Siri Gunasinghe’s Contribution to Literature and the Arts

Rathnasiri Arangala
Born on 18th February 1925 at Panapitiya, Ruwanwella in the Kegalle District, Beragama Arachchige Shriyaratne Gunasinghe chose to identify himself as Siri Gunasinghe in the 20th century Sri Lankan cultural scene. Reminiscing on his past some time ago, Professor Siri Gunasinghe explained that as a youngster, he was affectionately called “Siriyawa” (Good Fortune) by his mother, shortened to Siri by his immediate family, and that later, he chose to use the short pet name rather than his given name, Shriyaratne. After completing his primary education at the Wickramasinghe Bauddha Mishra Pasæla, Totagoda, Akmeemana, Galle, he continued his secondary education at Mahinda College. Galle. Being academically inclined, he went on to become an outstanding student, excelling in subjects like Sinhala, English, History, Pali and Sanskrit. His academic interests, talents, and outstanding scholastic performance, garnered for him a large number of awards of academic excellence, including Mahinda College’s prestigious Kularatne Gold Medal, and the All Ceylon Pali Prize. His early interest in Modern Sinhala Literature laid the foundation that made him a defining force in the Sinhala Literary scene at a later date. His literary sensibilities were honed and molded by critical and in-depth reading of the works of early popular Sinhala novelists like Piyadasa Sirisena, W.A. Silva, and Martin Wickremasinghe, as well as the popular poetic works of the Colombo School of poets. His study of English literature also sharpened his interest in contemporary world literature. It is evident that his attention was especially drawn towards contemporary French an English poetry. At the same time, it may be said that this young scholar’s developing world vision was being influenced by the growing leftist activism and ideology of the time. Moreover, his father, though from a fairly well to do middle-class background, was a supporter of leftist/socialist politics and this had infused the whole family with socialist/leftist values. The socio-economic setting that produced the literary personality of Siri Gunasinghe marked a transitional point in the island’s socio-political history. Gaining admission to the University of Ceylon (Colombo) in 1945, Siri Gunasinghe took Sanskrit Language and Literature as his chosen area of study. In 1948, he was awarded the Bachelor of Arts degree with First Class Honours, and was appointed to the Sanskrit Department as a lecturer in 1949. Reminiscing on his undergraduate days, Siri Gunasinghe once stated that, at that time, the University community was exclusive, disconnected from the general public, and operated as a “sub-culture outside mainstream society.” Based on the excellent results of his GAQ exam, Siri Gunasinghe was awarded the Mudaliar Waidyasekera Pali Prize and the Muncherji Franji Khan Prize for Arts. His performance at the final exams earned him the University of Ceylon Arts Scholarship and the Government of Ceylon University Scholarship for post-graduate study abroad. He gained admission to the School of Oriental Studies, University of London in 1951 and after a brief exploratory stay there, he went on to complete his doctoral studies (1952-1955) at the Université de Paris (The 1

