The Lost Song of the Lotus Child
"He sat down and wrote
on the reflective wall
plainly of things we could see
With no nectar in the sound
No quicksilver at the core
It can’t be poetry."
Reconstruction of a Sigiri Graffito by Murphy Richards.
"The Mirror Wall"
by Tissa Abeysekara
Continued from last week
Amarasekara’s poetry in the aftermath of his ‘metamorphosis’ was marked by some startling experiments in reworking the prosody and metric forms of the folk tradition. His wonderful ballads, and lyric pieces, in the collection Amal Biso, restored to Sinhala poetry some of its lost oral charm, and spawned two generations of imitators. However no one could match the heightened poetry in these pieces, which always gleamed under the marble arches of rigorous metric form. In his narrative poem, Gurulu Vatha, he reworked the popular folk-ballad form with a lean and spare elegance of verbal structure, a model once again widely imitated, but never surpassed or even equaled.
But it is in his Avarjana, that Amarasekara reaches full bloom as a modern poet. What though is relevant here, is not so much the poetic value of this marvellous collection, but the attempt by the poet to carve a poetic diction out of the rhythms and expressions of contemporary speech. The first steps in this search for a simpler, more colloquial voice and timbre, for Sinhala poetry, could be found even in the earliest poetry of Amarasekara, written when he was still a major star in the Peradeniya firmament.
Bhava Geetha, written in 1955, contains some pieces where the poet draws freely from the fund of the spoken word. Even though the lyrical phrasing is wrought from the pastoral idiom of the southern village familiar to Amarasekara, and may not be a complete answer to the need for a more urbane diction, some pieces in Bhava Geetha, come readily to mind as the first successful attempts at singing in a new voice. ‘The Carter’s Song’ (Andura Ape Dukha Nivavi), ‘The Ode to Rain’ (Vessa), ‘A Streak of the Sun’ (Hiru Res Dahara), are both, examples of fine poetry, and pioneering exercises, conducted with a complete awareness of what poetic diction should necessarily be.
Now, almost three decades after those poems were written, it may seem, Amarasekara has abandoned his quest, and resorted like Sarachchandra, to a backward leap. Could this be another confirmation that the Sinhala language in its present adulterated state has lost its sonar capacity to provide a serious poet with the high frequencies necessary to convey heightened emotion? Or could this be a misreading of Amarasekara’s latest poem, Asakda Kava, which should be seen, not as a breach in the poet’s search for the lost voice of the Sinhala muse, but as a significant phase in its continuation? These are serious questions, and cannot be answered simply. Here we come to the second of our concerns, and it is one of poetics.
At the heart of Sinhala poetry and consistent throughout its long history and troubled evolution, there is a deep division. It is something similar, perhaps, to the Leavisian breakdown of English poetry, referred to by Regi Siriwardena in his brilliantly lucid and concise monograph, The Pure Water of Poetry. It is a clear line running between, ‘the great tradition of Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Pope, the later Keats, Hopkins, Eliot’ as explained by Siriwardena, and the ‘lesser tradition - the line of Spencer, Milton, the early Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Swinburne." The difference is marked by ‘a verbal density, rich metaphorical life, keen sensuous intensity" on one side and a ‘poetry of facile verbal melody, diffusion and imprecision of language, images that were decorative rather than organic’ on the other.
