Siri Gunasinghe at 90: Insightful Essays from Four Men of Letters

Courtesy of a special feature in the MIDWEEK REVIEW in the Island …. [1]

SIRI G--11 mid review

I: “Siri Gunasinghe — A Reminiscence” …. by H. L. Seneviratne, 17 February 2015

One of the semi official tasks that the University of Ceylon undertook as it established itself in the new campus at Peradeniya in the early 1950s, was the regeneration of national culture in the form of the arts. This was reflected in a seminar held at Peradeniya in 1956, whose proceedings were published in the same year under the title Traditional Sinhalese Culture. Prominent among the scholars who succeeded in that endeavour were Siri Gunasinghe and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. While Sarachchandra’s work was confined to literature and drama, Siri Gunasinghe stood out for his versatility, his interests covering every field of the arts. So much so that his adversaries who had embraced a different kind of cultural resurgence – a militant, prudish and philistine Sinhala Buddhist nationalism—derisively called him sakalakalavallabha, “the husband of all the arts”.

Due to his position of preeminence as an innovative literary and artistic figure that Siri Gunasinghe has enjoyed for over half a century, his magnificent scholarly work is often overlooked. This is also partly because, after his initial burst of research work, Siri devoted more time to literary and other artistic work than for scholarly activity. But as we celebrate Siri’s 90th birthday, we must not lose sight of his scholarly contribution. His scholarly work, while being of the highest quality, is intimately bound with his aesthetic interests. His earliest major scholarly publication, La Technique de la Peinture Indienned’apres les Texts du Silpa, published in 1957 in the prestigious Musee Guimet series of the French Ministry of National Education, provides us with an example. This was followed by studies in the area sculpture in ancient and medieval India and Sri Lanka. These early publications are available only in French, but his later scholarly work, on Sigiriya, Polonnaruva and Kandy, are easily available in English, with some in Sinhala as well. While on the subject of scholarly writing I must mention the clarity, simplicity and precision of Siri’s writing, in both Sinhala and English, and I am sure in French as well (which my illiteracy prevents me from judging).

Siri’s aesthetic interests found special focus in literary work (poetry, fiction and criticism) and the visual arts (painting, design, the cinema). While he is not a musician, he has a deep understanding of both Indian and western music, and is an excellent tabla player. He is a practising artist with a substantial body of work to his credit, a practice that recalls his earliest research interests in the technique of ancient Indian painting. These same interests in the visual diversified into an interest in design that, on the one hand, included refreshingly new book covers, and on the other, experimentation in film making. He directed the acclaimed Satsamudura.

The designs for which Siri is best known however are those associated with the epoch making play Maname. Theatre costumes till then, especially as reflected in the dominant Tower Hall tradition, though purportedly indigenous, were in fact of Victorian inspiration, as were the temple murals of the time. In contrast, Maname costumes drew both on Siri’s scholarly knowledge of ancient Indian painting and sculpture, and the exquisite colour sense of the artist in him. The Maname costumes, with their striking use of green and orange, can be considered the most aesthetically pleasing costumes that ever adorned the Sinhala stage. They were not only beautiful in themselves, but constituted part of the total scheme of colour and form, both static and dynamic, of the stage. This was an unprecedented visual integration of different components of the stage including dramatic action that contributed to a heightening of the total aesthetic experience. The décor of the original production also included an abstraction of the karaliya, the traditional stage of the folk theatre from which Maname was partially derived. The harmonious blend of costume and décor was carried over to the area of actor make-up, another sub-field of stagecraft in which Siri excelled. Siri also designed costumes for some of the short plays that Sarachchandra produced soon after Maname, but more importantly for Gunasena Galappatti’s Sandakinduru, with its hauntingly beautiful costume of the heroine, with flowing black and white stripes on the front of her skirt. Outside the play itself, Siri designed the remarkable cover of the published text of Maname that mimicked the periodic appearance of the Narrator (Pote Gura) from the depths of the darkened stage.

One word may be mentioned here about the fate of the décor item that depicted the folk stage, the karaliya. The first and the most memorable review of Maname, written by the esteemed critic Regi Siriwardena, was highly critical of its use. Regi was unaware of its meaning as is clear in his dismissive characterization of the piece as an “abstract looking contraption”. Although not altogether due to this bad press, but rather, in my view, due to his own yet fluid conception of “oriental theatre”, and the practical difficulties in its transport and setting up, producer Sarachchandra decided to do away with the set. Its retention even amidst practical difficulties would in my view have led to fruitful experimentation in stage décor, and an enrichment of the theatre as a whole.

