The Sunday TimesPlus

25th August 1996




Going back: the thoughts of Sarachchandra

By Rajpal Abeynayake

The late Ediriweera Sarachchandra was the classic representation of the national conscience, brilliantly creative, but often aggrieved. Sarachchandra was often bitter, especially when he felt that the country was growing a culture that was hybrid and vapid; there wasn't room, he said, either for his politics or for his art.

Sarachchandra never really came in from the cold, then, even though his twilight was marked by an ephemeral attempt at a resurrection of sorts. Actually the last real celebration that was worthy of the man was his funeral.

But, he was primarily the literary giant, only secondarily the political activist. Typically he was the symbol of the country's fall from grace, for many who thought that it was indeed what had happened. In an interview with this writer in 1989, Sarachchandra laid bare his soul......

Q: You recently published your first book written in English, titled "With the Begging Bowl". What led you to such a work?

A: The book is about my experiences in France as an ambassador. I was the typical Third World ambassador, with very little funds, in a very rich country. So we led very constrained, restricted lives. The Sinhala community there was a very close knit community, and petty jealousies are accentuated in that kind of close knit situation. The function of the ambassador is to go with the begging bowl, to get aid. And those countries are not waiting to give you aid either. So it is a very absurd situation for an ambassador to be in. I have drawn the storyline from some real characters, and in fact some people have threatened to sue me because they think the characters resemble themselves...

Q: It was the 1970 government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike which offered you this post as ambassador to France. You campaigned actively for the coalition government at the l970 elections. Yet, after the government came into power, you left the country and went as ambassador to France. Some people saw this as abandoning the government that you helped bring into power.

A: I supported the coalition because I thought the politics of the left together with the left of centre politics of the SLFP will offer a good balance. But later on I was beginning to get critical of the government. I headed the civil rights movement which was formed to monitor violations of civil rights, especially after the 71 insurrection. When I was getting critical of the government, they probably wanted me out of the way so they offered me this job, which was very difficult for me to refuse anyway as I was badly in need of the money.

Q: But you were cutting yourself away from the milieu that you helped create and wanted to foster.

A: Well, I never thought of it that way. Of course my intention was to get some aid for the theatre. In fact Mrs. Bandaranaike wanted me to secure aid and foster the theatre. I did get some aid, but then the elections came about and everything changed.

Q: And then you became one of the most vociferous critics of the new government and the open economy that was to follow.

A: There has been a complete erosion of cultural and moral values. The so-called development took no note of values, it just rode roughshod... Filthy lucre, as they call it, became the end of all human endeavour. This was the result of the materialistic philosophy, and I think a lot of the ethnic problem too can be traced to this uneven development. Prostitution, hold ups, political murders became all so common. I have documented all of this in my book Dharmishta Samajaya.

Q. That was way back in '82.

A: At that time people were not taking notice. Now they are all talking about it. I wrote about the influence of colonial culture, and tried to point out that the values of socialism were closer to the values of Buddhism. I pointed to the decline of our values: Buddhism had hitherto been the foundation of our society. Strangely, even the Sinhala newspapers of that time misinterpreted what I had written, particularly about the decline of the arts and literature. I pointed out that the laws of the marketplace which had taken over society do not apply to art.

Q: Yet don't you think that in the West it is largely the marketplace that decides art. Someone might say that even in Hollywood or Broadway, it is nothing but the marketplace that decides art. But has that prevented good works of art from making it over there.

A: It is very rarely that good works of art have emerged there. Almost by a fluke. But I think in these countries there are other safeguards for the lovers of art. There are private endowments that foster the arts. In socialist countries, artists are well looked after. They have no anxiety - they can pursue their work. We are caught up between these two systems: between Scylla and Charybdis.

Q: You say that the artiste is looked after in socialist society. Though some say that it is a distortion of the Western media, we have often heard that the kind of state patronage in the socialist countries (that you talk about) has created a straight jacket that is not conducive to art at all. It has only created Panegyrics to the state and the system, we have been told.

