21 April 2017

High time for 'Right to Recall' legislation in Sri Lanka!

Pic: www.newsradio.lk
The stench from Meethotamulla, metaphorically speaking, is being matched by the stench of political rivals lobbing chunks of political garbage at one another.  The politically dispassionate pointing out that there are countries where such disasters resulted in the resignation of relevant subject ministers or officials, called for the resignation of those responsible.  The most uncomfortable thing about all this is that people don’t have any position to resign from; they can’t give up their citizenship.  

Much has been written about waste management over the past few days.  Hopefully outrage and cheap politicking will give way to sober reflection, self-criticism, responsible citizenship and a scientific approach to the resolution of the problem at all levels which also eliminates the corruption that has made garbage disposal a lucrative business for some while bringing death to others.  For now, let us consider the larger issue at hand, that of responsibility and therefore accountability, especially on the part of representatives.  

We can always reject erring politicians at the polls.  That’s the only option we have.  Either we think this is enough or we are hampered by ignorance or impotency to come up with a better system.  It’s a bit like waste management.  The authorities have for years talked of the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle).  They have tried to educate the public.  They’ve set up various sorting mechanisms.  The response has been poor.  We expect our representatives to deliver and if they don’t we just grin and bear, and even re-elect them after playing a game where relative merits and party loyalty outweigh performance.  In other words we essentially assume that politicians have a sense of responsibility. 

We have to come to terms sooner or later with the fact that we just can’t expect people to do what’s right and leave it at that.  We don’t worry whether candidates declare assets or not and no one bothers to demand an asset declaration from politicians at the completion of their terms.  That’s how complacent we are.  We are kings and queens until the polls close and are slaves thereafter until the next election.  And even if we punish wrongdoers and the incompetent, they can still creep in through the backdoor called the ‘National List,’ a devise used by even the lords and ladies of the Yahapalana Project.

Accountability is a tough issue simply because it is the currently unaccountable who have the authority to script it into law.  This is clear when we consider the fortuitous circumstances which made for the 17th Amendment, the ease with which it was done away with, the difficult passage of the 19th, the foot-dragging that preceded the Right to Information Act being passed and the strange silence about the 20th Amendment, i.e. on electoral reform, although it was screamed about by chest-thumping yahapalanists in the run up to the January 8 ‘Revolution’.  

Without electoral reform and given the escape clause in the 19th Amendment pertaining to cabinet size the accountability measures currently in place are at risk.  There’s no harm, however, in proposing additional measures, especially one that few have talked about, namely the right to recall.

It’s not a novel idea.  Voters in British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly, for example, can petition to have their parliamentary representatives removed from office and can enforce it through a by-election (Sri Lanka’s Proportional Representation system forbids such procedures obviously, another reason why Electoral Reform should precede recall legislation). Several states in the USA permit recall on grounds such as misconduct or malfeasance.  Even the ancient Athenians had a recall option, ostracism. In India it operates at local level bodies in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh.  We live in a hire-and-fire system and as such we have the moral responsibility to affirm the political equivalent, elect-and-recall.

Feroze Varun Gandhi in an article published on the subject in ‘The Hindu’ has offered some caveats which would be good to keep in mind. 

“While it is necessary to ensure that a recall process is not frivolous and does not became a source of harassment to elected representatives, the process should have several built-in safeguards such as an initial recall petition to kick-start the process and electronic-based voting to finally decide its outcome. Furthermore, it should ensure that a representative cannot be recalled by a small margin of voters and that the recall procedure truly represents the mandate of the people. To ensure transparency and independence, chief petition officers from within the Election Commission should be designated to supervise and execute the process.”

As things stand we can’t expect resignation.  Politicians are not into self-flagellation, they don’t self-immolate.  They justify action and inaction (like everyone else).  It is not that they are all dishonorable and have no notion of dignity, but such things are usually produced by a society that has high moral standards.  Ours does not.  It also follows that those who won’t hear of resignation will probably not want to talk about recall.  This doesn’t stop the people from talking about it, however.   

But let’s begin with the 20th Amendment.  It is exactly two years (731 days) since the 100 days within which yahapalanists promised to institute electoral reforms.  Was that project dumped and is it to remained buried in the Meethotamullas of Political Distraction?  Shouldn’t this alone warrant a call for recall?    

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene. 

17 April 2017

Presidential Candidate Malinda to Putin and Trump: The dead don't blink, boys

Malinda Seneviratne, likely presidential candidate in 2020, wrote to US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the subject of Syria.  The following is the full text of the letter:

April 17, 2017

President Vladimir Putin
His Excellency Alexander A. Karchava
Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka
404 Bauddhaloka Mawatha,
Colombo 7


President Donald Trump
His Excellency Atul Keshap
US Ambassador Extraordinary to Sri Lanka
210 Galle Road,
Colombo 4

The dead don’t blink, boys

Let’s cut to the chase.  It’s not about right and wrong.  It’s not about joy and sorrow.  It’s not about the living and not about the dead either.  Syria is a stage and its players, the citizens I mean, are dispensable.  

Now there are theories about how this is a win-win situation for both your countries and in particular for the two of you, politically.  There are theories about oil and other strategic ‘interests’.  Then there’s the United Nations, the Security Council and relevant protocols.  

