21 June, 2024


Some (More) Cuts On 1956

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The late Tissa Abeysekara, in an essay on Lester James Peries, candidly noted that the cultural renaissance which swept over our film industry, after 1956, was never dependent on the State. He wrote this as a response to an observation by Ashis Nandy that for a revolution in the cinema to unfold itself more properly, the filmmaker as such had to look to the government of the day for moral and financial support. The problem with this assumption is that it leaves out the stark, ubiquitous fact that no government, in any part of the world, will get involved with a country’s cultural sphere unless and until that cultural sphere is turned into a vassal of the dominant ideology of that particular country. 1956 was a process that traces its origins to Anagarika Dharmapala, and it found its roots, for an intermittent period, with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. But those roots were never properly nourished. They couldn’t be.

And why? Because, regardless of the time or place, the cultural does not belong to the political, though it is also never completely independent of the political either. The latter is driven by expedience, by the need to capture rhetoric and transform it into policy and action. When these two seemingly incongruous fields of human enterprise get together, there can be no reconciliation, no proper bond between them, until the cultural is made to follow its own independent course and the political is brought in to help it follow that course, from the sidelines. As Gunadasa Amarasekara rightly notes in Anagarika Dharmapala Marxwadiyekda, what began as a flowering of our innate cultural and social sensibilities was evicted and virtually castrated by political hacks. 1956 was not opposed to English, nor was it romantically inclined towards the past. Those who thought it was, and who voted for their leaders in the hopes of dislodging the elite through it, were doomed to commit hara-kiri, because (as Regi Siriwardena frequently observed) 1956 did not represent the dislodgment of the elite, rather the substitution of a more insidious form of class elitism for that which had existed until then. The discrepancy the multitude and the few intensified in a more subtle, less discernible form. I firmly believe that we are still paying the price for our sins.

The revolution, of course, had to start from somewhere. That somewhere was not the Buddhist Renaissance which both Colonel Olcott and Dharmapala inaugurated right before they parted ways. That somewhere was not the search for the hela basa that Munidasa Cumaratunga launched, successfully, until it spawned a veritable horde of poets, writers, and linguists ranging from Wimal Balagalle (who turned 93 last Friday) to Siri Gunasinghe (barring Gunadasa Amarasekara, the last of the bilingual literati, who died several months back). It began instead as an independent, autonomous search for our roots that we have been hankering after ever since the West, and even the East, began invading us. It’s convenient to contend that there is a global conspiracy against the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, but what is convenient isn’t necessary what is true. The truth, therefore, is more complex, more multifarious.

This assault on our civilisation took on three broad fronts: against the faith, the language, and the culture. The latter was more or less a sum-total of the former two but it incorporated many other elements as well. History and heritage, let’s not forget, are never exclusively predicated on the clergy or the wielders of the mother tongue, though both form an integral part of any civilisation. Consequently, the local assault against the foreign assault congealed into those three fronts. It is my contention that any attempt at a Buddhist Renaissance was distorted by the Theosophists. It is also my contention that the many attempts of Munidasa Cumaratunga to resuscitate our language, the hela basa that had been castrated by Sanskrit impurities, were stalled by what Tissa Abeysekara once referred to as the pothe guras: the academics and the intellectuals who were opposed to, inter alia, the experiments that Sunil Shantha was indulging in and the attempts made by the likes of Professor Balagalle to take the Sinhala language to the 20th century through Ferdinand de Saussure. The cultural sphere – comprising of poets who borrowed but also strayed from our conventional metrical forms as well as novelists who propagated religious tracts through narrative fiction (Piyadasa Sirisena’s early works come to mind here) – was at its inception politically zealous. When that political zeal found its equivalent in the political sphere with Bandaranaike, the cultural sphere was, for the time being, abandoned.

The Sinhala language did not evolve after the 19th century. With the diminishment of a language comes the diminishment of an entire collective. Three centuries of foreign domination, a great many preceding centuries of internal strife, had virtually laid the mawbasa to rest. Our schools and universities lacked proper curricula for own mother tongue, and had devoted considerable space to Sanskrit and Pali. The evolution of a culture, inclusive of language that is, cannot transpire unless it is connected to the outside world. The problem was that both the few who had power and the many who did not were lethargic and indifferent to this problem: the former because they did not speak, and indeed looked down on, the Sinhala language; and the latter because they were unmoored from modernity. The single best process (political or otherwise) inaugurated after independence was free education, because despite the problems and the shortcomings that would stunt it over the decades, it helped to push the people to embrace that modernity. Free education had been preceded by the emancipation of our intellectuals: the likes of Professor Senarath Paranavithana and Wimal Balagalle were already giants in their fields when the Kannangara Proposals were being implemented.

What 1956 lacked was a comparable generation of intellectuals and academics who were conversant with both the East and the West. 1956 would not have happened if that generation did not exist beforehand, if they had not been fermented by a largely elitist education they themselves repudiated, rightly, later on. I am aware of the need to do away with elitist structures once a revolution, cultural or political, is ongoing, but what happened in Sri Lanka was that we confused the destruction of any structure, elitist or otherwise, for a cultural renaissance. Consequently, the rift between swabasha and non-swabasha, which in turn gave way to a three-pronged rift between the elites, the multitude who wielded the vernacular and refused to join the elites, and the multitude who acceded to them, was so overwhelming that what we got in the end was a social discrepancy between those who could speak English and those who could not. The earlier class hierarchies had ostensibly vanished, but their spirit endured.