Siri’s innovative novel, Hevanalla, was not only a fine work of fiction. It also inspired young writers to experiment with the form of the novel. His advocacy of linguistic reform that primarily involved his argument that for all practical purposes, the retroflex “n” and “l” in Sinhala are irrelevant, and that written Sinhala can more expressively get closer to the spoken, stimulated many a debate. These, along with his practice and advocacy of “free verse” (nisandas) constitute some of the most significant developments in Sinhala language and literature in the twentieth century.

In his article elsewhere in this Supplement, Wimal Dissanayake mentions his involvement, along with mine and Sarath Amunugama’s, in the events that led to the production of the free verse magazine Nisandasa (“Free Verse”), a landmark in what might be called “the free verse movement”. As Wimal points out, this project arose out of our association with Siri that consisted of periodic nocturnal meetings at his house at Upper Hantana. The core Nisandas group consisted of Sarath Amunugama, Wimal Dissanayake, P.A.S. Saram and myself, with Siri as its inspiration. A couple of others of our fellow students, like J. B. Disanayaka, may have joined us on occasion.

We discussed the poems that each of us had written since the previous meeting. Siri encouraged us in the belief that we could be poets, despite all evidence to the contrary. In my reading, the only participant who wrote anything worthwhile was Wimal, although I must admit that Sarath wrote remarkably poetic pieces, and later went on to publish a volume of poetry titled Hada Tula Asa. The fourth member of the core group was P.A.S.Saram, who like Sarath and myself, came from sociology, making us, the sociologists, the majority. This demographic fact was not lost on our good friend and our most celebrated critic Gunadasa Amarasekera who remarked that those who could not write poetry went to sociology. In the meanwhile, I had stumbled on a profession more in keeping with my talents, designing book covers, which I did for Wimal’s first collection of poetry Akal Vassa and for Sarath’s Hada Tula Asa, in addition to the cover of the free verse magazine Nisandasa. Some of the poems discussed, and amended as a result, were published in the Nisandasa, along with poems from outsiders, like Madavala Ratnayake, K. Jayatilake, and Dalton Alwis.

By the time the first volume of Nisandasa was published in March 1959, Siri had published his first two collections of poems Mas Le Nati Ata (1956), and Abinikmana (1958) and these had already gained some notoriety in the literary status quo for reasons of both form and content. For the establishment, metric form was the soul of poetry. Siri’s poetry, sans metre, was ridiculed as “palalikavi”, and “notes usable in writing poetry”. When it came to content, the prudish and philistine strands of the cultural revival mentioned at the beginning of this essay found some of the themes Siri dealt with objectionable. With the publication of Nisandasa, this scattered opposition to the rebellious new poetic form grew into something more formidable, coming as it did from not one, but a number of literary/cultural interest groups. The most eminent critic of the English language press, Regi Siriwardena, wrote a detailed critique of the manifesto-like introduction to the first volume of Nisandasa. The main thrust of this introduction, derived from Sanskrit aesthetic theory, was that rasa or “flavor”, not metre, was the soul of poetry. In this hostility to our magazine and conception poetry, the Sinhala press was not far behind. The Lankadeepa columnist Chandraratna Manavasinghe, who was critical of anything the university did until his belated admission of the worth of Maname, condemned not only the poetry, but even the magazine’s cover. Manavasinghe called the cover design a “darahava” (a contraption used in exorcistic ritual), failing to realize that it was based on a pattern from the renowned folk art of theDumbara mats, and echoing Regi Siriwardena’s failure to recognize the folk origins of the Maname stage set that Siri designed. We had copied the Dumbara mat design from an unassailable source, Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Medieval Sinhalese Art.

Wimal had the good fortune of meeting Siri in the course of his studies because he read Sanskrit in his first year with Siri as his teacher. The three others of the core nisandas group, Sarath Amunugama, P.A.S. Saram and myself, as mentioned above, were students of sociology. It is poetry that provided us, the sociologists, the good fortune of getting to know Siri, first as a poet we admired, and later as a friend. We had been disillusioned with the poetry then prevailing, the genre known as Colombo Poetry. As high school students who enjoyed reading, we had come across a lot of modern poetry of the time in English, including English translations of French, German and Russian poetry. We yearned to read something like that in Sinhala, but the Colombo Poetry was trapped in the samudraghosa metre and stilted imagery. Siri’s published poetry showed us that a poetry like what we read in English was possible in our own language. That made us search Siri out, and chat with him about poetry, eventually leading us to form the nisandas group.

