Sunday, April 30, 2017

Raveen Antonio’s sleights of hand

Raveen Antonio took to swimming in Grade One. He moved to athletics and diving three years later, graduating to football, cricket, and rugby. He didn’t just indulge or dabble in them, he took to them and gave the best he could with what he had. Rugby being a passion of his father, it was only natural that he’d take to it after encountering everything else. In the end, when he did move to it, he specialised. Again, natural.

When he first started playing, though, he didn’t have a clue, whether to play or to score. The first time he faced a match, he was in Grade Seven. His Coach had just one thing to tell him: “Take the ball and run to the other side.” He wouldn’t have known about his position or for that matter how important positions in general were in the sport. As time went by, though, he came to understand. And to appreciate. Last week I met Raveen. He had a lot to tell. A great deal, in fact.

Because of the rapidity and violence entailed in it, rugby has over the years earned an unlovely sobriquet: “A game for hooligans played by gentlemen.” What that observation implies, of course, is that players can’t think beyond what they play, that they are incapable of leading lives as colourful as the matches they get to be in. In other words, that those who take to rugby are incapable of achieving anything other than what their Coaches and Trainers get them to do. I personally disagree, which is where I return to Raveen.

Raveen’s story begins with his father, Raj. Having played football for his school (Kingswood College) and later his country, and hailing from the only city where cricket takes a backseat to rugby, he had learnt enough to ascertain those points aspiring players could improve on. Because he himself had not pursued rugby, he would have wanted his son to take to it well when, in 2009, he got into the Under 12 Team at his school, St Joseph’s College. “Our first match that year was against D. S. Senanayake College,” he remembers, “I was a prop forward but didn’t know what I could do. So I just took the ball and ran, ran, ran.”

Things moved quickly thereafter. In April that same year (barely two months after that match), he was selected to the Under 14 Team, from which he soon graduated to the First XV. “That was unexpected, to be honest,” he laughs, “Particularly when we ended up being the All Island Plate Champions, having faced off Trinity and Kingswood.” He continued playing Under 12 matches, soon getting into the Under 16 Team. Given this, he naturally felt the need to improve on what little he knew.

So what exactly did he do? “First and foremost, I began watching matches. That’s a primitive way of studying a sport, but it helped me tremendously. By this time I was a fly-half AND an inside centre. These positions are quite constrained. They don’t have the luxury of time that a prop forward has. The fly-half, for instance, links the scrum-half with the back line. To play well, he must be able to take decisions quickly.” His father, no doubt aware of how important this was, got him to practice as many kicks as much as he could at home: “I ended up breaking the railing upstairs,” Raveen grins.

It’s obviously a result of all these encounters, tough as they’ve been, but he has until now been able to captain the Under 14, Under 16, and Under 18 squads. As of today, he’s the Vice-Captain of the First XV team, which brings me to his school and the other lives he’s led in it.

Rugby at St Joseph’s College has certainly picked up in recent years, enough to compensate for the defeats and lesser victories encountered on the cricket field. Raveen rattles off a list of names of those who have helped his squad: Nilfer Ibrahim (the Coach), Dinesh Kumar (the Trainer), Anuranga Walpola, and Dev Ananda.

“They have their own preferences," he explains to me, "Walpola sir focuses on the forwards, Dev Ananda sir is the kicking Coach, and Niluka sir attends to the three-quarters. At the end of the day, though, they all congeal into one team. That’s essential, because inasmuch as a rugby squad depends on how 15 players take on 15 specific tasks, those players need to come together for a cohesive, all-rounder team.”

From here I move on to the strategies he’s learnt over the years. This obviously brings up those players he continues to look up to. I therefore ask him to list them out and explain how they’ve helped him personally.

“From those who’ve inspired me, I can name Carlos Spencer, Johnny Wilkinson, and Dan Carter. All fly-halves, but different to each another nevertheless. Spencer, for instance, is not famous for his kicks, but he quickens the game. He has speed and this he uses for the line. That’s important. Wilkinson and Carter, on the other hand, are good at kicking, so they are exceptional at gaining territory and making it easy for their teams. That’s important too, since it eases the pressure rugby squads usually face on the field.” In other words, it’s about adjusting your strategy to consecutively attack, defend, and ease up: the essence of rugby.

Raveen began playing in 2009. That’s seven years down. What of those other lives he’s led? He has been involved with his school’s English and Sinhala Literary Associations, is the Vice President of the Colombo District branch of the Legion of Mary, has played and plays the guitar, has been a Steward, and is the current Head Prefect. Having opted for Commerce for his A Levels, he managed to not just pass his exams, but pass them with flying colours despite participating in BOTH rugby and athletics, scrounging up three A’s. He’s currently following a course in ACCA (Accountancy being the field he prefers) at Mercury Institute, Kollupitiya. All in all, a veritable assortment.

These have moreover not been achieved at the cost of other sports. I’ve mentioned swimming, diving, and athletics. Raveen continues to pursue the third of these, having emerged as a top player at the National Meets (though he didn’t get any colours) in 2012 (at Bogambara), 2013 (at Tangalle), and 2014 (at Sugathadasa), particularly as a Javelin thrower.

What of the hard yards he had to wade through? “Well, it was tough getting through the last two years. Not only was I the Vice-Captain of the First XV, I was also engaged with a horde of other activities. Added to that, I had to come to Colombo from my hometown Malabe. Once or twice I thought of quitting athletics, because I didn’t think I could make it with my academics. My friends, however, prevailed on me to not do that. Call it a miracle, call it sheer willpower, but I managed to survive.” He has, however, not pursued Rugby nationally while at school, though he hopes to do so now that he’s been unburdened of his exams.

Before I wrap up the interview, I ask Raveen as to what he considers as his most memorable match. He doesn’t hesitate: “The one we had with our traditional rival in 2015. St Peter’s had retained the Shield for 15 years. We had either lost or gone for a draw for 15 years, in other words. That was my third year playing for the First XV. The hours passed, the encounters got more intense, and there was tension on both sides. In the end, after trying for over a decade, St Joseph’s walked home with the Shield. To this date, we have retained it. That explains how and why we’ve gone up.”

Last year had this to say about the Josephian Rugby Squad: “Inexperienced Josephians face arduous task.” The reference was to two facts: one, the loss of several key players to other teams, and two, the lack of experience among new players. Both these pointed at the grave responsibility thrust on the senior squad members. Of these, the centre and the fly-half were key constituents, with Raveen holding the latter position. Having faced a horde of formidable rivals, they waded through the year with a set of crucial victories, recording negligible but nevertheless commendable leads with them all. This year, not surprisingly, they have performed better.

I believe Raveen says it best: “When we win, our morale gets boosted. That’s rugby. You win, you go up. You lose, you stay behind. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as permanent defeat or victory. I believe that’s helped me through school, my academics and other activities, and life in general. Am I grateful? Yes, to my father, my coaches and trainers, my friends, and last but not least, Almighty God.”

Rugby players are endowed with physical dexterity. They know when to expend effort and when to preserve if not repress it. That’s life on the field and life in general. Probably that’s what Raveen has learnt so far. Probably he’s yet to learn it more completely. We can never tell. We can, however, observe. And we can wish. For the best.

Written for: The Island YOUth, April 30 2017

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The bourgeoisie that never was

History almost always leaves behind lessons that are never learnt. That is why (quoting Santayana) those who forget it are condemned to repeat it and why (quoting Marx) it repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce. This forget-factor is probably the main reason why our people undergo tragedy, again and again, and still manage to resolve for them. We’ve passed the age of indifference so much that when tragedy does come about, we not only condition ourselves to get over it, we force ourselves to ignore its many dimensions.

It’s difficult to imagine why our country’s polity is so accursed. One reason is how much we’ve erased the individual constituent from national tragedy. Another is how fragmented our politics is. Simplistic though these are, they point at another more pertinent problem: the bifurcation of our polity into two broad streams: a Left that continues to draw less and less people, and a Right that subsists less on a cohesive manifesto than an unenviable blend of authoritarianism and populism. This is the first of a series examining these two streams.

The conventional Marxist thesis was that the bourgeoisie would accumulate so much capital that they would have no need for surplus labour: the proletariat would be marginalised to such an extent that they would rise up against the capitalist class. Labour, in other words, revolted because the capitalist was serving his function: accumulate more capital to invest in industry. This point is crucial when considering the capitalist class of our country.

