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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2370

Sixty Years of Independence: Struggle to Rid the British Legacy amidst Tea, Cricket and English Language

By Philip Fernando in Los Angeles

British rule ended in 1948. The Sri Lankan repertoire of coping with the legacy left by the “Nation of Shop Keepers” took its toll, since the day the bourgeoning empire builders were at out door-step. Shop keeping was not our forte. We prevailed in many a battle but we had a fight on our hands when the clash of the two civilizations occurred: Shop Keepers Vs Lotus Eaters. Fortunately that task was taken over by leaders like Anagarika Dhrmapala, Munidasa Cumaratunga and Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, who battled the instant addiction to the British way of life Sri Lankans were subject to. Tea, cricket and the English language were stronger additives than acquiescence to the British military. Three men who contributed towards re-establishing the national psyche are described here.

It was a well-known axiom that governance is thirty percent acquiescence and seventy percent addiction. For example, the British military presence in India was miniscule when judged in terms of the territory and population controlled by the British army. The masses were lulled by the overwhelming “presence” offered by the invaders, until the myth was shattered by freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi. So it was in Sri Lanka too.

Sri Lankans could do very little about the all pervading administrative set-up and rapidly growing plantations, roads and railway network started by the British. They, however, vehemently resisted any attempt to subvert national culture by the dominance of the colonial policies. The very presence of the stranger, alien, and so unconscionably enduring reign of the colonial powers was itself a grievous burden to the national psyche. The road to a restoration of national self-respect was born as patriotic leaders took up the cause of freedom.

Anagarika Dhrmapala (1864-1933) raged against "the diabolism of vicious paganism introduced by the British administrators.” He reminded the people of their splendid past: "There exists no race on the earth today that has had a more glorious, triumphant record of victory." There tirades may be downright politically incorrect today, but Anagarika Dhrmapala had a moral mission. He wanted a new valuation of the national psyche. The Anagarika was concerned about people losing their values in the face of an incessant onslaught both economic and political.

What he created stuck with us for good. Restored national self-consciousness gained popularity, as his newspaper “Sinhala Bauddhaya” of 1906 spread his message. He had to avoid falling into the inevitable trap of being charged as a treasonable subject by the British. He overcame such a calamity by sticking to the cause of national revival based on moral values. He did no attack the British Rah but its cultural degradation.

In the movement of national resurgence there were also men with specifically aesthetic and literary concerns, who looked back in the same spirit of patriotic fervor to the literary glories of the past. In the 1920’s the Sinhalese purist and social reformer Munidasa Cumaratunga (1887-1944) tried to change the course of contemporary writing and to resuscitate an idiom from beyond the thirteenth century. As a purist he found acceptance hard to win during the early stages, but his writings and speeches gave him the stature of a great symbolic figure of the resurgence. This effort complemented the demand of the Anagarika for a new valuation of the national psyche.

In the field of literary criticism he even outdid the Anagarika when he insisted on the antiquity of pure Sinhalese (‘Helese’), which he declared to be ‘older than the oldest of Indian languages.’ He repudiated with scorn all suggestions of an Indo-Aryan origin for the Sinhalese language. "There is perhaps no nation older than we. How can we, therefore accept the theory that everything of ours is derived from outside?" he asked.
According to one critic the work of art that was to give brave and beautiful expression to the restoration process came about when Dr. Sarachchandra produced his dramas starting in 1956, at a time when some hung on to the belief that English and with it Western literature, was immeasurably superior, growing and daily discovering itself, while in the light of it, the achievement by Sinhala writers was provincial, second-rate and lacking in critical direction.

It is safe to state that it was late Professor Sarachchandra, who ultimately brought to fruition what Anagarika started. Professor Sarachchandra’s plays embodied the very same inner craving the leaders of national resurgence possessed in building a national self-confidence vital for getting rid of the colonial mentality. The new national psyche had arrived.

In other words, the cultural emancipation, Anagarika Dhrmapala and Munidasa Cumaratunga had worked for, Ediriweera Sarachchandra made possible; his plays quite definitely represented in their own sphere a decisive phase in the struggle against British legacy.

Sarachchandra had little in the form of a live tradition of drama to help him. However, towards the beginning of the nineteenth century a species of dramatic entertainment had evolved called the nadagam, derived from the Roman Catholic folk plays of the Tamils of the North of Ceylon. These gained popularity among the Sinhalese, where more secular themes took center stage. However, they preserved intact the mingling of song, dance and rustic buffoonery, the salient formal characteristics of the original plays. Dr. Sarachchandra successfully blended the dramatic elements of these plays to create the stylized creations that was hailed as major works of art. Maname and Sinhabahu, the saw beginnings of a major cultural revival in the country.

It was the unanimous view of many critics that in post-colonial society, Sarachchandra plays expressed potently the national sense of identity, re-assured it perhaps, and certainly transfigured it. What was most rewarding to everyone was that they performed this function without themselves subsiding in a nationalist hysteria prevailing all round. That factor, perhaps, best explained the plays’ continued effectiveness and validity for the ‘outsider.’

Undoubtedly, Dr, Sarachchandra derived his stimulus from the intensification of nationalist feeling around 1956, but he was not himself trapped within its confines, and did not, as dramatist, subscribed to its heady optimism. Consequently, critics have pointed out that Maname and Sinhabahu by-passed the transient mood of a nation but addressed to its permanent experience and with it to the experience of all mankind: they contrived to be national without losing their claim to be universal. Thus, notwithstanding the urgency of economic problems of the country, the plays changed the mood of the nation, and provided a focus of identity satisfying the spectator’s sense of the complexity of the dramatic experience.

(This is the first in the series of articles commemorative of the sixtieth anniversary of Independence.)

- Asian Tribune -

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