Sunday, December 31, 2017

The year at large

Maithripala Sirisena. Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mahinda Rajapaksa. Commissions and commissions. Interparty rivalries. Intraparty rivalries. Floods. Droughts. Cyclones. Donald Trump. Jerusalem. Russia. What will 2017 be most remembered for in Sri Lanka? Not too difficult to answer, but that’s only if you have your preferences towards what you deem to be more newsworthy than everything else. For me, hence, it was none of the above. Rather, the most newsworthy phenomenon that transpired this past year, to me, which made it into big column headlines just below the masthead and later congealed intermittently into the fourth or fifth page as a small news item, was the conflict between the public and private sphere. A broad category, yes, but in that category and conflict we see how the entirety of 2017, here, was spent.

We are a resilient nation only because we tend to forget, as time passes by, the ills we suffered in the not-too-distant past. That conflict between the public and the private hence endures, in the form of not just strikes and demonstrations but also, more pertinently, the levelling and elevation of our consciousness of what entails the public and the private in the first place. The conflict between the two, this year, involved several issues, some pertinent, others not so: medical standards (SAITM), the sale of the Hambantota Port to China (the Petroleum Corporation) the granting of equitable pay rises (the Railway Department), the abolishment of what was alleged to be a fraudulent pay rise made to top level managers and engineers (the Electricity Board). In each case we had demonstrations that directly affected the public: no government doctors at government hospitals, no drivers operating our trains, no petrol for your car, and no technical staff for local power outages. As far as strikes go, borrowing an oft-quoted phrase, this was one heck of a year, for the people and for the strikers.

41 strikes with a loss of more than 104,000 man days (I am quoting Namini Wijedasa) may seem like a lot but that’s mainly owing to the fact that we haven’t come across a country and polity ailed with so many demonstrations at such a level of sustained trade union action. It’s interesting to note that this in itself is an indication of the way the government operates, since regardless of the many manifest faults within the public sector (the inefficiencies, the delays in getting work done, the disjuncture between rhetoric and action throughout the year, especially with respect to disaster management), it appears to have softened in the face of demonstrations. Again I quote Namini Wijedasa: from 2013 to 2014, right before Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted, the number of man days lost in the private sector dropped by more than 53 percent. Let’s face it: all other things considered, trade union action is dependent on how the government of the day reacts to it. And 2017, in that sense, was the worst in a decade.

One can lament. One can brighten up. I prefer to brighten up. Not because I haven’t been inconvenienced by these demonstrations, not because as a member of the public I don’t deplore the fact that others who were busier than me were inconvenienced in more insidious ways (think of the fuel strike, which lasted unbelievably for almost five days), but because in this spate of trade union protests we see a thawing of the ice, a veritable melting away of the veneer of complacency and public apathy that was maintained by the previous regime. The Electricity Board strike, which initially lasted for 48 hours (in April), then ballooned into the longest of its sort conducted here this year (a week in September) and almost ballooned into another, probably longer strike that would have crippled this festive season, was for me a good indication of that: it was all about doing away with allegedly unfair and illegal pay rises granted to top level engineers during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. That it took all this time for it to surface, for the workers to revolt against those rises, tells us all that we need to know about inexorable tensions in the public sector that are pushed up despite the most complacent and authoritarian of governments.

But this spate of trade unionism is in itself not a cause for complacency. Let’s not forget that union action is a direct, if not indirect, consequence of government apathy. Apathy is the product of complacency, and is generally understood to result in delays and inefficiencies and hostilities with respect to demonstrations and protests. Such delays, inefficiencies, and hostilities can in the long term be bottled up to such an extent that what ultimately comes out is a picket republic: a nation of protestors on the one hand and of those who wield the baton against those protestors on the other. This dichotomy, between the public and the private, is dangerous if sustained beyond a certain degree and period, particularly since unresolved pressures and conflicts tend to get pushed up, terribly, until all that’s left is a shattered, bruised polity. It’s that bruised polity which left more than 100,000 people dead and maimed in the eighties. So clearly, union action is a welcome first step to force the government to open its eyes, but there’s no use in that if the government still prefers to be blind to everything except vested interests from the private sphere.

The identification of a certain movement with a certain individual is not the preserve of trade union or public sector action but this year proved, to a considerable extent, how the conflation of the movement with the individual could be made and sustained: Lahiru Weerasekara with the student protests against SAITM, the top board of the GMOA with the institutional protests against anomalies in the national health sector, and Ranjan Jayalal with the Electricity Board strike. Names matter and so do protestors, so I wonder: will these individuals take forward the unresolved issues, the unaddressed elephants in the room (the SAITM problem has not been solved to the satisfaction of the demonstrators, while the Electricity Board anomaly is still there), to the next year, and if so, will we expect more power outages, more vacant government hospitals, more vacant Medical Faculties? Perhaps. That, however, is cause for reflection.

So what is there to reflect on with respect to all these vignette-like observations? Simply, that in 2017 we saw the most newsworthy political phenomenon since the rise of dissent from within the SLFP in 2014 and 2015: the rise of dissent, pressured in and held back for so long, in fact for more than a decade, from the key representatives and institutions affiliated with our national public sphere. That’s important, and it ought to compel, not emotional hysterics, but careful scrutiny. Today and tomorrow.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 31 2017

Friday, December 29, 2017

A melody for a milieu: From Hubert to Clarence

As an art form, as a means of self-expression and articulation, music is largely self-referential. It has nothing outside itself: the standards and the yardsticks created for it, by various exogenous factors, are subsumed, sometimes eventually, almost always at once. This is why of all the art forms we are acquainted with now, music is the least easy, and the most difficult, to propagandise. The moving image and the live theatre thrive on the mediation of two levels of consciousness: that of the performer and that of the spectator. As such it’s easy and despicably so to elevate those levels of consciousness by resorting to a message, whether that act of elevation debases rather than elevates the art itself being a topic for another debate. Music, in any case, is purely a product of its milieu, the milieu that manufactures and then consumes it. The act of consumption, in other words, is no different to the act of production: there can be no mediation between the two, only a levelling down of any and every barrier.

Part of the reason for this, of course, is the comparatively frugal economic base that can sustain a song or for that matter an orchestral performance. The movies will always remain the most industrial of all art forms, reliant on technology in ways that no other art form can hope to match, but the advent of digitalisation and web helped liberate music from the opera house and the concert hall in much the same way that the blogosphere and YouTube helped disseminate criticism and the moving image. And yet, even before this advent of digitalisation, the frugality entailed in enjoying a song was very much apparent, because the act of consumption does not involve an explicit cost (especially if you are listening to a song with the rest of the country, over the radio) and because it reaches its audiences quickly. This is the same with respect to operas and symphonies, which have frequently been played over the radio as well. The dichotomy between production and consumption that you come across in the cinema, television, and of course literature is simply not there in the realm of music.

And because such a dichotomy does not exist, the milieu to which the producer – the vocalist, the lyricist, and the composer – belongs is roughly also the milieu to which the audience, despite any personal quirks individual members may have, belongs as well. The 20th and 21st centuries, with its differentiation between production houses and opera houses, with its democratisation of an entire art, helped sharpen this unique quality, which is how in Sri Lanka you can trace the evolution from the high-flown, high-strung rhetoric of the old composers – who derived their inspiration from the Parsee theatre and a mishmash of Hela Sinhala and several Indian languages, in their songs and musical pieces – to the Pop quality, low key to some, of Neville Fernando, Clarence Wijewardena, and closer to our time, Bathiya and Santhush and Sanuka Wickramasinghe. It is this latter pop sensibility that I wish to explore in some detail here, because in their milieu we see an interesting phenomenon being played out.

The transformation of our cultural sphere, from a largely esoteric affair reserved for the colonial elite to the more plebeian catalogue of art forms (cinema, theatre, literature, etc) after 1956, and the revolution it wrought, went hand in hand with an explicit need to liberate those art forms from the straitjacket of verbal and visual profundities (which were really, at the end of the day, shallow and hollow) indulged by, inter alia, the plays of John de Silva and Sirisena Wimalaweera, the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. de Silva, and the cinema of the Minerva Players. Kadawunu Poronduwa begins with a tableau which culminates with the death of the main character Ranjani’s (Rukmani Devi) father: this tableau, in which the individual characters are identified with reference to their race and social position, reflected the verbosities that our filmmakers, playwrights, and writers in general liked to go for. It is with W. D. Amaradeva that we see a much needed toning down of those verbosities, with his attempts at linking the literary with the romantic through his sarala gee canon.

In a retrospective review of Rekava and Maname, written for the Lanka Guardian in 1982, Regi Siriwardena, our foremost critic writing in English, contended that contrary to the belief held at the time, Sarachchandra’s plays (especially Maname) initially appealed, not to the poor, but to a class that had been left out (absented) by every government until then: the middle class Sinhala speaking bourgeoisie. This was not really a bourgeoisie, rather a petit bourgeoisie aspiring to be the bourgeoisie, who would patronise the moral exhortations, at times chauvinistic, at times explicitly archaic, echoed in not just Sarachchandra’s early plays but also the work of the Colombo Poets and the moralistic yet romantic films of L. S. Ramachandran (Deiyange Rate, Kurulubedda, Sikuru Tharuwa). Eventually this petit bourgeoisie, alluded to as a distinct social subset by Ajith Samaranayake in a tribute to Camillus Perera, congealed into a class who called the shots in our cultural spheres. Amaradeva was their icon, their manifest destiny.

