Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Drama Comp 2017: The good, the bad, and the mediocre

Because of the themes it engenders and certain demographic realities, the English theatre in Sri Lanka is limited to Lionel Wendt. What transpired in 1956 and thereafter was, essentially, the bifurcation of our intelligentsia into swabasha and non-swabasha. The latter remain culturally hegemonic: they call the shots in our English Departments. The media helps propagate them, moreover: we already know that the English theatre is popularised by puff-piece sketches which champion its mere existence. The Sinhala theatre, by contrast, is more vibrant, more profound, and at school level, the Samastha Lanka Natya Tharagawaliya is wider in scope than its English equivalents. I believe the same can be said of our Tamil theatre.

I observed in an article written not too long ago that the English theatre in our schools tends to reinvent, and reflect, the English theatre elsewhere. What I meant there was that every positive and negative point about the latter can be gleaned from a school production, from the choice of subject-matter to the attitude of the playwright and the cast towards that subject-matter. Once in a while one does come across an intelligent production, one that is formally and substantively refreshing. But that’s rare. So rare, in fact, that when it does come about, the reviewers tend to salivate.

Drama Comp is an annual interschool drama competition (the title makes it rather obvious) organised by the Interact Club of Royal College. The Interact Movement in this country teeters between community service projects and projects that celebrate the fact of being members of a particular clique. In the case of Drama Comp, it’s membership of that esoteric circle which rallies around Lionel Wendt. For the past 31 years it has tried to equal in scope and intensity that other celebration of English theatre in Colombo, the interschool Shakespeare Drama Competition. A few weeks ago it was held for the 32nd time. Here’s a sketch of what I saw and the reflections it compelled in me.

The theatre is rooted for the most in relationships and a sense of interconnectedness. The English theatre here is rooted even more so on those relationships, which is why most of its plays emphasise on a coming together of its characters. I am not sure whether the kind of separation we come across in Sinhala plays is absent in them because of the social content of their audiences (a largely conservative, urban middle and upper class). Before going any further, though, let me return to Drama Comp.

Three of the four finalists at Drama Comp 2017 sustained that aforementioned conception of our English theatre: Ananda College, St Peter’s College, and St Bridget’s Convent. All these productions interested me immensely, but owing to spatial constraints I can only pass over them.

The Ananda College production echoed what I pointed out earlier in its very title: I Know You, one of those hyperlinked plots where we know the relations between the characters which even those characters do not until the end. The St Peter’s College production, meditative, jazzy, but basically self-brooding, examined the multidimensionality of the bully and the bullied. The St Bridget’s production, the only non-original skit staged that evening, centred on its protagonist’s memories and fantasies as he grapples with the fact that he’s sitting on an anti-personnel mine. I am not interested in pinpointing the flaws and demerits of these skits, rather to glean some larger and more relevant meaning from the entire event.

Shakespeare’s plays thrive on conflict and drama. The former necessitates the latter: once there’s no conflict, there’s no drama. The 20th century, on the other hand, bred a set of playwrights who saw the dramatic in the un-dramatic, who were (as Susan Sontag observed) “devoted to raking up private, rather than public, hells.” Of course, Shakespeare was no different there, but the likes of Willy Loman brought about a theatre form that is more at home here with Sinhala productions. In other words, our English theatre is fixated on drama that subsists on conflict. Our Sinhala theatre, in comparison, has evolved.

Isn’t it ironic and interesting that the best continental playwrights – Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen, Brecht, and Beckett – have been the darlings of our Sinhala and not English playwrights? Jayantha Chandrasiri’s plays owe considerably to Beckett, while Dharmasena Pathiraja graduated to the cinema with Koraya saha Andaya, an Absurdist tract which found its cinematic equivalent in his patently nihilistic Soldadu Unnahe. The late Premaranjith Tilakaratne found his Big Theme – the father-son conflict – in Strindberg, while both Henry Jayasena and Parakrama Niriella toyed around with Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.

To be sure, Sinhala plays aren’t perfect. Many of those who took to the English kitchen sink drama in the sixties and the political wave which swept our theatre in the seventies (barring the pioneers, Sugathapala de Silva and Pathiraja included) confused form for substance and skewed the latter in their work. That is why they resorted to symbols and metaphors, which their heirs subsist on even today. They are the theatrical equivalent of what Pauline Kael referred to as movie brutalists: they were tired of the stylised craftsmanship of Maname, Sinhabahu, and those who were tutored under Professor Sarachchandra.

There are no brutalists in our English theatre, just as there are no brutalists in our English literati and intelligentsia. I believe this has much to do with the social content of those who frequent the Wendt. They are, as I pointed out before, largely urbanised and conservative. It is that conservative streak which inhibits them from doing the hard yards the Sinhala theatre has. Even in our schools.

The Sinhala theatre is focused on open characters that have something to hide. The English theatre is focused on closeted characters that want to get out. This discrepancy can’t really be rationalised: it exists because of that conservative streak among those who go to the Wendt. Because of that streak, they can only be insular. And like all insular people, they desire to reveal, not hide. The best productions, on that count and in the English theatre, are those which stray away from this trend.

Which brings me back to Drama Comp. The winner this year was Methodist College, whose production TTYL was, as far as I could make it out, a visual distillation of contemporary angst. By disassociating speech from performance, it succeeded in depicting the alienation perpetuated by social media. It was fun to watch, not least because it was free of the formal constraints which characterised the other productions. The Ananda, St Peter’s, and St Bridget’s skits were conservative in that sense. They could only affirm humanity. TTYL, however, didn’t affirm humanity, simply because it didn’t feel it had to. I could hence only gasp at the transitions in it, accompanied by excerpts from classical music, including Beethoven’s Ninth, the Blue Danube, and the First Movement (“Spring”) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

I sound pessimistic here. I didn’t intend to. But year after year, I am tired, baffled, and even angered by the kind of insularity the English theatre, literati, and cinema (yes, we do have an independent English cinema) breed. The Methodist production at Drama Comp 2017 was refreshing. How many such productions do we come across at the Wendt? I see David Mamet has come back, though I unfortunately missed Glengarry Glenn Ross. But for every Mamet, we get Hugo, Leroux, and Shaw. Likewise, for every standalone TTYL, we get three other not-so-standalone skits. The only consolation I therefore can get, which the judges at Drama Comp and the organisers from the Interact Club of Royal College delivered to me that night, was the fact that it won. Yes, they win. Yes, they are cheered on. And how.

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 30 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

Fadil Iqbal’s journeys: One country, nine days

The best way to sum up Fadil Iqbal would be to describe him as a go-getter. That’s simplistic, even naive, but for the time being (I hope) it’ll do. The point about him is that he’s travelled, or rather cycled, through Sri Lanka. In nine days. No mean feat, obviously, which is why I am as interested in that journey as I am in his story. The latter, I will get to later. The former, I will get to now. Before I do so, however, I need to elaborate on what kind of a person he is. So here’s a sketch.

He’s a scout, a basketball player, an actor, and an undergraduate. He began these activities when he became a Scout in Grade Six at his school, S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. Having forayed into camping, he later became an Under 19 basketball player. He didn’t forego on his studies, moreover: he chose Maths and Physics for his A Levels, a decision he attributes to his parents (his mother had studied Chemistry and his father Botany). At Colombo University he pursued marathons, rowing, and the Gavel Club (when it was first formed two years ago). That first activity, he tells me, got him thinking about cycling. I ask him to explain.

“I ran my first marathon in 2015. That was over 21 kilometres. My second marathon the following year was longer, at 42 kilometres and from the BMICH to the Negombo beach. It was of course excruciating, but I learnt a lot. Yes, I know one long run isn’t going to change your outlook on life and the world, but when I passed all those kiosks, those ordinary people going about their daily work, their children, and even those street dogs and cats, I realised how much we were missing on the road.”

I put to him that marathons usually inculcate such an attitude in those who take part in them, and he attributes it to the fact that compared with most other countries, such activities are considered as out-of-the-ordinary in Sri Lanka: “In the West, they are the norm. Here, on the other hand, athletes are looked up to as superheroes.” As for his second activity, rowing, he had been taken up by an observation made by his fitness coach Vajira Dharmawardhana: that a good cyclist was a good oarsman.

“Vajira aiya got me thinking,” Fadil says, “I remembered a friend of mine from school who used to cycle all the way from his hometown in Kalutara to Mount Lavinia and how he could recall nearly every shortcut in my own neighbourhood. I remembered a friend of mine from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura called Saroj Somarathne, who would later bike to work from his residence at Wijerama to Diyagama. I remembered that I owned a rusty mountain bike. Because it was rather worn out, I switched to a road bike and began cycling to work every day.”

This was last year. Things moved quickly thereafter. Because Fadil had been used to waking up at about seven to get to his office (RCS2 Technologies Wellawatte, the only local manufacturer of 3D printers), he was intrigued by the prospect of waking up one hour earlier. “That gave me a lot of time to read, think, and reflect when I arrived at work at about seven,” he tells me, “Which was when I realised that the two-wheeler actually catered to the cyclist’s sense of time and priorities, more so than any other vehicle.” But there was a caveat: “I was always worried about the tyres.”

