Friday, November 24, 2017

Re-establishing Sri Lanka’s ancient links with Bengal

  • PK Balachandran, Sri Lanka Correspondent
    Published: 2017-03-06 19:29:55 BdST


Sri Lanka’s earliest contact with the outside world was with Bengal since it is believed that the Sinhalese race was created after the arrival of Prince Vijaya of Bengal with his camp followers in 543 BC.

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, it was Bengal which stirred and influenced nationalistic consciousness in the field of culture among the then highly colonized and Westernized elite of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon.

But since independence in 1948, and more particularly since the late 1970s, the influence of Bengal has waned to the point of extinction and replaced by North Indian, Bollywood and American influences.

However, there is now a glimmer of hope that, as a reaction to the growing political and economic pressures from the West, interest in indigenous Sri Lankan forms, which were evolved during the cultural renaissance movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries under Bengali influence, will be revived.

A harbinger of this new trend may well be the young Sri Lankan film maker Vimukthi Jayasundara, who has attempted to bridge the divide by making a Bengali language feature film Chatrak (Mushroom) set in present-day Kolkata.    

If the Sinhalese language is highly Sanskritized in contrast to Tamil, which is also spoken in the island, it is primarily due to the influence of Bengali in the earliest days. Later in the 3.Century BC, North Indian Sanskritic Prakrits arrived in a big way due to the introduction of Buddhism from Magadha (Bihar). This was followed by the flow of trade from Gujarat and other parts of North India in later years.

During the age of Sinhalese cultural renaissance in the late 19 th. and the first half of the 20 th. Century, Bengali music and Bengali institutions were the models to follow because Bengal was on the ascendant in India as the British consolidated their hold on the Indian sub-continent and made Calcutta the political, official and business capital of the Indian Empire.

The great Sinhalese-Buddhist revivalist, Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) went to Calcutta to gather support among the Bengal’s  bhadralok for the retrieval of  ancient Buddhist places of worship in Bodh Gaya in Bihar from the clutches of Hindu mahants.  Dharmapala headquartered his international Maha Bodhi Society at Calcutta. Rabindranath Tagore had contributed poems and articles to the Maha Bodhi Society.

Influence of Tagore 

At that time in Sri Lanka, Rabindranath Tagore was seen not only as a messiah of political liberation from British rule, but a cultural liberator too. Inspired by Tagore’s  unique educational institution, Shantiniketan, a Sri Lankan nationalist, Wilmot Perera,  started a similar institution called Sri Palee at Horana in Kalutara district south of Colombo, where students studied and learnt dance and music in the open air and under the canopy of trees. In fact, it was Tagore who laid the foundation stone of the institution in 1934 and suggested that it be named Sri Palee.

An admirer of Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced in Sri Lanka, Tagore introduced Buddhist and Pali studies into the curriculum at the Vishwa Bharati University which he founded. Among Guru Dev’s followers in Calcutta were Sri Lankan university students including  nationalists  such as DB Jayatilaka, WA de Silva, and Rev Rmbukwelle Siddhartha. The renowned Sri Lankan art historian and cultural revivalist, Ananda Coomaraswamy, found in Tagore an ardent supporter.

Tagore had visited Sri Lanka thrice, 1922, 1928 and 1934 to rousing receptions in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Jaffna. Described as a “Maha Kavi” in the island, his speeches in leading schools like Ananda, Mahinda, Trinity and Jaffna Central, were well covered in the media. When he staged his dance drama Shap Mochan to packed halls over six days, SWRD Bandaranaike, a prime minister-to-be reviewed it the Ceylon Daily News saying it was “a revelation of art at its highest”.

Tagore abjured political issues during his visits to Sri Lanka, preferring to stress the need to revive indigenous cultures among “those who, due to some unfortunate external circumstances, have forgotten their own past and are ready to disown their richest inheritance.”

And he did succeed in his mission. Sri Lankan art followed the style of Bengali artistes like Nandalal Bose, who had accompanied Tagore during his 1934 visit. Tagore was impressed with the slow and fluid Kandyan dance and got it incorporated into the Santiniketan style of dancing. According to Dr Sandagomi Coperahewa, Tagore’s praise for the Kandyan style helped it become the principal dance form of Sri Lanka.

The musical tradition of Shantiniketan had also found deep roots among the Sinhalese. According to Sri Lankan film maker Vimukthi Jayasundara, the tune of the Sri Lankan national anthem Namo Namo Matha was composed in Rabindra Sangeet style by Tagore himself, while the Sinhalese lyric was penned by his student, Ananda Samarakoon. Famous singer Sunil Shantha learnt music at Shantiniketan and playwright Ediriweera Sarachchandra had his philosophical education at Tagore’s institution. Dancer Chitrasena, the “Uday Shankar” of Sri Lanka, was also a product of Shantiniketan.

Tagore had tremendously influenced writing in the Sinhalese language. The noted Sinhalese writer Martin Wickramasinghe had said that Tagore had “encouraged young Sri Lankan poets to break away from the traditional Sinhalese poetry”. Wickramasinghe went on to say: “The enduring appeal of Tagore to the intelligentsia of Ceylon is his attitude to religion and life which he exposed artistically in his poetry.”

