Colombo Telegraph

Our Cultural Icons

By Malinda Seneviratne –

Malinda Seneviratne

Reality shows are the rage these days. If all the stars of these reality shows actually shed light, we would not worry about the vagaries of the weather or fluctuations in the oil price. Every years, on almost every television channel, we see stars and star-aspirants. Thousands get together to ensure that a few individuals enjoy a moment of fame. Few thereafter would remember the names of the particular stars, but this won’t stop thousands from doing the same for another set of individuals the following year.

Stars come and go. They shine for awhile, are applauded, gone crazy over and then forgotten, like in the well known Eagles song ‘New Kid in Town’: ‘They will never forget you till somebody new comes along’.

Icons are different. Somebody new coming along does not dislodge icons from cultural firmaments. What they produce continues to fragrance the world long after they’ve passed on. That reverberation is perhaps the true test of greatness, for no communications campaign however sophisticated and fund-rich it may be, can exact and retain loyalty for decades and decades. Stars have shelf life, icons are timeless.

Icons, typically, do not seek immortality. And yet, they are honoured not just by overwhelming public respect and adoration but by the conferring of title. That recognition, though un-sought, is important, less for the recognized as for the recognizing, for it affirms the fact that a nation appreciates the contributions of the particular individuals.

In Sri Lanka, this ‘recognition’ is called Sri Lankabhimanya or Lankabhimanya (The Pride of Sri Lanka). It is awarded by the President and is the highest civil honor, conferred for exceptionally outstanding and most distinguished services to the nation. The first recipient was the late Sir Arthur C Clarke, in 2005. Lakshman Kadirgamar was conferred the title posthumously the same year. Thereafter, in 2007, A.T. Ariyaratne, Lester James Peries and Christopher Weeramantry were similarly honored.

Clearly, there are many individuals who came before any of the above who richly deserved the title. Any nation with a recorded history of 2500 years would have more than a handful of icons and if the posthumous clause is evoked, we could literary have hundreds if not thousands deserving the title. If we were to look at the past few decades alone, we would have, for example, Premasiri Khemadasa, Rev Fr. Marcelline Jayakody, Martin Wickramasinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Chitrasena.

What of the present, though, and what of the living? There are three indisputable cultural icons alive today, Dr Lester J Peiris (cinema), Gunadasa Amarasekera (literature) and W D Amaradeva (music). The first has already received this rare honour. The other two are both in their eighties now and, as is typical of iconic personalities, continue to stimulate and hone our cultural sensibilities.

W.D. Amaradeva is not a reality-show pop-up and neither is Gunadasa Amarasekera. Both are indefatigable. Their commitment to their chosen mediums of expression is marked by dedication, a striving for perfection and most importantly underlined by love for the country, its history and heritage and recognition of all this as source of learning, creating and celebrating the aesthetic.

Like all of us, they will pass. They, unlike most of us, will be eulogized, accorded posthumous tributes such as postage stamps, memorial lectures and name-prefixes to institutions relevant to their particular fields. If icons are undeserving of anything it is this after-thought type of tribute. They are deserving of the highest honor, right now. If not, we would be doing a disservice to these exceptional fellow-citizens and doing ourselves a disservice in the process.

Judges and the judiciary

In Mannar, it is alleged that a judge was threatened. It is not ‘alleged’ that the court house was damanged; it is a fact. Not the first time. We have had judges being booed. We have had people being shot in court houses. And we have had judges embarrassing themselves, their vocation and the institutions of justice.

No institution is perfect and no individual a saint. That’s given. This is why there is a thing called social contract. This is why there are things called checks and balances. This is why the notion of ‘separation of power’ is a fundamental tenet of a constitutional democracy. Nations have mechanism which can be used to seek redress if believed to have been wronged. The bottom line: the ‘aggrieved’ must defer to institution and procedure and cannot take law into own hands! In this instance, judge and judgment have been questions, but outside the legal framework and in ways that are clearly out of order. It doesn’t help the cause of justie; it only subverts it.

Each transgression that is not responded to is a brick taken out of the edifice of justice. That edifice has now lost many bricks. It is good that the President has ordered a probe into the incident, but this measure itself indicates institutional and procedural inadequacy. The book should contain mechanism to respond and not wait on presidential directive. In other words, ‘Mannar’ didn’t begin in Mannar but is just a road-stop on a long journey of the lawless, picking one brick here and another there.

The President can and must direct, but in this case the focus should be on a malady that is larger than ‘Mannar’ and is rooted in a culture of inaction and impunity.

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