Appreciating a Towering Figure in ‘Peradeniya School’ as he reaches Ninety

K. N. O. Dharmadasa, courtesy of The Island, 27 February 2015, where the title is slightly different**

It is a well known fact that the 1950s and 1960s were a period of intense activity in the field of Sinhala literature. A prominent factor in this activity was the so called ‘Peradeniya School’ which upheld a modernistic outlook revolutionising literary and artistic creativity. The novelists, poets and literary critics who represented the ‘Peradeniya School’ were an avant garde boldly challenging established norms and advocating a freedom of expression untrammelled by traditional constraints.

SIRI GUN- Sat mag

‘The Peradeniya School’: It needs mention here that Dr. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, then a senior don in the Department of Sinhala in the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya, whom the outside world recognised as the High Priest of the ‘Peradeniya School’ denied the existence of such a ‘school’. But, the fact of the matter is that there was such a ‘progressive’ movement which was highly indebted to contemporary trends in European literature and Sarachchandra on his own encouraged those young literary artistes such as Gunadasa Amarasekera and Siri Gunasinghe to pursue that line. Sarachcandra’s own monumental dramas, Maname (1956) and Sinhabahu (1961) although rooted in the tradition were modern plays and as far as the outside world was concerned Sarachchandra, being the senior most personality in the group, with his pioneering contributions to the modernization of Sinhala literature as a critic, was the leader of the movement. Perhaps, what Sarachchandra meant was that these literary artistes did not sit together and formulate a literary agenda which was pursued in an organised manner. But, it so happened that there was such a movement and the place where it originated was the University in Peradeniya. The movement gathered momentum and was sustained by the enthusiastic support it got from the graduates, undergraduates and aspirants to university education who were inspired by teachers in the university such as Sarachcandra and Gunasinghe. There lay the apparent success of the movement. Talking about the ‘Peradeniya School’ one cannot forget the fact that its roots go back to the 1940s or even 1930s and that Martin Wickramasinghe’s role in trying to give a modern outlook to Sinhala literature was also a key factor in the genesis of such a modernistic movement later.

Pioneering Work: Sarachcandra had brought out in 1943 the critical study Modern Sinhalese Fiction, a landmark in the annals of modern Sinhala literature because it was the first work that subjected to critical scrutiny any facet of modern Sinhala literature which was developing steadily from the last decades of the 19th century. It created a furor as Sarachchandra had boldly rejected the most cherished works of the time created by the nationalist Piyadasa Sirisena, typifying them as non artistic sermonisations. Similarly, the writings of the popular novelist W. A. Silva were also rejected as sensational melodramas which were far removed from the social reality of the day. What Sarachchandra did was applying the criteria adopted by modern critics in European literature to evaluate what the Sinhala writers were putting out as novels and short stories. His viewpoint was that those writings did not approximate toe standards set by modern critics of works of fiction. The critical stance taken by Sarachchandra was taken to the field of poetry by B. A. S (Siri) Gunasinghe, then an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Sanskrit. The short article he wrote titled, The New Note in Modern Sinhalese Poetry published in The Observer Annual of 1950 was again like a bombshell because it subjected to severe criticism the works of the highly acclaimed poets of the ‘Colombo School’ typifying them as mere versifications full of ‘tinsel words’ and devoid of deep feeling or significant thought.

Those who wrote such poetry could get away with such trivial contents because they could hide behind the traditional prosodic framework. There has never been such an attack on traditional poetic form or its practice. Gunasinghe the modernist was questioning the validity of adhering to a tradition which appeared outdated as far as freedom of expression was concerned. By this time a form of poetry which was not bound by the traditional versification framework was gradually coming up. G. B. Senanayake, a short story writer, brought out in 1946 a collection of short stories titled Paligaenima where between stories he included compositions of ‘free verse’ which he called writings in between prose and poetry. Some university students also followed suit including a few such compositions in their student magazines. The real breakthrough came in 1956 with the publication of Mas Le Naeti Aeta by Siri Gunasinghe. Before that Gunadasa Amarasekera, who had entered the School of Dentistry in the Peradeniya University had brought out a collection of poems Bhava Gita in 1955. In this collection, too, the traditional prosodic framework was utilized by the Colombo School. However Amarasekera did not adopt a ‘free verse’ form and instead adopted a policy of utilising prosodic patterns found in Sinhala folk tradition in ritualistic chants and other rhythmic utterances.

