By 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”.
Due to his position of preeminence as an innovative literary and artistic figure that Siri Gunasinghe has enjoyed for over half a century, his magnificient scholarly work is often overlooked. This is also partly because, after his initial burst of research work, Siri devoted more time to literary and other artistic work than for scholarly activity. But as we celebrate Siri’s 90th birthday, we must not loose sight of his scholarly contribution. His scholarly work, while being of the highest quality, is intimately bound with his aesthetic interests. His earliest major scholarly publication, La Technique de la Peinture Indienne d’apres les Texts du Silpa, published in 1957 in the prestigious Musee Guimet series of the French Ministry of National Education, provides us with an example. This was followed by studies in the area sculpture in ancient and medieval India and Sri Lanka. These early publications are available only in French, but his later scholarly work, on Sigiriya, Polonnaruva and Kandy, are easily available in English, with some in Sinhala as well. While on the subject of scholarly writing I must mention the clarity, simplicity and precision of Siri’s writing, in both Sinhala and English, and I am sure in French as well (which my illiteracy prevents me from judging).
Siri’s aesthetic interests found special focus in literary work (poetry, fiction and criticism) and the visual arts (painting, design, the cinema) While he is not a musician, he has a deep understanding of both Indian and western music, and is an excellent tabla player. He is a practising artist with a substantial body of work to his credit, a practice that recalls his earliest research interests in the technique of ancient Indian painting. These same interests in the visual diversified into an interest in design that, on the one hand, included refreshingly new book covers, and on the other, experimentation in film making. He directed the acclaimed Satsamudura.
The designs for which Siri is best known however are those associated with the epoch making play Maname. Theatre costumes till then, especially as reflected in the dominant Tower Hall tradition, though purportedly indigenous, were in fact of Victorian inspiration, as were the temple murals of the time. In contrast, Maname costumes drew both on Siri’s scholarly knowledge of ancient Indian painting and sculpture, and the exquisite colour sense of the artist in him. The Maname costumes, with their striking use of green and orange, can be considered the most aesthetically pleasing costumes that ever adorned the Sinhala stage. They were not only beautiful in themselves, but constituted part of the total scheme of colour and form, both static and dynamic, of the stage. This was an unprecedented visual integration of different components of the stage including dramatic action that contributed to a heightening of the total aesthetic experience. The décor of the original production also included an abstraction of the karaliya, the traditional stage of the folk theatre from which Maname was partially derived. The harmonious blend of costume and décor was carried over to the area of actor make-up, another sub-field of stagecraft in which Siri excelled. Siri also designed costumes for some of the short plays that Sarachchandra produced soon after Maname, but more importantly for Gunasena Galappatti’s Sandakinduru, with its hauntingly beautiful costume of the heroine, with flowing black and white stripes on the front of her skirt. Outside the play itself, Siri designed the remarkable cover of the published text of Maname that mimicked the periodic appearance of the Narrator (Pote Gura) from the depths of the darkened stage.
One word may be mentioned here about the fate of the décor item that depicted the folk stage, the karaliya. The first and the most memorable review of Maname, written by the esteemed critic Regi Siriwardena, was highly critical of its use. Regi was unaware of its meaning as is clear in his dismissive characterization of the piece as an “abstract looking contraption”. Although not altogether due to this bad press, but rather, in my view, due to his own yet fluid conception of “oriental theatre”, and the practical difficulties in its transport and setting up, producer Sarachchandra decided to do away with the set. Its retention even amidst practical difficulties would in my view have led to fruitful experimentation in stage décor, and an enrichment of the theatre as a whole.
Siri’s innovative novel, Hevanalla, was not only a fine work of fiction. It also inspired young writers to experiment with the form of the novel. His advocacy of linguistic reform that primarily involved his argument that for all practical purposes, the retroflex “n” and “l” in Sinhala are irrelevant, and that written Sinhala can more expressively get closer to the spoken, stimulated many a debate. These, along with his practice and advocacy of “free verse” (nisandas) constitute some of the most significant developments in Sinhala language and literature in the twentieth century.
In his article elsewhere in this Supplement, Wimal Dissanayake mentions his involvement, along with mine and Sarath Amunugama’s, in the events that led to the production of the free verse magazine Nisandasa (“Free Verse”), a landmark in what might be called “the free verse movement”. As Wimal points out, this project arose out of our association with Siri that consisted of periodic nocturnal meetings at his house at Upper Hantana. The core nisandas group consisted of Sarath Amunugama, Wimal Dissanayake, P.A.S. Saram and myself, with Siri as its inspiration. A couple of others of our fellow students, like J.B.Disanayaka, may have joined us on occasion.