Historically speaking, the bourgeoisie of Ceylon were never interesting in self-preservation. Kumari Jayawardena, in her Nobodies to Somebodies, implies that our bourgeoisie weren’t capable of transforming the society they lived off from an agricultural to an industrial state. That caste differences, a hallmark of feudal societies, continued even in a supposedly capitalist Ceylon indicates that they were less interested in developing the economy than pandering to the colonialist.

To term this class as the bourgeoisie is a little amiss, moreover: not only did they live off the extraction and fermentation of raw material (graphite, arrack, timber etc), they also did not (or could not) make the transition to manufacturing. In Britain and the United States, the legal system (among other processes) facilitated the transition from pre-capitalist production to industrialisation, a phenomenon highlighted by Morton J. Horwitz in his book “The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860”. Professor Horwitz’s argument has been taken as evidence for the theory that the judiciary of pre-capitalist countries helped them make the leap to a strong, viable industrial sector.

That the legal system in Ceylon catered less to such a leap than to a division in its society between the colonialist and his cohorts on the one hand and the multitude of peasants and urban workers on the other isn’t just a historical fact: it was predictable in a country where, more than any other in the continent (and this is not just conjecture), the capitalist aristocracy willingly sided with those colonialists. Unlike the bourgeoisie elsewhere, they did not seek to entrench or further their own interests: they were more concerned in aligning them with the interests of those same colonialists. In return for their loyalty, naturally, they were handed titles, privileges, and monopolies.

The late Tissa Abeysekera, in an assessment of Lester James Peries, argued that unlike the heroes of the Bengali Renaissance, which culminated in Rabindranath Tagore, the bourgeoisie (or the compradors) of Ceylon were more anglicised than their counterparts in the region. We were, in short, a fertile experiment for Macaulay, whose idealisation of a class of brown sahibs more English than the English was brought about, not in the vastly more populous India, but in the smaller, more peaceable Ceylon. Abeysekera was thinking about our literature when he wrote this, but such an observation proves just as valid when considering our economic history.

The indigenous capitalist class chosen to lead the country after 1948 reflected, not their urbanised, industrialised counterparts in the West, but a cultivated, genteel aristocracy that (for the lack of a better way of describing it) seemed to have come straight out of Jane Austen’s novels. Consider, for instance, the remark made by our first “native” Governor-General that his country (and ours) was a “little bit of England”. “Which part of England?” a friend of mine asked me when I pointed it to him, no doubt amused.

It is one of the ironies of history that this same class became the flag-bearers of our independence struggle in the 20th century. I believe it was Dr Dayan Jayatilleka who, in a speech given three years ago, observed that Marxism was the true heir to the Matale Rebellion (under Veera Puran Appu). What he implied there, of course, was that the Puran Appu’s movement was taken over, if not hijacked, by what Solomon Obeyesekere referred to as “nobodies who hope to make somebodies of themselves” (opportunists, in other words), who dabbled in temperance, the Buddhist revival, and constitutional reform without much sincerity (as their recantations over these same movements upon being elected to power showed).

In other words, the disorganised remnants of our independence campaign in the 19th century gave way to an as disorganised and (worse) insincere nationalist project in the 20th, one which purported to culminate, but never did, in the “Little England” we got in 1948. The leaders of this project, to put it simply, could not transcend their class barriers. Going by that, D. S. Senanayake remains the only optimistic leader we ever had, because he had and to his final day retained faith in the status quo as a means of uplifting the country. That faith was translated to budget surpluses, a quietened down Marxist opposition, and a largely neutral foreign policy.

It was, however, an optimism borne of those class barriers: to date, the most fitting image for the incongruity in our independence struggle is that of our national heroes, clad in coat and suit and top hat, gracing the day we got our freedom. It was also an optimism that could not survive for long, not in a context where it was being opposed by a Left that was bemoaning how dependent the Establishment was on our primary economic sector. In other words, as I will show in my next column, the tragedy of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie was their inability to industrialise: a problem which continues to spell (largely adverse) consequences for our economy.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 29 2017

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Towards a parallel Sinhala cinema

In my tribute to Vasantha Obeyesekere two weeks ago, I noted that Sri Lanka was never really open to the kind of parallel cinema that invaded India. There are reasons for this, prime among them being the fact that our cinema was (at its inception) theatricalised to such an extent that, unlike our immediate neighbour, for it to break away from the semi-operatic form it had succumbed to, it had to tear itself away from the visual image and embrace the written word. That is why Lester James Peries opted for adaptations of both popular and serious novels and short stories.

Lester, however, was a documentarian who recorded life as it was. When compared to the films of Satyajit Ray’s heirs (Shyam Benegal, Mira Nair, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan), those of Lester can be traced back to the Italians and the French. It is my contention, therefore, that despite his attempts at reporting Sri Lankan (village) life, he was constrained by his (lack of) roots from conjoining the visual and the verbal in them. The problem with those who could conjoin those two, on the other hand, was their inability to transcend the commercialist tendencies of their films.

Ravindra Randeniya, at the launch of Dileepa Perera’s book on Tissa Liyanasuriya last month, commented that Tissa stands between Lester and his ideological foe, Dharmasena Pathiraja. This is both correct and incorrect: correct because Liyanasuriya, in the films over which he exerted complete creative control (Getawarayo, Saravita, Punchi Baba, and Narilatha), went for stories that were more socially conscious; incorrect, because despite their lofty exhortations (Getawarayo is about the corruption of the village by the city, while Saravita is about an uncorrupted idealist from that same city), they could not transcend those populist, moral overtones that Pathiraja would reject.

Much of the groundwork laid by these pioneers – Liyanasuriya, Mike Wilson, and Shesha Palihakkara – would be adapted and added to in the seventies, not by Pathiraja but by two other directors. The second of these, Vasantha Obeyesekere, did the implausible: make use of the tropes in our commercial films to subvert the patriarchy and moral conservatism embedded in it. Barring Diyamanthi, all of Obeyesekere's films depict a shattering of hope, be it Kusum’s highbred notions of marriage life in Palagetiyo, Rathmali’s idealisation of her tormentor in Dadayama, or Nanda’s dreams of a stable, secure life with her errant husband in Kadapathaka Chaya. For this reason alone, they remain the landmarks they are.

If Obeyesekere tilted towards the anti-romantic, however, the other director tilted towards the opposite extreme. That is why I consider H. D. Premaratne, long ignored by critics, as the more groundbreaking of the two: not because he hit it big at the box-office with even his most serious stories, but because he brought serious themes to popular audiences through those stories. If Obeyesekere shocked, then Premaratne preached. This essay is an outline of what his work stood for.

Because cinema is the youngest art form, those who take to it tend to align themselves with other, older art forms. Measured against this truism, Lester was a modernist director, having grown up on Proust, Wallace Stevens, and Hemingway, while Pathiraja was the postmodernist, eschewing the idealism of his ideological foe through Barthes and Lyotard. I think it a fair criticism of both these pioneers that they were as dependent on literature as those they were contending against: the Jayamanne brothers, Sirisena Wimalaweera, and K. A. W. Perera.

The cinema of H. D. Premaratne was never rooted in the written word this way. Premaratne was the first director who worked out his stories (wittingly or unwittingly), not through his scriptwriters, but through his composers. I believe this observation (personal though it may be) is borne out by a rough perusal of his work: the contrast between the energetic freshness of Sikuruliya and Apeksha and the more serious undertones of Parithyagaya and Deveni Gamana, for instance, comes out when considering the fact that the music for the first two was composed by Clarence Wijewardena, for the latter two by Premasiri Khemadasa.

In Premaratne’s work, consequently, the image, the spoken word, and music are almost effortlessly conjoined. Like Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Premaratne’s more popular films (Apeksha, Saptha Kanya, and Adara Hasuna) bring about what can only be described as pure visual poetry because of this: the final sequence of Adara Hasuna, for instance, where Vasanthi Chathurani’s character is reconciled with her lover (Ravindra Randeniya), echoes the kind of happy but poignant ending that Sirk opted for in Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. There are sequences from even his cynical films – Palama Yata, Visidela, and Seilama – which depart from that cynicism and entreat us to forget.

