Monday, February 19, 2018

The death of Sinhala

It is fashionable now and then to lament the death of this or that. Most if not much of the time, though, this act of lamenting is a way in which the elders exert and express their superiority over the young, with the most typical excuse trotted out being that the young don’t care. Probably no other artefact, treasured by these elders, has been so lamented like this than the mother tongue, Sinhala, with its supposedly impending death. (Since I don’t know Tamil, or how it’s venerated by the old and how the young treat it to the consternation of the old, I’m not sure what the situation is over there.)

The elders will confidently point out that the young don’t read. True. They don’t. No language can be sustained in the long run without recourse to literature, and no literature can survive if this demographic refuses to read. I’ve pointed out countless times, here and elsewhere, that a nation that doesn’t read eventually becomes a nation that doesn’t write, and in turn a nation that doesn’t produce any critics. This, I think, is truer for English than for Sinhala, because despite all that it has suffered at the hands of a non-reading public the Sinhala press has produced and continues to produce cohesive critics who surpass their English counterparts by a considerable margin. But then the absence of such cohesive critics isn’t the only or even the main problem.

When I interviewed the late Ajantha Ranasinghe several years ago, he pointed out that the ability of a lyricist to root the social in the personal has, more or less, been lost today. What we have today, he implied (correctly, I believe), is a set of lyricists (barring the occasional exception) who dilute the social in the personal, which was manifestly different and inferior. What resulted from this was a culture of banality in our literature, where what is puritanically termed as “kunuharapa” (filth) would be confused for a “higher” vocabulary. Such kunuharapa is best suited for a very self-referential musical form: rap and baila are the two examples that come to my mind at once. In the long run, however, this can only spell out a deterioration, and not just in music.

It’s a vicious circle at one level: if people don’t read, their vocabulary is limited, and with a limited vocabulary even the most banal words acquire the status of high-flown erudition. That’s why we are so obsessed, as a people and a culture, over each and every music video and new star that pops up. We think that they will herald something new, something that will do away with the old, but in reality becomes just a rehashed, recycled version of what is considered to be old. This is bad on both fronts: it leaves the young with nothing to work on and the old, especially the puritans, with something which they can engage with in their battle against the young. What is lost is a culture that is refreshingly novel; what is retained is a culture of Puritanism.

I have been overwhelmed, and in a good way, by what is advertised as “new” in our recent popular culture: Sanuka Wickramasinghe, Tehan Perera, the team behind Koombiyo and Sahodaraya, especially the main star in the latter two, Thumudu Dodantanne, and from the movies, Ho Gana Pokuna, Premaya Nam, Adaraneeya Kathawak, and Adareyi Mang. There is a freshness in these works that excite the young in a way which leaves the puritans in the dark. What differentiates them from those who precedes them is that they are no longer bothered by the need to reject the old. A few months ago, for instance, I reflected on Sanuka, and I noted the following: “He is a New Voice because he no longer makes it necessary to defy the [old] line to gain new territory.”

There’s an honesty in these that transcends their cosmetic artificiality. People are quoting and creating memes out of Koombiyo (though not Sahodarayo) in ways that makes a laughing stock out of the conventional mega-series, though not in a way that makes it evident for us that they are rejecting what preceded them. It’s this kind of novelty – they aren’t bothered by their predecessors and aren’t paying attention to what the puritans among their elders are doing – which comforts me. But then will this be enough to counter the attacks that the young are enduring, rightly and justifiably, with respect to the death of their own language? This brings me to another problem, another issue.

Many of those who market themselves as New eschew the need to be nurtured by literature before embarking on their musical, cinematic, television, and theatrical careers. They are enraptured by the techniques of their craft, but when it comes to the written word, which more than anything else – at times, more than even the visuals – is what captures immediate attention, they are pitifully below par. To a considerable extent this has to do with the fact that at school they have not (and this is what I have picked up from conversations with them) been explicitly encouraged to read. When your language is limited to the grammar you have to memorise, what happens is that your interest in that language is limited to the societies you join, literary, drama, and debating. Even that isn’t a guarantee, since very few of those who join such societies continue with what they picked up, and loved, later on.

When neither the school culture nor the popular culture (remember what the former Warden of S. Thomas’ College, whom I referred to about two weeks ago, said?) emboldens the idealists to venture out into the arts with a healthy awareness of language and literature, only an aberration can result. Yes, they may be more than adequately endowed with the ability to transform the most mundane material to a technically and visually rich product, they may be able more than any of their elders to work with the production house, the camera, and Photoshop and Illustrator, because these are physical enterprises and they prefer hard labour, doing the hard yards, over using their imagination in terms of words. This is to be seen in a more insidious form in our vocalists: they are more concerned with the melody, the tone, the correct accent, the correct inflection, than actually making sense of what they are crooning.

If I am talking about music here rather too much the reason is painfully clear: as I noted a month or so back, music is largely self-referential (even when it’s not a self-referential genre like rap and baila), and it’s probably the only art form in the world in which the two levels of consciousness – of the producer and of the consumer – are never, even for one instant, dichotomised. What is produced is, simply put, what is consumed, so what is put out is what is digested. Probably second only to television, which is called the “idiot box” precisely because it has something of this quality (i.e. the ability to make the audience gullibly understand what the producer intends them to understand), the three-minute popular song is the yardstick with which the progress or regression of a language can be measured, today, in virtually any society.

What is exciting about Sanuka is that even in terms of the techniques he uses, he is miles ahead of these depressingly and frequently resorted to clich├ęs of that three-minute song. He is no longer the star of his own videos; he is not crooning about fulfilled or cruelly denied love, rather about romances that never really pick up (“Perawadanak” is in that sense more enjoyable than “Saragayaye”, the latter of which, I am told, spurred certain schoolboys to form up their own schoolboy bands); he never really dilutes the social in the personal, but instead tries to reflect the most potent dreams of romance and young love that we never dare to have. The same can be said, accounting for the differences in the themes they tackle, with respect to those other examples I pointed out above, not just in music or on television, but in the movies too: Adareyi Mang, for instance, carefully plays around with the tropes of the mainstream romantic film in a way that makes us come back asking for more.

So where are we today? The elders, on the one hand, will continue to lament. As they do. The youngsters, on the other hand, will either defy the elders or try out something constructively new despite those lamentations. Munidasa Cumaratunga once wrote that a race that doesn’t try out anything new can never hope to reckon with the outside world. He was correct, I am convinced, particularly when it comes to the best efforts of the old to rein in on the young and the most sincere attempts of the new to pander to those efforts of reining them in by providing the old with excuses to say, “The language is dying, and these young artists, and with them our children, are responsible for its death!”

We have a choice here. We either continue with what our predecessors left us in all its pristine forms, or we add to it in a way which appeals to the young and the old alike. Sameness, whether from the elders or the youngsters, ends up promoting a singular vision, the sort that castrates a language of its ability to live, breathe, and flourish. The destiny of a language lays in our hands, and with it the destiny of an entire gamut of art forms, whatever the medium.