Saturday, May 1, 2010


Concluding the review of Sarath Amunugama's 'Maname Mathakvi'

Who then was Ediriweera Sarachchandra?
Sunday essay by Ajith Samaranayake

The most intriguing aspect of this book is the thesis that Sarath Amunugama develops about Sarachchandra's position in the contemporaneous power structure.

Sarachchandra then was part path-finder and part Godfather but what is true is that he was the undisputable father of modern Sinhala drama who struck a chord among his audiences by bringing about a felicitous marriage between the cultural moment and the cultural product.
Using Foucault's post-modernist concept of civil authority Amunugama views Sarachchandra not merely as a university teacher, dramatist or writer but as also an authority figure in the intellectual and artistic establishment of his time capable of wielding considerable civil influence.

His contention is that Sarachchandra was part of a trinity (the other two figures were M. J. Perera and D. G. Dayaratne, both civil servants) which saw it as its self-anointed task the shaping of taste in the newly-awakened Sri Lankan nation. In fact Sarachchandra himself had sat for the Ceylon Civil Service examination but had failed the viva voce presumably because of the kurtha which he had worn for the interview and his nationalist views. Amunugama hints that Perera and Dayaratne having sat for the examination in London, the citadel of imperial power would have stood better a chance than Sarachchandra.

Anyway by the time Sarachchandra had become the doyen of cultural fashion at Peradeniya (a kind of Sri Lankan Leavis) and was producing 'Maname', M. J. Perera was the Director General of the then Radio Ceylon which was part of the Information Department.

A new intelligentsia had arrived on the scene as the fruit of Free Education and was keen to assert itself in the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. They were bi-lingual but scorned the slavish westernisation which had been the badge of their predecessors who had devotedly worshipped the doddering Anglo-Saxon gods.

They were mostly products of the Peradeniya University which was a thriving intellectual centre in contrast to the shells into which today's universities have been transformed. As Amunugama points out the staff consisted of a galaxy of intellectual talent and the young students of the time were stirred by the writings of H. A. de S. Gunasekera on the Sri Lankan banking system, Das Gupta on the economy, Ralph Peiris on the Sinhala social organisation, Siri Gunasinghe on Indian art, Sarachchandra and W. S. Karunaratne on Buddhist philosophy and Karl Gunawardena on the Dutch period in Sri Lanka.

The University possessed one of the finest libraries of the time and its famed 'Ceylon Room' had such rich archival material as the writings and letters of Anagarika Dharmapala, D. B. Jayatilleke, Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Sir James Peiris. It is Amunugama's contention that Perera and Dayaratne as civil servants used the young Peradeniya intellectuals as vehicles to take new thinking and values to the people with Radio Ceylon as their main organ.

Certainly it would be true to say that Sarachchandra saw himself as a modernist intellectual in a society still warped by semi-feudal and colonial features and a crusader slaying the dragons of vulgarity and cultural backwardness. Like F. R. Leavis he became the guru of a coterie of intellectuals, writers and poets who saw themselves as the vanguard of the literary and cultural renaissance of the day. Hence the term 'Peradeniya School' or 'Peradeniya Period' which have been used both in complimentary as well as pejorative senses.

Amunugama argues that it was this modernist outlook on Sarathchandra's part which made him the butt end for the fierce attacks of the tradionalists spearheaded by the Colombo School although Sarachchandra himself was a teacher of Sinhala who had written a doctoral thesis on Buddhist philosophy. The contradiction here was that although Sarachchandra was a modernist by intellectual temperament all his major dramas would be derived from Buddhist literature or Sinhala folk lore and made use of traditional or stylised dramatic methods.

The traditionalists, however fought back for although the Peradeniya coterie commanded Radio Ceylon influential sections of the print media were in the hands of the traditionalist rearguard. The Editor of the Lake House Sunday Sinhala daily 'Silumina' was Meemana Prematilleke, a stalwart Colombo School poet, while Sisira Kumara Manikkaarachchi who wrote the anti-Peradeniya tract named 'Sahitya Kollaya' was a feature writer of the Lake House Sinhala daily 'Dinamina'.

However the fact that the latter was not allowed to publish his book under his own name but had to have recourse to the nom-de-geurre of 'Wansanatha Deshabandhu' (because he was a Lake House employee) vindicates Amunugama's argument that Sarachchandra had powerful media backers among whom he includes Mrs. Nalini Wickramasinghe, the mother of the Prime Minister.

However his contention that Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe had written a laudatory review of 'Maname' in his 'Wagatuga' column in the 'Lankadeepa' probably on the instigation of its Editor D. B. Dhanapala is debatable since Manawasinghe was too independent a writer to give into either cajolings or blandishments.

Who then was ultimately Ediriweera Sarachchandra? Was he the serious shaper and moulder of artistic and cultural taste in post-Independence Sri Lanka or merely the Godfather of an intellectual Mafia tucked away in the hills of Hantane?

Amunugama does not provide an answer but in the light of the confessions of Gunadasa Amarasekera in the mid-1960s and the now largely-forgotten controversies between the two there is at least some valid reason to believe that some of Sarachchandra's literary assessments were not quite on target.

But the very fact that Amarasekera who was portrayed at the time as Sarachchandra's favoured protege was able to recant his earlier writings and transmogrify himself into a master of literary realism and a spiritual prophet shows at least tangenitally Sarachchandra's powerful influence.

Certainly the fond portrait which Amarasekera has drawn of his old guru in his later series of semi-autobiographical novels shows Sarachchandra in the light of his old Peradeniya days.

Sarachchandra then was part path-finder and part Godfather but what is true and what Amunugama seeks to bring out in this work is that he was the undisputable father of modern Sinhala drama who struck a chord among his audiences by bringing about a felicitous marriage between the cultural moment and the cultural product.


Sunday, 16 November 2003

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