Amaradeva was the peak and the grand culmination of a trend that began with Devar Surya Sena, whose attempts at compounding our traditional sivpada and pal kavi with the grandiosity of the opera and the Church service were criticised as imitative by Sarachchandra and warmly reflected on by Tissa Abeysekara (indicating the manifest differences of opinion Sena’s work compelled and continues to compel today). Those who laid the groundwork for the later masters – including Hubert Rajapakse, whose eloquent recitation of Danno Budunge, misconceived as a Buddhist song by our nationalists, would find its pivot decades later with Kishani Jayasinghe (only this time provoking, not infatuation, but hatred) – were not fully aware of what they were doing. They were enthralled by the cosmetics of the culture they had shirked during their childhoods  – listen to Rajapakse and Sena today, their peculiar accents, their carefully calculated inflections, and discern how far away from the pal kavi they were – but what they lacked they made up for by their fervent devotion to that same culture.

From these two masters we come to Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha. Rajapakse and Sena were scions of the Anglican elite, who reflected a sensibility different to the more vernacular community from which the latter two hailed. Shantha in particular, who extensively resorted to the piano and organ (a staple of the Catholic Church) in his work (including his tribute to Munidasa, “Kumarathungunge”), did not have a polished voice that could reckon with the past masters, and neither did Samarakoon, but they were truly, deeply connected with the Buddhist ethos which they went to in some form or the other (Samarakoon converted to Buddhism, while Shantha, a fervent Catholic, in his later phase pared down his melodies to invoke the unmusical intonations of the Buddhist faith, particularly with “Po Da Daham Sihile”). The shift from the Anglican elite to the Catholic poor was essential at this juncture because it opened up a crevice that would be filled, after 1956, by the baila and the calypso singer: from Neville Fernando (“Gayana Gayum”) to Paul Fernando (“Golu Hadawatha Vivara Karanna”). Amaradeva was a product of all these.

At the heart of the baila and calypso that preceded Amaradeva was a contradiction, particularly with the two foremost second generation singers, M. S. Fernando and Anton Jones. Their lyrics, which are for the most devoted to their own workings and rhythms and nonsensical shades of meaning, articulate a dichotomy between a life of luxury and ease and enjoyment and the lack of any money or financial security which was needed to maintain such a life. In many of these second generation baila songs – “Manike Mama Aye Gedara Enawa” and “Mama Enne Dubai Rate Indala” by M. S., “Mini Gavuma” and “Kanthoruwa” by Anton – this self-contradiction is very much pervasive, and it accounted for their tepid reception by the public, particularly the middle class (who didn’t want to reminded, as Fernando and Jones did, that the lives they hankered after were cut off from their economic realities). The transition from them to Clarence Wijewardena was, hence, significant and to an extent inevitable.

Clarence pandered to the milieu which, while shirking the proletarian (if one can use that term) and self-indulgent ethic of the second generation baila vocalists, enthralled the milieu which produced them (the petit bourgeoisie, the middle class, the thuppahi) by bringing about a fusion between their low key sensibilities and the sensibility that thrived on a more literary, witty, and meaningful conception of music. For it to work, and for it to ensnare the consumerist, hedonistic middle class (Buddhist or Catholic, located predominantly in the metropolis), however, the songs that Clarence put out had to subsist on a class rift between the householder and the servant. It is this rift, which you come across in “Mango Kalu Nande” and “Mame Ape Kalu Mame”, which earned Clarence, the Moonstones, and the Super Golden Chimes their place in the sun. They were poking fun at a way of life they had got out of, a way of life Anton Jones celebrated, a way of life they attributed to their helpers, their maids, their aayas.

In the end, therefore, by parodying them, he parodied the men and women we wanted to be. This curious paradox – between our affections for and repudiation of them – became its own standard, its own yardstick. And our own standard, our own yardstick.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Christmas wish for Nandani’s shelter of hope

You will be reading this, I think, on the day after Christmas. The day after December 25th. Not unlike every other December 25ths we have run into, celebrated, and turned into a cosmetic festival that does little to no justice to its true, reflective zeitgeist. There are Christmas stories that compel such a zeitgeist, that offer us room for profound sorrow and intense anger. Stories that open us to the true meaning, if you could call it that, of those timeless words “Merry Christmas!” On this day, December 26, 2017, Boxing Day to some, an ordinary day to me, I will hence reflect on such a story which unfolded years ago near my hometown, concerning a widow. That widow, Nandani Gallage, runs a small shelter, not for orphans, not for adults, but for dogs.

There are those who believe that the term (and the idea behind the term) “humanist” must be limited to human beings. As such they celebrate every season – Christmas, the New Year, Vesak, Poson, and every other day affiliated to a faith and collective – reflecting on the poor who continue to suffer in destitution and pitifully wallow in want. To me such a construction of an open-ended word is, at best, misconceived and born out of our mistaken beliefs regarding who the recipients of charity and goodwill should be. The world isn’t resident to just human beings, after all, in fact we aren’t even heirs to that world: no one owes a damn to us, but we owe more than a damn to every creature that breathes, every flower that blooms, every forest that’s razed to the ground in the name of development. To me, therefore, Nandani is a humanist.

I first came across her in 2014, I remember, through an article written to one of those weekly supplements in a Sinhala newspaper (though which newspaper, I can’t recall now). It seemed at the time that she had a story to tell, so I went there, to Wewala, near Bokundara, which borders Piliyandala, to ascertain for myself what she had done and was doing. The last time I talked with her, she told me she couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t handling and taking care of a street pooch, because the years that preceded her deterioration to the pitiful state she is in now almost seemed to be from another world, happier than the world she is in now. And as is always typical of such individuals, news of the good she did (rearing and nurturing the unwanted dog) got around fast, and soon one thoughtless person after another started dumping their unwanted dogs and puppies by her house. It wasn’t just dogs, moreover: even unwanted cats and kittens found their way, somehow, to her overcrowded shelter.

Problems tend to multiply in more ways than one and for Nandani, the problems she faced multiplied literally when the dogs she took in started bearing puppies: she couldn’t simply give them away, so she decided to look after them as well. Her house isn’t in the best condition today, not surprisingly, since the dogs she rears are everywhere, whether in the bedroom or the kitchen, and they haven’t left a single chair or sofa alone. Things would have been better if Nandani’s husband were alive, but he died four years ago, which left her as destitute and unwanted as her pooches. She had thought of funding her shelter but finding those funds proved to be difficult: initially, she had borrowed from her neighbours, sometimes up to 4,000 rupees (which can do wonders for dogs), but after a while she had given up, despising the idea of individual charity. That makes her stand out, moreover: her disregard for charity. It’s the prerogative and the preserve of the privileged, after all, a rare phenomenon.

Her husband’s death had been preceded by another unfortunate incident. By her estimation a generous man, he had once lent two million rupees to a colleague of his, who had used the money to go to Naples. The colleague hadn’t returned the money, even when Nandani’s husband was gravely ill and after his death, so when Nandani pleaded with him and got him to send her about 7,000 rupees a month, she had been happy for a while. But only for a while: to this day, he hasn’t sent as much as a cent or rupee to her, and has broken off all communication with her. Tells a lot about us humanists, and tells a lot about her. (I suggested twice that she resort to one of those numerous NGOs and Animal Shelters that have been set up in recent years but she refused. Her rationale, sentimental to some, understandable to me, is that she’s grown so much on those pooches of hers that she can’t stand the idea of sending them away.)

She had also sought help from outside institutions, from shops, but to no avail. “I used to buy rice-crumbs from a nearby shop that sold them for 30 rupees a kilo. I asked them as to why or how they cost so much when a kilo of normal rice cost around 70, but their argument was that those crumbs would sell in the market for 40 a kilo!” The “rice-crumbs” she’d been given all this while is what you’d have expected: a flea-and-dirt infested mess that shopkeepers sweep to a corner and collect every day.

Which brings me to another pertinent point. It’s clear that Nandani badly needs food for the dogs, and money for that food, but some would suggest that she shouldn’t just take on dogs that are dumped at her doorstep. After all, one of the most common reasons for the stray dog problem in Sri Lanka is that people keep dumping them in public places. People like Nandani have good intentions, and they aren’t hard to come by, but all too often they’re preyed on by those who want a quick fix for their unwanted pooches. It’s a crazy, interminable paradox, a circle that never stops going around and around. Sterilisation would be a tentative solution, but even that has its limits despite the government’s own efforts at resorting to it to alleviate our stray dog problem. Charity is also a stopgap solution, which means that the only answer to her predicament would be a set or, more specifically, a network of genuine patrons.

The unwanted pooch problem in Sri Lanka is a microcosm of the elephant and human conflict we see elsewhere: there are problems, logistical or otherwise, involved in both sides. In the case of that unwanted pooch it’s largely manmade: we rear pretty pets but the minute we decide their offspring are a burden we put them in a cardboard box and deposit them by the road. In this respect, religious institutions have been helpful – particularly churches and temples, many of which have made those pooches their residents – but then the other side, i.e. the humans, needs to be revisited as well: rabies is a rabid problem, even with the measures taken by successive governments, and other issues relating to hygiene are pertinent too.

