16 May, 2022


In Search Of A Sri Lankan Cultural Modernity

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The death of Siri Gunasinghe last week left the nation’s cultural establishment numbed. And not for nothing: Professor Gunasinghe, who among other things was one of only two novelists here who directed a movie (and a landmark one at that), was the last of the bilingual literati that made the waves here and overseas. Everyone else who followed him were politically and philosophically of a different breed, the sole exception (at least to an extent) being Gunadasa Amarasekera.

Gunasinghe’s death, a personal tragedy as it is, interests me more for what it means to our cultural establishment, the same establishment which has tried so hard to chart a kind of modernity that was not uprooted. That is has failed, and that its failure has to do largely with the culture of inferiority which has gripped our people since 1956, leaves no room for doubt.

At the cost of simplifying an already simplified situation, I will hence say this: politically, socially, and philosophically, our country has imbibed a potent form of anti-intellectualism. We are so confused as to why this anti-intellectualism has come about, moreover, that we rationalise it in terms of the nationalist/anti-nationalist dichotomy which provides an easy copout point for the political commentator. The truth is that modernity is not incongruent with nationalism. The truth is that modernity can and does subsist on tradition. To understand how this simple point has evaded our notice, it’s apt to look back at 1956 and what transpired subsequently.

Political movements never really end. They can only be stopped, and that at the cost of stalling an otherwise gradual social process. 1956, on that count, was less a movement than an experiment, which signalled (ironically) the upheaval of the anglicised elite through the leadership of a scion of that same elite. I remember reading in one of those travel books (by Discovery) on Sri Lanka that the 1956 election passed power from the legatees of colonialism to an indigenous leader. That is patently false. Power was passed, yes, but only from one shade of Westernisation to another. As subsequent elections showed, it was basically a social transformation effected by the grassroots but denied by the self-contradictions of its own leadership.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s program, as I mentioned in this column last week, derived for the most from two sources: Western liberalism and the Bengali Renaissance. The former, critics and commentators have explored. The latter, to a considerable extent at least, they have not. A tragedy at one level, primarily because we tend to forget that in trying to emulate the Tagorean experiment of fusing modernity and tradition, Bandaranaike’s own personality denied the validity of such a fusion for anything other than our cultural sphere. This latter point merits further discussion.

Amartya Sen, in an article written to the New Republic six years ago, contended that Tagore, far from being the romantic traditionalist he is touted as today, was actually a modernist railing against the social order of his day. He was at odds with Gandhi, whose idealisation of the spinning wheel or charka as a symbol of a return to the past he critiqued as lacking judgment and energy (“The charka does not require anyone to think”). Despite his enthusiasm for Gandhi’s political campaign, consequently, he was doubtful about Gandhi’s social persona, filled as it was with repulsion towards Western civilization. In this, however, Tagore was no imitator, no rootless cosmopolitan who idealised that same Western civilization he championed with regard to the progress it attained in the realms of science, literature, and political philosophy.

That kind of fearless, revolutionary thinking seems to be lacking in our modernists of today. Sadly. In the fifties and sixties, a Siri Gunasinghe or a Lester James Peries could critique the conventional wisdom by carving a different path, one that brought together tradition and modernity. It happened in Tagore’s land of birth as well: Satyajit Ray was his intellectual and artistic heir, and to an extent at least he was responsible for prolonging the Bengali Renaissance from Tagore’s death to the end of the 20th century. In comparison, the modernists of today are a horde of gandabba commentators, either rubbishing the same roots which sustained them or condemning those roots to the dustbin of history.

Added to that was another, more potent problem: unlike in Bengal and even India (also nurtured by a Renaissance), the cultural revolution which 1956 wrought was first affirmed and then denied by its political leadership. 1956 in that respect could not have happened were it not for three figures: Professor Sarachchandra, Lester James Peries, and Martin Wickramasinghe. All three were well versed in Western modernity, while Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe were equally versed in the national ethos (Peries’ upbringing denied him that ethos until later on).

The political pamphleteers behind Sinhala Only, on the other hand, were less interested in that kind of fusion than in an irrationally radical chauvinism which, ironically, gave birth to the same political figures who would deny any place to that chauvinism later on. In other words, it is in 1956 that we see the basis for the later and equally narrow-minded demands for separatism and federalism, not to mention the present day anti-unitary campaigns of the TNA.

