Impressions on the sand of time
An indelible mark on culture:
Prof. Ashley Halpe
Prof. Ashley Halpe became a Professor of English at the tender age of
31 thus becoming the youngest professor in the country. He is currently
the most senior Professor of English, and can fittingly be described as
the doyen of English Education in Sri Lanka.
Professor Halpe’s contribution to the corpus of work is substantial
and of lasting value. He served in academia holding many positions
including those of Dean, Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya,
Head of the Department of English for over twenty-five years and
concurrent Head of Fine Arts for several years and as visiting professor
in numerous foreign universities.
He has authored a substantial body of books, including creative
works, and academic papers besides translations of Sinhalese works into
English and has directed over a dozen theatre productions.
Q. Why do you think Sri Lankan Literature both in Sinhala and
English is increasingly becoming one-dimensional and imprisoned within
the context of an island mentality and little known beyond our
shoreline? Some have observed that Sri Lankan writers’ confining
themselves to anecdotal writing have contributed to this imperfection.
A: Well, I do not think it has been becoming increasingly one
dimensional. Writing today actually reaches in many different
directions. For instance, there is Tissa Abeysekera’s writing in his
three-part novel in English, In my Kingdom of the Sun, and poetry such
as that of ‘Rajan Perera’, Lakdasa Wickramasingha and Richard de Zoyza
where there is exploration of varied experiences and forms of language.
There is Carl Muller’s melding of several registers of the English
used in this country to match the range of experience he covers in his
works, as in The Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka, Colombo and The Children
of the Lion, and the lively exploration of theatrical idiom by several
writers from Ernest MacIntyre to Ruwanthi de Chickera.
In Sinhala, you get writings such as the experiments with language of
Ajith Tilakasena, Eva Ranaweera and Simon Nawagaththegama in
Dadayakkaraya, the poetry of Parakrama Kodituwakku, Buddhadasa
Galappathy - a list would be lengthy.
So you find there is the opening out. And an opening out did take
place in its own way in the older literature of Martin Wickramasinghe,
Siri Gunasinghe and Gunadasa Amerasekara in Sinhala or R.L. Spittel,
S.J.K. Crowther et al in English. They made a very big input exploring
Lankan experience certainly. But now people are certainly moving the
I would also say looking at those very writers that there isn’t a
confinement to anecdote. There is, sometimes, experimental exploration
even of experience and while granting you there is a lot of anecdotal
writing, a lot of narrative, that’s true of the broad spectrum of
Q. How do you think Sri Lankan writers could cross National,
Geographical, Cultural and Linguistic boundaries?
Answer: I wouldn’t make a programme of it or make any
prescription. Because I think that it is something that happens
according to the sensibility of the writer and his experiences. I have
implied in my last answer that crossing occurs.
It happens inevitably as in the story Three Cities by Sumathi
Sivamohan where a diasporic character, the protagonist, goes from Jaffna
to Colombo and then to Paris, where crossing occurs as a result of
“ethnic” trauma. Then you get the effect on our writers of diasporic
experience for other reasons.
There are people who have just gone for academic reasons or found
more space for writing in foreign environments. Writers like Yasmine
Gooneratne, who has now come back, Chitra Fernando, Chandani Lokuge, and
Ernest MacIntyre in Australia and across on the other side of the world,
people like Romesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. Michael Ondaatje was
born in Sri Lanka but says he found himself as a writer in Canada.
His first well-known novel In the Skin of a Lion, was set in Toronto.
He comes back to Sri Lanka though in Anil’s Ghost and The Cinnamon
Peeler (poetry); In Divisadero he goes out again. There is the “Sun Man”
in exile, Rienzie Crusz ... our expats have an important place in the
So there is no rigid limit that binds the writer. Some writers cross
limits by exploring the other areas of consciousness which would not be
limited by local and cultural boundaries. It is wide open.
Q. How can Sri Lankan writers in English in general and
especially the Diasporic writers, in particular, use the English
language to textualise a discrete Sri Lankan sensibility?