Siri made us feel that the search for a readable poetry was not a private act but a collective effort. The university reflected the hierarchical society in which it was embedded, and we ourselves, through our socialization, were extremely respectful of our teachers. But the ethos and atmosphere of the nisandas group, from its very inception, was different. Siri treated us not as students, but equals. Some others on the faculty who treated us similarly were Gananath Obeyesekere and the then Assistant Librarian Ian Goonetilleke. These wonderful men made for us the difference between getting a degree and an education. They have remained our friends ever since, and accepted our families as part of their own. As we celebrate Siri’s 90th birthday, and wish him continued health and happiness, it is with the greatest respect and affection that we reflect on these unforgettable experiences. And it gives us the greatest pleasure to know that Siri is enjoying the company of a large and loving family of children and grandchildren.

II: Thinking of Siri, by Sarath Amunugama, February 17, 2015

Siri Gunasinghe, one of the most influential contributors to modern Sinhala culture, reaches the age of ninety this week. This short essay seeks to outline some of his many gifts as well as to extend my sincere thanks for a wonderful friendship that spans over five decades.

As young undergraduates who entered the idyllic setting of the Peradeniya University in the late fifties, we were blessed with the opportunity of associating not only some of the finest minds in the country but also teachers on whom learning sat lightly. There was not a trace of pomposity in them and they were always ready to help their young students to match up to their potential, be it in the tutorial class or outside in music, theatre, poetry or games, through friendly interaction.Of all these teachers Siri was outstanding for his knowledge, varied interests and most of all for his élan or style. Just back with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, he brought a delightful Gallic informality much to the envy of other teachers and the delight of us, his close young admirers and supporters.

Though Siri was involved in many of the extra-curricular activities of the Sinhala department, particularly through his unstinting support for Sarachchandra’s theatre and literary efforts, he was never a teacher of Sinhalese. It speaks volumes for the traditional mindset of the ‘Gurus’ of that department and the academic bureaucracy of the time who did not invite Siri to lecture on Sinhala literature. This did not worry him much because he had a good working relationship with his colleagues in the somewhat small department of Sanskrit. By now the university had given up teaching Indo-Aryan languages which had produced the best minds like Malalasekara, Ratnasooriya, Hettiarachchi and Sarachchandra. Instead, they had relegated Sinhala to departmental level and artificially created subjects to drag the teaching on for three years. What could easily have been completed in one or two years was stretched to three and the end result was the opening of floodgates for mediocrities,who today man academia, the teaching profession, the media and the administrative service.

It is important to note that Siri’s knowledge of Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit was far superior to that of his critics, particularly Martin Wickremasinghe. Siri’s lectures on Sanskrit poetry including his teaching of poetry of the classic Sakuntala is now part of Peradeniya legend. His interest in poetry originating from his undergraduate days, led to a dramatic shift with his advocacy of ‘Nisandas’ leading to many controversies and the branding of ‘Peradeniya literature’ as a new phenomenon in the world of rather low brow literary figures located in Colombo. They however controlled the Sinhala media and let loose a barrage of abuse at Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe. But his poetry published in Mas Le Nati Ata, Ratu Kekula and other locations attracted the youth, and Nisandas has now come to stay, though one may not be happy about the quality of these outpourings. His novel Hevanella created a sensation because of his use of the spoken language and ‘the stream of consciousness’ method. While Siri has both admirers and critics, what we now know is that the ‘revolution’ in Peradeniya presaged a communication revolution, which transformed the use of the Sinhala language. Though not adequately explored, what we witness now is the spread of popular culture, which has invaded the space earlier occupied by the Great Tradition. The Peradeniya school attempted to maintain the values of a Great Tradition at a time when new a new age of media was beginning to debase the language, perhaps irrevocably. It must be mentioned here however that the exponents of popular culture do not think that their outpourings are in anyway inferior. But the daily assault on our senses through the Sinhala media show a “dumbing down” of our cultural values.