However, in the division in Sinhala poetry of the classical mode, it is the great tradition that stands incriminated, under the scrutiny of modern criticism, of the aesthetic flaws of, ‘facile verbal melody’ and other inorganic decorative motifs. The lesser tradition, after centuries of institutional discrimination, has been resurrected, especially through the sweeping critical surveys of Martin Wickremasinghe (Read, Chapter III in Sinhala Sahityaye Negeema - ‘The Evolution of Sinhala Literature’). It was Wickremasinghe who led the rediscovery of the spare classical purity and integrity of form in Guttila Kavya, as against the overdressed metaphorical affluence of Kavsilumina ‘The Crest Gem of Poetry’, still considered by some as the supreme achievement of classical Sinhala verse. It was he who laid bare the grace and the charm of the Sinhala folk tradition and made us listen to its simple patterns of verbal melody. (Amarasekara dedicates his pioneering effort in reworking these metric forms and rhythms of common speech, Amal Biso, to Martin Wickremasinghe, for initiating him into the pleasures of Sinhala folk poetry)
Wickremasinghe’s critical wrath was directed with no reservation at the three earliest extant works of classical Sinhala verse, Muvadev Dava, Sasa Dava, and Kavsilumina. To him they were crude imitations of Sanskrit models, totally devoid of organic integrity, hollow duplicates which in the final reckoning, is bad poetry. His observations, made as far back as 1946, when the poems, which came under his scrutiny were considered holy icons beyond reproach, would have infuriated the Oriental scholars at the time. The three chapters on classical Sinhala poetry in his monumental survey of Sinhala literature, Sinhala Sahityaye Negeema, remained the authoritative statement on the subject, until Amarsekara developed it into a more comprehensive discourse with his Sinhala Kavya Sampradaya (The Tradition of Sinhala Verse).
The strand in Sinhala poetry, decreed as the ‘lesser tradition’ - chula sampradha - by the Oriental gurus, became, largely due to the work of Wickremasinghe, the major source of inspiration for Amarasekara and his generation and for those who followed. However reading through his dissertation on Sinhala poetry, one gets the feeling that Amarasekara is after something which lies beyond the simple and orthodox division of the ‘great tradition’ and the ‘lesser tradition’. The search seems to be for a poetic mode wherein the linguistic, metrical, and prosodic elements are seamlessly fused. Amarasekara seems to have found such an integrity in the splintered fragments of the original Asakda Kava. His first impressions are of the spare elegance of language, and (arising out of that) a simplicity of melodic line and architecture.
Paranavitana, in his study of the Sigiri Poems, observes similar qualities in the verses scribbled by anonymous poets on the mirror wall; these verses seem to draw from the common template of poetic sensibility and diction, that Amarasekara is after. It is a sensibility far more restrained than the sensuality and sonorous music of Sanskrit poetry. Paranavitana describes this restraint as ‘refinement’ and ‘good taste’. It would be more correct to conclude that it is a result of the spartan ethic of Theravada Buddhism. It is an austere simplicity that one finds consistently in Sinhala folk poetry. To confirm Amarasekara’s contention, that this unadorned, bare simplicity, has its ancestry in a poetic tradition, current as far back as the sixth century AD - the time when the Sigiri verses were first scribbled, and the original Asakda Kava may have been composed - a random sample from the mirror wall would suffice.
Asimi dun hasun - hasun se vil dut
Mula la ma sanahi - pul piyuman se bamar dut.
‘A fluttering swan who has seen a lake, was me,
As I listened to thy message,
And my bewildered heart, a crazed bee
Who has seen the lotus flowers in full bloom’ (tr. by the writer)
As I attempted to translate the original into English, I realized it would be impossible to convey in another language, the sound patterns in the Sinhala verse. The repetition of the word hasun, to convey two different meanings - the first is ‘message’ and the second means ‘swan’ - draws on a rich plurality of meaning in Sinhala, and imparts to the poem a delicate sibilance, perfectly in tune with the sentiments expressed; the expression ‘The lotus flowers in full bloom’ can never convey the sexuality inherent in the combined syllabic chord of the Sinhala expression, pul piyuman; and the English word ‘bee’ bleaches completely the full bodied resonance of the Sinhala, ‘bamar’ which practically vibrates with the mating cry of the creature it simulates so perfectly.
Amarasekara, having traced and identified this poetic diction for which he claims an indigenous root, wrought and honed in the Theravada Buddhist ethic of ascetic simplicity, now attempts, to link it firmly with a poetic form, which though coming from Sanskrit prosody, seems to have reached its peak of expressive power within the canvas of Sinhala verse.
