|Wednesday, 21 July 2004|
Tradition and the poet
by Eva Ranaweera
In this article I am examining tradition as related to literature especially to Sinhala poetry. Examination of tradition is for the purpose of viewing Monica Ruwanpathirane's poetry all of which is written in the Sinhala language. My examination of tradition therefore will be limited to Sinhala poetry as relevant to the subject under discussion.
The primary meaning of tradition is something handed down from generation to generation, all the time incorporating new elements and widening the meaning.
It keeps on growing as part of a living society, always coming from the past. It is found in beliefs, practices, customs, manners, languages etc. Certain laws, habits, religions, practices and concepts are handed down and enter the body of tradition of a people acting as a disciplinary guide as well as a system and a measurement of evaluation.
Tradition involves factors like how a group or community lives, what type of body covering it uses selects, its shelter, cooking, eating, child upbringing, education, intellectual pursuits and culture.
These ways that are followed in time become rigid methods to follow and the patriarch of the group or even the head of the family takes charge of the observation and adherence to these customs and habits which are identified as traditional methods and rules.
Eventually this affects women and the way they are treated leaving less freedom for females and activities like cooking, child rearing, domesticity becoming traditional areas of operation for her and intellectual pursuits, economic needs, responsibility and defence for him.
I am concentrating on literary tradition which also bears a gender discrimination as all other things do in a patriarchal society. The general acceptance and concept is, a poet is a man, a sensitive man who observed the development of his community and its surroundings and is capable of doing so. This gives rise to the question of credibility which he acquires in the male dominated world of the critique.
There is a Shakespeare, a Socretes, Aristotle, Kalidasa but no woman has arisen or got recorded to match this male performance. In India there was the wondering, inspired poet Awaiyar. There are of course goddesses and myths around perfect women, perfect to be a mother and a wife.
On and off we read of women writers of exceptional quality like Elizabet Barret Browning, George Sand, George Eliot, Bronte Sisters but the constraints they faced were such that they could not even speak out in their own names. They chose to be known as men because they were appearing in a field restricted to them if not silently banned.
On this I quote Elaine Showalter... "the women novelists were both fearful and defiant of the critics, they expected a certain amount of division and hostility, they took precaution against personal attack if they could; but they had a keen sense of professional and artistic responsibilities and where these were involved they would not make concessions or ask for favours" .. . "a critic writing of Harriet Maratineau said "we might forgive her intolerance for it is a lady like failing" note the adjective for failing. It had to be lady like this intolerance. It continued "but she will not accept of no allowance on account of sex".
With tradition women inherited constrains and discrimination and since the critics were men there was an obvious slowness in recognition of the female writer. To be a writer of credibility was a distinction difficult to attain for a woman.
Just as the women writers of England and France faced unacceptability and slander so did our women poets, the more known among them being from the Matara period, particularly the foremost woman writer Gajaman Nona who was treated as a sensational sex symbol and remembered more for a rebellious lifestyle rather than for her beautiful poetry, some of which are appreciated today as outstanding landmarks in literature.
Her available poems are of the highest order in creativity and intellectual achievement. She reveals a remarkable knowledge in traditional poetic technique but from traditional themes she went on to record her own observations of a Nuga Tree, the Death of her father killed by an elephant etc. with imagination and creativity.
We could assume that these works dominated the learning process as well as the creative activities even up to modern times as we see in the case of Monica Ruwanpathirane.
The Gee poems were based on Jataka Stories and were following the method of Mahakavya, although they did not reach that standard except for Kavisilumina which partially met the Mahakavya technicalities in composition although it stood out as an unparalleled achievement of earliest poetry.
The rhythm and meter used in the three poems had sprung from the folk and oral tradition just as the inscribed lines on the Mirror Wall of the Sigiriya Graffiti did (Gunadasa Amarasekera).
The erudite literary tradition influenced by Sanskrit and Pali techniques and the folk tradition mostly oral continued to exist side by side enriching each other and bridging the gap between the scholars and the folk art.
