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Some reflections on the Cinema of Lester James Peries
Between two worlds

By Tissa Abeysekara
Despite his near-fifty years of unbroken service, first to, Sri Lankan Cinema in particular, then, to film in South-Asia, and finally to the art of film in general, Lester James Peries is yet to be the subject of a comprehensive critical analysis in the form of a book. The slim volume, The Lonely Artist, by Phillip Cooray, is too sketchy, too databased and superficial in its level of observation to be taken seriously. Personal reflections, reminiscences, tributes and paeans, by colleagues, critics and admiring fans, there are in plenty. But they don’t aggregate to a holistic profile of one of the most important filmmakers of Asia, and easily, on of the peaks in the cultural landscape of twentieth century Sri Lanka.

Putting aside the easier and what would have been an infinitely more pleasant task of personal reverie and recollection for me, I am presenting you with some very specific observations - reflections though they are, but clinical in nature - of the man, in the hope they would provide the basis, in some small measure at least, for the more serious exercise of locating him within a larger historical and socio-cultural perspective.

As usual I begin with a memory. The year was 1964. Lester Peries had just completed his third feature film. It was based on a Sinhala novel that continues to stand firmly at the centre of modern Sinhala fiction as the standard by which anything since then in that genre is judged, to be condemned or recommended. Gamperaliya, Lester Peries’s film version of Martin Wickremasingha’s novel, has since become the most celebrated Sinhala movie. But when the film was finished, and was previewed for a select group of people, the reception was not unanimously favourable. Among those in that select preview audience was Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra. He was at his peak then, and his stature both as creative artist and academic was awesome. Along with Martin Wickremasingha, Sarachchandra constituted the twin pillars on which the Sinhala cultural establishment firmly rested. Where this establishment was concerned, the Sinhala film had still not qualified to be a member of the pantheon of high culture in Sri Lanka. The sacred icons in that gallery were the novels by Martin Wickremasingha, The Koggala Trilogy, Chitrasena’s path-breaking Ballet, Karadiya, and of course, Sarachchandra’s Maname, brilliant theatre as both craft and experiment. Lester Peries had already made two films before, but the significance of those films were assessed purely within the narrow confines of the Sinhala cinema, which continued to reflect the kitsch of popular Indian commercial films. Lester James Peries’s relationship to the tradition of populist Indian Cinema both in defiance and acceptance is an issue I shall return to, later. For the moment let me pick up the story I began with.

Sarachchandra’s indifference to film, especially his lofty disdain for anything connected with Sinhala films was well known. His presence at the preview of Gamperaliya was certainly not due to any change of heart, but purely because it was based on a novel, which he, more than anyone else, was responsible for reinterpreting, to the post-war Sinhala readership, as the first serious exercise in Sinhala in the art of modern fiction. Neither Lester, nor his team of collaborators of which I was one - Gamperaliya, was my initiation into the pain and pleasure of filmmaking, my Sundance - had no illusions about what the maker of Maname was going to pronounce after seeing the film version of his beloved Sinhala novel. The Sinhala cultural establishment, governed, guided and practically brainwashed in the groves of academe in the Hantane hills presided over by its High Priest Sarachchandra, was notorious for its condescension, its members feared and equally hated for their edicts, as irrevocable as Papal Bulls with which they sanctified an artist or condemned him to the fires of hell.

We were surprised, when he said he liked the film. He shook Lester’s hand warmly and thanked him for translating the essence of the literary original without disfiguring it. He even seemed surprised that this was achieved at all. In his erudite mind, film and serious literature, or perhaps high art in general, had a gulf in between, too fundamental and deep to be closed. Never the twain shall meet. Sarachchandra was mostly enraptured by Amaradeva’s score for the film. I remember, Regi Siriwardena, who wrote the script for Gamperaliya, whispering in my ear, that perhaps the Professor was responding to the music, and not to the film as a whole.

