5th December 1999

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Sex in cinema

The trend in Sinhala films to use sex as a mere object of sensationalism has become the talking point in recent months. There are complaints that most Sinhala films border on vulgarity by using sex meaninglessly.

This forms the theme of a recent publication 'Adyuthana Cinemawe Lingika Pravanathava' by Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara, an undergraduate of the Sri Jayawardenapura University. Having touched on the subject at a global level Nuwan Kumara proceeds to identify the issue in Indian films and then moves on to discuss how women have been portrayed in Sinhala cinema over the past 50 years. He identifies the box office hit 'Sujata' (1953- directed by T. R. Sunderam) as the first Sinhala film which had nightclub scenes and scenes songs being sung in bathing costumes.

The sixties saw several films highlighting the theme of sex. The writer points out how 'Nalangana' (1960 - L. S. Ramachandran) created a stir and was dubbed "a national disaster" by critics for obscenity. The first Sinhala 'Adults Only' film was 'Suba Sarana Sepa Sithe (1964 - T. Somasekeran) which discussed a sexual problem in marriage. A similar theme was tackled in 'Semiya Birindage Deviyaya' (1964 - W. M. S. Tampoe).

Piyasiri Gunaratne handled the story of a prostitute in 'Mokada Une' (1969) without any nude scenes. This new wave was used by upcoming filmmakers Sugathapala Senerat Yapa ('Hantane Kathawa' 1969), Ranjit Lal ('Nim Valalla' 1970), Dharmasena Patiraja ('Ahas Gavuwa' 1974) and Vasantha Obeysekera ('Valmathwuvo' 1976) to discuss youth problems.

Looking at films from the first - 'Kadavunu Poronduwa' (1947) - the writer sees filmmakers handling womanhood under three categories - ideal womanhood, unstable womanhood and the reality of womanhood.

Describing Vijaya Dharmasri's 'Duhulu Malak' (1976) as a pioneering effort to look at women in a humane manner, the writer identifies the films which used sex scenes integrated with the main theme. Thereafter he goes on to highlight those which used sex scenes purely to arouse the sensuous feelings of the cinemagoer and make money.

For a young researcher, Nuwan Kumara has done a thorough job. He has also displayed his writing skills. He has proved that he has acquired the talent of his father (A. D. Ranjith Kumara) and a resolve in continuing his interest in cinema.

- Ranat

Speaking to the spirit

Book review

The Art of Richard Gabriel by Neville Weereratne. Reviewed by Ashley Halpe

Sitting in a pew at St. Theresa's on a quiet evening, a youthful choir rehearsing up in the loft behind, I am overwhelmed by the ambience that Gabriel's murals have imparted to the stately and impressive interior. As the images from the great altar-piece, the panels and the roundels sink into one's consciousness one is drawn into a strangely humane reverence. Gabriel's extraordinary blending of the heretic and the homely directs and schools one's spirit in a uniquely human way.

This may seem rather at variance with Gabriel's view of humanism as a corruption that "led to the deterioration of religious art." But a natural result of his deep Catholic faith would be an intuitive response to the redemptive incorporation of the divine in the human: it is the human that is spiritualized.

Vibrantly dynamic in Gabriel's deliberately "naive" representation, saints and sages gaze at you in calm certitude of faith while angels frolic or mime the music of the celestial regions as St. Theresa is wafted up to heaven. But in the roundels spaced around the nave just a bit above eye-level the agony of the Passion complicates one's response with its sober realism.

The art of Richard Gabriel encompasses many such acts of faith and devotion in Catholic churches and buildings around Colombo and Kandy and on his homeground, the village of Depanama in Pannipitiya. The deeply Catholic sensibility and commitment - nurtured by a typical Catholic family life and education on the Western seaboard seven decades or so ago - mesh with a completely competent craftsmanship and that desideratum: inspired and inspiring creativity in the disposition of space, the placing of colours against each other, the torsions and distortions of bodies, limbs, heads that are as much "modernist" as "primitive."

These qualities, along with the special sensitivity to texture evident in the oilpaintings, are the hallmarks of the immediately recognizable distinctive idiom of the last surviving member of the original 43 Group still plying his brush in this country.

And quite as much as the paintings and murals on specifically religious topics speak of and to the spirit in a uniquely human way, the enormous body of painting on "secular" themes is, we find, imbued with a complementary spirituality. As Neville Weeraratne points out, Gabriel has "an overwhelming appreciation of the common man in his daily pursuits." He has "ever been captivated by the simple life of the fisherman and the farmer, their families and their countrysides." One might add, and their animals, their implements, their domestic settings, boats and carts. Reflecting on this, I am moved to say that Gabriel is more than captivated. He loves them, and the gaze of that warm charity irradiates the technical purity of Gabriel's representation.

This warmth is the first thing that strikes you in a personal encounter. The sparseness of my contact with him has never led to a diminution of the steady friendliness of his greeting and conversation at every meeting. Even his just indignation at the gross mistreatment he and Sita experienced at the hands of Australian immigration was expressed temperately, in a sober, reflective tone of voice.