A: This is something which bugs me a lot. What is a
distinctively ‘Lankan’ sensibility? For that matter do we judge Lawrence
by distinctively ‘English’ experience? I think what happens is that the
sensibility that gets expressed can have a distinctive ‘Lankanness’ or
‘Londonness’ or whatever.
That is simply the part of the nature of personality and therefore of
expression. There are times when language is modified by the writer’s
own roots in local language or local cultural experiences such as in
Tissa Abeysekera’s In My Kingdom.
You find in Jean Arsanayagam, Lakdasa Wickramasingha and even in the
older Patrick Fernando moments where the writer uses something that’s
right out of the Sri Lankan world.
For instance, one image in Patrick Fernando comes from the kitchen:
“The sky cracked like a shell again and the rain poured through” which
exactly echoes the splitting of a coconut. And then Lakdasa speaks of a
“behind shed” (Pitipasse or Pilikanne Maduwa). So it just happenes
according to the possibilities of situation and you find a variety of
Q. From the colonial era to the present, how do you perceive
the changes that have been taken place in Sri Lankan Literature in
English? Do Sri Lankan writers devise a unique language and an idiom
that is capable of expressing authentic Sri Lankan experience although
English has been and is used by less than 3% of the Sri Lankan
A: It is now quite well known that in the early colonial
period Sri Lankan writers were strongly influenced by and sought to
imitate English models. This is particularly true of writers in English
who wrote verse which resembled Victorian ‘Album Verse’ in English and
of sentimental or didactic novels in Sinhala.
Then there was a significant change with an increasing sense for the
circumambient reality and that comes into for instance, writings by R.L.
Spittel and Lucien de Zilwa. Thus Spittel brought the world of the
Veddhas into English Literature.
Just as George Keyt adventured into modernism in art, he also made
contact with French writing and was influenced by symbolistic writing
while fusing with the idiom of Tagore in his three volumes of poetry
published in the 1930s.
Ten years earlier, S.J.K Crowther, wrote a satiric novel, The Knight
Errant on the vicissitudes of a young man who rises through the social
classes. H.E Weerasuriya, another person who looked at what was
happening to the middle class, wrote The Trousered Harijan.
Well, that was the beginning of the change to a greater sense of the
reality. This really became dramatic with the encountering of social
drama which was vivid in the writing of Lakdasa Wickremasinghe in the
1960s and early 70s and then in writing that was in response to the 1971
At that stage Sri Lankan writing seems to come of age and confronts
In fiction, this is reflected in Sarachchandra’s transcreation of his
Heta Echchara Kaluwara n’ as Curfew and Full Moon. I think that from
that point on, our writings have been in constant encounter with the
current and reflect current reality and current issues. That continues
to broaden the scope of Sri Lankan writing.
Q. Does this find expression in your own creative work?
A: Definitely. After the April 1971 insurgency I was struck
dumb and then wrote The Dream which was the first of a series of poems
on that event. To quote a brief example: ...Young bodies tangled in
monsoon scrub or rotting in river shallows, awaiting the kind impartial
fish, and those not dead - numb, splotched faces, souls ravaged by all
their miseries and defeats In another poem titled Memoranda of July I
revisited ‘Black July; ... About sacks on shoulders in orangeness About
hands slipping from Bloodstained branches Welcome, torturers and
redeemers Then the Bheeshana Kalaya has evoked a long poem I call Pasan.
I quote: Imagine ahead The eyes, the eyeballs finely veined in
delicate pink over eggshell blue, in one corner, the left, a black clot
with an orange-red surround, jagged, wicked; the eyeballs out, pushed
out, globed, the pupils black black points in a brownblack circle
circled by the veined whites the blooded lids the ditchsockets parted by
half a nose above blubbery leaky lips over a most beautiful firm strong
chin above Rags and tatters A painting by the same name responds to
traumatic experiences of our country from as early as the 1950s to 1983.
