My friend Hiruna, who is studying for his A Levels, yet somehow finds the time to write the most beautiful Sinhala poetry I have ever read from someone his age, is something of a rarity. Not because he writes poetry (don’t we all, at some point?) but because his preferred cultural icons are so far removed from the Sanukas and the Santhushes of this era that he has become virtually isolated. He has written essays and essays on everything from the era he panders to – the sixties, seventies, and eighties – ranging from Hansa Vilak to T. M. Jayaratne to Amaradeva to Sekara. Because of my inability to read between the lines when it comes to poetry, sivpada or nisadas, I have come to appreciate the critic in him rather acutely. He has read much more on the subjects he tends to than anyone his age.
And yet, he is not alone. There are others. Perhaps not as “into” what he likes as he is, but nevertheless with a sensibility which has been honed to past objets d’art that the young today are rubbishing day in and out. It’s hard to tell whether this is a miniscule minority or whether it has the potential to grow up and mature. In that sense there’s a lot to be expected from the families and friends of these youngsters, because with the correct guidance, they can and will become the wielders of the arts tomorrow.
The most common excuse dished out by those who are fascinated by the icons of the present is that “the past is dead, live with it!” It’s a flimsy excuse, though one I’ve come across from youngster after youngster wherever I go and am. Perhaps it’s to do with how the media has suppressed the old in the programs they broadcast. Either way, an entire generation is growing up not even having heard of the usual icons – Amaradeva, Victor Ratnayake, even Clarence – and this despite the fact that these names are hardly ones we can pass over. Someone once said somewhere (I can’t remember the name or the time, though it was way, way back, a long time ago) that if Sri Lanka chose to send something that demarcated “ape kama” to the moon, it would send the songs of Amaradeva. Laudable, but consider that we have children, and students at that who are studying in GOVERNMENT schools, who have not even heard of his name, much less his songs. So yes, people like Hiruna are rather rare.
There are reasons. For one thing, schools have rarely produced artists the way they produce and are structured to produce engineers, lawyers, doctors, and accountants. Parents have set notions about what they want their children to become and this impedes on the ability of individual societies to do with the arts to nurture up and coming artists. If you are studying science for your A Levels, chances are that no matter how suitable for chairing and leading literary, drama, and debating societies you may be, you will be compelled to exit them abruptly to concentrate on passing that Z score and entering university. And this isn’t resolved by handing these societies over to those who study arts. As Ayath, whom I interviewed last year over how Sinhala drama is taught and sustained at schools in and around Colombo, argued, there is a discrepancy between those who take to the arts and those who debate, do drama, or write poetry for competitions. More often than not, it’s those other streams – Science and Commerce – which produce the bulk of the members who want to do something. More often than not, also, those who choose arts opt for it because they have nothing else to offer. “They just aren’t interested” was what Ayath told me.
That’s one reason. Not the only reason. It’s easy to go on lambasting structures and institutions. Looking inward, at the fault in ourselves, however, is much, much more difficult. The truth is that many of us from this generation and generations after us are rabidly averse to the past, or anything that is too old to be venerated in hagiographic terms. When Amaradeva passed away, for instance, there were howls of protest over one particular young vocalist who contended that there were much better voices than the maestro’s among his (the vocalist’s) colleagues. Whether or not this was true (such judgments, subjective though they are, can be assessed), the timing of the statement was hardly apt. And yet, this is but just one part of a broader phenomenon. Young people I talk to take to the guitar and the microphone as though God has willed it. The richness of technology, in other words, is drowning the richness of imagination, and imagination, a key prerequisite to the production of art, is lacking among them. Sure, they know how to please the ear. It’s just that they don’t know how to please the mind.
Poetry, the most potent and literary of all cultural forms (the novel and the short story, by comparison, are newer, more recent), is a veritable yardstick when it comes to other cultural spheres, in particular music. “The young don’t have the time to read, and even if they do, they just aren’t interested” was what Ajantha Ranasinghe told me during our interview. He has a point. As a people, we aren’t reading enough. Literacy rates, premised as they are on the ability to read and write on a rudimentary level, are hardly adequate by way of assessing whether we should be reading and writing more.
How can the culture of a country thrive if its poetry languishes? As Garett Field notes in his book “Modernising Composition: Sinhala Song, Poetry, and Politics in 20th Century Sri Lanka”, the cultural revival we saw in the preceding century was supported by a plethora of lyricists who were able to preserve the literariness of their work while contributing to the country’s musical sphere. It was for this reason, Field observes, that Chandrarathna Manawasinghe was able to come up with a new poetic meter for his masterpiece, “Wali Thala Athare”, and that his “student” Mahagama Sekara contended in a 1966 lecture that “a test of a good song was to take away the music and see whether the lyric could stand on its own as a piece of literature.” (This quirk, which we are used to in Sri Lanka, confounds Field so much that he admits the inadequacies of Western ethnomusicology when it comes to the Sinhala lyric.)
Ultimately, in a country and a region which has historically privileged the fusion of words and rhythms (regardless of how sophisticated or not our ancestors were, they were able to musicalise what they read in ways which baffle scholars today), the first step towards the flourishing of a cultural sphere is the dissemination of our poetry, and lyrics, among our students. This is not an easy task, but it is a task which we must engage in. After all, we’re talking about generation after generation who grow up indifferent to history (which, during the social studies experiment of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime and even the dates-driven approach of the curriculum prior to it, was taught rather well). We’re talking about an entire generation neglecting the need for the lyric, in favour of technology. The allure of the guitar and the boy band is too strong to be overcome. If ever they venerate the bands of the past – the Moonstones, the Super Golden Chimes, right down to the Gypsies and Marians and the Jayasri Brothers – we forget that these groups, superficially appealing to juvenile, adolescent tastes, nevertheless had members who did not neglect the lyric. Such a generation, growing up in indifference, can only be salvaged by our generation.
And it doesn’t end with poetry, by the way. We all write poetry, especially Sinhala and Tamil poetry, when we are young. It’s when we grow up that our tastes “part ways” and compel us to follow one path at the cost of all other paths. It’s the same story when it comes to other cultural spheres, be it drama or literature or painting. Many of those teenagers I talk to who like drama, for instance, tend to be interested in the movies. Hardly remarkable, until you consider that the film industry in Sri Lanka has almost always depended on the theatre for its reserves of not only actors, but also scriptwriters. (If ever there was an actor here, a proper one, who did not hail from the theatre, I am yet to hear of him or her.) And of course, until you consider that acting today has been confined to models and dilettantes who lack the seriousness, the controlled grace, of the actors I admire: from the very recent past, Uddika Premaratne, Saranga Disasekara, and the newest face of them all, Thumindu Dodantanne.
Hiruna isn’t alone, as I mentioned before. There are others. Many others. All of whom profess an interest in various other spheres, the movies included, with an interest in being active participants in those spheres. Hiruna, by nature introspective, prefers the path of the poet. Those others prefer the path of the director, the scriptwriter, and the discerning actor. To be all these things, it is necessary to be a discerning human being. Are our institutions, of learning and power, enough to channel their innate sensibilities and respond positively to what they want to become? I certainly hope so. Until that transpires, though, I can only hope and continue being friends and talking with them.