By Malinda Seneviratne –
When I heard that Siri Gunasinghe had passed away, I posted on Facebook an article based on an interview I had done with him more than 15 years ago by way of tribute. My friend A.S. Fernando wrote a short response: “I think the last link of a great generation is gone!”
When did that ‘great’ generation begin and who made it ‘great’? H.L. Seneviratne gives a clue in an article published in Colombo Telegraph:
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”.
H.L. Seneviratne’s almost customary broadsides against anything associated with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism notwithstanding he does capture stature and locates Siri Gunasinghe in the relevant history.
It took me back to an afternoon in early February 2002. Peradeniya. He was visiting a friend and it was at the friend’s house that I interviewed him as per instructions from my boss, the Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Sunday Island,’ Manik De Silva. Listening to him, I still remember, was like witnessing a documentary on the literary history of the University of Ceylon in particular and the evolution of the Sinhala poem in general.
There was some personal history involved. Back in the late sixties when my mother decided to do her teaching diploma in Peradeniya, we stayed in the official quarters of Dr Gunasinghe who was on sabbatical leave that year. Years later I would come across his first collection of poems “Mas le nethi eta” (translatable as ‘Bare Bones”) at home. So the name ‘Siri Gunasinghe’ which I had heard off and on, got a tag, ‘poet’.
That day, on my way to Meevatura, I ran into a campus mate who was then an instructor of physical education in the university. When I told him that I was going to meet Siri Gunasinghe, he regretted that he had some urgent work to do, and that otherwise he would have loved to accompany me. He mentioned the book and said “mata mathakai potha, satha panahay neda mila?” (I remember the book, it was 50 cents, right?).
Dr Gunasinghe told me his story and I wrote it for the ‘Sunday Island’ of February 10, 2002. This is what I wrote.
He was born in Ruwanwella, his mother’s hometown, in 1925 and was the fifth in a family of five brothers and two sisters. His father, a businessman, was from Galle. He had his early education in the Akmeemana Sinhala School and then moved to Mahinda College, Galle. From his early days, Siri had developed a love for English poetry. The Silumina had actually published a couple of his early experiments in Sinhala free verse. Gunasinghe acknowledges that these were “not serious”.
I asked him about his teachers and who among them influenced him. “Actually I can’t think of a single individual who was critically important. “While acceding that this might sound ungrateful, he went on to mention Mr. Handy, who taught Pali at Mahinda, explaining that ‘his style of teaching had a kind of impact’. Mr. Edirisinghe (who later became principal of Dharmapala) had taught him history.
He also mentioned Mr. Thanabalasingham as the teacher who fuelled his interest in literature and in particular his fascination with free verse. “Thanabalasingham had been a recent graduate from Peradeniya. He was different and this may have been because hewould have come under the tutelage of people like Ludowyk, Passe and Souza. He liked poets like Pound, Eliot and Auden.” Gunasinghe himself admits that Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce and later on Lawrence Durrel were among his favourites.
Gunasinghe had entered the University of Ceylon in 1945 and studied Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala and History, specialising in Sanskrit in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. In addition to his studies or perhaps as a part of it, Gunasinghe had experimented with the free verse form.
“I found the traditional 4 line stanza very limiting and in contrast the free verse form was liberating. The 4 line stanza frustrated me. It typically led to soppy language. In fact it crippled the language. I realised that there was a lot of natural rhythm in the Sinhala language which could be creatively exploited in free verse.”
After graduating he had joined the faculty at Peradeniya. In 1950 he had been awarded a government scholarship to London to do his PhD. However, he had had disagreements with his professor at the London School of Oriental Studies. “We could not agree on a topic. He was a grammarian and wanted me to work on Panini. This is usually the case. Professors want their students to do research on the topics that interest them. I wanted to study the techniques of painting. There was a whole body of literature on this subject in Sanskrit. Maybe he was not aware of it.”
Around that time, Gunasinghe had gone to Paris for a week, where he met with Prof. Renou whom he had got to know in Ceylon. “I told him about my situation and being a Sanskritist, advised me to move to Sorbonne. Prof. Dupont, an art historian, and Prof.Filliozat, a student of Indian culture, along with Renou were my teachers. I would say that Prof. Dupont had the most influence on me, maybe because of his interest in Eastern Art and Architecture.”
He recalled his time in Paris as being wonderful. He lived in CitŽ Universitaire where students from all continents lived and interacted with one another. “I did a lot of travelling during that time. I used to hitch-hike all over with my girl friend. All the travelling over 3-4 years would have cost me less than fifty pounds. The people were very friendly and food and lodging was mostly free.
