Buddhist Revitalization in Sri Lanka in the Early Twentieth Century: Some Thoughts

Uditha Devapriya, in The Island 12th & 19th August in two parts, with this title  “Early 20th Century Buddhist Revival”  …. https://ceylontoday.lk/news/a-short-note-part-1-early-20th-century-buddhist-revival AND https://ceylontoday.lk/news/a-short-note-part-2-early-20th-century-buddhist-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 well as by their heterogeneity.

Sri Lanka’s transition to a plantation economy took place under British rule (1796-1948). While it’s not 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 who 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.

  Leading members of the Orient Club in the earlt 20th century …incl of several political activists ( e.g. EJ Samerawickrema, James Peiris, FR Senanayake, HJC Pereira, Frederick Dornhorst)

Mudaliyar Senanyake and his children … one branch of the new bourgeoisie

the leading graphite producers & merchants in 1907

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.

While differences between these two elites had become pronounced by the middle of the 19th century, by the time of the Buddhist revival they were fading away. The bourgeoisie, for their part, did not completely reject the customs and habits of the old elite, as witnessed by nouveau riche govigama families marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy. Similarly, the old elite endeavoured to enter the world of that nouveau riche.

typical mansions

in Colombo 

Given the all too fine distinctions which cropped up among the bourgeoisie as it grew and evolved in the 19th century, the Buddhist revival developed in spurts and stages rather than in one giant leap. The question as to which class gave an impetus to the revival is thus linked to the question of which class interests prevailed in the unfolding of that revival.

To take Kumari Jayawardena’s word for it, the Buddhist revival passed through three stages. The first was marked by the intervention of the Theosophical Society, lasting until the first decade of the 20th century, while the second involved nationalist radical elements, peaking at the time of the 1915 riots. The third stage, by contrast, saw a petering out of the revival following the riots, a process followed by the secularisation of nationalism.

The nationalist and trade-union movements became secular in outlook, and religion, which had played a key role in the earlier period of political and labor unrest, took on a role of secondary importance, though it was not a factor that was ever dormant. The Buddhist revival… was no longer regarded as a daring challenge to authority.k. M. de Silva’s view essentially coheres with Jayawardena’s.

Surprisingly, the immediate effect of the riots of 1915 was to freeze an evolving political situation before its potential was fully realized and to postpone any fresh developments for some years… the brand of militant Buddhism associated with [Anagarika] Dharmapala receded into the background for over a generation.

Dovetailing with these trends was the triumph of a conservative elite leadership, what de Silva calls “constitutionalists”, over more radical forms of political protest. This in turn sped up the separation of politics from the domain of cultural nationalism, indeed to cordon off the one from the other to the extent where the revival all but completely abandoned its political pretentions, at least according to Jayawardena. The link between politics and religion, she observes, “loosened in the years between 1915 and 1933”, even if religion “remained an ever-present factor.”

In other words, the revival lost its moorings after the riots. In his study of this period, George Bond argues that as opposed to the reformism that influenced the revival in the late 19th century, the pioneers of the revival imbibed a “neo-traditional” view of Buddhism, which rejected radicalism in the political and reformism in the cultural domain, in the early 20th. This shift coincided with a period of increasing political awareness on the part of the working class, as well as increasing political representation for the middle-class, the nouveau riche bourgeoisie. To those three trends I should add a third: the rise of an articulate, literate, yet stunted petty bourgeoisie.

The petty bourgeoisie [consisted in part of] … a new group of (mainly urban) clerks, minor bureaucrats, shopkeepers and teachers, spawned by the needs of the plantation economy and the expanding activities of the state and service sectors. The petty bourgeois intelligentsia (especially in the urban sector) were articulate on economic and social questions and supported movements for social reform.

In the 19th century, it had been this petty bourgeoisie, along with the “new rich Buddhists”, who had financed the Buddhist revival. What Jayawardena terms as “the Sinhala-Buddhist fervour of the traders” hence had a considerable impact on the trajectory of that revival in the period under discussion, a revival that at the hands of this petty bourgeoisie turned into “an agitational movement with semi-political overtones.”

Interestingly enough, the very source of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie’s wealth – trade and merchant activity – prevented their nationalism from flowering properly; they were too dependent on the colonial economic framework to defy that framework. In how this rift, between their nationalist pretensions and economic constraints, came to be reflected in the cultural aspects of the revival, particularly in the performing arts that was patronised by the Sinhala middle-class, we see how the transformations in the cultural and political landscape of early 20th century Sri Lanka failed to work to their logical end.