Plainly put, what happened that year was a bifurcation of our intelligentsia into the indigenous and the uprooted. It gave a set of false channels for the underprivileged to vent out their collective rage, which in the end left class structures intact and empowered the uprooted elite while giving the impression that they were placed on the same pedestal as that of the indigenous. The lack of any congruence between the cultural and the political in the “revolution” wrought that year facilitated that: the same revolution which helped the likes of Siri Gunasinghe would deny bilingualism its due place and hypocritically demean English (in the political sphere) while fermenting a culture of envy among those who could not wield it. The most immediate result of this, obviously, was the absenting of an educated bilingual intelligentsia.

That is why (and I am going back to my earlier point) I say that we are seeing a horrendous form of anti-intellectualism. Here. Today. Those who are unable to wield the language of access, English, repudiate their roots to join the English-speaking intelligentsia. Those who are able to, and by dint of that ability are members of that intelligentsia, sustain the myth that there are no indigenous intellectuals, and that to become an intellectual, one must deny one’s cultural sensibilities. Small wonder, then, that anti-intellectualism is on the rise. Without a modernity that takes over from the past, only an aberration in the form of a gandabba, neither-here-nor-there people and nation can result. Anti-intellectualism thrives on just that.

And you know what? We don’t seem to be worried. Not by a long shot.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I think in Sri lanka this would be called Michcha ditti. You create your own world and name it as english speaking intelligentia. So, that others become dumb by default. Actually that is colonial mentality. Those days during the colonial times and soon after independance, I suppose, Those who worked for the govt, who could speak english thought they were to b Yuppies, intelligent, the elite, the sophisticated, and the polished individuals. We can see that even in CT, some english speaking elite do now want to understand that they are idiots. Actually, some one who is living overseas in an english country, who taught english to I suppose white folks, wrote here, how incomplete english is. I can understand the same when I listen to some SLBC program in which some of these called academics that includes Parliamentarians talk something in english and then they say “in english it is caled that and this”. In other words, they imply that they know english, sinhala is a malnourished or ill-formed language and english is better. I fell “what stupid idiots they are”.

    SWRD was actually one without vision or one without backbone. He wanted to cfollow India and make Sinhala the only language as Hindi was India’s language. but SWRD did not have enough brains, so he chicken out.

    Anyway, people in sri lanka are not thinking. they just ride the wave and try to imitate. Anyway, cultural modernity is a stupid thing.See hHow youth in those technologically and ecpnomically developed countries are doing. They are simply wrecked. So, you appreciate, the conmfusion of Sri lankan people with respect to the culture.

    english is also outdated. Europeans explained after the Brexit. Because, even when all english, as mother tongue, speaking countries taken together, Hindi, chinese, spanish by pass English speaking population. International language is important as a business language and if you go overseas to study. Even in NASA, they want to use Hindi next to machine language I heard. So, what happens to english.

  • 3

    This writer sounds like a mouse trying to deliver an elephant. Looks like he would be better off keeping his one man cheer squad for ‘Malinda Seneviratne for President’ campaign going.
    Both doomed to failure!

  • 1

    An important intervention, Uditha. You are spot on about Tagore, and very astute to have brought him into the discussion. Thank you for this exploration.

  • 0

    Thanks Uditha for touching on an inspiring subject – this sounds a need of the day in our tiny island lost in cultural wilderness. Our generation is absolutely anti-intellectual as clearly evidenced in our print and visual media – Listen to the language or the so-called modern colloquialism used by some hosts of private TV channels.