Mas Le Naeti Aeya: Siri Gunasinghe published Mas Le Naeti Aeta collection after returning from his Doctoral Studies at the University of Paris. It was purposely designed as a revolutionary work. Firstly, at the outset of the book the author declared that he was not adhering to the traditional spellings in the use of two ‘na’ and two ‘la’ letters and instead used only one. Furthermore, Gunasinghe’s poetic compositions contained some sentiments which appeared totally anathematic to traditionalist thinking, particularly in giving expression to sensual feelings. Traditionalist critics found in these verses an attempt to undermine traditional ethical foundations. Sri Chandraratne Manavasinghe in the popular column Vaga Tuga in the daily Sinhala newspaper Lankadipa made scathing attacks on the writings of Gunasinghe. And significantly, even Martin Wickramasinghe, who was for the modernisation of Sinhala literature himself found Gunasinghe’s stance too rash. In his survey of modern Sinhala poetry titled Nava Padya Sinhalaya (1957) Wickramasinghe noted that while Gunasinghe appeared to have new ideas and new thoughts which deserved poetic expression and that he was not afraid of giving expression to those sentiments, the language he used brought out his ‘unrestrained immaturity’. Wickramasinghe further observed that “Gunasinghe does not pose a power of expression which matches his ability, knowledge and intelligence”.

Here, I would like to quote an observation by Dr. Hemapala Wijeyawrdhene, a young colleague of Gunasinghe, who describes the artistic atmosphere in Peradeniya in those times: “Peradeniya at the time was identified as an abode of revolutionaries. In such an environment Siri Gunasinghe was a prominent figure, a revolutionary among revolutuionaries” (Preface to Cirantana Sampradaya Ha Pragatiya, a collection of critical essays by Siri Gunasinghe)

Gunasinghe’s revolutionary stance was again given expression in the novel Hevanella in 1061. It was a landmark in the sense it utilised for the first time in Sinhala fiction “the stream of consciousness technique”. (An English translation of this work by Hemamali Gunasinghe appeared in 2010). Traditionalists were irked again by the theme of the novel and the way it has been handled by the author.

Hevanella: The theme of the novel was the spiritual dilemma faced by a young man coming from a traditional Sinhala-Buddhist rural background when he is immersed in the totally strange atmosphere of university life in Colombo. Sarachcandra, the doyen of Sinhala critics of the day had this to say about the theme of the novel:

Although (the protagonist, Jinadasa) tries hard to adjust himself to the new environment he fails to do so . He is unable to free himself from the traditional bondages. He does not have the strength to surmount the limits of his upbringing. His mother and the chief monk of his village are symbols of the traditional value system (Sinhala Navakatha, 1962 ed.)

Jinadasa in the end takes a desperate step going for alcohol and visiting a prostitute. But, the mighty shadow of the past blocks his way and he faces a mental break-down.

Hevanella attracted the attention of the younger generation of readers who saw in it a bold attempt to question age-old constraints and inhibitions. Again, like in Mas Le Naeti Aeta the author utilised the revolutionary spelling and transformed the narrative technique erasing the so far held dichotomy between dialogue and narration. Usually Sinhala novelists used the traditional grammatical system for the narration part and utilised the colloquial idiom for the dialogues. But, Gunasinghe used a colloqualised diction right through.

As far as criticisms were concerned the conservative critics were again up in arms against what they saw as an attempt to undermine the very foundations of Sinhala culture, ridiculing the role played by the mother and the monk in moulding a person’s character. Martin Wickramasinghe saw in Hevanella a trivialisation of rational values. This work as well as some other writings of the Peradeniya School were not reflective of the realities of Sinhala society but were imitative creations inspired by “decadent novels in post second-world war Japan.” (Sinhala Navakathave Japan Kama Katha Hevanella). This sweeping statement of the veteran writer, we must remember, concerned a trend in contemporary Sinhala novel to delve into areas so far untouched by the older generation of writers such as Wickramasinghe. Seen in historical perspective Sinhala readers know that it was writers such as Gunadasa Amarasekera and Siri Gunasinghe in the 1950s and 1960’s who ventured to discuss human problems concerning sex, family and consequent moral issues in works of fiction, And, as far as Gunasinghe’s Hevanella was concerned one cannot deny the existence of such personal and socio-cultural problems in a rapidly modernising traditional society as mid twentieth century Sri Lanka.

In this short essay I have touched upon only a small part of the many faceted contribution by Siri Gunasinghe in enriching our literature and other arts. Here, I referred to three works by him, a critical essay, a collection of poetry and a novel. But, those who lived through that era know the tremendous impact they had on the field of Sinhala literature. The Sinhala poem, in particular, was never the same after the impact of Gunasinghe’s work. And with regard to the novel writers got the strength to venture into social, moral and cultural problems so far untouched in works of fiction.

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March 2, 2015 · 3:09 pm

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