It is through this triad – the separation of cultural nationalism from political radicalisation, the rise of the colonial bourgeoisie, and the growth of the petty bourgeoisie – that the revival of the early 20th century came to differ from its antecedents in the late 19th century. These had different impacts on different art forms, particularly in the domains of literature, drama, and painting. This calls for a perusal of their influence on the performing arts.

In an overview of Sinhala nationalism, Michael Roberts observes that while opposing the propaganda of officials and missionaries, nationalists adopted methods pioneered by those same agents of colonialism, in particular the polemic and the pamphlet.

By the turn of the 20th century, nationalist elites, hailing from the middle class and petty bourgeoisie, projected a fascinatingly contradictory attitude to nationalism through their patronage of stage dramas and works of literature: while they condemned colonial rule in no uncertain terms, they subscribed to a colonial reconstruction of history.

In his study of the evolution of Sinhala music in the 20th century, Garret Field observes that composers and playwrights were as moved by monetary reasons as by cultural ones. In other words, speaking to a mostly urban lower middle-class audience, they were mindful of the impact their work would have on colonial officials; they therefore toned down the content of these productions, ensuring they would reach as wide an audience as possible while not offending the sensibilities of colonial administrators. In Kumari Jayawardena’s view, artists like C. Don Bastian, Charles Dias and John de Silva “nibbled” at colonial rule, critiquing the decay of traditional values while affirming a colonial reinterpretation of that tradition.

A good example of this would be de Silva’s play Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. While lamenting the loss of the Kandyan kingdom to British dominion, 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 intrepid Orientalist agent, John D’Oyly. While this view of the king has since been disputed and questioned since, at the time of de Silva’s plays, it was accepted as historical fact by Sinhala nationalist playwrights. Field sums up such paradoxes well: “Nurthi musicals show the confluence of the Parsi theater with the Buddhist revival, and the revival’s promotion of the Arya-Sinhala identity.”

What was true of nurthi plays, interestingly, was true also of literary endeavours: thus, while the Pali edition of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera’s and Batuvantudawe’s translation of the Mahavamsa promoted an Orientalist reading of history, their Sinhala translation lamented the loss of the Sinhala heritage following colonial conquest.

What is pertinent here is that the stunted ideology of nationalist elites found its expression in the stunted ideology of their objets d’art, 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 thus possible for patrons and consumers of these arts to decry a lost heritage (Sinhala and Arya) while adhering to colonial conceptions of history. As Roberts puts it, the revival 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.

Of particular significance here is Anne Blackburn’s exhortation to not consider the revival in the 19th and the 20th century, solely as a response by “natives” to settlers, and to judge the political and cultural aspects of nationalism from other standpoints.

To write histories of colonial-period Buddhism solely as the history of Buddhists acting in response to colonialism is to restrict our line of vision unnecessarily and to prejudice our historiography of colonialism prior to research… It assumes that the weight of British colonial domination, with its forms of knowledge and technologies, ruptured long standing social logics, power relations, and sources of intellectual and psychological comfort and stability… [I]t is possible to develop an alternative line of vision… as well as local relationships of care and obligation.

If the nurthi plays of John de Silva and Charles Dias point at a link between colonialism and cultural revival that exists beyond the sphere of anti-colonial nationalism, it points us also to a matrix of values, logics, and links which, while conforming to the spirit of religious and cultural revival, nevertheless coexists with colonialism. Hence Sri Wickrema is a plea for the restoration of a lost heritage, a condemnation of colonial modernity, yet, at the same time, an indictment of a figure (the last king of Sinhale) associated with that heritage.

Michael Roberts has written of how the nascent Sinhala middle-class, having entered the professions and effectively wrested the Civil Service from British officials and Burgher elites, rationalised the Kandyan Convention of 1815 as a legally enforceable document which the British had honoured more in the breach than the observation. In contrast to the liberation movements that sprang up in rapid intensity after the annexation of the Kandyan regions, and that viewed that document as a symbol of the Kandyan nobility’s betrayal of the king, these nationalists argued for the implementation of the Convention, and considered official disregard of it as a more tangible symbol of betrayal. Roughly the same contradictions existed, and flourished, in the most avowedly nationalist nurthi plays of the new century.

These facets were touched on by R. A. L. H. Gunawardana in his groundbreaking essay, “The People of the Lion” (1979), which noted that Sinhala nationalism was fermented under conditions of British colonialism: “[i]t was during the period of colonial rule that the Sinhala consciousness underwent a radical transformation and began to assume its current form.”

