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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

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Mindfully occupied!

He never turns the radio on while driving his noiseless car. He likes to feel the quietness of the morning breeze. That quietness fuels the conversations drifting and floating in his mind.

Dr Praneeth Abhayasundara, who is Sociology lecturer at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, Deputy Chairperson of All Ceylon Buddhist Congress as well as a guest member of several government institutes and boards, is fully occupied in his own thoughts still focusing on the road that lay ahead.

Then the questions come, tumbling out, on culture, arts and a little more. Finally we come to a conclusion: we are witnessing a cultural dilemma.

Q: You have once said that university teachers don't know how valuable their profession is. Comment.

Some of Dr Abhayasundara's works

* Sanhinda Pamula
* Bauddha Samaja Palnayaa Ha Aparada Vidyava
* Baranesa Nam Nuvara
* Brahmachari Valisinha Harischandra Charitapadanaya
* Golden Links in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, with Ahungalle Arunatilaka

Some of the felicitation volumes (edited)

* Tissa Kariyawasam
* Nandasena Ratnapala
* Sanath Nandasiri
* Nandadeva Wijesekara
* H B Hettiarachchi
* G B Senanayaka
* W D Amaradeva
* Mahagamasekara

A: When I was young my ambition was to become a schoolteacher, and serve my alma mater, Ananda College. My teachers inspired me a great deal. They did not just teach, but they taught us about life. They became a role model.

I did science first, but it did not work for me. Then I picked arts, and entered the University of Colombo. After university education, I was interested in sociology because of Professor Nandasena Ratnapala. Eventually I was fortunate to teach at the university. I have been in the profession for 25 years.

University lecturer's basic role is to research and teach. You have to learn before teaching others. But today most university teachers are money-oriented and goal-oriented. You pass the degree and follow up the post-graduate works in unholy chaste. Once established, you are no longer interested in research. You are concerned only about money.

Most university teachers don't read. They don't write anything creative. I feel isolated because I cannot share what I read with my fellow professionals. University teachers have many ways of earning money, but they don't know how precious their profession is.

Q: You teach sociology, a subject which doesn't have direct links with art. All the same you are known for your contributions to art.

A: I teach General Sociology. Sociology examines the society. I add a bit of literature and other arts in my lectures, though the student response seems to be negative. Art is a crucial subject which decides the good and bad side of a society.

Q: "Student response seems to be negative." What do you mean?

Dr Praneeth Abhayasundara

A: Most students don't read. I get to read many new books, but they are not familiar. Some of them don't know any novel beyond Martin Wickramasinghe's Viragaya.

Q: Why is that?

A: It's the question that bothers me too.

Q: Could you elaborate on 'student response'? How does it affect society as a whole?

A: There is a saying reading maketh a full man during our childhood. Now it has taken different shapes with the Internet. It makes us see life in a different wavelength. There are lots of students who surf Internet. There are some others too who do not even do that. They don't read, write and don't at least surf the Internet. I simply don't know what they do. Imagine these are university students!

I don't know if there is something wrong with my observation. And yes, it affects the society.

Our modern critics don't read either. But they criticise. They appreciate or condemn. They have sadistic pleasures. They derive much pleasure from hurting others. There are some newspapers which commission these critics to condemn writers, publishers and almost everyone in this society. They look down on some books labeling them as rubbish. But when you ask them whether they have read, the answer is obviously no.

Q: Swarna Pustaka award went to Kavi Kandura, while the Vidyodaya award to Chumbana Kanda. Both these novels jointly bagging the State Literary Award seems pure coincidence.

A: I like both novels. I was also involved in the Vidyodaya award. We picked Jayatilaka Kammallaweera's Chumbana Kanda mainly for its refined language and sublime plot manipulation. That imagination was quite different and novel. Sunethra Rajakarunanayaka's Kavi Kandura was also quite good, but it had confusion here and there, especially in continuity.

We had to read over 70 novels. And we had a few recommended books as well. Anurasiri Hettige's Kaluvarai Purahanda and Sunanda Mahendra's Dangara Tarappuva were among them.