And for me, that was what constituted the man’s strength AND weakness. While Obeyesekere became more cynical with each successive film (to the point of overkill, as Maruthaya showed), Premaratne remained the disciplined, romantic idealist, though not at the cost of depicting otherwise taboo themes. For better or worse, however, that idealism became his undoing when he went for the overtly political. That explains the limitations in Visidela and his last film, Kinihiriya Mal.

In Visidela he tried to reflect a politically fragmented era in a thwarted love story. Jackson Anthony’s character (a soldier) is at odds with his more politically active village. His idealisation of the political Establishment crumbles when he learns that his sister has been raped by his father’s friend (the sequence of the rape cuts to her father’s discovery of her boyfriend’s corpse: a victim of the ongoing insurrection). In the end we are as unable to connect the social and political as Anthony, so we blindly follow what he does next: kill the old man and in turn get killed by the same officers who employed and later promoted him. The tragedy here, poignant though it is, to my mind is inadequate to make up for the disjuncture between the love story and its political backdrop.

In Kinihiriya Mal he was crippled by another inhibition. Malinda Seneviratne in his review pointed out that the story was limited by the dichotomies reinforced between the virtuous village (symbolised by the elder sister, played by Vasanthi Chathurani) and the corrupting city (symbolised by the younger sister, a prostitute played by Sangeetha Weeraratne). “The urban-rural dichotomy depicted in the film is contrived and unconvincing for such clear demarcations are no longer tenable, not even in the imagination of the romantic ruralised,” he wrote.

Put simply, Premaratne’s attempt to depict a pertinent issue (underpaid garment workers being ensnared to prostitution) was marred by the good/evil divide that commercial films subsisted on. Given his inability to do away with those dichotomies, he was unable to free himself of the box-office tendencies of the same parallel cinema he brought about. Obeyesekere faced roughly the same problem: in his last film, Aganthukaya, he tried so hard to do away with the commercialist strains of his story that he ended up reinforcing the same good/evil divide that Premaratne tried to evade, but could not.

Should we regret, though? At one level, perhaps. But then Obeyesekere and Premaratne were quirks in our cinema: there was nothing to explain why they entered our film industry. Lester James Peries and Dharmasena Pathiraja were reacting against the conventional wisdom in that industry, with Lester as the modernist and Pathiraja as the postmodernist. Obeyesekere and Premaratne steered clear of both. In the end, I believe they could not realise the full worth of what they were doing because (and this I will get to in a later article) they were in a country where the divide between the popular and the arty, even in the cinema, was too firm to penetrate, much less defy.

Written for: Daily Mirror April 25 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Some deaths don’t die

Some years ago, Geetha Kumarasinghe narrated an episode of “Rupavalokanaya”. She based that entire episode on a single film. She waxed eloquently and went through its story. The film had a simple plot, but like all great films that simple plot contained a profound message. I remember someone telling me at that point, “Watch it!” This person had seen it and being an ardent admirer of the director, pointed out that for Geetha to have picked it meant that it would have moved her greatly.

The film, incidentally, was Apur Sansar. The director, Satyajit Ray.

I remember Geetha ending her episode with the following quote by Akira Kurosawa: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” Kurosawa was known to say such things about his contemporaries: in a letter to Ingmar Bergman, for instance, he wrote, “I have learned a lot from your works and have been encouraged by them.” He could have said the same thing of Ray, who started his career as a filmmaker long after both Kurosawa and Bergman had, not just because of what his films contained but because the man had to put up with strenuous circumstances when he directed them. Such circumstances could have transformed a lesser director into an amateur.

There was nothing amateurish about Ray, though. Even the best directors trip. Not Ray. He was up there with those who emerged in his time and created an alternative to what both Bollywood and Hollywood had spawned, in their rush to make money out of art. He would have understood that no industry could thrive without money, but he went on nevertheless. In the end, none of his films really made the rounds with the box-office, but they helped lend credence to the biggest revolution in film history after the coming of sound.

So what was it about this simple man that continues to fascinate us? For one thing, he knew what he did. That’s putting it rather crudely, but there’s no other way. Whatever he touched (and his interests went beyond just films) he took in and improved on. He could be an artist, a creative writer, an advertising man, a reader, a writer, a raconteur, or a musician and specialise in those fields without letting go of his other abilities. On this count, he was almost a giant. I say “almost” not because he was short-sighted, but because he was not perfect. More on that later.

Critics have written so much about the Apu Trilogy that there’s nothing else one can add. I believe that there’s no point assessing Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar, as films, not just because they transcended their medium but because Ray, notwithstanding the parameters and limitations within which he had to work, established that a film wasn’t just about entertainment or narratives or even character, but part and parcel of a culture. In later years, when he became his own scriptwriter, composer, cameraman, and editor (for being the individualist he was, he couldn’t have been content with others filling these slots), that point became his guiding principle.

The 50s and 60s were certainly turbulent decades for the cinema, especially on account of the erosion of the American studio system, the introduction of television, and (as I pointed out before) the emergence of alternatives to Hollywood. The French, more than anyone else from any other part of the world, were experimenting. In the end we had a virtual galaxy of directors, writers, and editors who churned out the good, the bad, and the downright obscure. In them all, however, there were some recognisable motifs, not least of which was the preference for confusion over simplicity in the plot. The French New Wave, like the New Waves it helped nurture in East Europe, symbolised that.

Ray, like Kurosawa and Bergman, didn’t follow this trend. Until his last film, Agantuk, he went for plots that made sense, which moved in a gradual and not erratic manner, and which accommodated characters who struck a chord with the audience.

To a large extent, this cut him off from the European cinema (even though it was that same cinema which influenced him). Jean Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, not to mention Alain Resnais and arguably the most nonconformist director of all time, Robert Bresson, depended on state support (which the French recognised and affirmed to a large degree) or shoestring budgets (which they could afford) to project their attitude to the cinema to the rest of the world.

Ray didn’t work like that. He had a story to tell, that story flowed from A to Z (to put it bluntly), and there was no room for detours. What he had, he used. And if he found filmmakers of his time too confusing for his tastes, he either admitted his ignorance (as with his take on Luis Buñuel’s Milky Way) or pointed out flaws which the director, in his attempt to make a profound statement out of his work, missed (as with his review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, where he correctly observed that the protagonist couldn’t have discovered a corpse in his photograph by blowing up and zooming in on it, for the simple reason that by doing so the image would have been blurred beyond recognition).

He called a spade a spade, wasn’t afraid of pointing out error, and was willing to acknowledge it in his own films. Simple.

And as I pointed out before, he was not perfect. There were two films he not only scripted but authored: Kanchenjunga and Nayak. Their plots were simple, yes, but while this was so, the larger ambition Ray set out for himself in them was clearly outside his reach at this point. Compare them with, say, Jalsaghar and even the three political films he made in the 1970s and you’ll discern the simplistic, constrained vision in those two.

But these were quirks in an otherwise sustained career: his two best films, Charulata and Mahanagar, were made during this time. And as someone once pointed out to me, Charulata isn’t just a film: it eventually becomes a puzzle and a virtual maze, through which the ordinary viewer must traipse at least thrice to understand completely. As Ray aptly implied, it was also more musical than cinematic, and for this reason it remains the best thing he ever did in his entire career.

There are those who say the opposite of his last three films, however: Ganashatru, an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play which dwelt on the conflict between conscience and expedience, Shakha Proshakha, a parable about an ageing man visited by his three errant sons, and Agantuk, another parable about another ageing man. What he did in these three, which even critics can’t discount, was reconcile his larger self to the career he’d carved for himself: the same thing which both Kurosawa (in Madadayo) and Bergman (in Saraband) did: an epiphany and apotheosis, in other words.

Critics point out, however, that these three were too simplistic for Ray. To me that’s rubbish. Ray was almost an invalid at the time (his son, for instance, had to take over when filming parts of Agantuk), and anyway, whoever assesses such works must first account for such outside factors before offering his or her two cents on them.

I will admit, however, that these films did manifest a certain kind of naiveté (with regard to the political) that Ray wasn’t known for before: Ganashatru, for instance, opens with a doctor culled by an ethical crisis but concludes on a triumphant note, while Agantuk depicts its protagonist as a staunch optimist (in both, the antagonist was played by Dhritiman Chatterjee, who ironically was the antihero in Ray’s most politically mature work, Pratidwandi). Perhaps the critics were right, then.

Or perhaps they were barking up the wrong tree. Idealism in itself isn’t unjustified in an artist. It sometimes remains the only way to affirm humanity, and Ray was a humanist. Which was why, when the protagonist in Agantuk returns to civilisation after his brief tryst with despair, and after he leaves everything to the same family who suspected him of being a fraud (with the exception, symbolically I should think, of his naive, friendly, and open grandnephew), we affirmed his optimism even though it was clearly at odds with a world that had embraced despair and made it a byword for reality.

I’m sure there was more to the man than this. He was, all things considered, someone who absorbed everything he came under. He was a nationalist and was steeped in his culture, but this didn’t inhibit him from exploring the outside world, a point he drove home aptly in his adaptation of Tagore’s brilliant parable against sham nationalism, Ghare Bhaire.

Ray was unparalleled in that sense. True, the movement he authored continues today (especially in the hands of his “successor”, Adoor Gopalakrishnan), but the important thing is that without his attempts, there wouldn’t have been such a movement to begin with. On that count, a lot of today’s filmmakers have a lot to take from his book.

Lester James Peries turns 98 this year. Had he lived, Ray would have been 95. The two of them, I’d like to think, would have exchanged visits and engaged in conversation, as probably the only living filmmakers from their generation, who had retired as professionals though not as ardent followers of the cinema.

But that’s conjecture.

Satyajit Ray was master in more than one sense. He continues to exert influence, teach us lessons, and help us understand that a nation’s film industry cannot hope to develop until its roots are nurtured. That’s something Lester taught us as well, and so I conclude: the biggest tribute we can make to these two men is understanding what they taught. Not just garlanding what they did.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, April 23 2017

Friday, April 21, 2017

The (unreasonable) vilification of art

About 16 years ago, a political commentator observed that our liberal arts curriculum impoverished rather than enriched those who opted for the Arts stream. He was entitled to that opinion of course, but that opinion as such was and is shared by a great many other people.

Briefly put it entails two points: one, the purpose of a University education, and two, its (apparently) manifest lack of congruity with Arts subjects. The first can be answered (as this commentator did) with reference to the system of education bequeathed to us by the British, largely catering to the job market as it was. The second, however, is less easy to resolve.

Let’s start with the statistics. In 2012, there were about 2.311 Science and 2.395 Commerce students for every Arts student in the Colombo district. The ratio that same year for both from the Moneragala district was 0.583. Coupled with the fact that Moneragala consistently ranks low in key socioeconomic indicators (in 2013, its Gini coefficient was 0.53, the highest in the country), you can infer a link between economic achievement and choice of subjects across the island: those parts considered as socially backward opt for soft subjects, unemployable and unmarketable.

One can lament. One can brush aside. To do either would be to plead indifference or ignorance, though. The problem, I think, is that the education system we follow has been compartmentalised so much that otherwise negligible issues tend to balloon quickly. The problem with the curriculum instituted by the British here, therefore, is that by being rooted in class stratifications, it could not be expanded (courtesy of the Kannangara Reforms) without reining in those same stratifications in more insidious forms. To a considerable extent, this has spilled over to our Universities as well.

It’s a vicious circle at one level. Districts demarcated as socially backward don’t attract the best teachers. Consequently, the students in these areas lack the necessary resources for hard subjects. They then opt for soft subjects, a trend reinforced by the fact that those from poorer backgrounds tend to prefer arts subjects for two reasons: one, their inability to pursue Science, Maths, or Commerce; and two, the lack of any serious opposition to their choice by their families. Of these the second merits closer scrutiny, because it goes back to what that political commentator observed more than a decade ago.

Here’s the issue. While Engineering, Computing, and Law are aimed at acquiring particularised skills that have a direct impact on employability, soft subjects are aimed at inculcating what can only be referred to “humanist values” in those who study them. These values, as Professor S. T. Hettige implied in a series of public lectures given on the topic many, many years ago, are generalised, as opposed to the particularised sweep of hard subjects, which is probably why those churned out by the Arts stream either spend the rest of their lives in an ivory tower or join the pool of the unemployed until they opt for job-oriented courses.

The gap between Colombo and outside-Colombo can therefore be explained by the kind of vocation parents want their children to pursue. The key factor differentiating them from their counterparts elsewhere is a misunderstanding of art as a subject reserved for bums. That is why, when Gayantha Karunathilake declared that an institute dedicated to music would be built in the memory of W. D. Amaradeva, some friends of mine reacted: “There are too many artists idling around already!”

What this betrays is a largely class-bound antipathy to the arts. We enjoy a song, a film, or even a dance item, but we don’t want our children to be that singer, director, and dancer. We want them instead to land in some blue-chip company before they hit 20, because of our fear of the lack of (financial) security entailed in a career in another stream. That is why even related fields like journalism and advertising are shirked as unworthy and unmarketable. “We are still in an era where MBAs are given primacy, even as they are losing that primacy in the West,” one friend told me. Aptly put, I should think.

Now there’s nothing wrong with all this, but when taken beyond permissible limits it only ends up solidifying those class stratifications referred to earlier: when you have the urban bourgeoisie (for that is who we are) shirking the arts, and when those from outstation regions opt for them, a division based on economic background is the only outcome. Regrettable, since the arts, by inculcating those aforementioned humanist values, seek to unify, not divide or facilitate division.

Which brings me to another issue. A perusal of our education system confirms the argument by Nayantha Wijesundera (in his book “Whither or Whether the Executive Presidency?”) that that system progresses horizontally (quantitatively), not vertically (qualitatively): an argument echoed in the fact that government spending on the system increased by more than 280% from 2003 to 2013 with no discernible outcomes. Problems are being patched up or converted to outlay, in other words. So much so, in fact, that even after a series of Development Plans, Education Commissions, and Task Forces, we still have not been able to do away with those regional disparities alluded to earlier.

Veiled under all this is the blatant double-speak spouted by those who badmouth the arts. Going by their argument, artistes are supposed to be stuck in a social vacuum because of which they can’t find productive employment. If that were the case indeed, how is it that these same critics of the liberal arts are entranced by the works of a writer or a painter? How is it that even the typical CEO or MD turn into connoisseurs of the arts? Why does the bourgeoisie spend hours if not days perusing the work of those who frequent and practically live on the streets along Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha? Why is Kala Pola so popular among that same bourgeoisie?

Part of the reason for this mentality, I believe, is to do with how we value job security. By that I am not thinking about financial stability: I am thinking about the fact that, apart from advertising, there is no industry where the arts and commerce get together cohesively. Our society is rooted in the idea of a (predominantly male) breadwinner looking after and over several dependents. Such a society, however bound to the arts it may have been in the past, demeans any activity that does not involve an employment contract and the luxury of EPF and ETF. This is not conjecture on my part: I have witnessed firsthand the barely concealed contempt for those who prefer a career in literature, music, or drama.

Which means, rather sadly I should think, that there’s no proper solution. Not unless we revise our prejudices and look at the world we inhabit. In a later column I will try to unearth the fundamental malaise afflicting our education system (in particular, our schools), but for now suffice it to say this: we have had and have given our share of Amaradevas, Khemadasas, Clarences, and Sekaras. We enjoyed their work and continue to do so. Is it not a sign of messed up priorities on our part, then, that while we teach our children to listen and enjoy, we teach them also to not emulate them?

There’s a term for this by the way, ladies and gentlemen. Hypocrisy. With a capital H.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 21 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Premasiri Khemadasa’s lost songs

In his landmark essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, T. S. Eliot made an observation of poets that was taken to promote a separation of the personal and the social in the artiste: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”

When I read Eliot’s essay, I thought of two composers who were opposed to and accommodative of this thesis: respectively, Beethoven and Mozart. The popular image of the former as an erratic genius constrained by physical disability and of the latter as a quiet prodigy has, I believe, confirmed this dichotomy well.

Decades later (in 1986), Regi Siriwardena in an article resorted to another such dichotomy, based on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” in which those two animals were used to make a contrast between artistes who thought of the world as reducible to themselves and artistes who thought of it as irreducible. For Siriwardena, Beethoven was the hedgehog because his middle period (his richest) is filled with rhythms that pulsate with the kind of power he hankered after in his life. Mozart, on the other hand, was the fox, because (echoing Eliot) in his work there’s a separation between the creator and the creation.

That an artist goes through numerous phases in his career isn’t always proof of his being a hedgehog, although that thesis is manifestly valid for Beethoven. They do, however, indicate a soul in search of some meaning in his art. Which brings me to the subject of my piece.

