21 July, 2018

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On Getting That “Culture” Right

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

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. On both counts, misconceived.

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.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    1

    Uditha Devapriya

    “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.”

    In fact I have a problem with anyone who type nonsense.
    In fact I have a problem with anyone who drops name.
    In fact I have a problem with anyone who quote Malinda Seneviratne.
    In fact I have a problem with anyone who despise language fanatics as long as they don’t shoved their language into my throat.
    In fact I have a problem with anyone who …………………
    In fact I have a problem with anyone who …………………
    In fact I have a problem with anyone who …………………

  • 2
    1

    Uditha,
    Your various comments (and the conclusions) of the Sinhala Buddhist clan seem to have been derived from arbitrary sources, without making any references to such or any indication that you’ve done some follow-up investigative research of such statements.

    I suggest that you look up your “Face Book (fb) “sources, and validate if such statements make sense.
    In my experience, fb is the platform for any pov of individuals, and does not any way represent the view of the masses.
    Thus citing a comment on fb to base your artcle is singular in opinion and isolated as a common viewpoint.

  • 2
    0

    When I first saw the picture of Kishani Jayawardena on the display page, I thought that Uditha was going to tell us about Kishani singing some lieder by his favourite composer – Johannes Brahms.

    Instead, with us obsessed with the effects of the Bond Scam on the elections he’s given us a serious lecture on Cumaratunga Munidasa and Amaradeva.

    _

    I really must get back to considering how we can safeguard something, at least, of the gains made under Yahapalanaya.

  • 1
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    These “Face Book” comments and views are no doubt personal; yet, those too represent a segment of the society worthy of attention. In a discussion “Getting that Culture Right”, in my opinion one has to dig into the source of the “Culture” that we try to analyse. In a country like Sri Lanka, the “Source” of that “Culture” is varying and divided, and inextricably woven with Religion, Ethnicity, Caste, Language,Value Systems etc….. The next step would be to find out whether that “Culture” has been allowed to be rooted in its “True Sense and Form.” Here comes the problem. These “Sources” of culture are and have been “Jealously” guarded and kept in the “Closets” of Fanatics and Extremists on whom the rest of the “Ordinary” are and deprived any “Access”. The “Ordinary” are the sheep that follow the “Shepherd” who Dictates, Guides, manoeuvres, with all his/her efforts directed at “PERSONAL BENEFITS & GOOD LIFE”. The “ORDINARY” are BONDED and QUESTIONING of those Sources are a TABOO. This is the greatest obstacle of Getting that Culture Right.

    • 1
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      Douglas
      What is a Culture?
      Culture has to be a Growing Concept; it cannot afford to Stagnate!
      Those who try to Keep a Culture from moving with the Rest of the World are Living in a Fool’s Paradise.
      Even Buddhism is understood better, by other Cultures, because they are not Bound by the Rituals, we have Come to Regard as ‘Our Buddhist Culture’!

      • 1
        0

        Rationalist

        “Those who try to Keep a Culture from moving with the Rest of the World are Living in a Fool’s Paradise.”

        Actually they are living in the Public Racist Anagarika Homeless Dharmapala era with all the latest creature comforts. Saffron clad thugs are seen travelling in the latest motor vehicles, using the latest mobile phones, ……………..

        “What is a Culture?”

        You ask any number of people who say they are Sinhala/Buddhists. The island is a Sinhala/Buddhist country and they are proud of be part of Sinhala/Buddhist culture. Therefore you should ask “What is Sinhala/Buddhist culture”. No Sinhala/Buddhist has begun to tackle this question yet they remain loyal to and willing to kill and ready to be killed for this undefinable abstract idea.

        It could be another pie in the sky.

  • 1
    0

    Gentlemen,

    First of all, allow me to wish all of you a Very Happy new Year filled with an abundance of Wealth and prosperity!!!

    I would like to know who is this girl Kishani Jayawardena? Is she the girl who is singing English Songs in Sinhalese and vice versa?

  • 2
    3

    Uditha Devapriya: Definitely you are student of an international School. there are several young writers I have read here. What I say, what you write here is CRAP. YOu are very inexperienced. You can not be buddhists because you have some grudge against it. You do not know about Indian sub continent or Asia. Have you heard the word Vandibathtaya and what they talk =. what BS culture you are talking about. It is liqure sales every where, even mobile brothels. women wearing like private scholl girls going inside rest houses, drugs related violence, enderamulla namas Akbar NAgar. Is that the culture you are talking about. Just grow up first in order to be a writer.

  • 1
    2

    Hela culture evolved over thousands of years from the era of the yakkas, rakshas, devas and nagas.
    It is rooted to the land. This is evidenced by Sinhalese last names. Which are either titles ( warnakulasuriya- clan of the heroic ) , locations ( udugampola, alawwa, totagamuwa,) or professions ( liyanage, hewage, waduge )
    50% are from the govigama Farmer caste, and around 30 % are from the warrior caste.
    The problem is that there are groups that have no connection to to the island and have zero patriotism. They appear to be in control of the destiny of the nation. Take SWRD, whose ancestors were 17 th century immigrants from Kerala. Part of the entourage of the last kandyan king’s. He was a Anglican and Catholic from his mother’s side. He was neither Sinhalese nor a Buddhist. But Buddhist have take the blame for his actions.
    There are about 10 groups Shylock Indian groups like the boaras. De Saram and chitty who live in col 7 and exploit the natives. Unless citizens put the land of their birth first – this country is screwd.