A: I know. I know this can be a big problem. This can happen. I think we almost got a taste of that during the SLFP regime when certain people headed certain state organisations in the arts apparatus. But in a country like ours, still trying to resurrect a battered culture, there should be more controls. Take movies. Anybody is allowed to import anything, and films that are brought over here often cater to the lowest tastes. In a situation in which we have to make a terrific effort to resuscitate a culture battered by colonialism, we cannot leave art to the tender mercies of the marketplace.

Q: Can anyone impose what is good for the people. The marketplace might give the people the choice for them to decide.

A: There are ways to foster good art. That is not by giving the people what they want, but by giving the people what they should want. The damage done to art by colonialism cannot be erased easily. So some people have to point out that "this king of art is better than pop art."

Q: Yet other people might like pop art and why should anybody decide for them what they should like.

A: It is not as if anybody is deciding from the top - it is not as if it is an imposition. The point is that people should be given the opportunity to see good art. Then if somebody decides that pop art is his choice that is a different matter. The only kind that is offered today is something to excite and titillate. There is hardly a choice.

Q: Yet someone can say that the people do have choice even now. They have the opportunity of listening to Jothipala and Amaradeva over the airwaves, after all. So what's wrong if they make their choice.

A: But someone should be shown why Amaradeva is better. Voluntary choice where anybody can switch off the radio whenever he feels like is not the correct way of educating the people to cultivate better taste. In England for instance, classical music is played in the parks. This gives the people who are exposed to an excess of pop a taste of the classical in a subtle way. They hear it when they come to the park with their sandwiches or whatever.... That is one way of educating. If somebody has not learnt after that, then you can leave it. People should be shown why Amaradeva is different. But the new materialist ethos is not conducive to the appreciation of culture. We have to start almost anew. In countries like India and Indonesia, the freedom movement lent to the fostering of culture. Here we had no such emotional impetus to resuscitate our culture. On the contrary, long years after it was destroyed by the colonialists it was pushed further back by our own people; things are worse now. The President recently said at a literary festival in Matara that there is no use of literature. What is the use of literature he asked. You can quote me on that because he said it, and it was reported. It is a terrible state of affairs.

Q: If so, what is the alternative that you see?

A: There is no alternative as things are. They are expecting the business community to sponsor the arts. In Japan the Chonin were the patrons of the arts in the Gokugawa period. So the Japanese business community has an ancient heritage of fostering the arts. In India the Maharajas have been lending a hand to the arts from ancient times. Here we have no such heritage in business. What we have is a parvenu business class which has no tradition of appreciating the arts. There are two classes of businessmen. We have the mudalali class who have at least some cultural roots in the villages. Then we have the comparador capitalist business class who were educated at schools like Trinity, St. Thomas' and Royal. They have no feeling whatsoever for traditional culture. I know a firm which spent twenty lakhs on a cricket match but refused to give me one lakh to replace the tattered costumes and renovate my plays. Finally they gave me Rs. 10,000.

Q: So you are saying that there has been a great decline in drama after market economics went into action.

A: Art is not decided by market forces. And the parvenu business class will only give money for popular commercial art like Nallathamby.

Q: Yet if a really good work of drama is produced won't it generate it's own momentum. Surely, are you saying that the people of the free market milieu are totally unappreciative of art.

A: People do appreciate art. But the middle class cannot afford to pay Rs. 50 to see a really good drama. You can't charge less for good art, given present costs. And you don't come for dramas alone usually. You come with your wife and children. That is about two hundred rupees, with money for soft drinks etc. So it is the parvenu business class which can afford to see dramas. But they usually do not have taste.

Q: There are those who say that there has been a resurgence of Sinhala drama. It's quite contrary to your position.

A: There has been the emergence of commercial theatre since the 70's. The so called good plays have tickets going for Rs. 10. If l could give tickets to my plays for Rs. 10, I'll have the halls overflowing. The people are not offered anything to cultivate their tastes. In England and France there is a business aristocracy that fosters the arts and keeps good art going. What we have here is a crass parvenu class.

Q: So you say it is the free market economics that has killed the arts.. Somebody might say that there was no great artistic movement during the time of the coalition government that you helped and supported.