It was his friend Saroj who proposed that they bike around the country. “I didn’t hesitate when he mooted it, but we needed to discuss how we’d do it and how long it would take. We met up at his campus, talked, and decided to go for it over Avurudu, since our offices would be closed and since we couldn’t take too many days on leave. Moreover, we were used to biking about 20, maybe 30 kilometres. This journey would take us about 100, sometimes 200 a day. So we practised. We biked all the way from Nugegoda to Bandaragama to Panadura to Kalutara and back. Mind you, these were reasonably well paved roads, so we were still unprepared.”

Saroj however had been confident, so confident that at about 4.30 in the morning on Thursday, April 6, they began their ride in earnest. Their route (spanning more than 1,300 kilometres) would take them all the way to Anuradhapura, to Jaffna, to Mullaitivu, to Trincomalee, to Batticoloa, to Arugambay, through the Buttala Road and Lunugamwehera to Kirinde, and from Kirinde to Mirissa to Galle and finally back to Colombo. They would be riding until April 14 (Friday) and stopping every night at run-of-the-mill rest houses or friends’ places.

Naturally, given all these impressive logistics, my first question is: “Did you get to stick to your plan?” With a chortle that smacks of sarcasm and amusement, Fadil replies with a decided “No!” I ask him why. “We were actually mad to think we could do it. The first day was fine, all the way to Anuradhapura and Dambulla. Everything after that got messed up with the heat. Earlier we’d stopped every hour. Now we were stopping every half-hour. The sun blinded us, simply put.”

Sri Lanka is of course no stranger to extremities in climate, so soon enough he would experience the other side: the rain. It had happened, he tells me, after he’d dropped Saroj at Tissamaharama. From then on, Fadil had been his own man, which turned into a nightmare when he ran into a day-long deluge on his way to Galle. “I should have considered that a blessing, given the heat. But it wasn’t.” So in Matara, he stayed over for Avurudu with another friend of his, Parami Kodippili. Fadil ended up eating through the festive season and (after the rain stopped) made his way back to Colombo a day behind schedule, on Saturday April 15 at about 10 in the night.

Important as these details are, I am more interested in the anecdotes they hold. So I ask Fadil as to what, out of every stop, kiosk, person, and house he ran into, he remembers the most, and he answers “The people.” I ask him to explain.

He is quick with his reply. “I believe that anyone running for the presidency here should cycle around the island. I say this because it will bring him or her into contact with the common man, woman, and child. I met some of the simplest folks I’ve come across anywhere. I saw the so-called rural simpleton and reflected on my acquaintances back home. I could only think of how hollow our lives were. So yes, I was humbled, and yes, that part of the journey was the most memorable for me.”

He then singles out that attitude of complacency and synthetic happiness we’ve been conditioned to affirm here for censure. “We think we lead the best lives, when we do not. For the blue-chip company executive, to give just one example, the best day of the week would be Friday. He has nothing beyond that. I suppose we’re more fortunate because we’re not part of this rat-race, but looking back I can’t help but think how terrible it is that we force the game miniha to adjust to that executive’s way of life.” Being qualitatively differently from the usual simplistic attacks on the city, that hits me. I therefore ask Fadil as to what he learnt the most from his trek.

“More than anything else, I understood that even ambition has its limits. When I was biking in the South, through the rain and the sharp katukurunda branches on the road, I remembered Jayanthi Kutu-Utumpaala and Johann Peiris, especially the latter as he never reached the top of Mount Everest with Jayanthi: he barely made it because he ran out of oxygen just metres away. It would have been pure heartache to go back, but that’s all he could do at that point. I understood then and there that although we try to hit it big with what we do, there are times when we must step back.”

All these offer much to reflect on. Recently Fadil started a blog (cyclingpissa.com), through which he will use his encounters to interact with other likeminded cyclists from here. Personally speaking, and given all this, I believe much of what he singles out for praise and censure should be taken to heart, especially in light of what he’s gone through. Why and how, I will get to in a later article, but for now here’s what I will say: I am glad Fadil Iqbal cycled around the country and I am glad that he has learnt. For the purpose of this brief sketch, that is enough.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 28 2017

Sunday, May 28, 2017

'Battle of the Kings': Of kings, knights, pawns, and players

On April 21, 22, and 23, the Royal College Chess Club held the 21st Battle of the Kings, the longest uninterrupted chess tournament organised by a student body here. The 21st, be it of a person or institution or event, usually calls for reflection, meriting a throwback to how the thing being celebrated evolved. This is hence a sketch of how a bunch of schoolchildren, left to their own devices under the supervision of a set of elders, have proved themselves.

My first recollection of chess is that it was a game where victories and defeats were (to say the least) unpredictable. You can win and go up one day and slide down with one wrong move the next. Your opponent may be poorer (in whatever respect) than you, but luck even with its many shades and nuances (thankfully) doesn’t take that into account. To a considerable extent then, it has come to reflect the wider social landscape of the country, where mobility remains a distant possibility that’s nevertheless emboldened the proverbial underdog. For me and a great many followers of the game, that’s what has defined Battle of the Kings throughout its history.

21 years is not a long time but it certainly is considering the strides made in chess here. Not many people know, for instance, that we’ve produced players who were not only able to reckon with better players elsewhere, but could rout them too (as Vajira Perera proved when he defeated Vishvanathan Anand somewhere in the eighties). We have not produced a Grand Master but a few years back we did produce an International Master (Romesh Weerawardena). Clearly then, we are not lacking in talent, inborn, inherited, taught, or picked up. We aren’t lacking in tournaments either. And above everything, we aren’t lacking in across-the-board representation. Which brings me back to the subject of my piece.

I went to watch the Battle of the Kings on Sunday. Because it was the last day, the tournament ended rather quickly, at about noon (I left soon afterwards without staying for the awards ceremony). At the outset I was pointed at three teams by a member of the Royal College Chess Advisory Committee (I’ll name him later). All three were from the North: Chenkalady Central College, Hartley College, and Kokuvil Hindu College. I didn’t get to talk with them all, only with the captain of the latter school team.

Unlike in Colombo, Kandy, and much of the South and elsewhere, there’s a disjuncture between popularity and dissemination, where chess is concerned, in that part of the country. “It’s popular, but not widely played,” the Kokuvil Captain, Gajendran Gasanthiran, told me.

His story of how he got to rise up in the game is typical of schoolboys like him from there: having seen a senior boy clinch the school championship, he’d asked him to teach him. His knowledge of the game at the time, naturally enough, had been elementary. So elementary, in fact, that when he managed to route that same senior and clinch both school (two years in a row) and provincial (in 2015) championships, he would have been as (pleasantly) surprised as we were.

The Kokuvil boys played rather decently at the tournament, I noticed. Gajendran in particular, with a FIDE score of 1209, spoke of how he defeated two more highly ranked players, with scores of 1298 and 1600, elsewhere. Now chess is a game where ranks and the categories embedded therein do matter, but while Gajendran and his colleagues do need to rise up more, their level of interest and enthusiasm speaks volumes about how it has ascended over the years. “Most of those who take to chess where I come from grow up in the city,” he told me with a slight grin, “I am an exception: I come from outside.” Heartening, no doubt.

And to a large extent, that’s what has shaped Battle of the Kings over two decades. Here’s what that Advisory Committee member wrote: “From the earliest days of chess that I remember, we at Royal were not only aware of the privileges that accrue from the fact of being students of the school, but the responsibilities therein. Chess players in particular have always felt a need to do what is possible to lift the game in schools outside Colombo and in less privileged schools in the Province.”

Inasmuch as the Club consists of juniors and seniors guided by determined teachers, it has been structured to teach those juniors and seniors not only how to play, but also how to accommodate opponents as hosts regardless of background. I didn’t get to talk with either of the two College Captains (regrettably), but I did get to talk with a junior player (Minul Doluweera, currently the Number Two Under-18 player in the country) who confirmed this, attributing it to a set of elders of whom one stands out significantly: Muditha Hettigama, the most senior chess coach at Royal.

The tournament ended with the Senior Chess Team of Royal College winning 25 out of 30 possible games, defeating runners-up Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda 4-2 and second runners-up Ananda College 4.5-1.5. As in the last two years, Dharmasoka clinched victory in the Girls category, with Anula and St Joseph’s (Nugegoda) coming in second and third respectively. The top scorer from the entire contest, moreover, was Lakindu Withanage, from the host school. All in all, well played out.

I am no chess player, only enthusiast, so I think it best to end my piece with comments made by two individuals who’ve been involved heavily in the tournament.

The first, Minul, I texted the following message to the other day: “It’s good to see how you all use your privileges to help other less privileged players." He texted back: “That’s the whole point of this tournament: to give back to society.” The second, that aforementioned Advisory Committee member, whom I will now reveal as Malinda Seneviratne, penned the following years ago: “The boys do their best. I think they deserve a salute now and then. I haven’t contributed much all these years, so saying ‘thanks and keep it up’ is the least I can do.”