Let’s face it, the world is not flat.  Multilateralism is not about one country having one vote and the triumph of the numerical majority.  I need not tell you boys about the history of voting patters in the UN.  I am sure you would have heard of the speech Ernesto Che Guevara delivered on  March 25, 1964 at the plenary session of the now defunct United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) where he talked of numbers, integrity and how power works in these so-called august chambers.

We know how legitimacy is manufactured and made to stick.  We’ve heard the tunes of justification, the expressions of horror, the firm lip-lines of indignation.  They are old songs lipped ad nauseum by your predecessors.  We know what’s what in Syria.  We are not impressed, boys.  

Now let there be no illusions about the sizes of boots and the incongruent nature of alluding to David and Goliath.  The world is not flat.  And equality is a lie.  We know all this, boys.  

But let me say it as it is.  We know that you know that we know that you don’t give a damn about the people of Syria, just like your predecessors didn’t give a damn about people in countries you’ve waged proxy wars.  

We must say it nevertheless.  You can play ‘let’s see who blinks first’ until the cows come home, but this you must know that we know: the dead don’t blink; not in Syria and not anywhere else.  

Sincerely and with much compassion,

[Signed] Malinda Seneviratne

16 April 2017

Who 'owns' the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) Syria?

There’s saber-rattling in Washington.  There’s saber-rattling in Moscow.  Tit-for-tat talk.  Rattle-for-rattle.  Neither the USA nor Russia is under attack.  Neither country can claim that there is a threat to its security.  It's all about a country that is located almost 11,000km from the USA and about 5,500km from Russia.  Syria.

It all followed a chemical attack which Washington blamed on the Syrian President  Bashar al-Assad and then proceeded to launch some 60 Tomahawk missiles on the al Shayrat airbase.  US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson warned that Russia was at risk of becoming irrelevant in the Middle East if it continued to support Assad.  

Damascus has denied US allegations, noting that the targeted area may have been hosting chemical weapons stockpiles belonging to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) or Al-Nusra Front jihadists.  Moscow, in a wry dismissal, has alluded to the ‘events of 2003’ when the US representative (Colin Powell) insisted at the UN that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.   
Russian President Vladimir Putin observed that ‘the military campaign was subsequently launched in Iraq and it ended with the devastation of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS] on the world stage.’

They can laugh about it and they will

Just because the USA lied in 2003 does not mean that it will always lie and has done so in this instance.  On the other hand, that 2003 lie has given cause for any allegation to be properly investigated before any action is taken.  Russia in fact has called for such an investigation.  

Bolivian Ambassador to the UN, Sacha Llorenti lambasted the USA for its unilateral response, pointing out that the principle of multilateralism has been violated. He added that following the 2003 lie, the UN had set up modalities for dealing with such situations which included in the first instance independent and comprehensive investigations.  

But Washington does not care.  Washington rattles sabers.  Washington has promised to repeat military action in response to any possible new chemical weapon attacks.  Moscow has not blinked.  Russia (along with Iran) has responded likewise, telling the US to expect ‘response with force’ if ‘red lines are crossed in Syria’. 

There are no diplomatic niceties in the joint communique issued by the two countries: ‘What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.’

It is hard to argue with Llorenti when he asserts that ‘the United States believe that they are investigators, they are attorneys, judges and they are the executioners. That's not what international law is about.’   The problem is that when any law is violated with impunity, that law ceases to be effective.  The problem with Llorenti’s argument is that it makes sense only if the UN makes sense (when it comes to multilateralism).  What we have is a monumental hypocrisy, a lie which makes it laughable when a liar is called out.  

If the UN cannot rein in the rogue state that is the United States of America, then we have to accept that Washington’s do-as-we-please ways in fact invite do-as-we-please from Russia, Iran or whoever.  It won’t take too long before we get to that terrible point where the question ‘who started it all?’ ceases to matter.  

Well, what’s new?  Isn’t this what ‘multilateralism’ has always been about?  Huff, puff, hot air and not much else? Lovely words that get lost in the misery?  Well, should we then shrug shoulders, raise and then lower eyebrows and wait for the next great example of hypocrisy?  
Perhaps we should use it to call to question certain groups and certain assumptions.  The International Crisis Group, for instance, has issued a statement following the US attack.  It is ‘an opportunity’ (yes, those words!) they say.  An opportunity to jumpstart diplomatic efforts, they say.  No mention of the legality of that attack.  Nothing on investigations.  The ICG takes the US narrative as valid.  

‘If regime chemical attacks were to continue (perhaps employing chlorine instead of the much deadlier nerve agent sarin), the U.S. might find itself compelled to launch additional, more significant strikes,’ ICG states.  Now this is certainly a cute license to trigger-happy Donald Trump.

What needs to be understood is that while these games are being played with Trump and Putin trying to out-stare one another and while outfits like the ICG tosses out character certificates to preferred aggressors, there are people who cannot stare, cannot blink and in fact are dead.  

This forces us to ask, ‘what happened to all those who were waving a flag called Responsibility to Protect?’  Is it about protecting Syrians from Assad?  How about the risks that Syrians face at the hands of the ISIS and a global thug wearing a Good Samaritan name-tag?