Malinda Seneviratne, quoting Ranbanda Seneviratne (no relative), contended that compared to those days when even the death of a dog would bring 50 human beings to the street, now if 50 human beings would die not even a single dog would be bothered. I understand that sentiment but I personally think that both Seneviratnes were wrong: if 50 human beings died a dog WOULD be bothered, because contemporary society has drawn a rift between the animal and the human that leaves the latter as the true savage. Ad as I said before, we aren’t really the heirs to this world. People like Nandani give us room for hope, but hope that is later tempered down. She has survived on charity, but this intriguing lady who fends for herself virtually alone and these dogs needs more. Words aren’t enough to explain what she does: it’s a marvel, at one level, for a woman of her position to sacrifice so much. She refuses to call her house a “dog shelter” – she prefers not to label what she’s doing – but if it were a shelter, it certainly is overcrowded today.

And she’s still not grumbling.

So on this Christmas, as with every other Christmas, let us take some time to reflect on some people. First and foremost Jesus Christ, and then people like Nandani.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 26 2017

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Reflections on a nation of non-readers

The rain spluttered, and then poured in gushes and torrents, as I hurried to the cafe that morning. I badly needed a cup of coffee, so I ordered one and waited, patiently, for the waiter to deliver while reading my copy of Against Interpretation. Susan Sontag and cold mornings in Colombo don’t exactly go hand in hand, but I needed something to kill the time. Then the waiter appeared, delivered my coffee, took the fee for that coffee, and left. I went on drinking and reading while the world around me moved on. It was about seven, I remember. About 15 minutes later another waiter appeared, glanced at my coffee (still unfinished), glared at my face, and told me to move to the back if I intended on reading further.

The waiter was clearly irritated, but I wasn’t, so perturbed and confused at his sudden flare up (after all he was my waiter and I was his customer: why did he have to talk to me like that?), I quickly finished my coffee and moved, not to the back of but away from the cafe. That cafe probably serves the best coffee anywhere in Colombo, but that encounter provoked me to look beyond the cosmetics of hunger and thirst and reflect, rather stoically, on the imperatives of reading and writing in closely knit, plebeian corners in the country. Now I get odd sensations whenever what I enjoy doing – reading and writing and whiling away the time thinking – is put down as quirks of an abnormal, stunted individual, and this encounter left me with the oddest sensation of them all. We were supposed to be a nation of readers, I had thought. I hate to be proven wrong in my assumptions of my own countrymen, but wrong I was.

In Sri Lanka, reading beyond the textbook, beyond what is deemed necessary in one’s interests in the short and long term, whether at school or at University or anywhere elsewhere, is considered a sign of foolishness. We no longer boast of commendable statistics when it comes to literacy, because that term is defined rather loosely and archaically. I can write my own name, and I assume so can that irate waiter, but the fact that he can do what I can does not mean that I am more literate than him, or that he is less illiterate than I am. But I am certain that, as a child, he would have subscribed to that line of thinking which dictates that if you can memorise what you are taught, and regurgitate what you memorise, you don’t need to peruse a book beyond what is prescribed. In Sri Lanka the reader is no longer a figure of respect, simply put, and in Sri Lanka, people no longer visit libraries and bookshops to read or to buy.

Part of the reason why we are so averse to reading, apart from the fact that with work and the commitments we are occupied with we lack time, is that we are taught, from an early age, to ignore anything more than what is recommended. If you take to poetry, to fiction, you are almost always put down by your friends. This is not because they envy you, but because we have embraced a school of thought that goes back to the 18 and 19th centuries, when the Industrial Revolution began flaring up. It is during that period that we see a bifurcation in our sensibility, as human beings, between the thinkers and the doers, or what Sontag once referred to as the literary-artistic and the scientific-technological. The one is deemed to be backward, metaphysical, an act of impassive thought, the latter forward, material, an act per se. Waiters no longer deem it necessary to know how to read a newspaper, a tragedy because they are no better or no worse than schoolboys and schoolgirls who are taught that it is not necessary to read a newspaper at all. Reading beyond what’s deemed readable is forbidden, regulated, censored, even at home.

Another reason is that we are selective about what we read. For centuries, we were told that pornography was not literature. (I subscribed to this view myself when I read Cleland’s Fanny Hill; now I regret it, because such an attitude stunts your ability to take in, fully, the aesthetics of the genre.) By that same token we were also taught that writers of popular fiction (in Sri Lanka, Karunasena Jayalath, Edward Mallawarachchi, and of course Sujeewa Prasannaarachchi) were not writers at all. But then pornography is literature – for if we consider the sudden appearance of an alien spaceship or planet, with no premonition, in science-fiction novels, as literature, we must extend the same considerations when it comes to sexual encounters and orgies that also appear suddenly, with no premonition – and many of whom we consider as serious writers today wrote for popular audiences back in their day: Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Shakespeare.

This culture of selectivity obviously extends to the dichotomy between the highbrow and the lowbrow. The waiter will find a newspaper of some utility when he has to read up on the latest updates to a train strike that’s crippling him on his way back home every day, but a student may consider a newspaper, not for its utility, but for its value. The gap between utility and value is there for all to see, when it comes to books and indeed the arts in general, simply because we are still caught up in that sensibility which the Industrial Revolution brought about. A waiter will see in me reading a critic a sign of irrationality, even madness, just as I will see in his repudiation of books and writers a sign of his lack of proper culture. But this is not class bound, because the rift between the artistic and the scientific is not an extension of the rift between the rich and the poor. For all we know, the waiter’s own son, taking after him in every other respect, may well turn out to be a great reader, though the father may want him to change.

Along with the distinction between the highbrow and the lowbrow you have Ananda Coomaraswamy’s distinction between objects of adornment and objects of utility: the distinction between mass consumption and discriminating tastes. The world before the 19th century, in Europe, sustained such a rift, but with the advent of the factory system there came about a deeper such rift with a culture of depersonalisation: you could duplicate a Mona Lisa and hang it on your wall and look at it with some satisfaction, though it wasn’t an original. The factory system, in short, opened us to a world of impersonal duplicates. In Tintin and the Lake of Sharks Rastapopoulos and his gang steal artefacts from museums and replace them with poorly made substitutes; the villains focus their attention on Professor Calculus, who has developed a prototype for a duplicating machine which, in their hands, will mean thefts and substitutions that will go unnoticed by officials. Calculus is a scientist, and with his genius he has distilled the post-19th century sensibility that would give way to the 21st century with its own version of the duplicating machine: the 3D printer.

We rely on scientists and cold, calculating reason, now also taken over by commerce, so much that we no longer need to rely on the library and our creative instincts for answers and solutions. The canvas has been replaced by the conveyor belt, and in place of our imagination we have a new imagination: that of unfettered production and consumption. The one necessitates the other, moreover; there can be no production without consumption, no consumption without production. That is what explains, more than anything else, our lack of enthusiasm for reading: we judge any act on the basis of its use, and we have long given up our creative instincts in favour of the professionals we rely on when it comes to seeking solutions for our problems: the lawyer, the doctor, the plumber, the commercial artist. Art in the modern sensibility survives and flourishes through advertising, though barely, while art as pure art hardly survives at all. The books read, the titles recommended, are thus categorised (even our libraries are categorised: according to genre, author, etc) as useful only insofar as it yields an immediate, productive outcome.

So what topics, or areas, does that terse encounter with the waiter leave me with? In no order, they are: the relative strengths and trajectories of Sinhala and Tamil on the one hand and English on other; the formation of a cohesive culture of readers and writers within our schools; and the rift between compulsorily and willingly obtained knowledge. All these issues I will get to later, because connected to one another they all get back to my earlier point: that we are a society of doers and thinkers, and the doers, like that waiter, see in the thinkers the cranks and the misfits the former have been conditioned to not become from an early age. And how? By not reading.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 24 2017

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The education discourse and its ethnic discontents

In his Among My Souvenirs Regi Siriwardena depicts the flaws and the contradictions that led to the fall from power of the pre-1956 elite. The plot teeters until the end between autobiographical fiction and historical actuality, particular with respect to the protagonist, David Gunawardene, and his friend, Wije. These two characters, moreover, represent a bifurcation of the author’s political beliefs, dangling between the privileged childhood of David and the more plebeian, less insular upbringing of Wije. The story ends with disillusionment for both of them over the murder of a remnant of the pre-1956 elite: Mark, a Westernised Tamil Christian whose education abroad, and whose repudiation of his own privileged upbringing, makes him idealise a society of chauvinists and rhetoricians.

Mark represents the rebellion against a particular social segment that thrived on (as that old lady, musing on the world that existed before 1956 in their milieu, tells us in Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Dear Children Sincerely) dinner parties and unfinished puddings. What is curious to me about this social segment, largely upper class and English educated, is that they were the people and the leaders who failed to prepare the country for the perils that beset us after the election of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. They were not equipped with the proper mindset, the proper attitudes, to take us beyond the chauvinism which 1956 unearthed rather badly. As Siriwardena frequently noted in his essays, being largely a postcolonial elite comprising the descendants of the colonial bourgeoisie they were too complacent to contemplate productively on the transformation of the country to a nation state unhindered by racial discord.

