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DateLine Sunday, 11 May 2008

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From Java with love

The book, carrying the long name, “Saga of the exiled royal Javanese unearthed “, was sent to me for review but I changed my mind for were it to be judged by the conventional norms of an evaluation of a book as accuracy of spelling and coherent phraseology, it could not fare well.

Instead I decided to let words and scenes rotate around the theme of much historical significance substantiated by recorded data aligned to State documents. Author —- Tuan Arfin Burah, a senior professional in Land Surveying and Land Economics in Sri Lanka.

First scene (not presented in book) —- two or three men strumming some musical instrument to the refrains of those dear old Sinhala songs as “Olu pipeela vila lela denawa” and “Sobhana me sandawe”.

Now and then they would playfully snatch from each other the papers on which the songs are written to refresh their minds for they are not young men whose memory is perfect. The songs were written in Sinhala. Their medium of education probably, Sinhala judging by their age(post new State language policy)..

The group sat in the porch of an estate bungalow which was our destination and what intrigued me about them were that they (I had gathered earlier) belonged to the Malay community. Perhaps they were the only males in that female-dominated group. Far into the night they kept on singing pronouncing the Sinhala words flawlessly. Back to the book.

The Javans, according to the book form a major component of these Malays. Actually the two strands themselves have welded today. Just moving about together for about 3 days can end up in friendships and once I was back, I received the above book by post from one of them tracing the advent of the Javanese political exiles from the Indonesian archipelago.

Wading through a welter of linguistic errors mostly caused by irresponsible proof reading, I reached some very significant facts revealing mostly the brazen part played by Western colonizers just packing off Asians here and there as though they were some merchandise.

The Javanese who came over belonged to political exiles of the Dutch Govt., Cape of Good Hope serving the other exile outpost. (Our own political rebels too were sent by the British to Cape of good Hope and the Island of Mauritius).

Java shares our political history to some extent. For conserving space we would forego the account given when it was a part of a large Buddhist empire to which evidence, soar in wondrous proportions the amazing structure of Borobudhur. Hindu shrines testify to the spread of Hinduism too.

After the Moslem invasions the populace turned Islamic by faith. Then as in our country the Portuguese had been the first Western power to conquer parts of it. Today Roman Catholic East Timor remains the only religion-wise and culture-wise evidence of this subjugation. They built a string of forts but according to author, Tuan A.Burah, their rule had been so abhorrent.

The Dutch succeeded them to begin a rule of 350 years but there were many political rebellions.and intrigues that the Dutch began the practice of sending ring leaders of these outside the country. These leaders were naturally princes or those connected to families of supremacy and according to the author one strand of those who came here from this archipelago belonged to this group.

As far as I could glean from the facts that sometimes are in a rather confused form, the Javanese streak is identified with this group and forms the core group that the book deals with.

The other streak comprises those who were recruited by the Dutch for service in the Dutch East India company. They are offspring of the natives of Malacca and the Chinese while the Javanese correspond to the earlier mentioned category.

Author quotes articles 12 to 21 of the terms of capitulation (of Dutch territory to the British) to testify to the fact that the Javanese carried princely titles before they took the Oath of Allegiance that stripped them of all those titles and made them on par with the other Malays.

Today all those who speak the Malay language come under the common umbrella, Malay. It isa language knit community. The author at different instances gives lists of names of these exiles as got from State documents which include familiar nomenclatures and forms of address as Nona and Machan. (They could be coincidences too).

After the Treaty of Amiens the Javanese, had been given the option of staying or going back. Some went back while a few of those who opted to stay had been sent to Hambantota to join the Malays who were already working very industriously in the salterns or Lunu levayas. An allowance that was being paid to them had been stopped forcing them to work as the other Malays.

This led to more common bonds. Author quotes Governor North’s diary that mentions a category of Malay prisoners of war who received a State allowance. The author’s progenitor could be a member of this category .

After the allowances were stopped the Javanese had taken to many avenues of employment in order to survive even taking to military service while some pioneered the opening of jungle tracts in and around Colombo. Marandhan and Hulftdorp are mentioned as such areas though it is a well-known fact that these areas burgeoned into cinnamon producing areas in the Dutch period itself.

