A tragedy as Sri Lanka is being reduced to bones

The Esala Perahera is known as the most spectacular of Sri Lanka’s festivals.
PHOTO: Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau

Many similarities between the characters and events associated with the November 2014 regime change in Sri Lanka and the historical events that preceded the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar in ancient Rome were previously noted in an article on The Island, 24 November 2015, titled, The Sri Lankan regime change - a Caesarian analogy.

That particular comparison however, did not anticipate the subsequent political chaos and economic and social decline the regime change appears to have brought about.

Sri Lanka currently is on a downward spiral unmistakably in all spheres of life, leading to a dark domain of a kind without precedent in the country's recorded history: worryingly, the current malaise is accompanied by an apparent regress of the political leadership and a large portion of the population to seek refuge in voodoo and black magic-like rituals.

The general population is clearly taking their cue from the political leadership who seem to frequent all places of worship,including those in South India, seeking favours from all deities and demons that could be of help.

They, of course, are cynically seeking divine (or demonic) intervention for holding on to power as long as possible, and for personal prosperity (how else but through continued stealing from the public purse). The general public on the other hand are engaged in a vain effort to keep the wolf from the door.

Notwithstanding the motives, such patently non-Buddhist regression portends future trouble not just to Sri Lanka, but for the world, in desperate need of 'awakened' philosophies that discard such myth-based idolatry.

The abysmal breakdown of law and order in the wider social sphere appears to reflect the ultimate futility of such retrograde practices.

The blight of internecine gang violence including attacks on the police - with no regard for the lives of innocent bystanders- is out of control. The appallingly high daily death toll on the roads suggests the virtual non-adherence to road rules by motorists, many of whom may not have properly learnt to safely operate a motor vehicle, but obtained driving licences corruptly.

The raging Dengue epidemic points to general chaos in the administration of vital public health services, and garbage piling up in Colombo streets adds to the already unbearable shame of more than 200 people getting buried under their own waste. School and higher education systems face a crisis of unprecedented proportions. The list is too numerous.

National tragedy

The extent and severity of the national tragedy appears to be only surpassed by the total lack of any government strategies aimed at addressing the grave problems.

Those holding power appear to be preoccupied with enjoying their 'entitlements' such as foreign travel, including for trivial and undisclosed reasons,and in acquiring permits for the importation of latest model luxury motor vehicles for on-selling, making piles of money at great cost to the treasury.

Ministers are appointed to an ever-expanding cabinet that represents nothing more than the dreaded spoils system. The meaning of the word 'portfolio'- which traditionally refers to a minister's area of responsibility - is being stretched beyond all logic by collating completely disparate agencies under ministries with no relevance to the tasks involved.

Shockingly, politicians, who are privy to information on political and other deals demand specific agencies with money-making potential, as ransom.The diplomatic service is being stacked with henchmen who have no relevant experience or vision required in the service.

It is clear that a heightened sense of political power and entitlement mentality is preventing the government and its ministers acquiring an inkling about attending to the needsofthe people by making and implementing policies aimed at problem solving.

An army of cabinet 'spokespeople' deliver only grandiose procedural steps taken by cabinet - mingled with blatant lies - rarely reveals any practical measures aimed at easing the pain of the people, such as longer term solutions to address droughts, floods, and landslides, beyond a miserly few thousand rupees paid to the never-ending stream of victims, with motives of political expediency rather than true compassion.

This particular behaviour of the governmentand its leadership reminds the rumoured fiddling of emperor Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68 AD) on the roof of his palace, singing from the Greek epic 'The Sack of Ilium', during the six-day fire that ravaged most of Rome's 14 districts in 64 AD.

Nero's deviousness however could not have extended to the callous act of fiddling while Rome was burning because, despite his known passion for music, bowed string instruments of the viola class had not appeared in Europe at least until the 11th century CE!

Siri Gunasinghe's concept of 'shamelessness' explains the current situation

The recent demise of Professor Siri Gunasinghe intersected the current pathetic state of absence of effective governance in Sri Lanka - and the despicable behaviour of politicians - by bringing back to focus the content of a speech he delivered at the convocation of the University of Peradeniya in 2002.

In one of the most systematic and perceptive sociological analyses, Gunasinghe used the occasion of the convocation to focus on the failure of university education to 'culture the mind' of their charges as the root cause of our national problems.

He began by pointing to the error in viewing the university merely as a degree awarding institution rather than a centre that should enable the 'culture of the mind'. He lamented the widespread social normof accepting the university degree as the ultimate proof of being 'educated'.

