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Assembly quietly rescinded the legislation.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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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