  • 3
    1

    The Sri Lanka govt and the Sinhalese want to shove Sinhala down everyone’s throat not because they love the language or they value it. Using this trick they denied public service employment to many and sent some good people on retirement.
    Now look at the public service its filled with morons. For the minorities this was a mixed blessing as it motivated some to leave the country for greener pastures and others looked at the private sector where ability, efficiency was rewarded not your race or religion.

    If you want to see the hypocrisy in all this look at the letter written by the Registrar of the Supreme Court to the President / Secretary of the country. Its not in either national languages but English.

  • 0
    1

    You people are not like western civilizations. We created the industrial revolution; we created modern sciences and modern medicine. We created the best weapons of war hence enabling us to subjugate people to grab their resources. Grabbing these resources helped us even more to become richer. We killed millions in the name of Jesus to make America a great nation of power and industry. WE have the Protestant work ethic and you do not. Even the Chinese work harder and copy the west in every aspect now. From Selfie Sticks to western clothing the garlic breath smelling, small slanty eyed yellow race is all about copying and stealing trade and intellectual secrets from the west. Keep backstabbing each other, keep hoping for free food and free stuff and government jobs. Blame the white man as you always do without emulating him. You and Indians, Bengalis, Africans will always bring the bottom of the evolutionary pyramid and the pyramid of progress.

    • 2
      0

      HH

      Did you think we moved to the west for the weather?

  • 0
    1

    Udhitha Devapriya: What I understand from you is some one who lost in a different culture. so, there are so many things you would hate. Hate is the word that youngsters use here. I heard, first progeny called the Second generation immigrant are always lost culturally in their newly naturalized homelands. So, the second generation of the progeny goes looking for their initial culture. I think, in the long term, International schools are a failure. Post colonial govt education failed because, they quote everything from the western literature and they do not know any thing about Asia, Indian Sub continent or their own culture how it began. So Malinda Senevirathne is your MENTOR ?

  • 6
    0

    All the above comments seem to be from Sinhala/Buddhist Activists!

    I would advise you to Please watch the Utube Video below, which shows that we all originated in Africa and spread North, East and South gathering other Genetic Material and Cultures along the Way!

    No one in the Whole World can say that they have Pure Blood or Pure Culture!! There are no such Things:-

    https://www.utube.com/watch?v=9jE6i9dGN-Q

    • 1
      0

      Jim Softy,
      If One believes in Rebirth or Re-becoming, One cannot in all Good Faith act like a bigoted Sinhala/ Buddhist!

      You could have been a Muslim in Iraq, a Catholic in Rome or a Hindu in TamilNadu or even Jaffna, in a Previous Life! So why are you talking about an Imaginary ‘Initial Culture’?

      Follow the Buddha’s Dhamma and see no differences in People and their ‘So called Culture’

  • 6
    0

    I believe Amradeva was a student of Carnatic music i.e. south indian music – not “Sinhalese-Buddhist” music. Same goes for Nanda Malini.

    What they did was successful synthesis of local themes, and stories with the music of the south indians.

    This is the same thing that Gypsies does with portugese-derived Baila music.

    All of us are hybrids – whether we like to admit it or not :)

    Hybrids are better for human kind than rabid mono-culturalists like the “Sinha-Le” or the LTTE.

    • 2
      0

      SB,

      Many people don’t know this, but Amaradeva actually started off as a Baila singer. Being a Royalist I once encountered him at the 1976 Big Match in which I was a player. During the Lunch break, Amaradeva got onto the stage right next to the player’s dressing room and sang a cracking Baila song in our 3rd language.

      Speaking of our 3rd language, I noticed this phenomena. Sinhalese refuse to speak Tamil and Tamils complain that Govt. institutions are working mainly in the Sinhalese language. But neither race is reluctant to speak in our 3rd language. It’s the only language spoken in Sri Lanka that unifies all races.

      • 0
        1

        Retarded …………………………. Shameless Perera / January 10, 2018

        “Many people don’t know this, but Amaradeva actually started off as a Baila singer. Being a Royalist I once encountered him at the 1976 Big Match in which I was a player. During the Lunch break, Amaradeva got onto the stage right next to the player’s dressing room and sang a cracking Baila song in our 3rd language.”

        Actually I was there listening to his baila song, I still fondly remember the occasion when he sang
        Kundumani song:
        Manna
        මන්නාරම් පිටි වැල්ලේ මදටිය වැල් ඔන්චිල්ලේ
        කොණ්ඩෙ කඩන් හඳට අඬන් සිංදු කියන්නේ
        කුණ්ඩුමණී
        කුණ්ඩුමණී කුණ්ඩුමණී
        කුණ්ඩුමණී කුණ්ඩුමණී


        I am sorry I saw Ranil dacing to kundumani on that day an not you playing. Maybe you were playing book cricket.

        Here is Ranil’s war dance before the elections:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSgStpVxKMM

        • 1
          0

          NV,

          The song you are referred to was sung by Preddy Silva not Amaradeva.

          Obviously, you were watching a different game.

          • 0
            1

            Retarded …………………………. Shameless Perera

            “The song you are referred to was sung by Preddy Silva not Amaradeva.
            Obviously, you were watching a different game.”

            You didn’t get the point. You will never get it either.
            By the way Freddie is one of my favourite. I am his greatest fan.

            Listen to his Giri Goris, it aptly describes politicians …………… available on http://sarigama.lk of course free of charge.

  • 1
    1

    Cop it sweetly Uditga for writing rubbish on diverse issues on which you don’t seem to know much. Choose to write fiction JAM

  • 1
    1

    Uditha, a) looks like you are getting lot of self satisfaction by writing insipid rubbish and b) and deriving even a bigger kick by seeing people responding to your rubbish by saying that it is rubbish. You are loving this and there is something seriously wrong in your upstairs. Garbage reader

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