WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Poetry, in Sri Lanka


The Lost Song of the Lotus Child

"He sat down and wrote

on the reflective wall

plainly of things we could see

With no nectar in the sound

No quicksilver at the core

It can’t be poetry."


- Reconstruction of a Sigiri Graffito by Murphy Richards.

"The Mirror Wall"

By Tissa Abeysekara (@ The Island)

Balava kara hala-la/Pehebara digu nuvan la. -‘Turn Give me a glance -And lay thy bright long eyes upon me."  This is a fragment from a lost poem. There are two more shards from this poem coming to us through references in other works over a space of nearly fifteen centuries. From the slender evidence at hand, we may guess, the poem was written towards the end of the Anuradhapura period in Sri Lanka’s history. We can also infer, from a statement in the Sikha Valanda Vinisa — the oldest available text written here - that the poem may have been written by Asakda Mala, one of several poets mentioned in the quoted text, as being active in the sixth century. We also have reason to think, the poem may have been based on the Asankhawathie Jataka - one of the most beautiful stories in the Jatakapaliya; it is a fable about a beautiful child found lying on a lotus in a pond by an ascetic in the Himalayas. Rescued by the ascetic and nursed through childhood, the lotus child, blossoms into a ravishing beauty. Her very presence in the hermit’s ashram becomes an incongruity disturbing his meditation. Thereby hangs the tale, the eternal conflict between the spirit and the flesh, with the narrative moving discreetly and tantalizingly between illusion and reality. It is almost a film by the Japanese master of allegory, Kenji Mizoguchi.

In the Elu derivative of the name, Asankhawathie Jataka, becomes Asakdawa. The lost poem is thus referred to, in old classical texts, as Asakda Kava. We may infer that the poet, Asakda Mala, inherited his name from the story, he turned into a poem.

Now, fifteen hundred years later, Gunadasa Amarasekara, in a unique act of literary restoration, has reinvented the entire poem, based on the fragments available. His poem may not be a faithful replica of the original - that would be a miraculous deux-ex-machina, and therefore inconceivable - but the exercise certainly restores, we may be permitted to believe, the architecture and the verbal radiance (in Graham Gough`EDs marvellous phrase describing a certain quality in good poetry) of the original. That in itself is an achievement deserving the highest respect.

However Amarasekara’s exercise is not only one of poetry, but also of poetics. It is both a creative enterprise as well as an act of supreme scholarship. The poet in him has responded to the ‘nectar in the sound and quicksilver at the core’ of the little chips that have come to us across a vast gulf in time; he has also been aesthetically charmed and inspired, obviously, by the grace and beauty of the fable. But there is much more behind Amarasekara’s wonderfully readable poem. It is part of a search, which began in the early sixties, and has been pursued, intermittently though, because of his regular skirmishes into cultural polemics, with an evangelical passion and commitment. It is mandatory therefore, that we examine the latest creative act by Amarasekara, within this larger context.

Somewhere in 1962, Amarasekara, in an unprecedented act of literary recantation, disowned the entire canon of Peradeniya aesthetic theory in which he was nursed. With this salvo, the enfant terrible of Sinhala fiction and poetry who had laced his novels with Lawrencian erotica, and carved his verse in the anti-prosodic forms of modern western poetry, suddenly turned tables on his mentors. The critical artillery was directed with savage fury, not only against the blank verse of the Peradeniya poets, but also against the Colombo School, an earlier phase in contemporary Sinhala poetry drawing inspiration from Tagore and the Lake Poets of nineteenth century England. The free verse, spun in the precious heights of the Hantane hills - Amarasekara’s own exercise in this genre had the very self-explanatory title - Uyanaka Hinda Liyu Kavi : ‘Verses Written in a Pleasure Garden’ - were too cerebral and mechanical and lacked emotive power, according to the defector from those ranks, and the earlier metrical forms of the Colombo school, too synthetic and hollow; sawdust and tinsel from superficial versifiers, who failed to qualify as genuine poets.

The condition, central to works of both schools and which made the body of such poetry anaemic, lay, according to Amarasekara, in the deployment of a false poetic diction. Contemporary Sinhala poetry, has un-moored itself from the shores of a genuine and rooted poetic tradition, and lay adrift in a stagnant pool. The springs have dried up, and the water is polluted by spurious elements, and pale imitation. We have to rediscover and reactivate the springs of that poetic diction, cleanse the stagnant pool with the freshwater and let the river flow again. With this manifesto, Amarasekara embarked on a quest to rediscover, what he maintains, is the lost voice of the Sinhala muse.