Kavisilumina in its composition and accomplishment drew attention to its poetic imagery and vision. Oft quoted is its very first verse
Thama varadasa nodas - ne merama dos disne
A person cannot perceive his own faults in the smallest quantity but sees the faults of others. The eye sees everything around it but why cannot it see itself?
Till about the 7th century AD chula and maha divisions in culture existed in society (Senarath Paranavitarane and Martin Wickramasinghe) and later on merged successfully to give a highly satisfactory literary milieu.
Thus Buduguna Alankaraya, Kavyasekaraya, Guttilaya, Loveda Sangarava and Lokopakaraya became a people's literature easy to understand using a simple living language intent on communication rather than erudition.
The oral tradition meanwhile ushered in a new element to poetry, the importance of sound resulting in varied rhythms and meter necessary for reciting or singing. The four lined folk songs which convey every day incidents, songs at work, in the field, driving the cart, sailing by pada boat down the river or lullabys putting a child to sleep, were called seepada or the four lined ones.
They were associated with long arduous labour work which incooperated out of necessity Shabda Dvani to keep the workers awake at night minding the fields and cultivation plots.
Their rhythm was closer to life and its activities and related to the environment; from this a written tradition of lovely recitable poetry arose identified as Hella - Gana devi Hella, Saddantha Hella, Vessantara Hella, Alaw Hella, Dahamsonda Hella etc.
They were ballads with end rhymes. Similarly there were the Hatana poems, Kathava Padmawathi Kathawa, Belasantha Kathava, Sokari Kathava, Kapiri poems Kathawa, Muthu Kumari Kathawa and Sinnamuttu Kathava etc.
Asna poems and Hella poems of which Pattini Hella is very popular even today were sung by the Kiriammas at danas. Some of these Seepada were lengthened to tell a story which to this day village people sing, the night long keeping watch at funeral houses.
The common properties of the Seepada were the four lined verses with end rhymes and internal rhymes, the content was mostly in under statements, dealing with beautiful goddesses, princesses and valiant heroic princes or strong man heroes.
Besides erudite poets who were influenced by Pali and Sanskrit traditions there were other groups of poets who felt the necessity for a different path like Vetteve, Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula and Wilgammulla.
The base for these creations were still the folk idiom and the simple style of flowing lines with end rhymes. All these three poets left us brilliant works popular even today. Wettawe Thera is best remembered for Guttila Kavya. It is refined, simple but austere.
Many of these poets were Buddhist monks. Totagamuwe Sri Rahula's Salalihini Sandesaya was known at school and at scholarship level. Vilgammula Thera was the first to seek an identity for his works and come out with Sandakinduruda Kava mixing the erudite style of the Gee Kavi with the simple folk idiom. At some stage the writers felt the Gee form and its technique were not elastic to record day to day activities and its accompanying joys and sorrows.
The folk idiom though elastic was not suitable for the use of monks. With the Sandesa Kaveyas and the invasion of lay people into the group of writers the content as well as form expanded. The Colombo poets brought the simple messages into the cramped prison of Eliveta or the end rhymes.
Romance and sensation were the guide lines for the Virudukaraya. Classical works of the Gee peots, the simplicity and refinement of Vetteve, Sri Rahula etc and the breaking of the dam with the Colombo poets left a field that had to be built up. This to me seems the traditions Monica inherited.
She had early forms like the Gee Era, living forms like Colombo poets and a bewilderment of unidentified forms simple but not erudite. A small group of writers like Gunadasa Amerasekera, G. B. Senanayake, Wimal Dissanayake, Amunugama and experimental Kumaratunga and the Hela school were path finding looking for possible revivals.
