By Sarath Amunugama –
Siri Gunasinghe, one of the most influential contributors to modern Sinhala culture, reaches the age of ninety this week. This short essay seeks to outline some of his many gifts as well as to extend my sincere thanks for a wonderful friendship that spans over five decades.
As young undergraduates who entered the idyllic setting of the Peradeniya University in the late fifties, we were blessed with the opportunity of associating not only some of the finest minds in the country but also teachers on whom learning sat lightly. There was not a trace of pomposity in them and they were always ready to help their young students to match up to their potential, be it in the tutorial class or outside in music, theatre, poetry or games, through friendly interaction. Of all these teachers Siri was outstanding for his knowledge, varied interests and most of all for his élan or style. Just back with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, he brought a delightful Gallic informality much to the envy of other teachers and the delight of us, his close young admirers and supporters.
Though Siri was involved in many of the extra-curricular activities of the Sinhala department, particularly through his unstinting support for Sarachchandra’s theatre and literary efforts, he was never a teacher of Sinhalese. It speaks volumes for the traditional mindset of the ‘Gurus’ of that department and the academic bureaucracy of the time who did not invite Siri to lecture on Sinhala literature. This did not worry him much because he had a good working relationship with his colleagues in the somewhat small department of Sanskrit. By now the university had given up teaching Indo-Aryan languages which had produced the best minds like Malalasekara, Ratnasooriya, Hettiarachchi and Sarachchandra. Instead, they had relegated Sinhala to departmental level and artificially created subjects to drag the teaching on for three years. What could easily have been completed in one or two years was stretched to three and the end result was the opening of floodgates for mediocrities, who today man academia, the teaching profession, the media and the administrative service.
It is important to note that Siri’s knowledge of Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit was far superior to that of his critics, particularly Martin Wickramasinghe. Siri’s lectures on Sanskrit poetry including his teaching of poetry of the classic Sakuntala is now part of Peradeniya legend. His interest in poetry originating from his undergraduate days, led to a dramatic shift with his advocacy of ‘Nisandas’ leading to many controversies and the branding of ‘Peradeniya literature’ as a new phenomenon in the world of rather low brow literary figures located in Colombo. They however controlled the Sinhala media and let loose a barrage of abuse at Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe. But his poetry published in Mas Le Nati Ata, Ratu Kekula and other locations attracted the youth, and Nisandas has now come to stay, though one may not be happy about the quality of these outpourings. His novel Hevanella created a sensation because of his use of the spoken language and ‘the stream of consciousness’ method. While Siri has both admirers and critics, what we now know is that the ‘revolution’ in Peradeniya presaged a communication revolution, which transformed the use of the Sinhala language. Though not adequately explored, what we witness now is the spread of popular culture, which has invaded the space earlier occupied by the Great Tradition. The Peradeniya school attempted to maintain the values of a Great Tradition at a time when new a new age of media was beginning to debase the language, perhaps irrevocably. It must be mentioned here however that the exponents of popular culture do not think that their outpourings are in anyway inferior. But the daily assault on our senses through the Sinhala media show a “dumbing down” of our cultural values.
I want to refer here to Siri’s contribution to archaeological and art studies. With his training in France he was able to introduce a new dimension to Sri Lankan archaeology which was dominated by epigraphists such as Paranavitana, Godakumbura and Karunaratne. Of course there were many good reasons why it should be so. The British tradition established by Cunningham, Marshall and others all emphasised “digs” and the deciphering of inscriptions, many of which had been buried due to the lapse of time. Further, there were a large number of monuments and inscriptions lying around, crying out for attention by scholars. But the dimension of art and architecture had been neglected and was set right mostly by continental scholars, many of whose works influenced Siri. In fact this lopsided approach, rectified later by Siri, Raja de Silva and Senaka Bandaranayake, should not have occurred because Ananda Coomaraswamy had by himself pioneered such studies. Siri’s essays on the evolution of the Buddha Statue, the Potgul Vihara Statue, the Sigiri Paintings and his pioneering work on Kandyan Paintings are outstanding and should constitute a valuable contribution to studies of our culture and heritage without being enmeshed in petty departmental considerations.
Since others will deal with Siri’s contribution to the Cinema, I will skip that aspect in this note. However what I would like to address is his influence on Sarachchandra and others in the cultural field. Though in the programme notes for Maname and Sinhabahu Siri is referred to as costume and décor designer and make-up specialist, his contribution to the success of those plays were much more. His was a constant presence with Sarachchandra during the production stage. Sarachchandra always consulted Siri even on aspects of drama theory. I think this has been acknowledged in Saratchandra’s autobiography. We may recall sometimes with amusement that Siri was a very practical man and had to come to Sarachchandra’s rescue, even in attending to minor repairs of the professor’s Volkswagen.
But perhaps more impressive than all this is Siri’s warmth and affection. He is a wonderful friend and to the group of his admirers which, I recall, included Amaradeva, Mahagamasekera, Madawala S. Ratnayake, Dunstan Silva, H.L.Seneviratne, Bandula Jayawardena, W.B.Ratnayake and H.M.Gunasekera, he could do no wrong. Many were the times when we would go on long trips in Siri’s blue Volkswagen. Siri and his brother Dharma were first class drivers and would avert many a mishap because of their skills. His home, with Hemamali and the children Manju and Ravi, was open to all of us and the discussions, debates and arguments as well as the good fellowship, still lingers in our memory. So it only remains for us to say on his 90th birthday – Thank you Siri for those wonderful times and your many kindnesses will not be forgotten.