But wait, why should we even bother about these rag-tag outfits who are operating as approvers for the actions of preferred parties who don’t do too much apart from constructing legitimacy for aggression against the chosen enemies (of their chosen buddies), when the United Nations itself does just that when it is divested of the somber architecture and established procedures for the conduct of discussions?  

The UN’s impotency has been revealed once again. It is not a forum that can do anything of significance to prevent wars.  It can only pick on weaker nations that have for one reason or another fallen out of favor of the favored member states.  

Just imagine if Bolivia had taken the kind of initiative that the USA took in Syria.  The UN Security Council would not be discussing the legality of the particular action.  We won’t hear impassioned speeches of past errors, the reiteration of established procedures, calls for investigations and so on.  They would be discussing sanctions.  That’s if they didn’t authorize the USA to bomb the Bolivian capital.  

It’s all happening in Syria, folks.  For now, maybe we can call it ‘a show’ and watch from the sidelines.  After all Syria is more than 5000km from Sri Lanka.  But what if Sri Lanka became tomorrow’s Syria?   Sacha Llorenti may lash out at the USA at a hastily arranged emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.  The ICG would bend over backwards, touch its metaphorical heels and salute the USA for ‘opportunities produced’.   Trump and Putin would indulge in a game of who will blink first.  There would be Sri Lankans who won’t be watching though.  They won’t be able to blink.  They’d be dead. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.comTwitter: malindasene.

07 April 2017

Words to Theresa May and the citizens of Britain

The following is a letter sent to British Prime Minister Theresa May following the recent attack on Westminster Bridge, London.

Dear Ms Theresa May,

I am deeply pained by the horrific act that terrorized London and no doubt shocked everyone in Britain. First of all, please accept my heartfelt condolences and please convey the same to your people. While condemning without reservation this horrific act, my heart goes out to all those who suffered injury, all those who grieve the loss of loved ones and all those who are shocked by the attack. And, as Britain looks for answers to the questions that this attack obviously raises, please be assured of my unstinted support to whatever measures Britain chooses to take in order to be rid of the scourge of terrorism.

As a citizen of a country that successfully defeated a ruthless terrorist organization, indeed the only country that has done this, I assure you that nothing can derail your efforts more than the doctrine of appeasement. This can come in the form of urging you to consider ‘root causes’. It can also come in the form of sustained calls for ‘negotiation’. Negotiation, we learned the painful way, only postpones resolution and in the interim a county suffers death, dismemberment, displacement and destruction. Trust me, Ms May, terrible though this attack has been, what you’ve seen is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg of tragedy.

I am heartened by the bold words you’ve uttered following this attack. It is good to stamp one’s foot and tell the enemy, ‘thou shalt not succeed.’ I have no doubt that your response will not be limited to the bravado of words. Anything less than an all out, no holds barred, effort to defeat terrorism will leave your nation scarred, as much on its corporeal elements as its psyche. It’s no fun when fear is a constant companion.

In the coming days, if things get worse and I hope they don’t, you will no doubt be hounded by bleeding-heart liberals calling for restraint. You can listen to them at your peril. On the other hand, your country enjoys a position of privilege in the political economy of human rights and happily will not have to suffer the insults, knuckle-raps and such as did the leaders of my country when they decided that terrorists are mono-lingual. I need not spell things out to the leader of a nation whose ‘Mother Tongue’ is English.

Ms May, this is a testing hour for your nation and your people. That hour, sadly, often has more than 60 minutes. I sincerely wish it will pass. And until it does, on this particular issue, i.e. of the security of ordinary citizens, I will stand with you.

In solidarity and grief

[Signed] Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne is a likely presidential candidate in 2020.  email: presidentmalinda@gmail.com

06 April 2017

Repeating the Ginger for Chillie error

There was a time when victory over enemies was about bashing heads in, seizing their women and enslaving their children.  It still happens of course.  The cost-effective way is for the powerful to dictate, the weak to submit, hands to be shaken with the key representatives of the respective parties facing the camera, a show of bonhomie and crisp statements about long-standing historical friendships.  Heads don’t get bashed in, but enslavement is what it is all about.  

Well, ‘enslavement’ might be too harsh a word actually.  But let’s say “privileged access to resources, terms of exchange skewed in favor of the mighty, drafting or vetting policy regimes or rather using the word recommendation for what is really directive, and a general do-as-I-please on all matters”.  Students of politics would call it colonialism or, in the poli-speak of diplomacy post-colonialism, the ‘post’ affix being sweetener.  

This, however, is not a comment on the nature of subjugation or the exercising of hegemony.  It’s about India.  India, we know.  Only too well.  We need not enumerate the many instances when India demonstrated friendship.  Just mentioning the acronym IPKF would do to nudge memory of all the politics that came before and after that noun entered the political discourse of this country.  

And yet, as they say, beggars cannot be choosers.  Pride needs to be swallowed.  Most importantly, self-aggrandizement aside most political leaders in this country have had little qualms over pride-guzzling, especially since they stood to lose very little.  And so, as per the ideological predilections and political maturity/naivete of the particular set of people running the country, both in the name of expedience as well as for the most frivolous of reasons, we’ve seen ‘the robber barons’ being invited (that’s J.R. Jayewardene’s pithy capture of his government’s thinking by the way).  Again, as per preference, the enemies of the particular friends of the moment, were cold-shouldered or vilified.  When reality knocked on the door of course, there was a lot of stammering and stuttering, the giving of assurances and an embarrassing re-submission.  That’s China, by the way.  

