14 February 2015

Sri Lankan textures, colors and diversity

A question was put to a chef at lunch recently: ‘What is uniquely Sri Lankan when it comes to cuisine?’  The person who asked the question responded himself: ‘colour and texture’.  Even in the most humble kitchen there is a manifest effort to obtain diversity of colour and texture.  Sri Lankan cooking in its evolution over time seems to have focused on producing diversity not just in the number of different dishes but in the ways that a single article is cooked. 

There is a certain openness to ‘new’ that enhances rather than subtracts from what is authentically Sri Lankan.  As Dr. Nalin De Silva has frequently pointed out potatoes are not ours, but ala thel daala (devilled potato) is ours.  Carrots are not ours but they are not foreign when they are grated, mixed with coconut, onion, and a bit of lime juice and turned into a sambol. Not all our pickles are ‘ours’ but we do add a dash of us-ness to make them so.  As Prof. J.B. Dissanayake has pointed out, there was never a ‘fa’ sound in Sinhala and therefore no corresponding character in the alphabet, but there was enough flexibility to conjure up one and legitimate it as well. 

Sri Lanka cuisine is however not a salad-like gathering of borrowed dishes. Its variety in colour and texture is enhanced be what is borrowed but certainly not obtained by imported diversity. Rather, it is a unique focus on these attributes that is at the core of overall culinary objective, I believe.  

Listening to that conversation my thoughts drifted to something as delightful, colourful and diverse. Drums.  And of course the attendant dance sequences as well as vocal accompaniment. Three distinct music-moments came to mind.

The first was a conversation with Pradeep Ratnayake, Sitarist a few months back.  Pradeep’s Kuveni Double-Concerto with Symphony Orchestra (with Ramon Jaffe on the Cello), arranged by Prof. Patrick Zimmerli of Columbia University, was performed in Berlin and received a standing ovation.  Pradeep told me that it had taken 6 months to compose this arrangement in 4 movements, that all rules of ‘Western Music’ were contained in it etc.  All Greek to me.  He played a recording for me.  Even to the untrained ear of someone who is not particularly excited by classical music of any kind, it was a glorious performance.  Most important, in that complex intertwining of different sounds from different instruments, the traditional drums of Sri Lanka did not appear as add-on or after-thought but as ‘core’
The second was a conversation with Rakhitha, the leader/found of a percussion band called Naadro.  All fascinated with drums, I was told. I was made to listen to one of their ‘street performances’ at Galle Face.  On youtube, that is.  Mesmerizing.  Greek, however.  Rakhitha told me that Naadro draws from percussion traditions from all parts of the world.  And yet, they’ve not forgotten the traditional drums and rhythms.  They’ve sat at the feet of the top exponents of the genre of their choice and learned well.  That’s core.  A solid core that allows for and indeed cries out for experimentation, engagement with the universe and a blending that enriches without diminishing. 

The third was what I believe is a relentless examination of the ‘core’ with the objective of understanding who we are, where we came from and what we are about so that we can go forth into the future with confidence and dignity.  The individual concerned is Sahan Ranwala, current articulator of philosophy and approach pioneered among others by his father, the late Lionel Ranwala. 

The conversation was about the latest production put together by the ‘Ranwala Balakaya’, ‘Three’.  They have dubbed it thus: ‘thri sinhalaye thrivida sampradaaye thunkal yaakeruma’  or  the conjoining of the three (dance) traditions of the three ancient provinces (Ruhunu, Maya, Pihiti) with fidelity to time’s timeless trinity (the past, present and future).  That’s a roll of identity, ideology and vision finding articulation in the form of dance, rhythm, music and song.  It is a celebration of the diverse traditions within this island, the Kandyan, Low-country and Sabaragamuwa schools of dance. 

‘Three’ had its maiden performance on January 22, 2011 at the Tower Hall, following other highly acclaimed productions such as‘Me Avuduru Kaale (This time of the New Year),’ ‘Gama Avulangngang’ (I shall burn/incite the village), ‘Ahase innavalu’ (‘Resident in the sky, apparently,’ the precursor to Gama Avulangngang), Ahase Innavalu (Apparently resident in the sky) and Yuddetath Avith (We have declared war also), not forgetting ‘Podi Ayata Jana Gee’ (Folk songs for the little ones), the term-end concert put together by students (6-18 years of age) attending the workshop-type programmes held at the Jana Kala Kendraya, Battaramulla to educate a new generation about these traditions.  They count over 500 performances all over the island. 

I’ve had opportunity to watch the rehearsals on several Sundays while waiting for my children to finish their class at the Jana Kala Kendraya.  The enthusiasm, energy, discipline and wonderful talent was truly amazing.  More importantly, in sequence and movement, the play of tone, volume, melody, rhythm and beat, there was what I felt was a reiteration of something uniquely Sri Lankan.  Colour and texture.  In rich diversity.  

Sahan explained the thinking behind the production and sketched out the items in the programme.  In keeping with the ‘trinity’ trope, the Balakaya had decided to invite as special guests representative Theros of the three nikayas as well as representatives of the Army, Navy and Airforce.  Most importantly they had decided to show appreciation and celebrate the work of three senior exponents of the three traditions: Babanis Gurunnanse (Sabaragamuwa), Aedis Weerasinghe Master (Pahatharata) and Siril Makehelwala (Udarata).  This too is ‘tradition’. It is consistent with the colour-texture diversity that marks ‘Sri Lankan’. 

The Ranwala Balakaya is not intimidated by the financial power, public presence and acquired glamour associated with those groups that think fit to ape what they believe are superior and unique traditions.  They draw from contemporary themes and are not only aware of different types of music but recognize these in the traditional folk music.  They seem to have a very good sense of core-texture and core-colour and relevant extrapolation.  They can cook up quite a meal, so to speak. 

All things considered, if we don’t know who are, we can go only thus far.  If on the other hand we dwell too long in the past, we freeze and get fossilized.  There should be balance.  And, if it is to be authentically ‘Sri Lankan’, then diversity of colour and texture need to be recognized as ‘core’ and that ‘core’ should be explored, celebrated and reaffirmed if articulation and synthesis with other traditions are to yield a more splendid feast, in music and other things too. 

‘Three’ shows how to be ‘traditional’ without letting tradition being a weight that stops innovation.  It shows also that sometimes when we see something as ‘foreign’ it is because we don’t know much about ‘tradition’.  We vilify in our ignorance, both ways.  It is a show that would enrich all school audiences and this is something that principals who see the importance of children knowing their roots, being proud of their parents and being sheltered from the evils of rejecting uncritically things ‘traditional’ or embracing uncritically things ‘foreign’ would do well to take cognizance of. 

Ideally, ‘Three’ should be performed in every school. Some can afford it, some can get parents to pay while others can draw funds from educational authorities and still others persuade the Ranwala Balakaya to perform free of charge.  If we lose out textural diversity and collapse the rainbow into shades of grey, we could be impoverished indeed.  It is good that we have a Pradeep Ratnayake. Good that we have Naadro.  I am sure there are others. I feel blessed that we have the Ranwala Balakaya, fighting with such tremendous energy and such winning smiles, for our children.  

This article first appeared in the 'Sunday Island' in February 2001.  Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com



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