Q. You have translated a number of Sinhalese writings into
English including novels and medieval Sinhala poetry such as the
Sigiriya poems. What is the role of the translator in enriching
collective experiences of a Nation and introducing hybridity, cultures,
mentalities, perceptions, processes of thinking etc. especially in the
present context of acrimonious ethnic relationships?
A: I just enjoyed it. Even as a student I enjoyed translation
exercises we worked with in the classroom. This continues in my life. I
was brought into translation by Sarachchandra inviting me to try Martin
Wickramasinghe’s Leli for an anthology and that attracted me to the
activity of translation from Sinhala. The grappling with the English
language to try to make it express the sensibility and the idiom of
Sinhalese speaking Sinhalese was a challenge that really tested me.
It also made me feel the immediacy of Sri Lankan experiences in such
writings. Sarachchandra next put me on to Martin Wickramasinghe’s
Viragaya and Martin liked it very much.
Since then I have taken to things on commission or request eg. when I
was invited by the editor of the UNESCO Volume of Modern Sri Lankan
Writings Christopher Reynolds and the committee to undertake some
stories and poems for the book and in the end I did 11 pieces in the
Then in the same period, the chance discovery of E.F.C. Ludowyk’s
comment on a Sigiri poem in his The footprint of The Buddha fired me
with enthusiasm for the Sigiriya poems. I really enjoyed the process of
translating and I went into all 700 verses published by Paranavithana in
Sigiri Graffiti. It took me years. I did not rush it and I was not under
I was doing it for myself really. In 1996 I published them as Sigiri
Poems. From thinking about my own experience in world literature through
translations, I realised that what we read, enjoyed and in fact, were
educated by, was not originally only English but translations of Greek,
Roman, French and Russian works into English.
We would not have had the cultural experience we were able to grow on
without those resources. So I realised that what the translator does is
to explore the territory for his generation and share the discovery with
others. Of course, no translation can be final and perfect.
There is a saying in Italian, tradutore tradittore meaning the
translator is a traitor. It was Oscar Wilde who quipped that a
translation is like a woman: either beautiful or faithful. My own
philosophy of translation which I have picked up from somebody was to
try to translate imagining what the original author might have written
if he wrote in the new language.
Q. How do you appraise the overarching influence that Prof. E.
F. C. Ludowyk had on the Sri Lankan theatre in English of his time and
also Sri Lankan theatre in general especially in the context of his
pioneering productions at the University of Ceylon?
A: Ludowyk has had an enormous impact on Sri Lankan theatre.
He made an impact beginning with an adaptation of a French play into
English and set in Colombo, He comes from Jaffna. His work had two
values: one was that he brought contemporary world drama to the Sri
Lankan theatre world through the medium of English in productions of the
University’s dramatic society, the Dram Soc.
In the process he also infused his enthusiasm into a large number of
performers some of whom turned into directors in the future. Another
impact was to give people a sense of standards in performance and
production that spread among all these people so that English theatre
provided Sri Lankan audiences with genuine contemporary experience both
in terms of performance values and in actual plays performed.
He also had an impact on Sinhala theatre because Sarachchandra and
the Sinhala Ranga Sabha invited Ludowyk and his wife to be part of their
group. Sarachchandra says in his contribution to the Ludowyk
Felicitation Volume that watching Ludowyk’s rehearsals and performances
gave him a grasp of values in performance and direction which had a vast
influence on his own productions.
Another thing that Ludowyk did for theatre in Sri Lanka which had a
value for both Sinhala and English theatre was bringing Jubal, a
professional director, to Sri Lanka.
Jubal further developed that sense of professionalism which Ludowyk
had already introduced to the amateur theatre. Since he also worked with
famous Dayananda Gunawardena and directed a Sinhala translation of
Moliere ( Wedahatana), it percolated into Sinhala theatre.
Generations continued to pass on the torch. Immediate beneficiaries,
people who worked with Ludowyk and Jubal at the university, themselves
brought more modern theatre to Sri Lanka. Dennis Bartholomeusz started
the Aquinas Dramatic Society which did some excellent productions such
as The Wild Duck and The Lark. Another group formed “Stage and Set”
which nurtured Ernest MacIntyre and Karen Breckenridge.
