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Focus on books

Agonies and ecstasies in the life of a scholar-journalist

We Vi 90
W W Abhayagunawardhana
Published by Godage Publishers Colombo 2008
328 pp Rs. 1500

The notes of a journalist cum scholar who is resting on his laurels and recollecting his life spent over a period of eighty years is significant for several reasons. The resourceful series of notes in the form of episodes instead of itemised chapters envelope the agonies and ecstasies that had gone into the moulding of an integral personality.

This is one other than one of the well-known writers, namely W W Abhayagunawardhana, (known more as We Vi) who had authored a number of books, edited several newspapers and above all the compiler editor who is responsible for the new Mahawamsa which appeared as a result of his commitment.

As the book uncovers, the writer depicts how he strived to learn three languages, Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit from his childhood under the tutelage of learned scholar priests of the time like Venerable Kodagoda Gnanaloka.

Followed by this erudition, he shows how he came to study English at school level remembering even the titles of text books utilised for learning. In this background he gives the reader a lucid account of the social background of the pre-war and post war periods in our country.

He in one hand is a recorder of social events that revolve around politics culture and social changes on the other hand he shows himself at times as a participant and at times as a victim of these circumstances.

But the sensitive thread that unfolds all these events is his capability and urge to learn, write and work in the most independent manner possible. The reader is shown how he moves from one journalistic venture to another.

In the first instance, he belongs to a particular linguistic school pioneered by the great scholar Munidasa Cumaratunga, where he convincingly becomes a member of the Hela Havula.

Then with this background he searches for a suitable employment, moving from the position of a price controller attached to the Food Department, which had been defunct later due to several reasons.

Then he is blissfully engaged into a newspaper known at that time named Peramuna, where he works to his delight in gaining a job satisfaction. The reader is then made to be known to this writer, but lay beneath the sands of time.

The truth is that when our protagonist We Vi becomes the Chief Editor of this period, quite a number of scholars of the time rallied round the paper contributing articles and controversies of lasting interest.

The period is 1950’s where the necessity for a good newspaper was a clamour and our friend spearheaded the movement. But the latent force as it is suggested is the political layer where, a seemingly despairing tug-of-war had happened.

These are some of the moving points, that can be rereading the light of new knowledge on social history and communication. There are quite a lot of interesting episodes laid down as regards to the inner natures of rivalry of those in power. For a moment, I am reminded of the dictum that the legacy of a journalist is what he leaves behind for the posterity.

The writer Abhayagunawardhana, with all his active life as a journalist, is also depicted as a self made scholar who eventually transfers his position from journalism to the staff of the Sinhala Dictionary office which was headed by Professor D E Hettiarachchi. He shows the difficulties as well as the pleasures he gained working as an editor, and a state sponsored dictionary.

He shows the reader how blissful he had felt on achieving the scholarship to do a post graduate research work. He also records a situation where the late scholar monk Ven. Welivitiye Sorata had come to see him with several queries pertaining to some words, phrases and terms in Sinhala versifications.

Abhayagunawardana has edited with long introductions such classical works as Kusa Jatakaya, which is his pioneering effort. Ama watura, Elu attana, galu vansa, Hansa Sandesaya, Saddharmalankaraya, Butsarana, Subhashitaya, Kavusilumina and Lokopakaraya etc.

He records his experiences with his contemporary writers such as W A Silva, Martin Wickramasinghe and politics such as J R Jayewardene, and T B Tennakoone. For a present day practising media person, I feel that there lies an ocean of source material to gauge some of the trends extant today, and evaluate in terms of the evolution of factors relating to the use of mass media channels. There is a salient point that he tries to underline in this biographical events.

This being the one’s struggle in the social torrents to overcome barriers to liberate oneself from the pangs of victimisation. At times he shows how he is moved on to political partialities. For example had been working as the editor of Siyarata with great difficulties sandwiched between cultural nuances and political pressures.

He shows the reader how he becomes apolitical or indifferent to politics to elevate himself as a scholarly communicator. In this manner we may gauge the intensity and the integrity of a person remembering events of his past with a glee. He uses a minimum number of episodes to picturise his travels abroad. But the reader feels that the subtext is much more significant than the outer narrative.

Austin Fernando’s reminiscences in controversial new book

My Belly is White: Reminiscences of a Peacetime Secretary of Defence by Austin Fernando was launched recently in the presence of a distinguished gathering. The book is published by Vijitha Yapa Publications.