That care and reflectiveness is evident in all of Gabriel's depiction of the multitudinous life he brings into his paintings (he does not seem to care to paint still life or landscape as such, though in many paintings landscape is an integral part of a composition featuring figures). As Fred de Silva put it in a review as early as 1955, he is "blessed with a palette and andiom capable of recording the beauty and significance of everyday life." De Silva particularly notes a painting, A Family, hung at the 9th exhibition of the '43 Group "a luminous yet casual group of ordinary people, an outstanding example of his craftsmanship and refined sense of colour. It is quite the most arresting picture on view."

The inclusion of such quotations from reviews and articles (including some that are blandly obtuse and some, cantankerous) is one of the rewards for treating Neville Weeraratne's fine volume as much more than a picture book backed up with text. It is a meticulously researched, deeply meditated and sensitively organised totality, both authoritative monograph and most intelligently planned, beautifully designed presentation of Richard Gabriel's work. One can confidently say that nothing of importance is left out and a great deal of supplementary material of immense value brought in.

Neville Weereratne gives us a beautifully organised selection of illustrations, an excellent biographical essay and sketch of the context of Gabriel's art, and his own lucid characterization of the artist's oeuvre in a fine 3-part essay that is both reverent and perceptive besides being comprehensive (sections 8, 9 and 10 of the book). It is a pity that in some cases the colour reproduction is unworthy of Sri Lankan publishing technology. The publication by Moosajees is a magnificent act of sishya piety by Asker Moosajee, who recalls with great affection and gratitude the art classes with Richard Gabriel at St. Joseph's. Lionel Anthonis has been the work's indefatigable co-ordinator.

Neville Weereratne agrees with the view expressed early on by W.J.E. Beling (in 1969) and more recently by the Australian collector Carol Blaich (1994) that Gabriel's work has consistency and unity - "Gabriel has maintained his own vision and expression in terms of Sri Lankan life" (Beling); "strong stylistic unity" (Blaich). Neville makes us aware of "the serious imagination of Richard Gabriel" (John Berger) expressed in "aesthetics...developed out of personal simplicity and an uncomplicated view of life" where perhaps "the only theory he would subscribe to would be Lionel Fonseka's thought that 'the alphabet of art is learnt in the school of religion." Gabriel is religious without being religiose; Neville Weereratne says "he illustrates very well Maritain's point that "the religious quality of a work does not depend on its subject but its spirit."

Thus, Gabriel's "visual language is derived largely from his view of life in Sri Lanka. His compositions are simple and decorative and reflect the sentiments expressed by Vijayatunga in his book of village idylls." At the same time "they also echo the tradition of near geometrical precision seen in Europe in Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico, and in the East in the frescoes of Ajanta or the temple murals of Kandy and the south coast."

The simplicity and naivete are, as Prof. S.B. Dissanayake puts it so felicitously in one of the quotations, "characteristic of all creative people who look at the world with astonished eyes." It is a pity that this has led to a rather simplistic view of Gabriel's work in many quarters. "In order to classify Gabriel's work several descriptions have been attempted.

The one which has endured is that of Gabriel as the archetypal folk artist."

Rather, the work of Richard Gabriel is archetypal in a different and more valuable sense. To dwell on the simplicity and naivete is to do less than justice to his range and, indeed, civilised subtlety. Even in the paintings on similar themes there is the range of mood, of angles of vision, of notations of qualities of light and shade, of expression, gesture and posture in a prolific output spread over a working life of over half a century.

But there is also an actual range of subject matter within the broad and obvious categories of sacred and secular: of rural and littoral life as well as the plane of the saints, philosophers and doctors of the church, of angels, the Madonna, the Saviour, the Holy Family. In "The Angel of Peace" and "The Angel of Death and Peace" allegorical symbolism is given a powerfully individual expression; compositions of men and beasts are metaphors of man's encounter with primal nature. There is an unaffected appreciation of the flesh in "Lovers," "Artist and Model" and some depictions of women bathers as well as a calmly devotional ambience in the religious paintings .

A sensibility as ample as this is, truly civilized, the refinement of the palette, the expression of a subtle percipience. What is archetypal is its religious view of life.

A "panoramic view" might see in Gabriel's work "a vale of tears" where, as Neville Weereratne puts it "man must toil and endure" but where Gabriel has also caught "those moments of achievement when man may enjoy the grace of rest."

Be caught up, too, I would add, into the artifice of eternity, where humanity is at one with the solemn ranks and "sweet societies" of the seraphic and the blest.

Rugged tale of power conflict

Book review

Thus the City was Built- by A.V. Suraweera. Translated by Tilak Balasuriya.
Reviewed by Professor D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke

Sigiriya with its rugged splendour and sinister legend appears to have haunted the creative imagination of many Sri Lankan writers, judging from Lucien de Zoysa's Fortress In The Sky, Daya Dissanayake's 1999 award-winner Kat Bitha and Professor Emeritus A.V. Suraweera's Sada Melesa Pura Derane, now translated as Thus The City Was Built.

