18 February 2015

Siri Gunasinghe, Pioneer of Sinhala Free Verse

Described as a Sanskritist, an art historian, poet, novelist and film maker, Siri Gunasinghe turns 90 on February 18, 2015.  The following article, based on an interview with the legendary literary figure was published twelve years ago in the Sunday Island (February 10, 2002).  I am re-posting by way of tribute. 

Years ago, my mother decided to do her teaching diploma in Peradeniya. And so, the family moved to Kandy. Our father was working in the Ministry of Agriculture and my recollection is that he came up only on weekends. Naturally we needed a place to stay and it so happened that Dr. Siri Gunasinghe was going on Sabbatical leave. Being a good friend of my parents, he had offered us the use of his house. I must have heard his name being mentioned, but I have no recollection. I was only 2 years old. 

Later, his name cropped up in conversations and that was how I learnt whose house we had spent our early childhood. As the years went by, I took a liking to browsing the books in my father’s scattered "library". That was how I learnt that this Siri Gunasinghe was a poet. I still remember his first collection of poems, "Mas le nethi eta" (translatable as ‘Bare Bones"). I first met the man a couple of weeks ago in Peradeniya. On my way, I ran into an old friend who is now an instructor of physical education in the university. When I told him that I was going to meet Siri Gunasinghe, he regretted that he had some urgent work to do, and that otherwise he would have loved to accompany me. He mentioned the book and said "mata mathakai potha, satha panahay neda mila?" (I remember the book, it was 50 cents, right?).

That book, worth fifty cents, was a landmark in modern Sinhala literature, so much so that it would be meaningless to assign a value to it. But I am getting ahead of the story.

Siri Gunasinghe was born in Ruwanwella, his mother’s hometown, in 1925 and was the fifth in a family of five brothers and two sisters. His father, a businessman, was from Galle. He had his early education in the Akmeemana Sinhala School and then moved to Mahinda College, Galle. From his early days, Siri had developed a love for English poetry. The Silumina had actually published a couple of his early experiments in Sinhala free verse. Gunasinghe acknowledges that these were "not serious".

I asked him about his teachers and who among them influenced him. "Actually I can’t think of a single individual who was critically important. "While acceding that this might sound ungrateful, he went on to mention Mr. Handy, who taught Pali at Mahinda, explaining that ‘his style of teaching had a kind of impact’. Mr. Edirisinghe (who later became principal of Dharmapala) had taught him history.

He also mentioned Mr. Thanabalasingham as the teacher who fuelled his interest in literature and in particular his fascination with free verse. "Thanabalasingham had been a recent graduate from Peradeniya. He was different and this may have been because hewould have come under the tutelage of people like Ludowyk, Passe and Souza. He liked poets like Pound, Eliot and Auden." Gunasinghe himself admits that Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce and later on Lawrence Durrel were among his favourites.

Gunasinghe had entered the University of Ceylon in 1945 and studied Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala and History, specialising in Sanskrit in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. In addition to his studies or perhaps as a part of it, Gunasinghe had experimented with the free verse form. 

"I found the traditional 4 line stanza very limiting and in contrast the free verse form was liberating. The 4 line stanza frustrated me. It typically led to soppy language. In fact it crippled the language. I realised that there was a lot of natural rhythm in the Sinhala language which could be creatively exploited in free verse."

After graduating he had joined the faculty at Peradeniya. In 1950 he had been awarded a government scholarship to London to do his PhD. However, he had had disagreements with his professor at the London School of Oriental Studies. "We could not agree on a topic. He was a grammarian and wanted me to work on Panini. This is usually the case. Professors want their students to do research on the topics that interest them. I wanted to study the techniques of painting. There was a whole body of literature on this subject in Sanskrit. Maybe he was not aware of it."

Around that time, Gunasinghe had gone to Paris for a week, where he met with Prof. Renou whom he had got to know in Ceylon. "I told him about my situation and being a Sanskritist, advised me to move to Sorbonne. Prof. Dupont, an art historian, and Prof.Filliozat, a student of Indian culture, along with Renou were my teachers. I would say that Prof. Dupont had the most influence on me, maybe because of his interest in Eastern Art and Architecture."

He recalled his time in Paris as being wonderful. He lived in CitŽ Universitaire where students from all continents lived and interacted with one another. "I did a lot of travelling during that time. I used to hitch-hike all over with my girl friend. All the travelling over 3-4 years would have cost me less than fifty pounds. The people were very friendly and food and lodging was mostly free.

Upon completing his PhD, he had asked for leave, hoping that he would be refused. In any event, he decided to return to the Sanskrit Department at Peradeniya.

Before mas le nethi eta, Gunasinghe had a couple of poems published in the Sinhala Society Magazine. This was around 1946. He had also written some critical essays on modern Sinhala poetry. Mas le nethi eta came out in 1955. The book had got a lot of publicity. Since it constituted a radical departure from the traditional verse form, it had come under severe attack at the hands of the Colombo poets. Gunasinghe said that G.B. Senenayake has also published a couple of poems in this form. However, it was Gunasinghe’s book and the storm it generated that made people consider free verse as a viable and indeed liberating form of poetry.