But this is about India.  The Government has clearly indicated that despite running to China (‘looking East,’ it said when Brexit burst the bubble of delusion about the West’s ability and willingness to help) India’s interests will not be ignored.  

Interests.  Interesting word.  In bilateral relations that are marked by a power imbalance it refers to two things: business and strategic imperatives.  The encomiums notwithstanding it’s not about those lovely little things such as love, friendship, shared histories, good neighborliness etc.  Business and strategic imperatives, let us repeat.  

Just consider the draft MoU between the governments of India and Sri Lanka.  The objectives are spelled out in the language of give-and-take and signatured with notions of equality: “…To achieve greater economic, investment and development cooperation in a progressinve manner, through joint ventures and other cooperative activities that will ensure the well being of the people of the two countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.’

There’s nothing about any projects on India in which Sri Lanka is to get involved.  So what’s the benefit to ‘the people of India’?  Profits and strategic advantages, what else!  The entire document is about Indian involvement in key sectors such as energy and entrenchment in key strategy locations such as Trincomalee.  

Smuggled into a bunch of line items related to power plants, storage facilities and refineries is India’s long-standing interest in securing a lot more than a foothold in Trincomalee by way of taking over the oil tank farms.  Here’s the wording: ‘to form a Joint Venture to develop the Upper Tank Farms in Trincomalee, while signing a land lease agreement for 50 years in favor of Lanka IOC Ltd. for the Tank Farm’.  Need we say more?  

Throw in Indian ‘largesse’ in ‘fostering better understanding between the two militaries’ (note the ‘neutrality’ and the ‘equality’ implied!), the ‘generosity’ in undertaking a hydrographic survey for Sri Lanka, the supply (they don’t use the word ‘sale’) of Indian helicopters and other lovely things, and we are essentially talking about a patron-client relationship in the making.  

The key advisor to this government on economic affairs, R Paskaralingam has revealed that India wishes the said MoU to be inked during the forthcoming visit to that country by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister.  

To his credit, Paskaralingam has stated that ‘after discussion it was decided to consider the proposals of India initially.’  That's diplo-speak of a kind.  The easy-read version is this: 'I don't think it is a good idea!'

India’s High Commissioner, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, in a speech made recently, has said that Sri Lanka can sign agreements at its own chosen speed.  He’s a diplomat, let’s not forget.  Paskaralingam has put things as bluntly as his bureaucratic training permits.  Reading between the lines, as we must, we have to conclude, ‘bad news’.  

The Sinhala people always knew what’s what of ‘bilateral relations’.  They laughed it off with adage but the wry humor said it as it is.  For example, the well-known saying ‘inguru deela miris gaththa vagei’ (it’s like exchanging ginger for chillie), meaning ‘an injudicious exchange’.  

That’s about ditching one invader for another.  There is that play in the game involving the West (led by the USA), China and India, and it would be useful to assess the most favorable terms of enslavement (beggars can’t be choosers, we already said that).  We’ve had a bellyful of Indian chillies.  That much can be said.

05 April 2017

Ruwan Karunaratne's shop never closes

Ruwan Karunaratne’s journey can be traced by the educational institutions he attended, the certificates he secured, the companies that employed him or the positions he’s held.  St Mary’s College (Veyangoda), Bandaranayake Central College (Gampaha) and the Technical College (Warakapola). That’s one way.  Console Electronics, Image Advertising, Minds FCB and Phoenix O&M.  That’s another.  

He began as a child artist and progressed/degenerated into an electronic technician, a paste-up artist, and illustrator and lettering artist, an airbrush artist and visualize, an art director and now a creative group head.  That’s yet another way.  And it’s all caricature.  

Ruwan was 15 years old when he won the first prize in the Children’s Drawing Competition run by the now defunct but then quite popular ‘Weekend’ newspaper.  Sinha, now the Chief Editor of the ‘Sunday Times’ was at the time the Deputy Editor of the ‘Weekend’.  Just another routine letter for Sinha, but it was a landmark moment for young Ruwan.   The prize was a gift voucher to the value of Rs 25.00.  For Ruwan, the value, even if correcting for inflation, is much more.  

Back then all he heard about arts was that it won’t get him a job.  That’s why he studied electronics and got a job as an apprentice technician at Console Electronics.  It is hard to picture Ruwan the Creative Group Head working with wires and switches, but then again he once said “I want a world where everything can be done using just fingertips”.  

Persevering.  That’s Ruwan.  Some co-workers who knew of his talents persuaded Ruwan to apply to advertising jobs.  This he did and that’s how he discovered that it was not just about watercolors, crayons and pencils.  He saved money, bought the materials and taught himself.  Ruwan was never one to give up. What did not come easy to him he secured the hard way, and that’s how it has always been since then. 

Once when he went for an interview at Image Advertising, he had got very nervous seeing the other candidates all dressed up.  He had a simple request: “Sir, I don’t need a salary…I just want to learn about this thing called advertising….give me an opportunity.”