We discussed the poems that each of us had written since the previous meeting. Siri encouraged us in the belief that we could be poets, despite all evidence to the contrary. In my reading, the only participant who wrote anything worthwhile was Wimal, although I must admit that Sarath wrote remarkably poetic pieces, and later went on to publish a volume of poetry titled Hada Tula Asa. The fourth member of the core group was P.A.S.Saram, who like Sarath and myself, came from sociology, making us, the sociologists, the majority. This demographic fact was not lost on our good friend and our most celebrated critic Gunadasa Amarasekera who remarked that those who could not write poetry went to sociology. In the meanwhile, I had stumbled on a profession more in keeping with my talents, designing book covers, which I did for Wimal’s first collection of poetry Akal Vassa and for Sarath’s Hada Tula Asa, in addition to the cover of the free verse magazine Nisandasa. Some of the poems discussed, and amended as a result, were published in the Nisandasa, along with poems from outsiders, like Madavala Ratnayake, K. Jayatilake, and Dalton Alwis.
By the time the first volume of Nisandasa was published in March 1959, Siri had published his first two collections of poems Mas Le Nati Ata (1956), and Abinikmana (1958) and these had already gained some notoriety in the literary status quo for reasons of both form and content. For the establishment, metric form was the soul of poetry. Siri’s poetry, sans metre, was ridiculed as “palali kavi”, and “notes usable in writing poetry”. When it came to content, the prudish and philistine strands of the cultural revival mentioned at the beginning of this essay found some of the themes Siri dealt with objectionable. With the publication of Nisandasa, this scattered opposition to the rebellious new poetic form grew into something more formidable, coming as it did from not one, but a number of literary/cultural interest groups. The most eminent critic of the English language press, Regi Siriwardena, wrote a detailed critique of the manifesto-like introduction to the first volume of Nisandasa. The main thrust of this introduction, derived from Sanskrit aesthetic theory, was that rasa or “flavor”, not metre, was the soul of poetry. In this hostility to our magazine and conception poetry, the Sinhala press was not far behind. The Lankadeepa columnist Chandraratna Manavasinghe, who was critical of anything the university did until his belated admission of the worth of Maname, condemned not only the poetry, but even the magazine’s cover. Manavasinghe called the cover design a “darahava” (a contraption used in exorcistic ritual), failing to realize that it was based on a pattern from the renowned folk art of the Dumbara mats, and echoing Regi Siriwardena’s failure to recognize the folk origins of the Maname stage set that Siri designed. We had copied the Dumbara mat design from an unassailable source, Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Medieval Sinhalese Art.
Wimal had the good fortune of meeting Siri in the course of his studies because he read Sanskrit in his first year with Siri as his teacher. The three others of the core nisandas group, Sarath Amunugama, P.A.S. Saram and myself, as mentioned above, were students of sociology. It is poetry that provided us, the sociologists, the good fortune of getting to know Siri, first as a poet we admired, and later as a friend. We had been disillusioned with the poetry then prevailing, the genre known as Colombo Poetry. As high school students who enjoyed reading, we had come across a lot of modern poetry of the time in English, including English translations of French, German and Russian poetry. We yearned to read something like that in Sinhala, but the Colombo Poetry was trapped in the samudraghosa metre and stilted imagery. Siri’s published poetry showed us that a poetry like what we read in English was possible in our own language. That made us search Siri out, and chat with him about poetry, eventually leading us to form the nisandas group.
Siri made us feel that the search for a readable poetry was not a private act but a collective effort. The university reflected the hierarchical society in which it was embedded, and we ourselves, through our socialization, were extremely respectful of our teachers. But the ethos and atmosphere of the nisandas group, from its very inception, was different. Siri treated us not as students, but equals. Some others on the faculty who treated us similarly were Gananath Obeyesekere and the then Assistant Librarian Ian Goonetilleke. These wonderful men made for us the difference between getting a degree and an education. They have remained our friends ever since, and accepted our families as part of their own. As we celebrate Siri’s 90th birthday, and wish him continued health and happiness, it is with the greatest respect and affection that we reflect on these unforgettable experiences. And it gives us the greatest pleasure to know that Siri is enjoying the company of a large and loving family of children and grandchildren.
*H. L. Seneviratne – Professor, Emeritus – Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia