Thou shalt blame only thyself for thine failures in development. Blaming imperialism, colonialism and neo-imperialism is a convenient excuse to avoid self-examination.
– Can Asians Think?, Kishore Mahbubani
Sri Lankan Soprano Kishani Jayasinghe’s rendition of Danno Budunge made headlines in the media recently, but not entirely for reasons one would normally associate with a critical appreciation of an operatic performance. I had the incident in mind as I was taken to last weekend, not entirely out of choice, a self-styled “hippie market” on the wonderful Nuga Sevana grounds of the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour, down Bauddhaloka Mawatha. Amidst the banyan trees and a little amphitheatre, all manner of pop-up stalls selling homemade jewellery, desserts, lemonade, clothes, women’s accessories, stationary, art and other bric-a-brac could be found, with stuff ranging from the utterly kitsch to, in the case of a small notebook I purchased for a steal, the brilliantly crafted. I found myself wondering as I wandered around when the last time Temple grounds – any Temple ground – had celebrated creativity or contemporary culture in a similar manner. Temples even today are largely defined – by virtue of a conscious, careful framing by their incumbents – as grounds of conventionalism and conservatism, safe havens against agents and forces perceived to be hell-bent on eroding and erasing established culture. And when there is a perceived affront to Buddhism and associated traditions, the act of silencing that follows is violent, because it affords no real response to the target of derision. This is more than the mere juxtaposition of two different faith traditions and their varying embrace of cultural renewal. It is a question that goes to the heart of the Sinhala-Buddhist psyche, as predominantly defined and seen.
Ms. Jayasinghe suffered the brunt of a petrified mindset when she performed Danno Budunge recently, by those who barely knew the history of the song, much less the tradition she rendered it in. It mattered far more that the immediate aural reception jarred with, depending on who you believed, more authentic, pious or respectful renditions in the past. The past becomes the marker of what is right, no matter what the past itself was anchored to or a result of. The present, for those interested in preserving tradition at any cost, cannot be revived, reinterpreted, reshaped or redefined. Authenticity is measured not by the intent of the performer or performance, but a more simplistic, shallow comparison to what came before. Add to the mix any saffron critique, or greying voice and an automatic deference to religion and age, so rampant in our society, overwhelms any cultural renewal and critical appreciation. Our predominant, ossified and island mentality often comprehensively stifles creative renewal. And yet, creative vigour, in all aspects of our social and political life, can help us embrace the best of globalisation and indeed, better appreciate what makes us Sri Lankan above all. Take one example – the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya or Dance School, and how traditions of Western theatre influenced Chitrasena and Vajira to renew, to global and local acclaim, a dance that was at the time not remotely associated with performances to ticketed audiences. And today, Heshma Wignarajah’s choreography and lighting coupled with the captivating grace of Thaji Dias, the Company’s lead dancer, the family mixes convention with modernity, fully embracing what stage, sound, light, movement and creative collaborations with other foreign dance traditions offer in order to renew a deep appreciation of our own performative heritage.
Tradition thus has its place, but mindlessly adhered to, can also stifle. Tradition can also be wrong. The world would not have a three Michelin starred restaurant or chef – the Osteria Francescana by Massimo Bottura – if he had followed revered Italian culinary traditions. We would not have had the captivating Manasawila had Maestro Khemadasa ignored or shunned an operatic tradition, or indeed the only cantata composed on the death of the Buddha, the beautiful Piriniwan Mangalya. I was not even a teenager when my father dragged me along to see Manasawila. I am glad he did. When I get my own son to listen to Brubeck or Bach, though his rather vociferous preference is for Bieber, it is in the hope that what I was exposed to growing up – cultures beyond our shores – instils over time in him an appreciation of what creativity is at its core – studied irreverence. From the MusicMatters Festivals to the art of P143 or Yohan Medhanka, from the music of Jerome Speldewinde to Dutu Thena Allanu, Kaushalya Fernando’s adaptation of ‘Opera Wonyosi’ by Nobel Prize-winning dramatist and poet Wole Soyinka, from Ada Ape Thaththa by Funky Dirt to the explosion of new music talent on YouTube, we have already have a cosmopolitan, creative sensibility that far too often is hugely under valued, seen as marginal or worse, violently decried. It isn’t at all important to like all of this new production equally. It however necessary we appreciate new expression and thought as vital to our country’s progress, with an impact not just on our cultural landscape, but on our social and political frameworks as well.
Tradition has its role and relevance. We must also put tradition in its place.
First published in The Sunday Island, 28th February 2016.