The rift between class consciousness and racial-ethnic consciousness has not, historical texts confirm, always been that easy to sustain. As no less a figure than Professor Nalin de Silva has noted, the proponents of federalism and Tamil chauvinism were by products of the privileged, class bound status accorded to the Vellala caste who formed the bedrock of the Civil Service (before the granting of the suffrage in 1931, bitterly opposed by leaders of that caste-bound community). They were the elite, in other words, predicated on the economic and, by default, the political rather than any racial or religious considerations. Let’s not forget, after all, that one of the first private organisations set up to oppose the half-baked reforms paraded as democratic change by the colonialists was the Jaffna Youth Congress, in which the North and the South cohabited in ways which today seem inscrutably idealistic. Had this culture of idealism thrived, it is even possible to contemplate a peaceful transition to the federalist constitution that has got both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists in a battle for power with, and against, each other today.

The idealism, however, soured.

And that idealism today largely flourishes in a context where its greatest proponents and champions come, not from the grassroots, but from the policy elite: the leading members of the NGO intelligentsia, the alternate State sector set up to overlook reforms that delve into the Constitution and ethnic harmony. To me this is a tragedy because it has served to strengthen the (largely mistaken) belief that cosmopolitanism is the preserve of those who are against nationalism. There is much I disagree with Jehan Perera, but in one point I agree with him: that Sri Lanka is not a nation, rather a nation of nations, predicated on race and faith. To get those nations together is the difficult task of the government in power, difficult because the government itself, while championing overtly the eventual triumph of a national consciousness over a racial consciousness, covertly caves into the demands of irrational chauvinists.

The best way for such an idealism to flourish would be this: get the multitude to support it. How does one get the multitude to do this? By a cohesive campaign, conducted entirely in the vernacular, that is different in scope and strength to the anti-Dutugemunu anti-Buddhist ahistoricism of the campaigns that preceding governments affirmed in the name of championing interethnic harmony, by vilifying each and everyone who stood for the Sinhala Buddhist collective. The Sinhala Buddhists cannot be considered as sacred cows, by any stretch of the imagination, but nor should they be demonised for being who they are: as a global minority, they do not have the luxury of numerical strength which most other collectives do. It’s a tentative balance that must be struck, and if the strategy is to succeed, the place to start would not be the parliament, or the media, but the most important part of the public sphere: our schools.

Here I go back to the pre-1956 elite, which Mark and David Gunawardene were harbingers of in Siriwardena’s book, to point out an interesting contradiction at the heart of their milieu: educated in elite schools, they believed that the absence or rather absenting of a racial consciousness in their classrooms was synonymous with the ideal of interethnic harmony. In other words, cultural apathy was taken as the password to a racially unhindered world. Siriwardena, in an essay on the potential of our schools to do away with those rifts, argued cogently that this misconception belonged to and was sustained by a specific social strata which, at the time of the Kannangara Reforms in 1943, comprised about one-seventh of the total student population, a paltrier ONE-FIFTIETH if we were to consider only those who were completely educated in English (without those who received an education in both English and the vernacular).

Now numbers don’t lie. The majority of this country, before and after 1943, was educated in Sinhala or Tamil. The minority (L. H. Mettananda would call them a “microscopic minority”) who were totally or partially educated in English were apathetic to anything but their milieu, which was tempered by a culture of indifference to ethnic and religious realities. Here I quote Siriwardena: “... they failed to recognise that the ‘common identity’ which they remember sharing was less a common ethnic identity than a class identity, which transcended their ethnic identity as Sinhalese, Tamiles, Muslims, or Burghers. Fluency in the English language and their Western-style dress were distinguishing marks of that class identity, which was in many ways defined through differentiation from the rest of the nation, the majority of whom, who spoke in Sinhala or Tamil, went barefoot and wore sarong, verti, or cloth and jacket.”

This conflation of the particular with the general, i.e. the misconception that their elitist education would prove valid for the country, was a reflection of the attitude of indifference which the leaders from this milieu exhibited even when our polity was overtaken by calls for separatism on the one hand and calls for majoritarianism on the other. The Kannangara Reforms, and the advent of democratisation in the education sector, extending to both schools and Universities, achieved two distinct things: one, the opening up of those elitist institutions to the village boy and girl through an examination that standardised intelligence and merit as the gateway to social mobility, and two, the opening up of Central Schools around the country that could reckon with those elitist institutions. The single most important social process unleashed with 1956 was Free Education, because it freed our education sector (the most important part of our public sphere, as I pointed out at the beginning) from the elitist minority that believed in a common identity transcending racial identities, an identity that would never materialise without the sustained separation of the polity between the minority and the multitude. Free Education did away with that separation.

In this new empowered student population – the descendants of the Ranjiths (Charitha Thunak), the Sirisenas (Thunman Handiya), and the Senas (Akkara Paha) who aspired for social advancement – I see a new hope. True, this population has always been with us, but we need them now more than ever, at a time when cosmopolitanism has been wrongly marketed as anti-nationalism and nationalism has been marketed as anti-cosmopolitanism. They sustain a curious contradiction within themselves, between their roots and their accommodation of a diluted, transcendental identity that comes with exposure to institutions which have opened up to other collectives. Personally for me, there has never been a better time to tap into their dualistic attitude towards that contentious issue of racial discord versus racial harmony, and personally for me, they remain an integral part of the solution to that issue. Right now.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 22 2017

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A part of their lives: The Sooriya Village gears up

As I pointed out in my last article, at best I am a spectator and not a connoisseur when it comes to music. When we discover the songs that we grow to love, we are thrilled, so much so that pedagogy and instruction, the finer points of music as a subject to be taught as a series of subjects and courses in an institution, come later. But then pedagogy and instruction are essential, not because they intellectualise a field that can’t really be intellectualised, but because they are a first step, a necessary first step, if one is to inculcate in others a rigorous, instinctive love for music. Nowhere is or can this be truer than in the field of music training for students with special disabilities, especially autism. This piece is about one initiative targeted at that field that’s found its way from one part of the world to the other, from the United States to South Asia.

Rhoda Bernard is the Managing Director of the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, a new, endowed institution aimed at children who are autistic, in fact the first of its kind to be established anywhere. “Berklee” of course is the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, referred to in Wikipedia as “the largest INDEPENDENT college of CONTEMPORARY music (the emphases are mine) in the world.” With courses ranging from rock to heavy metal, from hip hop and reggae to salsa and flamenco, and with a special merger in 2015 with the Boston Conservatory, it’s a veritable institute that’s probably the best and only of its kind to offer a specialised undergraduate music course for special needs children.

Bernard’s story takes us back to 2007, a decade ago, when together with the Boston Conservatory she, as a personal project, commenced a series of programs and workshops that delved into the pedagogy of music with respect to autistic children and even adults. She was pushed to this particular project because, as she herself has pointed out in an interview, there was really very poor support for instructing music teachers on how to teach, and adapt to, special needs students, a problem compounded by the fact that in a typical classroom, the needs of such students are somewhat diluted and subsumed in the needs of other students. Autistic children stand out in their instinctive love for music, but to transform that instinctive love into a lifelong interest is something only the most committed teacher can achieve. Bernard wanted to unleash a horde of such teachers, and to this end began with a private instrumental class.

There were problems. Firstly, a manifest lack of funds. Bernard got around that, during her first few weeks and months, by concentrating on a tuition driven model that would depend on individual merit and scholarships. From that private instrumental class, moreover, she and her initiative evolved rapidly to other courses, including early childhood programs that received funding, rather generously, from the National Endowment for the Arts. All these had been punctured by her vision for the entire project, which congealed into two philosophies: her belief in group ensembles as opposed to individual recitals when it came to the students, and her belief in differentiating the field she was engaged in (music education) from the field it was accustomed to in general (music therapy). The difference between therapy and education in that respect, she herself has noted, is notoriously difficult to sustain in the long term, since there’s a significant overlap between the two.

How so? Because, while therapy is aimed at a particular outcome (predominantly based on behaviour), education, or to be more specific music education, is aimed at making groups interact with and open up to each other. The one is geared at health, at cognitive functions that music can manifestly improve through certain prescheduled sessions with a qualified practitioner, while the other is geared at improving skills connected to a field, in this case music. As Bernard herself has observed, the overlap between the two is so considerable that the one cannot be distinguished from the other all the time. For instance, the group ensembles, the courses and classes designed to get students to interact with each other (through such endeavours as scavenger hunts) have at times led to infants opening up and saying their first words.

The focus had been from its inception on group recitals, on opening up and being interactive, so Bernard overcame her second problem – the fact that most if not many special needs kids lack the motor skills that are essential when playing instruments – by resorting to iPad ensembles. Such new initiatives helped rapidly expand Bernard’s organisation, and soon enough it had evolved into choral ensembles, professional development courses, and mobile workshops that toured the state of Massachusetts and received overwhelmingly positive responses from public school teachers. This led to the founding of the first and only graduate program (in the world) aimed at music and special needs, a Master’s Degree in Music Education with a special focus on autism. Bernard could have grown complacent with all these, but she wasn’t. She wanted more, for her institute and for her students.

She set about this by setting out two broad objectives: get the course beyond music and beyond autism, delving into other visual and aural art forms as well as other forms of special disabilities, and get it beyond the agreement with the Conservatory. The result of her endeavours and patience in this regard was the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs: the focus, as she had always wanted, had spread and become more multifarious. Going beyond music, the Institute, set up earlier this year, was the grand culmination of probably the most reckonable program she had conceived at the Conservatory: the Autism Spectrum Programs, which parents had grown to love so much that they kept on nagging Bernard to lower the age requirements and start classes for primary and elementary students.

