A Total Scholar’s Controversial Essays


by H. L. Seneviratne

Review of Ariya Rajakaruna’s Vivadatmaka Puvat Pat Lipi. (Godage Publishers, 2009)

Professor Ariya Rajakaruna, the author of this volume, is one of those rare academicians completely dedicated to scholarship, with no other interest to distract him, a fact to which his voluminous output of very high quality bears testimony. It is in this sense that I call him a total scholar. As the title suggests, this volume brings together articles previously published in the Sinhala press, the Silumina, Irida Divayina, Dinamina, Lakbima, Irudina, Ravaya and Sarasaviya. The articles, dealing with diverse topics nevertheless focus on a single theme, the malaise afflicting the contemporary Sinhala language and literature. As a portrait in contrast, the reader is treated to a glimpse into the vibrant world of Japanese literature through the lens of one particular genre, the screenplay, which in turn gives us a glimpse into the Japanese cinema.

Professor Rajakaruna’s prognosis is not a happy one: in fact it is alarming, because he is predicting the prospect of our language disappearing from the face of the earth by the end of the present century. The essays discuss the symptoms of the malaise: the failure of linguists, despite the presence of modern linguistics for over half a century, to come up with a standard Sinhala for our times, although the need for one had been periodically verbalised; the idea of staging a tradition-based Sinhala play in English translation; an assessment of the poetry and fiction of Gunadasa Amarasekera; the baffling replacement, by the education authorities, of a good tenth grade language and literature textbook with a bad one; and many more.

On the question of a standard Sinhala, Professor Rajakaruna tells us that a standard modern Sinhala should be based on contemporary usage. However, forms held to be derivatively flawless continue to be used by many contemporary scholars, and that despite the standard grammar Sidat Sangarava’s oft quoted injunction vaharanu seren sapaya, "follow usage". In contrast, the early twentieth century scholar Mudliyar W.F.Gunawardena in the introduction to his renowned edition of the Guttila Kavya expresses the view that it is unscientific and improper to use forms held to be derivatively correct if a variant form is in widespread usage. Professor Rajakaruna hails this as a progressive statement and pours scorn on those who today, a century after Mudliyar Gunawardena, yet insist that ancient usage alone is the correct usage. Agreeing with Professor Rajakaruna, one might mention here that linguistic orthodoxy is a form of cultural orthodoxy, and like the latter, can often be an elitist attempt to preserve status, privilege and hegemony.

Commenting on the idea of performing a tradition based Sinhala play in English translation, Professor Rajakaruna questions the need for such an exercise. Is it a meaningful exercise to perform a play in its original form in a foreign language? Here we have a foretaste of a discussion to come: the screenplay as literature. Kalidasa’s Sakuntala was translated into several European languages, but for reading purposes, the author tells us, and not for performance. On the other hand original foreign language plays, like the Japanese Kabuki and Noh, are staged in the west, but in their original language, not in translation. As a meaningful exception to this, the author cites the staging of Dayananda Gunawardena’s delightful Nari Bana (The Jackal Son-in-law) in Germany, in German. The difference is that the German text was not a direct translation but an adaptation, giving the play an entirely different interpretation. Whereas in the Sinhala original, folk sentiment dominates and the jackal son-in-law is chased away very much to the laughter of the audience, in the German adaptation, audience attention is drawn to the plight of the jackal as the unrequited lover, transforming the light farce of the Sinhala into a tragedy in the adaptation.

In his discussion of the work of our best known novelist and poet Dr Gunadasa Amarasekera, Professor Rajakaruna points to the freshness of Amarasekera’s early work, both poetry and fiction. Later, embracing the culture based criticism of Martin Wickremasinghe, Amarasekera denounced his own work and launched on a literary journey that defined poetry and fiction narrowly, as ideally rooted in a mystical indigenous-ness that he and his fellow travellers have labeled Jatika Cintanaya. Thenceforth Amarasekera’s critical standard seems to be an ill defined "indigenous-ness" with value placed on literary work that reflects a society asserting its identity in relation to foreign (i.e., western) modes of life and thought, and its indigenous elites gaining political ascendancy.

Amarasekera here is up to nothing less than prescribing and promoting a single conception of fiction and poetry as the one right path for literary development, with disastrous results not only to literature but also to the society, because it misleads readers, especially the youth, and blunts its talent. This is evident in the poor quality of the contemporary literary output. Amarasekera’s is a hegemonic theory of literature harbouring no dissent and making no room for humanity’s natural diversity. Like the sermonic novels of Piyadasa Sirisena, the post self-denunciation Amarasekera novels are a mere vehicle to promote the jatika cintana ideas, with monotony as their principal feature. As an admirer of Amarasekara’s early work, I can fully agree with Professor Rajakaruna’s verdict that Amarasekera has failed to keep his promise, and will loose his readership as did Piyadasa Sirisena and John de Silva over half a century before him.

