Piyadasa Sirisena and his impact on the public sphere | Daily News

Piyadasa Sirisena and his impact on the public sphere

This narrative on Piyadasa Sirisena and his role in the public sphere in the early decades of the 20th Century is in remembrance of his 143rd birth anniversary. Mr. Sirisena was born on August 31, 1815.

But before we proceed further it is important to define the public sphere so that it will hopefully add clarity to this article.

The public sphere as a key component of general life emerged into limelight in the 17th and 18th Centuries in Europe.

It was seen as a social development which was connected to influencing the mindset of people.

It was additionally considered a part of the democratic process that first evolved itself during the same time – more especially the right to discuss matters pertaining to life.

The public sphere and the world of letters

According to Professor Wimal Dissanayake, an eminent critic on films and literature, the world of letters made its mark within the public sphere, as society progressed itself adding yet another dimension to the discourse. It was however made more complex by secular thought, religion and the march of civilization.

It is important to remember that this country was a colonial state for more than four centuries.

The impact of colonialism on the social fabric, the cultural values, the economy and the plight of people under colonial rule, should be an essential part of this discussion.

Colonialism – its strains

According to the noted Indian Social Analyst Ashis Nandy, colonialism had two strains. One strain impacted on the land colonized as a result of the exploitation of such land, and the other had a harmful effect on the minds of people or in other words by the colonization of the mind.

It was in particular the second strain that led to the emergence of one of the most influential cultural revivalists of the early 20th Century, Piyadasa Sirisena.

It was he who reshaped the mindset of the fallen Sinhala race in that divisive social climate imposed by alien rule.

Certainly it was a force of change as pointed out by the likes of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. The public sphere is a domain of social life, where such things as public opinion can be formed where citizens deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion, to express or publicise their views. Despite the controls on other aspects of life through governance enforced by the British, they did not (except in 1915) curb publications and meetings conducted by people.

As in Europe, Ceylon too the newspapers and magazines played a particularly important role in the revivalist activities of the people at the helm of public life.

In a previous article on this subject the writer referred to a book published by Ven. Kalukodiyawe Panasekere Thera titled the history of newspapers and magazines in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries which period could rightly be called the period of enlightenment. That era saw an unprecedented rise in the print media in this island.

The novel and the Sinhala public sphere

Piyadasa Sirisena is called the father of the Sinhala novel. He is credited with having published the first Sinhala novel “Vasanawanthe Vivahaya” or “Jayatissa and Rossalyn” in 1904. It became exceedingly popular fiction and ran into four quick reprints during those early years.

Modern day critics like the eminent Professor Sunanda Mahendra who considers Piyadasa Sirisena a great visionary of the 20th Century has written extensively on Sirisena’s novels which awakened the dormant Sinhalese of the last Century. In other words Sirisena was a powerful agent of change.

Sirisena who authored 19 novels in a life of vigorous literary activity that lasted 38 years is also considered the pioneer in writing novels of advocacy.

Besides the above he is credited with being the first to venture into social inquiry.

Perhaps the most lucid definition of social inquiry has been made by Professor Sarathchandra Wickramasuriya in an article published in 1986 in a book on Sinhala Literature and the work of Piyadasa Sirisena.

This novelist had gone deeply into the society prevalent at that time, the various strata of society, their lives and their foibles notes Wickramasuriya.

Sinhala Jatiya newspaper

Besides the Sinhala Novel, in a few other areas covering the public sphere, Sirisena made a noteworthy contribution. One was through the newspaper he published the ‘Sinhala Jatiye’ which was a popular source of discourse and extolled this country’s rich cultural past. It was also an active organ of anti-colonial struggles.

The Sinhala Jatiya also reported on the Indian freedom movement and the struggle against the British spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru whom Sirisena admired.

Temperance movement

Sirisena was opposed to the British liquor policy of that time and he joined the temperance movement interacting with its leaders who utilized his newspaper and his oratorical skills at the temperance meetings in various parts of the country.

According to Professor Wiswa Warnapala, Anagarika Dharmapala and Piyadasa Sirisena, the two principal national revivalists of that era paved the way for political reformation in the 1930s.

History of that period also shows that Sirisena was associated in creating the Sinhala Maha Saba.

Piyadasa Sirisena’s contribution to the restoration of national self respect if not pride and our age old cultural values through his extensive public sphere activity, should be afforded more recognition in the annuals of history of the country of early 20th Century.

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