The new initiative, now successfully implemented at Berklee, has, needless to say, proved to be more exciting for both Bernard and her students. They moreover received a grant recently, which they hope to use to start another welcome program: what is referred to in autism parlance as Social Stories, helping autistic students develop their interpersonal communication skills, only this time using Virtual Reality (VR) tools. Encouraged by the reception by the public of her projects and initiatives thus far, Bernard hopes now to develop the program at Berklee to include undergraduate and minor degree programs to help empower music teachers involved with special needs children. The problem, here, would be the development and formation of new courses, which has opened her up to another novel project: a broad and institutional partnership with Autism International Worldwide, a teacher training program that has expanded into Canada and South Asia. This is where Sri Lanka and the Sooriya Village come in.

On Sunday, January 28, 2018, from 5.30 to 7.30 pm, Rhoda Bernard will connect with local music teachers via Skype for a workshop on the pedagogy of music. “Would you like to integrate the arts into your teaching?” is how the poster for the event puts it, rather acutely I should think, and to a considerable extent that is what the workshop aims at, providing strategies and tactics that can prove useful for guiding, inter alia, autistic students. Bernard has chosen probably the best location of its kind for her one-day, two-hour virtual workshop in Sri Lanka, because no other location in Colombo caters to the kind of wider milieu that the Sooriya Village caters to. Malinda Seneviratne, who writes, might note (as he did, about two weeks ago, in this paper) that it “works for me”, and by the same token I have come across positive comments from, among others, Sumitra Peries, Kumar de Silva, Upecka Chitrasena, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, and the Music Circle of Ananda College (that trained, copiously, for their annual showcase item Rhythm of the Maroons, there, last year). While ostensibly established for musicians, both aspiring and established, it has taken a life of its own, extending to other art forms: in short, the perfect place for the perfect workshop.

Obviously, Sri Lanka and the United States are not the one and the same, so it’s pertinent to end my little piece with a reference, cursory though it may be, to some of the finer, more unique points of this workshop. Firstly, the basic elements of the workshop will not differ from the workshops she has conducted at Berklee and earlier at the Conservatory. Secondly, Bernard’s ideas for “globalising” (always a notoriously indefinable term) arts and arts education have been nurtured by the fact that Berklee has always been a melting pot, extending its arms to the rest of the world (it isn’t nitpicking to mention here that Sanchitha Wickremesooriya, who de facto runs with his father, Udena, the Sooriya Village, is himself a past student). Thirdly, the workshop has been fine-tuned to accommodate the various ethnic differences real and imagined that are present, today, in Sri Lanka (Bernard: “I do think that the emphasis on inclusivity that cuts across arbitrary borders amongst participants and students will differ in the South Asian context, for sure. I am curious to see how those differences play out as I work with the educators in the workshop, as well as through my continuing relationship and collaboration with the Sooriya Village”). Fourthly, while the curricula and the pedagogic philosophies underlying our country and Bernard’s are discernibly different, the principles underlying them in both countries remain essentially the same, easily adaptable.

There are realities that need to be accommodated. But these remain trivial, because what Bernard has done, in her special way, speaks to all of us. It took time for me to record what she has achieved in 10 years because words can’t, to borrow an oft-borrowed cliché, do justice to her actions. Clichéd, yes. But true.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 21 2017

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Vivace': Between the beat and the ensemble

At around 175 beats per minute, vivace brims with vivacity: a tempo that’s at once lively and fast, at once vigorous and energetic. It thrives on ecstasy, on movement, the sort that doesn’t subsist on ensembles but rather on the passionate intensity of the few who take part in it. There’s a thin line between individuality and togetherness, a line which is superfluous in large orchestras but one that is significant, to an extent even essential, for the evolution from those orchestras to contemporary music.

On December 23, 2017, at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, a school western music society will, for the third consecutive time, take us through that evolution. Before getting to that school and that society, though, I believe that a few preliminary reflections are called for.

I am at best a spectator and not a connoisseur when it comes to music, Western or Eastern. The only thing I know is that, unlike words and images, tones and rhythms are self-referential and can only be accounted for with reference to their own terms. Part of the pleasure of listening to a band, an orchestra, a solo artiste, is the rift this opens us to, between the world they inhabit and the larger world they play to. The Western conception of music is largely self-liberating, which at one level adds to that rift: the aesthetics of Western music are predicated on the separation of the artiste from his or her world, a form of separation that entreats us to forget the many other separations we operate on. Propaganda in music, therefore, is at best inflammatory, unlike propaganda in the cinema or in literature: as Sanchitha Wickremesooriya once informed me, “For me, music, especially Western music, can be propagandist only if someone is forcing you to listen to a song or a piece by pointing a gun at your head.”

Now musically we are individualists and pacifists, since we don’t hold guns at each other.

But then there’s a curious contradiction when it comes to Western music in this country. There’s a division between the young and the old, and the young, because they purvey a culture that pits them against the old, listen to either the songs of today or the symphonies of yesterday. It’s a strange dichotomy, between Kanye West and Mozart. What lies between, i.e. the vocalists and the composers and the lyricists who came to us between 19th century Europe and 21st century America, has badly escaped us, if at all because we equate the popular with the individual and the classical with the collective. To get out of this artificial dichotomy, to ensnare oneself from this conundrum, is the correct task of a school or any institutional society that has at its aim the enrichment of our tastes. To enrich those tastes, however, one must evolve from the collective to the individual, from the ensemble to the band, because we no longer live in a world of artists who depend on a conductor and a writer: we live in a world of technology, of minimalism, where that artist can be his or her own conductor and writer and even promoter. That is where Vivace comes in.

It all began in 2004 when a Western Music Society was formed at Ananda College, Colombo. Until then two other (broadly defined) music societies operated at Ananda: the Music Circle, a mishmash of the Western and the Eastern which would in later years culminate annually with Rhythm of the Maroons, and the Brass Brand, which would culminate annually with Prashasthi. The WMS was different in that respect, because while the Music Circle and the Brass Brand was premised largely on orchestral performances at large venues, it sought to privilege the individual performance by promoting what was then a late, fresh trend: the emergence of school beat bands which were mobile, didn’t depend on those large venues for their reception by audiences, and didn’t play out with very many instruments. Limited largely to the guitar and the saxophone, the beat band was at its inception minimalistic. That was something that expansive, multifarious orchestra ensembles could never match.

In 2005 the WMS staged its first showcase event, Maroons in Harmony. While ambitious in its scope it was, nevertheless, inhibited by a rather insular outlook, since it was primarily aimed at school members as opposed to general outside audiences. So it didn’t come to much of a surprise that after 2005 nothing new transpired: the WMS itself was shut down, stunted and dead in all but name, with no other events except for the occasional skit at the occasional concert. While Rhythm of the Maroons, with its oriental background (the Music Circle was historically an offshoot of the school’s first Music Society, inaugurated in 1975 under the guidance of Bandula Kodikara and, later, Lionel Ranwala, exponents respectively of the Indian raag and the jana gee), would begin an year after Maroons in Harmony, and Prashasthi would pick up a while later, the WMS suffered. In silence. That is, until 2014, when the culture of beat bands picked up exponentially and compelled a new show, a new showcase item. Vivace.

With its first instalment the organisers of Vivace were adamant that it include a special segment for those beat bands. The following year, however, they emphasised even more on that segment by holding a separate competition for beat bands in September, a trend that intensified in 2016 when the number of the bands that participated doubled, from the previous year, from six to 12. To ascertain the evolution this compelled, I spoke with the current President of the Society, Shamal Dimantha, who was, in those first two years, engaged with his Ordinary Level Exams. To start things off therefore I asked him to comment on how the WMS picked up, with respect to its membership and the responses to Vivace from outside institutions.

He obliged. “Firstly, we didn’t have a membership that could help us, as a team, reckon with other clubs and societies. From one batch there would have been no more than 10 or 15 members, a problem that was compounded by the fact that unlike many other societies at Ananda we invite members to join only from Grade 10. We have for obvious reasons improved now, with an average of 30 per batch joining the Society as members or members of the board. Yes, to be sure we did run into some problems, for the most logistical, in those first few years, with budgets that ran up to five million rupees and with venues that called for even bigger budgets. But then we moved from Nelum Pokuna to Sugathadasa Stadium in only one year. Naturally that had to do with the responses we got from the schools we invited to perform as beat bands and general audiences.” He then adds (to my dismay) that this Saturday, they will return to Nelum Pokuna, commenting rather wryly, “We had to face a letdown this time.”

The letdown as such had been the outcome of a general circular issued to government schools prohibiting competitions of any sort being held during the third term. “The only option we had was to move the Beat Band Competition to December. The problem was that this wasn’t feasible, since not many schools were willing to come forward in a month filled and packed from beginning to end with exams and festivities. So we downgraded a little this time, with respect to the venue and to the number of the skits that you will see. Instead of the 6 and 12 bands we had in the last two years, you will come across three invited school bands: Lyceum International Nugegoda, D. S. Senanayake College, and Visakha Vidyalaya.” The letdown reflects certain realities that are patently outside the control of the organisers, and hence don’t represent a letdown for the concept behind the show, or for that matter the show itself.