Upon completing his PhD, he had asked for leave, hoping that he would be refused. In any event, he decided to return to the Sanskrit Department at Peradeniya.
Before mas le nethi eta, Gunasinghe had a couple of poems published in the Sinhala Society Magazine. This was around 1946. He had also written some critical essays on modern Sinhala poetry. Mas le nethi eta came out in 1955. The book had got a lot of publicity. Since it constituted a radical departure from the traditional verse form, it had come under severe attack at the hands of the Colombo poets. Gunasinghe said that G.B. Senenayake has also published a couple of poems in this form. However, it was Gunasinghe’s book and the storm it generated that made people consider free verse as a viable and indeed liberating form of poetry.
All that happened afterwards is now well known. In a sense, Parakrama Kodituwakku, Monica Ruwanpathirana, Ratna Sri Wijesinghe and of course Mahagama Sekera owe a lot to Siri Gunasinghe. I told him that some people have criticised him, arguing that his style is a mere anukaranaya (imitation) of a western verse form.
“It depends. Poetry is not just about form, it is about language use and subject as well. Therefore I disagree”.
He recalled that Peradeniya at that time was a seat of learning. I asked him about his relations with people like Sarachchandra and Gunadasa Amarasekera. “I was often at odds with them both when we discussed art and literature. Sarachchandra was a Romantic in outlook and was not a student of modern literature. He considered Gunadasa a disciple. He liked disciples, in fact. So he boosted Gunadasa. I didn’t want to be anyone’s disciple. We had heated arguments, especially on matters of form and criticism. We remained friends, nevertheless. In fact I did the first set of costumes for ‘Maname’ and the make-up too.”
Actually it was during this time that he met his wife Hemamali. She was the first Maname Kumari. I laughed and observed, “Doing the make-up would have brought you close”. He laughed with me, agreeing, and said that the relationship grew thereafter. She completed a PhD in linguistics in the University of Victoria and now teaches English at Camosun College.
In the late sixties he got a one-year appointment at the University of Victoria, Canada. He went on no-pay leave. “At the end of the year, the students wanted me to stay for another year. I contacted the Head of the Department at Peradeniya and asked him, informally, if my leave could be extended. He said yes, to I agreed to stay on.
“I developed the syllabus, prepared the course material and started teaching. Then I asked for leave, officially. I was refused, and was told that Mrs. Bandaranaike had wanted all professors abroad to return to Sri Lanka immediately. I appealed for a reconsideration of my request. There was some correspondence, but at one point I got angry because I heard that another professor in Canada was given an extension.
“In January 1971 I got a letter asking me to return by the end of December 1970! I wrote back saying I am not resigning, but I am done!”
Before leaving for Canada, in which country he has spent over 30 years now, Gunasinghe brought out two collections of poetry, “Abhinikmana” and “Rathu Kekulu”, as well as a novel “Hevanella” (“Shadow” later translated in English by his wife). Since then he has written another collection of verse, “Alakamanda” (roughly, a beautiful, paradisial place) and another novel “Mandarama”. His third novel, “Miringuva Elleema” (Capturing the mirage) is to be published by S. Godage.
Considering that he has spent most of the past thirty years or so abroad, I wondered how he managed to retain his obviously intimate touch with the language. “It is difficult because you hardly ever hear Sinhala and this can be a problem because the language and the thoughts that go with language is dormant most of the time. But cultural expression is something that gets embedded in you, and so when you want you can always stir it up.
“I now write in spoken Sinhala. It has been a conscious decision because it is the language of the people. In fact I once wrote an essay titled ‘Isn’t there a grammar for the spoken language?’ in a collection edited by Ajith Thilakasena called ‘Language suitable for modern times’. I have argued for the dropping of the ‘na-na la-la’ distinction because we don’t adhere to this in the colloquial form. I have been bothered by the classical-colloquial distinction. Even J.B. Dissanayake who writes extensively on language usage, prefers to be ‘academic’ rather than expressing himself in the colloquial form.
“There seems to be a general fear about language. This should not be so. Language does not control you, you control language. There’s a thing called ‘vyaktha’ language, i.e. erudite language. The vyaktha part should not be in the grammar but in the vocabulary.”
Perhaps the fact that he visits Sri Lanka almost every year and spends time travelling and meeting friends, has helped Gunasinghe maintain his touch with the language and the people. It has also allowed him to keep track of the changes that are taking place in education and in academic circles. He describes the university as having degenerated into a sterile place.