Taken together, the young and the old, the king, the knight, the pawn, and the player have come together. Now that they’ve all hit 21, I think it’s safe to infer that in the years to come, the Battle of the Kings will impart more, much more, than instructions on getting past the opening and middle-game. So thank you, for the game and for everything else that has been taught.

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 28 2017

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The law as a schoolboy sees it

It is difficult to define the law, not because scholars haven’t tried but because at its inception, it is divided and subdivided into various streams and disciplines that resist easy categorisation. The best way to explain what it is, consequently, would be to extract the essence of all those variants: a tough task, some contend. I confess I know little about the subject, tutored as I have been in it, but I do know that the history behind it, as with the history behind every other ideal which has governed human society, is rooted in the philosophies of those who tried to explain it.

The law is based fundamentally on the divide between ideal and reality. After Socrates’ murder and the destruction of Athens, his student Plato saw in justice the remedy for his country’s ills. He contended that justice was an ideal, an equivalent of or approximation to which was possible in human society. He valued order over anarchy, a key motif in Western jurisprudence. In equating it with the human soul, moreover, Plato restored it to the human and the secular, away from the divine.

From there, it evolved through the proponents of natural law (who contended that it was the secular expression of divine ordinances) right down to important thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (who contended that justice was the dissemination of the maximum possible happiness among the most number of people), Thomas Hobbes (who contended that law and order were best served by a necessary autocrat), John Locke (who sanctified the right to property), and Rousseau (who formulated the social contract, or the implied consent of the people to be governed by their representatives).

The cornerstone of the Western philosophy of law, from Plato to Rousseau, is its fixation with property. European political power was rooted in land, in turn rooted in patriarchy: essentially, the father owned the land and he had the right to give away what he owned. This was reflected in the king or queen, who had what was referred to as the divine right to rule because of his or her right to the property of the realm. Locke’s legal philosophy boiled down to a variant thereof: human society was an Eden before human beings began clamouring for land. It was property, in other words, which necessitated some form of order.

The 19th and 20th centuries were centuries of revolution, reaction, and counterreaction. The roots of the law (in property) were challenged by a new set of thinkers, from the Marxists to the Anarchists. For the former, the law was a means of oppressing the people, while for the latter, it was a fiction created to uphold the myth of order. Both of them considered it as expendable, or at best necessary to the attainment of their perfect societies. Marx in particular, with his copious writings on the subject, argued that the end of law was the beginning of Marxist society, with its removal of property qualifications.

Because these were extremist tenets, they couldn’t survive for long: Anarchism died away a failed experiment, while Marxism survived only in a few backward societies. Their impact on the larger legal landscape of the West, however, can’t be discounted. The first inkling of this came about with the feminist movement. The second inkling came about with the Civil Rights Movement. Both these imbibed the crux of Marxist jurisprudence (rejecting hereditary power and class barriers) while doing away with its political edge. In other words, the legal experience of the 20th century was based on how inequalities shielded even by the law could be rejected by resorting to the law.

The best summing up of the law was made, not by a philosopher, but by a poet: William Blake. “One law for the lion and ox is oppression.” In other words, with its obsessive commitment to equality (best symbolised by the image of a blindfolded Lady Justice), it equates one to the other without preferring either: a point that has been pondered on by the fathers of the Civil Rights Movement, who envisioned a legal system which would go beyond neutrality and would privilege equity (with its preference for the downtrodden) over equality. Whether or not this has been affirmed, one thing is certain: that the law continues to evolve, within and without, often questioning itself and repudiating its own stances on diverse issues like race, religion, poverty, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In one word, therefore, the law is dynamic.

Written for: Daily Mirror EDUCATION, May 18 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

The 'Olcottisation' of Project Gotabaya

The theosophical movement, as the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara have pointed out, was fixated on imitating the same colonialist hegemony its representatives were contending against. They derived considerably from the Protestant tradition, a given since many of them were educated at Wesleyan schools (Olcott himself was a Presbyterian).

That the Buddhist Catechism was structured along the lines of Luther’s Small Catechism is not surprising: in the absence of a strong bilingual bourgeoisie, it was left to the urban Buddhist elite to “salvage” Buddhism from the pirivena to the British curriculum. Inherently this transformation was hybrid. As later events show, it couldn’t survive the Buddhist Commission of 1956, a document vilified by members of that same elite.

All that is history of course. But history is a reminder. It crops up, sometimes in gushes, sometimes in bits and pieces, and finds other channels of venting out the anomalies of the past. The fact that Olcott Buddhism died down in 1956 didn’t mean it couldn’t be resurrected. It was more or less a structural flaw in a well-intentioned revivalist program. And it has found a way of venting itself out today in the rift, vaguely discernible but very much present nevertheless, in our nationalist movement.

The Sinhala Only pamphleteers of 1956 found their leader in an incongruous figure. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was primarily a product of Western liberal humanism, though he was streets ahead of the Marxists and the Olcott Buddhists in trying to attain a Buddhist utopia. What he failed to realise, however, was that there are no Buddhist utopias. Buddhism has no place for a secular paradise. The Sinhala people have no place for a secular paradise. In Bandaranaike’s writings, copious as they are, one can infer a sensibility that rebels against this fundamental line of thinking.

His nationalism was largely derived from two sources: the Bengali renaissance and Western liberalism. Being neither a Tagore nor a Henry Wallace (whose exhortation of “the age of the common man” became a refrain in his program), however, he was to say the least an ideological parvenu to what transpired in 1956. Such an incongruity finds an equivalent today in Gotabaya Rajapaksa. With a caveat: Bandaranaike was the messiah figure for the Sinhala and Dharmapala Buddhists, while Rajapaksa represents a similar figure for the Protestant and Olcottised Buddhists.

Project Gotabaya isn’t a term I came up with: Hafeel Farisz coined it. In it one can infer the ideological self-contradictions at the heart of the professional nationalist electorate. This electorate continues to be sustained by the urban middle-class. It’s no surprise that one of the reasons for the rift in the Sihala Urumaya between the Champika Ranawaka and the S. L. Gunasekera factions was the series of victories gained by the former over the latter in areas such as Borella, Maharagama, Dehiwela, and Kotte, areas which housed the same professional middle-class electorate that would back the later Hela Urumaya.

This class has essentially bifurcated now, between an Old Guard and a New Guard. The Old Guard comprises of the Hela Urumaya. The New Guard comprises of those who hedge their bets for 2020 on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The reason for that is owing to the man’s popular image as a technocrat: in particular, his stint at the Urban Development Authority, the same Authority Ranawaka is in charge of now.

But Gotabaya Rajapaksa is as much the technocrat as his brothers, which isn’t saying much really. It’s a classic case of a movement being led by a man who’s ideologically distant from some of the tenets espoused by its representatives. In a similar vein, those who lead Project Gotabaya are not just distant from but also opposed to the other major faction in the nationalist movement (led by firebrands like Gevindu Cumaratunga, Elle Gunawansha Thera, and Manohara de Silva). The best way to draw up a contrast between these two is by resorting to the primary focus of each: while Project Gotabaya is centred more on economics, on numbers, the Cumaratunga-Gunawansha nexus (which includes the Yuthukama Sanwada Kawaya) is centred more on slogans, on protest symbols. Basically, it’s reason versus rhetoric.

Project Gotabaya is on that count an extrapolation of what Dayan Jayatilleka referred to as smart patriotism: the kind of patriotism that subsists on nationalism and internationalism (Dr Dayan compares it to Fidel Castro’s ideology: “Internationalism isn’t just a necessity... it’s a condition for survival”). Gevindu’s movement, on the other hand, is housed by the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera. For obvious reasons, these two don’t see eye to eye. Not too difficult to figure out why.

The professional nationalists who back Rajapaksa are for the most renegades. They are also modernists. Unlike de Silva, Amarasekara, and Cumaratunga, they are not opposed to Western paradigms of development. They are against the UNP, but not the technocratic thrust that defines the UNP. In trying to “market” technocracy to the nationalist, they concomitantly reject and pander to populism: roughly the same ideological schizophrenia exhibited by the Olcott Buddhists. They openly spurn cosmopolitanism, but in spurning it they end up emulating it in a different way. In place of a figurehead like Razeen Sally (with his libertarian streak), for instance, they promote Howard Nicholas (with his Keynesian undertones).

Should we worry, however? I don’t think so. They are needed. Not because they will uplift the grassroots movement here, but because in acting as a Third Force between the regime and the anti-regime, they serve a purpose: market the tools of the cosmopolitan to the nationalist. Which brings me to another point.

People have written on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Some see in him a messiah. Others see in him an autocrat. The congruence of messiah figure and autocrat has led to the popular image of the man as a placid administrator, the kind of administrator Project Gotabaya conceptualises him as. The Jathika Chinthanaya, which houses Gevindu, is not interested in personalities. It is more interested in perpetuating ideas.

For me, this simultaneously personality-driven and idea-driven thrust of our nationalist resurgence is comforting. There can be clashes, there can be rifts, but owing to the lack of a cohesive grassroots campaign here, it’s consoling that one of our nationalist movements is campaigning from the premise that to combat the enemy, one must emulate what underpins the enemy.