While acknowledging the contribution Peradeniya has made to the cultural life of the country in the past- by way of dramatic and literary works; written histories,social,political, and other studies -he asserted thatsuchformal learning has dismally failed to 'culture the minds' of the university educated.

Gunasinghe identified the ability to recognise the elusive sense of 'shame' an essential part of mental culture. In his view, developing the ability to discern shame - as distinct fromthe socially face-saving reactionof personalembarrassment -is the real test of one'seducational achievements.

He justified placing such importance on the culture of the mind because it enables one not only to see strengths, but also deficiencies in one' intellectual and moral make-up.

Gunasinghe noted that academic training of people at Peradeniya, and elsewhere in Sri Lanka, showed a bias towards 'book learning' and was deficient in imparting cultural and moral learning that would enable them to become socially responsible individuals,armed with the ability to understand shame.

He also noted that this deficiency prevented us from even recognising the lack of shame as the root cause of many of the evils evident in our society.

He went on to note that the lack of culture in individuals having a more deleterious effect on society as a whole, than on the particular individual without culture. While an individual with no culture may be able to hide in society, a society had no place to hide.

He saw it as the responsibility of society (of the so-called educated people) not to ignore or tolerate people without culture. He saw the need to treat the awareness of this responsibility to see shame as a means of avoiding evil as the ultimate aim of universityeducation.

In his own words: "If we depart from the university without that vision, we will have laboured in vain".

The concluding remarks of Professor Gunasinghe's oration need to be quoted verbatim in order to convey the true relevance of his thesis to the current situationin Sri Lanka. He said:

"It is unconscionable that in a country such as ours, with a sizeable sector of the population that does not know where the next meal is coming from, and an equally large segment that does not have a half decent roof over their heads, those in power can live lives of mindlessly luxurious abandon and lounge in princely comfort in their sprawling mansions, ruminating over their good fortune."

"Such blatant disregard for the well-being of one's fellow creatures is possible only because the fortunate few, the ones who have political or economic power and are blinded by that power, do not recognise or understand shame; they do not even see the shame that dominates their little world."

"So, leaders who should be visionaries capable of guiding us, fail in their mission because shame has no control over their socially and politically unacceptable behaviour. They sanctimoniously hold out before us their ill-conceived ideals, without understanding the culture of shame. And we too are willing to be led deeper and deeper into the morass. This is when the wisdom we have discovered at the university must become our guiding light."

Professor Gunasinghe's valuable observations relevant to our national problems and his prescriptions for ordinary citizens in terms of exposing the shamelessness of politicians are extremely relevant to the issues Sri Lanka is facing today.

Siri Gunasinghe and the Sinhala poetry

While Professor Gunasinghe's contributions in many areas of Sri Lankan art up to about 1970 need no further embellishment, his role in advocating and popularising 'free verse' in Sinhala poetry deserves critique due to its significance in the historical context.

After all, in any language, the 'form' of a poem is the 'skeleton and skin' that holds its content together. (It is also notable that Gunasinghe named the publication that introduced free verse in Sinhala 'mas le nethi eta', a simile that signified the true nature of free verse poetry).

The longer term impact of removing those elements from Sinhala poetry deserves to be reviewed. The intention here is to evaluate the impact free verse has had on Sri Lankan 'culture', through its effect on poetry, in a narrower sense than Gunasinghe's reference in the 2002 convocation oration.

A considered critique of Gunasinghe's so-called 'modernist realism' of free verse and its impact on Sinhala poetry needs to be preceded by its proper placement in the literary history of Sri Lanka, and in the West where he had borrowed the idea from.

A casual glance at the history of Sri Lankan poetry shows that the 1950s movement towards free verse (Nisandas)-pioneered by that underrated genius G. B. Senanayake and Siri Gunasinghe - was only a 'rebirth' of such 'formless' poetry. Professor Senarat Paranavitana had determined that the formless graffiti on Kedapath Pavura of Sigiriya dated back to the seventh century AD.

This rudimentary form of poetry however, had evolved in to such great literary monuments as 'Kavsilumina' by the 13th century, and to works of the 'maha-kavya' genre (modelled on the ornate Sanskrit form) and later in to Sandesha poems of the 18th century.

The reasons behind this evolution probably is the best argument against the scourge of free verse that does nothing more than filling the pages of poetry supplements in Sunday papers with drivel with the capacity to generate emotional warmth comparable to that of a dead fish!