The outcome of all this wasn’t a cultural renaissance. The outcome was an aberration: a culture of envy, on the part of those who wished to join the privileged. The writers and the poets who came after 1956 – Mahagama Sekera (Thun Man Handiya), K. Jayatilleke (Charitha Thunak), Madawala S. Ratnayake (Akkara Paha), to name a few – wrote of the new swabasha-wielding folk, who clamoured and hankered after social upliftment: Sirisena in Thun Man Handiya, Ranjith in Charitha Thunak, and the ultimate symbol, for me, of the failure of the post-1956 youth to realise their aspirations, Sena in Akkara Paha. While not all these characters and their real-life counterparts rebelled against their pasts to join the elite, they were more or less stricken with envy, with sadness, with poignant imaginings of what they would have been if they were born to privilege. It was an insane reversal of fortune, and our novelists, who were deeply connected with the ethos that made 1956 possible, more so than our filmmakers, punctured the idealism that year conceived with the harsh reality it later gave birth to. Our filmmakers were more rebellious, more brutal, in that respect, from Dharmasena Pathiraja, who came from roughly the same milieu which Wimal Balagalle had come from, to Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, our first political director and playwright who hailed completely from the generation of 1956.

There’s an interesting passage in The Play is the Thing where Henry Jayasena recounts a childhood encounter with Ananda Rajakaruna. Apparently Jayasena’s school had organised a literary contest at Kalutara at which speakers would condemn English and promote the vernacular. Rajakaruna, whose poems were considered a rallying point for nationalist activists, was a special guest. After the event was done, when he and Jayasena were talking with each other, they had heard the organisers of that same anti-English meeting speak in English, and eloquently. Jayasena tells us that Rajakaruna had got so angry that he stormed in and shouted, “You preach one thing and do another. You are what I would call total hypocrites.” For good measure, perhaps, he added, “What is wrong with our village children learning English? Isn’t it because of your superiority with your English that you are able to hold meetings of this nature and that people listen to you? It would have been much more honest if you told them the truth: that your knowledge of English is a big advantage!”

Rajakaruna had a point there. Not hard to see what it was. And what it continues to be.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Uditha remembers 1956 ostensibly because of the cultural renaissance.
    Lankan minorities remember 1956 as the year when thugs were let loose to tackle Gandhian protesters while the law-enforcers looked on.

    • 6

      K Pillai

      Those people who are blessed with bit more brain generally believe it was the beginning of the Dark Ages, something similar to Kalabhras (Kalapirayar) epoch, or European (500 to 1000 CE).

      However the Sinhala/Buddhist noisy minority does not seem to realise it is living in dark ages. Pig’s enjoy being in the pigsty.

  • 4

    The writer has demonstrated his point about the importance of proper English education (probably he means syntax) in the following sentence. …”Siri Gunasinghe (barring Gunadasa Amarasekara, the last of the bilingual literati, who died several months back)”. After reading it and getting over the shock, I Googled Gunadasa Amarasekara (GA), to make sure I did not miss the death of the great old man. To my relief, I found GA is very much alive and kicking, Now I understand the importance of “syntax” better, and the real perils of garbled syntax on meaning. Learning never ends my boy! Keep at it.

  • 2


    This is an interesting analysis. Culture of course is never static or exclusive. Thus our culture is an amalgamation of influences from various sources, including East and West – even before the colonization of our land by Europeans.

    It would be interesting to see if the hela basa you speak of (prior to the 19th century) is closer to the Divehi language than modern Sinhalese is. Although they were influenced by Arabic and Tamil, I believe they did not experience the sanskritization you mention. Interestingly, many Tamil critics also complain of sanskritasation of their language.

    So the main language colonials were the Sanskrit speakers?(i.e. North Indian Brahmins)

    Another thought: just as you conclude many “victims” of past sins become the new “victimizers”. Thus the Swabasha folk who rightfully fought against the elitism of the British and brown-sahibs, themselves victimized our language minorities post 1956. And now, they are the elite (eg. MR), but they continue to suppress the lower classes, and attack the Old Money.

    A similar phenomenon is happening in the Tamil areas, where as a result of out-migration of many brahmins and upper castes, the lower castes have been uplifted, and many have assumed upper caste status and are now suppressing others!

    Is that the human condition? To always look for someone else to put down, while elevating your real or imagined culture and “status” ?

  • 0

    Truth is that there are far too many hypocrites in our land who will happily deny the opportunity to let our children learn English.

    One of the few legacies left by the last colonial master was our access to an universal language. It has enriched many of our best to flourish in all corners of the globe.

    Our own governments have failed over the years to invest enough to develop the national languages, and the dearth of translated material ensure that important courses at universities continue to be taught in English much to the disadvantage of the many deprived.

  • 0

    So Rajakaruna told Jayasena that the latter.s knowledge of English was a big advantage. Devapriya agrees. May I add a rider to that to quote an often used saying” a little learning is a dangerous thing”! There is nothing magical in the use of poly syllables in one’s expression if the words don’t convey the ideas of the writer. The mere use of big words does not make the piece attractive but tends to obfuscate. This is something a writer needs to learn.i must say however that this essay is a marked improvement from the previous attempt of the writer which nearly drove me up the wall. In parting may I add that Henry Jayasena’s English was very basic, just enough to get him over the line as a clerk in the records unit of the Colombo Secretariat.

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