Siri Gunasinghe is an iconic figure of the Golden Age of the Peradeniya University. His distinctive role was not merely aiding the cultural re-discovery that was taking place, but also being its most trenchant critic.
The essays published in this collection do not by any means adequately represent the profound impact of his work and versatility, but are tributes to selected areas of his rich, complex and lasting contribution.
The song below is from a CD that felicitates Siri Gunasinghe on his 90th birthday. Both the lyric and the melody, dedicated to Siri, are by Hemamali Gunasinghe, with music by Indrajit Mirihana. The singer is Hemamali Gunasinghe who played the role of the Princess when the path breaking play MANAME first opened at the Lionel Wendt in 1956. After graduating from Peradeniya, Hemamali pursued advanced studies in Canada, earning her doctoral degree in Linguistics from the University of Victoria. She is a specialist in teaching English. She is married to Siri Gunasinghe.
By Prof. H.L. Seneviratne –
One of the semi official tasks that the University of Ceylon undertook as it established itself in the new campus at Peradeniya in the early 1950s, was the regeneration of national culture in the form of the arts. This was reflected in a seminar held at Peradeniya in 1956, whose proceedings were published in the same year under the title Traditional Sinhalese Culture. Prominent among the scholars who succeeded in that endevour were Siri Gunasinghe and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. While Sarachchandra’s work was confined to literature and drama, Siri Gunasinghe stood out for his versatility, his interests covering every field of the arts. So much so that his adversaries who had embraced a different kind of cultural resurgence – a militant, prudish and philistine Sinhala Buddhist nationalism—derisively called him sakala kala vallabha, “the husband of all the arts”. Read more
By Dr. Sarath Amunugama –
Siri Gunasinghe, one of the most influential contributors to modern Sinhala culture, reaches the age of ninety this week. This short essay seeks to outline some of his many gifts as well as to extend my sincere thanks for a wonderful friendship that spans over five decades.
As young undergraduates who entered the idyllic setting of the Peradeniya University in the late fifties, we were blessed with the opportunity of associating not only some of the finest minds in the country but also teachers on whom learning sat lightly. There was not a trace of pomposity in them and they were always ready to help their young students to match up to their potential, be it in the tutorial class or outside in music, theatre, poetry or games, through friendly interaction. Of all these teachers Siri was outstanding for his knowledge, varied interests and most of all for his élan or style. Just back with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, he brought a delightful Gallic informality much to the envy of other teachers and the delight of us, his close young admirers and supporters. Read more
By Prof. Charles Hallisey –
In the Mahāvaṃsa’s account of King Devānaṃpiyatissa there is a lovely detail about his friendship with the Emperor Asoka in India. We are told that Devānaṃpiyatissa and Dhammāsoka were friends for a long time, even though they had never met. Their friendship had been sealed by their exchange of gifts, including, of course, the sending of Mahinda with the gift of the Buddhasāsana to Sri Lanka, a gift for which there could be no reciprocation.
In some analogous way, I feel the same is true of me with Professor Siri Gunasinghe. Not as a friend, however. He has been a teacher to me for many, many years, even though we have never met. He has sent many gifts to me over the years in his writings, all gratefully received by, although I am sure he has no idea that I even exist. Such generosity is part of the character of great teachers. And all of his gifts could not be adequately reciprocated by me. Read more
By Dr. Garrett Field –
In this article, I would like to discuss Siri Gunasinghe’s conception of “tradition.” I then explore how it relates to his ideas about the reform of written Sinhala. In the first essay of Gunasinghe’s chirantana sampradāya saha pragatiya (Ancient Tradition and Progress, 1986), Gunasinghe asks whether progress is truly antithetical to tradition and vice versa (p. 26). Scholars and pundits, Gunasinghe argues, tend to conceptualize “tradition” as the antithesis of “progress.” These scholars believe that the ancient tradition of Sinhala literature should be respected and protected because of its antiquity. They further regard anyone who creates something radically different from the literary tradition as someone who betrays the nation or commits an unforgiveable crime. Read more
By Prof. Ranjini Obeyesekere –
The Water Buffalo
My beard on fire
in haste, I was running, running down in the dawn,
bearing the burdens of life
all on my back;
at the edge of the road, in a large clump of grass
like a fat merchant spread eagled on his easy-chair
I saw you lie.
Both eyes closed;
and at the earth-shattering
battering of my feet
you did not even start.
Ears turned down;
did not surprise you.
By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake –
As a novelist, a filmmaker, a painter and cultural critic Prof. Siri Gunasinghe has made an indelible impression on the thought and imagination of his times. He blazed new trails, opened up newer spaces for artistic exploration, and in the process generated intense debate and discussion, much of it healthy. He introduced a new imaginative vitality to designing of costumes for stage plays and re-invigorated the art of book-covers. He was a formidable and unsettling presence in the Sri Lankan cultural scene in the 1960s and 1970s. He was emblematic of Sinhala literary modernism. Over the years, some of these aspects of his creative and critical life have been discussed in numerous writings in Sinhala. In my short essay, I wish to focus on a facet of his life that has not yet received adequate attention – his influence and consequentiality as a university teacher of literature. Read more