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Globalism versus Globalisation

Sri Lankans share their traditional mid-April New Year (Aluth Avurudhu/Puththandu) with many others, notably Bengalis (Pohela Boishakh), Malayalees (Vishu), Nepalis (Navavarsha) and the people of Myanmar (Thingyan), Cambodia, Laos and Thailand (Songkran/Songkan). It represents one of the oldest shared traditions of the South/South-East Asian region (along with the cultivation of rice).

The extent to which the festival is rooted in the community was revealed a few years ago when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) tried to legislate it out of existence with the Tamil Nadu New Year (Declaration) Bill of 2008, in favour of Thai Pongal. Widespread opposition to the move led to the holiday being preserved in memory of the great Dalit Buddhist leader BR Ambedkar. Last year, the Tamil Nadu Assembly quietly rescinded the legislation.

The festival is an example of how cultural activity spread in ancient times - generally through a process of percolation rather than imposition. Some authorities believe that Songkran was imposed on Thailand by the Chola Empire during its short rule. However, the fact that it is celebrated among other peoples who were never controlled by the Cholas points to the migration of the festival by more peaceful means.

Foreign influences

Located as it is on a strategic sea passage, Sri Lanka has been a sponge which absorbed foreign influences from the earliest times. Our cuisine is the best example of how diverse cultural inspirations have helped shaped the way we live.

Preserving traditional customs

Many of our curries are South-East Asian, our hoppers and string hoppers are from Kerala, our penchants for chillies, manioc and tomatoes (which are South American) came via the Portuguese and our love for potatoes (also South American) was due to the Dutch. The Dutch also gave us kokis. Of course aluwa and muscat (both halwas) are Middle Eastern, while kaludodol and watalappan are Malay. In the 20th century Chinese and Mughal cuisine made a considerable impact.

Popular music

The Sinhala (Elu) language, originally a North-East Indian dialect related to Marathi and Gujarati, absorbed thousands of words from Malayalee, Pali, Sanskrit, Tamil, and later from Portuguese, Dutch and English. It is ironic that, in search of greater ‘purity’ in language, the late President Premadasa began using the Portuguese-Sanskrit ‘hora-stambaya’ instead of the Dutch-Sinhalese ‘Orolosu-kanuwa’ (for ‘clock-tower’); and that broadcasters and telecasters prefer the Portuguese ‘horawa’ rather than the Elu ‘peya’ (for ‘hour’).

The cultural mixture which emerged on this island was a healthy indication of its dynamism. It was also exemplary of the spread of the enrichment of indigenous civilisation by the absorption of ideas and traditions from around the world, based on equality rather than on being subaltern. Globalism created a patchwork of cultures, fertilising each other while remaining unique. The development of Sri Lankan popular music following the departure of the British, especially in the period of the 1950s to the 1970s, showed this pattern of globalism.

The music of that time drew from the Nadagam tradition, from Carnatic music, from the norms of Shanti Niketan, as well as from Western compositions, all superimposed on a basis of folk music - pel kavi, karaththa kavi, pathal kavi and so on.

In the late 1940s, Wally Bastiansz injected the rhythms of the Chicote and Cafrinha Baila music of the Portuguese Burghers, to produce what we know today as ‘Sinhala Baila’.

A decade later bands such as Los Muchachos and Los Caballeros introduced the haunting guitar tunes of Paraguay, which had migrated here in the early 20th century; their work was mysteriously mislabelled ‘Calypso’ music. It was on this tapestry that songwriters such as Clarence Wijewardena and Nimal Mendis wove their magic.

Since the late 1980s however, the impact of globalisation on Sri Lanka’s economy and society has been taking its toll of the island’s culture.

This country is not alone - there has been a world trend towards globalisation, tied in to the expansion of the open market and the reduction in regulations governing the anarchic movement of capital.

Cultural distinction

Apologists for globalisation, such as David Rothkopf, admit that it is good for countries such the USA; not only are there huge economic benefits though the export of brands and products, but through gaining acceptance for such ‘American values’ as unregulated trade, the sacrifice of the common good for individual need and of course corporate capitalism.

They argue that the decline of cultural distinction makes less possible conflicts and genocide. Less charitable are critics, such as Benjamin R Barber - who coined the term ‘McWorld’ to describe corporate-led convergence to a commercial, homogeneous mono-culture.

They argue that McWorld is as destructive of democracy as its opposite, which is extremist religious fundamentalism, ultra-nationalism and separatism.

Co-operation and tolerance

Both ends of the spectrum, they say, the McWorld of globalisation and the Jihad of obscurationism, are in opposition to the mixture of co-operation and tolerance which are the hallmarks of globalism. And the two feed off each other, using the image of their opposites to gain strength.

We can see the growth of McWorld through the immense growth of American-style fast-food outlets selling non-nutritious edibles; through the impact of American films on our youth; and last, but not least, through the impact of American style global pop, much of it neutered of depth and meaning, on our youth.

Even rap, the sound of late 20th century black youth rebellion in the USA which has become sanitised, has made its sterilising inroads into our music. This has been combined with the reality-show setup radically to change the way our music evolves.

The government has called for greater reliance on local products and traditional foods. It must also look to what is happening in the cultural context. Intervention should not be in ‘trying to put the clock back’. Rather, it must be to prevent the incursion of too many commercial values, which threaten to turn us into 21st Century ‘thuppahis’ - subaltern drinkers at the cultural water fountain of globalised mono-culture.

 

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