04 February 2014

The baila of independence

‘Baila’ is a form of music.  Some who consider themselves connoisseurs would rate it as a lesser creature in the musical firmament.  This is perhaps why it has often been used as a metaphor for things of lesser worth.  This is why a song by Nanda Malini that was popular among rebelling and rebellion-cheering youth of the late eighties, penned by Sunil Ariyaratne and titled ‘Master Baila’ was spoken of and remembered as ‘Nidahas Baila’, or ‘Freedom Baila’. In other words, it was seen as an excellent, pithy and catchy deconstruction of everything associated with ‘freedom’ or rather, ‘independence’ (The correct translation of ‘independence’ is ‘svaadheenathvaya’ and not ‘nidahasa’ which means ‘freedom’ – we got a lot of things wrong, one notes, although not all of them are important). 

A little over 25 years after her (at the time) celebrated ‘Pawana’ show was taken around by the JVP or its adjunct organizations, it is good to get back to those lyrics and the politics therein, especially as we get ready to celebrate the 66th anniversary of Independence.

Not all the lines are required to be dissected of course.  Translating is not easy for reasons of rhyme, but we can certainly lay down the meaning in transliteration.

නිදහස ලැබුනා මල්ලි, නිදහස ලැබුනා 
තළුමරන්ට මිහිරි අකුරු හතරක් ලැබුනා 
ගීයක් ලැබුනා ජාතික කොඩියක් ලැබුනා 
එලිවෙනකොට නිදහස අහසෙන් ගෙට වැටුනා......

We got freedom, brother; we got some syllables to roll around the tongue; got ourselves a national flag and even a national anthem; the night ended and, lo and behold, freedom had fallen at our feet, straight from the sky it seemed.

කොඩිය සුද්දගේ මල්ලි, සිංහයා අපේ 
ලනුව සුද්දගේ වුනත් කොඩිගහ අපගේ 
නෑ බැට කෑවේ නේරු පාතෙල් වාගේ 
නෑ දිවි දුන්නේ මහත්ම ගාන්ධි වාගේ......

Let’s start with the last two lines of the stanza.  ‘We did not get beaten like Nehru or Patel and didn’t lay down our lives as Mahatma Gandhi did’. 

At the time it was all sexy, but in this song the lyricist has been careless and even mischievous.  He has reduced the entire 133 years between 1815 and 1948 to the moment of ‘granting’.  He has forgotten the 1818 rebellion, the genocide perpetrated in the Uva-Wellassa, the violent and genocidal putting down of rebellions in various parts of the country in 1848, the many acts of defiance, the struggles in legislative bodies, the tireless work of the leftists, and the resilience of ordinary people and especially bikkhus, is ensuring that the foundational element of civilization were preserved (which, by the way, still sustain us).   It is a crass negation of all that.  No wonder that the lyricist thought or want us to believe that nidahasa fell from the sky with absolutely no agency on the part of the subjugated.  One notes, that even today, when the freedom struggle is talked of, those who are privileged in the narrative are the Anglicized elite on the early nineteenth century with even D.B. Jayatilleke not warranting at least a footnote.  There’s ethnic politics and religious politics there, but that’s another story.  Or perhaps not. 

Let’s move on to the other lines.  The lion is ours, brother, but the flag belongs to the white man; it is our flag post, although the rope belongs to them.  In the late eighties, first of all, we had neither flag nor lion.  That was Indian-hegemony time a la the IPKF and the Indo-Lanka Accord.  That was JRJ time with a blank check for the robber barons.  That was ‘free economy’ time with policy written by the World Bank and the restructuring of economy to ensure the sustained development of ‘other’ economies.  That was the beginning of structural adjustment, which swiftly moved to structural adjustment with a human face and structural adjustment with poverty alleviation; the impact is written right there in the process and slogans.  

At the end of the circus we still didn’t have the flag or the flag pole. Someone else continued to hold and pull the strings.  We had the symbols, ‘they’ had the substance.  We recovered something, somewhere down the line, this is true.  And those who recovered that ‘something’ were vilified no end and continue to be called all kinds of derogatory names.  And yet, that was but a small victory.  We got some measure of pride and self-respect back, more meaning accrued to symbols (however jaundiced, historically speaking, these symbols were) and got a bit of spring to ours stride.  We can brag about self-sufficiency in rice, we can claim we are the only country to successfully rid itself of the terrorist menace etc., etc. 

Let’s put aside all the machinations against Sri Lanka that we’ve seen in the past four years.  Even if all that didn’t happen and was not happening, and even if we didn’t have the debt burden we currently suffer, we are still fettered by ideologies of development that are patently anti-people and, this is important, policies that are absolutely antithetical to the core elements of ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ which even the most ardent critics of this government would admit is a solid, people-friendly, policy document. 

Where is all this coming from?  Partly from without, but mainly from within; our minds are closed when it comes to critiquing the rubbish that is sugarcoated as panaceas for all our ills and they are fully opened to servility.  In that sense, those lines about flag and lion, string and flag pole, are apt; except that we are cheering the owners of flag and string while we brag about what we don’t have as though we’ve had it all for the last 66 years. 

It is in this context that the words of another lyricist/poet, Parakrama Kodituwakku, warrant mention.  This was a song written for the 1978 film based on the life of Puran Appu, voiced by Sunil Edirisinghe.  

බත කා ඉවරයි බලමින් උන්නොත්
ටික කලකින් සිංහල හාලේ
ඉංග්රිසි හරකා උඩරට ඉඩමෙන්
පන්නන්නට සැරසෙව් රාලේ.

There’s more.  What it means is this: If we continue to be complacent, we will lose all our paddy fields (read, ‘compromise food security’); it is therefore high time we (got together and) evict the English bull from our highlands. 

We would have to play a little with the metaphors of course.  We have compromised food security with the subversion of seed security, not to mention the poisoning of soils and people with dangerous chemicals.  It is not the Kande Udarata that has been invaded.  All sectors of the economy, in the name of development and progress, have been fettered by ideologies happily embraced by policy makers and protected by officials and even academics, notwithstanding promise, pledge and rhetoric of the President.  We are better in some ways than we were, but that’s ‘crumbs’ compared with the goodies being ferretted out legally with the full knowledge of the grandmasters of economic policy.   It would take some eviction, let’s put it that way.

A word about the ‘Sinhala’ here.  It should be taken, as I believe the lyricist probably meant it, in the fuller meaning of the name as composite of the 4 Helas, Yaksha, Naga, Deva and Raksha, making the Siv-Hela and certainly not the restrictive, chauvinism-feeding ‘Sinhala’ of the lion, the Vijaya legend etc.  It is an identity of embrace which make the collective that Kodituwakku wants readied (or let’s say Puran Appu called out to) that has to do the relevant eviction. 

Until then, what unfurling of national flag, what gusty singing of national anthem, perhaps we should ask ourselves.  This is why the word ‘baila’, with no insult intended, is apt as we think of nidahasa or svadheenathvaya, even though that song and the relevant politics are eminently ‘rubbishable’. 


sajic said...

Yes, rubbishable, but for other reasons as well. I remember the euphoria of that first Feb 4-watching eagerly as the Union Jack came down and the Lion Flag went up. I remember the unbelievable sense of elation. It was transitory. The years after have brought nothing except disillusion and frustration. And while condemning the foreigner for the massacres of colonial times, let us not forget that we killed our own, mercilessly, in the 60's,70's, and 80's.