“I was impressed with the interest in Buddhism and Eastern studies in Canada. The University of Victoria, when I first joined had a sense of freedom. There was plenty of things to read and there was a fertile intellectual environment. The university was young and amenable to new things.
“I return to Sri Lanka often and my sense is that the calibre of teaching seems to have dropped. Maybe this is a result of the reading being mostly limited to Sinhala. Now there are 12 universities and one would have expected this to have generated healthy competition. For some reason this has not happened.
“I also think there’s a manifest absence of communication between teachers and students. This is not a healthy situation. This is not peculiar to Peradeniya. It is a malaise that is evident in the entire university system. I am not saying that our time was the best. Still, things seemed to have been better back then. Opening the universities to a better cross section of our population should have produced a more fertile intellectual climate due to the interaction of students from different backgrounds and different life experiences. But this has not happened.”
Gunasinghe does not like to be categorised, but he admitted that he was basically a realist, concerned with the truth. He is clearly not a Romantic. Talking to him, I got the sense that he was distinctly at odds with the way things have unfolded over the past several decades. It need not take comprehensive research to understand that we have as a nation and a people lost our way since “Independence”. Modernisation is not coterminous with the uncritical embracing of the “foreign” and everything that in embedded in that word.
Gunasinghe’s creative works are certainly not “traditional” in form. They are nevertheless eminently in tune with who we are and as such demonstrates that the interaction of cultures does not necessarily destroy. Considering that the vast majority of expatriates lose their identity, Siri Gunasinghe seems to be a rare exception. We should be happy, I think.
Unlike those who ‘derisively called Gunasinghe a sakala kala vallabha’ and those who saw in him a warrior against any and every voice that refused to salaam anything and everything the country and its people were not, Gunasinghe did not get entangled in the traps of false dichotomy. He was a scholar, a free thinker and one, one might say, who embodied in approach and practice recommended in the Kalama Sutra, the Buddhist Charter of Free Inquiry.
He’s gone now. The tributes will pour from all quarters. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya offered some early observations. This is what he wrote:
This is something that was released on the Colombo Telegraph youtube channel a few years ago. It was penned and sung by Siri Gunasinghe’s wife Hemamali and sent to me on the occasion of his 90th birthday. My son added the visuals.
Hemamali was the first Maname Princess. She was with Siri Gunasinghe until the very end. Was the sword offered to the Veddah or did the Veddah grab it? Are women fickle? Opportunists? What is the difference betwen goodness and fickleness? Are they binary opposites? Is there fickleness that is entwined in goodness? Is there goodness that cohabits with fickleness? I feel these are the questions that Sarachchandra raised. Although Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s work was tied to his personal life, the lives of his players were not necessarily similar. It would be good if those who spin stories about actors and actresses think again.
You. You are the nirvana that I seek!
Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta made a sober observation a few minutes ago, “…and yet the free verse remained enslaved….’ He is correct. There’s a tendency to confuse the advent and embracing of free verse with emancipation. Freedom of/from structure is one thing, its employment is another in terms of intended ends. There are, as Pierre Bourdieu said ‘structuring structures and structured structures’. Structure and agency in a dialectic if you will. The character of any particular exercise is evidenced by the nature of the engagement, the objective and of course color, tone and music. Poor prose (or indeed good prose) cut into lines to yield a ‘poetic structure’ as per the visual of ‘free verse’ is not good prose. And neither does it fuel emancipatory projects. Siri Gunasinghe never made the kind of wild claims that those who revere him often make. He was a scholar. A sober human being. He did not confuse poetry and scholarship with rhetoric, or poet and scholar with rhetorician.
When an individual as accomplished as Siri Gunasinghe passes on at such a ripe old age after outliving all outstanding men and women of his generation, it is customary to say ‘he was the last of the greats’. A.S. is correct. But then, the man himself, one feels, would dismiss such tags, not least of all because he knew enough history to understand that there are no great or lesser ages or generations.
My last Siri Gunasinghe moment was one where this incomparable man who was at once a Sanskritist, an art historian, poet, novelist and film-maker was absent. He would have been 91 then and was bedridden, I was told. Siri Gunasinghe was present in tribute and recollection that afternoon. It was at the Colombo University. It was a modest celebration where his collection of books was formally gifted to the University. The great man was represented by his brother.
But then again, how can there be a final Siri Gunasinghe ‘moment’ this side of death to anyone who is interested in the Sinhala language and the enormous and varied literature of that language?
Perhaps his family, in a short note, said it best: “Today the world is a dark and cold place, but his light and warmth are still with us.”