By that I am not thinking of parties or people alone, of course. I am thinking about ideologies. Patently anti-democratic, anti-nationalist ideologies. All of them skewed against Sinhala Buddhists. If it takes a smart patriot (what does that make other patriots though, I wonder) to undo or question them, as citizens we theoretically shouldn’t be having problems. Are there problems in the first place? Strictly speaking, yes. But we shouldn’t be worrying about them. At least not now.

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 26 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Remembering Jaffna: Glimpses of hope and despair

Some places are hard to sketch, particularly if one visits them only once or twice. There are people whose stories never get told. There are territories that never get visited at all. More often than not, outsiders, in their quest to experience a territory, rely on travel guides. That is why those who return only speak of religious sites, exotic getaways, fancy restaurants, and four-star hotels.

I first visited Jaffna in 2010. This was after the war and during my A Levels, so being an 18-year-old bookworm I was, at best, indifferent. Jaffna has a way of hiding itself when it rains, and since this was August the rains, while a blessing at one level (they “hid” the heat), nevertheless dampened our spirits. We were accompanied by some journalists, moreover, so whatever privacy I would have had, I had by minding my own business. That wasn’t a very happy trip.

The second trip, made some years later, was more revealing. In 2010 we came across army shelters and fractured roads. Five years isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough for fractures to heal and shelters to become less unfamiliar. With no rain, moreover, one could get a more wholesome glimpse of the territory. I didn’t mind my business this time, consequently. Here then is what I remember of Jaffna.

The first thing that strikes you about Jaffna is the roads that greet you. When you turn to the A9 route, you come across a visual treat: roads that stretch out so far that you can see the point at which their edges converge. You see people, faces baked by the sun, looking at you indifferently, treating you the same way they treat every outsider who visits their land. When you pass Anuradhapura, however, you are on your own: no house, no settlement for miles, barring the occasional thatched hut with people who have no one to call their own. How do they live, one wonders.

When you’re in Jaffna, barring the city, you hardly come across any traffic. The most frequently resorted to vehicle is the bicycle and motorbike. And it’s not just ordinary people who ride them: even shop owners and University lecturers go about their work on their two-wheelers. My friend Fadil Iqbal, who cycled across the island in nine days and whose story I will get to soon, told me that when he cycled past here, he came across the most beautiful sight he ever saw: “That of women clad in saris, biking their way on those small, sun-baked roads.”

Of course, it’s no paradise. Visit their tenements, talk with them, and you’ll come across the same problems you face at home. These are people like us, after all: they bleed, they laugh, they cry, they scowl. They have their imperfections, like us, and they like to hide them with a veneer of simplicity they've grown used to. That’s where they are unique: in the way they speak, for instance, they prefer simple words to the refined excesses we blurt out when interacting with outsiders. It’s not that they are different: it’s just that they have adapted to their world, and their world (more than ours) gets them to seek comfort through simplicity.

My first trip, as I mentioned before, was with some journalists. We were boarded in a hotel near the Nallur Kandasamy Temple and were lavishly treated. No such frills the second time: my colleagues and I not only spent both days jaunting around, we were also boarded at a more modest army bungalow. Since we were short on time, breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner were separate, random affairs. Not that it bothered us: Jaffna is one place where the less ready you are, the more more open to experience you will be. Hotels, kiosks, even that accursed necessity of toilets and washrooms: these you tend to forget as you move along.

The sun is merciless: it forces you to seek shelter and to value shade. That is why the people of Jaffna value their trees and look down on the practice of felling them. We have been compelled to feign indifference when it comes to mundane matters, but the people here, because of how they privilege the smallest detail, are angered by indifference. I was unwilling, for instance, to talk about the politics of Colombo when a University lecturer asked me for my opinion. I copped out because I couldn’t be bothered, but that lecturer was riled up. He immediately replied, “That is what you do. You say you must be balanced and ignore the common man’s sorrows and hardships.” The people of Jaffna are more farsighted than me, I thought to myself as I heard his anger.

And in a way, that is why this corner of the world merits so many responses, some neutral, some biased, others so jagged they are self-contradictory. The sun has hardened the people. They don’t take kindly to outsiders who treat them as exhibits. But that’s the burden they must carry, for they have been forced to be exhibits. The wider picture of Jaffna as a ravaged city, consequently, marginalises those little, little tragedies which the visitor ignores. I came across one of those tragedies, in a corner of Jaffna.

Navatkuli is located about seven kilometres from town. It’s inhabited by Tamil women who have married Sinhala men and Sinhala women who have married Muslim men. When I visited it, there were about 15 Sinhala villagers among a total of 59 from other ethnicities. They had returned here after the war. Since then, they have been intimidated to leave. They have not left. “From the previous government, we got land and electricity,” one of them said, adding, “We have got nothing more as of now.” They get along well without and despite us, I realised to my shame.

To a considerable extent, Navatkuli sums up the entire country: riled as we are by interethnic feuds, we are still willing to come together over common grievances. It’s not all beds and roses for the people there, but they understand each other well, not least of all because they speak in each other’s tongues. I was told of politicians who’ve come and made promises. I am, however, less worried about the political dimensions of Navatkuli than the problems of its people: one of them, for instance, is a graduate from the University of Peradeniya and has been reduced to being a labourer because of a court case. They’re used to such hardships. How much more can they take?

Sure, Jaffna is not Navatkuli and Navatkuli is not Jaffna. There are other places, other traces of war and despair. But Navatkuli is special to me, as a citizen of this country. It is special because the people there are unused to writers and are suspicious of them: one of them made his anger towards me and my ilk evident in no uncertain terms. They are suspicious not because they distrust us, moreover, but because they are tired of people coming in, promising much, and going away. We can only write, of the rains that have felled their houses and the sun-baked afternoons that have left them dehydrated. Like anthropologists.

The first day passed by. So did the second. Soon enough we were packing. We passed and left Navatkuli. Left Jaffna town. Left Jaffna altogether. Left the A9 route, returned to familiar territory, and reached Colombo within eight hours. The next day I had a function to attend at my school. A quiz competition. I hadn’t prepared a speech and didn’t think it important enough. I reached home at about one in the morning. I had a bath, had something to eat, and slept soundly.

Those were freer, let’s-kill-time days of wine and roses. I’m less happy now with a nine-to-five job: it gives me less time to reflect on trips and life in general. I do remember Jaffna though. I also remember Navatkuli, along with those other exotic getaways we can’t seem to get enough of. Yes, one never gets the full picture of a place with one visit. Jaffna, going by that, was not made for visits. One needs to live there. We’re not so fortunate. We’re condemned to live elsewhere, seeking comfort through extravagance. Sad.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 21 2017

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

'Kularatne of Ananda': The man and his work

Review of Kamalika Pieris’ “Kularatne of Ananda: The Life and Work of P. de S. Kularatne”, published in 2015

Biographers are like method actors, I’ve always felt: they try to get into the skins of their subjects. I am no biographer, only a writer, but this truism is valid even for the most pedestrian journalist. You have to have empathy for the person you’re writing on, regardless of your political preferences and of whether they are aligned with those of that other person. It’s hard to be completely objective, but if you’ve managed to depict the many nuances of that individual, you’ve achieved your goal.

I’d like to think that Kamalika Pieris’ biography of P. de S. Kularatne falls into this category of biographies. Like most other national figures from that time, Kularatne was not free of controversy or the vitriol that flows from being controversial. Pieris’ book doesn’t offer us a complete sketch of the man. Indeed, she seems to have written it as an apology for having ignored him and his worth when he was alive. Such an apologia can be cumbersome and tends to adulate on the person being depicted. It’s a measure of Pieris’ dexterity that she does not deteriorate that way. Not one bit.

Patrick de Silva Kularatne was born in 1893 in Degoda, Ambalangoda to a Sinhala Buddhist entrepreneurial family. His father was involved in cinnamon, tea, and rubber at a village located about seven miles from his hometown. Having educated him at Devananda Vidyalaya in Patabendimulla and later at Dharmasoka College, he sent his son to the leading school in the region back then, Richmond College.

Like every other national figure that emerged from the South, including C. W. W. Kannangara and A. P. de Zoysa, Kularatne was nurtured in the Wesleyan tradition. The fact that he was a Buddhist didn’t deter him from excelling in various fields, academic and extracurricular, at a predominantly Christian school: by the time he was transferred to Wesley College in Colombo, he would obtain (inter alia) a First Class in the Cambridge Junior Local examination, with distinctions in arithmetic and mathematics. Mathematics was his strongest subject, English literature his weakest.

In March 1913, he left Ceylon for University College in London, where he completed two degrees (Mathematics and Law), was called to the Bar, became a Barrister at Law, and realised that the British Civil Service was not considered as important by Englishmen as it was by his countrymen. After travelling around London and Ireland, he received a cable from W. A. de Silva asking him to become Principal of a leading Buddhist school back home. Thrilled, because he had gone to study in England in order to uplift Buddhist education in his country, he returned.

Kamalika’s book has as much to do with Kularatne as it does with that school, Ananda. He was born about seven years after it was started. When he took over from C. V. Ranawake (he would serve two terms: 1918-1932 and 1936-1943), however, he was not too optimistic about his position: “It did not act as a great inducement to him,” we are told. Nevertheless, by the end of his first term, he had achieved what he’d wanted: an elite English education in a Buddhist atmosphere. In six chapters, Kamalika consequently delves into Ananda not just as an educational institution, but as a  breeding ground for nationalism.

Kularatne was less a pioneer than an experimenter. We are told that he didn’t just aim at a revivalist movement in the schools he administered. We are told of the many carnivals he organised and the many extra-curricular activities he helped nurture and better their counterparts in Christian schools. We are told of the many academic achievements that school clinched as well. While six chapters seem too much to dwell on a single institution, Kamalika ensures that her prose entrances us. To a considerable extent, this is rooted in her preference for facts over opinion.

That is why we are ready to forgive, forget, and move on even as she inserts frill into her prose. She writes at length not only of Ananda, but of the many other schools Kularatne managed through the Buddhist Theosophical Society, an organisation he distanced himself from as the years progressed. The shift in him from educationist to politician, however, was not as successful, though it was almost as prolific.

Unlike Kannangara, he was critical of the Establishment. Unlike A. P. de Zoysa, he was critical of the Marxists. The schools he administered gave us many of those Marxists – from N. M. to Philip to Bernard Soysa – but it is a testament to Kularatne’s individuality that he disagreed with their materialistic view of history. That individuality proved his undoing, though: in the run up to the government’s decision to take over assisted and fee-levying schools, for instance, he backtracked on whether Catholic schools should be taken over. We are told that he had his reasons – he wanted state support for Buddhist schools and to leave the Catholic ones alone – but that didn’t stop his detractors from calling him a tightrope-walker.

I have already written of Kamalika’s prose. It remains her biggest strength in her book, so much so that Kularatne of Ananda goes beyond biography and proves to be valuable to both the common reader and the historian. Eschewing commentary for reportage, she makes us aware of her intention in her preface: “I have included every iota of information which I thought would be useful for a researcher later on.”

But Kularatne of Ananda suffers in certain respects. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of her intentions, I feel that Kamalika could or should have delved into the social content of the same Buddhist revivalist movement of which Kularatne was a key figurehead. The debate between theosophy and Buddhism, the emancipation of the Sinhala-speaking bourgeoisie after 1956, and the political rise of the English-speaking, rightwing Buddhist elite who favoured a division between the laity and the clergy, are pertinent for Kamalika’s time, Kularatne’s time, and our time.

Why do I say this? Malinda Seneviratne, known for his outspoken views on nationalism, made the following observation when I asked him about Colonel Olcott’s program: “I believe that his revivalist program suffered on two counts. Firstly, it separated ‘Sinhala’ from ‘Buddhist’. Secondly, it failed to engage with history and heritage.” It is that latter point which interests me, and which I looked for in this book. I couldn’t find it, but while I am disappointed I am aware that the author is not beholden to her readers: she has set Kularatne up for dissection and praise, and it is Kularatne who drives her narrative. Everything else is peripheral, I concede.

In the final analysis, Kularatne of Ananda blends in light reading, scholarship, history, and even sociology (though because of its limitations we don’t see much of the latter). The fact that it was published two years ago, and has so far failed to generate interest or controversy, reveals where the nationalist project he was part of, in our schools and elsewhere, has taken the common reader to. We should regret, I believe.

At the cost of generating some controversy myself, I will hence end on this note: if Kularatne aimed at delivering English education in a Buddhist country, he didn’t succeed completely, not because of a lack of sincerity on his part, but because (as Malinda once wrote) more than half a century of swabasha has left us, not an emboldened nation, but a gandabba one, neither here nor there. Perhaps Kularatne of Ananda has as much to say in what it contains as it has in what it does not contain.

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 24 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Premaranjith Tilakaratne and the roads that take us to him

In the early 1960s, when the Civil Service was transformed to the Administrative Service, two important things happened. Firstly, it emancipated a horde of playwrights, lyricists, and performers who’d been inhibited by a largely colonialist government. Secondly, and just as importantly, those playwrights, lyricists, and performers were empowered to carry on with their artistic careers. Both these points, trivial as they appear to us today, were important especially to our playwrights in that they inadvertently pushed them to improve upon our stylised theatre.

To be sure, not all of them went beyond that stylised theatre. But the few that did ended up emulating the English kitchen sink drama. They shocked, they scandalised, and they sent audiences running out of the hall in droves with their children, but they became as easy-to-infer as the morality plays they were rejecting. To this hodgepodge, then, came a horde of other playwrights and critics, who sought to transcend the ideological boundaries of both theatre forms. Few survived from this crowd. Very few.

Premaranjith Tilakaratne, whose death on Thursday, May 11 went by largely unnoticed and unreported, belonged to that few. He was one of the biggest parvenus our theatre bred. None of his plays, even the most popular ones, was restaged. He belonged to a twilight world, between the morality plays of the fifties and the political plays of the seventies. It is a testament to his individuality that he rejected both these. He didn’t leave behind a theory that bred its own disciples, but then he would have hated the idea of disciples fawning on his work.

His biography has been sketched out elsewhere, but a brief perusal helps us understand the man beneath the artiste. Premaranjith was born in 1937 in Ratnapura. Having attended two local schools, he was later sent to Sri Palee in Horana and Dharmapala Vidyalaya in Pannipitiya. His father, a teacher, became his figure of destiny: he always remembered the man as an incongruous figure, driven by values he adhered to at all costs, at times even by resorting to force. “He taught me honesty, integrity, and fairness,” he remembered in one of those conversations, “We fought, we argued, we refused to talk with each other. It was after I entered the theatre that I understood who he really was.”

They never had shared interests: the father doted on Sirisena Wimalaweera and nadagam, both of which the son disliked so much that he ended up being captivated by the movies. Because Sri Palee closed only on Wednesdays, he and his friends would cut classes and hitch a ride to the Regal, to watch the latest John Ford and John Wayne feature. They were all caned for this later on, of course. Ironically though, it was the cinema that would get Premaranjith to think about the theatre.

He broke into his field when he and a friend of his from Dharmapala, Wickrema Bogoda, went to see the rehearsals of Sugathapala de Silva’s Boarding Karayo. Sugathapala later became his ideological foe: the first time they met, he had angered the man by questioning his commitment to realism. That encounter persuaded him to carve his own path, and with a cast that included Bogoda, Tony Ranasinghe, and G. R. Perera, he wrote and directed Waguru Bima. This was followed by a contemporary retelling of the father-son conflict from Sinhabahu, Wahalak Nathi Geyak.

Two more plays followed – Thoththa Baba (1965), an adaptation of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane that was briefly banned for its homosexual undertones, and Ammai Appai (1966), an adaptation of Strindberg’s The Father – before he abandoned his fixation with the family, the father, and the son with a musical about a set of wayfarers who had no families, no fathers, and no sons.

That musical, Kontare, an adaptation of West Side Story, projected and affirmed Premaranjith’s wildest fantasies: everything he stood for in his field came out in gushes and torrents there. With a cast as stellar as the publicity material (including Swineetha Weerasinghe, Sunethra Sarachchandra, Anula Bulathsinhala, Lucien Bulathsinhala, Nawanandana Wijesinghe, and Elson Divithurugama), it opened to rave reviews (Bradman Weerakoon was among those who liked it). For the Puerto Ricans and the White Americans in the original musical, he substituted the Sinhalese, the Tamil, Colombo folk, and outside-Colombo folk.

His subsequent work was more literary, including an adaptation of Strindberg’s Julie (1977) and a novel take on a Nurti tragedy, Sri Wickrema, the latter of which was staged during J. R. Jayewardene’s presidency and raised rumours (baseless as they were) that he was currying favour with the authorities.

Because he was so open to the West (more so than either Sarachchandra or Sugathapala), he was doted on by the English press: A. J. Gunawardena, Tissa Devendra, and Wimal Dissanayake never failed to praise his plays. This (for some obscure reason) alienated the vernacular press, which sided with his ideological foes to such an extent that he was, as he told me, belittled and cast aside.

A deeply committed administrator, Premaranjith was always aware of the realities of life. When I put to him that he could have pursued the theatre more, much more, he fired back gently: “But who’d look after my family? Who’d worry about the finances, the strains of a middle class household? We were jobholders, not aesthetes. We didn’t muck around in the middle of the night begging with a tin cup. We had a life to lead.” And in a way, that life, tumultuous as it was, saw him as a faithful husband, a devoted father, and a flawed but well meaning and responsible human being.

In one sense he could be a contradictory personality as well, as when in the very same conversation he lambasted those who viewed the arts as a secular activity and then lambasted our cultural texts. He also had his preferences: his favoured artistes from here, for instance, included Premasiri Khemadasa and Shelton Premaratne (music), W. A. Silva (literature), and Vasantha Obeyesekere and H. D. Premaratne (cinema). When I asked him why, he replied, “Because they were all primarily visual.”

