The Fall of the Arts and the Festive Fire

For those who are savvy with the national university literary scene the theme/title “Maage Dheshaya Avadhi Karanu Maena” (Awaken my Nation from Slumber) is not merely a line from an Amaradeva song: it is the heading of what for many decades has been a prime literary-cultural festival organized by the Students’ Union of the University of Peradeniya. In its heyday this magnanimous event would spread across a week, with parallel events incorporating the public and schools spanning across month, at least. Being a forum for traditional art forms, cultural expositions and other folk and indigenous expressions, the festival has equally paved way for contemporary and modern styles, as well. It has always been my feeling that Peradeniya, in her arts activity, were always more conservative and “folk-oriented”, fetishizing a “rural” tradition in the arts and thereby digging a little hole for itself, cut off from the times.

Yet, the “folk” aura was, perhaps, the identity of the Peradeniya festival – a n insignia of a sort through which the overarching message of their “awaken my nation” chant was manifested. As school boys in the late 90s and then, later, as undergraduates, we have experienced the “Kalaa Ulela” at several levels. Owing to my political stance as an undergraduate (which was not aligned with the Students’ Union) I was never a part of the arts festival; but, was a reaper and beneficiary of the wide range of cultural experiences the week held forth. Even until very recent, the university premises, in the week of the festival, used to be flooded with people and stalls of sorts. From sculpture, folk entertainment forms, architecture, history, book exhibitions, photography, songs, art to poetry and prose, the myriad branches of literature and culture was shared and accessed by a throng of undergraduates, but also by a sizable number of outsiders to the university community, including high school students.

A horrendous drop in the quality of the festival first appeared a year ago. By 2012, not only the outward splendour, but even the vitality and vibrancy of the event seemed to have suffered, for I happened to be on the University last weekend and had no idea that a Kalaa Ulela was in progress until I had walked several hundred yards into the main premises. A group was seen doing “spot portraits” and an art display was to be assembled under the Senate pillars. A notice directed me to a “book exhibition” which was a display by none other than a regular sales agent who seasonally comes to campus. An inter-school debate was getting on to its boiling point, but to my dismay I heard that the school debaters’ tone and inflection – the urgent, parroting of digested fact and fiction – has in fact not changed since, perhaps, over a decade ago. Though negative in assessment, somethings, at least, have not changed.

The stamp of the lion

What has changed / rotted, then, is the backbone of the university students’ movement which, for decades, backed events such as the Arts Festival at Peradeniya. Though I cannot testify to the accuracy of the detail (and my source is an insider of the students’ body) the Arts Festival no longer centrally monitored by the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), which is the power stone of all Student Unions of all universities. If, indeed, this is true, the drop in quality goes on to show the impact of the IUSF presence in university cultural activity. The setback also comes in the wake of systematized  infiltration of students’ unions over the past few years. The developments in the national political front backfired on the integrity of the SUs in a twofold hit: primarily, the defection of Wimal Weerawansa from the JVP and his formation of the National Freedom Front caused a breach in the largely JVP-patronized SU’s in many universities. This was aggravated by the exodus caused by the Kumar Guneratnam faction that broke away as the Frontline Socialist Party.

SM Nishmi’s Photo at the “Sisu Viru Kutiya”. The name of the most fetishized student leader of two generations made into some babel.

The second line of assault came with the government’s own agendas in neutralizing the potency of university student politics, in which she has partly succeeded. Pro-ministerial groups and other factions with the blessings of politically sanctioned projects are all too common in the once hegemonized space of the JVP-backed parties. While, as a student, I never sympathized with the Students’ Union politics I always maintained that the SU was the only power base that could represent the students  as an organization. The “alternative” groups that I knew either lacked the organization or a central ideological stance. With more enlightened leadership the IUSF could have / can do wonders for the empowerment of students and the university system. This, however, is an issue I have addressed through this space in a previous instance.

The breakdown of the Students’ Unions and the infiltration process denoted is more than reflected in the lukewarm Arts Festival which, like a motherless child, was totally out of sorts. A lacking in wholesomeness and the absence of direction was to obvious. The high point of my shallow  Kala Ulela venture was a space called “Sisu Viru Kutiya” (The Chamber of the Student Heroes). To say the least, there was nothing heroic nor enclosing about this kutiya. There were a dozen bust-up photos of leading Students’ Union activists who were either killed or vapourized by the government between 1987-1990, taken into A-4 like paper. These were complemented by portraits of more finer finish: material which are drawn from among the memorabilia of the Students’ Union offices. The printout-like paper were pasted onto the pillars in front of the main library using cellophane tape. Unless the organizers were trying to reproduce a real-life gag-and-bound effect the treatment showed much shoddiness and lack of application.

Fetishized students’ leaders – the hardcore of the 1980s – in the likes of Venura Edirisinghe, Padmasiri Thrimawithana, Nimal Balasuriya, Shantha Bandara and SM Nishmi were, therefore,   lined up for their annual showcase along with what had once been Nishmi’s motorcycle. But, what is the purpose of annually dragging out the bust-ups of the ideologues of the past, for uncritical exposition as such? What does the Students’ Union gain by this showcasing of the dead? Is it that with the current crack and with the absence of progressive leadership, to parade the fetishized past is the SU’s claim for legitimacy? But, the climax for me, was yet to come. MS Nishmi – Engineering undergrad, a charismatic leader and the “driving force” of the students’ movement in the late 80s (so I am told)  – is undoubtedly the most widely idolized SU leader at Peradeniya.

Nishmi, following his (supposed) death at the hands of the then government, has been sanctified and remains thus. He is the one students’ leader under whose name a residence hall has been declared.     However, Nishmi’s name – which is Sirajudin Mohamed Nishmi – has been distorted by the exhibition organizers as “Sivurudin Mohomed Nishmi” (in Sinhala) – and in bold “university poster” lettering too. This disfigurement is sacrilege as Nishmi, over the years, has been a SU totem. Perhaps, this is all too symptomatic of the lack of vision or understanding (leave aside imagination) the students’ movement, at present, is courting. All in all, as a fellow who has seen the heights to which the Arts festival at Peradeniya could ascend, the current run of events remained largely tasteless and – if at all – sour. It as more a reflection of the utter setback the university students’ movement has, in recent years, had owing to both its lack of reflection and the state’s crippling impede. Whatever it is, the future of the discursive space in student politics as well as its art-bound extension call for a definite wake up from blindness and slumber.

[Written for the Lakbima News]

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