Shamal takes me back to that point I raised earlier, i.e. the way our youngsters and elders have misconceived music as either Mozart or Kanye West, and points out, correctly I believe, that the flowering of a beat band culture in Sri Lanka is an act of demolishing that misconception. “We basically have missed out on the seventies and the eighties, because we are fixated absolutely on either the classical or the popular.” What Shamal means there, of course, is that we have broken this entire field between the lavish shows which orchestras deliver and the cheap music videos that ambitious iconoclasts and broken lovers parading as vocalists deliver. Between the two there is a fine line, occupied by those who tilt to neither extreme but borrow from both. These borrowers are the exponents of school beat bands. I firmly believe that behind their emergence and empowerment lies the emergence and empowerment of a new generation of vocalists and composers, who can’t be considered as cheap and iconoclastic. One can think of Sanuka Wickramasinghe, more than anyone else, here.

Malinda Seneviratne once penned down the following words: “As people get older their favourite songs get played less and less or else they are forced to listen to stations dedicated to ‘oldies’ or wait for those special programs where yesterday’s favourites are played. It is natural for older people to find new music crude. Perhaps it is less a matter of crudeness than something to do with technological revolutions that make for more experimentation and easier broadcast, resulting naturally in cacophony.” Now there’s a difference between cacophony and polyphony, and the organisers behind Vivace, in the Western Music Society at Ananda, would benefit if they realise that difference. This Saturday.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 19 2017

Friday, December 15, 2017

A shell shocked world: More cuts on the private sphere


The private sphere of this country and of most other postcolonial societies, even India, did not open up fully to the Westernised paradigm of modernity and progress that it was supposed to open up to. What we got instead was a fatal contradiction, since that sphere, in whatever form and sector (even education) uprooted itself from cultural sensibilities and at the same time followed the worst elements of a patriarchal, quasi-feudalistic world. When CEOs of global companies from our part of the world contend, in front of a panel or interviewers, that it is good karma for women not to ask for pay rises, they are pandering to the superficial elements of a culture, any culture, which does not require them to let go of their Westernised outlook. The cosmetics of such cultures (the “pansakulaya, malwatti, and upparawatti” as Professor Nalin de Silva memorably wrote) appeal to those who believe that even in the private sphere, a balance must be struck between the need to be “nationalised” and also “globalised.”

This was largely a legacy of the split in the Buddhist order, firstly between the laity and the clergy achieved by the British after we were colonised, and secondly between the traditionalists and the reformists, the wielders of the faith and the wielders of a new secularism, that the intrusion of Theosophy brought about. By this I am not belittling the attempts of Colonel Olcott or Helena Blavatsky, rather I am pointing out that in the Theosophist movement we see a sustained division between the worldly and the otherworldly (noted by William Ames and Heinz Bechert) that found its way to postcolonial societies like ours. By artificially creating a rift between culture and society, the proponents of this new secularism had found a rationale for their offspring and even they themselves to wallow in the materialism, the crass consumerism, and Westernisation which their parents and grandparents had fervently opposed in 1956.

The new secularists, who were veritable champions of the cosmetic elements of culture, were the “children of the children” (as I pointed out in last week’s column): they let themselves be overwhelmed by the new culture of social upliftment. It was a new way of thinking, of looking at the world (they would call this “positive thinking” as the years went by), and the result of it all was that they were only too willing to target those who shared that worldview. The emergence and creation of an alternative education sector, free from the constraints of the Ministry of Education, was one method of catering to that worldview, and our new secularists, whose own children would go beyond them in being Westernised and uprooted, soon became shrewd businessman. Those who went through this alternative education sector from the nineties can attest that these institutions were never preoccupied with the profit motive – and those behind them were not enamoured of that profit motive either, yet – because they didn’t need to be: they had targeted the perfect single market, less a market, in fact, than a collective inhibited by an inferiority complex.

Gunadasa Amarasekara writes about this collective and milieu in many of his novels after Yali Upannemi and Karumakkarayo (the last two he wrote before he renounced the Western conception of literature he had been entranced by), particularly (though I have not read them yet) the cycle of stories revolving around Piyadasa (Gamanaka Mula, Gamanaka Mada, etc). He subtly points out the gulf between the idealists and the pragmatists, between the devotees and the secularists, between the nationalists and the “nationalists”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, certainly, one which shows us that no matter how universally feasible globalisation may be, all it does at the end of the day is destroy entire collectives while preserving the cosmetic elements of the cultures of those collectives: Keats’s Grecian Urn, Lawrence’s Arabia. For the West the East can only be salvaged through those cosmetics, an attitude largely shared by the new secularists who emphasised on rote learning history and religion in their institutions.

History is not a series of dates that need to be remembered, and religion is not a series of sermons and chants that need to be memorised. They are more, much more, than what their surfaces will have you believe. The children of the children were guilty for having abandoned in their professional lives their faith and heritage, so when they targeted the cultural sensibility they themselves acceded to, they tried to ensure that both faith and heritage would remain (ostensibly) core elements of their curriculum. I remember one of these new secularists, who had sent her child to one of these institutions at the behest of an aunt, impatiently glaring at one of those commentators who on television frequently reiterated the need to know one’s language properly. By denying their children a proper space to learn that language, the maw basa, they were in effect turning the need into an option: it was no longer mandatory to seep oneself in the past as before, it was rather a choice that had to be made by their children.

It was a half-baked world but one can’t blame those who were resident in it because no culture, in this postcolonial phase of history, can survive the inhibitions of those who imbibe the Western paradigm of development and modernism. Limited to one or two periods, the maw basa (Sinhala and Tamil), the agama (particularly Buddhism), and the sanskruthiya (based largely on extracurricular activities like dancing, music, and the Hewisi Band) were by and by afterthoughts of the new secularists who wanted a premium education for their children, even though these subjects and activities had the effect of entrancing those children to the culture their elders were repudiating. The world had moved on, and the elders were still very much behind. They wanted their children to learn faster, to let go of any affiliations to their country and even live abroad. Even our nationalist politicians see no contradiction in subscribing to this attitude when it comes to the education of their offspring. It’s an elephant in the room.

The debate over the international school system has so far been conducted by the rabid nationalists and the would-be modernists: the former decry any attempt at opening an alternative space in our education sector, while the latter see in that space a veritable chance of redeeming their inhibitions, their sense of inferiority, by westernising their children. No proper debate, consequently, has followed our international schools because the extremists, on either side, have so far headed it. It is my contention that the international school system as is present in Sri Lanka, particularly with respect to schools which target a bourgeoning middle class, opens up a complex interrelationship between the imperatives of culture and the imperatives of the material world, an interrelationship that I believe deserves another article.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 15 2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Nita Fernando and the parameters of fame

Before she and her husband left for and settled down in Canada, before she cut short what was considered to be a promising film career, only to return to it almost 20 years later, Nita Fernando exuded and exemplified a freewheeling, idealistic, innocent girlishness that no other actress here could really match. You see this girlishness, and the naïveté of idealism, crop up in her two best performances from her first phase: in K. A. W. Perera’s Wasana (one of her first hits) and Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Duhulu Malak (which marked her breakthrough). It’s a testament to how serious she was about her portrayals that these two directors and movies never succumbed completely to the tropes of the commercial cinema, especially Duhulu Malak. Probably that’s why and how Nita’s girlish idealism caught us so quickly, and immediately.

A brief biographical sketch might help us understand this phase of her career. Nita was born in Katuneriya in Chilaw and was educated at Holy Family Convent, Wennapuwa, where she took part in stage dramas that inculcated in her a love to “go out there, to perform, to show my face to the world” as she memorably put to me once. Chilaw at the time had a veritable performing arts centre (a “Kala Ayathanaya”) and this she joined right after leaving school. But like most people from her generation, and the generations that preceded hers, she didn’t want to enter the cinema. She wanted to be a stage actress. Naturally then, her entry to the film industry was accidental, having been selected to act opposite Gamini Fonseka in Parasathumal, but having had to give the offer up because of her parents’ disapproval. One thing led to another, though, and she found herself in R. T. Studios, headed by the formidable Robin Tampoe (who had earlier groomed and initiated Swineetha Weerasinghe).

But it wasn’t Tampoe’s films that she was featured in. It was K. A. W. Perera’s, with Wasana and Lasanda, followed by Sathischandra Edirisinghe’s Rajagedara Parawiyo. By the end of her first 10 years in the industry she had taken part in more than 40 movies, most of them forgettable and a few of them notable. Those few – including Wasana and Rajagedara Parawiyo, as more than a secondary player – got her noticed by Vijaya Dharma Sri, who selected her for his Duhulu Malak. Partly (and crudely) inspired by Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Duhulu Malak was touted by contemporary critics and even audiences as being ahead of its time. It was a deeply sensitive production, and its theme – the immutability of love and of the family institution – was rather controversial. In it Nita was the wife (to Tony Ranasinghe, who became a lifelong friend) as well as the lover (to Ravindra Randeniya, who like Nita was cast in his breakthrough role). The controversy of the theme notwithstanding, I find the morality of Duhulu Malak rather muddled up, if not confusing, and I discern that in Nita’s astute, idealistic, but naively ecstatic portrayal of Nirupa Suraweera.