They were all males and to the critic their discoveries would be easily "great". Monica was a woman, she came from the erudite and shunned university by the Sinhala medium and the Colombo poets and her first appearance in book form was to issue a book of love poems in simple language with a new outlook. Look at the first poem Udanaya in Api denna saha thavath keepa denek
Hama Suvanda paspiyum pipenneya
It is four lined and therefore do I call it Seepada? It has alliteration and is it another step to confirm it is Seepada? Its language is simple, whatever it be it is the wealth she has inherited and she in all her works beginning from this onwards reveals how deeply rooted she is to the culture and specially to the poetic tradition of this land. Looking at this work no one can deny its creativity and the tradition from which it springs.
The poem can be translated:
Five types of lotus bloom blowing sweet fragrance
These poems in their own context with allusions to classical symbols do support the poetic message. They lose much of meaning in translation. Not only the meaning the connotative build up is not fully present in my translation. In Monica's hands the old traditional forms are revived for a new purpose. From youthful love she arrives at the next step marriage and beginning of daily routined life.
Ma pedakunu nokota
Instead of worshipping me and fencing the house, according to custom it is better to set out for your work.
We recall a similar instance in the Jataka Story where Jutaka fenced in his young wife before setting out to get a servant for her.
In Peedava the poet is tortured by memory and she struggles to shut out what cannot be endured.
Vera veeriya yagadaven thala pela bima heluvath
In Kampanaya once again she is tortured by memory revived by a visit from a friend:
Boho kalakata pasuva pemini oba
You who have come after a long absence and placed round my neck strands of memory and on my shoulders a bundled up heap of the past.
Normally a necklace is placed round the neck of a young woman by her lover. Here the visitor places strands of memory carrying bundled up heaps of the past. Connotations of the customary marriage ceremony is used to work out a new situation.
All these poems are from the 1st publication "Api denna saha thavath keepadenek" We can see how closely tied they are to tradition and in Monica's hands they strengthen her thoughts and provide a structural back ground. In the poem Gurusitha noridava.
They establish a closeness to the traditions traceable in Sri Rahula, Vettave and Vilgammulla. To quote an example from Kaveyasekera by Sri Rahula:
Piya bamunu sedava
The rhythm, the meter and the simplicity accompanied by the flowing Sinhala words from line to line reveal how advantageously Monica has used her heritage of ancient versification.
Monica has released six books of poetry: Api denna saha thavath keepa denek, Thahanam deshayakin, Angulimalage sihinaya, Obe yeheliya eya geheniya, Visivasaka sheshapatraya, Asan paththini devathawi and Childrens literature (4 books).
Last month she released another book of poems Siripa Kavi very close to traditional verses glorifying Sri Pada.
To get back to her second book Obe yeheliya eya geheniya - Monica in her preface says these poems differ in technique and content from my earlier work. In the lines:
Degurun bela mehevala niyalenne
From the Hella rhythm she moves onto short staccato lines describing the pavement hawker who has disappeared leaving a wife and child.
Pata pata valalu regene
Next step is entirely different in rhythm and meter calling for a different type of attention to a violently visible problem even today - the disappearance of people.
Valalu velendage duva kiyu puvathin kampavunu
Now the rhythm is more recitative and chanting, the ending is a request for a more powerful (weapon) thing than a paint brush etc.
From poetic rhythm measured meter she shifts onto chanting and this shift change reveals the urgency of the message:
Sakuntala bisava eda thama puthu gena kiyaminne
She is back to the rhythm of the Hella (Paththini etc) and is successfully presenting an injustice for justice - just as Paththini did.
From here I will jump onto Asan Paththini Devathavi which stands as the core of reference for justice and pleadings and in this particular case, for good health. In the preface she declares "I have tried to see how a modern woman living amidst today's social conflicts would look at goddess Pattini"
"I have used a variety of rhythms and meters present in traditional Sinhala poetry". In rhyming couplets with internal rhyme to enhance the resonance of the appropriately selected words the request is made to goddess Pattini:
Velanda pole kade pile themansale avanhale
In the first couplet L (la) is used very effectively at the end of the words without disturbing meaning and content. In the quoted second couplet it is the consonantal end that emphasises the rhythm.