It had been, for well over four decades now, a lone crusade, mainly because it lacked institutional support. Amarasekara began his journey, when academia was on the verge of a tragic slide into insipid political anarchy which, has now gone beyond recall. If the Peradeniya University, freshly sited in the idyllic seclusion of the Kandyan hills, provided a world of intellectual balance to inspire a renaissance in our cultural life of the fifties, Amarasekara’s call for action was echoed only by himself. In his poetry written over the last forty years, paralleling his odyssey and marking the pilgrim’s progress, ( Bhava Geetha, Sakvalihini, Amal Biso, and Avarjana), the lone crusader illustrates his principled aesthetic stance, with some pieces which remain the finest exercises in contemporary Sinhala verse.

Poetry, in Sri Lanka, has degenerated into banal lyric writing for bad music, because that is where instant popularity and the shekels lay. Other than Amarasekara, who is peerless, I can think of only three others who qualify genuinely to be called poets, and not versifiers; they are, Ariyawansa Ranaweera, Monica Ruwanpathirana, and Parakrama Kodituwakku, in that order.

For a proper evaluation of the latest poem by Amarasekara, it is crucial that we have a clear awareness of what he is after. In his survey of the evolution of Sinhala classical poetry, Sinhala Kavya Sampradaya, first published in 1996, Amarasekara has neatly synthesized into a single unbroken narrative, all the strands of his critical thinking on the issue. A central argument runs through this work of lucid reasoning and impressive scholarship. It is, that Sinhala poetry, from the earliest extant works, coming from as far back as the 12th century, and going by certain shreds of evidence dating back to a few centuries before, conforms to a broad pattern of prosody, imagery and metaphor. He claims for Sinhala poetry a textual universe, the basic contours of which, he draws through a wide network of references. In his conclusions on the subject, Amarasekara echoes, the views of Professor Paranavitana, in the latter’s monumental Commentary and Introduction to the Sigiri Graffiti.

"It is evident (therefore)," says Paranavitana, at the beginning of the section on ‘The Literary Quality of the (Sigiri) Verses’, in his long and scholarly introduction, with reference to earlier evidence he has presented the reader with, ‘that the extant literary works dating from the thirteenth century and later, more particularly the poems, were written in a language which imitated earlier models which are lost now."

Paranavitana’s treatise on the Sigiri Poems took scholarship on Sinhala verse beyond the 12th century, - where it had stopped earlier - to the verses scribbled on the mirror wall at the Lion Rock, by visitors to the place between the 6th and the 10th centuries. His awesome two-volume work opened a whole new world to scholarship and gave another dimension to the story of Sinhala verse. Paranavitana was no poet, and his translations of the Sigiri Poems into English were close to paraphrasing the originals. Yet what emerged was a startling record of a sophisticated poetic tradition, existing in the country, long before the muse begins to sing in the olas. But something more in these verses have endeared them to us over the years. They are so remarkably free of the ornate Sanskrit decor, which weigh so heavily on classical Sinhala poetry, beginning from the twelfth century. When reinterpreted today by an accomplished poet, the spare elegance of these verses, almost Haiku-like in their austere simplicity, comes across overwhelmingly, as in this exercise by Ashley Halpe:

The wind raged, denuding the trees

In their bud-time beauty -

Thousands, hundreds of thousands;

The jackals howled, the torrents

Roared down the Maleya mountains,

But the night glowed tender, the leaves

Copper-colour, in the shimmer

Of innumerable fireflies.

O long eyed ones

I read your message, but

What does it hold for me?

("SIGIRI POEMS", by Ashley Halpe, based on the translations by Senarat Paranavitana.)