While vaguely reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dharma Sri’s film repudiates the sexual indifference of Lawrence’s novel and instead uses the theme of adultery, not to emancipate the woman at the heart of the love triangle (caught between the husband and the lover, Nirupa can only confess to her close friends, who while sympathetic implore her to choose wisely), but to affirm the family institution she wants to get out of. The husband is characterised solidly: busy but caring, indifferent but infatuated. Not even two song-and-dance sequences that show this conflict between family ties and personal feelings (“Bonda Meedum” and “Ran Kenden”) are, in my opinion, enough to set aside the forced, contrived morality of the script, and Nita’s lovable, doll-like fragility, threatened most poignantly in that last sequence where the husband imagines shooting and killing her, serves to compound this self-contradictory morality. In the end Dharma Sri resorts to depicting the husband as an irrational, angered cry-baby and the lover as a careless playboy who refuses to give up, and despite the confused morality of the plot, the only strong character who comes out is Nirupa herself. On her hinges the thin line between personal feelings and familial obligations, and she finally chooses, not the former, but the latter.

The strength of a film like Duhulu Malak comes from the solidity of its characters, and all three characters – the wife, the husband, the lover – were depicted squarely, with enough complexity to make them seem less the types they could have been and more the fleshed out individuals they were: Nita as the girlish idealist; Tony as the condescending husband who learns to care more for his woman; and Ravindra as the almost boyish prodigal who only at the end learns to grow up. (His final act, of throwing his shoe to the sea, is a contrivance by the script to make us forget everything that preceded it, but in that act we see him mature: he’s no longer a rabid, obsessive stalker, but a youthful idealist who’s lost his love.) And perhaps it’s the writer in me, but in her performance I see in Nita the schoolgirl aspiring to be a star. I put to her that even in Duhulu Malak, we come across a woman beset with little to no problems, who isn’t but should be content with her station in life, and who, even in the most mundane pursuits, displays a naive and innocent attitude to the world around her. She agreed and replied, “When I was a girl, I wanted to be an actress because I wanted I wanted to act in everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING.”

That Duhulu Malak was her breakthrough was confirmed by the fact that she left the country, with her husband Elias, soon after production wrapped up, and that when she returned 18 years later she was taken in for qualitatively different roles. “I didn’t even get to read reviews of the movies I had acted in, after I departed. I regretted that very much and I complained frequently. But Elias was a very understanding man. Very down to earth, in fact. He got me acquainted with the issues and the problems people from that part of the world, especially expatriates like us, faced.” Perhaps those experiences account for her transformation from the girlish idealist to a self-conscious, responsible woman, exemplified most vividly in her first outing after her return to Sri Lanka in Prasanna Vithanage’s Pawuru Walalu. Again cast as a woman (the widowed Violet) caught between personal feelings and familial obligations, Nita nevertheless tempered her performance and became more vividly and solidly realised.

Vithanage’s films, with one or two notable exceptions, delve into a rigid but textured Catholicised worldview, teetering between guilt and pleasure. That confused morality in Duhulu Malak, therefore, doesn’t quite come out in Pawuru Walalu, especially since in the former the transgression of moral boundaries is depicted flippantly, almost casually, as an innocent interlude on the part of the woman, whereas in the latter it provokes a crisis of faith in both the woman and her daughter (Sangeetha Weeraratne), along with her closest friends (at one point, in a Church, she admits to a friend that she has become a sinner), which not even a poignant ending can resolve. That Nita’s portrayal was more fleshed out was confirmed when she won the Best Actress Award at the 11th International Film Festival in Singapore. Pawuru Walalu was a landmark for her for another reason: it was the first movie she produced. To a considerable extent, this opened her to the cinema in ways that her acting career had not, as she herself put it: “The art of making movies is more difficult, yet more rewarding, than the art of acting in them. I am not belittling my earlier career, but the truth was that I was able to finance films which appealed to my conscience and my priorities.”

I have unfortunately not seen this phase of her career completely, apart from a few performances in serious forays like Saroja and Bambara Walalla, the latter of which she produced. In Saroja she comes out as the most complex character in the story, as the mildly racist yet concerned wife to the protagonist, an idealistic schoolteacher (Janaka Kumbukage),who decides to shelter the daughter of a LTTE soldier. At times her maternal instincts for the forlorn girl conquer her, while at others she pushes her husband to give in to what the villagers want: force the girl away. It’s an inversion of all her previous roles, because she’s likeable and dislikeable and also because in that act of being both at the same time she’s easier to relate to. As for Bambara Walalla, as the mother she occupies less screen time, but the intensity of her portrayal comes out. In any case, her penchant for serious, socially conscious themes were articulated in every film she had a hand in shaping – patriarchy in Nisala Gira, societal violence in Bambara Walalla, and the stigma of AIDS in her latest production, Swara, which clinched awards at the Jaipur Film Festival two years ago.

I sincerely believe Nita has done what she can to make us aware of certain things. Important things. We’d be indifferent not to acknowledge the performances she’s dished out to us, and more pertinently, the films she’s financed out of a desire to propagate pressing issues. She herself affirms what she’s done with a reference to her faith: “I don't think God says, ‘Go to church and pray all day, and everything will be fine.’ For me, God says, ‘Go out and make a change, and I'll be there to help you’.”

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 14 2017

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'The Disaster Artist': The (un)making of a movie

“That is the worst piece of acting that has ever been put on film.”
(Doug Walker, “The Nostalgia Critic”)

“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”
(Greg Sestero as Mark, “The Room”)

There have always been movies that have defied easy categorisation, that have baffled, mystified, never given a clue as to their creative origins, ever since the cinema came into existence, but none of them has the charm, the touch of overblown sincerity, that Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has. It’s gloriously funny when it shouldn’t be, and it falls back on its own sincerity so much that your sides don’t ache, they split. You don’t believe that a film like this can exist – or for that matter, that it could have been conceived at all – which is when you turn to look at its actors, production crews, and of course, director. Made for six million dollars, it ran at the box-office and recouped all of 1,800. That’s when the producers decided to change their tactics: by marketing the film as Mystery Science Theatre delicatessen. No American film before it, not even Ed Wood’s incongruous forays into transvestism (Glen or Glenda) and science fiction (Plan 9 From Outer Space), had found audiences this way. Its impact was immediate, which is why it’s not really a cult movie. Cult movies take time to attain their status. Tommy Wiseau didn’t have to wait for long like that. He got what was due just weeks after he released it.

Wiseau belongs to a set of artists whose peculiar careers and creative imaginings can be traced to the poetry of William McGonagall, the novels of Amanda McKittrick Ros, the operas of Florence Forster Jenkins, and the cinematic monstrosities of Ed Wood. They have no real back-story, their origins can’t be determined with any certainty, but in their work we come across (paraphrasing Aldous Huxley) the discovery of art by unsophisticated minds. Their consciousness of their own greatness is at odds with our awareness of their lack of it. So imaginatively resolved they are that they remain oblivious to their reception by critics and general audiences. Tommy Wiseau is a 21st century’s equivalent of McGonagall, Ros, and Ed Wood. His film is what one person described as being designed by an alien. That term describes Wiseau aptly because to this day, no one knows where he came from. And now Greg Sestero tries to address this issue in The Disaster Artist, his account of the making, if not unmaking, of The Room.

It’s a neat little big book, to the point, never off the mark, fleshed out, never in a hurry. Sestero was involved with The Room even before it was planned out. He was, as those who’ve seen the film would know, Mark, the best friend turned betrayer to the protagonist, Johnny, played by Wiseau himself (who, in addition to directing and producing it, wrote it as well). The Room is an intensely personal work of art in a way that Ed Wood’s films and Amanda Ros’s novels were not, which is why Sestero, who has known Wiseau far longer than anyone involved with the movie, is the best person to write on him. The Disaster Artist hence follows two storylines: his involvement with its production, and his biography, right from the point that his decision to become a model and an actor got him to meet the man who (as he informs us candidly) made him realise what a mixed blessing the resolve to become who you wanted to become could be.

The quotes that preface each chapter keep apart and also curiously together these two storylines: quotes from Sunset Blvd for Sestero’s personal encounters, quotes from The Talented Mr Ripley for his experiences with Wiseau and the making of The Room. Both these films were, to be sure, about pretenders and hacks who aspire to be more than who they are, but while Sunset Blvd is about a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who senses opportunity in an ageing star hoping to make a comeback, Ripley is about an ambitious, insecure conman who takes on identities of people who teeter between anger and infatuation (like Dickie Greenleaf, played by Jude Law). It’s a terse, but appropriate, device: the chapters with Sestero’s life experiences reflect our image of him as a desperate artist, while the chapters of his run-ins and encounters aboard The Room reflect our image of him as an accomplice to a disaster artist. He’s the other half to a man he barely knows about; the only friend to someone who might as well be a nobody. But they are connected: Sestero’s own life, his own hankering after a career in the movies, echoes Wiseau’s own aspirations in the industry. The two are, and remain, the same.