I want to refer here to Siri’s contribution to archaeological and art studies. With his training in France he was able to introduce a new dimension to Sri Lankan archaeology which was dominated by epigraphists such as Paranavitana, Godakumbura and Karunaratne. Of course there were many good reasons why it should be so. The British tradition established by Cunningham, Marshall and others all emphasised “digs” and the deciphering of inscriptions, many of which had been buried due to the lapse of time. Further, there were a large number of monuments and inscriptions lying around, crying out for attention by scholars. But the dimension of art and architecture had been neglected and was set right mostly by continental scholars, many of whose works influenced Siri. In fact this lopsided approach, rectified later by Siri, Raja de Silva and Senaka Bandaranayake, should not have occurred because Ananda Coomaraswamy had by himself pioneered such studies. Siri’s essays on the evolution of the Buddha Statue, the Potgul Vihara Statue, the Sigiri Paintings and his pioneering work on Kandyan Paintings are outstanding and should constitute a valuable contribution to studies of our culture and heritage without being enmeshed in petty departmental considerations.

Since others will deal with Siri’s contribution to the Cinema, I will skip that aspect in this note. However what I would like to address is his influence on Sarachchandra and others in the cultural field. Though in the programme notes for Maname and Sinhabahu Siri is referred to as costume and décor designer and make-up specialist, his contribution to the success of those plays were much more. His was a constant presence with Sarachchandra during the production stage. Sarachchandra always consulted Siri even on aspects of drama theory. I think this has been acknowledged in Sarachchandra’s autobiography. We may recall sometimes with amusement that Siri was a very practical man and had to come to Sarachchandra’s rescue, even in attending to minor repairs of the professor’s Volkswagen.

But perhaps more impressive than all this is Siri’s warmth and affection. He is a wonderful friend and to the group of his admirers which, I recall, included Amaradeva, Mahagamasekera, Madawala S.Ratnayake, Dunstan Silva, H.L. Seneviratne, Bandula Jayawardena, W. B. Ratnayake and H. M. Gunasekera, he could do no wrong. Many were the times when we would go on long trips in Siri’s blue Volkswagen. Siri and his brother Dharma were first class drivers and would avert many a mishap because of their skills. His home, with Hemamali and the children Manju and Ravi, was open to all of us and the discussions, debates and arguments as well as the good fellowship, still lingers in our memory. So it only remains for us to say on his 90th birthday – Thank you Siri for those wonderful times and your many kindnesses will not be forgotten.

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III: “Siri Gunasinghe, Tradition, and Language Reform,” Garrett Field [3], February 17, 2015,

In this article, I would like to discuss Siri Gunasinghe’s conception of “tradition.” I then explore how it relates to his ideas about the reform of written Sinhala. In the first essay of Gunasinghe’s chirantana sampradāya saha pragatiya (Ancient Tradition and Progress, 1986), Gunasinghe asks whether progress is truly antithetical to tradition and vice versa (p. 26). Scholars and pundits, Gunasinghe argues, tend to conceptualize “tradition” as the antithesis of “progress.” These scholars believe that the ancient tradition of Sinhala literature should be respected and protected because of its antiquity. They further regard anyone who creates something radically different from the literary tradition as someone who betrays the nation or commits an unforgiveable crime.

In Gunasinghe’s judgment, a tradition is an ongoing process. He finds evidence in the history of Sinhala poetry. The styles and diction of ninth-century Sigiriya poetry, fifteenth-century Kotte poetry, and nineteenth-century Matara poetry, are completely different. According to the pundits, however, all these forms constitute the so-called “Sinhala poetic tradition” (p. 28).

Such scholars also regard new poetic forms like Gunasinghe’s nisaňdäs (free verse) as an insult to the tradition. One would laugh, Gunasinghe counters, if he or she could listen to similar criticisms that pundits voiced in ancient times when Sinhala poets changed the gī meters to eli sama and samudraghōṣā (pp. 28–9)1. It is ironic that the very forms of art scholars today consider to be canonical were deemed antithetical to tradition when originally put in circulation. Gunasinghe concludes by stressing that an artistic tradition that does not progress becomes lifeless (p. 32).

One area of Gunasinghe’s oeuvre intimately connected to his thoughts on tradition is his work on the reform of written Sinhala. His reflections on this matter can be found in two essays that he originally published in 1961 and 1997, respectively. He later contributed these essays to Ajith Thilakasena’s edited volume devoted to language reform, entitled adaṭa obina basa (The Language Suitable for Today, 2011)2.