Focusing on the causes that underlie the literary and linguistic malaise, Professor Rajakauna points out the ironic fact that the Sinhala novel, and literature in general including scholarly literature, were thriving under colonial rule when Sinhala was neither the state language nor the medium of instruction in schools. All three modes of education in the island, the Sinhala, English and the Pirivena, imparted high quality instruction and reached substantial achievements. It is this system of education that nurtured the greatest scholars and writers of recent times, like James de Alwis, Hikkaduve Sumangala, Munidasa Kumaratunga, D.B.Jayatilake, Senarat Paranavitana, E.W.Adikaram, Rapiyel Tennakoon, and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. As a continuation of this, during the period between the 1940s and the early 1970s, a relatively dynamic and self-perpetuating educational and literary culture had come into being. The indispensable economic foundation of this culture was a dedicated reading public with a thirst for reading, or the "reading habit". The changes in educational policy whose effects were beginning to be felt in the 1970s, but rooted in the unwise policies going back to the nationalist regime of 1956, brought an end to this literary and educational culture. Professor Rajakaruna provides telling statistics that show the dramatic decline in the numbers of the reading public that demanded quality writing, preventing publishers from publishing quality books. While Professor Rajakaruna does not go out of his way to identify the abandonment of the English medium as the main culprit in the extinction of a valuable educational and literary culture rooted in the reading habit, the direction of his argument leaves no doubt as to that is exactly what he means.

In this context it is pertinent to mention a recent article by Dr Usvatte in which he, while making a case for the Central School, talks about the indispensability of the reading habit for a healthy system of education, and indeed one might argue, for a healthy society. He mentions that rural children came to central schools from homes with uneven exposure to books and reading, and the central school hostel provided an environment conducive to the reading habit for children without prior access to such an environment. Since the children had thorough exposure to English in its capacity as the medium of instruction, the majority of them developed remarkable competence in the language, while also gradually internalizing the reading habit. In another plus, the central school children both by virtue of their home background and curricular study, were proficient in Sinhala, giving rise to arguably the most significant creative social force of modern times, bilingualism.

The reading habit presumes the availability of books, in particular those that can hold the attention of young minds, and belonging to both literary and non-literary genres. The Sinhala language is deficient in such a literature while English is stacked with an abundance of it. Thus, a policy that would have been in the national interest would have been to continue teaching in the English medium while making sure that the children received substantial exposure to the national languages. Such a policy, for which a solid foundation was already in place, would have fostered the reading habit and the kind of colourful literary culture that had a fleeting existence in the decades between 1940 and 1970. Teaching in the English medium would have also ensured a broad and cosmopolitan education that would have acted as an antidote to ethnic, religious and other forms of parochialism, as indeed it did in the late colonial decades, and right up to the enforcement of the 1956 policies.

That was not to be, and Professor Rajakaruna is eloquent on the consequences of that not to be. He refers to a recent survey showing that school children read no books other than the prescribed texts. The reading habit has fled not just the children, but their teachers as well. Elaborating further, he tells us that even undergraduates show little interest in reading, and it is rare to find among undergraduates even a single addicted to reading. Lecture notes have so replaced reading that university education can fairly be described as based on lecture notes alone. It seems as if, according to Professor Rajakaruna, that even those who take to post graduate study are not habitual readers. It is thus no surprise that serious literature has no meaningful readership, and is not sustainable.

About one third of the present volume deals with the contrastive case of Japanese literature of which Professor Rajakaruna is an internationally known authority. In the interests of keeping down the length of this review, I will make only passing reference to this part of the book. I should however say that the essays are an excellent peephole into the world of Japanese literature, and they represent Professor Rajakaruna’s own personal saga of discovery of that world and his contribution to its popularization through internationally acclaimed translations and commentary. The focus in these essays, as already mentioned, is not Japanese literature as such, but one specific genre, the screenplay, a unique Japanese contribution to world literature and the art of the cinema.

It is part of the ABC of the theory of the film and standard first statement in the textbooks on the cinema that it is an essentially visual art form. It is on this fundamental premise that the cinema evolved and its greatest triumphs achieved. Interestingly enough it is on the inspiration of aspects of Japanese culture, in particular the Kabuki theatre and the technique of the Japanese pictographic script, that the visuality of the film, and the dynamic aspect of that visuality known as montage, were defined as the cinematic essence by the founding, and still the greatest theorist of the film, Sergei Eisenstein. It is then indeed ironic that the Japanese film has, as one of its unique and distinguishing features the screenplay, which is a literary work, meant to be read (or heard) and not seen.

This subversion of the visual, ostensibly detractive, has not only had not detracted from the power of the Japanese film, it has instead enhanced it. Besides, the screenplay which in cinematic orthodoxy is part and parcel of the film as a finished product, emerges in Japanese cinematic practice as a detachable object, assuming a life of its own as an autonomous literary work to be read and enjoyed as such, and if desired, used as an enhancive prop for enjoying the film, thereby making a distinctively Japanese contribution to the art of the film. We can also see here a resonance of the Japanese theatre connoisseur’s practice of studying the text of a play before seeing it, and indeed carrying the text to the performance so that it could be consulted when necessary. The Japanese screenplay and its role in the cinema and cinematic culture is a fascinating example of how a universal art can get the stamp of a national identity, enriching both, and stands in contrast to the authoritarian imposition of a shallow and dubious conception of the indigenous on literary works.

In conclusion, I return to the defining term of Professor Rajakaruna’s title, Vivadatmaka (controversial). The book certainly will be, for those politicians and their cronies and ideologues, who I must add come from both national political parties, and who are responsible for the tragedy that the volume deals with, namely, the demolition of an excellent system of education and a related literary culture that would without doubt have been a sufficient foundation for building a happy and prosperous society. For all others, especially the victims of the shortsighted policy of abandoning English, the essays should pose no controversy at all.

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