We know Premasiri Khemadasa went through certain chapters in his career. We can extrapolate and contend that, whether or not Eliot, Berlin, and Siriwardena were right, the fact that these “chapters” remain sharply distinct from each other is proof (however untenable) of the musical hedgehog in the man. Which begs the question: what were these chapters in the first place?

Eric Iliyaparachchi’s biography hints at three periods in Khemadasa’s career: the early sixties, the mid-sixties up to the eighties, and the nineties onwards. In the first period, he entered the world of theatre music. When I listen to the songs he composed during this time – like “Sirikatha Ena Maga” – I glean a vague and uneasy disconnect between two musical traditions: the raghadari sampradaya and the Western melody. He had as of yet not resolved this conflict.

The second period saw him enter our film industry through Robin Tampoe. Initially (as with “Samma Sambudu” from Ariyadasa Peiris’ Sobana Sitha) he had been hesitant to break away from the raghadari code. Tampoe’s films – in particular, Sudu Sande Kalu Wala – saw him embrace Western music, while with K. A. W. Perera’s Senasuma Kothanada he made his defection complete. His middle period became his richest for this reason: accentuated as his songs are with energetic rhythms, he almost seems to brag about his defection.

Before getting to his third and final period, however, we must assess what exactly he stood for. To answer that, it’s apt that we compare him to that other giant in his field, Amaradeva.

Amaradeva’s career can’t really be chapterised, unless you count in those early compositions that echo some of Sunil Shantha’s melodies (like "Shantha Me Rae Yame"), qualitatively different to his later work. But then for most, his later work represents THE Amaradeva that matters.

His songs from this period are underscored by a deeply felt, though never flaunted poignancy, at once profound and simple. Coupled with his (for the most) spare use of instrumentation (as with “Palu Anduru”, "Siripa Piyume", and “Ma Mala Pasu”), this confirms what scholars and music lovers alike consider as his single biggest contribution: the sarala gee. In other words, Amaradeva was a simplifier.

Khemadasa, on the other hand, was a flaunter. In the seventies, he went beyond anyone else experimenting in Western musical structures – Somadasa Elvitigala and Shelton Premaratne included – and broke into new territory. While Elvitigala died prematurely and Premaratne was denied the patronage he should have received for his versatility (I remember a prominent playwright from his time telling me, for instance, that he had the ability to move from baila to Beethoven in a matter of seconds), Khemadasa was able to move ahead and become the obverse of Amaradeva.

To list down some of the contrasts between the two, then:

Amaradeva was spare with his instrumentation, while Khemadasa was not. Amaradeva opted for a certain composure and poise, while Khemadasa was deliberately wobbly and colourful. Amaradeva was spontaneous (or at least gave the impression of being so), while Khemadasa was the perfectionist. Amaradeva could work with Mahagama Sekara so much that he became the "mee vitha" to the other’s "gee potha", while Khemadasa after collaborating with him over one main song (“Sara Sonduru Mal Patali” from Hanthane Kathawa) never worked with him again. To sum all these up: Amaradeva was the gradualist, Khemadasa more turbulent.

As with Beethoven, Khemadasa’s works represent the shattering of inherited forms: they dally with the same raghadari tradition he repudiated, only to playfully revert to Western rhythms (this playfulness is evident in such hits as “Mey Gee Eda”). “What is in my heart must come out and so I write it down,” Beethoven is reported to have said, and we can certainly take this to be his principle when it came to rejecting traditional musical forms: he is reputed to have once recorded 17 different attempts at proving that a certain rule of harmony was wrong. That’s where Khemadasa’s opposition to his contemporary comes out: while Amaradeva was the artisan, he was the trapeze artist who used his compositions to project his larger-than-life self.

But even trapeze artists have their moments of doubts, which soon give way to self-reflection and, eventually, self-repudiation. That explains Khemadasa’s decision to purge his craft: an act that was seen as a betrayal by some, a necessity by others.

From the nineties, he diverted his energies to three different musical streams: his collaboration with Jayantha Chandrasiri, his experiments with the three-minute song, and his operas and symphonies. His work with Chandrasiri kept him back from a complete rejection of his earlier phase, though that did not prevent him from rejecting it with the two other streams.

When I listen to middle period Khemadasa – think of “Loke Jeewath Wannata” and “Manamalai Manaharayi” – I sense a search for popular acceptance. By rejecting the forms and structures underpinning these songs, he was in effect trying to get rid of his image as a populist. Compared with his work from that time, not surprisingly, his later compositions (“Sara Gee”, “Suwandai Mal”, and “Wala Athula”) lose out in colour and instrumentation. These are hence what I consider to be his lost songs, remembered only marginally (though celebrated nevertheless) today.

Of his operas and symphonies, while some contend that these were too imitative to merit serious attention, I personally think that the problem goes deeper than such a superficial critique. Opera, after all, unlike the stylised musical theatre which evolved here, was reserved for the top brass of societies that subsisted on class stratifications. There is a kind of aestheticism involved in it, despite its superficial elegance and interplay of music and words, which appeals to those who have the luxury of time and leisure on their hands. This fatal disjuncture – between the kind of acceptance Khemadasa tried to get and the classist constraints of the genre he was working with – explains at least partly why opera never really took off in Sri Lanka.

These are reflections, I admit, and for the time being I am done with them. I will hence conclude.

Beethoven, in his last few years, made peace with himself through compositions that were more graceful than his previous work. Mozart, on the other hand, never felt the need to tone down, because in him we find a confirmation of Eliot’s dichotomy between the creator and the creation, as a composer who never altered his music to become artier or more personal.

To compare Mozart to Amaradeva would be, I admit, a bit remiss. Suffice it to say, then, that in Sri Lanka, as with the Europe of the Romantic Era, we come across two composers who exhibited two different conceptions of their medium. Whether the one triumphed over the other, we can’t tell. There’s no point comparing a fox with a hedgehog, after all. No point comparing an artisan with a trapeze artist. In the end, we can only comment. Since that’s not my task, I will stop here.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 19 2017

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Some goodbyes are for remembering

It all began with a phone call more than a year ago. Back then I was writing to another newspaper, penning about five or six articles a week. Someone wanted to get an article done on an old woman. She was, this person told me, an actress, a singer, and a performer. I didn’t know who Edna Sugathapala was. This person had another contact, by the way. A lady. She knew Edna. She wanted a write-up done. I obliged.

Those were easy days. Not-so-hectic days. I went, interviewed, and came back. I didn’t know Edna before I met her and I am still not sure whether I know her or the worth of what she's done. Either way, I liked the interview. One thing led to another, however, that newspaper I was writing to closed down, and we were in need of another publication and outfit to get it in. I personally felt responsible, because of Edna and the fact that no one had written on her before. She seemed nice. And she had done something.

In the end we found an outfit. Daily News. This was in November 2015. One phone call followed another, the contacts were made, and the article eventually got published. I was still a student then, so I had time to kill. That is why, when I got to know that the article had merited enough attention to raise the possibility of me doing an entire series of other men and women like her, for a weekly column, I was thrilled. I couldn’t have known of the pressure entailed in such an enterprise, but I couldn’t have cared less. The second article, on Swineetha Weerasinghe (another forgotten artiste), soon got published. The column had a name by then: “Stars of Yesteryear”.

Initially I focused on films. That was easy territory. The names kept on rolling: Douglas Ranasinghe, Lester James and Sumitra Peries, Anoja Weerasinghe, Chandran Rutnam, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Malini Fonseka, and even long gone, lamented stars: Tony Ranasinghe, Gamini Fonseka, Rukmani Devi, and Vijaya Kumaratunga. For reasons even I can’t comprehend, I had met or "done" these people before. I had time to kill, after all. That time proved crucial for me, as the column kept on expanding and as I moved on to other streams: music, theatre, dance, literature.

I stopped counting after a point. It’s not hard to come up with four or five articles a month and I don’t think it’s a feat to be proud of. There were people who advised, who helped. There were also exams and other commitments. All these factored in. In the end I met a horde of people. I’d like to think they improved my writing.