A week later, there appeared in the respected national daily, Dinamina, a full-page review of the film by Sarachchandra. It was unqualified in its praise. In his own inimitable style of critical analysis, which whilst deeply rooted in Sanskrit poetics is also flavoured by an engaging personal tone, Sarachchandra hailed the film as an unqualified masterpiece. There was in that long piece, a single word, which has fascinated me ever since I read it in the context of that review. The word is significant because for me it expresses with breathtaking economy not only the state of the Sinhala film up till then, but also the low esteem in which it was held by the local intelligentsia. The word has a Pali root and a specific religious meaning especially within Buddhist mythology. OPA-PATHIKA, is an adjective used only in relation to a Buddha. In a clerical sense it implies a meaning akin to that of the Christian idea of Immaculate Conception. It is impossible to translate the word into English without spilling more than half its essence in the dust. A general interpretation would mean that which is born without the normal union of man and woman. But when and how does a work of art - an inanimate object - become opa pathika, or could be referred to as such? The critical and strictly secular context within which Sarachchandra has used the word transforms its etymology. When the critic refers to Gamperaliya as an opa pathika kala kriti, he implies that nothing in the past by way of a cumulative progression or maturing has prepared us for its birth. It was a happening outside the simple law of cause and effect. Its a miracle, and that’s precisely what Sarachchandra calls the film, a miracle.

To conclude, that Gamperaliya was a miracle, in the sense that nothing in the relatively short history of Sinhala film - eighteen years up to that time - pre-shadowed its arrival, is to confirm the refusal of the Sri Lankan cultural establishment, to accept Lester James Peries’s first two films, Rekawa and Sandeshaya as being worthy of serious critical assessment. This attitude, though it may be allowed, since both the above mentioned films carry prominent birthmarks of the conventional formula film, making it difficult for the critic to observe a clean break, is also the unfortunate result of an inability to read a film on its own terms, and within the specifics of that medium. For those who are sensitive to the aesthetics of film, its grammar and its syntax - of course to be accepted even reluctantly as having been invented, developed, and codified in the west - it is not difficult to detect in the first two films of Lester Peries, the first serious application of those principles in the Sinhala cinema. I wish to go beyond and contest Sarachchandra’s critical pronouncement of Gamperaliya, as a miracle, not so much because I believe it is pre-shadowed by Lester Peries’s first two films, but because I believe the film to be the logical outcome of a broad historical and socio-cultural progression in this country, a vital context within which not only this film but the entire career of Lester James Peries and his body of work has to be evaluated.

Though stated, referred to, and touched upon, from time to time by most thinkers, writers, and political leaders, it is only in the copious writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy, the premise is maintained consistently and vigorously, that there is a vital link between national regeneration and its expression in art. In Coomaraswamy’s scheme of things, art becomes far more than a cosmetic. It is the central dynamic in the national consciousness. However, this linkage in the national re-awakenings of those countries, especially of South Asia, under British colonial rule, presents a complex and sometimes a confusing pattern, which resists easy analysis. This is a result of the leadership of the political struggle and the cultural restoration in these countries coming from different social strata. The Macaulyan experiment of creating a specific class of brown sahibs tutored in the cultural cosmetics of Victorian England to provide the bureaucratic service base for the imperial administration in the Raj spelt the doom of the Empire, in that this creature of the British spawned the very leaders of the freedom movement. The figures of the cultural renaissance emerged from a different background. Whenever these two movements came together it was always at the cost of artistic integrity and creative seriousness. Theatre and literature especially being linguistic forms of expression, whenever they were enlisted in the national struggle, degenerated into crude polemics and rhetorical exercises. In the Bengali renaissance, the twin strands of cultural activity and political struggle joined hands and maintained at times, a healthy equilibrium. But in my opinion the multi-faceted creativity of Rabindranath Tagore did not achieve its fullest expression, aesthetically because it was constantly harnessed to the demands and the exigencies of India’s freedom movement. All the great leaders of modern India, from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, to Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, were essentially political animals, and in spite of well-known aesthetic sensibilities, were not poetic spirits. However they recognized the value of art and culture as effective tools in their political campaign, and were equally aware that it was popular art which served the cause better than high culture, whether from the west or from the great Indian classical tradition.