Gunasinghe argues in these essays that the progress of the Sinhala language comes to a halt because the gap between spoken and written Sinhala has become so wide to the extent that the two linguistic registers are like two different languages (2011, p. 49). He recommends that the written language should reject the old, traditional, and complex grammatical forms in favour of the spoken language’s simple and dynamic grammar (p. 64). For example, Gunasinghe proposes that Sinhala writers relinquish subject-object agreement found only in traditional written Sinhala (p. 55). He also advocates for the use of a more colloquial lexicon. Thus, instead of this literary phrase: venat kavara viṣaya kṣētrayak sambandhayen vuva da, he suggests writing the phrase as it would be spoken: vena koyima viṣayak gäna unat. Gunasinghe likewise maintains that there is no need to retain the mūrdhaja letters in Sinhala since these letters—the mūrdhaja na-yanna (K) and la-yanna (<)—are only used in written language and pronounced the same way as the dantaja na-yanna (k) and la-yanna (,). Gunasinghe recommends only employing the dantaja forms to reduce the difference between the colloquial and literary registers of Sinhala (p. 73).

In this article, I maintained that Gunasinghe’s interest in reforming written Sinhala language is closely related to his argument that an artistic tradition that does not progress becomes lifeless. In Gunasinghe’s judgment, language and the arts are evolving forms of culture, and efforts to preserve the older forms while denouncing newer forms amount to arresting the process of change.

1 Gī meters are quatrains with lines comprising uneven amounts of syllabic instants. Eli sama is the practice of ending poetic lines with a like-phoneme. In the samudraghōṣā meter, quatrains consist of eighteen syllabic instants per line.

2 The two essays are entitled “sinhalayē liyana basa” (“Written Sinhala,” 1961) and “katā karana bāsāvē viyākaranayak tiyenavā, ē vagēma śailiyakut tiyenavā” (“Spoken Sinhala has its Own Grammar and Style,” 1997).

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IV: “The Complex Art of Teaching Poetry” by Wimal Disanayake, 17 February 2015 … [2]

As a novelist, a filmmaker, a painter and cultural critic Prof. Siri Gunasinghe has made an indelible impression on the thought and imagination of his times. He blazed new trails, opened up newer spaces for artistic exploration, and in the process generated intense debate and discussion, much of it healthy. He introduced a new imaginative vitality to designing of costumes for stage plays and re-invigorated the art of book-covers. He was a formidable and unsettling presence in the Sri Lankan cultural scene in the 1960s and 1970s. He was emblematic of Sinhala literary modernism. Over the years, some of these aspects of his creative and critical life have been discussed innumerous writings in Sinhala. In my short essay, I wish to focus on a facet of his life that has not yet received adequate attention – his influence and consequentiality as a university teacher of literature.

I was a student of Prof. Siri Gunasinghe in the early 1960s at Peradeniya University. In my first year, I read Sanskrit as one of my chosen subjects, and Siri Gunasinghe taught us Sanskrit poetry. The prescribed text for the class was Kalidasa’s The Cloud Messenger (Meghaduta) – a delightful poem that displays Kalidasa’s verbal ingenuity and his conjunction of melancholy and exuberance. Siri Gunasinghe made the poem come alive by attending to its multivalent imagination and intricate tropology. Siri Gunasinghe entered into the poetic universe of Kalidasa along with us; as the involvement became intense, he used to light one cigarette after another while discussing the poem, displaying both a passionate attachment and a cerebral detachment at the same time. A young and attractive fellow-student told me that she found Siri Gunasinghe’s way of lecturing then deeply erotic! Unfortunately, I did not pursue this topic any further with her – come to think of it, a mistake on my part.

The two favourite teachers of mine at Peradeniya were Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe. Both of them, in their different ways, made the university class-room a site of creative participation and critical engagement. Standardly, teachers fed us with information which we absorbed rapidly and willingly. Frozen thoughts were doled out as immutable and final truths; Siri Gunasinghe and Sarachchandra, on the other hand, made us a part of the thinking process. We were, therefore, as students involved in an exhilarating quest for meaning and truth, which was open-ended, nuanced, non-linear and which operated on a number of different registers. We were certain that we are not going to arrive at a final poetic truth; rather, it was the journey with its uncertainties, ambiguities and occasional unanticipated rewards that mattered. I have sought to follow this principle in my own university teaching career.