Raja Oesman also called Cpat (mis-spelt for Capt. ?) Cinnamon who according to the book seems to have pioneered these plantations perhaps would have been a superintendent. The author however calls him king, perhaps translating the word Raja. Anyway there is high drama later related in this well-researched book.

Raja Oesman ‘s son-in-law dies suddenly leaving the widow, Sitti Afisa, a legacy of nine children and a debt of 3000 rix $ s. Seven hundred rix dollars have been spent on funeral expenses and more money on an eye cure for the widow.

All these facts and figures are given in Commission for examining of Malay claims included in military diary of governor North dated 3 rd December 1803. To make matters more catastrophic four sons die simultaneously (perhaps in combat as they were probably enlisted in military service. No one can explain an alternate way of 4 sons dying together.)

It reminded me of a Prethi Vasthuwa that narrates the tale of a prethee who carries one hungry child on her hip, another hanging on to her hands, herself starving and roaming about “carrying all the misery in the world”. Closer still was Patachara, who lost a husband, all her children and her parents in one day. Today of course she queens over our Vesak pandals running to Buddha near naked and mad in her grief.

Javanese, Malay, Sinhala, Tamil, Indian, European —— The terms are there but the universality creeps in as in the case of the suffering female. The three singers up in that bungalow off Kuruwita knew it as they sang with gusto the favourite songs of the land their ancestors chose to stay back and which they now consider as their own land. Any plans to ask for a homeland of their own, I remember asking. What homeland? Whole of Lanka is our homeland, was the answer. I sensed that they would opt never to leave it.


A timely handbook on home gardening

At a time when a grave food crisis is threatening the world with the spiraling cost of food grains and other agricultural produce, Sri Lanka will have to improve cultivation of food crops as a priority task. This requires a colossal effort. It could no longer be considered a task of the rural farmer or the modern agricultural enterprises alone. It needs a national effort with the participation of the entire population.

The world food crisis is exacerbated by several other factors that are contemporaneous such as the oil crisis and climate change. Added to this are problems of the local market manipulation, weak infrastructure and food preservation facilities.

In this context the publication of Gevatu Vagaawe Vidyaatmaka Padanama (Scientific basis of Home Gardening) by an agricultural expert, former Deputy Director of Agriculture, former Principal of Sri Lanka College of Agriculture and lecturer in the Rajarata University K.L Jayatissa is most timely and welcome.

He not only shows that home gardening could be practiced with equal profitability both in the city and village but also gives practical guidelines of how to do it. His years of experience as an agricultural scientist and his own research into home gardening in Sri Lanka has enabled him to blend traditional home gardening practices with modern knowledge and technology.

The book is written in lucid Sinhala with illustrations. The subject matter is analysed systematically and comprehensively. He has not only outlined the different types of home gardens in different geographical climatic zones of the country but also explained their utility.

Home gardening has multiple benefits including the supply of nutritious vegetables and fruits that go towards the composition of a balanced diet and a healthy life, additional revenue for the family, cheap sources of biomass and supply of indigenous medicinal herbs etc. among others.

The book is a reliable guide for home garden planning and optimum use of physical and human resources including soil and labour, water management, crop adaptability, rational use of land, use of different types of fertilizers, production of compost and bio-gas etc. There is also valuable information on crop management including pest and weed control and crop rotation. The reader is also introduced to modern methods of home gardening like protected- culture and hydroponics.

What makes Jayatissa’s book interesting is his use of traditional knowledge to perfect a system of home gardening to be popularized in the country. In fact, this was a challenge he had to face as a young scientist when entrusted with the task of training instructors for home garden cultivation for which no text books were available.

As he says in the introduction the original basis upon which he accumulated the knowledge that is condensed in this book came from recollecting how his uncle maintained the small plot of land at home in a remote village of Matara district. It is a book that could be confidently recommended for anyone interested in the subject. It will be of equal use to college students, undergraduates and the general public.