I touched upon the Bengali renaissance as a preface to the Sri Lankan scene in the second half of the nineteenth century through the first few decades of the twentieth. Here the situation was made more complex by the simple fact that the ruling elite, the creatures of the Macaulyan experiment were more totally anglicized than their Bengali counterparts, in that they were removed to a great extent from their linguistic roots and as a result had severed their linkages with tradition. They spoke English, dressed for dinner, had English butlers and English governesses for the children. They were more English than the English. This Komprador class may have had their parallel in India who provided the national movement with its first generation of leaders, but there was no instance recorded or recounted of a member of the Sri Lankan elite who burnt his Saville Row suits like Motilal Nehru did in India. The Sri Lankan elite did not, as a result perhaps of the reasons given earlier, display the same militancy in politics, as their Indian contemporaries in the struggle against British Imperialism. More relevant to the issue discussed here, no great Sri Lankan writer either as poet or playwright working in the vernacular emerged from this class. If they wrote at all, and what better example than Ananda Coomaraswamy, they wrote in the Queen’s English. There were others, like James de Alwis, Abraham Mendis Gunasekara, and Dandris de Silva Gunaratna. The last mentioned was referred to as the ‘Ceylon Macaulay’. But they were not creative writers. The muse eluded them, because having cut themselves from the moorings of their cultural heritage they lacked the capacity to draw from the life around them, which alone would provide the base for genuine poetry. On the other hand their facility with English was at best a borrowed skill and they could not write from within that language. They were to remain permanent outsiders.

Creative activity, or what aspired to be so in the vernacular, was the province of those who were lower down in the social order, who had no access due to linguistic constrains, to the upper shelf of western art and culture. The pioneers in Sinhala fiction like Piyadasa Sirisena and Simon Silva were at best on the level of Mrs. Henry Wood or Charles Garvis. Theatre, of the Tower Hall, pioneered by C. Don Bastian, John de Silva, and Charles Dias, was, even though the plots and stories were at times from Shakespeare, an offspring of the hybrid Bombay Baliwallah type. This was at the turn of the twentieth century, and such writers as mentioned above were firmly enlisted in the service of the national re-awakening. The social reformers and political leaders coming from the anglicized komprador class patronized the work of Piyadasa Sirisena and John de Silva more for political purposes than for aesthetic satisfaction. Even such non-linguistic forms of creative expression like painting remained within the cheap format of pseudo-renaissance. In Sarlis, a painter who drew various situations, moments and personalities from Buddhist legend and history, prints of which hung in every lower-middle class Sinhala Buddhist home, Sri Lanka had its Ravi Varma - founder of the art of the pavement calendar. Music in any serious indigenous form was non-existent. The songs of the Tower Hall theatre were crude plagiarizations of the melodies of the popular Bombay and Madras theatre. The Sri Lankan drums were still being played for the devils and temple rituals in villages. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, who lived in Sri Lanka for a brief period, recounts in his memoir, that once on his way to a party he stopped fascinated by the drum rhythms coming from a ritual being performed in a temple. He arrived late for the party and when the host inquired why, Neruda said he was listening to some local music on the way. ‘Do the natives have music?’ a chorus of English voices queried with undisguised amusement. Poetry, the one art form with a fine classical tradition in Sinhala going back over eight hundred years of unbroken development, languished in forms and metres, idioms and imagery, too archaic and out-of-step with the times. It must be mentioned here, that the lack of seriousness, depth, and creative vigour in the arts during this period was mostly evident in the newer forms of expression like the novel and the proscenium theatre, both coming from the west, with strong middle-class roots, and fashioned in the aesthetics of European realism.

It was only in the third decade of the twentieth century, in Sri Lanka, that the westernized ruling elite of the country began to participate in the cultural regeneration in a meaningful manner, introducing a new sophistication to the task. The first symptom in this trend appeared in 1929. In that year, Charles Jacob Peiris, a man who had grown up in England from his twelfth year, gone to Tonbridge School in Kent, and graduated from Cambridge as a lawyer, but gave that up to study western classical music at the Royal College of Music, London, and who on his return home had taken the name Devar Surya Sena, gave a concert to the elite of Colombo society. Let me quote from his Book Of Sri Lanka I Sing.