Like all other cultural ethos, the early transfusion of metrical patterns into Sinhala poetry streamed from the Indian tradition that had developed sophisticated metrical poetry as a consequence of a philosophical system that considered vocal articulation an essential prerequisite for proper materialisation of literary ideasarising from the belief that proper cognizance of allworldly phenomena classed as 'namarupa' require listening to the unique sounds associated with them.

There was another, practical objective behind the invention of meter, preservation of the Vedas in its original form. Memorisation by listening to normal speech as a suitable means of accurately preserving the Vedas was ruled out due to the inevitability of distortionof the word that would follow.

Rigorous rhythms (chandas) were developed a as a means of accurately preserving the shape of Vedic hymns over time.

Elements of the Sanskrit meter were first elaborated in a text titled Chanda śāstra(the rules of meter), written by a sage named Pingala.

He identified the akaara (syllable) as the fundamental unit of a poetic composition arranged into pāda, (lines of fixed length), to form vrtta, (stanzas) the basic unit of poetry. Sanskrit meter is classified using a 'gana' systembased on heavy or light emphasis (da or DUM) placed on each of three syllables in blocks of three syllables known asgana.

Sanskrit poetry from the Rg and Sama Veda, to the epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata are based on elaborate arrangement of syllables.

The literary style of Sanskrit mahakavya (great poems) such as Ashvaghosa's Buddhacarita and Kalidasa's Raghuwamsa and Kumarasambhava took this practice to an extremeby strict adherence to the strophic lyric (two or more lines repeated as a unit), using complicated metresand often, lyrics full of hyperbole.

It is notable that masters of Sinhala diction such as Gurulugomi campaigned against the influence of this excessive Sanskrit form on Sinhala poetry, as far back as the 12th century.

Metric poetry and free verse in the West

Metric poetry made up of stanzas of four lines (quatrain) - with the first and third lines of eight syllables each and the second and fourth rhyming lines with six syllables - have also existed in the West since the Middle Ages. The rhythms of such 'ballad stanza' were adopted by poets like Rudyard Kipling and John Keats.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) is credited with introducing alliterative poetry using the heroic couplet-a verse having five accents with the lines rhyming in pairs -in to English poetry.

The 16th century English poets and dramatists including Shakespeare used the iambic pentametre (a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), that was compatible with the rhythms of normal English speech at the time, as the dominant form of English verse.

Similar to its history in the East, formless poetry described as free verse, is not a particularly modern form of writing in the West.

Examples of free verse poetry based on attempts to imitate the speech patterns of particular community groups can be found in the John Wycliffe translation of the (biblical) Psalms in the 1380s and repeated in most bible translations since, including the King James Bible.

Earliest records of free verse go back to John Dryden (1631-1700) - the greatest English playwright of the 17th century after William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson-and the greatest poet after John Donne and John Milton-keeping with his prose writing style based on patterns and rhythms of everyday speech. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is also known to have experimented with it.

Free verse is a label coined by French poets of the late 1880s to early 20th century (led by Gustave Kahn and Jules Laforgue) to describe poetry without rhyme and a regular metre.

As is well known, Siri Gunasinghe's time at Sorbonne coincided with the free verse movement that was 'all the rage' in Paris in the early-mid 20th century.

The free verse idea originates from the earlier 'vers libre' movement that campaigned for the need to 'liberate' French poetry from the strictures of meter.

They proposed verse shaped around the content, without adherence to any conventions of feet, rhyme or meter, essentiallyreplacing the stanza with the sentence as the unit of meaning.

Vers libre theorists in England also began attacking the iambic pentameter, giving scant recognition to the fact that the French language marked an easier transition due to equal weight giveto each spoken syllable, in contrast to English, a language with syllables varying in quantity according to levels of stress given.

The widespread adoption of vers libre in France at the end of the 19th century however, influenced a poetic trend towards free verse in other Western countries including Britain.

The first English-language poets to be influenced by vers libre however wereAmericanswho have exhibited their penchant for 'fast-food' culture throughout their short history of 200 years.

The founder of the Imagist movement Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were the early proponents, with other students of French poetry: T. E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, and Richard Aldington also becoming keen free verse poets. Rhyme-less and meterless poetry took root in the US until recently, causing the extinction of American poets who write solely in rhyme and meter.