Q: Vidyodaya award is a single-person judgment. You were the one and only judge who picked Sumithra Rahubadda's Kandak Se Ma as the best novel of 2009. This was in 2010 when you were criticized to have given a single-person verdict.

A: I think that is fair. A judgment must always come from a collective thinking. What I see might be different for you. So when we decide on something, you and I have to come to a conclusion, right or wrong. I stand by my judgment, but I was facing a dilemma of having to give a single-person verdict.

Q: Compared with previous decades, many more books are being published. The number of publishers has also increased. How do you view this phenomenon?

A: Like I said before I get to read almost every book. With so many voluntary activities, I'm fighting with time for reading books. I enjoy reading books. The major problem is most books are published in quite haste. No proofreading. No proper copyediting. People have started writing books mainly for some commercial gains. You can be a great writer, but still what you write could be improved by copyediting. Copyediting is hardly there.

Q: Isn't copyediting somewhat new to our industry?

A: I don't think so. Most of our writers have cut and chopped almost everywhere in the manuscripts. The final work is quite different to the original work. We had a tradition of reading our manuscripts aloud for an audience before sending it to the press. We had patience. It's just the same thing that we lack today.

Q: You mentioned most university students are not updated with modern literature. How far would you justify your statement?

A: When we were schooling we used to do wall paper and the kind. We brought that to the university too.

I was talking mostly, but not generalizing, about Arts faculty. I see an awakening among other faculties such as Science and Management in their interest towards arts. They hold certain festivals. Sri Jayawardenepura University has also held Nala Mudu Suvanda and Vidyodaya literary awards festival.

Even so, out of all universities I see University of Kelaniya as the most energetic beehive of art activities. In fact I enjoy reading and watching their works. They carry out arts without polluting the environment. There are some universities which don't have a single art activity.

Q: The modern generation is slowly deviating from books to technologically convenient forms such as blogs. It's kind of an evolution. Do you get a chance to read them too?

A: I certainly do. Even a book of such online poetry was released recently. I admire most of them. They have their soul. But the only problem is most of them are a bit raw. They need to be rewritten, to be more delicate. They lack emotion. Post-war environment is one of the most sensitive periods in the world.

That gives a positive driving force to sharp creative works. But in Sri Lanka I cannot see that sharpness. May be because we are confined to Colombo. I honestly feel that we need such a culture.

Q: Your father, Wimal Abhayasundara, started his career as a journalist, continued into Radio Ceylon and became a household figure in the local cultural scene. Have you derived any inspiration from him?

A: We didn't have much stuff at home. Usually people change a table or a chair, but we had the same upholstery for a long time. Still there was something that continuously changed: books. So many books came and occupied almost everywhere. Our home was full of magazines, newspapers and books.

No one had to push us to read books. We were naturally drawn to them. Father comes home back from Radio Ceylon, mother hands him a cup of plain tea, and he would retire into his study to read and write till dinnertime. He was quite kindhearted though didn't speak much.

We were scared of him nevertheless and had great respect. We hardly got close to him or spoke to him much.

Father greatly admired Sanskrit and Pali, which are more serious than Sinhala. My mother was a housewife, though she had studied music in India. She had a melodious voice.

Q: You have penned a number of lyrics. Your father's name is also linked with one stage of Sri Lankan music. How would you connect the dots?

A: I started writing lyrics back in the 70s. They all reached my father, because he was the authoritative officer in Radio Ceylon to approve them. He rejected most of my lyrics. He was quite connected in the music field, but he never pushed me into it. Back at home he would point out certain fallacies and weaknesses in my words and lines. He spells out how they can be shaped well. Certain lines, he used to say, are too sentimental.

What you write has to have a vision and philosophy. It should have some depth, and ultimately it should give out some aesthetic sense too. Looking back, I think he did the right thing by refusing most of my songs. He had given me proper guidance.

Now I don't like to write lyrics, because it has now become a commercial item. When we wrote, it was more of an artistic work. They lack depth. Irony or indirect meaning is hardly there. Most of the lyrics express things quite straight. Figures of speech is something I love to see in a work of art.

Very seldom do we get a chance to hear such meaningful songs. I was in the board when we selected Me Tharam Siyumelida sung by Sunil Edirisinghe as the best song at the State Music Festival.

 

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