The changing fortunes of Sinhala poetry
Even though there is no dearth of talent, Sinhala poetry does not enjoy the popularity that it had a few decades ago.
THE term tests in school had ended. It was time for literary activities to begin. One of the items was a lecture by P.B. Alwis Perera, the well-known poet. After his speech someone from the audience asked him to recite a poem. Alwis Perera said that he would do so if any one in the audience inspired him with an original poem. A young man, who was the editor of a local poetry journal, stood up and recited a verse. Alwis Perera replied immediately with one of his own. This led to a kavi maduwa (an interactive poetry session where people who are present are free to recite their poems or debate with each other in verse) which lasted for about 45 minutes and in which a number of persons participated.
This happened in the early 1950s in a town about 40 km from Colombo. Such events were common in the 1940s too. By 1950 there were a number of monthly poetry magazines being published in the country. Four of them, published from Colombo, were read nationwide. They were Dedunne (Rainbow), edited by P.B. Alwis Perera; Suwanda (Fragrance), edited by Kapila E. Seneviratne; Meewadaya (Honeycomb), edited by John Rajadasa; and Amba Vanaya (Mangrove) edited by Sirisena Maitipe. P.B. Alwis Perera edited the largest-selling poetry magazine and was also the most formidable figure at kavi maduwas. Poetry magazines were also published from provincial towns. Kavi maduwas were held occasionally in the towns and sometimes lasted a whole day. Poetry collections of well-known authors sold in large numbers. Kavi kolayas, which carried important or sensational incidents narrated in verse form, were sold at bus stands, Sunday fairs and so on by men who recited them aloud to attract customers.
The poetry practised was metrical and the most popular metre was samudraghosha (every line has about 17 time units and ends with the same syllable and every stanza has four lines). Samudraghosha has been popular for at least 700 years. It was used in sandesa poems (the earliest model of which was Kalidasa's Meghadootam) which are supposed to have been inspired by the more recent Tamil Thudhu poems, in the Kotte period and before. (The Kotte period was the last period of Sri Lankan glory before the European invasions). The samudraghosha metre was used in most forms of popular poetry, such as pel kavi (poems sung at night while guarding fields), paru kavi (those sung while paddling boats) and goyam kavi (those sung while reaping paddy).
THE important poets of the 1940s were Ananda Rajakaruna, S. Mahinda Thera and G.H. Perera. Ananda Rajakaruna was the seniormost of them. S. Mahinda Thera was a Buddhist monk, who wrote his name as 'Tibet Jathika S. Mahinda', which meant S. Mahinda of Tibetan nationality. 'S' stood for Sikkim. Apparently he called himself a Tibetan national rather than a Sikkimese national because Tibet was better known in Sri Lanka. He was ordained a monk after his arrival in Sri Lanka. A remarkable aspect of his career as a Sinhala poet was that he became an ardent nationalist. He was also a sympathiser of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which was founded in 1935 and which brought together the forward-looking and anti-imperialist sections of Sri Lankan society. G.H. Perera, a school teacher, was also a member of the LSSP, a nationalist and a social critic.
Poet Wimalaratne Kumaragama
Among the younger poets of the late 1940s and early 1950s were P.B. Alwis Perera, Sagara Palansuriya, Wimalaratne Kumaragama and a host of others. The most sensitive poet was perhaps Wimalaratne Kumaragama. Most of the poets were left-leaning. When the right-wing United National Party Government held a poetry competition to celebrate Sri Lanka's Independence in 1948, none of the popular poets responded, saying that it was a fake Independence.
WHILE poetry magazines and newspapers catered to popular poetry, another poetic tradition was kept alive through its main proponent, Munidasa Cumaratunga, who died in 1944 but whose fame remains to this day. This was a more learned stream of poetry. Munidasa Cumaratunga is the foremost Sinhala grammarian of modern times. He was a teacher and later the principal of a teachers' training college. A question by one of his pupils, which Cumaratunga could not answer, set him on a voyage of study which enabled him to develop concepts of Sinhala grammar in a scientific manner. He also learnt Sanskrit on his own and gained a thorough knowledge of it. He started a magazine by the name of Subasa to promote the correct use of Sinhala.
Cumaratunga was a versatile poet. He also edited and published several ancient Sinhala classics. He was a nationalist of a different order. He considered all Sri Lankans to be Helas, a term that could include all ethnic communities in the country. He and his associates founded an organisation called Hela Havula in order to promote their ideas. One of Cumaratunga's poems, "Piyasamara", written about his dead father, was considered by a distinguished contemporary, Martin Wickramasinghe, as a work fit for expansion into a mahakavya (epic).
In a reinterpretation of Sri Lankan history by the Hela school, Vijaya, who is traditionally considered to be the founder of the Sri Lankan state, was no hero; he was only a usurper who temporarily seized a kingdom established long ago, one of the illustrious rulers of which was Ravana. It is interesting that Ravana is a hero of the Hela school in Sri Lanka as well as among Dravidian nationalists in India.
Poet, critic and scholar Munidasa Cumaratunga
Another distinguished poet of the Hela school was Reipiyel Tennekoon, who in addition to his other voluminous works wrote a history of Sri Lanka in metrical verse. However, he preferred the traditional version of Sri Lankan history rather than the Hela version. Sunil Santha, a popular and talented singer of yesteryear, was a member of the Hela Havula; he sang a number of songs composed by the members of the organisation.
Another significant development in Sinhala poetry was the introduction of free verse. The most enthusiastic proponent of free verse in Sinhala was Siri Gunasinghe, a university don. Free verse was first introduced in Sinhala poetry by G.B. Senanayake in 1948. He inserted free verse between short stories in one of his collections. He did not call it poetry. He called it an intermediate composition between prose and poetry. However, Siri Gunasinghe introduced it with a vengeance in the mid-1950s. He considered metrical verse as worthless. He published two collections of verse called Mas le neti eta (Bones Without Flesh or Blood) and Abinikmana (Departure). Coming from a university academic, this criticism had a devastating effect on popular poetry. None of the earlier poets, including the erudite Munidasa Cumaratunga, had a university degree. Popular poets such as P.B. Alwis Perera tried to fight back but were unsuccessful.
The decline of Sinhala poetry perhaps began with the publication of Mas le neti eta in 1956. However, this also brought in a culture of fine introspective poetry. One of the dominant poets of this tradition was Mahagama Sekara. He was also a song writer. Some of his songs enjoyed mass appeal when they were sung by the noted singer Pandit Amaradeva. Other important poets who came later were Ratnasri Wijesinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekera. Ratnasri Wijesinghe is also a song writer and some of his songs have been popularised by Amaradeva. Gunadasa Amarasekera, a dental surgeon, won literary laurels early in life. When he was 20 years old, his story was among two Sri Lankan entries selected for an international short story competition conducted by the New York Herald Tribune. Other poets who deserve special mention are Sunil Ariyaratne, Parakrama Kodituwakku, Monika Ruwanpathirana and Eric Ilayapparachchi.
writer Martin Wickramasinghe.
Even Martin Wickramasinghe, the doyen of Sinhala writers of this period, joined the chorus in condemning metrical poetry, poetry in samudraghosha metre in particular. His book of poetry, Theri Gee, is a Sinhala translation of some Theri Gatha (Psalms of the Sisters) ascribed to Buddhist nuns who were contemporaries of the Buddha. The originals were in Pali, in mellifluous metrical verse, but the Sinhala translations are in free verse. However, Wickramasinghe later said that he did not like the free verse form. The new poets occasionally write metrical verse in addition to free verse, but they generally avoid the samudraghosha metre. Sirilal Kodikara is a poet of the early 1950s but whose form of poetry is akin to that of the new poets. In his early poems he adopted the samudraghosha metre, but when the trend went against the samudraghosha metre he adopted other metres.
Several Sinhala poets today seem unconcerned whether their poetry is actually "performed", but the effect is lost when poetry is not recited or acted out. Modern poetry is meant more to be read than recited. All these poets are talented, but they face a serious problem; Sinhala poetry has lost its mass appeal and the sales of books of poetry have dropped. A book of poetry today sells about 500 copies on an average. This is a sad situation in a country where such books sold thousands of copies a few decades ago. Perhaps Sinhala poetry needs to return to the metrical form, especially the samudraghosha metre, which today's poets appear to despise. After all, a sensitive and perceptive poet such as Wimalaratne Kumaragama wrote in the samudraghosha metre and he is a worthy model to emulate. Or is it too late in the day to save Sinhala poetry as a popular literary form?
D.S.S. Mayadunne is a Sinhala journalist and translator who has rendered several classic works of Russian fiction into Sinhala.