Sri Lanka in the early 20th century | Sunday Observer
Locating Garrett Field’s work

Sri Lanka in the early 20th century

9 April, 2023

There are many things that can be said, and written, about Sinhala music in the 20th century, and Garrett Field says it all in “Modernizing Composition: Sinhala Song, Poetry, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Sri Lanka.”

Field is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology/Musicology at the University of Ohio, and his book, published in 2017 and available free online, charts the many cultural, artistic, and social changes which swept through British Ceylon and shaped the country’s musical landscape from the 1910s. It is at once comprehensive, succinct, well-researched, and has only one major limitation, that it ends at a point which compels a sequel, a follow-up.

To say that is not to deny the immense breadth and sweep of the book. “Modernizing Composition” gives every indication of being written by someone who has lived and breathed Sinhala music, in all its forms, from folk to classical. The book makes the significant point that there is no essential rift, or gap, between poetry and song in the Sinhala tradition.

But as Field notes early on, more often than not music criticism in Sri Lanka turns out to be a mere analysis of the lyrics and the words, with little to no effort made to locate those words in their larger aesthetic, literary, poetic contexts. Field cites on exception, Sunil Ariyaratne, emphasising that he is exactly that, an exception.

Garrett Field

I am not sufficiently versed in the aesthetics of early Sinhala music to appreciate or analyse it, still less locate it in the country’s social landscape. As such this is not a recapitulation of Field’s points, something that a more qualified reviewer should engage in. I will note, however, that his analysis focuses on a rather intriguing period in the country’s colonial history.

Early 20th century British Ceylon did not differ substantively from 19th century British Ceylon, but there were quite a few differences: in particular, the growth of an assertive Sinhala Buddhist middle-class, helped in large part by the Buddhist Revival in the latter part of the preceding century. The Revival, as the book implies and suggests, helped spur a cultural renaissance, which found its fullest expression in the plays and musicals of John de Silva and C. Don Bastian.

Cultural expression

One must recognise the achievements, as well as the limitations, of these art forms, and put them in proper perspective, or in the context of their time. It would be ludicrous to view de Silva’s plays as anything other than the cultural expression of a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, particularly because, while openly flouting colonial rule, they were influenced, shaped, and patronised by many foreign economic interests, including Indian musicians and composers.

Indeed, as Field aptly notes in his book, many of de Silva’s plays were actively sponsored by non-Buddhists, specifically by Christians, a remarkable thing given popular Sinhala nationalist antipathy to Christianity, which was frequently, and not unjustifiably, linked to colonial rule. At the same time, these plays and songs were not above reinforcing colonial narratives of Sri Lankan history: in Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, for instance, which bemoans the loss of Kandyan suzerainty to British rule, it is the Nayakkars, not the sections of the Sinhala nobility who betrayed them, who are depicted as “bad.”

Surveying this period, Kumari Jayawardena has correctly suggested that, despite their stridently anti-imperialist tone, these works were only marginally censored by the British government. This is not as paradoxical as it may seem. The truth is that while John de Silva’s plays served a large purpose for Sinhala nationalists, Sinhala nationalists were themselves not powerful enough to challenge the colonial order.

Hemmed in by one economic restriction after another, they were forced to depend on the same colonial setup they flouted and challenged in these plays. In other words, these works served a surrogate function: they became the main, if not only, vehicle through which the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, mainly traders, could express their opposition to colonialism.

The Buddhist Revival itself radically altered the trajectory of Sinhala anti-colonialism. As the likes of Gananath Obeyesekere have pointed out, the Revival essentially made Buddhism more palatable to a new generation of urban, suburban Buddhists. Shorn of its popular, populist accretions, including the pantheon of folk tales and parables, this new Buddhism held an appeal for a nascent Sinhala petty bourgeoisie. Its worldview was broadly Protestant, reliant on individual salvation – a worldview that even Anagarika Dharmapala enunciated.

Plantation colonialism

In its early years in India, Buddhism served the interests of merchants and traders, based in the city. When transplanted to Sri Lanka, it found sustenance and replenishment in the village. British colonialism effectively crippled the Sinhala peasantry, turning Sri Lanka into an entrepot for plantation colonialism. Together with the Revival, this led to a pivotal shift in the 19th century, essentially urbanising, or “modernising”, Buddhism.

It is somewhat imprudent to call these developments progressive or truly anti-imperialist. The fact of the matter was that despite its avowed cultural opposition to colonialism, none of the patrons or proponents of these movements or ideologies imagined a Ceylon falling outside the British orbit. The Sinhala nationalists of the early 20th century did not totally reject British colonial rule, but rather sought a bigger space for Sinhala Buddhists: a point that emerges clearly from the many despatches, and letters, penned by them to the British government.

It is true that the colonial government in Ceylon saw these ideologues as troublemakers and deemed it fit to arrest them. But by and large, if one meticulously assesses their motives, one would be compelled to conclude that their interest was less in toppling British rule than in ensuring a bigger place for their people, within colonial rule. Total, strident opposition to British rule emerged only later, with the rise of the Marxist Left.

Field’s work does not, to be sure, delve into all these historical aspects. This is hardly a limitation on his part: the book admirably focuses on how these developments influenced the trajectory of Sinhala music, and how, following independence, a new generation of aesthetes actively went back to the past in a bid to breathe new life into the country’s folk tradition.

Yet there is no doubt at all that this could only have come about because of certain important social and economic changes which had made themselves felt in the early part of the century. A much more broad and comprehensive survey of that period is hence needed, if one is to do proper justice to Field’s research.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].