ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 7, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 19

Wonderful mosaic of music, films and memories over the years

"Roots, Reflections & Reminiscences" by Tissa Abeysekara (Sarasavi-Rs.475).

Reviewed by Tissa Devendra

Reading Tissa Abeysekera’s wonderful essays and talks, I imagine myself in convivial leisurely conversations with him, seated on a long trellised verandah which was so much a part of his youth and mine. He is a true ‘bahusrutha’, a master in so many fields – film, music, Sinhala literature, biography and so much more that my limited intellectual equipment can but scratch their surface in this review. But I will try.

Tissa was fortunate to escape the intellectual strait-jacket of University "education". He was gifted with the guts to pursue, what was to become, his life-long addiction to the art of film. "I was not yet completely out of my teens….and was taking the cinema with great and affected seriousness". He was so cheesed off with Lester James Pieris’ commercial success ‘Sandesaya’ that he had the temerity to write to the Director a long letter where he "poured out all the affected critical mannerisms". LJP promptly replied and two days later [the GPO was much faster then] "beckoned me into the verandah ….the two short steps were the most decisive steps in my life – a Rubicon crossing" into the wondrous world of film that yet holds him in thrall.

These extracts are from The Long Veranda which is, perhaps, the most sensitive account of the life and work of LJP, not a catalogue of achievements, but a journey enriched with personal experience. The companion piece to this essay is Between Two Worlds whose ‘reflections on the Cinema of LJP’ uses LJP’s films as starting point to range widely over the gamut of Tissa’s interests (or should I say ‘obsessions?). With simple mastery he discusses popular Sinhala films, the impact of Martin Wickremasingha’s novels on those earlier Sinhala romances "on the level of Mrs. Henry Wood and Charles Garvis" - melodramatic Edwardian novelists with whose work Tissa seems surprisingly familiar.

He discusses Sinhala music, the baneful effect of the Parsee Theatre and Bombay Talkies and – surprisingly – makes a sympathetic and understanding analysis of the brave musical experimentation of that renegade ‘brown sahib’ Deva Surya Sena. His erudite references to the Bengali Renaissance are balanced against his comments on popular Sinhala ‘culture’ of the 1920s – the Tower Hall plays and their pictorial equivalent ,the Jataka lithographs of M. Sarlis. The strains of Olu Pipeela which drew LJP away from London then draw Tissa into a sensitive commentary of Sunil Santha’s music.

In the opening essay From the Lily Pond to the Girls on the Golden Rock Tissa speaks of the struggle that proud and lonely artist had to evolve a "truly indigenous musical idiom"and boldly goes on to bitterly revile the towering cultural icons Sarachchandra and M.J. Perera, whose baneful insistence on North Indian ragas as the root-stock of our musical tradition, almost killed the native Sinhala music being revived by Sunil Santha.

In The Lost Song of the Lotus Child Tissa returns to the lyrics of the Sigiri graffiti that Sunil Santha,in his last phase, bravely attempted to set to indigenous Sinhala music. This essay, which he describes as "some thoughts on Gunadasa Amerasekera’s search for a lost idiom in Sinhala poetry" is far more than that. It is a brilliant tour-de-force and a refreshingly critical vision spanning Sinhala literature and poetry from its very dawn to the twilight of today, sporadically lit by a comet such as Martin Wickremasinghe or Gunadasa Amerasekera.

Tissa’s lively thoughts on the spontaneous lyrics of the Sigiri graffiti range from pioneer archaeologist Bell (who discovered them and even attempted a translation) to Paranavitana’s own translations and placement of this forgotten treasure in the development of Sinhala poetry and to the modern English versions of Richard Murphy and Ashley Halpe.

His greatest admiration, however, is for the poet-scholar Gunadasa Amerasekera’s brilliant act of literary restoration of the lost classic of the ‘Sigiri period’ Asakda Kava . This essay is enlivened, as usual, with his distinctly original, and even critical comments on Amerasekera himself, the towering Sarachchandra, Lyn Ludowyk and Regi Siriwardena.

Translating the script of LJP’s Gamperaliya is what brought Tissa in contact with Regi who became the lodestar of his own spectacular entry into English writing. In Somewhere In Between he fondly reviews Regi’s post-adolescent foray as an underground worker of the LSSP – the party for which Tissa yet carries a Quixotic torch. He is also incredibly knowledgeable on India’s political history as shown in his discursive note Resurrecting A Legend on Premaranjit Tilakaratne’s Sinhala book on that tragic hero of India’s freedom struggle, Subhas Chandra Bose.

As is to be expected many essays in Reflections deal with the art and history of film and their colossi. They make wonderful reading. Alas, my brief acquaintance with kultur cinema was as an undergraduate many decades ago trying to puzzle out what it meant from the scratchy versions of Battleship Potemkin, Madchen in Uniform and suchlike films with which Sali Parakrama and Lloyd de Silva (of the now defunct Film Society) attempted to educate our cinematic tastes. Twenty-five years in the outstations viewing popular films in takarang cinemas ended whatever kultur I may have acquired. All I am competent to remark on is Tissa’s wide knowledge and felicity of expression in writing of those cinematic masters Ingmar Bergmann, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurasowa and Satyajit Ray.

The catholicity of his taste is shown in his understanding account of The Last of the Big Ones of that producer of immensely popular and unashamedly low-brow, Sinhala films, Robin Tampoe. He was yet another of the Tamil producers such as Gunaratnam, Selvaratnam and the pioneer Broken Promise Nayagam, all of whom had an uncanny feel for popular Sinhala taste.
You do not have to be a cineaste to enjoy these essays.

His Reflections span his views on men such as Sarvodaya’s Ariyaratne, and writers such as Punyakante Wijenaike,Colin de Silva, Rienzi Cruz the self-exiled poet and his beloved fellow villager, the almost forgotten singer, Piyasiri Wijeratne. Although Tissa calls his last section Reminiscences it is just as arbitrary a title as Roots and Reflections which flow into this section as this flows backward into them. Tissa’perennial interests all overlap the arbitrary titles of these sections – film and film-makers, Sinhala music, poetry and writing, English in South Asia and bilingualism.

What moved me most, in Reminiscences, was his requiem "The Birds are Gone and the Warm Fields Return No More" to the lost countryside and lost youth of his masterpiece "Bringing Tony Home" where deep nostalgia and an overwhelming sense of place are expressed in the most limpid prose as he ‘signs off’ these enthralling essays.

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