The need to come back to senses

In reviewing the take-up of free verse by Sinhala poets, it becomes apparent that early enthusiasm of literary giants of the calibre of Martin Wickramasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekara quickly waned. Martin Wickramasinghe, who initially condemned metrical poetry in samudraghosha metre in particular, later dissociated himself with the free verse movement.

Likewise, Gunadasa Amarasekara returned to narrative poetry following the tradition of classical and folk poetry. It was only Mahagama Sekara among the truly creative poets who maintained commitment to free verse until his death.

But, Sekera's poetry rarely conformed to the blandest of the free verse without rhyme or meter. Free verse of Sekara - as easy conversion to song lyrics by Amaradeva shows -still followed a meter, though withoutrhyme.

Similarly, in the West, key early proponents of free verse have toned down their enthusiasm with the benefits of emotional maturity. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), one of the leading figures of the modern English free verse movement (if not the leading figure) in his essay Reflections on vers libre written in 1917, following the publication of the much celebrated "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1915, took issue with the movement's attack on iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, Milton and the English poetic tradition.

Eliot called free verse a 'preposterous fiction' and complained that it could only be defined and understood in negatives and the absence of pattern (form), rhyme and meter. Eliot concluded that "the division between conservative verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos".

In the final analysis, the wise will admit that the form in itself can not make a poem superior. Best poems usually exhibit a confluence of many factors- subject matter, word choice, metaphors and rhythm - as reasons of success.Some of the best poems of Rabindranath Tagore (Punashcha, Shesh saptak, Patraput and Shyamali) are metreless rhythmic verse whereas most free verse published these days, labelled 'poetry', deserve to be thrown in to rubbish.

As T. S. Eliot wrote, 'no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.'

The real reason behind traditional poetry employing meter is to set a poem apart from prose. Meter helps in establishing characteristic tone of a poem in the same manner a drum beat sets the mood for a song by varying the speed of the rhythmic cycle.

Meter based rhythmic patterns originate from syllables that form words. Skilled poets create rhythmic patterns by stacking together stressed and unstressed syllables in words in different orders.

Verse formed of iambs, trochets, dactyls or anapests, an isochronic rhythm, as in musical measures, helps in relieving monotony and enlivening meaning. Good meter is unvaryingly exalting and is unique aesthetic potential.

As the ancient Indians discovered, rhythm also help develop rapport with the reader or listenerof poetry by utilising the natural brain function of filling in the gaps in patterns such asrhymes and rhythm, to improve the 'memory' of verse even by illiterate people.

The long memory of nursery rhymes, quatrains and song lines made so by using an easy seven syllable metric, and an easy rhyming scheme (ABCB) bear evidence to this fact. The other key component of traditional poetry, rhyme, is the native condition of lyric verse, a rhyme-less lyric sounds embryonic and malformed, and crucially, halts and stammers in the delivery of its message.

Writing poetry made up of rhyming and measuring verses, like all creative activity that imposes constraints, demands skill and craftsmanship.

Admittedly, such work usually requires far more talent, thought and effort that far exceed the requirement of smearing a bunch of disjointed words and phrases in something labelled poetic verse.

The phonetic make-up of Sinhala, like all languages, exhibits complicated links between meter, rhythm, alliteration and rhyme. Work of poets of the calibre of Wimalaratna Kumaragama and Meemana Prematillake, among others, bear ample testimony to the beauty of expression in rhyme and meter.

Attempts to compose Sinhala poetry ignoring the role ofphonetic features of the language can only generate collections of 'dead' words that fail to combine form and meaning.

In conclusion, Professor Gunasinghe's 2002 observations on the non-existence of culture among the 'educated' Lankans are eminently agreeable. His promotion of free verse- essentially a foreign means of expression of inferior quality - appears inconsistent and is out of character with his more mature views on culture in general.

Free verse has been partly responsible for the degradation of quality of Sinhala poetry over the last 50 years or so, and Gunasinghe himself probably regretted it like Martin Wickramasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekara did earlier.

The current absence of quality song lyrics writers (apart from the notable few who are continuing since the 1970s) can directly be attributed to the destruction of the soul of Sinhala poetry by free verse. The work of Sri Chandraratna Manawasinghe demonstrates the radiance of song lyrics constructed with rhyme and meter.

At the end of the day, free verse is the lazy man's sonnet, analogous to jazz in musical composition terms. As the British-American poet Robert Frost complained 'it is like 'playing tennis without the net', and non-metrical poetry is actually prose.

It is time we abandoned mediocrity and start learning the basics of meter and rhyme in order to prevent further destruction of Sinhala poetry.