All that happened afterwards is now well known. In a sense, Parakrama Kodituwakku, Monica Ruwanpathirana, Ratna Sri Wijesinghe and of course Mahagama Sekera owe a lot to Siri Gunasinghe. I told him that some people have criticised him, arguing that his style is a mere anukaranaya (imitation) of a western verse form. 

"It depends. Poetry is not just about form, it is about language use and subject as well. Therefore I disagree".

He recalled that Peradeniya at that time was a seat of learning. I asked him about his relations with people like Sarachchandra and Gunadasa Amarasekera. "I was often at odds with them both when we discussed art and literature. Sarachchandra was a Romantic in outlook and was not a student of modern literature. He considered Gunadasa a disciple. He liked disciples, in fact. So he boosted Gunadasa. I didn’t want to be anyone’s disciple. We had heated arguments, especially on matters of form and criticism. We remained friends, nevertheless. In fact I did the first set of costumes for ‘Maname’ and the make-up too."

Actually it was during this time that he met his wife Hemamali. She was the first Maname Kumari. I laughed and observed, "Doing the make-up would have brought you close". He laughed with me, agreeing, and said that the relationship grew thereafter. She completed a PhD in linguistics in the University of Victoria and now teaches English at Camosun College.

In the late sixties he got a one-year appointment at the University of Victoria, Canada. He went on no-pay leave. "At the end of the year, the students wanted me to stay for another year. I contacted the Head of the Department at Peradeniya and asked him, informally, if my leave could be extended. He said yes, to I agreed to stay on.

"I developed the syllabus, prepared the course material and started teaching. Then I asked for leave, officially. I was refused, and was told that Mrs. Bandaranaike had wanted all professors abroad to return to Sri Lanka immediately. I appealed for a reconsideration of my request. There was some correspondence, but at one point I got angry because I heard that another professor in Canada was given an extension.

"In January 1971 I got a letter asking me to return by the end of December 1970! I wrote back saying I am not resigning, but I am done!"

Before leaving for Canada, in which country he has spent over 30 years now, Gunasinghe brought out two collections of poetry, "Abhinikmana" and "Rathu Kekulu", as well as a novel "Hevanella" ("Shadow" later translated in English by his wife). Since then he has written another collection of verse, "Alakamanda" (roughly, a beautiful, paradisial place) and another novel "Mandarama". His third novel, "Miringuva Elleema" (Capturing the mirage) is to be published by S. Godage.

Considering that he has spent most of the past thirty years or so abroad, I wondered how he managed to retain his obviously intimate touch with the language. "It is difficult because you hardly ever hear Sinhala and this can be a problem because the language and the thoughts that go with language is dormant most of the time. But cultural expression is something that gets embedded in you, and so when you want you can always stir it up.

"I now write in spoken Sinhala. It has been a conscious decision because it is the language of the people. In fact I once wrote an essay titled ‘Isn’t there a grammar for the spoken language?’ in a collection edited by Ajith Thilakasena called ‘Language suitable for modern times’. I have argued for the dropping of the ‘na-na la-la’ distinction because we don’t adhere to this in the colloquial form. I have been bothered by the classical-colloquial distinction. Even J.B. Dissanayake who writes extensively on language usage, prefers to be ‘academic’ rather than expressing himself in the colloquial form.

"There seems to be a general fear about language. This should not be so. Language does not control you, you control language. There’s a thing called ‘vyaktha’ language, i.e. erudite language. The vyaktha part should not be in the grammar but in the vocabulary."

Perhaps the fact that he visits Sri Lanka almost every year and spends time travelling and meeting friends, has helped Gunasinghe maintain his touch with the language and the people. It has also allowed him to keep track of the changes that are taking place in education and in academic circles. He describes the university as having degenerated into a sterile place.

"I was impressed with the interest in Buddhism and Eastern studies in Canada. The University of Victoria, when I first joined had a sense of freedom. There was plenty of things to read and there was a fertile intellectual environment. The university was young and amenable to new things.

"I return to Sri Lanka often and my sense is that the calibre of teaching seems to have dropped. Maybe this is a result of the reading being mostly limited to Sinhala. Now there are 12 universities and one would have expected this to have generated healthy competition. For some reason this has not happened.

"I also think there’s a manifest absence of communication between teachers and students. This is not a healthy situation. This is not peculiar to Peradeniya. It is a malaise that is evident in the entire university system. I am not saying that our time was the best. Still, things seemed to have been better back then. Opening the universities to a better cross section of our population should have produced a more fertile intellectual climate due to the interaction of students from different backgrounds and different life experiences. But this has not happened."

Gunasinghe does not like to be categorised, but he admitted that he was basically a realist, concerned with the truth. He is clearly not a Romantic. Talking to him, I got the sense that he was distinctly at odds with the way things have unfolded over the past several decades. It need not take comprehensive research to understand that we have as a nation and a people lost our way since "Independence". Modernisation is not coterminous with the uncritical embracing of the "foreign" and everything that in embedded in that word.

Gunasinghe’s creative works are certainly not "traditional" in form. They are nevertheless eminently in tune with who we are and as such demonstrates that the interaction of cultures does not necessarily destroy. Considering that the vast majority of expatriates lose their identity, Siri Gunasinghe seems to be a rare exception. We should be happy, I think.


sajic said...

Was Lawrence Durrel a poet too? I thought he was only a writer?