What he meant there, which I took some time to realise, was that these artistes (among a great many others) went beyond the written word and cultural constraints. Once when he got Sarachchandra to listen to the songs from West Side Story, for instance, Sarachchandra had irritably replied, “It is nothing but cacophony!” That cacophonic or rather polyphonic quality was what the man aimed at. He realised this quality most vividly in Kontare. The extent to which he realised it can be gleaned from the fact that when he briefed Shelton Premaratne on the lyrics and melodies that he wanted from him, Shelton had genially retorted, “Premaranjith, there’s really nothing for me to do here.” As Premaratne told me, “To hear him say that was an honour for me.”  The irony here, of course, was that the man had been raised on literature.

His only attempt at a movie script ended up a failure. Piyasiri Gunaratne, a friend of his from Sri Palee, had ventured to direct a story about a prostitute (it would feature Anula Karunathilake and Cyril Wickremage). As Premaranjith pointed out to me, however, the script he was asked to write was watered down, filtered, and butchered. In the end that movie, Mokada Une, was critically acclaimed but became a box-office disaster. Neither Piyasiri nor Premaranjith got involved with a movie here thereafter.

He led two other lives, as writer and translator. I have not read his translations, revealing as they are of his fondness for naturalism (he translated Zola heavily). He didn’t author an original piece of writing. The sole exception was his autobiography Durgaya, published last June. Sadly though, he never launched it.

A few months ago, at the behest of some friends and acquaintances, he set about planning a media campaign to get it released. And not for nothing: his book was finding its way to a vast number of readers. An official ceremony would have got his story out there even more. That ceremony, as he planned it, was to be graced by Professor Sunanda Mahendra and other likeminded writers. As things stood, though, it was never meant to be. He’d scheduled it for April 7 (a Friday), but had to delay it because of a surgery. It was a surgery he would not recover from.

I visited Premaranjith Tilakaratne for the last time on November 3. I remember the date because it was at his residence that I got the news of Amaradeva’s passing away. I remember it because I was so numbed and upset that I blurted out, “They are leaving us!” I remember it because Premaranjith, who could be sentimental and unsentimental at the same time (a rare quality), replied, “That is the way of the world.”

An entire generation started leaving us in 2015. Premaranjith belonged to that generation. He was not a populist. He couldn’t be. A populist panders to the conventional wisdom. He didn’t. He preferred instead to critique and to cross off. In the end he triumphed, on account mainly of the respect he won from even those he’d alienated. To be sure, he earned enough invective to be a cynic. But then he was never a cynic. He was always a realist. And a pragmatist. Rare.

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 23 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ushan Gunasekera and the eye of the photographer

Like writers and lyricists, photographers are an accursed lot. By-lines don’t get attention, after all. That is why these fields are tough on those who try to make it to the top. That is also why, to get to that top, one must let one’s work speak for itself. With the advent of editing software, however, it has become difficult to separate the great from the good and the good from the mediocre. In this respect, two questions emerge: how do we sift the amateur from the professional photographer, and how do we persuade ourselves that the true professional never comes cheap?

All this came to me some months back when I sat down with Ushan Gunasekera. Ushan knows how to capture and preserve and he knows what defines his craft. Because I’m a photography enthusiast myself, I was eager to chart down his story. Here it is.

Ushan was not born a photographer. From an early age, he had seen others take photographs, in particular his father, who used to extensively travel abroad with his camera. “He photographed my childhood, from the time I was brought home to the time I walked my first steps. With regard to the latter, he just let go of me and went on photographing me ambling along. That gave way to a reel of shots, like a story, which ultimately made me realise how similar to a narrative a photo album could be.”

At this point he shifts gears to 2012, when he entered the Informatics Institute of Technology (IIT) for a Bachelor’s in Information Systems with Business Management after leaving his school, Colombo International. I ask him whether he met any figures of destiny then, and he fires away one name: Buwaneka Saranga. “Buwaneka was my mentor. He let me use his camera, a Canon EOS 550D, and we wound up taking photographs of trees, flowers, even passersby. Mind you, I didn’t want to pursue photography as anything more than a hobby, but as the months rolled by he taught me the basics to an extent whereby I knew how to make a career out of it.”

Was he ready for the leap this entailed, though? “Not really,” he laughs, “Forget photography, I needed to learn even basic things like handling camera gear! Eventually Buwaneka and I met some friends from other institutions, including the Academy of Design, and I wound up recording their events with his camera.”

What happened next? “That was the cue I needed. But before I could go professional, I needed to learn. So I saved what I could to buy my own camera, a Canon EOS 60D.” Because of his desire to learn, he baptised his “company” as Ronin Photography, to retain some anonymity. This was in March 2012, five years ago. Five years on, Ushan is still using that 60D. “It’s seen its best and its worst, but for the life of me I can’t think of a camera that has served me so well.”

His first stints as a professional had been accompanied by encounters with two other people: Pavithra Jovan De Mello and Dylan Seedin. Pavithra, a photojournalist, ended up “teaching” Ushan about the narrative potential of his field: “Pavithra taught me how to use photography to create stories and to make photojournalism an interesting hobby. Dylan taught me the fundamentals of commercial photography and how to elevate my skills according to what people wanted, along with how to adapt to the technical limitations of what I was using.”

A little over a year after Ushan entered the industry, Dylan told him to be his own man. “When 2013 ended, I wrapped up Ronin Photography. When 2014 began, I ‘resurrected’ it as Ushan Gunasekera Photography.” From then on, one event had flowed to another, from corporate events to weddings to birthday parties. I suspect that the first of these provide the bread for his company, and he agrees: “There’s a rigid sense of formality in corporate functions, essential because my photos will be used to market those corporates.”

What of weddings? “Obviously, they are more relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, that you must get to befriend your client. Without knowing that client and without letting the client know you, you will be seen as an outsider to his or her life. That is why I always make it a point to acquaint myself well with the bride and the groom. If they don’t know me, it’s going to be difficult for all three of us. A wedding happens only once, after all, and to record it, I must be there with my team, capturing their intimate and personal moments, from the time they are dressed to the time they depart.”

All this is biography, of course. What of the impulses behind that biography? Before engaging him with that, I put to him the two questions I referred to earlier, regarding the proliferation of amateurs and the clash between price and quality in the industry. I then put to him that the former issue has aggravated the latter so much that people have become confused as to what good photography is.

Being a veteran himself, Ushan is cautious with his reply. “Photography is an art. There are people who take to it and people who think they can take to it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in handling a camera as a hobby. The problem, however, is when you rely on enhancers to artificially elevate the quality of your work. I have come across companies that do that and I have seen how they lack in quality. The issue here is that these entities don’t do the hard yards. They are way behind the studio-man.”

In other words, the gap between hobby and profession can only be bridged if the “hobbyist” is willing to put up with criticism. “In my first few months in this field, I was chided for trying to achieve big. I didn’t mind that, because you need to take a bit of criticism when you aspire for more than what you are. When I started out, however, this new trend of photo-editors and photo-companies had begun. When I graduated to my own company, it was wildly proliferating. Forget the ethics involved in how these operate. Think about how many customers they end up duping with slipshod work.”

Which brings him to my second issue. “In my profession, value for cash is a given. The better your quality is, the more you’ll end up getting. Photography is not an apply-your-eye-and-take art. That misconception has been sustained by those amateurs you referred to before. Such a misconception can only lead to another: that taking photos is so easy that one needn’t bother paying big.”

Ushan adds here, however, that clients do have agency. “We have no issue with their concern for affordability. That price is related to quality, they know. Speaking for myself, though, I have encountered people who always opt for me, because they know that I will not cheapen myself.”

So has the Ushan Gunasekera who entered this field in 2012 any different to the Ushan Gunasekera I met some months ago? He has certainly graduated academically, with results he had not expected. “That is where I must acknowledge two names. The first is my Project Supervisor at IIT, Gayathri Ranasinghe, who understood my hectic schedule so well that she was willing to grant me extensions. The second, and the most important of them all, is my mother, who guided and encouraged me after my father passed away.

There are other names, of course. “I had a dynamic team and a bunch of very creative friends who got my work going from the beginning, notably Pasan Dominic, Amaya Suriyapperuma, Jehan Seedin, Jason Eardly, Rumesh Madushanka, Prasanna Welangoda, Vinu Perera, Lishni Tilakaratne, Rajitha Wijesinghe, and Avishka Senaratne. They supported me, as fellow photographers or as close friends.”

I mentioned at the beginning that photographers are an accursed lot. I still stand by this. Ushan, however, has shown us that even in as “anonymous” a field as his, there can be reasons for the photography enthusiast to spot out the name behind the picture. For that reason, he should have the final say: “To step up, lose your ego. Because everyone knows everyone else, the pressure is on you to maintain your portfolio. If you do that, and if people take to you, there will be no more hard yards to cross. Simple as that.”

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 21 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Drama Comp 2017: Going to the theatre

Part of the pleasure of watching school plays derives from the fact that they’re almost always spontaneous. It’s exciting to come across such productions, because theatre is a public art and is based fundamentally on what can be expressed and projected. That is why children (and teenagers) ace it onstage: they know how to express without embellishing what they project. The best school productions or skits, consequently, don’t actually stand out: they merely reinvent the clichés of serious theatre.

