02 August 2023

On 'true' national anthems

Way back in the late eighties, a group of students silenced politically on account of holding views that were at odds with those of the ‘Action Committee’ of the University of Peradeniya, ventured into theatre. The intention was probably not one of finding a different platform to express themselves, but that invariably happened.

The late Gamini Haththotuwegama, known variously as GK, Haththa and Hatha, widely accepted as ‘The Father of Street Theatre in Sri Lanka,’ who was at the time a visiting lecturer attached to the English Department of the Faculty of Arts, organised a ‘drama workshop.’ Haththa casted the  ‘outcasts’ into various roles over the course of several months.

‘Sarasavi Kurutu Gee’ or ‘Campus Graffiti’ was episodic. It was a collage of skits that commented on the condition of ‘studentship’ of those tense times which the students themselves didn’t really know would quickly move into a theatre of abduction, proxy arrests, torture and mass slaughter (there’s no other word for what happened in 1988-89).

This was pre-bheeshanaya, but the ominous clouds hovering over the entire island did not spare the universities either. So they ‘played’ the conditions of not just studentship but citizenship. At least one of the players, a student from the Medical Faculty named Atapattu, would be ‘disappeared’ not too long afterwards. Most of the boys had to endure untold hardships just to survive.

Typical of Haththa’s productions, ‘Sarasavi Kurutu Gee’ was full of political commentary, but laced with humour, song, clever turn of phrase and theatrical innovation, throwing light on what was as well as what was likely to be. All of these were evident in one particular piece or episode.

There were three chairs on stage. Three players were stretched out on their stomachs behind the chairs, their heads protruding through them. The audience therefore could see just their faces. They were supposed to be television presenters of news. So they ‘read’ the news. At one point another player walked on to the stage, which was by the way the Sarachchandra ‘Wala’ or the Open Air Theatre. He recited a few lines from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth.’

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

If I remember correctly, it was just the first four lines or maybe just the first two. Sinhala and Tamil versions were also recited. Then there was silence.

Then one of the presenters blurted out, ‘ගැහුවා නේද වැරදි ඇන්තම් එක! ගහන්නයි කිව්වේ හරි ඇන්තම් එක! (Essentially, ‘That was the wrong anthem, now you’d better sing the correct anthem!)’ And so the all the players, huddled at that point on one side of the stage, broke into song.

Jana Gana Mana Adhinaayak Jaya Hey,
Bhaarat Bhaagya Vidhaataa
Panjaab Sindhu Gujarat Maraatha,
Draavid Utkal Banga
……Sri Lanka….

Vindhya Himaachal Yamuna Ganga…..Kadinam Mahaweli Ganga

‘Sri Lanka’ as just another state of India, following the Indian invasion a year before. The Mahaweli not just another ‘Indian’ river but an ‘accelerated’ one; the reference being to the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project of the then government.

Funny. Political. Creative. Nicely executed as well — the full audience appreciated.

And today, with all the noise about the national anthem, it’s alleged butchery and its alleged meaninglessness, I wonder which country’s national anthem would we sing (with a few twists) if 'Sarasavi Kurutu' Gee was played again with adjustments for time, personality and event. The Indian, Chinese or the American?

Come to think of it, we could have played with the lyrics of the Sri Lankan national anthem too (the tune after all is the same as ‘Olu pipila vila lela denava,’ and there’s nothing sacrosanct about music, lyrics and even nation and nationality).

People have a right to criticise. People have a right to ridicule. People have a right to scoff, innovate and critique. They will hurt feelings and they will in focus, target and brashness reveal who they are, where their loyalties lie and which flags they would love to have flying over land and citizenry.  

Meanwhile, there’s a country that bears the full weight of leaders’ sins, citizen-complicity and machinations of enemies, within and without.

This is not a time to sing the national anthem, I feel, unless one feels it is useful to whip up courage and resolve. This is the time to do what is necessary to make it possible to sing all the songs that resonate nation and citizen, history and heritage, vision and moment, in whatever language we like.  

The players went to their hostels after the show. The time for song and laughter came to a halt. They scattered to places of refuge not too long afterwards. Blood was shed. No one talked of flag and anthem. A nation survived.  


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is 187th article in the new series but it was not published perhaps because it was seen to be controversial. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road