). In the theatre this consciousness of the falsification that goes into what you see is doubled: you are not only aware of the impersonation but you are also aware of the actors’ own awareness of it. Sri Lanka is a curious case: our film industry has always depended for its reserve of actors, scriptwriters, and even directors on our theatre. Things have changed a little, of course.

If you peruse the latest Sinhala play at the Borella YMBA, you are bound to come across a political satire or a rehashed production of Sinhabahu or Maname or Nari Bana. If you peruse the latest English play, predominantly at the Wendt but occasionally at the Punchi Theatre, you are bound to come across a musical or a serious production about ideas. The irony here, of course, is that on its own terms the Sinhala theatre has embrace the serious production about ideas more bravely than its English counterpart; it has a wider audience, it caters to a more diverse social milieu, and it isn’t cut off from those who go to the Lumbini instead of the Wendt, which, as I noted in my review of Drama Comp several months ago, panders to the English intelligentsia. This is not a sketch of that intelligentsia or its relationship to our theatre, rather the first of several articles exploring where that local theatre is, at present.

Our plays, English or Sinhala or Tamil, are reflected in our school productions: what’s good, bad, and mediocre about them all starts in the classroom, the school workshop, and the various rehearsals that go into such productions. Right down from the choice of subject-matter to the attitude of the producer and the cast to that subject-matter, they are indicative of what their elders like to go for. This is especially true of the English theatre, but also true of its Sinhala counterpart, at the hall or in our classrooms.

English school productions like to play it safe, in itself not a bad thing since we all, at the end of the day, like to play it safe with any art form. In four cases out of five they will be self-brooding and consciously constrained, in terms of themes and in terms of how those themes are expressed and projected. I say four out of five based on what I have seen at drama competitions at the Wendt, including Drama Comp, where only one of the five items staged (the Methodist College production, “TTYL”) was exuberant and liberating in the truest sense of those terms. (The fact that it won, as I expected, testified to this.) Because of the conservative streak of the middle class, who patronise the Wendt, the conventional English school production is about a protagonist trying to get out; he or she is so closeted that the entire play hinges on whether he or she can properly get out. Sometimes these characters do. For the most, though, they don’t.

The serious play about serious ideas isn’t the preserve of the Wendt in this sense, however; it has been exploited in far more creative ways at the Lumbini, the Borella YMBA, and the Punchi. What these productions lack, more often than not and with the exception of experienced movers like Udayasiri Wickramaratne and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and, to a considerable extent, Rajitha Dissanayake, is craftsmanship, the dazzling technical mastery that the Wendt, with its nostalgically archaic proscenium and aisle, exudes night after night. And that’s exactly what our elders and our children want from the conventional English play: a conventionally serious production that plays on conventional themes and resorts to conventional tricks. Again, this goes back to the safe zone I pointed out earlier, the conservative streak of the Wendites: they want to play it safe because they are used to playing it safe.

These audiences have the cake and eat it too: they watch, with unabated interest, what unfolds in front of their eyes (be it tragedy, or tragedy reworked as farce), with the comfort of knowing that they can return to their own lives, their own place in the sun, after the production is done or dusted. “5,000 enforced disappearances?” a lady asked on her way out of the Wendt of her friend, who was as shocked as she was, after the curtain closed on Ruwanthi de Chickera’s “Dear Children, Sincerely”, which I thought was befittingly sincere in its intentions, though not in the way it set about articulating those intentions. (The audiences laughed when they should have reflected, as when an old lady who remembered the 1962 coup against the government mused on 1956 and the horde of vernacular teachers who taught their students that eggs were hatched by thunder.)

I have no doubt that the lady in question, who was far away from me and who unlike me had a car and a driver to take her and her friend home (we poor freelancers have to do with Ubers and PickMes), was genuinely horrified at what she heard towards the end of Ruwanthi’s play. But that sense of horrified comprehension, sooner or later, congeals into apathy and complacency. Wendites want to be stupefied and horrified, as horrified as their neighbours and colleagues, which is why they want a serious play, a serious production, formally conservative no matter how liberating it may appear to be.

This strange blend of formal conservatism and facile novelty is what makes for much of the English theatre, our English theatre, even in our schools, ironic considering that while its Sinhala counterpart has dabbled in Pirandello (Sugathapala de Silva), Beckett (Dharmasena Pathiraja), Strindberg (Premaranjith Tilakaratne), and García Lorca (Gunasena Galappaththy), its own practitioners are more content with Shakespeare, Hugo, Shaw, and Verne. Part of the reason why these playwrights are resorted to so frequently is that they are predictable: you know how a Shaw or a Hugo story will end, but you don’t know how a Pirandello or a Beckett will, because if you did, that would defeat the purpose of seeing them. These plays are not meant to be digested immediately, which is why they are truly, madly, honestly serious.

Those who opt for Pirandello and Beckett and Strindberg today may not have fully understood the undercurrents of their work and the thinking that drove their work, which is why most modern renditions of these plays are clumsily handled. Such adaptations lack a proper skeleton and body but they have heart, enough and more of it. The veterans who are still with us – Jayantha Chandrasiri, Rajitha, even Udayasiri – are not really clumsy this way, but their new work, perhaps because their cast and crew are not up to the task of translating their vision and outlook to their audiences, is dissimilar to their old work.

That’s why I believe the Sinhala theatre has deteriorated and is deteriorating: the producers don’t boast of the high production values their counterparts in the English theatre do, while their young descendants meekly study them and even revere them but opt, with despairing frequency, for the routine comedic skit and political satire. I asked a student, recently, who was active in his school’s (Sinhala) drama society as to what kind of plays he liked. He mentioned these satires, adding, “But I’d like to try something new, something untried.” I asked him to explain, and he replied, “A serious comedy that gets out laughs while dwelling on a serious idea and theme.”

A comedy that dwells on serious ideas and themes is pretty much like a tragedy that makes you laugh: it’s a confusion of genre and identity, and our Sinhala playwrights haven’t exactly fared badly with them. For the record, they’ve fared even better than their English-speaking counterparts, because the roots of our theatre go back to the kolama and the sanniya, later to be transformed into the nadagama and the nurtiya through our encounters with the Parsi and Indian melodrama. So yes, we KNOW how to laugh.

The fact that our schoolboys prefer the vikata to the thaathvika, while preferring the lokadharmaya to the natyadharmaya, indicates that they are as confused, ecstatically, as the mode of the theatre they’re interested in. It’s rather encouraging in a way, but is it enough? The answer to that requires an extensive sketch of how Sinhala drama is sustained in our schools. I will get to that topic next week. For now, however, I am done.

Photos courtesy of: The Media Unit of Royal College

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 3 2017