Paranavitana concludes, "that it would not be correct to analyze these works of anonymous versifiers entirely on the canons of Sanskrit poetics" (Sigiri Graffiti/ Introduction/# 621)

In the Elu Sandas Lakuna, a critical work on poetics in Sinhala, extensively quoted by Paranavitana to explain his decoding of metric forms in the Sigiri Poems, there is in verse 115, a striking admission: "Innumerable are the metres in Sinhala prosody/Should we lay down the rule for poets - when a metre is not a metre?/In the dark of the treasure trove/Many are the gems/Sneaking rays of the sun reveal but few/The rest lay hidden in the unfathomable dark" (translation by the writer)

Could this mean that Sinhala poetic practice in those days had a much greater latitude of expression than the codified rules of Sanskrit poetics would permit? It is this freedom to sing, unfettered by the shackles of conventional prosody, that Amarasekara claims for Sinhala poetry. However he argues for a retreat to the common fund of imagery and metaphor; his rationale for such a return is based on the assumption, that poetic language could reach euphonic maturity and emotive power, only through continued currency.

One cannot mint poetic diction. It has to grow. In the fragments of Asakda Kava, that have survived, he had seen the glint of a poetic metal endemic to the genius of our language, and which he concludes, should form the core of our poetry. If we are to accept Paranavitana’s conclusion, that "the language in poetry in Sri Lanka, though influenced to a certain extent by current colloquial idioms and expression, nevertheless conformed broadly to a poetic idiom, which may have remained basically the same over a long period of time", it leads us to another. The Sigiri Poems, as well as Asakda Kava, inhabit a common textual universe. It is here that Amarasekara beckons us, for a rejuvenation of Sinhala poetry.

When we contemplate this well argued and clearly articulated call by Amarasekara, two major concerns surface. First is one of linguistic potency. Some, could be troubled, that a retreat to a diction, wrought in times long past, may strip language of the very qualities, which Amarasekara demands for effective poetic communication, euphonic meaning (artha dvani) and emotive power (bhavartha). In this backward longing - George Steiner`EDs beautiful expression in his essay, Silence and the Poet (‘Language and Silence’. Faber & Faber/1967) - Amarasekara repeats, the key strand in the body of work, both creative and critical, of his disowned mentor, Sarachchandra.

The latter, it would be interesting to note, began his long and illustrious career, as a poet, dramatist, social thinker, and university don, with an article written as far back as 1938, where he exhorts the Sinhala literary and art establishment, to revolt against, what he terms, the ‘Ascetic Idea’ of the Sinhala Theravada tradition. (Read Sena Thoradeniya’s well-researched Article: A critical assessment of Sarachchandra’s Ascetic Ideal, in Artscope/CDN/08 October 2003)

Sarachchandra’s entire body of work both creative and critical in the following decades, is a negation of this manifesto, presented at the dawn of his highly productive career. I may double quote from Thoradeniya’s article, some of the following pronouncements in Sarachchandra’s manifesto of 1938 (CDN Vesak Number. 1938).

"A simplification of our prose for popularity"; "an air of erudition over a literary composition, which scares the average reader"; "widening of the gap between the colloquial and the literary language will hinder an islandwide appeal"; "break from the Oriental weakness for grandiloquence and ornamentation"; "People of the twentieth century will not pause to read Sinhalese literature, if it retains the same flowery and cumbersome style of the old books"; "return back to the primitive purity and shortness of , preferring the language of artisans, countrymen and merchants before that of wits and scholars".

If the greatest Sinhala dramatist-poet of the twentieth century withdrew from this position, the reasons are not to be sought in his individual capacity as a creative artist. They are inherent in his thinking as a critic, and that in turn is a result of his misreading of the dynamics of Sinhala culture. It was here that Sarachchandra’s contemporary and senior colleague, Martin Wickremasingha, became the supreme master and interpreter. The Theravada discipline faulted by Sarachchandra as inhibiting the growth of the performing arts in this country, is the very source wherein lay the virtues of simplicity valued by him and later celebrated by Wickremasingha and almost codified into a credo. At the heart of Sarachchandra’s assertion, is this fatal contradiction, which made his seminal work in theatre, poetry, and criticism, a complete antithesis of his initial stance on aesthetics.

In the last century, Sinhala literature faced a dilemma; in forging a diction of poetic and critical discourse, if it abandoned its moorings with past tradition for a contemporary vigour and validity of subtext, where should it turn for nourishment? The spoken idiom and journalistic currency were still underdeveloped to be effective instruments of heightened communication. The language, rooted in a Buddhist ethic, and an agrarian culture, had still not come to terms with the newly emerging urban landscape. In Sri Lankan suburbia, Sinhala was not at home still. The songs of the Tower Hall Theatre, with lyrics disfigured to synchronize with the hybrid melodies of the Parsee plays, are a good illustration of the trauma of a tongue trying to twist itself into new phonetic shapes.