A concert was arranged at the Royal College Hall in 1929. Dad was then presiding over the legislative Council and had been knighted. It was a large and distinguished audience that gathered for the Recital. The Chief Justice was there. So were many of Dad’s political colleagues and top civil servants. The audience, Ceylonese and European thoroughly enjoyed the programme. Italian operatic arias, French, German, and English songs, comprised the first part. In the second part, for the first time in history, Sinhala folk songs, ballads and Vannams were sung to a public audience in Colombo. Next day I hit the headlines. The Press credited me with re-discovering the forgotten art of Sinhala. Dad and Mummy were happy to hear the compliments paid by their English friends. I think, in spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career to take to music, they were proud of me that night

Thirty years later, Charles Jacob Peries alias Devar Surya Sena’s kinsman of a younger generation, Lester.

James Peries, was to repeat the same adventure in a slightly different and a more dramatic context. Now I am jumping ahead. Let me get back to the passage quoted above. In the cosmetics of the society reflected in that autobiographical passage one feels the anglicized environment. What is significant though is that in those times, there was a man who would present in the same programme, Italian operatic arias and Sinhala Vannams, and there were people who could appreciate the act. I do not believe that it was opa pathika. It was symptomatic of a larger socio-cultural turn in our history. Two years before Devar Surya Sena sang Sinhala folk songs at the Royal College Hall to an elite audience, Rabindranath Tagore had visited Ceylon, and given a recital at the YMBA. Devar Surya Sena himself, had sung the Nepali folk song ‘Rani Banai Ma’ and a Sinhala Nadagam song to the accompaniment of the Sarangi at a programme of Indian music presented by the BBC in 1928. He was then studying music at the Webber-Douglas School in London.

In 1932, Devar Surya Sena composed a Sinhala Liturgy for the Anglican Church based on the Gajaga Vannama, a traditional melody sung to the accompaniment of Kandyan drums for the dance, which simulates the movement of the elephant. Let me quote again from Devar Surya Sena’s Book:

The choir sang it beautifully. The accompaniment was supplied by Oriental instruments only: tampura, dilruba, Kandyan drums, and talampata - hand cymbals. At the end of the service people came out of Church beaming with joy. I asked one fine looking old man dressed in cloth and coat, hair combed back and tied in a knot, whether he liked the music. He looked at me with a light in his eyes and said: Eh sangeethay ahunama mage papuwa evilenda patangaththa. When I heard that music my heart began to burn. I had a lump in my throat.

Another person, in a different place at a different time, felt the same lump in his throat. Another Sri Lankan from the same social milieu as Devar Surya Sena came from, sang a Sinhala song at a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London. The year was 1949. The song was Olu Pipeela, a melody as central to our collective musical experience, as ‘Ol`ED Man River’ is to the Americans, as simple and as perfectly sculptured, and composed by Sunil Shantha, who beginning in the early forties and for a brief period of seven years repeated in Sri Lanka the Tagorean experiment of creating a musical idiom based on the phonetics of language. At the Wigmore Hall concert it was sung by a western- trained Sri Lankan, Hubert Rajapaksa. In the audience was Lester James Peries, a young journalist who had settled down snugly into a groove in London. Lester has recalled the heady magic of that moment with me many a time. ‘It was a call from home, and something responded from deep within my conscience’, he told me recently after we had attended a Sunil Shantha Memorial. I believe, and this is myself speaking, that music is the most atavistic of all art forms.

Lester James Peries had left home immediately after the war. His entire upbringing had prepared him for this voyage. For young people of his social milieu, England was their surrogate motherland. Nineteenth century Bengal provides the most striking symbol of this Anglophilia. Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, the brilliant yet erratic poet of the early phase of the Bengali Renaissance, longed for ‘Albion’s distant shore, Where man in all his truest glory lives/And nature’s face is exquisitely sweet:/For those fair climes I heave the impatient sigh/There let me live and there let me die.