B Yeats. style that he was experimenting with. above all. the Journal of the University Sinhala Society. (Mentiones Tres Honorables)).Sorbonne). alien and hostile to the indigenous literary tradition. it is. It may be said that the seeds of this new personality were indeed apparent in his creative persona even before he left the island to go abroad for further studies.H. nisandæs. The publication in1956. Free Verse. in 1949. even as high school students. He recognized the need for a new voice and medium to fill that gap. in Aruna. Auden. However.. he and his contemporary. That this contribution is inspired to some degree by the new trends in contemporary western literature is undeniable. of Mas Le Næti Æta (Bleached Bones). Siri Gunasinghe had begun investigating and critically evaluating both these areas in Sinhala literature. marks a significant juncture in the story of modern Sinhala poetry. (Docteur de Université. The Siri Gunasinghe who returned to Sri Lanka after completing his post-graduate studies was a person who was not only enriched by his newly acquired academic knowledge. an anthology of poems in the same free verse style. “Mas Le Næti Æta”. The title poem. Siri Gunasinghe leaves his unmistakable and indelible stamp upon the modern Sinhala literary scene because of his clear. as well as in Sanskrit poetics. It created an enormous hue and cry among the traditional Sinhala poets. as some critics seem to have done. Subsequently. not long after his return from Paris. even before he set off for Europe. the Journal of the same society. is divided under five subtitles. Edwin Ariyadasa. he was also the possessor of an enriched world-view. (poetry free of traditional regulatory prosody) — can be traced as far back as 1948. and W. His engagement in the systematic study and analysis of both modern Sinhala literature and contemporary English and French literature had produced Siri Gunasinghe. 2 . “The New Note in Contemporary Sinhala Poetry” appeared in the Observer Annual in 1950. 6.S Eliot. his personal experiences and his sensitivity to. would get together to read and discuss the works of T. published in Musee Guimet’s Bibliotheque d’Etudes. he had already published. and awareness of. in 1951 he published another poem in the same style titled “Iye Sondura” (“Yesterday’s Love”) in Piyavara. It must be reiterated that there is ample evidence that. It can be shown that his inclination towards the genre of poetry known as nisandæs — a term he coined to identify the new poetry. 1957 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France). Once he recalled how. Sri Lankan) environment that triggered his responses and set him on his path to creativity. His dissertation.e. The second anthology. However. He saw a disconnect between the realities of modern Sri Lankan life and the tradition-bound contemporary poetry and works of fiction. W. it would be a mistake to devalue Siri Gunasinghe’s transformative contributions as a mere western intrusion. The anthology contains 68 pages of 14 poems that shun adherence to traditional metric patterns. disturbing and poignant socio-cultural realities in his own (i. unequivocal contribution on two fronts: He redefined the identity of modern Sinhala poetry. In 1955 he received his Doctoral Degree with Very Honorable Mention. Ezra Pound etc. was titled La Technique de la Peinture Indienne d’apres les texts du Silpa (Technique of Indian Painting According to Silpa Texts). although it is only after his encounter with the transformative socio-cultural conditions and movements in the western world that we see this persona at its full potential. Although his seminal article. and restructured the format of the Sinhala novel. the critic. Vol. a poem titled “Apasuva” (“The Return”) in the “free verse”. and found sources of inspiration in the dynamic new-age thinking and writing in the west.

political and cultural changes that occur in the time period immediately following Hevanælla. poetic conventions and the worldview that unify them. identified as ‘the stream of consciousness’ style. The world of contemporary Sinhala literature recognizes Siri Gunasinghe’s unique contribution to be that of a pioneer/innovator of a new genre of poetry liberated from tradition and convention in format. Miringuva Ællima explores the destructive effects of a disrupted and destabilized post-colonial society upon a sensitive/vulnerable personality. the gap of time between the third and the last anthology is 36 years. Indeed. Thirty-four years after the publication of Hevanælla. However. the morality/culture driven conflicts — that are relevant to both the University community and the general public even today. seeks to explore/reveal the inner. However. The title poem. 1958) contains 35 poems. because critical attention was extensively focused on the narrative style almost to the exclusion of other elements — the socio-cultural setting. as in Hevanælla. (The Shadow). behavior and psychological make-up. This narrative mode. includes 10 subtitled parts. between cities and villages. completely eliminating the third person narrator in the interior monologues. and between tradition and modernity. Siri Gunasinghe does not appear to have wavered. appears to have been diminished in these later works. from the poetic course he had laid out for himself at the beginning of his literary career.Abinikmana (The Renunciation. published in 1960 — translated into Tamil as Nilul (Godage Bros. Though several writers attempted to replicate this style in the wake of Hevanælla. 1998) appears 42 years after the publication of the first anthology. world-view and modes of expression on the one hand. and of a new mode of fiction writing that introduced the powerful stream of consciousness mode of 3 . deals with the socio-economic. have received scant attention. Siri Gunasinghe’s fourth anthology. Alakamandava (The Abode of Wealth. and the upheaval they wreak upon human lives. mental processes and experiences of the protagonist through the flow of interior monologues. which may be regarded as a sequel to Hevanælla. Ratu Kækula (The Crimson Bud. and into English as The Shadow (Vijitha Yapa. Mas Le Næti Æta. by and large. Mandarama. they did not succeed in replicating the success of the original. 1962) contains 78 poems. Hevanælla. the writer is continuing his exploration/experimentation regarding appropriate and relevant language use in creative writing that he had engaged in more than forty years ago. is remarkable in that it not only captures vividly the socio-cultural environment that has nurtured the characters. in these later works too. such as the conflicts of value between social classes.. 2008) by Sarojini Devi Arunachalam. Mandarama. Hevanælla. but also succeeds in bringing to life the social-psychological forces that motivate them in a totally objective and impersonal way. 2010) by Hemamali Gunasinghe — marks a significant milestone in the history of the Sinhala novel because it sets out on a path so far not taken by Sinhala novelists in the delineation of a character’s appearance. these works are akin in form. However. Gunasinghe’s second novel. (The Gathering Storm) was published. the credibility of events and characters that the author had so successfully captured in his first novel. “Ratu Kækula”. in any significant way. it must be noted that though separated by time and age. Miringuva Ællima (Catching the Mirage) eight years later. The third. followed by his third novel. It can be demonstrated that.