The statement marks Ruwan.  He used the opportunities that came his way.  
It was a simple greeting card.  The cover draws from the John Keells logo and intrigues with the simple picture of the butterfly.  Open it and you get a riot of delight.  What’s remarkable is the meticulous effort.  Even the writing has been ‘drawn’.  And this is just a ‘dummy’ for client-appraisal!  The finish product, if it had been made today, would not draw oohs and aahs because of the ease that advanced software has gifted today’s artists, but back then, this would have been roundly ‘wowed’ everyone.
“I did everything.  Illustrations.  Paste-up.  The Bromide Machines.  Image Advertising handled the lorries belonging to Reckitt and Coleman.  We drew everything that went on the stickers.  I learnt from everyone, but especially Lionel.  When I figured there was nothing more I could learn, I decided it was time to leave.  This is because I never had any formal training.” 

His time at Minds (and indeed his entire career) was marked by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a drive to perfect new techniques and an excellent work ethic.  He worked hard, even during the lunch hour.  He even spent the night in office since it often got too late for him to catch the last bus home.  The seniors would get him to do some of their work as well.  Ruwan did not mind.  All this earned him the tagline: වැසූ මොහොතක් නැති රුවන් (Ruwan, whose shop never closes).  In fact this was officially recognized; Ruwan was adjudged ‘Workhorse of the Year’ in two consecutive years. He work was also rewarded.  He went from Paste-up Artist to Visualizer and finally to Art Director. 
When it became clear to Ruwan that the doors to formal education would be hard to open, he decided to teach himself.  He bought books.  He spent most of his earnings on books.

“I have purchased hundreds of books over the years.  I went through all of them.  I wanted to see the difference between my work and their work.  I tested myself.  That’s how I learnt.”

After working for more than 12 years at Minds, Ruwan decided he needed a change and perhaps a bigger challenge.  He joined Phoenix in 2003 as an Art Director.  He was later promoted to Senior Art Director and is currently Creative Director -Art and Design.   As always a new agency was a new learning experience, working with different brands and different creative people.  But it was more than that, says Ruwan.
Once again a simple but elegant cover design for a brochure. The client was the Metropolitan Group. Again we see how attentive Ruwan is to detail.  Remember that this was the time when computers were being marketed in Sri Lanka for the first time as essentials of an office environment. 

“I advanced my knowledge.  I was among creative people who were very senior.  I had to work on a wider range of brands and on various kinds of campaigns.  Phoenix is where I was able to fine-tune my skills.  If I was an apparently discoloured and nondescript piece of stone, at Phoenix I was cut and polished or rather I am being continuously cut and polished.  It is impossible to mention all my ‘teachers’, all those who helped shape me professionally into who I have become.  Suffice to say that I am grateful to them all.”

He is quiet.  Courteous to a fault.  But Ruwan thinks.  Deep.  He observes.  When he does speak he has useful and important things to say.  When he offers a comment, it is intelligent and witty.  And he’s always ‘new’, indeed he gets more fresh the older he becomes.  
“This model of a motorcycle (top) was done for a recent exhibition organized by Phoenix titled ‘The Other Side’.  I collected all kinds of metal parts without thinking of the model itself.  Then I looked for the appropriate piece for the appropriate part.  It was quite time-consuming.  My son’s approach (top) was very different.  He didn’t take a lot of time.  He looked for and found the pieces he wanted and put them together.  His model is marked by simplicity. Beauty is of course in the eyes of the beholder, but I must confess that if I was given the materials he used I would never have been able to come up with such a lovely model.” 
“I do not have a style.  No rules.   I’ve never had rules, not even as a child.  And I always wanted to do something different.  Even if I was working on the same brand for a second time, I approached the brief like someone who had never encountered the particular brand.  There’s something that I have determined to always be: a child.  I am a child.  I’ve always been a child and will be a child until I die.  Children are imaginative and their imagination has no limits.”

When he was at Minds, there had been an exercise where everyone in the office had to write short notes about everyone else.  While there was the random admonishment for keeping to himself, most said what anyone at Phoenix would probably say if a similar exercise was done today.

“I appreciate your calm and gentle nature. I wish you would never change.  I like the careful and painstaking ways you treat your work.  Don’t ever change.A quiet, efficient presence.I like everything about you. Don’t change a thing!  [I like] Your quiet and humble manner, the way you mind your own business and get on with your work.”

So Ruwan Karunaratne is all about being a child.  He was all about art as a child and as an adult too it’s art that he does. As is all adult about exploring the frontiers of his vocation but he’s all child in his curiosity, the will to learn and the delight in knowledge acquisition.  He’s adult enough to understand difference and prejudice but he’s child enough to brush such things aside and focus on the wholesome commonalities.  Maturity they say compels you to speak less and listen more; Ruwan is a mature adult but the superior worth of observation is almost like a childhood remnant that he dragged along from pre-school, through high school and professional work.

Ruwan Karunaratne is adult enough to know that learning is a lifelong thing, but he embraces education of all kinds with the confidence of a child who knows not his or her limits.  Play is all the work a child knows and in this sense all children are workaholics.  Ruwan’s shop never closes. 