As a teacher, Prof. Gunasinghe was never dogmatic or high-handed; he allowed free flow of discussion in the classroom. I distinctly remember, once while discussing imagery in The Cloud Messenger, Siri Gunasinghe identified one trope as a synecdoche; I said that it was an instance of metonymy. I am sure he knew all along that I was wrong, but he encouraged a discussion. Later when I went back to the library and consulted an authoritative text, I realized that Prof. Gunasinghe was right.

Siri Gunasinghe treated students as if they were his equals. During the 1960s when there was a great upsurge of interest in Free Verse, largely due to the poetry of Gunasinghe, we decided to launch a new poetry magazine called ‘Nisandasa’ H.L. Seneviratne, Sarath Amunugama and I were to be the co-editors. And Siri Gunasinghe was the moving spirit behind it. We met occasionally at his residence in Mahakanda. He generously served us with Arrack. Indeed, it was Sri Gunasinghe who introduced me to the forbidden pleasures of liquor. (I am sure he would not count this among his major achievements!)

As I started earlier, Prof. Gunasinghe explored with us the strengths and limitations of Kalisadsa’s celebrated elegy The Cloud Messenger. Here I am using the word elegy in the weaker sense in that there is no death involved as in the case of most elegies. For those not familiar with classical Sanskrit literary works,this is a delightful poem that gives full rein to Kalidasa’s indubitable powers of imagination and creativity. This work consists of 114 four line stanzas; it narrates the predicament of a demi-god (yaksha), who was banished as punishment for neglect of duty. As a result he is separated from his wife. The poem seeks to reconfigure the way in which he in desperation and utter helplessness requests a cloud to carry a message from him to her. This is the narrative backbone of the poem and the author succeeds in elaborating it magnificently to produce an exquisitely lyrical work. He has deployed the –mandakranta meter ( literally slowly moving meter) to convey the celebratory and reflective mind-set of the protagonist.

The poem consists of two parts – the purvamegha and uttaramegha. The first part ends with the sixty-fifth stanza and depicts the journey of the cloud; the second half is devoted to a description of Alaka where his beloved is. This poem represents a sub-genre of poetry referred to as message-poetry in classical India. I wish to focus on this poem as a way of reminiscing about the way in which Siri Gunasinghe taught this poem in class and made it come alive.

Prof. Gunasinghe himself being a distinguished poet was able to enter Kalidasa’s poetic world and display the poet’s unrivalled imaginative powers with great sensitivity and cogency. Anyone reading The Cloud Messenger, even in translation, is bound to be impressed by its pervasive lyrical beauty. Part of this beauty is embedded in the dexterity with which he was able to capture through vivid tropes the physical landscape and infuse it with a transcendental aura. Passages such as the following, which I have translated from the original Sanskrit, I am sure, would enforce this point.

The slopes covered with the glow of ripened mangoes

And you on the mountain peak, darkly sibling like a glossy coil of hair

It will indeed attract the gaze of celestial lovers

Like a great breast of the earth, dark at the center, a golden gleam around.

As Prof. Gunasinghe analyzed this text, he made it a point to focus on the way in which verbal beauty and, the lyrical intensity of the text are wedded to a complex poetic texture and an evolving artifice. He emphasized the importance of the architecture of this poem and how in it un-freedom becomes a condition of possibility for a larger freedom. Siri Gunasinghe was remarkably insightful in uncovering for us this complex poetic art of Kalidasa and the poem’s growing resistance to its own unifying impulses. Let me cite one example. In the opening stanza, the demi-god’s fall from grace and the concomitant fading of glory is captured in the trope of ‘ astamgamitamahima’, which suggests that the sun of his glory has set. What is interesting about this trope for those deconstructively oriented readers like me is that it puts into a play a self-cancelling imperative. The thing about the setting sun is that it is bound to rise in the sky the following morning. Kalidasa, masterfully, has coalesced the protagonist’s forlornness and hope into a powerfully memorable trope.

What is also noteworthy about this trope is that it returns in the final stanza of The Cloud Messenger, bringing the text to a circular completion. This is emblematic of the larger return signified by the poem. The reader is made aware of the fact that they are still perched on Ramagiri and that the dark cloud is still hugging the peak of the mountain. Has anything changed? It is indeed a question that invites close consideration. But what is clear is that the poem has retuned to the location from where it started. Throughout the poetic text, Kalidasa has succeeded in establishing symmetries, both big and small, such as these and he persuades words, tropes, events, phonetic reverberations to echo each other manifesting the powers of a supremely organized creative intelligence operating behind the lines. Siri Gunasinghe was very perceptive in uncovering these symmetries, which any deconstructionist would point out also contain unavoidable tensions.