overall. and architecture. not only have Sri Lankan scholars in these fields failed to appreciate his contribution to this area of scholarship adequately. came to be used in writing. as important as this contribution.narration through interior monologues to capture the psychology and inner mental processes of the fictional characters. Godage &Bros. and closely resembling the spoken idiom in its use of lexical and grammatical structure. it needs to be said that. Sanskrit poetics. Linguists believe that this diglossic situation would have been established in Sinhala at least from about the 12th century CE. However. S. i. the two levels also exhibit lexical differences as well. Buddhist and Hindu art. In tandem with these studies Siri Gunasinghe has also devoted attention to explore Indian religions and philosophies. they have not even given it due consideration. As a result. such agreement is redundant and the verb keeps one form regardless of grammatical distinctions in the subject. or perhaps even exceeding it. and influence upon. on the other. however. R. the language and style he uses is recognizably a 1 For a comprehensive list of publications see Arangala. a somewhat crude style. the beginnings of the Sinhala novel may be attributed to a period when Sinhala language and use were in decline. the language of fiction had moved closer to the literary level of usage thanks to the efforts to refine and reform the language during the first half of the 20th century. in any study of modern Sinhala usage. The colonial masters. Siri Gunasinghe’s writings. their language or the principles and norms of usage to facilitate their communicative needs at a minimal level. a closer affinity with the colloquial idiom is evident in the language of dialogues.. 2010 4 . In colloquial usage. However. Furthermore. a clear demarcation is recognized and accepted between two levels of usage: the colloquial (spoken) and the literary (written) levels. In Siri Gunasinghe’s Hevanælla. Apart from this. In Sinhala. Furthermore. However. This is clearly their relevance to. violating accepted literary norms. The verb is inflected to agree with the subject. in a sentence the subject noun and the finite verb must grammatically agree with each other in gender. The literary usage is controlled by rigid grammatical/prosodic rules. aspects of modern Sinhala usage and style.e.. are his scholastic contributions in the areas of literary criticism. number and person. Literary usage requires the duplication of certain grammatical information in subject and predicate. “Mahacharya Siri Gunasinghe Karya Sadhanaya ha Grantha ha Lekhana Namavaliya”. who dominated both education and publication. Exploring Siri Gunasinghe’s publications1 in these areas with critical attention will reveal the extent of his contribution to the enrichment and expansion of this field of study. as yet. This was the language that was used in early fictional writings which opened the way for the Sinhala novel. in Siri Gunasainghe: Upahara Lipi Sangrahaya. require to be evaluated as works that pioneer a written style that violates the accepted rules of written language use within a language that is clearly diglossic. but. Art History. used the services of people who had minimal knowledge of their ‘native’ subjects. Jayantha Amarasinghe ed. Siri Gunasinghe’s writings demand attention for reasons beyond their artistic/aesthetic and academic value. be they creative or academic.

