Tissa - the outsider


By Ariyawansa Ranaweera

Tissa Abesekara who departed from us two years ago, was not a product of the orthodox academia. All along his creative life he remained and outsider; not an outsider, in the sense of Albert Camus’ novel Le stranger, where the main character Marsueau is an introvert, a misanthrope, for whom the very existence was a meaningless burden. Tissa’s role as an outsider was more in line with characters depicted in Colin Wilson’s equally famous book with the same title - outsider. The characters of this book were dissidents who sprang from nowhere, and made indelible impressions on the social, political, religious and aesthetic spheres in their day and beyond.

The only orthodox moulding Tissa under went was his primary and secondary education, in one of our public schools; Pannipitiya Dharmmapala. But going by the accounts of his colleagues who were his class mates, even there he was not a typical obedient Golaya in the venerable Rahula’s Guru Sitha Noridawa sense. Even at school he was not bending down to the rule, but going after the exception. Many pranks he played there were early signs of his rebellious spirit. The confines of the class room, and learning by rote was not to his liking. The school library was his haven. The books in the library gave wings to his nascent imagination. The literary undertones which are evident in what ever creative work he undertook was the result of this early exposure. The sports ground where fanatic votaries, thrashed a leather ball day in an day out (Bernard Shaw in one of his famous witticisms said, if he gets a chance he will thrash this ‘silly’ ball out of the ground for ever) was not to his taste. He preferred the thrust and parry of the debating team; which honed his unsurpassed oratorical and debating skills. Even during these early days, he was exploring the subtle nuances of Ananda Samarakoon’s and Sunil Shantha’s melodies.

The critical turning point in his life was his failure to gain entrance to the University system, which was the only ladder for anyone, seeking upward mobility in the academic field. But with hind sight one can say that failure was his victory. That failure was a blessing in disguise; which prompted him to cut his own path, away from the limitation of orthodoxy. I have a sneaky feeling even if Tissa was able to enter the University, He would not have lasted the full period in that institution. The rigour, the narrow goals and the rigid regimen of the university environment would not have agreed with his free spirit. many are such luminaries, who had entered even such prestigious halls of learning as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, who gave up half way and blossomed forth after.

After this fateful event Tissa entered the vast and wide world; with no material foundation to fall back on, no fixed profession, no fixed aims but only his youthful exuberance, his unquenchable thirst for exploring new vistas, and most of all, the boundless self confidence in himself.

It was truly a bohemian life. But a bohemian life with a marked difference from typical wayward bohemians. Not a bohemian life with penchant for clannish waywardness. Not a bohemian life leading to nihilistic self destruction, with all the attendant wasteful excesses of such a life. He was an itinerant seeker after perfection. Perfection as a human being; perfection in the understanding of the world he was destined to live. He was searching this both within himself, and in others. That is the reason why he could not suffer fools. That critical dart he shot in the direction of Sandeshaya the film, by maestro Lester James Pieris while Tissa was a green horn was a typical example of this character trait of Tissa. No one was high and mighty for him in the search for truth. His tiff with another doyen of the era, Dr. Sarath Chandra about type of music that should be encouraged over the Radio Ceylon, is a another example of Tissa’s daring. This incident is very well narrated in his beautiful written ‘memoirs’ Roots Reflections and Reminiscence.

His association with like minded set of Bohemians is noteworthy. Sugathapala De Silva, Dharamasiri Wickramarathne, Prema Ranjith Thilakarathne, Ranjith Dharma kirthi, G. R. Perera, Wickrama Bogoda, Simon Nawagattegama, Neil I Perera, Siril B Perera, were prominent among them. Each one brilliant in his own domain. There haunts were British council library, American Center Library, The Cinema Theaters where both classical and Hollywood films were screened, the drama theaters and political meetings where the firebrands of the Marxists thundered. Their common meeting place was Lion house Bambalapitiya, where many a debate took place, hot arguments were the order of the day, many feathers were ruffled, many friendships were cemented over a bottle of beer. Usually these ‘symposiums’ continued, in to the wee hours of the following day in one of the participant’s crowded rented out rooms. The common denominator of all these free spirits was that they all came from outside the formal orthodox academia, except in few cases. all were self made men like Tissa. Infact their very boldness, and innovative spirit were honed by this fact.