“Stars of Yesteryear” was not just a column, by the way. It was unprecedented in that no English newspaper here before the Daily News had the guts to start archiving those who’d enriched our cultural landscape. People talked of Lester James Peries but no one really took down what he was saying. People sang praises of Premasiri Khemadasa and Ajantha Ranasinghe but no one really took down their way of looking at the world. That is why, as a column on its own right (forgetting your humble columnist, me), it merits praise and attention.

Last week I wrote my last article to that column. On another, as unheard of artiste: Premaranjith Tilakaratne. Premaranjith was, ever since I first met him years ago, an advisor to me, one of those people who brought newspapers not to peruse the advertisements or employment sections (as most do) but to read what was actually in them. I remember a prominent journalist telling me, “Uditha, people don’t read.” I remember arguing with another prominent journalist over this same issue: all he had to say was, “Uditha, you’ve got to move on with the times.” I prefer the first to the second, needless to say. And Premaranjith, Chandran, Sumitra, Lester, and this column taught me why.

This is hence not an anniversary, but a farewell. Farewells usually merit remembrance. And gratitude. I will hence remember and be grateful.

First and foremost, to my editor and benefactor, Sachitra Mahenda. Sachitra and I kept in contact with each other through thick and thin. There were times when I forgot his guidelines (happens) and sent an article on the wrong (kind of) person. I did that once and I ended up thinking, brainstorming, and coming up with another article within one hour. That article, on Vijaya Kumaratunga (“Revisiting a Monument”, May 2016), remains a favourite because it taught me about deadlines and the importance of time in general. He helped me, in his own special way, to improve, to learn to craft, and of course to stick to the brief. He did much more, I’m certain, so much so that he remains a friend (though we’ve never met in person, yet). So Sachitra, I am grateful. Thank you.

I would not have got to know Sachitra were it not for Rasika Jayakody. Rasika also, I have not met. He saw my article on Edna, read it, and asked me to continue. I know Rasika is a fervent follower of the arts and I know that, despite his political essays and insights, he is very much at home with literature. Such a quality is hard to come by in an industry which prefers the 500-word puff-piece over a proper, cohesive review. For that alone, I am happy that I made his acquaintance. So Rasika, I am grateful. Thank you.

Then there was that other man and lady who got me in contact with Edna. Let me start with the lady. I never met her in person after that first encounter, but I know she’s in a completely different industry and one in which the arts take a backseat to profit. Sandra Mack, designer, photographer, creative soul, and conversationalist has always been another keen follower of the arts. I have come across those her age who don’t know of Amaradeva and I am happy that she is different. She knows how to talk convivially and how to explain. She enthrals. In more ways than one, with her knowledge and friendliness. She got me into this column and, whether or not she acknowledges it, she was responsible. So Sandra, I am grateful. Thank you.

What of the man? That of course was my mentor, Malinda Seneviratne. To keep a long story short, the paper he was editor of, which I was writing to like a convalescent, closed down. I was a homeless waif, an orphan with a pen which had ink but no parchment. When I think of those unemployed, no-writing-done days now, I can only smile (because those were also let’s-kill-time days of wine and roses). Malinda taught me a lot. Like Rasika, he is an avid follower of the arts. Again, rare. He moreover knows enough of the West and East and he has been in both to have the right to comment, on politics or the arts. For all he taught me and continues to teach me, through argument and conversation, I will hence be happy, for I will learn. So Malinda, I am grateful. Thank you.

Some of these people I’ve written on are still alive. Some have gone away. Others went away long before we knew they had. Consequently, I can’t pick on a favourite. I value what each of them had to say and I value the many other readers I befriended (some of whom I have met in person). It’s impossible to think of a column doing all this, but then people do read. It’s just that those who value the written word tend to read more. And that those who tend to read more are older and wiser than the young who (usually) do not.

So what now? I hope “Stars of Yesteryear” will continue or be resuscitated soon. I am sorry to say that I will be unable to continue. These past two years saw the death of so many of our past masters. No archive or fancy building will be enough to salvage their memory, if all we do is forget. Perhaps what every newspaper needs, then, is its own “Stars of Yesteryear” column. Not because it will give aspiring writers an opportunity to write, but because, in archiving names long forgotten, they will be resurrected for remembrance and gratitude.

Those let’s-kill-time days have gone. I am busier in a job that pays my rent, though whether it’s my passion or whether I like it is another story altogether. Writing, however, remains a habit, an obsession. So I will write. I can only hope that others write too, for everyone else to read. Not puff-pieces, but real, substantive, archival observations. In the process and along the way, if they revisit the past and pay tribute to those who enriched that past, my countrymen will only be pleased. Daily News taught me this much, I know.

And with this, I wave goodbye.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 19 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The three lives of Anudatta Dias

How does one condense a biography? What are the finer details, the subtle nuances, which are lost with the writer's attempts to sift away? These are controversial questions, and hence can’t really be answered. The best a biographer can do, then, is believe that what he writes is enough for us to infer and fill in. This is therefore an attempt at a biography.

The whole country knows of Chitrasena. The whole country knows of Vajira and of Upeka, right down to the generations that will take the mantle they have left behind. This is not about those who have danced and nurtured their art to near-perfection. This is about one among them who stands out by his commitment to other enterprises, who has not followed his father’s footsteps but who leaves behind footsteps discernible to the entire country. Anudatta Dias, the subject of my sketch, has lead three lives: as cricketer and ruggerite, as engineer and entrepreneur, and as mountain biker, kayaker, and cause-promoter. Let me begin with the first of these.

Anudatta’s story begins at Royal College. His sisters had learnt to dance. They continued to dance. The brother, on the other hand, had loved to play. So he continued to play. His first encounter with cricket had been as an Under 12 player, after which he graduated from House Matches to School Matches when his agility was “discovered”. A left-arm fast bowler, he had been in the Under 14 and Under 16 teams, thereafter being elevated to the First XI in 1972.

“We began with the third season matches and went ahead with matches against Ananda and Nalanda, culminating in Trinity before battling it out with S. Thomas’. The 1973 Royal-Thomian was captained by Ajitha Pasqual. I was the opening bowler and inswinger. In fact I always hit the wicket within the first three overs. The team knew what I was good at, so they never used me to fill in another slot.” From then on, barring the 1975 Royal-Thomian, he played, swung, and won.

Around this time he had been entranced by rugby. The problem was that he was a good inswinger. “My team knew me for who I was. So they didn’t want me to play rugby and injure myself. Besides, I had a back problem, which comes up with every fast bowler. In 1976, however, having missed the previous year’s Big Match, I brushed off what everyone was telling me and joined the team.” Coincidentally and luckily for him, it had been a terrible year for that team: many of the 15 coloursmen had gone to India to do their London A/Levels. Anudatta, along with Devaan Hallock, had vied for the second row. Both got in.

The First Season began. Anudatta and Devaan played. Not too long afterwards, the coloursmen returned. The second-row slots had to be restored. The two of them, put simply, had to leave.

What happened next? “Malik Samarawickrama and Summa Navaratnam got us to play against each other. We were basically contending against the coloursmen. Malik focused on the line, Summar focused on the pack. In the end, Hallock had to leave as a reserve and I retained my second-row slot after an encounter with Mayanth Kanagasunderam.” The rest of 1976, he tells me, passed away memorably, which had a lot to do with how the Royalists performed against competing teams. “We were actually called the Invisible Players. We broke the record held before by J. R. Jayewardene at that year’s Bradby. We also set a record at our match with Isipathana, unbroken even today.”

Encounters like this are often followed by stints at the National Team. Anudatta had become part of the Under 19 Squad. “We played some trials. I remember bowling out even Ranjan Madugalle. I was thereafter selected as the opening bowler for the first match against Pakistan. After being told that I would be taken in for the tour, however, I was left behind. Just like that.”

What happened next was predictable but disillusioning: he refused to speak for himself and get others to act on his behalf, so having waded through disappointment, he let go. “I don’t let people speak on my behalf,” he tells me by way of explaining his decision, “Not my father, not my sponsors. If my team left me, they did so for a reason, though I was a good bowler. I don’t try to regain what I lose in such circumstances.” Having left cricket, he left his country, arrived in England, and entered his second phase: as engineer and entrepreneur.

Anudatta entered the London Electronics College to study Video Engineering. “I was living in North Harrow. One of my friends was Ranil Abeynaike. I tried my hand at cricket through him, but owing to a stiff back and cold climate, I had to let go again. I soon forgot all that and concentrated on my education.”