A: If somebody says that, it is not true. From '56 upwards to '77, arts was on the ascendancy. Whenever a novel came up, there was a discussion. The early seventies saw the emergence of protest theatre. Pop music had not taken over. I think everybody would agree that the arts had not declined like today. In '56 there was a revival of folk art, folk drama and novel.

Q: You were drawing parallel in art an society. As described in Dharmishta Samajaya, society has declined due to the free market ethos. And so have the arts. In that event, what does your political mind recommend as an alternative to this decline that you describe.

A. I think the only alternative is Mrs. Bandaranaike. I do not think anybody could solve the problems that we are facing now. But Mrs. Bandaranaike will at least infuse some stability and sanity to things that we solely need.

Q. During the time of the SLFP there were parallels to what is happening now...The '71 insurrection namely. Based on this you wrote a novel titled "Heta Echara Kaluwara Ne". How was this received.

A. I think it was misinterpreted by the media to say that I was not at all sympathetic to the youth. But I was. The story was of a university lecturer who could not decide whether to throw in his lot with his rebelling students or not. It documents his confusion....

Q: Was the character yourself.

A: I wouldn't say that, but it was drawn a lot from my personal experiences.

Q: Your plays were part of this dramatic revival since '56 that you talked about. In fact they have almost become the symbol of it. But the paradox is that there is no market for your plays now.

A: My plays were commercially a great success. "Maname" ran into 30000 shows. But today, in this milieu, people's tastes have been vulgarised. Those who opted for theatre have shifted from middle class to the parvenu class. People's tastes have been vulgarised by pop culture, TV etc..

Q: If TV is not proper media, why did you lend your drama (Maname) to TV.

A: I needed the money for one thing. I was a little unhappy over the way Maname was filmed for TV. Some people were very unhappy.

Q: So you are very despondent over the state of culture and arts. As a man of the arts what are your doings about It. Are you resigned to it.

A: What can I do? I am a lonely man. I am working on a play now. I need one lakh plus Rs 2 ,000 for advertising. In this age you have to sell art like a commodity. It is a terrible state of affairs.

Q: As a chronicler of politics, you say that the open economy has benefited only a few and repressed the rest. You say we the majority of the people are in dire economic difficulty. You say that social institutions are crumbling and that we are in a state of turbulence. However, as a man of the arts you say that we should produce more artistic drama etc. Do the repressed people you describe have the leisure or the frame of mind to indulge in (or appreciate) the works of art that you are yearning for.

A: This may be true to an extent. But on the other hand when there is a state of chaos, art which harks back to the traditional, will lend a measure of stability, help people consolidate their values. Protest theatre might only add to the confusion. And you could explore universal problems in a setting removed from a present. That is what Brecht did. Actually distancing from the present is necessary for artistic appreciation. Distancing is aesthetically necessary, and all aestheticians agree on that.

Q: You have derided the open economy in Dharmishta Samajaya. Yet someone might say that it has eased the shortages and want and the queues that marred the rule of the coalition that you supported.

A: Queues are not all bad. Queues can mean that everybody is getting something, whereas the absence of queues might mean that some people are buying the whole lot.

Q: You say that TV has vulgarised tastes and that there has been nothing artistic on TV. But they showed your plays, on TV.

A: May be the thought "kapanna beri atha simbinna one" (kiss the hand that you cannot cut off). May be they did it out of pity for my financial situation that I had been lamenting about! One of the reasons was that they had to infuse some sort of culture to TV. So I became their conscience. They might have also thought that this man is there and he is a real bother, so let's show some of his plays. Anura Gunasekera was a pupil of mine, so maybe they did it out of extraneous considerations.... I don't know.

Q: Has the novel declined as much you say that drama has.

A: No, Novelists at least have their old faithful readers. But here the government should give some kind of subsidy to authors. India started with a eighty per cent subsidy since independence, which they gradually tapered to 20 per cent. This has made them the third largest book publisher in the world.

Also see: Transcending time and space: the unique contributions of Sarachchandra

Continue to Plus page 2 - No more the models of discipline : Ragging filters down to schools * Popularity is not their forte: the much misunderstood reptile family

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