What were the characteristics of the era, where Tissa’s formative years were forged? The 1956 Cultural Renaissance was in full swing. Enormous changes were taking place in the political firmament. The hitherto suppressed social forces were coming to the fore, and struggling to gain ascendency. The indigenous languages and their literatures were given new life after a long slumber. The newly awakened literati were searching for their roots, while being open to the fresh winds that were blowing from the four corners of the world. It was in to this vortex Tissa and his comrades plunged.

The cultural sphere was clearly dominated by the Peradeniya school, led by Dr. Sarath chandra with Prof. D E Hettiarachchi, Dr. Siri Gunasinghe, Ariya Rajakaruna, Dr. P E F Fernando forming the rear guard. Prof. Ludowyk, Dr. Passe and the like bringing in the influences of New Criticism in to the literary debate. But it was the diminutive Sarath chandra who was dominating the cultural scene like a colossus.

Taken in essence Sarathchandra’s cultural outlook was classical. His Kalpana Lokaya, Sahithya Vidyawa trying to bring in Sanskrit critical idiom, in to the evaluation of literary works. His forays in to drama, searching from ancient Sanskrit and Japanese tradition mixed with Nadagam tradition created a type of stylized drama. Except for some few, the followers spawned by Sarath chandra spirit were very docile Golaya’s with very little ingenuity. Most of them were Anthe vasikas in the true sense of the word. No noteworthy original work came forth from them.

It is as a counterweight to this the ‘angry young men’, (‘foremost among them Tissa’) who came from outside rose up in revolt. While appreciating what Sarath chandra was doing, they were not prepared to ape him blindly. Essentially what motivated them in to action was the ‘new bearings’ in the western cultural tradition. Ibsen, Checkov, Flaubert, Zola, Virginia Wolf, Stringberg, Oneil, Pirendello, Tennesie Williams, of the realistic, surrealistic, expressionistic, traditions were their peers. Eliot, Ezrapound, Auden and other imagists were their favourite poets. Their critical writings showed a marked resemblance to New criticism propounded by I A Richards and F R Leavis. Specially drama flourished with a new vigour in their hands. Their favourite philosophers were Henri Bergson, with his famous ‘ebullient’ life force philosophy, and Satre and Camus the existentialists. Politically they were imbued with the pervading spirit of Marxism.

Many were such influences to which Tissa was exposed. While imbibing what was salutary from all these sources, Tissa remained his own solitary figure. He was not attached any of the Guru kulas prevalent then as now. He remained the eternal outsider with an incisive, penetrating insight into what was happening around him.

This is how Tissa the dissident Marxist, Tissa the arts and drama critic, Tissa the novelist, Tissa the film maker par excellence, Tissa the critic, Tissa the Connoisseur and interpreter of ancient and modern literature, Tissa the bilingual orator with a rich and fluent delivery, in well modulated voice, Tissa the free thinker with an encyclopediac knowledge in human affaires was forged "I wanted to probe deeply into things I saw and heard. To enter a contemplative world through them. Roam about in that world without fixed aim or purpose" (my translation) This extract from his Sinhala work Ayale giya sithaka satahan (the title itself is very symptomatic) sums up succinctly the Tissa’s role as an artist. Pursuing a course of action with the intention of achieving a fixed aim and purpose is the way of the pedagogue. Roaming without fixed aim and purpose, imagining things, stumbling into unexpected ‘corridors of life’, and giving vent to the resultant emotions is the way of the creative artist.

It is a stroke of supreme irony that the oldest University of the island, decided at long last to confer it’s highest recognition to this prodigal son, who was forced to shun it’s embrace. How could one interpret this? case of meaculpa, mea maxima culpa, or a reluctant salutation to the free spirits that roam about unshackled by the strangulating grip of academic regimen?

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