Standardly, in teaching texts such as The Cloud Messenger, the preferred approach has been to focus on the narrative content, life and times of the poet, philological interests, and the geographies recounted in the text. Quite frankly, I was bored by this approach. Therefore, when Gunasinghe opted to discard the shopworn, and in many ways counter-productive approach and focus on the poem’s tropes as the center of interest, I felt a breath of fresh air had entered the classroom. As a teacher of literature I have adopted Siri Gunasinghe’s approach, making relevant adjustments as I proceeded.

As a teacher of poetry, Prof. Gunasinghe was deeply aware of and sensitive to poetry being a site of discursive production. Hence he focused on ontological and epistemological issues in an unobtrusive way. For example, interestingly, he focused attention to the relationship between the demi-god who has been exiled for dereliction of sanctioned duty and the cloud that is to carry a message to his wife. It might appear, at a superficial level, that the relationship between the demi-god and the cloud is simple, even primitive. However, Prof. Gunasinghe convinced us that was not the case. As we read the poem we come to the realization that there is a complex relationship between the two which lends great imaginative power to the text. While the poet lavishes praise on the cloud for its generosity and kindness, he also advances the question whether the cloud is not merely part of nature consisting of elements. Indeed this tension is a condition of its own power. This doubt and uncertainty about the efficaciousness of the cloud and its valorization as a generous entity puts in play an ambiguity that invests a sense of complexity with the musings of the demi-god. There is an interesting deconstructive play here. His confidence erases itself even as it re-inscribes itself in the text.

What is interesting about the presence of the cloud is that the plight of the demi-god has been displaced on to the cloud; the cloud becomes his alter-ego. While he remains in seclusion in exile, the cloud roams over the landscape freely. Here there is an interesting interplay between the memory of landscape and landscape of memory. As the poem unfolds itself, it is as if the poet is keen to forge an erotic relationship between cloud and the landscape. This, it seems to me, becomes a supplement in the Derridean sense to the agonizing experience of the demi-god and his beloved. As the narrative discourse of the poem advances, it becomes clear that the separation and re-union of the cloud and the mountain become symbolic of the relationship between the protagonist and his wife.Looking back over the five decades that have elapsed, it has to be said that Prof. Gunasinghe was astute in illuminating these scarcely trodden hermeneutical paths, which in many ways, are surprisingly new even now.

The juxtaposition of the demi-god and the cloud has the effect of obtaining another form of solace. As we saw earlier, the yakshahas been banished for neglecting his duties. It is evident that he is overwhelmed by anxieties and anguishes of separation from his beloved. He is presented as a person of passionate disposition – kami. At the same time, the cloud is configured as being the generous, kind and endowed with a desire to help others; he is associated with the traditional cultural value of dutifulness – dharma.

According to traditional axiology, the demigod has transgressed the norms of dharma while the cloud emerges as an upholder of the dharma; however, the poet has also sought to present the cloud as the alter egoof the protagonist. What this does is to introduce the idea of supplement in the manner that Derrida has glossed it –an extension and replacement at the same time. Therefore the dharmic elements in his alter-ego’s character bring in the much needed consolation to the grieving protagonist.

The kind of approach to this poem advocated by SiriGunasinghe in his literary pedagogy also served to open up another interesting line of inquiry – the intersection of freedom and un-freedom. The protagonist of the poem is imprisoned in Ramagiri; his freedom has been severely curtailed. On the contrary, the cloud is free to roam high above in the sky observing the beauty of vast stretches of land experiencing unfettered joy. The cloud is free to move along the pathways described by the demi-god while he himself is condemned to immobility. At the same time, though, through his descriptions offered to the cloud, he can vicariously participate in the journey.