04 April 2017

The politics of skin: A velvety intervention

Prince Dutugemunu is said to have been close to two sisters, one fair and the other dark.  They had duly been re-named ‘Sudu’ (Fair One) and ‘Kalu’ (Dark One).  The dark one had spurned him and in the end the prince had fallen for the sister. When Kalu finally overcame her pride and expressed her feelings, it had been too late.  The Prince, legend has it, had simply said ‘manda Kalu pin nokale?’  (why did you not acquire enough merit?).  

This has been variously interpreted.  There’s one which holds that ‘Kalu’ had first spurned the prince and by the time she had finally decided that she loved him, his heart had found residence with her sister.  The other is all about color and the claim is that the prince was essentially saying ‘why couldn’t you have been a bit fairer?’

Here’s another story.  It’s not about a prince and not about the skin color of a girl.  Not about love either.  A young boy is fascinated by the trials and tribulations of an older girl in the village.  The thrills are inversely proportionate to the sorrows that visit her.  It’s the reason that concerns us.

One day, he narrates, the said girl who was actually his cousin had been walking ahead of him along a niyara.  His mother was between the girl and the boy.  The girl had made an observation.  Maybe she thought the boy wouldn’t hear, but he did.  The boy had a pet name: Sookiri.  Sookiri on account of color (he was fair) and not disposition (whether he was sweet or not we are not told).  The girls’s observation: Sookiri is fair, but he’s not as pretty as his brother.  Sookiri’s brother was the darker of the two.  That comment was the source of his mirth at the cousin’s misfortune.  

The girl touches on something that is suppressed in the politics of color.  Beauty is made of many things, colour is just one of them.  If it is all about attracting someone then the following brag by Voltaire should provide food for thought: ‘give me five minutes to talk away my face and I would bed the Queen of England’.  The more we engage with a person the less we see the person’s skin, or even that person’s shape or size or perfumes or other accessories.  None of these things, by themselves, are able to sustain a relationship.  

And yet we cannot get enough of color.  We see color but we cannot ascertain texture as quickly and sometimes it’s impossible since consent is required by social norm.  But then again texture aside, we can with the naked eye obtain the nature of the skin, whether it is healthy or otherwise.  It’s easy on a face, which can have all kinds of ‘blemishes’ although there have been and probably will always be ‘hot’ serial killers.  

We don’t ask ourselves, do we, when we see someone ‘pretty’, ‘could this person be wicked?’  We don’t second guess what’s beneath the skin.  We are conditioned to equate ‘pretty’ with ‘good’ or worse, ‘fair’ with ‘good’.  

Skin color lends to distinction of various kinds.  It is political.  Violently political even, if we consider the various and lengthy histories of apartheid.  Here it’s more subtle and the violence leaves scars not on skin but mind.  

Maybe there’s nothing which is as symptomatic of this malady is the fact that we don’t have much of a vocabulary in either Sinhala or Tamil to describe skin apart from the color aspect.  

It is in this context that a recent advertising campaign constitutes an interesting and important intervention in the politics of skin.  Velvet, a personal care brand, has proposed a fresh set of one-word skin descriptives in both Sinhala and Tamil.     

Interestingly this campaign, which was unfolded in the print media, goes beyond the usual ‘black is beautiful’ (an important ideological statement) discourse.  ‘Beauty beyond color’ is the title of a petition that did the rounds recently.  Nandita Das, the Indian actress who signed the petition observed in an interview conducted around the time that obsessions with fair skin is not unrelated to concerted campaigns by the cosmetic industry to market ‘whitening’ products. If one checks all the ads of the cosmetic industry here in Sri Lanka you’ll find it’s all birthed in the womb of white-promotion.  

Of India’s white-obsession, Nandita says the following:

‘The cosmetics business thrives because the aspirations exist. The two feed off each other. All the beauty magazines are designed to make you feel ugly and want to change your features and skin color. During my field work in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, when it was called Phulbani, I went to areas where there was no electricity and people did not even have food to eat, and I saw women using fairness creams that were well past their expiry date. These had obviously been dumped here. So this obsession with fairness cuts across class. The cosmetics companies only capitalize on it.’ 

It is probably true of Sri Lanka as well.  This is why Velvet’s campaign is important.  Velvet is not even talking about color.  Velvet, in this campaign at least, is going beyond colour, essentially saying ‘take care of your skin and be proud of your skin; you are Sri Lankan, don’t try to be who you are not’.  Sure, the campaign does not venture as far as to state that beauty has little to do with color, texture or skin-health, but we can applaud Velvet for taking the initiative to open a debate on the subject.  

The terms proposed are obviously unfamiliar.  They can impact only if they gather currency.  They have to get ‘picked up’ in all media, especially television, radio and of social media.  It’s hard, terribly hard to oust the eye from the privileged position of appraisal.  However, until such time that we get there, we will continue to discriminate, continue to scar and continue to succumb to the nonsensical notions of human worth that have knowingly or unknowingly inscribed themselves on our thinking.  

One hopes that this is not a campaign that plays on the politically correct. That would be a pity.  Velvet, however, has put itself in a position that in all commercials it has to affirm the ideology that has been spelled out in this campaign.  Painted into a corner, one might say, but then again it’s a decent and civilized corner to inhabit, all things considered. 

