Tuesday, January 9, 2018

On getting that 'culture' right

Just the other day I came across an amazing comment on Facebook. The commenter had argued that Sri Lankans, to be specific Sinhala Buddhists, were too apathetic to bother with economic issues and were busier with racist issues. In other words, “keeping their strength relative to other ethnic groups” was our overriding concern. It was a vicious circle that results from this fixation with racial superiority, since leaders, who naturally pander to the numerical majority, affirm chauvinism to ensure the votes that keep them in power. This sadly results in leaders who think of economics as a peripheral concern, something that aggravates, again, the culture of apathy to economic issues the Sinhala Buddhist collective prefer to ignore. Made me smile. And not because I disagree.

But then I don’t think it’s just economics the Sinhala Buddhists are apathetic to. And I don’t really think we are apathetic to economics. If the writings of Fernand Braudel are anything to go by (given that he was the 20th century’s foremost historian), economics is largely a product of culture, and culture is dependent on a horde of other factors, prime among them the geography, the climate, the demographics, of a collective, a country, or even an entire region. If at all, then, we are apathetic to what makes us. To what shapes us and allows us to evolve. To what we are and what we eventually become. In one word, to our own culture. Since I am no expert on economics by any stretch of the imagination, I think it’s valid at this point to ponder on that Facebook comment and concentrate on its validity for a related field: the evolution of cultural standards and how we take them in.

The cultural discourse in Sri Lanka is mostly divided between the purists on the one hand and the hybridists on the other. Whatever the art form – cinema, theatre, literature, dance, music – thrives therefore on a never-ending debate between these two. The purists would want to see a return to a largely distant past or an idealisation thereof. The hybridists would want to see a fusion brought about in those various art forms and cultural spheres. This is really another version of that debate between art and entertainment, between what preaches, what enthrals, what teaches, and what satiates, what satisfies, what keeps you happy. Based on that standard Amaradeva is to be put up on a pedestal and baila, the most hybrid cultural borrowing we can claim to in the realm of music, is to be degraded. Without taking sides in this tentative debate, I would like to suggest that both sides are wrong. Collectives never flourish through purism, nor do they prosper when hybridised.

A friend of mine who’s involved with the Hela Havula made an interesting observation on Facebook recently. Apparently one Asiff Hussein, in his book Zeylanica: A Study of the Peoples and Languages of Sri Lanka, has contended rather arbitrarily that weeding away Sanskrit words completely from the “maw basa” would do more harm than good for the latter, and that such a culture of weeding away those bywords was brought about and promoted by Munidasa Cumaratunga. Erroneous, since nowhere (based on what I have read, of Munidasa or by him) have I come across explicit polemics against resorting to Sanskrit at all. It seems that even academics, even the best read intellectuals, can’t move away from indulging in simplifications when assessing the cultural history of Sri Lanka. In fact I have a problem with anyone who categorises the likes of Cumaratunga, in such a way and I think it best to quote Malinda Seneviratne here: “Reading ‘Kumara Gee’, I cannot help but conclude that Cumaratunga Munidasa, much as he loved the language of the Sinhalese, loved it less than he loved his nation and his people.”

I think the main problem here is that we can’t, as a people or a community of critics, get ourselves beyond the dichotomised spheres we are made to gloss over. In the movies we are told to patronise the serious auteur, who wins award after award at film festivals the world over. In the realm of literature we are asked to go for established writers who win big at literary festivals organised by the State or by private bodies. Who has properly read Kathleen Jayawardena, for instance, without confusing his or her inability to get past her eloquent but difficult prose for her lack of clarity, and who can watch Udayakantha Warnasuriya while seeing in him the great though flawed visual artist he is?

I think that’s the mistake we are making here: confusing our inability to discern, to understand, to read, for our critical invincibility. It’s that kind of invincibility which made Malcolm Arnold claim that Charlotte Bronte’s Villette contained “nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage.” Such critical comments reek of complacency, chauvinism, defensiveness, which is what we ourselves have succumbed to. Sadly.

This is why, before we go after foreign academics for distorting our people and our values, we need to fundamentally rethink our own attitudes regarding those values. What are values, in any case? A series of convenient fictions maintained to sustain uniformity over a collective? A series of myths and legends validated so as to empower a collective to assert its strength, numerical or otherwise, over other ethnic groups? Should such values, which are really more or less a mishmash of religious and secular if not quasi-secular conventions, necessarily define a particular culture, be it in the arts or in any other field? Is there a critical distance that must be maintained between art and culture? Can a separation thrive in the longer term, and if so, should it be maintained for long?

After the passing away of Amaradeva I observed, to my amusement, a barrage of hysterics issuing in gushes and torrents from commentators who on the one hand contended that the man, at the time of death, transcended his Sinhala-ness and Buddhist-ness and became universal, and who on the other hand responded that the cultural specifics of an artiste are too overwhelming, too powerful, for such an apotheosis to occur at all in the first place. Both were right and wrong, though I am inclined to lean on the argument of the latter (for personal reasons): right and wrong because cultural specifics exist but not to the extent whereby they prevent the local artiste from being celebrated by those who don’t look for such specifics. The truly local artiste does not hence remain local, but neither does he lose that welter of localness even after death. The same, incidentally, can be said of other cultural auteurs: Chitrasena, Sekera, Martin Wickramasinghe. After all, if cultural specifics were so holy as to erase the possibility of cultural fusion, we wouldn’t have been able to preserve the Sinhala language, in the form we resort to today, by importing (for the lack of a better term) Western linguistics.

When it comes to cultural dynamics, consequently, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a sacred or holy cow. Nothing is sacrosanct, not even the truth, though I would prefer the truth to almost anything else when it comes to those cultural dynamics. Here both sides are in the wrong, again: the puritans because of their fervent, understandable, though considerably flawed act of rebellion against what they (erroneously, rarely correctly) see as an invasion of the local by the foreign; the hybridists because of their as fervent, as understandable, as flawed contention for a coming together of “universal” forms (of art, science, knowledge, belief systems, etc) at the cost of local specifics. The former group artificially “barricades” such cultures from modernity, while the latter seeks to open up those cultures, not to modernity, but to debasement and degradation undeserving of the modernist streak those who promote it market it as.

There is never one art, never one cultural specific, but a multitude thereof. I believe that’s the main if not the only way to combat the purist and the uprooted. Both purists and uprooted cosmopolitans believe that cultural forms are or have been made to be singular and thus seek an artificial, unsustainable unity. It is this latter belief, or misconception, that compelled hysterics from those who reacted negatively towards Kishani Jayasinghe’s operatic rendition of “Danno Budunge”, thinking that “Danno Budunge” was a Buddhist song (imagine that!), a rather anti-historical claim that compelled a Facebook response from the great-grandson of the composer of that song (John de Silva), Harsha Makalande. Here too, you see the same conflation: of critical puritanism with critical invincibility.

I think it’s time we realised that it’s because we make such conflations, unconsciously or otherwise, that outside academics make arbitrary judgments on our own cultural histories. Yes, tragedy at one level, but an inevitability at another. Makes me smile. Again.