Influence of Satyajit Ray

The earliest Sri Lankan films were mere copies of South Indian films as South Indians dominated the Sri Lankan film industry.  But this changed in the 1950s with the international acclaim won by Bengali film maker Satyajit Ray’s realistic 1955 film Pather Panchali. Lester James Peries’ path breaking Sinhalese film Rekhawa (1956) came a year after Ray’s Pather Panchali.After Rekhawa, Sri Lankan films were in the intellectual and creative league of avant garde creations emanating from Bengal (and Kerala too).

However, as Bengal declined in India, yielding place to North India due to the shifting of business and political power to Bombay and New Delhi respectively, the identification of the Sinhalese with Bengal waned and identification with North India and North Indian music, dance and films grew. After the liberalization of the Sri Lankan economy in 1977 and the entry of Western capital, Sri Lankan culture and tastes became americanised.

But there are signs of a revival of indigenous forms now. The mounting economic and political pressure from Western nations over the human rights issue, has stirred nationalism and pride in indigenous cultural forms.

Sri Lankan indigenous forms are heavily influenced by India, including Bengal. Because Sri Lanka and India belong to the same cultural pool, no fundamental contradiction is seen between Indian and Sri Lankan cultures. Tagore did not see this bond as being injurious to Sri Lanka as cultural ties with India are as old as Sri Lanka itself. In 1934 Tagore had said that it was time the “spiritual bond” between Sri Lanka and India was put together again. And there is a likelihood that ties with Bengal (both West Bengal and Bangladesh) will grow as a result.

Sinhalese Makes a Bengali Film

As a first step in this direction, the young Sinhalese film maker, Vimukthi Jayasundara, has made a feature film in the Bengali language set in Kolkata. Vimukthi’s Chatrak (Mushroom) is on the havoc that mushrooming high rise buildings are causing to the social and economic fabric of modern Kolkata.

Made in the tradition of the renowned Bengali film maker Ritwik Ghatak,Chatrak was shown in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, and also at the Toronto, Pacific Merdian and Vladivostok international film festivals.

Within a screening time of 90 minutes, Chatrak brings out significant aspects of the realities of urban India as seen in the metropolis of Kolkata, in which corporate interests determine the pattern of growth irrespective of social consequences, and where ambitions to succeed as per the parameters of the day, tear the social fabric and create traumas. 

The film shows how values promoted by the corporatization of the economy and society lead to conflicts, isolation, remorse, disappointments, irreversible mental imbalance and even suicidal tendencies. The situation created by corporatization leads to the creation of roles and duties which are performed mechanically and often brutally. Even so, remorse creeps to the surface on occasion because, after all, the denizens of the modern world are, at the core, human beings, not  automatons.

In the story, the main facets of Kolkata’s physical and socio-economic landscape are portrayed through the lives of the successful but troubled architect, his independent minded lady love, and a deranged younger brother. Vimukthi has portrayed India in all its nuanced complexity.

Drawn To Bengal

In a conversation with this writer, Director Vimukthi revealed how he hit upon the idea of making a film in Bengali, how he got people to back it, and how he chose the subject for the film.

“I have travelled in India extensively, and made many friends in the film world. As a student at the Film and Television Institute in Pune, I saw a lot of films and was particularly fond of Bengali film makers Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. I got the craft of film making from Ray and my political sensibilities from Ghatak,” Vimukthi said.

Asked what attracted him to Bengal, he said: “During my visits to Kolkata, I found that the sights, sounds, the music and the people were familiar, very much like what one would encounter back home in Sri Lanka. The peoples’ sensibilities were similar too. I did not for a moment feel that I was in a foreign land.”

Vimukthi’s first attempt at film making was a documentary for the Sri Lankan government on wounded soldiers. In the process he realised how some people are made to sacrifice their lives and limbs for somebody’s else cause.

The idea of making a film in India came up at a meeting with his long standing Kolkata-based friend, Bappaditya Bandhopadhyay, a producer and director of Bengali films. Bappaditya said he could rope in Vinod Lahoti, a Kolkata film financier if Vimukthi wanted to make a Bengali film.

On choosing the subject and the story Vimukthi said:  “I hadn’t clue about what to portray. So, I decided to roam the streets of Kolkata day after day, observing the lives of the people in various parts of the city at various times. What struck me at that time was the mushrooming of posh high rise buildings in sharp contrast to the squalor around. I saw the sharp differences existing between the rich and the poor and how the poor were duped into parting with their agricultural land for small sums of money on the promise of jobs on the construction sites.”

From interactions with the middle classes, he learnt about their aspirations and problems. He also found that at least a section of Kolkata society was aware that people were being taken for a ride.  This is brought out in a scene in the film in which an old man is trying to wake up a younger man sleeping under a bridge by telling him loudly how the British bought the three villages which became the nucleus of the imperial city of Calcutta for a mere Rs1,300 and that a similar thing is happening now.

Vimukthi also saw how, despite grinding poverty, lack of employment, insanitary conditions and the mad rush to modernize Kolkata, people stuck to traditions tenaciously as seen in the annual Durga Puja  celebrations. Beg or borrow, the puja had to be conducted is a grand way. The puja’s cathartic effect on the participants was brought out vividly.

If Chatrak is followed by more cross-border artistic ventures, links between Sri Lanka and Bengal could be revived for mutual benefit.