  • 1

    ” the same revolution which helped the likes of Siri Gunasinghe would deny bilingualism its due place and hypocritically demean English (in the political sphere) while fermenting a culture of envy among those who could not wield it. The most immediate result of this, obviously, was the absenting of an educated bilingual intelligentsia.”
    Very true. We have pseudos like Nalin De Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera (sorry Uditha if he is one of your heroes).
    There is an appaling lack of general knowlege and knowledge of other societies, resulting from the inability to use English. Then there is the recrudescence of “tradition” in the form of state promotion of astrology and the use of the Tooth relic to end droughts. Never mind that both of these have failed many times, our “intellectual” leaders carry on regardless.
    Just look at local TV- a desert of unending teledramas, mostly featuring moping women in rural settings , or historical mahavamsa-based dramas with inevitably heroic Buddhist monks.
    To start with, we must admit that we do not have much of a culture, having been an agrarian Buddhist society given to austere Buddhist principles. Whatever the Portuguese may be vilified for, they must be commended for changing this stultified set-up and brining in lively music and dance, apart from enriching the language and food. Our current forms of national dress, music and theatre were largely invented in the early 20th century. Kandyan dance is an offshoot of Indian forms.
    We must take a cue from China, Japan, and Korea, all of which have strong cultural identities, but have excellent practitioners in Western music and dance.
    Their leaders don’t pretentiously wear “national dress” , but use the practical western style.
    The photo of Siri Gunasinghe himself is significant. He is seen holding a glass of wine- a cardinal sin to our dried – up local chauvinist intellectuals.

  • 1

    You are trying to explore a new theme hitherto not discussed by many others. Though highly readable there are a few points that I will have to very quickly disagree with you.
    1) Siri Gunasinghe cannot be considered as a giant in the literary field. He and his contemporary Sarachchandra are both highly over rated as fiction writers. Thanks to their pupils who are prepared to still say hosanna blindly, and their academic credentials and connection to Peradeniaya, they seem to be enjoying a high pedestal. Though Sath Samudura is an unqualified masterpiece, there is anecdotal evidence that DB Nihalsinghe was behind direction and settings as Gunasinghe didn’t know about cinema.(this needs to be verified)
    2) Martin Wickremasinghe was more inclined to promote Buddhism in his critical writing than creating a national consciousness. Tamils in the North and East simply did not exist for him.
    3) I agree with your comments on anti-intellectualism.
    4) Lester James Peiris was well aware of the national pathos very early in his work- this is the reason that prompted him to leave the UK and return to Sri Lanka in early 50’s searching his roots and embark on a career in films and was able to address the people through his work.
    5) Also it is difficult to draw conclusions (Bengali rennaisance, Ray’s role, Tagore etc) without really presenting objective evidence.
    6) Really you must present more compelling evidence to your conclusions.


  • 0

    Uditha writes : “it is in 1956 that we see the basis for the later and equally narrow-minded demands for separatism and federalism, not to mention the present day anti-unitary campaigns of the TNA.”, Well, well, he is blaming the victims here, isn’t he ? Also conveniently ignoring the state-sponsored violence against them in ’58, and later in ’77 and ’83 which drove them to separatism and a long civil war which permanently scarred the island.

    If the “cultural sensibilities” Uditha is touting in this article were to be only the Sinhala-Buddhist variety it would hardly constitute a true national ethos.

  • 0

    The author needs to clarify what kind of modernism is he talking about here? Because there is Western modernism characterised by rationality, science, development etc.as a dominant form of modernity that has influenced thinking in social sciences and humanities as well as in political projects in colonised countries. Did these bilingual scholars attempt to modernise tradition? If so, was it a form of indigenous modernism different from Western modernism? In the literature, authors talk about multiple modernities,e.g.. the one found in India is different from Western modernity.

    Anti intellectualism that he describes can better be described as nativism.

    Contribution of bilingual intellectuals cannot be discarded so easily as the author does. Scholars like David Kalupahana played a key role in the Faculty of Oriental studies at the University of Ceylon through research and publications critically examining Western conceptualisations and theories in contrast to indigenous conceptualisations and theories. Rajnai Obeysekera has an informative article about the bilingual intelligentsia (for the source see my article in Social Affairs,Colombo). Bilingualism is a potent weapon in global living but part of the influence of Western modernism is that many of our countrymen and women including those who migrate believe that English language is superior therefore children should learn only English at the cost of Sinhala..,

    One question is whether we can modernise our national identity without roots in our cultures?

    Attempts by various figures mentioned for modernising Sinhala culture and its diverse forms is a well known fact. Whether it resulted in an anti intellectualism and nativism is a grand theme that needs further exploration.

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