By Izeth Hussain –
Probably Kishani Jayasinghe will say that she has no politics at all. She is an opera singer by profession, indeed by vocation, which requires much time and unceasing effort, leaving no space in her life for engagement or even interest in politics. She therefore leaves politics alone. But she realized on February 4 that while she may want to leave politics alone politics won’t leave her alone. That is not the consequence of her being a celebrity. It is the fate of all of us who have to cope with modernity that politics will not leave us alone. That is why there have been so many articles and letters to the editor about the fate that befell her on February 4, including one by Kishani J herself. All of them have focused on the politics of what happened on February 4, more particularly on the question of the alleged outrage to national sentiment in her operatic rendering of Dunno Budunge.
That focusing on the alleged outrage to national sentiment is, of course, of primary importance, but here I want firstly to focus on the significance of what happened in the perspective of the process of revolutionary change that is a marked characteristic of modernity. The usual notion of revolution is a violent upheaval with mass participation, in the course of which the locus of power shifts from one segment of society to another. Such were the English Puritan Revolution of the 1640s, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution. Such revolutions are rare in history but the process of revolutionary change can take place without violent mass upheavals. Most of Europe rejected the ideology of the French Revolution and they successfully resisted violent change but in the course of the next decades it was found that that ideology had shaped the polities of most West European countries.
In the twentieth century the process of revolutionary change became much more accelerated than in the past, and it applied to the totality of life including cultural manifestations such as pop music. It is relevant to consider some of the changes in the sphere of Western pop music. KJ’s alleged offense was to have taken John de Silva’s pop song, which had acquired iconic status as a much-loved folk song, and given it an operatic rendering. That is not something over which any eyebrows would be raised in the West. The folk-song died out in the West in the early decades of the last century but the best of the pop songs of the period after the First World War – I have in mind those of Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern in particular – have survived, are vigorously kicking, and have acquired the status of the folk songs of the urban West. The point I am getting to is that the original forms of those songs are not regarded as sacrosanct but are subjected to varying interpretations, and that seems to be a fairly recent development. Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Sinatra sang those songs more or less straight, but more recent versions can be highly eccentric, including those of the great Sarah Vaughan. Sometimes those songs are given operatic treatment. The only question should be whether the new versions are good or bad as music. I find Kiri Te Kanawa’s operatic rendering of Cole Porter’s haunting So in Love very beautiful, but Placido Domingo’s operatic version execrable for being too emphatically operatic. I found KJ’s Dunno Budunge beautiful on a second and third hearing.
Old-timers who are also music-lovers will find by turning to You tube music that the classical music they loved in the old days can today be mauled, mercilessly mauled, murdered, for instance by the phenomenally gifted Lang Lang who frequently uses the piano as a weapon for assassination. The West finds that acceptable partly because Lang Lang is sometimes superb and more importantly because outrageous new interpretations are part of the ongoing total revolutionary process that is integral to modernity. So KJ’s operatic rendering would be acceptable in the West and also at the Lionel Wendt, but – as has come to be widely recognized – the occasion of the National Day celebrations at Galle Face Green was the wrong milieu for it. There the sense of the nation as sacred predominated, and the manifestation of revolutionary change jarred in that milieu. So, KJ’s operatic rendering caused outrage.
All that is understandable, but why was the outrage on such a stupendous scale? How stupendous we know only now after KJ’s Sunday Island article of March 6 in which she declared that she had received as many as 500,000 emails. The underlying explanation is that just as the moon has a dark side, so has the island paradise. The explanation at an overt level is that we in Sri Lanka are living in interesting times – I have in mind the ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times”. The January 8 Revolution isn’t working too well, and the best that we can expect it seems is a slow melioration of our miseries. Possibly more than half the Sri Lankan people are having a difficult time making ends meet, and there are fears of a Greek-style economic melt-down. Hardly any one expects a facile solution to the ethnic problem, in which connection there is deep resentment over what looks like foreign dictation. There has been a veering away from China and a corresponding increase in what looks like Indian Vice-Regal bullying. In brief, this is a time in which there is a heightened sense of the nation being in peril, and that is probably the major part of the explanation for the outrage provoked by what looked like the intrusion of the alien Western into the realm of the national sacred.
KJ acknowledges in her article that the stupendous negative reaction has been for her a searing experience that can be expected to leave a permanent scar on her psyche. Could that benefit her? It is known that adversity can spur positive achievements. I hold that one of the major reasons why Sri Lanka’s performance since 1948 has been so far below potential is that we got independence without a struggle worth speaking about, an independence that was preceded by a hundred years of peace marred only by the brief anti-Muslim riots of 1915. It is known that at the individual level adversity can sometimes spur achievement. Hemingway wrote in That Dangerous Summer that Ordonez, the greatest bull-fighter of his time, improved on his superlative artistry with every goring that he received. He also wrote, elsewhere: “A writer is forged in injustice as a sword is forged”, a great sentence for which alone Hemingway deserves classic status. KJ has experienced the injustice of the world at full blast. Will that make her empathize with ordinary suffering humanity, and will that make her not just an internationally successful opera singer, not the proverbial temperamental diva, rich, fat, and intolerable, but a great singer, a true daughter of Sri Lanka of whom we can be really proud?