I ask him here as to what he learnt. “It was modelled on the City and Guilds curriculum, mostly having to do with things like colour theory and component repair-work. Those three years were followed by a brief stint at City and Guilds itself, though I never went beyond the second part of its syllabus. Given that television had just arrived in Sri Lanka, I was asked to come back. I was one of the first qualified video engineers who did return, in fact.”

In Sri Lanka, Anudatta was introduced by his father to D. B. Nihalsinghe, who advised him to master what he’d learnt and then start making money. Needless to say, he did just that, heeding Nihalsinghe’s advice to start at what was then the biggest electronics service centre in Sri Lanka, SIEDLES.

“By that time I’d applied to other places, which were ready to pay me more. But I realised that more than the pay, what mattered was how much experience I’d get. Having moved into SIEDLES, I was sent to Singapore to learn about cameras. When I came back, I was paired with a team of bright technicians, including Thevis Guruge’s son Wasantha. We knew our theory and we stuck to it, though we also thought outside the box.”

Apparently the Singapore workshop had taught him so much that when SIEDLES shifted to Ward Place, he was given the task of managing the new Service Centre. “We saved hundreds of millions for the company,” he smiles, “Because no one really knew what logical fault-finding was, they were content in throwing away components and boards. We taught the staff repair-work and soon enough, the new Service Centre was up and running at a profit. I stayed there for 12 years.”

He next moved into Nihalsinghe’s Telecine to handle the Telecine Service Centre, moving into his own workshop (which he began at his grandmother’s house in Nawala) and company (A & J Electronics) three years later, and thereafter joining Hayleys and remaining there for about 10 years.

After falling out with Hayleys, he shifted to importing gym equipment in 2005, becoming the main dealer for Preco under his own agency and becoming a distributor to over 25 clients in the country. When that too collapsed owing to problems with an unscrupulous competitor (which cost him more than 10 million), Anudatta worked on another company of his called Tough Stuff, partnering up with Nautilus and, last year, with Star Trac. “We just finished furnishing Jetwing Lake in Dambulla,” he tells me, “Business has picked up again.”

That’s Anudatta the player and the entrepreneur. What of his third life, as promoter of causes? Given his willingness to pursue only what he was and is good at (his philosophy in life, one can contend), he had given up cricket completely after his return to Sri Lanka and after a few Old Boys matches which had, so to speak, not fared well for him. In 1995, however, he had been introduced to another sport by his friend, Chanaka Rodrigo: mountain biking.

“I had raced with him and my other friends while at College,” he remembers, “But when he told me that we were going to bike down estates and plantations, I was amused.” He had been taken to one such race that year, however, and from then on, he had grown fascinated with this literally out-of-the-woods pastime. Not surprisingly, he pursued it, becoming a member of the Colombo Mountain Bikers. After a few races in Hambantota and elsewhere, he teamed up with (among others) Ajith Fernando, Yasas Hewage, Peter Bluck, Sarinda Unamboowe, and Charlene Thuring for Around the Pearl, in 2014.

Anudatta no doubt has his own Around the Pearl story and he sums it up for me: “We had to cover about 600 kilometres. It was tough. The final ride, from Dambulla to Kilinochchi to Point Pedro, was daunting to say the least. We were dehydrated every 15 minutes. I myself was so famished that I continually looked ahead for signs of a tower, just so I could convince myself that we were near a town!”

Around the Pearl of course ended with a flourish, and with it Anudatta had passed over another phase of his life. That had earlier compelled another pastime in him: kayaking, which took him across the country again, from Manampitiya to the Mahaveli, during and after the war. Another life, another phase, another chapter, and another task for the less sketchy biographer.

So what do all these congeal into? Anudatta the bowler, the ruggerite, the engineer, the entrepreneur, or the cause-promoter? As the son of our foremost exponent of dance in the 20th century, not a few would have expected him to take the mantle his family bequeathed to him. Barring a few performances in Kinkini Kolama and Nirthanjali, however, he differed and detoured. That is his wish, that is his fate, and with all those lives he’s led thus far, that may well be for his betterment and for the betterment of the country he continues to call his own, cover, trek, sail, and serve.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, April 9 2017

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Premaranjith Tilakaratne: The forgotten rebel

When way back in 1963 the Ceylon Civil Service was abolished and replaced by the Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) Administrative Service, two things happened. Important things.

The first, quite obviously, was a shift from the elitist, Anglophile mentality that the Civil Service (being a product of colonialism) had pandered to. The second was the emancipation of a horde of artistes who, thanks to a more “nationalised” administrative service, were able to balance their work and their other lives well.

Of these artistes, a great many were playwrights and actors. Henry Jayasena is probably the name that crops up at once, while among our actors Tony Ranasinghe figures in significantly. Because of the security provided for them by a more amenable government, they were able to experiment and take on the mantle that Sarachchandra and his golayas had secured for themselves in our Universities. Neither Jayasena (who stood for a hybridised, semi-operatic theatre) nor Ranasinghe (who was a leading member of Sugathapala de Silva’s troupe) were products of those Universities, which probably brought about a clash or conflict between these two meandering streams.

To make matters more complicated, both Jayasena and de Silva stood for a theatre driven by dialogues: even Jayasena, for all his exquisite handling of decor and music, could not really think beyond the lofty soliloquies that garland much of his work. For that reason, a playwright who could do what was then considered implausible – challenge Sarachchandra’s stylised theatre while privileging the visual element – had to come. That playwright was Premaranjith Tilakaratne.

Before I sketch out his biography, a broad sweep of his work is called for. Premaranjith was not a revolutionist in the theatre. He wasn’t interested in being one anyway. 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).

When I quizzed him about Sri Wickrema, the man talked not of the play, but of the man who patronised Tower Hall that day: “Jayewardene was literally a cultured man. He knew Nurti and had seen Nurti plays as a young man. In my day, however, there was a culture of dismissing that kind of theatre as third rate and second hand. What its detractors missed out, which the then president did not, was that culture is a sum total of seemingly disparate visuals and words. You can’t privilege one over another. More often than not, the dialogues-based plays that had been in the vogue since the sixties had monopolised the industry. That is why I never pandered to this convenient myth where words and verbose dialogues were considered superior to decor and music.”

The overarching motif that defines Premaranjith’s work then (and I can only conjecture, given that I haven’t seen them firsthand) is a commitment to the visual potential of the theatre. He confirmed this for me when he told me of an encounter he had with Shelton Premaratne, who composed the music for his most expensive work, Kontare (an adaptation of West Side Story):

“I realised at the inception that the challenge and in fact the thrust of the play would have to be its music. I sought out influence from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart,  Tchaikovsky, and contemporary popular music, before coming up with the lyrics for the songs in it. Those songs would guide the story, so I attended to them meticulously. Afterwards, when I explained to Shelton as to how they would be played out, all he had to tell me was, ‘Prem, to be honest you’ve done everything. I don’t really have much to do here.’ It was a compliment, of course.”

And in a big sense, that compliment echoes the man’s upbringing. He was born in Ratnapura in 1937, educated initially at Sri Palee College in Horana (which had been structured along the lines of Tagore’s Shanthiniketan) and later at Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya. Apparently classes at Sri Palee ran on Saturday and halted only on Sundays and Wednesdays. “That proved to be an obstacle for us, because it was at that school that we fell in love with the movies."

Schools are remembered for certain memories and these include “playing hooky.” Given the schedule at Sri Palee, Premaranjith and his friends would resort to that on Saturdays, when they’d skip classes for the 10.30 show. Not that it had been easy, of course: his father (a strict iskole mahaththaya) was opposed to films on principle. Predictably, the son rebelled against the father. While much invective would have flowed, however, he remembers him with affection for me: “He taught me much about respect, honour, dignity, and responsibility.”

Incidentally it was his father who had entranced Premaranjith to the theatre. “He was a big admirer of Sirisena Wimalaweera. Wimalaweera had a penchant for overblown dialogues, which were aligned with the religious parables he went for. I wasn’t very religious as a child, which explains why I was more intrigued by the visuals than the stories in them. In any case, I continued to rebel against my father and patronise the cinema. I had grown enamoured of Bollywood, especially the films of Bimal Roy.” Needless to say, like Wimalaweera’s work these films attracted him for the mise-en-scène and music: “I don’t have a good memory for dialogues.”