The Author’s vast knowledge and experiences on the North-East disaster situation and balanced outlook are incorporated in his book. It contains twenty one chapters dealing with sensitive and controversial issues related to the Ceasefire Agreement, like separation of forces, High Security Zones, controversial Dehescalation Plan, Millennium City episode, Manirasakulam Camp, transfer of Voice of Tigers radio transmission equipment, Peace Talks and implementation of decisions thereof, etc.

My Belly is White is a penetrating study of the Peace Process from 2002-2003 that graphically and logically unravels with proof when explaining the Government’s Defence establishment stances. Some of these references, interpretations and explanations have never been made public before.

He says that Eric Solheim was wrong in saying the Government donated the radio equipment to the LTTE and proves the involvement of the Norwegian embassy with documentation.

Some mistakes the operatives committed in peacemaking are also stated in his explanations. Austin Fernando is a Bachelor in Arts (Peradeniya University), Masters in Business Administration (Sri Jayawardenepura University) and trained abroad in Public Administration, Business Feasibility and Disaster Management. He belonged to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (1967-1996).

His illustrious career started in the districts. He was a Government Agent and later appointed as the Commissioner of Cooperative Development and Post Master General. Afterwards he was Secretary of several Ministries. i.e. Rehabilitation, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils, Local Government etc.

He saved the United Nations as a consultant and was serving the private sector as a senior executive until he was invited to be the Secretary Defence in December 2001. He kept a tight grip on the Military to successfully implement the Ceasefire Agreement.

He often met stakeholder and motivated acceleration of progress of implementation of the ceasefire. To suit he took fearless decisions under acute criticisms against him. The Government appointed him as an Advisor to the Sri Lankan negotiation delegation.

On the strength of Peace Talks decisions he served in Committees to accelerate normalization. He led the Government Team at the Sub Committee on De-escalation and Normalization. When it collapsed half-way the negotiators requested him to have dialogue with Karuna Amman to deal with Ceasefire Agreement violations and facilitate district level normalization.

This showed the confidence both Parties to the conflict had no him. The nearly 1000 page book is the most authoritative publication on the ceasefire agreement published in Sri Lanka, as it gives an inside view of what really happened in that crucial period.

Like a rapier, he darts forward and backward, using his insight and knowledge to give the reader new information on a crucial period of Sri Lanka’s history.


History of Tamil Literature Demala Sahithya Ithihasaya

Senior Prof. Sunil

Publisher: S.Godage and
Brothers, Colombo 10.
Pages 312; Price Rs. 575

It is claimed that that History of Tamil Literature is the first of its kind, which covers the gamut of the Tamil literature and the aim of Senior Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne in writing this book was to introduce Tamil literature to the Sinhalese and encourage them to study the Tamil as a language and gain proficiency to read and understand the beauty of that language, appreciate and assimilate the Tamil literary work.

The book deals with the topic he has chosen to treat by introducing the difference between Tamil land and Tamil language, an essay on Sangam period, talk about Sadukthi books, about Seelappadikaram and Manimekalai, Bakthi gee(Devotional songs), Kamba Ramayanaya and other Mahakavya, different types of poems, about European Pandits, Subramaniya Bharathi and new wave of Tamil poem and finally deals with Sunhala Rata and Tamil language.

With this present work Prof.Sunil Ariyaratne joins the rank and file of men and women in the annals of our long history of Sinhala literature, which introduced Tamil literary work to the Sinhalese community.

The early history of Sinhala literary were adorned by great men who were keen students of the Tamil as a language and they turned experts and exponent of that language. Today we have among us those who claim to be well versed in other foreign languages but they have not shown interest in learning the Sinhala or Tamil language, the language used by his or her neighbour. We feel ashamed but it is the naked truth.

Incidentally this is the second edition of the book, coming after 17 long years of the first edition in 1991, and that shows what sort of interest we have in enhancing our knowledge of Tamil literature , leaving aside our keenness to study the Tamil language!

It is a pity that authorities shouting from the house-tops for ethnic harmony, seemed to have not taken sufficient steps to popularise reading books of this nature which paves the way to unity among the different communities and help better understanding.

The lack of books in Sinhala on Tamil history and their literary work and the lack of sufficient Tamil books on Sinhala literature work, make it difficult to educate the masses to understand the others, alien to them be it Sinhala ,Tamil or Muslim or any other ethnic group. This has contributed heavily to the present predicament we are in today.

