25 July 2012

Journeying with Mahagama Sekera

[A group of young Sri Lanka poets plans to bring out a magazine devoted to poetry, 'Poetics'.  They wanted me to translate a few poems from Sinhala to English.  Among them was an oft-quoted poem by Mahagama Sekera, arguably the most versatile Sri Lankan literary figure of the 1960s and 1970s whose untimely demise was, in retrospect, a monumental tragedy to Sinhala literature and especially the Sinhala poem.  I translated the poem and posted it in my poetry blog, www.malindapoems.blogspot.com.  You can find it here.  I thought those who are not familiar with the poet might find it useful to read a kind of introduction.  This was first published in 'The Island', January 21, 2001.  Another piece on Sekara was published about a year later.  For more information, visit http://mahagamasekera.org/

I do not know how to commemorate a dead poet. And I do not know why one should commemorate at all, poets or non-poets. If all life is transient, everything is subject to the law of decay, and this includes the law itself. People die, memories too die. Commemoration then, let me offer tentatively, is perhaps a marking of time, more of one’s passing than the passing of the dead. Mahagama Sekera, one of the best loved and celebrated Sinhala poets in recent times, might not have disagreed.
Our lives are but a trace left by the tide, soon to be washed away or altered by wave upon wave breaking randomly, unevenly. The shifting line makes for poetry, and as such, a soft gaze falling cannot hurt, which is probably why Sekera’s poetry envelopes the reader almost without notice.

It is twenty five years since Mahagama Sekera died, the number of years being less important of course than the fact of his passing away. It is not that I had forgotten him, or that I remember him with any degree of regularity. I do remember though that it was just a few months after his death that I first encountered the man. It was through a song, "Anna balan sanda," that perennial melody familiar to several generations now. The music teacher did not offer an explication of the song for us, and it was passed on with no mention of the author.
So it took many years for me to learn who Sekera was. Then, as now, I find that Sekera has come and gone and returned, again and again. It does not take too long, however, to discover the ease with which he infused rhythm into his words, a faculty which made possible a musical rendering of his poetry. Perhaps this is why there are those who believe that it was Sekera who made Amaradeva great, and some who believe the reverse is true too.

In any event, there has been a spate of articles about Sekera in the Sinhala press over the past week or so. As I read the many ways in which the man seemed to have affected people, my thoughts went back to January 1997 when a group of students in Peradeniya who went by the name Hantane Nava Parapura organised a "Sekera Semaruma".
There were a couple of short talks delivered by university lecturers where Sekera’s work was examined, followed by a general discussion. If the lectures gave the audience Sekera in a nutshell, the discussion served to free the poet from all pet frameworks. Sekera came alive in that most vibrant airing of views and his being floated unfettered all over the Arts Theater. I found then too that there was no lack of people wanting to claim him as their own.

There was a young student belonging to the Young Socialists who claimed that Sekera’s sensibilities were eminently Marxian, while a Buddhist monk said that his poetry epitomised the Buddhist approach to life. A third said that he recommended Sekera’s Prabuddha to anyone who wanted an answer to the question "What is Jathika Chintanaya?" Finally, a Philosophy student observed that the length of the ideological spectrum from which these claims arrived itself points to the richness of Sekera’s work and reflects the fact that he touched so many people deeply. Sekera, as my father once said, like the sky, is not less private although he belongs to us all.
As I glanced through the papers last Sunday, a piece in the Divaina caught my attention. Sugara, commenting on the commemoration of Sekera’s 25th death anniversary, had something like this to say:

"Sekera’s verse; honed with a sensitivity to recognise humanity and life, an understanding of tradition and heritage, and an unbounded compassion to human beings; was not only the language of his heart, it was the mark of his genius. It is true that he traversed his creative ocean as a novelist, filmmaker and an artist; but it was the poem that blossomed in his heart as a lotus, exuding fragrance. Has this poetic path been adequately reviewed? We are curious to know if the Sinhala poetic form, which Sekera explored and indeed whose traditional boundaries he shattered as he searched for its identity, has been subject to serious inquiry. Do the various schools of Sekera devotees possess such eyes as are necessary for this?"

I am poorly equipped to take on the task of dissecting or otherwise engaging with Sinhala poetry. I am not sure if Sekera wanted such a clinical treatment of his poetry in the first place. His poetry has the rare quality of humility, he shies away from investigation and implores the reader not to search for him in his work. Thus he consciously recognised the full agentic power of the reader and only speaks of "hopes". Sekera never demanded. This is evident in the introductory poem in the collection Sakvalihini titled "Mage kaviyen oba dakinna" (view yourself in my poem), which I have translated below. It is indeed a gentle and very revealing note on how Sekera wanted to be read, or, more precisely, how he ought not to be read, and why.

"Look not for me in my poem.
You and I, and all of us
are journeying towards a morning star

shining at the far end of a dim sky,
knowing and not knowing that we are.

Someday, all of you
will encounter the great mountains

and steep cliffs
I meet along the way.

When you stumble and lose your way
among the many traps along the path,

when your body is soiled
by the mud showered by untruths,

when, bludgeoned, you cling
to the earth with weak hands,

when that day you weep helplessly
just as I have wept,

my poetry will becomes yours.
Friend! Then, without searching,

find yourself and not me in my verse.
When the blood that flows from my feet
as they break upon thorns and hard gravel,

points out the correct path from those that lead astray,
and you come to your journey’s end

to find the morning star,
if you happen to do so before me,

a felicitation of flowers will bloom for your feet.
Among those petals, find me."

I cannot know how others read Sekera. Speaking for myself, I have been lifted, empowered, saddened, chastised and humbled by Sekera and this only because his poetry is a mirror that allows us to see ourselves. He has given me tears and laughter, and these have filled the lamps I carry and have fed the feeble flames that I have counted on in certain dark and dreadful days. Perhaps there will be a flower for me someday. Hopefully, in the spirit with which Sekera wrote, it will be such a garden where the best in the human being flourishes, if only because of the collective character of the journey. That will certainly be a felicitation, a celebration where some of us can think of Sekera and be grateful that he walked on this earth, and of course that he traced his journeys with the exquisite play of word and metaphor.



Rashmi said...

Thank you very much Malinda for remembering him. Mahagama Sekera was a national treasure. The only way to show our gratitude is to remember him at least time to time.

Dear Readers,
Please go to the website http://mahagamasekera.org .
It is full of Sekera's work. Even his cartoons were very touching.

Ratna Deepa Janma Bhumi Lanka Deepa Vijaya Bhoomi,
Me Ape Udara Woo Maathru Bhoomiyai.

(I am not sure about you but this brings tears to my eyes whenever I listen. Full lyrics are at the site.)