Tissa Devendra in The Island, 5 February 1956, where the title is “Revisiting ‘MaraYuddhaya’ of 1956″
When the General Election of 1956 was declared the UNP was not expected to lose. They thought to counter the mainly Sinhala Buddhist and Leftist opposition with richly coloured posters of temples in flames with the slogan “Save Buddhism from the Flames of Marxism”. However, a united opposition of the Sinhala-speaking ‘underclass — namely, the Pancha Maha Balavegaya of Sangha, Veda, Guru. Govi, Kamkaru — and the Left parties led by the charismatic SWRD swept the UNP into, what he thought would be, ‘the dustbin of history’
I am grateful to the Editor of The Island for unearthing and reprinting the historic ‘Mara Yuddhaya’ cartoon [to illustrate my article on casting my first ballot] which can claim the distinction of playing a pivotal role in defeating the first UNP government in 1956. A brief note on ‘Ceylon’s’ political background of that era is necessary to appreciate this cartoon. Over half a century has passed since its publication and many millions who have since enhanced Sri Lanka’s population since then probably have little, or no, idea of this background.
From the grant of Independence in 1948 to 1956 the country was ruled by the seemingly well entrenched UNP. The minuscule Left parties and SWRD’s recent breakaway Sinhala Buddhist SLFP seemed to pose no real threat. The ruling elite, contemptuously labelled “brown sahibs” by SWRD, led a Westernised life-style far removed from that of the humble Sinhala speaking masses. This was exemplified by English as the language of administration, justice and secondary education. Whisky, ball-room dancing and race-going were regarded as the tribal rites of this group. No one better illustrated this class better than the Prime Minister, the Imperially belted knight Sir John Kotelawala who flaunted his jodhpur pants and exotic ‘dancers’ from the Middle East.
When the General Election of 1956 was declared the UNP was not expected to lose. They thought to counter the mainly Sinhala Buddhist and Leftist opposition with richly coloured posters of temples in flames with the slogan “Save Buddhism from the Flames of Marxism”. However, a united opposition of the Sinhala-speaking ‘underclass,[the Pancha Maha Balavgaya of Sangha, Veda, Guru. Govi, Kamkaru] and the Left parties led by the charismatic SWRD swept the UNP into, what he thought would be, ‘the dustbin of history’. A key element of the campaign against Sir John & Co was the ‘Mara Yuddhaya’ cartoon. The identity of the genius who designed it and decided to make it THE weapon of choice in the Election campaign yet remains one of history’s mysteries.However, stylistically, it does look like the work of the reputed illustrator G. S.Fernando.
Let us now look at the cartoon itself. It draws on the Buddhist account of the temptations of Mara that the Buddha overcame before attaining Enlightenment. A story that resonates to every Buddhist. In this drawing the Buddha sits in Samadhi beneath a bo-tree , supremely immune to the onslaught of Mara’s forces. Here the cartoonist ‘goes to town’ with all the hated symbols the Opposition accused as typifying the UNP . Sir John leads the fray riding the UNP elephant, hugging him from behind is his ‘inamorata’ the flimsily dressed belly-dancer Zou Zou Mohammed; the elephant is led by its mahout the bald Machiavelli Sir Oliver Goonetilleka the Governor General; on their right are top-hatted Uncle Sams carrying bags of dollars; in front is a carter pushing the carcass of a calf [to be barbecued on a spit as Sir John was reported to have done]; behind them are couples doing ball-room dancing; ahead of them, in black coat, is a Village Headman –pillar of the UNP; behind them march the Armed Forces with fixed bayonets and, finally, bare-bodied thugs carrying flaming torches. It took me some time to work out what the nurse ,in the forefront, stood for. Then it dawned on me she symbolized the Catholic nursing nuns in government hospitals – suspected of stealthy converting Buddhist patients.
As a very old stager, looking back at this ‘earth-shaking’ cartoon of almost sixty years ago, I am exceedingly amused at what has happened today to those hate objects exemplified in this cartoon. The UNP elephant remains triumphant, American dollars are more welcome than ever, the conservative [i.e.UNP] VH’s black coat has been supplanted by the loyalist Grama Niladhari’s ‘kapati coat’ , ball-room dancing is far more popular than it ever was, exotic dancers in next-to-nothing cavort in our many night clubs, barbecues abound in hotels and posh homes. The country abounds in private hospitals and foreign personnel. The armed forces and the gangs of thugs remain pillars of the establishment.
Who would have imagined that decades after their debacle in ‘1956’, the forces of Mara would ever have triumphed!
* Mervyn de Silva: “1956: The Cultural Revolution that shook the Left,” Ceylon observer Magazine Edition, 16 May 1967.
* Michael Roberts: “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956,” In C. R. D. Silva & S. Kiribamune (Eds.), K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, 1989, pp. 185-220): Peradeniya University.