The two major communities are now in conflict due to the lack of proper understanding of each community, their hopes and aspirations. We urgently need more books of this nature to promote understanding and to appreciate values in each community and to learn to live in harmony despite their difference of origin.

The book is an attempt to enhance the knowledge of the Sinhala community and help them to appreciate Tamil literature and perusing the pages of this book they will also learn the contributions made by the Tamil language, culture and traditions to enrich our own culture and traditions.

We are being divided by ignorance. The best way to foil all attempts made for separation and division is to create an atmosphere necessary for each community to live in harmony with dignity as sons and daughters of Mother Sri Lanka.

The attempt made by Prof. Ariyaratne in writing the History of Tamil Literature, should be seen in that perspective. It is a positive step towards building proper understanding of the other community with whom we have lived for centuries.

He has shown us that if we have the Will there is a way to bring about understanding, and move with sincerity of purpose. Prof. Ariyaratne should be commended for efforts made on his part to wake up the conscious of the Sinhala community by writing several books to enhance the Sinhala reader with a wealth of information in respect of Tamil literary work. What the Professor has done is to light a candle to fight the darkness and it is left to us to come into the light and benefit from it.

- Wiruma

Gone with the Wave

by Prof. Kusuma Karunaratne
Publishers: Wijesooriya Grantha Kendraya

December 26, 2004 was an awful day. It dawned, of course, as an ordinary day but ended causing so much disaster, a poor word to express what it did to human lives. No one believed when it happened, the first rumours were laughed off as nonsense. The sea coming ashore? Trains washed away? Hundreds died in Galle? What utter nonsense! Such was the response of many including the present writer.

Only when the visuals came on the TV a few hours later that all sat up and took notice because it was something unknown to the present generation although Thucydides, the Greek historian knew it in the fifth century BC. The damage was beyond imagination. And the experience ended adding a new word to our vocabulary - tsunami.

Gone with the Wave, is the translation done by Swarna Kanthi Rajapakse of a collection of short stories written by Prof. Kusuma Karunaratne in Sinhala that tries to capture how the tsunami affected the lives of those who were unfortunate to come within its cruel expanse.

In the usual sense, these are not totally imagined writings - not that I am suggesting that there is no creative element in them. Every story, I believe, has a factual basis and the value of the stories lies in drawing our attention to the human tragedy that ensued.

This kind of writing, I believe, serves a dual purpose; it is a social document on one hand, and on the other, a creative work. Prof. Karunaratne selects an incident, which she had either heard or read in a newspaper, and relates it in simple language without adding gratuitous literary flourishes.

The stories depict how people are helpless against a natural phenomenon, but they also pinpoint the helplessness of humanity in their daily living.

They show how innocent hopes and ambitions are devastated and people are left in a vast void of no return. In a way, it is a metaphor of man’s voyage in samsara, the cycle of birth and death.

Something I noticed in these stories is how the writer connects up human sensitivity and feelings with the incidents that occurred on the disastrous day. The example that comes immediately to mind is the story, Eyes.

It is about an old cripple living alone with four pet dogs for his company. On that particular day he finds that their behaviour was unusual.

Apart from them he has a visitor that comes along the steam for sun-bathing - a crocodile. He is enamoured by the harmlessness of the creature and also by his eyes, cool and placid.

He is caught in the giant wave, tossed about, and he loses his crutches and the wheelchair. He resigns himself to his fate somewhat stoically when he suddenly spots a log that comes his way. He clings onto it and is saved as by a quirk of his fate.

Ultimately he finds that the log was nothing but the crocodile that he treated with compassion and friendliness. “When holding onto the mangrove he happened to have a good look at the log which had saved his life. Then only he saw the familiar pair of eyes.

He would never ever forget those friendly eyes that used to gaze at him with the rising sun. Was this a dream? No, he knew. He was positive. He wanted to recall the kind words he used to whisper yet he was benumbed with exhaustion.”

The story entitled Mother is a penetrating study of motherly love. A young mother goes to the dispensary with her sick child when she is caught in the wave. She loses her child and goes on crying for him like Patacara.

Moments later a young man comes with a baby in his hands and asks the mother whether he is her child. Though of the same age, he is unfortunately not.

The mother takes a close look at the baby, holds him close to her chest and offers her breast to him. “Vasanti held the baby to her breast and allowed him to drink as much milk as he liked. So the little one had a bellyful of milk. Then, contented, he fell asleep against the warmth of her bosom.”

