By Izeth Hussain –
When the storm rages, and the ship of state is treatened with wreckage, we can do no better than to sink the anchor of our peaceful studies in the ground of eternity. – Johannes Kepler
Ah, what an age it is/ When to speak of trees is almost a crime/ For it is a kind of silence about injustice. – Bertold Brecht
As I have been arguing in earlier articles – citing the theories of Emmanuel Todd – the transition to modernity is hardly ever smooth, and it is frequently accompanied by violence. The undrlying reason is that in the procss of transition the old is displaced by the new, and that is something that is frequently resisted. Sri Lanka is in the throes of the modernization process. It is not surprising therefore that Kishani Jayasinghe‘s (KJ) operatic rendition of Dunno Budunge on the occasion of the National Day was seen as an intrusion of the alien and threatening Western into the realm of the national sacred. Modernity requires accelerated economic development which usually results in increased inequality, setting off envy and hatred among a substantial segment of the people. Perhaps it was not altogether surprising that that envy and hatred were deployed against KJ on an epic scale. What was really surprising was that the most vicious of the email attacks, according to what she wrote, came from females while the most suportive were from males.
But Nan in her Sunday Island column of March 13 wrote, “Two things I am convinced about. The three most hate-laden letters were NOT written by women but by frustrated, mentally abberated young men”. However the same issue of the Sunday Island carried a coruscating excoriation of the negative aspects of Sri Lanka womanhood by Devika Brendon. She wrote, “This incident highlights what many people know about contemporary Sri Lanka: that, despite its many positive aspects, it is a repressed, vindictive, and punitive culture. There are practical reasons for the existence of exorcism ceremonies and protection rituals, and invocation of charms against the Evil Eye”. What is the explanation for such starkly contrasting views of the same phenomenon: Sri Lankan womanhood? Devika Brendon’s article has the merit of calling attention to the need for in-depth studies of that subject, going beyond the worn stereotype that our womanhood is well emancipated because we produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister.
In the first part of this article I made some observations on the significance of KJ’s rendition of Dunno Budunge in the perspective of modernization which entails a process of ongoing total revolutionary change. That process entails also the intrusion of the alien into the indigenous, of the universal into the insular. KJ’s rendition caused outrage because it was seen as a Western desecration of a Sinhalese song embedded in the folk tradition, which furthermore powerfully embodied the Buddhist sense of the sacred. But that desecration was already there in the song itself. The consensus among musicologists is that it is not an indigenous Sinhalese folk song; it was composed by Viswanath Lauji in the style of North Indian classical music. Furthermore it was believed that the melody was derived from one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. That is disputed but the similarity between the two melodies was very clear to me in the Murray Perahia version of the Song. It is worth mentioning also that one of the performers who popularised the song in Sri Lanka was Mohideen Baig, a Tamil Muslim from South India, who also popularized several quintessentially Sinhalese songs. So, as a part of modernisation, the alien breaks into the indigenous, and the universal into the insular. Consequently, Kishani J should not have been berated for desecrating the indigenous but congratulated for making a contribution towards Sri Lankan modernity.
The process of the alien breaking into the indigenous can of course be totally destructive. But as part of the process of modernisation, which has certain values behind it, the alien could be partly destructive, partly creative, or wholly creative. In the case of the supposedly quintessential Sinhalese folk song, Dunno Badunge, the alien elements that I have outlined above have certainly been wholly creative. As another example I will cite the films of the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami,who was declared by Kurosawa to be Asia’s best film director after the death of Satyajith Ray and is now mentioned in the same breath as all the other cinema greats. The greatest influence on him has been the films of the French film director, Robert Bresson. The films of both present a case, they make you think, they don’t grip and involve you in a story that leads to the emotional satisfaction provided by a cathartic conclusion. The technique is similar to the “alienation effect” in the revolutionary theatre of Bertold Brecht. Note that all the names I have mentioned, apart from Kiarostami, are non-Iranian: Kurosawa, Ray, Bresson,Brecht, a fact that attests to the universalism that is an aspect of modernity.
However, the contents of Kiarostami’s films are thoroughly and authentically Iranian – at least the ones I have seen. The reason why they seem authentically Iranian is the very moving empathetic understanding shown towards very ordinary people. That seems to be the expression of a culture shaped by Shi’ism, which historically has been the Islam of the oppressed. But at the end of two of the films the Western obtrudes in a spectacular manner, which strangely does not jar but is in total harmony with the non-Western Iranian ethos of the films. The life-affirming conclusion of Through the Olive Trees has in its background the music of Vivaldi. And the life-affirming conclusion of his best-known film, A Taste of Cherry, uses as background music the jazz classic St James Infirmary. So we have a felicitous blending in the one case of the Iranian with the music of the Italian baroque, and in the other of the Iranian with the music of the blacks of New Orleans.
The process of modernisation entails revolutionary change and also the intrusion of the alien into the indegenous, both of which were exemplified in KJ’s rendition of Dunno Budunge. She had to suffer the consequences. Kiorastami too had to suffer consequences after A Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival of 1997. The film was banned in Iran because it gave a sympathetic portrayal of a would-be suicide – Islam forbids suicide. The showing of the film at Cannes received standing ovations before and after, but thereafter disaster followed because Kiarostami in receiving the award kissed Catherine Deneuve on the cheek. Revolutionary Iran would have none of that. Iranian film aficionados who had organized a grand reception for the conquering hero at the airport were heavily outnumbered by Iranian revolutionaries who were out to give him the works. The conquering hero had to be whisked away through a side door. Looks like we and the Iranians have some things in common: sexual repression which was probably behind much of the hatred directed against the gorgeously structured KJ, and Buddhism like Shi’ism can be seen as a religion of the oppressed. (Concluded).