Martin Wickremasingha, led the movement towards a fusion between the pastoral and the urban linguistic strains. But his mission was accomplished exclusively in the realm of contemporary Sinhala fiction, and the language of critical prose. Sarachchandra was the poet, the greatest poetic sensibility in Sinhala of our time. The language, as spoken and written, at the time he began his creative odyssey, was not tuned enough to sing in the magnificent plays that still lay in his fertile imagination. The texts of Maname and Sinhabahu are as central to our poetic diction, as Shakespearean texts are, to the English language. But unlike in the works of the Elizabethan bard, in the texts of Sarachchandra, there is no room for the sound of the spoken word.

The tones and the cadences are essentially in the great tradition of Kalidasa. In the Elu phonetics of pure Sinhala, the major chord is missing. (Sunil Shantha, the greatest musical talent in contemporary Sinhala music, paid the supreme price for interlocking his melodies with the plain, almost basic sounds of Elu Sinhala) It cannot render the grand passions of epic drama. Listen to the lament of the abandoned princess in Maname, or to the agony of the dying Lion in Sinhabahu. The libretto sings in a Wagnerian rhetoric, which is possible only in the Sanskritized idiom of classical Sinhala poetry. The mainstream Sinhala language of today, is too anaemic and adulterated, to reach the upper register of poetic feeling; it has no oratorio, no cantata. (Please Mr. Khemadasa, spare us the pain and the embarrassment) The epic scale is missing.

Sarachchandra is therefore vindicated in his regression. But Amarasekara’s is a different profile. Even though nursed in the womb of Peradeniya, his defection was not entirely unnatural. His poetry in the early stages of his career, and his early fiction (Karumakkarayo, Jeevana Suwanda) before he lost himself in the mists of Lawrencian psychology, firmly situated him in the plebian aesthetic, propounded and practised by Martin Wickremasingha. His crossover was at a time when after an initial phase of creative camaraderie, the giants, Wickremasinghe and Sarachchandra, clashed mightily.

Amarasekara’s poetry in the aftermath of his ‘metamorphosis’ was marked by some startling experiments in reworking the prosody and metric forms of the folk tradition. His wonderful ballads, and lyric pieces, in the collection Amal Biso, restored to Sinhala poetry some of its lost oral charm, and spawned two generations of imitators. However no one could match the heightened poetry in these pieces, which always gleamed under the marble arches of rigorous metric form. In his narrative poem, Gurulu Vatha, he reworked the popular folk-ballad form with a lean and spare elegance of verbal structure, a model once again widely imitated, but never surpassed or even equaled.

But it is in his Avarjana, that Amarasekara reaches full bloom as a modern poet. What though is relevant here, is not so much the poetic value of this marvellous collection, but the attempt by the poet to carve a poetic diction out of the rhythms and expressions of contemporary speech. The first steps in this search for a simpler, more colloquial voice and timbre, for Sinhala poetry, could be found even in the earliest poetry of Amarasekara, written when he was still a major star in the Peradeniya firmament.

Bhava Geetha, written in 1955, contains some pieces where the poet draws freely from the fund of the spoken word. Even though the lyrical phrasing is wrought from the pastoral idiom of the southern village familiar to Amarasekara, and may not be a complete answer to the need for a more urbane diction, some pieces in Bhava Geetha, come readily to mind as the first successful attempts at singing in a new voice. ‘The Carter’s Song’ (Andura Ape Dukha Nivavi), ‘The Ode to Rain’ (Vessa), ‘A Streak of the Sun’(Hiru Res Dahara), are both, examples of fine poetry, and pioneering exercises, conducted with a complete awareness of what poetic diction should necessarily be.

Now, almost three decades after those poems were written, it may seem, Amarasekara has abandoned his quest, and resorted like Sarachchandra, to a backward leap. Could this be another confirmation that the Sinhala language in its present adulterated state has lost its sonar capacity to provide a serious poet with the high frequencies necessary to convey heightened emotion? Or could this be a misreading of Amarasekara’s latest poem, Asakda Kava, which should be seen, not as a breach in the poet’s search for the lost voice of the Sinhala muse, but as a significant phase in its continuation? These are serious questions, and cannot be answered simply. Here we come to the second of our concerns, and it is one of poetics.

At the heart of Sinhala poetry and consistent throughout its long history and troubled evolution, there is a deep division. It is something similar, perhaps, to the Leavisian breakdown of English poetry, referred to by Regi Siriwardena in his brilliantly lucid and concise monograph, The Pure Water of Poetry. It is a clear line running between, ‘the great tradition of Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Pope, the later Keats, Hopkins, Eliot’ as explained by Siriwardena, and the ‘lesser tradition - the line of Spencer, Milton, the early Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Swinburne." The difference is marked by ‘a verbal density, rich metaphorical life, keen sensuous intensity" on one side and a ‘poetry of facile verbal melody, diffusion and imprecision of language, images that were decorative rather than organic’ on the other.

However, in the division in Sinhala poetry of the classical mode, it is the great tradition that stands incriminated, under the scrutiny of modern criticism, of the aesthetic flaws of, ‘facile verbal melody’ and other inorganic decorative motifs. The lesser tradition, after centuries of institutional discrimination, has been resurrected, especially through the sweeping critical surveys of Martin Wickremasinghe (Read, Chapter III in Sinhala Sahityaye Negeema - ‘The Evolution of Sinhala Literature’). It was Wickremasinghe who led the rediscovery of the spare classical purity and integrity of form in Guttila Kavya, as against the overdressed metaphorical affluence of Kavsilumina ‘The Crest Gem of Poetry’, still considered by some as the supreme achievement of classical Sinhala verse. It was he who laid bare the grace and the charm of the Sinhala folk tradition and made us listen to its simple patterns of verbal melody. (Amarasekara dedicates his pioneering effort in reworking these metric forms and rhythms of common speech, Amal Biso, to Martin Wickremasinghe, for initiating him into the pleasures of Sinhala folk poetry)

Wickremasinghe’s critical wrath was directed with no reservation at the three earliest extant works of classical Sinhala verse, Muvadev Dava, Sasa Dava, and Kavsilumina. To him they were crude imitations of Sanskrit models, totally devoid of organic integrity, hollow duplicates which in the final reckoning, is bad poetry. His observations, made as far back as 1946, when the poems, which came under his scrutiny were considered holy icons beyond reproach, would have infuriated the Oriental scholars at the time. The three chapters on classical Sinhala poetry in his monumental survey of Sinhala literature, Sinhala Sahityaye Negeema, remained the authoritative statement on the subject, until Amarsekara developed it into a more comprehensive discourse with his Sinhala Kavya Sampradaya (The Tradition of Sinhala Verse).

The strand in Sinhala poetry, decreed as the ‘lesser tradition’ - chula sampradha - by the Oriental gurus, became, largely due to the work of Wickremasinghe, the major source of inspiration for Amarasekara and his generation and for those who followed. However reading through his dissertation on Sinhala poetry, one gets the feeling that Amarasekara is after something which lies beyond the simple and orthodox division of the ‘great tradition’ and the ‘lesser tradition’. The search seems to be for a poetic mode wherein the linguistic, metrical, and prosodic elements are seamlessly fused. Amarasekara seems to have found such an integrity in the splintered fragments of the original Asakda Kava. His first impressions are of the spare elegance of language, and (arising out of that) a simplicity of melodic line and architecture.

Paranavitana, in his study of the Sigiri Poems, observes similar qualities in the verses scribbled by anonymous poets on the mirror wall; these verses seem to draw from the common template of poetic sensibility and diction, that Amarasekara is after. It is a sensibility far more restrained than the sensuality and sonorous music of Sanskrit poetry. Paranavitana describes this restraint as ‘refinement’ and ‘good taste’. It would be more correct to conclude that it is a result of the spartan ethic of Theravada Buddhism. It is an austere simplicity that one finds consistently in Sinhala folk poetry. To confirm Amarasekara’s contention, that this unadorned, bare simplicity, has its ancestry in a poetic tradition, current as far back as the sixth century AD - the time when the Sigiri verses were first scribbled, and the original Asakda Kava may have been composed - a random sample from the mirror wall would suffice.

Asimi dun hasun - hasun se vil dut

Mula la ma sanahi - pul piyuman se bamar dut.

‘A fluttering swan who has seen a lake, was me,

As I listened to thy message,

And my bewildered heart, a crazed bee

Who has seen the lotus flowers in full bloom’ (tr. by the writer)

As I attempted to translate the original into English, I realized it would be impossible to convey in another language, the sound patterns in the Sinhala verse. The repetition of the word hasun, to convey two different meanings - the first is ‘message’ and the second means ‘swan’ - draws on a rich plurality of meaning in Sinhala, and imparts to the poem a delicate sibilance, perfectly in tune with the sentiments expressed; the expression ‘The lotus flowers in full bloom’ can never convey the sexuality inherent in the combined syllabic chord of the Sinhala expression, pul piyuman; and the English word ‘bee’ bleaches completely the full bodied resonance of the Sinhala, ‘bamar’ which practically vibrates with the mating cry of the creature it simulates so perfectly.

Amarasekara, having traced and identified this poetic diction for which he claims an indigenous root, wrought and honed in the Theravada Buddhist ethic of ascetic simplicity, now attempts, to link it firmly with a poetic form, which though coming from Sanskrit prosody, seems to have reached its peak of expressive power within the canvas of Sinhala verse.

Of the 687 verses on the Mirror Wall deciphered by Paranavitana, over 650, are in a two-line stanza form, referred to as Gee, in Sinhala poetry. Due to its wide application by the Sigiri poets, Paranavitana, in his introduction, goes into an exhaustive study of this form. Some of his conclusions, arrived at, more through the clinical approach of the most outstanding archaeological mind of our times, and therefore more acceptable in academic terms than aesthetic conjecture, do synchronize perfectly, with the views expressed by Amarasekara. (I do not rule out the possibility here of Amarasekara drawing inspiration from Paranavitana’s scholarship on the subject, first published a few years before the poet embarked on his historic search. I must add however, that Amarasekara’s views never struck me as being intellectual affectation; to me they were the genuine feelings of a poet in search of a voice, and his poetry, bears this out)

The veteran archaeologist, sifting through all evidence with the meticulous care of one digging up the past, first concludes that the Gee form, though originating in Sanskrit poetry, acquired greater importance and independence of idiom in Sri Lanka. He maintains (Sigiri Graffiti/Intro/ #597), that the difference between metres within the generic form of Gee may not be as sharp and clear cut as in Sanskrit, Geethi, from which the local version descends. He also points out that the definition given to this form in the Graffiti, differs from the definition given in the Elu Sandas Lakuna, the Sinhala text on poetics based on a Sanskrit original. He firmly rules, that a Gee, within the context of local poetry, ‘must be treated as formed of two and only two metrical lines’ as against the definitions in Esl. (SG/Intro/ # 573), where the term is applied to both the couplet and the quatrain as in Sanskrit.

Again, Paranavitana says, ‘that in the early stages of Sinhala verse, the Gee form enjoyed undisputed supremacy, but in the following centuries, it was overtaken by Sivupada (quatrain)’. (SG/Intro/ # 577) The Sandesa poems, beginning with Mayura Sandesaya, in the fourteenth century, were written essentially in the Sivupada form. The most important point made and substantiated forcefully by Paranavitana, is that the Gee form is free of metric rigidity, and gives free play for the poetic imagination. He lays much emphasis on this laxity of metric discipline, reflected in the Sigiri compositions, and there is a note of approval here.

‘A pada, is that much of a line in a Gee, which can be recited without a pause - caesura (yati). The rhythm of a pada in a Gee need not be the same as that of another - and so with length. This irregularity is the keynote of the Gee metres, but it is an irregularity which should create a pleasing sound effect’. (SG/Intro/#594)

Paranavitana also draws our attention to certain poetic values as reflected in the Sigiri Poems, both in the poetry itself as well as in certain comments within some poems. I began this article, using as epigram, a rephrasing of a Sigiri poem by Richard Murphy. I would like at this point to revert to the original translation by Paranavitana on which Murphy has based his poem. I do so because, in Paranavitana’s near paraphrasing of the original Sinhala verse, the meaning is clinically bared.

He thinks he wrote a poem,

But isn’t this an empty song?

Writing his impressions,

Just as he saw them. (Sigiri Graffiti/Verse. # 492)

To describe something as seen is not poetry says this anonymous versifier, alluding to an intertextual template, which governed his craft in those days. What then was considered poetry? Here Paranavitana goes into a long discourse on two schools of poetry that existed then. It was a debate conducted strictly within the canon of Sanskrit poetics, and the issue was between Svabhavokthi and Vakrokthi. The first, advocated a simple bare diction, to portray things as they are. The second was for the orthodox ‘cultured’ poetic diction, with its ornate figures, where ‘implied meaning’ - vakrokthi - was the soul.

Bhamaha, the great Sanskrit guru of poetics, was scornful of the ‘naturalist’ school, and called such poetry mere varta - reportage. He referred contemptuously to such poets, ‘who can do nothing but compose jati - as numerous as the dogs who bark from every house’. Mahimbatta, the guru from the opposite camp, maintained, in a spirited defence of Svabhavokthi, ‘that it is a description bringing out the very soul - svalakshana, the thing itself - of any object which the intuition of the poet grasps’. (SG/Intro/#636) In a comparative judgement of these two schools of poetics, Paranavitana, for the first, and perhaps the only time, puts his foot wrong. He slips, not due to any partiality to any one side - there is no shift in his cool objective stance - but because of a fatally wrong reading of the concept of Savabhavokthi, which he confuses with the western idea of ‘naturalism’. This misconception leads him to another.

In Sanskrit poetics, there is an adage that may sound strange today, if read out of its original context. It lays down the condition, ‘that the language of the poet should not be that of the uncultivated man of the village’. In the ancient world, the city, was the repository of knowledge, the centre from where all culture radiated, where the king ruled from. The village was the primitive backwater, the forest-ridden wilderness, or the wasteland where life was nasty, brutish and short. Here no Valmiki or Homer ever sang, no Socrates, no Kautilya, ever preached. To extract a rule from such a context and apply it to ancient Sri Lanka, where the temple in the village was the font of all knowledge and wisdom (most of the Sigiri poets were from villages identifiable even today and from rural monasteries), and the city was only a holy centre, and never one of secular wealth, could be disastrous.

But this was precisely what Paranavitana has done. The facile confrontation of ‘urban sophistication against rural rusticity’ and the total misreading of Svabhavokthi, are both applied in evaluating the poetry in Sigiri verses. Thus, into the centre of Paranavitana’s towering achievement, there falls the shadow of a tragic mistake. In failing to see that Svabhavokthi, even as propounded by the Sanskrit gurus, was not bland reportage, but a poetic attitude, a figure - alamkara, where the intuition of the poet - the gift of prathibha, reveals the inner essence of the real world - the prakurthi, the great explorer was denied a glimpse of the verbal radiance in the poems he was deciphering, with, what is now accepted as an act of legendary scholarship.

The elements Paranavitana revealed in the Sigiri poems, and the last one he missed in them, are the virtues integral to that poetic tradition Amarasekara was trying to unearth. In re-inventing the lost masterpiece, he was attempting to give concrete form to those values. Within this context, his ‘backward longing’ is integral to the main focus of his search. If Sarachcandra retreated to past forms, it was to the Maha Sampradha, the great tradition rooted in Sanskrit aesthetics. Amarasekara is essentially in search of a more local voice. However, both were forced back, in my opinion, by the inadequacies of the Sinhala language, in its contemporary form. And that is my major concern.

Whilst paying my tribute to the poet-scholar in Gunadasa Amarasekara, I would sound the alarm of my central concern all over again. Could the language of Asakda Kava, with all the poetic charms it embodies, and so full of ‘the pure water of poetry’ (the unforgettable phrase quoted by Regi Siriwardena from Ian Jack, quoted in turn according to Regi, by his English Professor, Lyn Ludowyke in describing a particular quality in the poetry of early Wordsworth, and the full line being ‘The glass seems empty, because it is so full of pure water’) sing to us today? Shouldn’t there be a rearrangement of the orchestra to create another sound, perhaps not as sweet as in the song of the lotus child, but more robust and more relevant? If the Sinhala language has, in the degenerating years of the last half a century, lost its texture, its timbre, and its soul-music, couldn’t you at least, dear poet, recharge it, or strain the water of its impurities, and make it sparkle once again? You are working at a height, few Sinhala writers in our time have ever reached. It must be pretty lonely up there. But you must continue to sing.

May the rain girls of the lion rock, keep you company.

This piece is my homage, to Regi Siriwardena - the greatest critical mind in Sri Lanka of our time - who guided me, to the higher levels of poetry, and poetics.

@Tissa Abeysekara, Rajagiriya. ,28 October, 2003

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