These stories, though written in a simple, lucid style, captures piercingly the human tragedy; man’s vulnerability to fate.

The writer’s sensitivity to human emotion and her observation of daily living with all its complexities and ambiguities have stood her in a good stead in portraying the essence of each story. She writes with a deep feeling for fellow human beings, and this quality enhanced the completeness and effectiveness of the experience she is trying to portray.

Swarna Kanthi Rajapakse’s translation is one of the best I have read in recent times. Her fluency in both languages is apparent, and she has the knack of selecting the appropriate turn of phrase and idiom to convey the original nuance and connotation.

Mahavamsaya and Sansoni Commission

Title: ”Mahavamsaya Ha Sinhala Jana Jeevithaya”
Author: Wijesiri Wettimuny
Second Edition
Price: Rs. 500

Mahavamsa which contains the details of Sri Lanka’s glorious and illustrious history from the earliest time upto the last king Sri Vikrama Rajasingha bears testimony to the proud achievements of the Sinhalese Kings. Wijesiri Wettimuny’s “Mahavamsaya Ha Sinhala Jana Jeewithaya” is based on an extensive research done by the author on Mahavamsa.

The chapter “Mahavamsaya Ha Sansoni Comisama” (Mahavamsa and Sansoni Commission) alone is sufficient to show that Mahavamsa is a substantial proof of the legacy of the Sinhalese.

The author under 16 different chapters such as Buddhism, Sinhalese Kings and people, Literacy and education, Military power, Ancient irrigation system and agriculture, Medical services, Women in Mahavamsa, Sinhalese Kings and Buddhist Bhikkhus, Ancient food patterns etc, tries to capture the lifestyle of the ancient Sri Lankans.

Protecting the environment had also been a main focus of interest of the ancient kings and the writer highlights the lessons we can learn from them in this regard. The simple and interesting presentation makes “Mahavamsaya Ha Sinhala Jana Jeevithaya” an easy read even for the schoolchildren.

Information regarding the book could be obtained from No:20, Galle Road, Kalutara North or e-mail to:[email protected]


Gripping decor of genuine art

Macbeth out of Shakespeare’s milieu:

“My hands are of colours; but I shame
To wear a heart so white. (Knock) I hear knocking
At the South entry - retire we to our chamber.
A little water clears us of this deed”
- Lady Macbeth


Samanthi in focus

Samanthi Vidyapathy has shown remarkable talents in portraying the seminal role of Lady Macbeth. Her facial expressions and even eye-contacts were fine-tuned to suit the changing moods of the character. It should be mentioned here that her present portrayal is far an improvement compared to the Hecuba in Nirmana and may caused by slightly slimed figure. Her dramatic face dominated throughout the ballet.


The rendering of Shakespeare’s masterpiece Macbeth into an oriental ballet by Ravibandu Samanthi Narthanayathanaya will be a milestone in contemporary Sri Lankan theatre.

Perhaps, the selection of Macbeth itself is a daring act especially given the unprecedented success the play enjoyed over the years since its original production by Shakespeare himself. Macbeth is one of the few plays which have been translated into diverse media including film. The grotesque details that are dramatically depicted in the film version or the acted on the stage, unfortunately , cannot be adapted into a ballet, in their entirety, as the dramatic personae confront with inherent constrains in the medium of ballet.

The principle constrain in a ballet compared to conventional play or film, is that conversation and dialogue are not possible in a ballet. So the roles of conversation and striking dialogues have to be depicted in terms of carefully crafted pieces of choreography together with painstakingly practiced facial expressions.

The emotional scores and dramatic situation are signalled by changing tempo of music score that should be the heartbeat of a ballet. Costume design also plays a vital role in a ballet as the costumes not merely introduce different dramatic persona but their distinct characteristics.

Ravibandu’s rendering of Macbeth into an oriental ballet should be judged against this technical backdrop and it should be unjust to consider it as complete adaptation of Macbeth into an oriental ballet. On one hand, Macbeth the oriental ballet depicts only a selected Acts of the original play which are suitable to the medium and out of which an aesthetically satisfying pieces of choreographs can be made.

For instance, Banquo’s character which plays a prominent role in the original play, here plays a little or insignificant role in the ballet. Some of the minor characters such as those of hired murderers who executed the Banquo’s killing and thereby depicts evil nature of Macbeth and craving for power, have been left out obviously due to technical constrains.