We are still quite a distance away from that happy day when cosmetic-peddlers will not bombard us with beauty-definitions and ‘ugliness’-removers.  One day, perhaps, the truths that all of us as individuals affirm, i.e. the truths of love and wisdom being the superior cosmetics, will become that is collectively affirmed and therefore the prime informer of cosmetic-marketing.  Until such time, though, it is good to have a discussion that puts color in its place and moves on to talk about other things related to skin.  

02 April 2017

Rev. Katuwana Piyananda and his meditations on canvass

Pic courtesy Nilar M Cassim 
Do not ask this priest to explain the meanings of these paintings. As Tagore once said, "ask the paintings themselves their meaning. They will give you the answers".
- Prof. Valpola Rahula Thero

The tradition of painting is not something that does not belong to the world of a monk. The Chula Vagga Vinaya Chapter show that even at the time of Buddha, there were monks who had done painting and sculpture. History tells us of an incident where a Lankan priest Nanda had gone see the Emperor of China in 5AD taking priceless sculpture that he himself had made. All the paintings in Degaldoruwa and Ridi Viharaya of the 18th century were drawn by a person in robes who was called ‘Dewaragampola Silwaththana’. The attempts of Rev. Katuwana Piyananda is not very different from what has been done before. Painting to create pleasant emotions within a person is very much in accordance both with the heritage and the role of a monk.

I am hardly qualified to pass judgement on art, never having given the subject the attention and study it deserves. I am poorly equipped to penetrate the deeper layers of meaning of a given painting. The richer aesthetics escape me. Still, at some basic level, I do appreciate, and probably not less than the next ignorant consumer of art. Exhibitions inevitably allow me to come off with some crass caricature of the experience congealing in my mind. More often than not I latch onto a couple of thought-threads which weave their own rough and imperfect tapestries of reflection.

About four or five years ago, while passing through Matale, I heard about an exhibition of paintings. Since I had a couple of hours free, I decided to take a look. I was struck by the meditative sympathies that the works exuded. I came off with one thing clear in my mind; the fact that the artist had a profound understanding of colour. The artist, Rev. Katuwana Piyananda, was already well-known in the art community, not least of all because he was an anomaly, for the notion of an artist bikkhu was defined carefully as being discordant with the doctrine of the Buddha. This view actually is itself out of tune with history as well as the fundamental tenets of the Dhamma, including the vinaya rules for bikkhus, but that we shall reserve for later comment.

All my life, I have been more interested in the life-stories of artists than their art itself. The life stories of Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Goya, Dali and others I could relate to because they contained recognizable elements. Their paintings were a different kettle of fish altogether. The only artist I knew personally was Kulanatha Senadheera, a batchmate and family friend of my father. I couldn’t make head or tail of his paintings, and yet he was one of the more fascinating people I have met in my life. Rev. Piyananda’s story was like that. More "readable" than his paintings.

Sisiraratne Liyanage, who upon ordination became Katuwana Piyananda, was born in 1965 into a farming family living in Katuwana, in the Mulkirigala electorate. He was the second in a family of four. Sisiraratne began his education at Horawinna Maha Vidyalaya. He had become a bikkhu when he was around 12 or 13. "The haamuduruwo and my parents wanted me to join the sasana. I was also very keen. Thinking back, I believe I was taken up by the life of a bikkhu after seeing the village monks walking through the paddy fields. Much later, it occurred to me that the Buddha must have had a keen sense of colour. After all a group of saffron-robed monks slowly walking with the green of the forest as background is a picture that is serene and awe-inspiring."

Even as a child he had been very interested in things like art and dancing and said that he had attended a local kalayathanaya. After being ordained he joined the Siyambalagoda Vidyakeerthi Pirivena, situated in Akuressa. "Siyambalagoda is located just outside Sinharaja. So I began by painting what I saw, the trees, the vines etc. I used whatever material I could lay my hands on, water colours, pens, pencils etc. After passing the Ordinary Level Examination, I joined the Horana Vidyarathana Pirivena. I decided to study Art, along with Buddhist civilisation, political science, and Sinhala for the Advanced Level. Ariyapala Gamage was my art teacher and this was the first time that I had any formal training in painting."

He had obtained an "A" for art and had done well enough overall to qualify to enter the Arts Faculty. However, by this time, he was only interested in furthering his knowledge and honing his skills with respect to art, and although the application form has space for the particular candidate to write down a series of preferences, Rev. Piyananda had decided that he would study Aesthetics in the Kelaniya University. Unfortunately, he had not taken into account the general antipathy towards bikkhus studying aesthetics. He was not accepted.

"Even though I was not in the university or any art school, I was encouraged and helped by many teachers and artists. Albert Darmasiri, Tilake Abeysinghe and Sumana Dissanayake gave me a lot of strength with their encouragement. Since I was denied a formal training, I decided that I would study art on my own. I spent a lot of time studying temple paintings. I was able to trace the trajectory of development from Sigiriya through the Kandyan period, Kelaniya and Gothami Viharaya to the Sedawatte paintings. In addition, I learned a lot about the European tradition through books."

