By Lukman Harees –
‘Satire is traditionally the weapon of the Powerless against the Powerful’ –Molly Ivins
Satire is a technique employed by writers to expose and criticize foolishness and corruption of an individual or a society by using humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule. Political satire is ridicule dedicated to exposing the difference between appearance and reality in public life. The justification for this mockery, going back to Aristotle, is that by holding bad behavior up to ridicule we might, as it were, “laugh folly out of existence.” . Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society. Satire is nowadays found in many artistic forms of expression, including literature, plays, commentary, television shows, and media such as song lyrics.
In the Western world, satire is being put to effective use in exposing political hypocrisy, stupidity and corruption and it works. In Sri Lanka too satire plays a similar role through medias such as theatre dramas, newspaper columns, cartoons and songs to highlight many social evils, but comparatively in lesser blatant ways perhaps for reasons of fear of reprisals. Ranjini Obeysekere in her book ‘Sri Lankan Theatre in a time of terror: Political Satire in a permitted space’ says : In Sri Lanka, satirical performances were not traditionally considered to be politically disruptive. Rather, they were read as comic interludes in ritual performances… Sinhala performers have always been able to express satire, ridicule, lampooning, by means of ritual…Theatre in modern day Sri Lanka satirizes contemporary politicians who behave like despotic kings of the past. Theatre people gets a reprieve that is denied to other activists working outside the theatre..’
In current times, making fun of those wielding power in newspaper columns can however be especially dangerous when big egos are bruised or vested interests feel threatened. Precise the reason why very few of our satirists directly take on the incumbent head of state, whoever is holding office! Political cartoonists venture a bit further, while however observing self-imposed limits. Never mind the notorious MR regime when political satire was really hazardous due to white van syndrome and other caveats, even after Yahapalanaya came to power , despite many improvements it was awful to see PM Ranil warning the journalists about what they should and should not write.
Racial and religious hatred is one such social evil which Sri Lankan society faced in acute form especially in the Post War era, the dangers of which has been a frequent subject covered by satire. For the past many years, there has been this very popular satirical drama in ‘Singlish’- Puswedilla. in which the main character was a scheming, self-serving president. Many Sri Lankans saw in him a parody of Mr Rajapaksa. The plays take on corruption and inefficiency in government, and follow real and sensitive political events closely. They are also scathing when it comes to the opposition. Each play ends with the tagline “Thank you for voting”, which is a fitting reminder to the audience that whatever they see on stage is what they voted for in real life. Cartoons in newspapers too have been very effective in exposing many a political ills and controversies. We had Camillus Perera (Siribiris) and Amitha Abeysekera in the past with their witty cartoons and columns. In recent times, especially in Sinhala newspapers, Avantha Artigala’s cartoons top the list, in my estimation, which includes exposing racist bigotry.
However, in my view, Sinhala songs have much satirical clout and play a greater part in conveying the hypocrisy of our political class and the sheer stupidity of our people. Many Sunil Perera’s songs ridicule and expose political hypocrisy and our own stupidity in continuing to believe their empty promises and elect them year in and year out. Songs like ‘Lankaawe, Apey Lankawey’ and ‘I don’t know why’ aptly capture these realities in good humour and holds in contempt our habit of blaming others for our own ills. Deepal Silva’s ‘Aananada Bhawan Ekata Wedhee Thosey Gilinawaa. Eliyata Aewidhin Yaananey Dhemalunta Baninawaa..’(‘Having Thosey at Ananda Bhawan and then talking disparagingly about the Jaffna Tamils coming out) is a classic song showing how hypocritical our nation is, referring to how the people allowed mobs to display ‘Jathyaleya’ in 1983 and set the pace to enter the worse period in history. He symbolically refers to setting fire to Ananda Bhawan in 1983 while having enjoyed the affordable food served by them – the popular Thosey feed. In another place in this song , he sings, ‘Helayaa..Helayaa.. Evaa Kaala Thalayaa kiyala baninawaa’ which means that ‘Helayaa (Sinhala man) has the Thosey feed and disparagingly calls the Tamils ‘Thalayaa’!.
This does not in any way refer adversely to the mainstream tolerant Sinhala people but only holds in contempt those opportunist politicians who allowed gangs and mobs to run riot and engage in a well-orchestrated pogrom. This song brings to light how these mobs brought shame on the Sinhala People, most of whom saved the lives of their innocent Tamil neighbours. The nation saw to their horror how JRJ came on TV after a few days of deadly 1983 riots and blamed the Tamils instead of apologising to them. There was history repeated in 2015 too,when MR also sought to brand the victims of Aluthgama tragedy- the Muslims as perpetrators. How he allowed racist goons like BBS to operate on the streets without fear or sanction which ultimately led to his downfall was common knowledge. Both 1983 and 2014 were tragic years which took Sri Lanka towards international shame, by allowing hate groups claiming to represent the interest of the majority community to alienate and marginalize the minority communities. Deepal Silva’s another satirical song starting : ‘Mey ratey Minissu: Thanikara Kelinney Pissu’ ( in this country , people basically do crazy, insane things’) highlights how as a nation we have failed and lost the plot.
It may not be satire in the actual sense, but a powerful and a thought provoking song by one of the greatest progressive singers of all time who always stood up for social justice and racial amity -Nanda Malini has lot of depth and a call for reflection to build a united nation. One of her classic bests was’ Bamunaa Wunath song’(lyrics by Sunil Ariyaratna) which appeals to our people to shun narrow minded divisions of race and religion and stand up for fairplay. She sings ‘ Helayaa Wunath jadayeku nam pahara Dhenu ..Dhemaala Wunath viruveku nam garu karanu’ which means ‘ Go against even the Sinhala person if he is evil; Honour even a Tamil if he is a hero’( she underlines the need to avoid being led by racial and religious labels but go by only the track record). In another place she sings ‘ Do not listen to glib, hypocritic talk even if those saying them happens to members of Maha Singha (who commands undivided respect among the Buddhists)’. She says ‘ respect the teachings of all religious teachers- Buddha, Jesus and Muhammed’.
Interestingly, in the last verses of this song, Nanda Malini appears to call people to action to bring down even a king if he ever displays arrogance . ( exactly what happened in 2015 when the mighty maharajaanoo was deposed) . She sings in her rhythmic voice.
‘Raise your voices even against a king if he is conducting himself improperly;
Shun the honey which will be applied in your mouth in order to prevent you from raising your voice;
Dethrone the King if he can’t be corrected.
Gain victory by joining the struggle to stand up against injustice and social evils’.
It is however unfortunate that most in Sri Lanka tend to limit these political satire to mere entertainment and do not learn lessons, and continue to commit the same mistakes such as, for example elect the same old set of ruffians and hooligans to politics over and over again despite their shady questionable track records. Despite our historic bitter experiences about the dangers of playing the racism game, it is sad that Gnanassaras are still being encouraged and allowed the licence to represent the voice of the majority. As Albert Einstein once said,’Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. Thus, are we Sri Lankan insane in that sense? It is high-time that social activists use more of satire- songs, dramas and Kavi(poems) to draw home the dangers of racial/religious hatred in building an inclusive Sri Lankan society, specially targetting school children and graduates, our future leaders and also to reach the village level audiences.