Out of the many predictions that the witches made on the future of Macbeth and his rule, only one which says that Macbeth cannot be defeated until Great Barnum wood comes to high Duns inane hills, has been graphically depicted in ballet. This section was hailed as one of the scenes with higher degree of audience satisfaction.

A fact should be considered here is that most of the predictions cannot be depicted by way of choreograph so Ravibandu would have adapted the one which signifies the eventual end of Macbeth.

Artist’s waning valour

In order to put into context the mediaeval play, Ravibandu has a modern soldier who opens the floor with a salute.

However the missing of the earlier-proclaimed red-shawl from the soul is estrange and perhaps only signal the waning valour on the part of the artist himself on the only podium where he has the dramatic license and fear of possible reprisal that the ‘red-shawl’ would invoke on the dramatic personae.

It has deprived the ballet of otherwise very topical flavour drawing parallel with unfolding opinionated scene and the intelligent audience of their inalienable right to watch a non splintered version.

Costumes in contrast

In terms of costumes and décor, ballet is outstanding. The same can be said of the setting which is also aptly suited to the ballet. Ravibandu has carefully designed the costumes with Sri Lankan flavour and the colours used for them are predominantly oriental. However, the costumes of the three witches though depict the wretchedness in colour ash and in the walking sticks, are rather out of amid of rather oriental costumes which dominated the scene.

It seems that the maker of the ballet has taken the witches’ costumes out of the original play. The act of departing the witches through the isles is appropriate and creates an eerie atmosphere which in turn facilitates the overall effect of the ballet.

Macbeth the ballet has able to drive home the fact that lust for power and the war which is a brutal manifestation of power, will bring about destruction not only upon the executors but also upon helpless generation sandwiched between powers.

Music in conflict

In general music scores of the ballet which versatile musician Pradeep Ratnayake composed have been splendid and represents an array of diverse traditions of music. Primarily Sri Lankan tone motifs have been exploited in creating music scores for intense movements and change of Acts in the ballet.

The use of drums of Sri Lanka in the scores along with Western tone motifs shows, among other things, the musician’s familiarity with diverse traditions of music and his innate ability to conjure them in a perfectly blended composition. However, in certain scenes, confusion in fusion and blend can be observed and music score supersedes the primary zest of the ballet. It is also, on some occasions, stand in divergence with the unfolding scene.

For instance, the scene where Lady Macbeth washes her hand in order to clear blood is a case in point.

“I hear a knocking At the south entry - retire we to our chambers…” Lady Macbeth

Here the music score which is the heart and soul in a ballet, should have blended with the scene in intensifying the zest. Instead what had happened here is that drowning of the entire scene in the vast ocean of music.

This is one of the key movements in a scene which brings out latent evil desire on Lady Macbeth’s part. Music here is rather abortive and fractured bringing about an unwanted confusion on the scene.

The director of the ballet and director of music should bear in mind the fact that though it is permissible to make an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, it is certainly not permissible to transmit a sense of distortion to an intelligent audience.

It is pity that incongruity between music scores and the ballet, at times, seriously disturbed the sequence and alienate the audience from the ballet. It is pity that this was committed by the otherwise gifted classical musician Pradeep Ratnayake.

Well disciplined cast and audience

The cast in general should be commended for their brilliant portrayal of diverse characters in a difficult production and Ravibandu (Macbeth) and Samanthi (Lady Macbeth) in particular. For they have created memorable oriental interpretations for the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Saranga Abhayasinghe as King Duncan played a memorable role.

It should be mentioned here that taking a master work which is considered an authentic representation of Western culture, out of its milieu and transplant in oriental set up is a gigantic task. Sponsor of the Macbeth ballet Sri Lanka Telecom should be commended as it came forward to lend a helping hand for a genuine and original production.

Macbeth the ballet is a production that Sri Lankans should watch and especially the younger generation who must view this as a gem among productions like NalaDamayanthi and Karadiya.

Maestro Chithrasena would have been the happiest to watch the masterpiece by his fine student.

The most terrific choreographer we have Vajira Chithrasena who was in the audience, would have, definitely, proud of this Sri Lankan production by one time her student.

One of the shortcomings on the part of the organisers is to invite persons who have not acquired skills and discipline through education to occupy front strips, for the simple fact that such persons insult tradition, fundamentals and theory which the civilised society understand as both wilful and sophisticated ignorance.



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