Rev. Piyananda’s studies, coupled with deep reflection on the Abhidhamma, apparently helped him develop a style of his own. He started exhibiting his work in 1984 with "Vedana" (pain). This was followed by "Yatharthaya" (Reality) in ’85, "Samaya Minisamaya" in ’86, "Mihitale Minissu" (People of the earth) in ’87, and "Mahee Rekha" (Lines on the earth) in ’88. These exhibitions were all held in Colombo. Political unrest in the country and the resultant dislocations and social ferment inevitably found expression in his paintings around that time and his meditations on canvas appeared in an exhibition called "Pelagesma" in 1990. This was held all over the country, and this turned out to be his break-though exhibition. His work started receiving the attention of serious scholars and fellow-artists.

"Niramisa Thelithudaka Chalanaya" (The movement of a peaceful paint brush), "Pevethma Ha Nevatheema" (existence and ceasing), and "Antharavaloka" (Introspection) followed soon after. As the titles suggest these collections were in fact artifacts of a journey of discovery, both of self and the relationship of self to the universe. "This ‘introspection’ of mine constitutes not only a penetrating look into my own mind, but also the minds of all people living in this society. I am trying to examine if the areas touched by my brush, the harmony of colour and lines, can penetrate and expose anything of the inner conditions of my own environment and the world around me."

In "Bhava Veethiya" (Passage of emotions), Rev. Piyananda attempts to transcend the barriers imposed by language. In other words, believing that sometimes it is difficult to express in words the heart-rending situations arising from racial conflict, attempts to create a language beyond words, where the emotions can be traced and understood better.

Having already exhibited in Malaysia and Singapore in 1994, Rev. Piyananda’s work got further international exposure when Rev. Galayave Piyadassi and Nandana Weeraratne invited him to visit London. "Bhava Veethiya," was exhibited in the London Kingsbury Town Hall under the title "Mental and emotional journeys through images". He spent one and a half years travelling in Europe, exhibiting his work in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Netherlands. His work has won critical acclaim from artists and art critics. 

"That trip was very important since I became friends with some of the top painters in Europe, some of whom were impressed by the philosophical message I try to convey through my work. In fact there were some who wanted to come to Sri Lanka to study Theravada Buddhism. I also think it was important that I was able to learn first-hand about the European traditions and their modern expressions."

Upon returning to Sri Lanka, he put together another exhibition titled "Rupantharanaya" (Metamorphosis). "It is in a sense a trace of my artistic journey, from the very beginning where I was influenced by the aesthetics of Sinharaja, through my study of Buddhism and temple art, and finally the church art and the artistic traditions of Europe."

Having followed a training course at Rupavahini, Rev. Piyananda has experimented with the medium of teledramas as well. His first effort, "Mediyam Isawwa" (The region of midnight) was called off half way due to lack of funds. "Last year, a one-hour film called ‘Bhava Veethiya’ was shown on Rupavahini. And I have completed another one-hour film called ‘Rupantharanaya’ which is in need of a sponsor."

If the initial reaction to his artistic endeavours was negative, so was the response to the news that he was moving into the cinematic medium, although for vastly different reasons. "I was told that my art would suffer as a result. But after the first film was shown, the same people encouraged me to experiment further. They had found the images in the film to be very artistic, like my paintings."

I had to coax him to elaborate on his vocation’s alleged infringement of the Vinaya. "Like in most things, there are obstacles. Even the Buddha had to surmount opposition. I got inspiration from the Buddha’s example. Ven. Walpola Rahula was a constant source of support and encouragement. So was Rev. K. Ananda. As Ven Rahula rightly points out, the tradition of painting is not something that does not belong to the world of a monk. And the Buddha himself used the visual medium to illustrate salient elements of his doctrine. What else was he doing when he created the image of a monkey and then goddesses in order to convince Prince Nanda?"

Art, clearly is just one form of expression. Literature is another. If Buddhist monks were not prohibited from writing, it should follow that artist monks should be treated in the same way. There seems to be some double standards about art and artist monks, for our temples are veritable art galleries. They are meant to persuade the seekers to reflect on the eternal varieties of life, through depiction of Jataka stories and other visual forms.

Rev. Piyananda’s efforts, however, are a radical departure from the traditional art forms found in temples. His passion seems to be one of creating visual tools to help reflect on the philosophical teachings of the Buddha. They contain dynamic messages in spiritual, inspirational and social terms.

He is convinced that the modern artist has to move with the times. "Bana is being preached over TV. This didn’t happen before. If literature was used to convey the message of the Buddha, it follows that today the television and the internet should also be used."

Rev. Piyananda remains a person highly sensitive to the world and social milieu around him. He has always been a keen student of politics. "These things naturally find expression in my paintings." He travels a lot around the country, lately because he keeps looking for appropriate locations for his films, but for other reasons too. As such his work will naturally be a mirror of who we are. But more, about who we can become.

Talking to this soft-spoken monk in his sparsely furnished Avasaya in Udahamulla, made me wonder how I would read subsequent collections of his paintings. I wondered if I would still end with something as drab as "A nice blending of colours". He referred me to Ven Rahula, who says "Do not ask this priest to explain the meanings of these paintings. As Tagore says, ask the paintings themselves their meaning. They will give you the answer." Patience and reflection should help, I think.