Drama Comp, organised by the Interact Club of Royal College, has tried for 31 years to break away from this perspective. Like the annual interschool Shakespeare Competition, it indulges the theatrics of the young with yardsticks set by the old. There are judging criteria and marks allocated to the categories therein: acting, direction, team work, and effect. Here’s a sketch of how these took into account the strengths and limitations of what were staged at the 32nd Drama Comp, held at the Lionel Wendt on Tuesday, May 9. Starting with (what else?) the merits and demerits of what were staged.

I was told by a friend that the first skit (“I Know You”), organised by Ananda College, would interest me acutely. So it did. The production was hyperlinked. It was more or less one of those pathos-ridden plots where coincidences abound, but are never really resolved: three prisoners, set against other prisoners making a huge Vesak lantern for an upcoming State Festival, recount their stories to each other.

I wouldn’t dream of revealing what follows next (in case the producers decide to stage it elsewhere), but I will say this: that hyperlinked structure ended up projecting the one quality of the visual arts (theatre and cinema included) I have come to adore, namely its ability to keep the audience informed of coincidences the characters are ignorant of. Coupled with a Malini Bulathsinhala song aired whenever Vesak is around the corner, I felt it to be refreshingly contemporary, though the ending was too predictable, rushed, and jerky to merit the praise everything leading up to it got.

Methodist College next dished out a production that couldn’t have been more different to what preceded it. “I Know You” was primarily verbal. The Methodist production (“TTYL”), by contrast, was more visual, subsisting on a daring technique: the disassociation of speech from performance. “TTYL” delved into the alienation of social media, so such a disassociation was called for. I was hence enthralled by their synchronisation of sound and image, of music and movement, and of humour and seriousness. For me, the triumph here was with the mode of presentation, pricked at by a rather overworked ending.

The St Peter’s College production was less nuanced, though almost as defiant. “Get a Grip” revealed the underside of the bully and the bullied, interspersed with monologues which were aware of their own hollowness. At one point, the “bully” abandoned his abusiveness and resorted to a soliloquy which seemed to channel Hamlet and James Dean. The skit’s depiction of a rather pertinent theme, however, while underscored solidly, revealed its own deficiencies: try as I might, I could not picture the bully and the bullied, even with all those ballet-like transitions, beyond the stereotypes they were framed against.

Ed Monk’s “Booby Trap”, an ideological tract that reveals the kind of middle-class liberalism that drives the mainstream theatre of America and (it seems) the English theatre of Lionel Wendt, was next in line. Whatever my sentiments towards the story may be, however, I was awed by St Bridget’s Convent’s take on it (this was the only non-original skit at Drama Comp). Briefly and pithily, it reveals to the audience, in the space of half an hour, the memories and the fantasies of a soldier who has sat on an anti-personnel mine (APM). This was polyphonic enough. With a cast of young women playing men and women who behave like men, the players supplemented that polyphonic quality even more with an androgynous streak.

But then, owing to the fact that it was both powerful and out of the range of experience of the players, it looked over-rehearsed. The emotions didn’t flow: they seemed sketched out through a series of invisible cues. The playing didn’t just add up, barring the young lady playing the protagonist-soldier, Pete Galen. There is a sense of apparentness, of a storm distilling the surface, in the original script, which did not come off here. Everything seemed too neat, in other words. The audience were moved, but not enough. There was humanity and affirmation of humanity, but not enough.

Incidentally, the merits and demerits of these productions congealed to the preferences of the judges (Ruwanthi de Chickera, Shanuki de Alwis, Thushara Hettihamu, and Jake Oorloff), all of which were driven by their fondness for spontaneity over contrivance. “Theatre isn’t just about adapting books,” Shanuki observed at one point. Apt, since she was speaking about the Methodist production (which wasn’t an adaptation at all, rather a visual distillation of contemporary angst).

Before the show, I heard an old lady (one of those grandaunts who come to see their grandnephews and grandnieces organise an event like this) praise the organisers and their school to the skies. Drama Comp on that count was as much about drama as it was about a set of youngsters from an institution, so credit is due to both. And as the two chairpersons of the show (Nilesh Wijesekera and Shalem Sumanthiran) informed us in their souvenir message (barring those obligatory clichés highlighting how much the attention they got from us means to them), “What we remember... [are] the paappu fights, dog and bone at Racecourse, [and the] long bonding sessions the committee has, more than the actual work we did.”

But then it was that “actual work” which caught, pushed, and chastened me. That’s natural, since I try not to confuse the work with the background of the organisers, the latter of which I am indifferent to (since it tends to colour my judgments). Not surprisingly, therefore, that is how Drama Comp came out successfully, for me and (I suspect) for everyone else who thronged the Wendt that night.

I admit that I am frustrated by the Sri Lankan theatre. The Sinhala theatre hides behind a barrage of clichés, metaphors, and symbols. The English theatre revels in a sense of aesthete refinement that comes out in school productions. Such productions are often painfully unaware of their own ideological limitations, which are sadly perpetuated by an esoteric circle of critics, relatives, and well-wishers.

But then that was why I was happy at the final results: not only was the Methodist College production the winner, but my favourite male performance (Lakshitha Edirisinghe, who intrigued me with his frown and his sour rage as Channa, the father in “I Know You”) and female performance (Thakshila Ellawala as Pete Galen in “Booby Trap”) were recognised as well. These were high points in an event that could have easily deteriorated with the self-praising, self-perpetuating thespian culture rooted in Colombo 7. It did not, thankfully, a fact that has as much to do with the organisation as it does with the productions.

I liked Drama Comp, consequently. I liked the acting and the actors. I liked the way it was organised and the fact that the organisers went that extra mile to get us hooked on to English theatre. Barring a few mistakes in the souvenir and the fact that the entire event dragged on until almost midnight, there was really nothing in it that one could censure. So yes, I liked it. Enough for me to say “Next year I want more!”

Photos courtesy of the Media Unit of Royal College

Written for: Ceylon Today HELLO, May 21 2017

Friday, May 19, 2017

The town mouse and the country mouse

The polity of this country, before and after 1948, was governed by two broad movements. The first comprised of the moderates, i.e. those who believed in the status quo as a means of uplifting the nation. The second comprised of extremists or rather individuals termed as extremists, i.e. those who believed in attaining independence through self-sufficiency. Much of our post-independence, post-colonial history can be summed up in terms of the clash between these two.

When Gunadasa Amarasekara let go of his flirtation with literary modernism and became the intellectual ballast of the Jathika Chinthanaya with Nalin de Silva, the Soviet Union was breaking apart. We were promised a more inclusive world, or as Francis Fukuyama envisaged it, the end of history.

History of course doesn’t end, however, not that easily anyway, and so the end of Communism didn’t spell out anything new or different: rather, the left and the right became no more than political constructs, both of which were part of the Western modernist discourse on development, knowledge, economics, what-not.

Between Amarasekara and de Silva, the latter was more political (Amarasekara once described him in an interview as our first real postmodernist). He and to a considerable extent the ideology his movement disseminated believed in the objectives conceived almost a century earlier by Anagarika Dharmapala.

I believe it was Malinda Seneviratne who claimed (I don’t remember when or where) that the likes of de Silva were critiqued by even those who liked to consider themselves as nationalists. This is true. De Silva himself noted that such nationalists would think twice about considering him as one of them. It is from that premise that he and Amarasekara drew a distinction between two kinds of Buddhism: Sinhala and Olcott. The first was followed by the extremists, the second by the gradualists. Such a distinction is vital when evaluating the history of Buddhism in the country.

Nationalism has always been up for grabs. It has created, bifurcated, splintered, and often killed off political movements. It has also become so fluid that it resists categorisation. For me, the primary issue of the 21st century has been the conflict between individuality and nationhood, a variant of the conflict between nationalism and internationalism. The distinction pointed out above, therefore, can be rooted in the dichotomy between experiencing a faith as an individual (Olcott Buddhism) and experiencing it as a collective (Sinhala Buddhism).

That is why Olcott Buddhism is considered by the likes of Nalin as an extension of Lutheranism and Calvinism: it substituted individual salvation for collective repentance. However, it was also an internationalised variation of an anti-internationalist creed, the kind which subsisted on both rationality and mysticism. What it did was to divide Sinhala from Buddhism, history from faith, and faith from the social and the political. This division explains the debate between those who profess a separation of temple and state and those who do not.

And there the comparison between Lutheranism/Catholicism and Olcott Buddhism/Sinhala Buddhism ends. Lutheranism was by large an extension of the creeds contained in Catholicism. Olcott Buddhism, on the other hand, was never an extension of Sinhala Buddhism. The latter two viewed religion in manifestly different ways: for the Sinhala Buddhist, engagement with culture could condone even members of the clergy who joined the Army, whereas for the Olcott Buddhist, what mattered was the individual’s engagement with his or her faith.

George D. Bond’s account of the Buddhist movement in Sri Lanka (“The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka”), from the revival to the setting up of lay Buddhist organisations after independence, echoes this distinction between the collective and the individual. He points at two eminent Western scholars, William Ames and Heinz Bechert, both of whom differentiated between two kinds of Buddhists: the former between those who wished to retain privileges in the upcountry and those who were emerging as local capitalists in the low country, and the latter between the traditionalists and the modernists. Agreeing with both, Bond brings up another mode of distinction: between the reformists and the neo-traditionalists. From what I have read so far, this distinction is the closest to an equivalent from a Western scholar we have of the Jathika Chinthanaya’s classification of Sinhala and Olcott Buddhists.