As he explored with us the intricate verbal texture of The Cloud Messenger, Prof. Gunasinghe reminded us of the fact that the poem is bathed in religious imagery. It is as if Kalidasa is gesturing towards a higher reality that surpassed the anxieties, tensions and uncertainties of worldly existence. It can be said thatKalidasa being the great Shaivite he was, the idea of divine law is a sub-text in the poem.What this does is to introduce a note of certainty to the poetic text. In other words, a sense of certainty trumps over the uncertainty precipitated by the banishment of the demi-god. The poet seems to open an ostensibly secure transcendental space. However as SiriGunasinghe was quick to point out the sense of tranquility is unsettled by the fact that this transcendental space is ultimately a product of human imagination, and therefore of worldly existence. This was a deconstructive move before its time.

While examining meticulously the poetic text of The Cloud Messenger, Prof. Gunasinghe was also straining towards a larger understanding of literary textuality, an ontology of poetry. Here I was reminded of a statement of the French critic MauriceBlanchot with whose works, I suspect,SiriGunasinghe was deeply familiar given his French connections.Blanchot said, ‘we rediscover poetry as a powerful universe of words where relations, configurations, forces are affirmed through sound, figure, rhythmic mobility,in a unified and sovereign autonomous space.’He would have agreed with the general tenor of this statement while modifying the idea of a united and sovereign autonomous space. He was convinced that poetic texts are given to self-cancelling impulses, and that they frequently turn back upon themselves laden with self-doubt; in other words, they are inescapably ambivalent. He demonstrated how images of desire are interlocked with desires of images.

His literary pedagogy was directed towards making interventionist readers out of us.He wanted us to read resistively. What I mean by this is that by encouraging us to go against the grain, by demonstrating that there is no perfectcongruence between sign and meaning,by alerting us to the semiotic anxieties felt by literary texts as they experience challenges to heir linguistic authority, he wanted us to be close readers who were capable of fresh discursive production.He pointed out how in The Cloud Messenger, presence is sustained and re-vitalized by absence and that this poem existed at multiple levels of awareness. It was our duty as readers, he contended, to tease out the full implications of this tangledmultiplicity.

Looking back over a fifty year period, there is an aspect of his literary pedagogy that I still find attractive; and that is his simultaneous focus on notions on rapture and rupture. When examining poems such as Kalidasa’s The Cloud Messenger which produces literary sublimity, it was customary to underline the rapture it generated. SiriGunasinghe, however, also chose to focus on the idea of rupture in the text as it ceaselessly questions the validity of its own being. This was indeed a novel strategy. Many years later, when I was introduced to Derrida, Paul de Man, J.Hillis Miller etc., and as I started to grapple with deconstructive acrobatics, I found the ideas implanted in me by Prof. Gunasinghe, who was in some ways a deconstructionist before its time, to be most useful. SiriGunasinghe was a superb teacher of poetry because he was a meticulously sensitive reader of poetry. The ideas that self-constituting and self-dismantling desires run in texts in tandem, that poetic texts are in continual dialogue with their internal differences, that the self-validating and authenticating center of poems are in constant threat of displacement, were presented to us suggestively in the class room in embryonic form. We developed these ideas later in our own books, perhaps in ways that would not perhaps win his approval.

Anyone reading this article would recognize that there two animating frames of reference in it. The first consists of my memories as an undergraduate at Peradeniya in the early 1960s. The second consists of the newer frames of intelligibility that I have acquired over the decades through reading, teaching and reflection. To be sure, I have deployed the second to inflect the first, knowing full well the dangers in reading present conditions into the past.Today, SiriGunasinghe celebrates his ninetieth birthday. On this joyous occasion, as a grateful student of his, I wish him good health and long life.


[1] Felicitating Siri Gunasinghe …. A Note from the Compiler

Siri Gunasinghe is an iconic figure of the Golden Age of the Peradeniya University. His distinctive role was not merely aiding the cultural re-discovery that was taking place, but also being its most trenchant critic. The essays published in this edition do not by any means adequately represent the profound impact of his work and versatility, but are tributes to selected areas of his rich, complex and lasting contribution. I wish to thank The Island for its enthusiastic response to the idea of this celebratory issue…….H. L. Seneviratne

[2] Wimal Disanayake is Professor,  Academy for Creative Media, University of Hawaii and Former Director, Cultural Studies, East West Center, Hawaii.

[3] Garret Field is proficient in Sinhala and  teaches at Ohio University, Athens, USA

1 Comment

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One response to “Siri Gunasinghe at 90: Insightful Essays from Four Men of Letters

  1. An excellent tribute to a brilliant teacher of my student days at Peradeniya. Thank you Michael and Tthuppahi

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