The third couplet follows suit with 'N' consonant used in end words.
Sirasa mudun sarasavamin varna plastic kusumin
The couplets are rich in sound effect and clearly exhibit her multi-pronged approach to the request of long life. They also hark back to similar sounds used in traditional songs like in Maname.
Giya veddo - noma viddo
Repetition of 'do' in Maname' is a traditional use of the alliterative binding of content with sound.
In Patini Puja we come across pleading with the goddess for favours in similar circumstances as in Monica Ruwanpathirane's Asan Paththini -
Dukin mema devinduta ayadinne
Lamentations are a part of Mahakavya. Also aspirations and pleadings to gods and goddesses. They build heroes and heroines. Monica in her pleadings and aspirations seek the help of goddess Pattini to serve the people and the country.
In Asan Paththini Devathavi I find her closeness to tradition in many cantos. This is achieved not only in rhyme, rhythm, and meter. The closeness to archaic language illumine her poems.
Mathaka maga dige himi ha saranniya
Request for blessings from goddess Pattini are a part of cultural habits and rituals that prevail to this day. Monica's attempt to keep it alive in Asan Paththini takes us on a long voyage into the past linking with ancestral habits which kept the people contented in mind and prosperous in domestic life.
In Pattini Deva Puja:
Paththini Deviyani dives helannai
Gee kavi gaya e daru kala kalavanta
Love puthun boho etha
Her lullaby throws up conditions prevailing today:
Etha desaka vesena piya
With the bit of rural life Monica takes us not backwards but forward as ancient is brought to the modern:
Komadu made rath pehe kopulen sedune
Monica was conscious even in her pleadings with a goddess of gender disparities women face:
Kava pova daru sathapa langin hinda
Sunk in her domesticity and unrecognized chores woman has a moment's respite in remembering her perished childhood which is only a dream now. She continues:
Bolanda lama sithiville saranniye
These lines indicate and lead to her own pleadings with the goddess and her lamentations which gradually are shaken in trust as she questions:
E mehevara nimavana thuru
Thahanam Deshayakin contains a variety of 84 poems and was first published in 1972. It was reprinted in 1998.
The book is the second publication mentioned and it linked content - wise to the first book which is Api denna saha thavath keepa denek. Her mood is still visibly mournful and the rhythm keeps pace with her mood.
Obe adarayata hada loba bandimina
The end rhymes alliterations and long meters are abandoned to give way to a grief which makes her not more than a grain of sand worthless in itself and minute in comparison to the mountain.
The translation of the above verse roughly would run thus:
My heart with greed for your love
looks only at the distance of a cart's
pole; (in front of cart for tying the bull)
(I am) like a grain of sand at the bottom
of a hill and I realise my minuteness
I will translate the short poem called Thahanam Deshayakin since the book is titled as such
Obata urumavu lova thula
you are surrounded by courtiers in the world you have inherited.
She uses a different meter and rhythm and is more sure of her worth. There is hidden sarcasm and a realization of the truth. She has used technicalities to convey a message as she emerges a person of self assurance.
And she pours scorn in Oba saha mama:
Jeevithaye akasa thalaye
This short verse is the drum that heralds a different future and the beginning of an awakening from personal grief to important social awareness.
In the sky of my life
I think the meaning is clear and I need not harp on the awakening voiced poignantly and sarcastically.
I have taken you on a voyage of discovery to bring to the notice of those who did not know the works of Monica. I have shown how tradition enriches and identifies a creative work and accentuates its unique qualities which in Monica's works few can challenge or surpass.
Monica's strong base from which she begins to write has made her a poet of unquestionable merit and credibility. She rises from this base as the wondering poet of undying merit Anweiyar did in ancient times; and I pay an enduring tribute in recognition of Monica Ruwanpathirane's remarkable skill and creativity planted in the rich soil of tradition of her native land.
(Edited version of a paper read at the 8th national convention on Women's studies)
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