The last rites

A discussion on the decline of art at the Punchi Theatre:

Art lay on the floor of the Punchi Theatre, on April 3, gasping for breath while a handful of artists and intellectuals searched desperately for the vital signs, hoping a revival could yet be achieved.

Instigated by veteran artist Wasantha Kumara the topic under discussion was termed “The Decline of Art”; a belief he reinforced in his opening speech by nostalgically recalling the glorious past when art was at its prime.

Almost everybody present agreed art has declined. Only Yours Truly and Prof. Carlo Fonseka refused to toe the line. Were there not good plays like Madyavediyakuge Asipatha, good books like Professor Guruge’s Andrew George good works of art that are produced today which are miles better than the work done in the past? Could it be that everyone sees only the negative side of everything that takes place today?

There may be nothing to watch on tv that might be intellectually stimulating but it caters to the masses and if it makes them happy its wrong to say we must change it. If we do we will be like Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984.

There would surely have been not-so-good things going as art in the glorious 1960s too. But looking back we remember only the good ones and because the bad ones fell by the roadside as time passed we think everything that was done in the past was good. As time goes by all these bad works of art that we are talking about today will be forgotten and only the good ones will remain.

Who would disagree that in 30 years intellectuals will say look at “2007-2008.

Great works like Madyawediyakuge was produced at the time. Why can’t art go back to that era again?”

Nothing is wrong with today’s art. Its wrong to use the past as a yardstick and say today’s art has declined!

Here is how Namel Weeramuni has responded to this staunch belief of mine.

I am most thankful for your resourcefully interesting argument. I agree in what you say. Yet I am not certain that volume and degree of deep art takes place today, save may be in the field of literature confined to novels, short stories and poetry. They are individualistic arts and I agree the creativity and the intellectual stimulus that you refer are higher in a degree and volume in those individualistic arts.

Nevertheless why is it that the many do not read such literature as we experienced and are on record, like in the past. Is it because that people today do not have the time and leisure to read books, which are good?

I think this is because that no public discussions or talks about them take place, and the average person floats on these popular waves (ralla) because they are unable to distinguish the good from the bad. The ones who have an idea on these distinctions can educate the public.

This is what is required. Arts have declined because such education is not given. Thirty years back when we travelled in public transport, when we read newspapers, when we read intellectually stimulating magazines, when we listened to the radio we got that education. Today people are not interested in such education because I believe that the resources are vulgarized and corrupted.

I say art is a “vulgar baby disguised” as popular culture with the many. I am not saying it is wrong for us to change what the masses like, what I advocate is to make them realize that there is a difference. If that happens there will be responsibility, punctuality, care for the others, etc etc, which does good for the whole community.

Take Madyavediyakuge Asipatha. Hardly any Sinhala paper or any television channel was interested about discussing its merits or demerits. This was not the case in the past.

That is why the so-called good ones remain. There are witnesses to say they are good. In thirty years hence, every thing that happened in the present may be valued as rubbish altogether or it could be vice versa.

So what happens to the good ones that went unnoticed for lack of patronage?

In short, art is like the ‘core’ of love. I quote, from a passage in Milan Kundera’s novel “Life is Elsewhere”. “In the past, love ——even the greatest love —— was a kind of escape from social life which was distasteful. But the love of today’s man is closely connected with our social duties, our work, our struggle for unity. And that’s where its new beauty lies.”

The other says, “That kind of beauty, my dear friend, is not new at all. Didn’t the great writers of the past connect love with social struggle? The lovers in Shelley’s famous poem were both revolutionaries who died a common death at the stake. Is that what you mean by love isolated from social life?” (pp 234-5)

I believe that the “core of love” remains forever. “This love is not the ideally epitomized love of Romeo and Juliet. But the love for humanity. Thus, “core of art” should be eternal though it changes from epoch to epoch”.

He concludes with this apt quote from a play of Griselda Gambaro “Art is all that deserves to last - lofty sentiments, things and beings coming to life..........order. In a word: so the trees can keep growing and putting forth new leaves, so the earth does not become a desolate wasteland”

The next meeting will be held on June 14th at 4pm at the Punchi Theatre. Catch you there.

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