7th May 2000
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Flowing rhythms and spiritual themes

By Alfreda de Silva
Today marks the 139th birth anniversary of the celebrated Bengali savant-poet, novelist, dramatist, painter and musician, Rabindranath Tagore. 

He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature for Gitanjali, his collection of devotional poetry in 1913. This sparked a return among poets to the gently flowing rhythms of free verse and spiritual themes. 

From his autobiography we have "I was born into a family which had to live its own life, which led me in my young days to seek guidance for my self-expression from my own inner standard of judgement. No poet should borrow his medium from some shop of respectability, he should not only have his own seeds but should prepare his own soil".

Most of his work was written in Bengali and translated into English. Our remarkable Principal Constance Blacker, at Girton School, Nugegoda, had introduced some of his books to the school library. Among them were the Gardener, Stray Birds, The Crescent Moon and the play The Post Office. 

So it was not surprising that we, the young students of Girton, were taken by her and the staff to the Regal Theatre when Rabindranath Tagore and his accompanying troupe of singers, dancers and musicians performed there in May 1934. 

My memories of that show have never faded. The auditorium was packed to capacity. The curtains opened. And there on that wide stage, against a stark black backdrop sat the white-robed sage. 

His white hair flowed to his shoulders, above his long white beard as he gazed at the audience, like some ancient prophet. Then came the poetry readings - resonant, an enticing chant, both in Bengali and English. 

It was the Vesak season then. On Vesak Day 1934, Tagore, at the invitation of Wilmot Perera, the Founder of Sri Palee, opened that institution. He also wrote a special Vesak poem to the Buddha, which was published in a local journal . 

It began with these lines: 

"The world today is wild with the delirium of hatred, 
The conflicts are cruel and unceasing in anguish, 
Crooked are its paths, tangled its bonds of greed. 
All creatures are crying for a new birth of thine, 
O Thou of boundless life, 
Save them, rouse thine eternal 
Voice of hope...."

This poem was later published in Poems Old and New. 

The sensitivity to children and childhood innocence, which Tagore displays in some of his work are clearly evident in stories like The Cabuliwallah and the play The Post Office. 

In the latter, a childless couple, Madhav and his wife adopt a little boy, Amal. Compelled to stay indoors by his doctor, the terminally sick child attracts to his window some colourful passers-by, caring, ordinary, village people, who pause to talk to him and comfort and amuse him. 

The dialogue is wonderfully mellowed with subtle touches of humour. 

The old Gaffer, the dairy man, the watchman and the little girl Sudha, all help him to forget his loneliness, except the headman who taunts him. 

But Amal's wish that the king would send him a letter from his new post office is granted in the most poignant way, and the headman realizes what a mistake he has made. 

It is the sovereign king himself who visits the boy. 

The Post Office written in 1912 was both philosophical and symbolic. The Irish Theatre staged it successfully in London - a perfectly crafted piece conveying love, gentleness and acceptance. 

Tagore wrote a great many love poems. From the Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892 -1935, chosen by W.B.Yeats, we have this delicate cameo: 

In the dusky path of a dream 

I went to seek the love who was mine in a former life. 
..........She set her lamp down by the portal and stood before me 
She raised her large eyes to my face and mutely asked "Are you well my friend?" 
I tried to answer, but our language had been lost and forgotten..... 

About a hundred miles from Calcutta is Tagore's Shanthiniketan, the Abode of Peace. It is a centre for retreat and meditation. He had always felt the need for young people with creative abilities in poetry, music, dancing and other arts to have a place of natural beauty and tranquillity to foster them.

Visva Bharati which is a World University of Fine Arts which extends Shanthiniketan.

It embodies Tagore's message, his plea for peace. These lines are from the Nobel winning Gitanjali :

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free; 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; 
Where words come out from the depth of truth; 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; 
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action - 
Into that heaven of freedom
My Father, let my country awake

On an exciting cinematic trail

With absolutely no fanfare, a serious study of Sri Lankan cinema has hit the bookstands. 'Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema' is a publication of the Asian Film Centre which has done a great deal, over a short span of just nine years, to meet its objectives of enhancing and enriching film culture in the country and expanding the appreciation of film as a culturally relevant art form among all sections of the population.