Q. Vindicating the universally acclaimed fact that Shakespeare
is for all times, Sri Lankan audience have also enjoyed Shakespearean
plays both in their original form and in numerous adaptations.
The salient fact that can be observed in adaptations is the
assimilation of theatrical forms and stylistic elements from a
particular tradition in the host country into the production. What is
your view on the use of theatrical elements such as those of Sanskrit
theatre, Noh, Kabuki, and Kathakali etc?
A: There is an ongoing tradition of Shakespeare performance
and production in this country. There is experimentation in both Sinhala
theatre and English theatre in productions of Shakespeare.
In a sense Sinhala theatre has had a tendency to be influenced by
European models. While they have given powerful performances in specific
roles the productions have not been particularly innovative except for,
I think, two outstanding examples: G.K. Haththotuwegama’s production of
Hamlet with the university students of Peradeniya where his experience
with street drama melded with his sense of English theatre and was of a
very lively translation which he did with two others, Gamini Fonseka, a
lecturer and Lakshman Fernando.
He also collaborated with Fritz Bennowitz. G.K’s own production of A
Mid Summer Night Dream was also a very lively production. In English
language theatre, there certainly were old fashioned costume productions
performed in what used to called the Teapot style of acting and also
much more modern attitudes to be performance.
There have been experiments with using Sri Lankan costumes like our
production of Twelfth Night for the Ludowyk centenary and also the
incorporation of elements of the ritual theatre like Kolam and Thovil
into theatre. This gives new energy to productions of Shakespeare in
Q. With the broad-basing of the use of the English language
especially in electronic media, internet, and in short messages (sms)
etc., there is a steady decline in the standards of language sometimes
going to the extent of vulgarising or bastardising the language.
As an academic and a lecturer, what are the procedures that you would
think of in arresting this negative trend and the reforms that should be
brought about in language education in order to impart essential
language skills to each and every student?
A: I do not know whether you can speak of a steady decline in
the standard of language because language is such a fluid thing and it
moves with social change. So people use it in all these various forms,
certainly there is a lunatic fringe where there is the use of absurd
abbreviations and the mixture of English and Sinhala.
In the end change enters into the creative writing and into the
language people use in public life. There is good Lankan standard
English which is spoken by people in seminars and in formal addresses
and there is also the work-a-day use of English in various situations.
I do not think the widening in the use of English is negative but
what is negative is the laziness in the use of the language in certain
areas like in advertising. People need fluency in the utilitarian sense
for getting on with the business of using knowledge and tapping into
sources like the internet. In that regard I think there is lot to be
Q. As a literatus, how do you perceive the Gratiaen award and what,
in your opinion, is the contribution that it made to Sri Lankan writing
in English? What is your opinion on the criteria that the Gratiaen
judges adapt in considering the submissions for the award i.e. does
poetry seem to be favoured against fiction?
A: I think the institution of the Gratiaen prize for writing in
English has had a great value for Sri Lankan writing. You look at
entries that come in and the increased in the number of publications. I
do not think that writers do it for the sake of winning the prize but
they are rewarded for their achievements and that stimulates further
attempts. The criteria can vary.
The Gratiaen panel seeks to get a good evaluation by having on each
panel of selection, an academic, a practising writer and a member of the
English- using public. I don’t think that there has been bias towards
There have been many notable winners with fiction like Gamini
Akmeemana, Tissa Abeysekera, and Punyakanthi Wijenaike and,
occasionally, playwrights. Michael Ondaatje has also instituted a fund
for translations from Sinhala and Tamil into English and selected
stories to be translated from Sinhala into Tamil and from Tamil into
Sinhala. Three volumes have already come out.
Q. What are the fundamental changes, in your opinion, that you
envisage in the field of education enabling each and every citizen to
enjoy equal status and to make a significant contribution to the
A: Just one: a return to conscientiousness, sadly lacking
today. There is plenty of expertise and understanding of theory and
there are plenty of good people in the field. What we need is a renewal