Beginning with the blaring of conches and applause that greets the accession of Kasyapa, who buys popularity by abolishing taxes imposed to build and repair irrigation works, the novel is lively and thought-provoking with its satiric portrayal of politics in the 5th Century A.D. "Making them meaningful in the contemporary social context," as the back cover stresses, referring to 1980 when the book was first published and won the State Award.

"Kasyapa ..... receiving ......... the respects of the ministers and distinguished citizens, felt tired. It was no surprise to see everyone's loyalty and allegiance flaring towards the point of power. It appeared as if the entire country had been waiting eagerly to offer him the kingship."

Professor Suraweera displays a firm grasp of the principles of what Rushdie calls "What-nextism" which keeps the story-line tight and fast-moving. Despite the invention of Sriya whose loveliness was mirrored in varied features of every Apsara or Cloud or Lightning Damsel by the artist who saves her life and loses her to Kasyapa, Thus the City was Built is not a historical romance in the vein of Sir Walter Scott or Rafael Sabatini, or W.A. de Silva's Sunethra or the Disguised Princess and Martin Wickramasinghe's Rohini, since an awareness of socio-economic factors and an evident familiarity with the political animal enlivens the writing.

Interknit with the allusions to Kasyapa's soaring artistic imagination are the figures of the workers who suffer under the heat of the sun and the whips of the overseers.

"Putting the stones down, and removing their head-coverings, the cheering labourers earned a moment's respite."

Professor Suraweera makes good use of the perennial struggle for power and the exertion of certain forms of control over the ruler that preoccupied the prelates of the Maha Vihara and Abhayagiri and also of Cosmos Indicopleuste's description of "Receiving ....... the traffic of these marks and transmitting it. ........ the Island exports to each of these at the same time her own products........ it thus becomes a great emporium", which serves as the model for Maga and Kasyapa's plans to make Kasyapa a Second Kuvera.

His deployment of Paranavitana's research, theories, and readings, such as they were of the interlinear epigraphs which he discovered, gives an added interest to the work. According to Piyadasa Wijesinghe's "Sigiriya and the God-King of Sri Lanka", Dr. Paranavitana for the first time elaborated his theory of Kasyapa having been a God King at a lecture delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society Annual General Meeting on March 10 1950. In Anuradhapura and other capitals, "the King's palace happens to be a minor landmark compared to the religion monuments. At Sigiriya it was quite the opposite and no religious buildings of note have been discovered at Sigiriya particularly belonging to the period of Kasyapa." Consequently Paranavitana postulates that Kasyapa assumed the position of a God King, a Parvataraja, a force for fertility and wealth. The Sihigiri Vitara, a 7th Century "Sinhala book found in the library of the Maharajah of Palembang," states that at Sigiriya:

"The King and Queen used to spend the night in the palace at the summit. On the following morning they would adorn themselves in all the royal attire and present themselves on the stage in the theatre."

Professor Suraweera's use of the scholarly background provides motivation for Kasyapa's decision to dwell in this unique capital. Conscience-stricken like the bold imaginative Macbeth, Kasyapa is deprived of sleep and its cumulative effects lead to a deterioration of his personality.

Denied hope of salvation by the stern monks of the Mahavihare he turns away from Theravada Buddhism, as a later parricide, Rajasinha of Sitavaka, turned to Berendi Kovil, and inspired by the Brahmin Maga and encouraged by the urbane worldly monks of Abhayagiri, becomes himself the centre of a cult which involves his residence on the summit of a "parvata".

However, the building of the city is not simply utilised for the sake of historical verisimilitude and psychological coherence; it serves a dynamic process as the mainspring of Kasyapa's economic policy which involves the encouragement of foreign investment in trade as a means of providing the Treasury with the funds needed for the new capital. Since it benefits the state and foreigners rather than the local merchants and the focus on commerce leads to the neglect of agriculture and the impoverishment of the silent masses, it results in a final upsurge of resentment levelled at a ruler cushioned against reality by the eulogies of exploitative advisers.

The expert who manipulates, inspires and finally destroys Kasyapa is the Brahmin Maga who "had advised Persian, Indian and Arab Kings and later his father in good governance and economies" originates in the Magian of that name whose influence was, according to Paranavitana, recorded in the interlinear epigraphs of Anandastavira of Palembang.

However the personality of Maga as it emerges from Prof. Suraweera's novel with the glamour of international expertise, his confidence, weight of experience and flaws of hectoring and miscalculation is convincing as well as firmly crafted in keeping with the requirements of both plot and theme, as is the portrayal of Kasyapa imaginative, courageous, visionary, yet self-indulgent and slack in fibre. The depiction of Prutha, detailed and natural, pinpoints the moral choices that arise and are often perforce blurred due to political and personal pressures.

Professor Suraweera's work holds the interest of the reader due to the author's ability to present conflicts of power and self-interest.

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