There was a man he befriended at his next school, Dharmapala, who had such a memory. That man was Tissa Abeysekara, against whom Premaranjith comes out as an artiste of a different mould. While I will not delve into his friendship with Abeysekara, I will point out that while the man (later to become our foremost scriptwriter) could and did recite the words and dialogues in a film they would see effortlessly, for his friend what came out more discernibly in a work of art was its sense of style. “To be honest, I was a critic of Tissa’s work, barring his dialogues and scripts. We consequently clashed, sometimes over our conceptions of art and sometimes over politics. But through it all, we remained the best of friends until his passing away.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tilakaratne never became a professional artiste. “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 'Ape Kattiya', but before that, having seeing the play, I was enchanted by the idea of striking my own path.”

There’s much more than this which he’s recounted for us, in his biography (published recently by Surasa) Durganthaya, including the inevitable clashes he had with Sugathapala: “He knew what he was doing. I differed from him. Because he didn’t like that, given the cult that had grown around him, we agreed to disagree.”

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 canon, for instance, he is quick to exclaim, “What’s there in them that merit attention, as a literature?” When I dwell on our epics, he is quick to retort, “We don’t have epics here, only episodes.” In this respect, he resists categorisation, which is probably why the best way to sum him would be to differentiate him from the kind of theatre that BOTH Sarachchandra AND Sarachchandra’s rivals represented. “I belong to no camp,” he might as well have told me.

Where is Premaranjith Tilakaratne today? He lives in Malabe, near Talahena, with his son. People have (I am sorry to say) forgotten him. That reflects badly on us, given his deteriorating (physical) condition (for since of late, he has not been in good health), but that also reflects badly on him.

In short, he remains a forgotten rebel, forgotten not because his work was never re-staged despite the popularity they enjoyed (in particular, Kontare) but because, given his distaste for popularity and populism, he shirked the kind of coverage his contemporaries received from the press. There is a reason, after all, why Lionel Ranwala is remembered and not Piyasiri Wijeratne and W. B. Makuloluwa, or why Amaradeva and Khemadasa are remembered and not Lionel Algama and Shelton Premaratne. The fault, as always, isn’t with those who got the popularity they deserved, but rather with those who forget the other giants as deserving of that popularity they never got.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 12 2017

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Vasantha Obeyesekere we never knew

Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, in a Facebook tribute posted the other day, made the following observation: “වසන්ත ඔබේසේකර තරමට ශබ්දයේ ප්‍රබල බවත් සාරයත් හදුනාගත් වෙනත් ලාංකික සිනමාවේදියෙකු නොමැත” (loose translation: "There is no Sri Lankan filmmaker who could play around with the intricacies of sound as well as Vasantha Obeyesekere").

Whether or not this is the most discernible achievement of Obeyesekere, who passed away on Saturday, I will get to shortly, but for the purpose of my tribute I will concede this much: the man’s craft, which took the entire country through 13 films over four decades, reflected a shift in gender and power relations that made up much of the Sinhala cinema.

How did he bring this about? The answer to that can be found in an observation Regi Siriwardena made decades ago: the commercial cinema, far from being an escapist medium, could be creatively used to question the very same patriarchy and conservatism it pandered to. Siriwardena was thinking about the parallel cinema rampant in India back in his day. That parallel cinema never really spilt over to Sri Lanka, for reasons even I can’t comprehend. It came to us later through two filmmakers. The first was H. D. Premaratne. The second was the man who left us last Saturday.

Vasantha Obeyesekere came to us at a time when our cinema was being flanked by two ideological streams. The first, represented by Lester James Peries, absorbed from post-war Italian neo-realism. The second, represented by Dharmasena Pathiraja, absorbed from East European nihilism and pacifism. In critical terms, Lester was the bourgeois idealist, Pathiraja the bourgeois realist. Obeyesekere, whose first film predates Ahas Gawwa by three years, was a loner in all this, an individualist who rebelled against both those other directors and the ideologies they espoused. In other words, as director and artiste, he was neither an idealist nor a realist.

Who was he, then? What was there, in Palagetiyo, Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya, and Maruthaya that constituted his signature? Was it his willingness to flesh out otherwise mundane stories with fresh layers of meaning? Was it his willingness to depict the political and social through the personal? Was it his unyielding cynicism, which survives even in as optimistic and atypical a film like Diyamanthi? Or was it ability to entrance us with elements from the popular cinema, only to unsettle us by moving to a higher, artier conception of his medium? Perhaps.

We know that he was a cynic. In his first phase, which culminated with Palagetiyo, he was a naturalist who portrayed life as it was, like a documentarian. He evaded that naturalism (given its self-imposed ideological limits) and became more unforgiving in the eighties, a decade that was tumultuous and unstable for reasons we already know. From Dadayama onwards, his films were hence endowed by his signature: an eye for the dichotomy between the ideal and the real, which makes up the conflicts that drive his narratives. Because he was his own scriptwriter, he was even more able to rein in on his savage, critical view of the world.

This was the Obeyesekere we knew, the same Obeyesekere that Pushpakumara gleaned in one pithy sentence. Sample all his films after Palagetiyo: the opening sequence of Dadayama (where Rathmali walks down one city after another to discover the man who impregnated and then abandoned her), the first 20 minutes of Kadapathaka Chaya (where Danaratne’s funeral is interspersed with the marriage of his sister-in-law years earlier), and the court scenes in Salelu Warama, and you will infer that by disassociating the dialogues and images from the context they are relevant to, the director unearths a sharp contrast between the hopes of his protagonists and the reality they are placed in. To drive home this point, he resorted to two elements: sound and editing.

To my mind, the two films where he triumphed with both these were Dadayama and Kadapathaka Chaya. He tried with the latter to go beyond the former, by diffusing the conflict in the story with a bigger cast. While in Dadayama that conflict was concentrated between two characters (which brought out the best that both Ravindra Randeniya and Swarna Mallawarachchi could bring out, at that stage in their careers), in Kadapathaka Chaya you have a philanderer, his victim, and their families. All in all, a wider milieu.

In the end, what did we get? With Dadayama, we got an unbearable-to-sit-through finale (one of the most celebrated in the history of our cinema). With Kadapathaka Chaya, we got an even more shocking, but nevertheless transient sequence at a hospital ward (shocking, because owing to its patriarchal base the Sinhala cinema could not conjure up a maligned woman throwing acid on a man’s face). For that reason, it is my contention that Obeyesekere was at his best (with sound and editing) when he placed his narrative in a narrowed down milieu: the milieu he evaded in his weakest film, Maruthaya, and then returned to in Dorakada Marawa and his subsequent work.

Buttressing all this is another as important point: in doing what he did by displacing sound and image, Obeyesekere was questioning both tradition and modernity. In his review of Dadayama, Regi Siriwardena contended that while Rathmali’s descent destroys her family and drives her father insane, her first trysts with her tormentor are nervously accepted by them as a means of climbing the social ladder. This comes out devastatingly when, as he is beating her up after discovering her failed attempt to abort her second child, Rathmali exclaims to her father, “Didn’t you want all this?”

About a year ago I made the following comment on the man’s work: “In the films of Vasantha Obeyesekere, if tradition is stifling, then the forced thwarting of it by modernity leads to total collapse and decay (‘leaving only an empty shell behind’). One can argue that this reinforces traditionalist values, but it does not. To hold tradition inferior to modernity because of the retrogressive nature of the former is to ignore the acquisitive, ruthless character of the latter.” In other words, he indicted neither the optimism of tradition (which Peries was preoccupied with) nor the cynicism of modernity (which Pathiraja was preoccupied with), but rather the inevitability of the tragedies that befell his characters in an uncertain era.

Last January Swarna Mallawarachchi held a film festival. Five days, 10 films. Dadayama was shown on the second day, Kadapathaka Chaya on the fourth. On both days, one person was missing. We don’t know where he was at the time, but we do know that after he retired, he left his work so much that no one talked about him. People will talk about him now. They will offer their two cents, offer some caveats on his career, and pay tributes. I have my two cents. I will end my piece with them.

Vasantha Obeyesekere was 80 when he left us last Saturday. He entertained and enthralled us for much of his life. He taught us all there was to know about the centre that never held. Once he let go, everything came apart. Unsettling, yes, but that’s the way it is. I believe Sanjeewa Pushpakumara summed him up well in one sentence. Since I can’t hope to compete, I will stop here.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 11 2017