We believe cinema is a significant cultural practice. What this means is that there are different dimensions to cinema - technological, artistic, entertainment, political, ideological and so on. These are closely inter-linked and constitute a significant cultural discourse. At the same time, without subscribing to a naively reductionist auteur theory, we have sought to combine a focus on the work of individual film directors with the notion of film as a discourse and cultural practice.

That's how two serious students of cinema -Professor Wimal Dissanayake and Ashley Ratnavibhushana - introduce their joint effort Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, described as "an introductory essay aimed at non-specialist and general readers". The authors say its objective is to present concisely the growth of Sri Lankan cinema and map its high points and dominant trends, focusing on the more important filmmakers. It is primarily intended for foreign readers who wish to acquaint themselves with Sri Lankan cinema.

They have done an excellent job. Newspapers and journals have, over the years, published articles relating to cinema but this is the first serious study, at least in English, of how the Sri Lankan cinema (which in effect means the Sinhala cinema) has progressed during its 53-year history. And they have done it in a simple, readable and interesting way. Starting with a chapter on the early days, they move on to feature prominent filmmakers thereby tracing the development of Sinhala cinema. They also discuss popular cinema, touch on Tamil and English films made locally, talk about the documentary and non-fiction films and outline the relationship between the cinema and the state.

Discussing the filmmakers naturally focuses attention on their work - good and bad. Thus the book becomes an authoritative study for anyone interested in learning about our films. Highlighting Gamperaliya as a turning point, the authors point out that it was an unqualified critical success, reminding us that when it won the Golden Peacock award at the New Delhi Festival, the jury (including Lindsay Anderson, Andrej Wajda, Georges Sadoul and Satyajit Ray) commended it for the 'poetry and sensitivity with which it explores and illuminates personal relations'. The film signified the opening up of a new cultural and representational space with immense possibilities. With Gampera-liya, a tradition of serious and artistic filmmaking was established in Sri Lanka.

The essay on the emergence of an artistic cinema discusses Lester James Peries' contribution. Lester is described as "a literary oriented filmmaker" in many ways, not only because his sensibility has been inflected by literature but also because many of his works were based on literary works. 

His strengths are discussed thus: "The strength of Peries resides in his deep engagement with the complexities of personal relationships and the probing into the inner recesses of the human mind. He sought to accomplish this through an unobtrusive cinema which honoured narrative closure, character identification, sequential editing, non-reflexive camera, frame balance, and image continuity. He was meticulous as a craftsman most of the time without ever yielding to the temptations of stylistic fancy-work. Ahasin Polovata and Delovak Atara bear this out." 

Having analysed Dharmasena Pathiraja's work, the authors call him an uncompromisingly dedicated filmmaker, with a high sense of integrity who ignores lazy demands for easy understanding. On the basis of the nine films made by Vasantha Obeysekera so far, a number of features which distinguish his work are identified: deep commitment to social experience, investigation into evil, pleasure and power, his desire to carry the generality of the movie-going public with him and his innovations in style and iconography, most notably in the mutually interrogatory use of sight and sound in narrative discourse.

The chapter on Dharmasiri Bandaranayake is titled 'Anxieties and ecstasies of forbidden desires'. The authors conclude that he is "a transgressive filmmaker who has shown a daring in examining themes and experimenting with styles that go counter to the established ways of society and dictates of conventional cinema. However, his films have not fulfilled the ambitions that they have announced. A certain immaturity, both emotional and intellectual, mars his narrative discourses". 

Sumithra Peries (she has done seven films) is primarily interested in the woman as a victim; the echo of social victimisation reverberates throughout her work. As a woman director she is able to empathise with the anguish of suffering women, they state. 

Introducing Prasanna Vithanage as the most outstanding film director to emerge in the 1990s, the authors point out that he has displayed a grasp of the medium, sensitivity to local culture and understanding of the dynamics of human behaviour that are truly impressive. He exudes an affectionate understanding of his characters as they grapple with an impossible innocence. Unlike film directors with lesser talent, he never mistakes counterfeit posturing for genuine sentiment. 

The book ends with film, name and subject indexes, which come in handy for easy reference. The titles of films from 1947 to end 1999 (916 in all) with the names of the directors and dates of release are also included forming a ready reckoner for any student of cinema.


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