Sestero’s story begins when, at the age of 12, he posts a letter to John Hughes over Home Alone; not a congratulatory missive, but a lovingly detailed script for what he hopes will be its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in Disney World. Hughes must have read it, because a month later he mails back: “Believe in yourself.” The screenplay isn’t taken up though: it comes back with the reply. (Perhaps the idea of Kevin McCallister being LOST, as opposed to being left alone in his own home, appealed to the man, since Home Alone 2 would have him running around New York.) It’s this letter that starts Sestero’s journey, despite the protestations of his mother (“We get along and have always got alone, save for one key area: my choice of career”) and the insecurities which are fuelled by the various agencies that call him, drop him, call him again, then cut off all contact with him.

The entertainment industry operates on the few who can make it and the many who can’t. Sestero’s first few experiences aboard the industry – from the acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre to the desperate last minute calls to various agencies – hence don’t fit the bill of the from-rags-to-riches narrative we’re used to when it comes to such actors and stars. Disillusioned by his diminishing prospects, at especially at the Theatre, he then finds himself in San Francisco, where he enrols in acting classes by Jean Shelton, in the Shelton Studios, which had previously tutored Danny Glover. Sestero hopes to find another Glover, another role model to look up to and emulate. Instead he finds a “half comic book character, half hair-metal icon.” Tommy Wiseau’s most distinctive feature is his hair: dishevelled, idiosyncratic, ubiquitous. Together with his heavy accent, it reveals his lack of any proper origin.

And part of the reason, if not the only reason, for that mystery is the fact that Wiseau has always been careful to not reveal his story, to anyone. But beneath his enigmatic personality is a generous spirit, as Sestero makes it clear: not only does Wiseau lavish gift after gift on him, he even takes him in to his (expensive) apartment in Los Angeles, where he hopes to make a comeback in the theatre along with business (in the fashion industry, though how he started there and prospered, heavily, we are never told). And yet this generous spirit comes at a price: he’s so tempestuous, so prone to fits of temper, that at one moment he’s overly friendly and the very next he’s grasping, demanding, angry.

He is Dickie Greenleaf incarnate, a comparison that Sestero and another friend of his make, unnervingly, one night when they watch Ripley. At one crucial juncture it seems as though those fits and tempers are overwhelming enough for Wiseau to consider throwing him out, but if he ever did consider that we are never told why. Sestero openly wonders: is it because he’s jealous, or because he expects his pound of flesh in return for his generosity? It’s a slow moving drama, and it echoes, in many respects, The Room itself.

Most films have a tendency of making you want to see them again because a second or even third viewing helps you spot the weaknesses and the strengths and the mechanics more clearly. You don’t go to watch The Room the second or third time because of that. You go to watch it because its weaknesses, and even relative strengths (the few scenes of conviction), are astoundingly quirky and simply can’t be rationalised. Any attempt at making sense of the film will fail, because no one can get beyond its awful sincerity.

There’s no doubt (and The Disaster Artist makes this clear) that in The Room Tommy Wiseau was attempting at a fusion (of sorts) between Tennessee Williams and James Dean, the two archetypes of American post-war teenage angst. Sestero points out at his love for the American cinema, even when he seemed to get the movies he watched garbled up (at one point he tells Sestero that with his beard he looks like Spartacus, but Kirk Douglas never sports a beard or a moustache in Kubrick’s film). Adolescent angst, the alienation of the individual from his surroundings, the cruelty of the family, the heroism of the defeated: these were the themes that intrigued Wiseau, themes that he tried to transplant, but failed to, with The Room. Perhaps his fascination with the youthful Sestero was rooted in his obsession with Dean. He looked up to the latter heavily, which explains why he borrowed Dean’s line from East of Eden and, in his film’s most memorable scene, cries out to his indifferent girlfriend, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”

And in seeing himself as an original artist, an auteur, if you can put it that way, he aspired for nothing less than the red carpet and the Academy Awards. He consequently spared no expense over its production: He hired, rather than rented (which is what even the most endowed directors do), all his equipment; his purchases included both a 35mm film camera and a high-definition camera, “probably the most wasteful and pointless aspect of The Room’s production,” as Sestero notes; he kept on hiring and firing script supervisors and directors of photography and actors and making it appear as if his overbearing sense of contempt for his cast and crew was his privilege; he used artificial sets when a real alleyway would have done; he oversaw exterior shots across San Francisco without a permit (which ended up with a tense encounter with a police officer); and he mounted a strange but expensive guerrilla marketing campaign which included a poster of himself, a headshot with his face lowered, his lips pursed, and his eyes filled with furious, almost otherworldly emptiness (“I’m not sure whether I’ve seen a movie billboard that did less to communicate what the move it was ostensibly advertising was about”). He promised the people a movie they could enjoy. To his credit, he did well on his promise: The Room was marketed gradually as a self-parody, and it worked. The people didn’t just grow to like it but virtually grew on it: overnight they began organising private screenings, getting dressed up as their favourite characters and getting ready to mock its many idiosyncrasies, including its less-than-sagacious use of framed spoon pictures.

Sestero’s easy prose helps when he’s being witty and sarcastic, but it also helps when he’s portraying a sympathetic, poignant portrait of his friend. There obviously have been people who have befriended out-of-this-world and wacky and self-definable quirks, but Sestero is perhaps the only one who has written about one of them with such restraint. He’s not a Christina Crawford smearing an abusive parental figure, he’s not a disgruntled, alienated worker bemoaning his employer; he’s a fairly well-to-do but very much young actor who looks at life and all its slings and arrows with expectation and equanimity. His friendship with Wiseau, consequently, doesn’t suffer from one-dimensional rants and raves. When he temporarily loses that friendship, when Wiseau makes suggestive remarks about throwing him out of his apartment, he doesn’t get angry with the man, he gets frightened (“I started looking for a new apartment that night”).

In the end, when he provides us with a possible back-story on Wiseau, he indulges in the only fictional section in his narrative. Fictional, that is, in part: the man’s rise in the world of business, before he was discovered by Sestero, is a forever unresolved issue, so much so that what we might need is conjecture: the sort that conjures up the man as an escapee from the Soviet Bloc, who rises up as a waiter and later an immigrant in America before deciding on trying his luck with the most American of all the arts, the movies. Here both the writer and his friend come together: the one as a Joe Gillis (Sunset Blvd) who clings on to hope, to expectation, in the form of a deluded, self-defined artist; the other as a Dickie Greenleaf who is amused at his new friend but wants to control him, to force him to be his sidekick and later throw him away. The only difference here, of course, is that life wouldn’t have been so dramatic for Joe Gillis and Dickie Greenleaf if they were real characters. Life isn’t always so dramatic, period, which is why Sestero’s soliloquies, reflecting pain, worry, a lack of fulfilment, and sometimes a combination of all of them, and Wiseau’s Greenleaf-like, inconsolable rants and raves, are temporary and intermittent: just when you think their relationship will break down, they are reconciled. And when that relationship is about to break for good, our moody friend has a premonition, an apotheosis as one may call it, and decides to direct his own film. It’s here, in Chapter 14, that the two storylines in the book finally come together.

In an article written for The Atlantic (“Should Gloriously Terrible Movies like The Room be considered ‘outside art’?”), Adam Rosen contends that unlike most films considered bad and distasteful (like Caligula or the Friedberg-Seltzer spoofs from Epic Movie to Scary Movie), The Room’s sense of absurdity is centred on the director. It’s a solitary vision that transforms kitsch into enjoyable, campy art, like the vision that went into Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, and unlike the vision that goes into those terrible parody films of today. The difference between a horrendously wacky work like Sharknado (and its sequels) and a merely bad and distasteful product like Scary Movie is films like the latter are always made to evoke responses from a specific audience. Sharknado is gloriously hilarious but we needn’t have come from such an audience to enjoy it; we could have been anybody, hailing from any demographic. But Sharknado was made to be aware of its limitations, because that was an integral part of its fun. The Room transcends even that and becomes its own standard. The director is no longer aware of how unsubtle he and it are. He believes that he is so great, so much an auteur, that whatever he makes inspire can only love or envy. Criticism is inconceivable, spite is not.

This obsession over dichotomies – between love and hate, good and evil, loyalty and treachery – found its way to The Room. There’s little doubt that Wiseau always intended to feature himself as the protagonist, though we aren’t so certain as to whether he wrote the character of Mark with Sestero in mind (after all he never cast his friend right away in that role; it was originally given to another actor called Dan, with Sestero put into the production crew, before he was deliberately fired by forcing him to leave in such a way that it seemed that Wiseau was in the right). “Be very afraid, people,” Doug Walker informs us in his Nostalgia Critic review as he realises that the man is the star, the executive producer, the writer, and the director: because it’s a personal work of art that is rooted in an imaginary personal story. The love triangle never truly existed (Sestero’s portrait of his friend as sexually indifferent attests to that). It was used to project the heroism of an actor who wanted so badly to be a Tennessee Williams, a James Dean.

Directed by James Franco, and starring him (as Wiseau) and his brother Dave (as Sestero) along with Zac Efron (as the only “convincing” actor in The Room, Dan Janjigian, who plays the drug dealer Chris-R who, as with all other secondary characters in that film, disappears inexplicably), an adaptation of The Disaster Artist was released this December. What its merits are will be considered in another review, so for now let me conclude by putting down what I learnt from Wiseau’s movie: that in making an idiosyncratic work of art, he got us to respond to it as one-dimensionally as his story. As Sestero makes it perfectly clear in his moving account, “It wasn’t often that you got to see a man whose dream was literally about to come.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 3 and 10 2017