The Skeins of Class bearing on the Threads of Sinhala Cultural Revival under the British

Uditha Devapriya, in The Island, 24 July 2021, where the title reads “Colonial Bourgeoisie and Sinhala Cultural Revival”

The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka did not form a monolithic class. They were divided horizontally as well as vertically: horizontally on the basis of income and inheritance, and vertically on the basis of primordial attachments, such as caste ideology. Various factors, mainly economic, conspired as much to unify the bourgeoisie as they did to divide them, distinguishing them by their homogeneity as much as by their heterogeneity.

Panadura Vaadaya

Sri Lanka’s transition to a plantation economy took place under British rule (1796-1948). While it’s not really accurate to say that prior to British rule the country, especially parts of the Kandyan kingdom, remained cut off from monetary exchange (a thesis that has been questioned by S. B. D. de Silva in his work on colonial underdevelopment), the British sped up the consolidation of a plantation colony, dominated by import-export trade. The creation of a new economy facilitated the formation of a new elite that found ways of building up wealth and prestige from road toll and arrack rents, plantation profits, investments in urban property, and entry into the civil service and the professions.

This bourgeoisie differed in degree and substance from the traditional elite that hailed from the apex of the social hierarchy in the Kandyan kingdom. A two-way process followed: while the bourgeoisie gained wealth and prestige over the traditional elite, the latter either found themselves reduced to a semi-dependent elite, or adapted to a changing world.

Different scholars have approached these issues from different, if only vaguely similar, vantage points. Thus Gananath Obeyesekere ascribes the revival to the dissemination of “Protestant Buddhist” values among the Sinhala bourgeoisie, Kumari Jayawardena to the ideology of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, and Michael Roberts to the adoption of Western notions of nationalism and forms of propaganda. These are important perspectives, and they shed light on the role of class interests in the unfolding of nationalist revivals in colonial society. Yet different as they may be, they are all premised on assumptions of one milieu’s (petty bourgeoisie) dependence on a dominating elite (comprador bourgeoisie), and of that dominating elite’s dependence on a colonial economic framework.

For perfectly plausible reasons, these hypotheses deny ideological autonomy on the part of both dependent and dominating classes. Thus Kumari Jayawardena distinguishes between the plantation bourgeoisie and the semi-industrial bourgeoisie, in relation to their response to the revival, on the basis of the relations between their methods of acquiring wealth and colonial economic constraints, so that elite families subscribe to a conservative reading of Buddhism moulded by their ties to plantation capital, while Anagarika Dharmapala, whose family was involved in industries “not totally dependent on colonial patronage”, espouses a more “reformist” reading in keeping with a radical approach to politics.

Simply put, to the extent that the bourgeoisie was locked into an economy dominated by colonial interests, it viewed the revival as an expression of its own ideology. The use of the plural is instructive here, in that the bourgeoisie, as Roberts notes, did not share a unifying ideology, and were in fact “more differentiated” than traditional elites.

John de Silva — playwright

This interpretation of the revival helps us glean the intricate links between the economic base of colonial society and the ideological superstructure of revivalist movements, avoiding the pitfalls of rationalising such movements on purely cultural grounds, as nationalists are wont to do. It also presents colonial history as a series of successive periods in which one set of class ideologies prevailed over others: a plantation bourgeois at the tail-end of the 19th century, and a petty bourgeois at the turn of the 20th.

Yet, despite the validity of these perspectives, they omit three factors pertinent to the triad of colonialism, cultural modernity, and nationalist revival: ideological agency on the part of the contending milieus (intra-class, between sections of the elite, and inter-class, between different elites), the contribution of “unrepresented” classes, most prominently the working class and peasantry, to that triad, and the part played by different artists and art forms with respect to the revival and its unfolding in the 20th century.


The latter point merits much consideration. In his study of the evolution of Sinhala music in the early 20th century, Garret Field observes that composers and playwrights were as moved by monetary reasons as by cultural ones. In Jayawardena’s view, artistes like Charles Dias and John de Silva “nibbled” at colonial rule, critiquing the decay of cultural values while paradoxically presenting a colonial reinterpretation of local history.

A good example of this would be de Silva’s Sri Wickrema. While lamenting the loss of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, it presents the last king of Kandy as a rapacious tyrant, a drunkard laggard: ironically, in line with propaganda about the monarch disseminated by colonial officials, in particular the Orientalist agent, John D’Oyly.