Of the 687 verses on the Mirror Wall deciphered by Paranavitana, over 650, are in a two-line stanza form, referred to as Gee, in Sinhala poetry. Due to its wide application by the Sigiri poets, Paranavitana, in his introduction, goes into an exhaustive study of this form. Some of his conclusions, arrived at, more through the clinical approach of the most outstanding archaeological mind of our times, and therefore more acceptable in academic terms than aesthetic conjecture, do synchronize perfectly, with the views expressed by Amarasekara. (I do not rule out the possibility here of Amarasekara drawing inspiration from Paranavitana’s scholarship on the subject, first published a few years before the poet embarked on his historic search. I must add however, that Amarasekara’s views never struck me as being intellectual affectation; to me they were the genuine feelings of a poet in search of a voice, and his poetry, bears this out)
Independence of idiom
The veteran archaeologist, sifting through all evidence with the meticulous care of one digging up the past, first concludes that the Gee form, though originating in Sanskrit poetry, acquired greater importance and independence of idiom in Sri Lanka. He maintains (Sigiri Graffiti/Intro/ #597), that the difference between metres within the generic form of Gee may not be as sharp and clear cut as in Sanskrit, Geethi, from which the local version descends. He also points out that the definition given to this form in the Graffiti, differs from the definition given in the Elu Sandas Lakuna, the Sinhala text on poetics based on a Sanskrit original. He firmly rules, that a Gee, within the context of local poetry, ‘must be treated as formed of two and only two metrical lines’ as against the definitions in Esl. (SG/Intro/ # 573), where the term is applied to both the couplet and the quatrain as in Sanskrit.
Again, Paranavitana says, ‘that in the early stages of Sinhala verse, the Gee form enjoyed undisputed supremacy, but in the following centuries, it was overtaken by Sivupada (quatrain)’. (SG/Intro/ # 577) The Sandesa poems, beginning with Mayura Sandesaya, in the fourteenth century, were written essentially in the Sivupada form. The most important point made and substantiated forcefully by Paranavitana, is that the Gee form is free of metric rigidity, and gives free play for the poetic imagination. He lays much emphasis on this laxity of metric discipline, reflected in the Sigiri compositions, and there is a note of approval here.
‘A pada, is that much of a line in a Gee, which can be recited without a pause - caesura (yati). The rhythm of a pada in a Gee need not be the same as that of another - and so with length. This irregularity is the keynote of the Gee metres, but it is an irregularity which should create a pleasing sound effect’. (SG/Intro/#594)
Paranavitana also draws our attention to certain poetic values as reflected in the Sigiri Poems, both in the poetry itself as well as in certain comments within some poems. I began this article, using as epigram, a rephrasing of a Sigiri poem by Richard Murphy. I would like at this point to revert to the original translation by Paranavitana on which Murphy has based his poem. I do so because, in Paranavitana’s near paraphrasing of the original Sinhala verse, the meaning is clinically bared.
He thinks he wrote a poem,
But isn’t this an empty song?
Writing his impressions,
Just as he saw them. (Sigiri Graffiti/Verse. # 492)
To describe something as seen is not poetry says this anonymous versifier, alluding to an intertextual template, which governed his craft in those days. What then was considered poetry? Here Paranavitana goes into a long discourse on two schools of poetry that existed then. It was a debate conducted strictly within the canon of Sanskrit poetics, and the issue was between Svabhavokthi and Vakrokthi. The first, advocated a simple bare diction, to portray things as they are. The second was for the orthodox ‘cultured’ poetic diction, with its ornate figures, where ‘implied meaning’ - vakrokthi - was the soul.