According to Bond, the reformists were the militant nationalists, who followed Dharmapala in his attempt to resuscitate both religion and collective. The neo-traditionalists, by contrast, repudiated the methods set by Dharmapala in achieving his ideals while affirming the substance of those ideals. This concomitant rejection and acceptance of a man considered as a chauvinist by the “other side” explains the at times schizophrenic outlook on Buddhism propagated by the neo-traditionalists.

That schizophrenic outlook found its pivot in the distinction between the religious and the secular. For these Buddhists, the ultimate goal of this life was threefold: observe sil, support one’s family by right livelihood, and “do good” in the world [Bond, p 65]. Of these, Bond points out, the second was influenced by the Protestant ethic of closer familial bonds, the same bonds that Buddhism sought to do away with.

It speaks volumes about how detached this was from the people that no less a figure than D. B. Jayatilaka contrasted in an article titled “Practical Buddhism” between two modes of living: the household and the clergy. These Buddhists advocated, not the “this-world” asceticism preached by Dharmapala, but an “other-world” asceticism in which the primary goal of one’s present life was to wallow in a materialistic variant of one’s faith through the “pansakulaya, malwatti, and upparawatti” (as de Silva once memorably observed). The clergy had no relevance for the household, in other words.

So much for the neo-traditionalists. Of their intellectual descendants, the Olcott Buddhists, I believe Nalin de Silva said it best: “They have separated Buddhism from culture and profession.” What de Silva meant was the Olcott Buddhist secularised a faith that was at the outset against secularism. In other words, it was as culturally castrated as the colonialism it tried to combat, a point that de Silva and Amarasekara gleaned only too well when they contended that the motive of Colonel Olcott and the theosophists was to equal, if not better, the missionary school.

That fixation with bettering the missionary school and those other colonialist institutions appealed, not to the rural simpleton, but to the urban layman, who continues to make the waves as a refined wielder of the faith. Such wielders were at best cut off from the sensibilities of the Sinhala people, for whom Buddhism remained more than just a religion (and was actually a way of life and of seeing). It is these same wielders, incidentally, who prefer to be known as nationalists and yet find it uncomfortable to be ranked alongside the likes of de Silva and Amarasekara.

Inasmuch as Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara made it their life’s work to disprove Western modernism, their efforts become more relevant today because of the distinction they made between those two kinds of Buddhists. I say this not because I wish to belittle their work on Western philosophy and science – being hardly conversant in either, I can only conjecture as to what they accomplished there – but rather because much of the responsibility for that ill-defined variant of Buddhism, with its artificial division between the temple and the home, can be laid down by the feet of those adherents who paid obeisance to the gods while proclaiming, “Siddhartha Gautama did not encourage us to fight wars against terrorists!” That Amarasekara and de Silva helped us discern this fatal contradiction, I believe, speaks a lot about who the rooted adherents of the faith are and who are not.

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 19 2017

Sunday, May 14, 2017

'Pilibimbu 2017': Beyond the naked eye

Photography involves craft, this we know. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it’s accidental. The best photographs, after all, weren’t conceived consciously: they were born out of coincidence, blending art and technical proficiency in a way that leaves critics baffled, even amazed. That is why photography is not just about what ISO count fits what time or what aperture size is best.

On the other hand, those things do matter. As those who have written on the field – from those who’ve been engaged in it to those who like to comment on it – have pointed out, photography was the first art-form born out of the constraints of physics. In her book On Photography, moreover, Susan Sontag implies that our love for the subject reflects our desire to collect, contain, and control the world. She points out, moreover, that societies which are repressed, traditionalist, and culturally puritan are opposed to photography, while those that are more outgoing have realised the role of the cameraman in substantiating, archiving, and preserving their collective experiences.

Sri Lanka, I’d like to think, is moving away from that latter society, not because we’re losing ourselves to modernity but because we’ve been able to use the camera to preserve and archive. By that I am not limiting it to the arts: photography, like every other art-form, can be used to promote the political as well. Whether it has been used adequately in this latter respect here is something I am not qualified enough to comment on, so I will now shift to a trend that’s gripping the nation: the emergence of a robust and qualified-in-all-but-name photographic movement in our schools.

I know someone who thinks that the digital era has given everyone unbridled access to cameras, which means that quality has dropped. This person, a friend of mine, believes that despite the leap made in the field from roll film to memory cards, there are aspects to photography that must be preserved for posterity: “Not every monkey with a camera can or should take pictures, after all!” was his comment.

I agree. Setting aside his cynicism, his point is that for good photographers to be nurtured, they must be guided, not taught. That brings me to the subject of my article.

On four days over two months, the Photographic Art Society of Ananda College will unveil Pilibimbu, an exploration into the naked eye’s potential to seek, capture, and preserve. Before I get to what it entails, a few preliminary observations about the Society, the schoolboys involved in it, and the organisers of this entire rite, are called for. Starting with a little history.

It all began in 1946 when a Photographic and Cinematographic Society was launched at Ananda. 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, however, 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, photojournalists, and even filmmakers, of whom the “D. B.” brothers (Nihalsinghe and Suranimala) stand out considerably.

In 2001, the Society launched a magazine that would double up as an exhibition. Titled Pilibimbu, it became the first competition of its kind organised by a school club here. As a competition, however, it delved into the artistic potential of those who competed. That potential, because of the fact that the exhibition focused purely on the creative process, ignored the theoretical aspect to the subject.

In 2015, therefore, the Society inaugurated Oculus, a “technical competition” where participants would be taken through certain prerequisites in photography with a series of tests and activities. Oculus soon gave way to a workshop, held on a separate day where leading experts and practitioners would deliver lectures on certain topics to students, to be followed by the obligatory awards ceremony. This year, Oculus will be held on May 19 at Ananda, the Exhibition on June 7 and 8, and the Day on June 9 at Ananda again. Three events, three approaches: all in all, self-explanatory.

Important as they are, however, these details interest me more for what they’ve brought out from their organisers. To this end I talked with the Presidents of the Society from 2015 to 2017: namely, Avarjana Panditha (2015), Yashodha Liyanage (2016), and Kavindu Hasaranga (2017). Kavindu being the incumbent spoke the most, but in what they all had to say I noticed one name cropping up: the lecturer and, in more ways than one, shaper of the Society, Boopathy Nalin Wickramage. I know of Boopathy and I know a teacher who does as well and calls him “bolder than life” (I’m sure Boopathy will understand), so I asked all three to describe how he handles the club.

Kavindu spoke first: “We have lectures once a week. Boopathy aiya 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 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 Anandians, we are lucky to have him.” Followed by Avarjana: “He teaches less and guides more. He takes a different approach in each of those three years. He is a marvel to study under, to be honest.”

Modernity has a way of separating creativity from technology in art, which probably explains (and I speak from experience) the division in our film industry between technicians who lack creativity and artistes who idealise the cinema as a cerebral craft. That we have not yet been able to resolve it speaks volumes about the gap between art and reality, a point I discerned in an article Boopathy himself wrote to the Ravaya (included in the Pilibimbu 2015 souvenir) titled “A Critique of the Art of Photography in Sri Lanka.”

Spatial constraints unfortunately prevent me from exploring Boopathy’s assertions (astute as they are), so I content myself by watering them down and asking Avarjana, Yashodha, and Kavindu one question: How will Pilibimbu teach us both the technical and creative potential of photography?

Yashodha answered first: “When it comes to this field, you can’t separate art from technology.” Avarjana interjected: “Photography tests your ability to formalise your creative process. You may envision the perfect shot, but if you can’t handle your camera, what your naked eye sees will be lost on it. In other words, once you marginalise the mechanics here, you lose the photographer in you.” This reminds me of what Sumitra Peries, who started out as an amateur photographer and moved into editing and then directing, once told me: “It’s nothing less than the formalised expression of experience.” Perhaps that is what Boopathy has tried to chart in that aforementioned article.

While I look forward to all three events in Pilibimbu, I admit that I look forward to the second one, because it will give me an opportunity to discern art cohabiting with reality. The third event, the Day, will interest me as well, for the lectures that will be taught (by the likes of Lal Hegoda and Harsha Maduranga). As a final point, Avarjana spoke of how these initiatives got its organisers to uplift the field elsewhere, in particular one school in Moratuwa. “When we realised that the Society in that school was falling apart, we got in contact with its Vice Principal and persuaded him to get it resuscitated. Boopathy aiya helped us. Eventually, we got that Society running.”

There’s a time to write and a time to pause. I am no photographer, only an enthusiast, so I leave my two cents for another day. In the meantime, we can partake of what these bright, ambitious schoolboys have scrounged up for the camera shilpiya in us all. There’s theory embedded there somewhere, but I think it best that we forget that and let these boys, and the other organisers of their event, enthral us. We can choose to reflect later. Much later.

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 14 2017