Sketch of D’Óyly in conversation …

What is pertinent here is that the stunted ideology of nationalist elites found its expression in the stunted ideology of the objets d’art they exhibited, and that this ideology prevented these art forms from undergoing a modernist revolution which could question colonial rule without subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of culture. I posit three reasons for why the nurthi plays of John de Silva, among other objets, failed to make that important leap: their mass appeal, the high levels of capital investment they required, and the conflicting attitude of their patrons, some of whom hailed from the bourgeoisie, to colonial rule.

At the turn of the 20th century, with the bifurcation of nationalism into radical politics and cultural revival, it was possible for patrons of these arts to decry a lost heritage (Sinhala and Arya) while adhering to colonial conceptions of history. As Roberts puts it,

“The cultural awakening and the recoil against the Western world, then, took many forms. It was influenced and permeated by romanticism, populism, indigenism, and anti-Western sentiments. Its conceptual forms were more traditionalist than tradition; and more revivalist than traditionalist. It did not possess the solipsist complacency and self-confidence of those who rely on the traditional… Neither was it wholly traditionalist and restorative. Its principal activists were selective in the traditions they picked up.”

Roberts has noted elsewhere that, while calling for the end of British rule, nationalist elites resorted to Western modes of protest; thus, while nationalist liberators who sprang up in the Kandyan regions after their annexation by the British decried the Kandyan Convention as a betrayal of the Sinhala kingdom, nationalist agitators in the 20th century rationalised the Convention as a legal document which British officials had honoured more in the breach than the observation. Benedict Anderson has analysed these paradoxes in his study of what he calls the “last wave of nationalism”, which unfolded in the European colonies of Africa and Asia at the end of the 19th century. His thesis explains the paradoxical response to their own history by Sinhala nationalists; even in the act of decrying a lost pre-colonial heritage, these same nationalists subscribed to values promoted by colonisers. Hence Sri Wickrema is a plea for the restoration of a lost heritage, a condemnation of colonial “modernity”, yet it is also an indictment of a key figure associated with that heritage.

Dependent as these objets were on “colonial capital”, for a more meaningful analysis, they should be compared with art forms that were not so dependent on such capital.

In the decorative arts, breaks with the past transpired more rapidly, and thoroughly, than they did in the realm of literature and theatre. As Sunil Goonesekara has observed, by the time of the revival in the early 20th century important debates had sprung up about which mode of painting best suited the country. On the one hand, there was the studio painter, who looked up to styles established in European art academies; on the other hand, there were the traditional Kandyan painters, a vanishing group even then; on yet another hand, there were lithographers reproducing Buddhist parables, whose figurehead, Sarlis, exuded a style that was, as Goonasekera puts it, “not wholly native nor wholly other.”

Perhaps the most obvious reason why painting was able to undergo a modernist revolution faster than could theatre and literature was that it did not fit the three criteria applicable to the latter two art forms: it lacked a mass audience, it did not require high levels of capital investment, and it did not need the patronage of elites tied to colonialism.

Underscoring this was the even simpler fact that painting was a visual art, and that unlike theatre and literature it could dispense with the written word. If John Berger’s dictum that we see before we speak is indeed true, and what we see establishes our place in the world more quickly than can the printed word, modernism in art swamped Sri Lanka more rapidly than either the theatre or the press because it was cut off from print capitalism; simply put, it was easier to defy canons of taste in painting, because the painter did not have to borrow European notions of modernity that nationalists and revivalists had been innovating on from the tail-end of the 19th century. He did not need a “text.” He had frescoes, lithographs, and murals to work from. The revival may have thrived on the polemic, but it breathed through the canvas. This is, perhaps, a point seldom appreciated, if at all. Yet it is true.

Anne Blackburn has cautioned against viewing the Buddhist revival solely as a response to colonialism by nationalists. In painting, we come across a new way of viewing the revival: neither a collective rejection of the West, nor a total acceptance of colonial canons of taste and propriety, but rather a break from both. This obviously opens up new lines of discussion and interpretation as regards colonialism in Sri Lanka, a topic that for far too long has been viewed through a class, caste, or elite lens by scholars and students.

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