in both dialogue and narrative.blend of the literary and colloquial modes. and the use of the symbols ( k and . that “traditional formal grammar” had “little or no usefulness”. Thus. the dominance of elements of colloquial usage is clearly evident. several novelists were inspired to follow this innovative style when crafting their work. This is not only typical of his creative writing. hiding behind aliases of one kind or another. his innovative contribution to other genres like the Sinhala feature film. TV and radio. the elimination of these extra symbols (in the interest of simplification). documentary film. In his poems. Gunasinghe’s advocacy and practice of transposing the colloquial (spoken) into the literary (written) levels of language register. it also prevails in his academic writing as well. presents a striking departure from the style of other novels that had been published so far. and that abandoning such a “grammar” can in no way be regarded as “inflicting a loss or blow to the language”. The direction that Siri Gunasinghe took. contemporary theatre. The informal colloquial language that drives the interior monologues and much of the narrative and dialogue in Hevanælla. as well as many average readers. In ‘language’ use Siri Gunasinghe’s poetry shows little affinity either to formal ‘literary’ usage or to informal ‘colloquial’ usage. and capable of generating a kind of wonder and enjoyment in the reader. appropriate and integral to content and purpose. and his disregard and violation of the established orthography have irritated many traditionalist scholars. The artistic and technical knowledge and training he acquired at the UCLA Film Department while on a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship is evident in his direction of the award winning film Sath Samudura (Seven Seas) as well as in the artistry of his documentary film Ranvan Karal (Golden Grains). have produced articles and books to attack his unorthodoxy. Furthermore. Siri Gunasinghe’s contributions enrich not only the academic and literary spheres. Siri Gunasinghe crafts the language as a blend of literary and colloquial usage. The novelty of the form and the world-view exhibited in his poetry was discussed earlier. and demonstrates yet another instance of Siri Gunasinghe’s undeniable and decisive impact upon the language of Sinhala fiction. and finally painting is widely known. Siri Gunasinghe advocates. ) that are currently used to represent the dental [n] and [l] in all instances. as noted above. while discussing contemporary literary language use. and practices in his writing. for ITN in 1995 and 5 . This is a clear departure from the traditionally accepted system/rules of orthography. Around the 1960’s Siri Gunasinghe took pains to point out. Similar to his treatment of traditional “formal grammar”. his use of Sinhala orthography is also clearly unorthodox. He directed the teledrama. In the decade of the sixties itself. Guttilaya. It is also no secret that certain writers and newspaper editors. it is also quite removed from the concept that there is a language exclusive and essential to poetic expression. and docu-drama. and set. disregarding the formal grammatical rules that constrain the language at the literary level. the author also tends to use structures that are more in keeping with colloquial usage. with regard to the language of poetry can be said to be even more innovative. Since the symbols (K and <) used in the Sinhala alphabet to represent the retroflex [n] and [l] sounds do not represent sounds actually articulated and identified in Sinhala speech.

Siri Gunasinghe also engages in Impressionist inspired painting as a pastime. Siri Gunasinghe is also recognized for designing innovative and trendsetting costumes and make-up for Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Maname. On the invitation of the Department of Cultural Affairs Siri Gunasinghe did a survey of Medieval Paintings in Sri Lanka and submitted two detailed reports of his findings. with its supporting photographs (by photographer Dunstan Silva). Some of his works have been exhibited here. and Elova Gihin Melova Ava. Nepal. he has engaged in observing the cinematic and theatrical traditions and innovations in Europe and America while traveling extensively in those countries. and written and presented several programmes on literature and the arts for Radio Ceylon/SLBC and BBC. (Translated by Hemamali Gunasinghe) 6 . Among his publications is a small but interesting monograph on Sri Lankan masks. as well as research and travel. His latest work. However. at home. and Hemamali Gunasinghe’s Turanga Dæn Dæn Handata. Gunasena Galappatti’s Sandakinduru. who has traveled extensively on the island surveying its art and architecture. Thailand. he published a report on the archaeological sites that contain them as a publication of the National Museums Department. Although one of these reports was published three decades later. P. He has conducted TV programmes such as Kavi Dækima “Encounter with Poets and Poetry” on Rupavahini. Welikala’s Rathnavali. they did not receive adequate or proper attention. Rattaran. Some of his artwork can be seen on the covers of his published works. an unceasing ocean of creativity and an overflowing fountain of knowledge enriching the world of Sinhala literature and the arts. and knowledge absorbed through his immersion in the world of international art and literature has created and sustained the complex and dynamic personality known as Siri Gunasinghe Even after retiring from the University of Victoria in Canada. and Japan etc. Sigiriya: Kassapa’s Homage to Beauty (Vijitha Yapa. and is still committed to both creative and academic writing. The sensitivity. He has contributed many articles in both English and Sinhala on the current Sri Lankan literary and cultural scene in the local press and journals. Siri Gunasinghe continues his association with institutions of higher learning. of which he is an Emeritus Professor. Cambodia. has also devoted much of his time traveling in India. As well. Kadavalalu. engaged in the study of the traditional art and architecture of these ancient cultures. Siri Gunasinghe remains a living force. 2008) was translated by him into Sinhala in 2010 as Sigiriya: Kassapage Saundarya Pujawa (Vijitha Yapa). Indonesia. After a similar survey of the Paintings of the Kandy period. the other. He has traveled in Egypt and Greece studying their artistic and archaeological traditions.also wrote the screenplay for the UNESCO film dramatization of the Life of the Buddha. He has also produced Sinhala radio plays. He continues to write and publish in English and Sinhala. Siri Gunasinghe. have disappeared into the sands of time. and abroad.

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