As Senake Bandaranayake writes in his essay on Ananda Coomaraswamy, British colonialism produced a disjuncture between opposition to political nationalism and embracement of cultural nationalism: thus while British officials imagined, idealised, and valorised a pristine Sinhala culture, these same officials also cracked down on anti-colonial struggles while “denying or neglecting the more recent or extant vitality of” the bearers of that culture.

Such intersections of colonialism and nationalism are not always easy to discern, but the fact that there was a relationship, however uneasy as it may have been, between nationalist rhetoric and colonial historiography reveals the inability of certain art forms, and artists, to defy colonial rule in full force, to rail against imperialism; in other words, to embrace the kind of modernism that embraced the indigenous, in its totality, while rejecting Western canons of taste, propriety, and history. I say “certain” because it was possible for some art forms and their purveyors to defy the boundaries of colonial rule, to imbibe more fully the radical nationalist facets of the Buddhist revival. Among these was painting.

Perhaps the most obvious reason why painting was able to undergo a modernist revolution faster than could theatre and literature is 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 it could dispense with the written word. Modernism in art thus swamped Sri Lanka more rapidly than either the theatre or the press because it was cut off from print capitalism. It was easier to defy canons of taste here because the painter did not have to borrow European notions of modernity that nationalist playwrights and novelists had been innovating on from the 19th century. He did not need to refer a text; he had frescoes, murals, and lithographs to refer to.

This is not to say painters did not have notions of their art which differed radically with each other’s. As Sunil Goonesekara has noted, 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 breed even then; on yet another hand, there were lithographers who reproduced scenes from Jataka stories and Buddhist parables, whose leading light, Sarlis, projected a style that was, as Goonasekera argues, “not wholly native nor wholly other.”

With the establishment of the Ceylon Art Club in 1928, the purveyors of modern art managed to make their mark and pose a challenge, as an alternative, to these three schools, in much the same way their counterparts in India did through the intervention of E. B. Havell. Though perhaps not explicitly in tune with the spirit of the revival, those who chose this path, who got together as the 43 Group, eventually let themselves be shaped by the currents of cultural nationalism in ways that distinguished them from the colonial bourgeoisie.

It’s not a coincidence that most of these painters hailed from the country’s anglicised elite, and that they absorbed much from the culture of their country (a culture to which their colonial upbringing had blinded them) through their art. In the case of George Keyt in particular, this process went one step further: art didn’t just liberate him from his milieu, it brought him closer to the spirit of the revival than it did with any of the other members of the 43 Group. To understand this requires a more than passing perusal of Keyt’s work in the 1920s, the decade in which he all but completely embraced Buddhism, and took to painting, or drawing, Buddhist themes. The lines of inquiry this opens us to, however, lie well beyond the scope of this essay.


Anderson, B., Imagined Communities (2006), Verso, pp. 113-140

Blackburn, A., Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka (2010), Social Scientists’ Association

Bond, G., The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka: Religious Tradition, Reinterpretation and Response (1988), University of South Carolina

Dalmia, Y., Buddha to Krishna: Life and Times of George Keyt (2016), Routledge

De Silva, K. M. and Wriggins, H., J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, Volume I: The First Fifty Years (1994), J. R. Jayewardene Cultural Centre

De Silva, K. M., A History of Sri Lanka (2013), Vijitha Yapa Publications

Dharmasiri, A., George Keyt: A Portrait of the Artist (2020), National Trust

Field, G., Modernizing Composition: Sinhala Song, Poetry and Politics in Twentieth Century Sri Lanka (2017), University of California Press

Goonasekera, S., George Keyt: Interpretations (1991), Institute of Fundamental Studies

Jama, Osman, “E. B. Havell: The art and politics of Indianness (2008)”, Third Text, 11:39, 3-19

Jayawardena, K., “Class and ethnic consciousness in Sri Lanka in the late 19th and early 20th century”, Selected Essays: Labour, Feminism, and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka (2017), Sailfish

Jayawardena, K., A. P. de Zoysa: Combative Social Democrat and Buddhist Reformer in 20th Century Sri Lanka (2012), Sanjiva Books

Jayawardena, K., Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie (2010), Social Scientists’ Association

Jayawardena, K., The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ceylon (2004), Sanjiva Books

Obeyesekere, G., “Colonel Olcott: Buddhist modernism in the Theosophical movement”, The Buddha in Sri Lanka: Histories and Stories (2019), Routledge India, pp. 251-277

Roberts, M., “Elite formation and elitism, 1832-1931”, Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, Volume I (1997), Marga Institute, pp. 191-265

Roberts, M., “Stimulation and ingredients in the awakening of latter-day nationalism”, Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, Volume I (1997), Marga Institute, pp. 267-321

Wright, A., Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (2013), Vijitha Yapa Publications

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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