Bhamaha, the great Sanskrit guru of poetics, was scornful of the ‘naturalist’ school, and called such poetry mere varta - reportage. He referred contemptuously to such poets, ‘who can do nothing but compose jati - as numerous as the dogs who bark from every house’. Mahimbatta, the guru from the opposite camp, maintained, in a spirited defence of Svabhavokthi, ‘that it is a description bringing out the very soul - svalakshana, the thing itself - of any object which the intuition of the poet grasps’. (SG/Intro/#636) In a comparative judgement of these two schools of poetics, Paranavitana, for the first, and perhaps the only time, puts his foot wrong. He slips, not due to any partiality to any one side - there is no shift in his cool objective stance - but because of a fatally wrong reading of the concept of Savabhavokthi, which he confuses with the western idea of ‘naturalism’. This misconception leads him to another.
Repository of knowledge
In Sanskrit poetics, there is an adage that may sound strange today, if read out of its original context. It lays down the condition, ‘that the language of the poet should not be that of the uncultivated man of the village’. In the ancient world, the city, was the repository of knowledge, the centre from where all culture radiated, where the king ruled from. The village was the primitive backwater, the forest-ridden wilderness, or the wasteland where life was nasty, brutish and short. Here no Valmiki or Homer ever sang, no Socrates, no Kautilya, ever preached. To extract a rule from such a context and apply it to ancient Sri Lanka, where the temple in the village was the font of all knowledge and wisdom (most of the Sigiri poets were from villages identifiable even today and from rural monasteries), and the city was only a holy centre, and never one of secular wealth, could be disastrous.
But this was precisely what Paranavitana has done. The facile confrontation of ‘urban sophistication against rural rusticity’ and the total misreading of Svabhavokthi, are both applied in evaluating the poetry in Sigiri verses. Thus, into the centre of Paranavitana’s towering achievement, there falls the shadow of a tragic mistake. In failing to see that Svabhavokthi, even as propounded by the Sanskrit gurus, was not bland reportage, but a poetic attitude, a figure - alamkara, where the intuition of the poet - the gift of prathibha, reveals the inner essence of the real world - the prakurthi, the great explorer was denied a glimpse of the verbal radiance in the poems he was deciphering, with, what is now accepted as an act of legendary scholarship.
The elements Paranavitana revealed in the Sigiri poems, and the last one he missed in them, are the virtues integral to that poetic tradition Amarasekara was trying to unearth. In re-inventing the lost masterpiece, he was attempting to give concrete form to those values. Within this context, his ‘backward longing’ is integral to the main focus of his search. If Sarachcandra retreated to past forms, it was to the Maha Sampradha, the great tradition rooted in Sanskrit aesthetics. Amarasekara is essentially in search of a more local voice. However, both were forced back, in my opinion, by the inadequacies of the Sinhala language, in its contemporary form. And that is my major concern.
Whilst paying my tribute to the poet-scholar in Gunadasa Amarasekara, I would sound the alarm of my central concern all over again. Could the language of Asakda Kava, with all the poetic charms it embodies, and so full of ‘the pure water of poetry’ (the unforgettable phrase quoted by Regi Siriwardena from Ian Jack, quoted in turn according to Regi, by his English Professor, Lyn Ludowyke in describing a particular quality in the poetry of early Wordsworth, and the full line being ‘The glass seems empty, because it is so full of pure water’) sing to us today? Shouldn’t there be a rearrangement of the orchestra to create another sound, perhaps not as sweet as in the song of the lotus child, but more robust and more relevant? If the Sinhala language has, in the degenerating years of the last half a century, lost its texture, its timbre, and its soul-music, couldn’t you at least, dear poet, recharge it, or strain the water of its impurities, and make it sparkle once again? You are working at a height, few Sinhala writers in our time have ever reached. It must be pretty lonely up there. But you must continue to sing.
May the rain girls of the lion rock, keep you company.
This piece is my homage, to Regi Siriwardena - the greatest
critical mind in Sri Lanka of our time - who guided me, to the higher levels
of poetry, and poetics.
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