Lester himself is a fine writer of English prose, and if he wrote in verse, Dutt’s poem would have been easily his. Like Dutt, Lester too returned. And both had something to return to. Dutt returned to a Calcutta in the high noon of its Tagorean glory. Lester returned on the eve of a glorious dawn of Sri Lanka’s cultural awakening. But there was something more here. Lester James Peruse, when he left the shores of home, carried with him a baggage, which contained the spirit of that cultural synthesis first announced by Devar Surya Sena, and continued by a brilliant galaxy of painters who emerged in the early forties. George Keyt, Justin Deraniyagala, and Lester’s own brother, Ivan, were the stars of the Group of ‘43 and they set the standard not only for painting, but also for art and culture in general. Though drawn from the social elite, there was in them a missionary zeal to probe into the heart and soul of their country. The epicentre of that cultural frenzy was a remarkable man. Of him Pablo Neruda speaks thus:

I found out that the pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.

More than once have I heard Lester pay tribute to Lionel Wendt as having been his guide and mentor. It was Wendt who brought the Kandyan drums to the Colombo concerts, and one has only to see the brilliant Documentary, Song of Ceylon, scripted and narrated in his deep and melliflous voice, to feel the depth of his commitment to what Neruda refers to as, a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon’. Lester’s early formative years were spent in this heady atmosphere

All this may have been lying dormant in young Lester James Peries’s sub-conscious to be re-activated by the haunting melody of Sunil Shantha’s song, when he heard it ‘in those fair climes’ where like the Bengali poet, he had gone to ‘live and die.’ He came back, and he came back to a country where there was tremendous cultural activity, now in the vernacular stream to which he never belonged. Lionel Wendt was dead, and the Group of ‘43 had scattered. The void had been ably filled by Sarachchandra and Martin Wickremasingha, who had guided the Sinhala cultural establishment towards a greater sophistication and artistic maturity. The two worlds met on equal terms when Sarachchandra’s pathbreaking theatrical exercise, Maname, was staged at the Lionel Wendt Memorial Theatre to a predominantly middle class audience. Regi Siriwardena, the pre-eminent critical mind expressing itself in English was the medium through which the English educated middle classes understood and appreciated what was happening in the other world, a world where a new generation had grown up in a bi-lingual twilight and where Martin Wickremasingha, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, and a second generation consisting of Gunadasa Amarasekara and G. B. Senanayaka were writing works of great literary sophistication. If the play Maname was the first tryst between these two worlds, Gamperaliya, the film was the second. It should be noted here that in both instances the communions were through works which were primarily, non-linguistic, or as in the case of Maname, through an exercise which depended more on music and movement than on language. Lester’s choice of a medium which transcended language is perfectly consistent with the choice of his predecessors of the ‘43 Group, who would have felt the need to communicate visually in order to overcome their inadequacies in the vernacular, a handicap imposed upon them by socio-political circumstances.

Time does not permit me to let these reflections take their course. This is not the occasion for such an exercise. All what I wanted to say was that Lester was no accident, no meteor which appeared from nowhere to light up the silver screen in this country. He was no opa pathika, but the successor as well as the logical result of a cultural regeneration that is yet to run its course.

Phillip Cooray’s epithet, The Lonely Artist, echoes partially Sarachchandra’s concept of Opa Pathika. Both are misleading in that they have failed or refused to lay bare the socio-political circumstances within which Lester Peries emerged. To me he is one of the most powerful factors guiding us towards that synthesis we seek between our colonial heritage and our traditional culture. By opting to work within a medium of popular culture like the cinema, for whatever reasons, he has made his life’s mission all the more difficult and sometimes even traumatic. I say this because, film, by its very nature is populist, and it resists attempts at serious social observation, constantly pressurizes the artist to compromise, and to enlist himself in the vulgarizing service of cultural politics. Ashis Nandy, in his essay titled, An Intelligent Critic’s Guide to Indian Cinema, poses this problem in an advisory tone, which I find unacceptable. However, since he underlines a problem central to film-makers like Lester James Peries who work within an underdeveloped film culture which prevails in South-Asia, I shall quote:

Both art, cinema and the middle cinema.... .avoid facing this changed politics of culture and the newer concerns and anxieties of society. As a result, such cinema is often constrained to survive in India on institutional patronage and subsidy, depending on the Indian State to underwrite its social status, and lamenting at every opportunity the aesthetic immaturity, political crudity and non-critical consciousness of Indian cinema goers. This dependence on the political establishment for survival and significance can only increase over time unless the makers of art films and middle cinema fundamentally re-examine the politics of a culture of which they have become willy-nilly a part’

The cinema of Lester James Peries, and that of his illustrious Indian counterpart Satyajit Ray and of those who follow in their path was never as dependent on state subsidy as Mr. Nandy maintains they have. Even at a time when the commanding heights of the economy were state-controlled, which was the time this parallel cinema began - in the fifties - these films were the result of an intense desire to be truthful, to make the movie camera move like a paintbrush capturing the reality through the lens of a personal vision. The state does not patronize such creative acts, unless it can turn them into political mileage. I am speaking out of personal experience, both as filmmaker and temporarily as a policy maker. In that sense, filmmakers of the calibre of Lester Peries could be aptly called ‘lonely artists.’ But aren’t all artists lonely? Isn’t that why they are unique? However, in the final reckoning they are the ones who matter, the ones who make life a little more bearable, a little more pleasant, and a little more meaningful.

This opens a whole new area for me to deal with, but I must stop now, and that to me is a problem. Where and how do I stop? Let me do so arbitrarily, by referring to Lester James Peries’ last film, Wekande Walauwa, which roughly translated could mean Manor by the Lake. It is a film I have come to like enormously. I like it not because in it Lester seems to have achieved a marvellous synthesis of the thematic strands evident in his earlier work, I admire the film not also because in it the filmmaker has reached a naked austerity and simplicity of artistic expression - the pursuit of which has been the dominant motif of his cinema. I would go beyond to justify my appreciation.

Wekanda Walauwa, is both manifesto and epitaph of and for a social class, a set of values, and a cultural ethos that died hard over the preceding five decades, and to which Lester Peries, by circumstances of birth and education was heir. The genesis of these social strata was in the rising mercantilism of nineteenth century Ceylon. I quote from a quote at the beginning of Kumari Jayawardena’s wonderful book, Nobodies to Somebodies. The quote is credited to a Wesleyan Priest, Rev. Spencer Hardy, writing in 1864.

One native gentleman, leaving the old nirvana of inactivity and the betel bag has erected an extensive coffee store at Colombo, with an engine and all other appliances on the most approved model and thus sets an example of enterprise to his countrymen well worthy of other imitation.

This transition from betel bag to coffee store is brilliantly documented in Kumari Jayawardena’s book. Lester Peries’s ancestry goes back to those enterprising Nobodies who became Somebodies beginning from mid-nineteenth century, much to the chagrin of an earlier aristocracy represented by the Mudliyars of the Goyigama caste. If the children of the new bourgeoisie - the Nobodies who became Somebodies, were subject to a process of anglicization through education at English county schools and universities, it was their progeny who in turn led the search for their lost roots, in the second phase of the national re-awakening. But by then the Somebodies had become or were fast becoming Nobodies again. As Lester James Peries was working deep inside pastoral Sri Lanka, in a village in the Kegalle district, filming Rekawa, the Somebodies were living the last moments of their charmed existence in spacious drawing rooms where the Chesterfield suites were already paling with the mildew of decay. The future talents of the next generation of this society were in their teens already packing their bags to leave, to sing the songs of exile from faraway, like Michael Ondaatje and Yasmine Gooneratna. A new wave of Nobodies was building up to lash the shore. As the Mother and Daughter hold hands and walk down the stairway of their ancestral home, now sold and bare, in Wekanda Walauwa, it is a walk of no return. But something else bothers me here. The Mother and Daughter are going away to London. Or rather returning to ‘the shores of Albion where they are domiciled’ If the exiles returned home in the first phase, has the process become reversed today?

Lester James Peries who was called back home by the strains of a Sinhala song to join the ranks of those who were leading a cultural renaissance, now portrays the reversal of that process exactly half a century later in his last film. In this he has mirrored with unerring accuracy the shifting reality of our cruel beloved motherland. For having accomplished that task through the deeply troubled times we are living in, a nation I am certain, would be deeply grateful.


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