Martin Wickramasinghe: A literary colossus of the last CenturyJuly 22, 2010, 6:56 pm
The 34th death anniversary of Martin Wickramasinghe, patriarch falls on July 23.
by Dr. W. A. Abeysinghe
Way back in 1964, Joseph Needham, fellow and President of Caius College, Cambridge, writing a foreword to Martin Wickramasinghe’s "Buddhism and Culture" opined thus:
"I have read these essays of my friend Martin Wickramasinghe with great interest and appreciation, and commend them to all readers in the Western as well as Eastern world. For the former especially, there is no greater need than a better understanding of the world-outlooks of the peoples of Asia, and here we have an enlightened Buddhist telling us of his reactions Russian and West European literature, to modern education, science and learning. With this we can all, as it were, sit in a basket chair at Nawala (Rajagiriya) and enjoy the conversion of one of the most active minds of contemporary Ceylon."
For over six decades, up to his death on the 23rd of July 1976, as one of the most actively involved intellectuals, Martin Wickramasinghe has been a dominant and dynamic figure in the Sri Lankan literary scene of the twentieth century. Although reference has been made by his bibliographer to a "tiny booklet of 12 pages entitled "Balopadesaya" (which incidentally was published in 2003 by the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust) written by a boy of thirteen years named Martin Wickramasinghe, being the son of late Mr. Don Bastian Wickramasinghe, Officer of Police," his ascertainable literary career really begins in 1914, the year "Leela", his first novel subtitled as "Rasawath Katantarayak" appeared in print.
During a period of sixty-two years spanning from 1914 to 1976, Wickramasinghe produced nearly two thousand pieces of writings both in Sinhala and English, inclusive of nearly ninety books. Those writings can broadly be categorised as creative, academic and journalistic. In all these three forms of writings, his subject field encompasses a wide range in the Humanities and the Sciences. His main concern however, was with subjects such as language, literature – both oriental and occidental- religion, philosophy, culture and social anthropology.
As it was the case with many men of letters, Wickramasinghe, too, started his writing career as a journalist. The "journalist" during his time - especially during the pre-Independence era, and a few decades immediately thereafter - was a man of a different mould in stark contrast to his present day counterpart, the elegantly dressed computer-literate media man who follows a particular branch of his chosen journalistic field he is supposed to have specialised in. The "journalist" in Martin Wickramasinghe, was an erudite personality disciplined in a variety of subject fields ranging from Sinhala culture to Indian Vedanta philosophy and Western rationalism. His invaluable and perennial contributions to various journals and newspapers at that time - before, during and after the time he adorned the highest editorial chairs of Dinamina and Silumina - are full of meaning even in the first decade of the third millennium and one feels obliged to congratulate the "Martin Wickramasinghe Trust" on the posthumous publications of many of those articles in book form. In his journalistic career, both as a professional and a freelancer, he used a few pseudonyms, in addition to his writings under his byline. One of such interesting pseudonyms during the early period was "Malalagama M.W."
He also wrote under such pen names as "Hetuvadi", "Vijitha Manuwara" and "Mayurapada". Though written in a very readable journalistic style, "Mayurapada’s contributions to the Silumina were scholarly columns of an enlightened intellectual of the highest calibre.
Wickramasinghe was a pioneer journalist who disseminated knowledge of subjects such as biology, archaeology, social anthropology and the theory of evolution to the Sinhala reading public at a time when they were quite alien to this country. In the context of journalism in Sri Lanka, Wickramasinghe emerged not merely as a writer of and a commentator on various subjects, but as an involved and enlightened intellectual who so selflessly played his role in the cultural resurgence and national awakening during the early part of the last century.
Wickramasinghe’s contribution to Sinhala fiction, in both short story and novel, has been evaluated fairly well and a host of critical studies, mainly in Sinhala, has appeared during the last three decades. Suffice it to say at this instance, that here too, he was a pioneer. He was undoubtedly the first Sinhala writer who was responsible for the emergence of the truly realistic novel, and "Gamperaliya", the first of the celebrated trilogy (the other two works being "Kaliyugaya" and "Yuganthaya"), which appeared in 1944 was a landmark in the history of Sinhala fiction. Then again, nobody disputes the fact that "Viragaya" was the first psychological novel, which set in motion a series of such works shaping the Sinhala novel into a serious from of art. Our short-story too, owes much to Martin Wickramasinghe, for he successfully fashioned it into a delicate and sensitive mode of fiction, having immensely derived inspiration from the Russian short stories of the Chekhovian tradition. The numerous translations of his novel and short-stories into English, French, Chinese and East European Slovak languages including Russian and Bulgarian are fitting testimonials to the creative genius of the Sri Lankan celebrity fondly described as the "Koggala Isivaraya" (Sage of Koggala) by a grateful nation.
I personally feel that it is in his critical works and academic essays that Martin Wickramasinghe vociferously expresses himself. His wide knowledge of religion and philosophy, his insight into life, and his incisive interpretations of culture and civilisation, brought into being an intellectual par excellence.
When "Sinhala Sahitye Negeema," another pioneer work in literary studies, appeared in the early years of Nineteen Forties, Senarat Paranavithane, reviewing the book in the Ceylon Daily News, acclaimed it as a "book, on the whole, is thought - provoking and ought to go a long way in the creation of a good literary taste among the Sinhala reading public."
This landmark critical study was later translated into English by Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra, entitled "Landmarks of Sinhalese Literature" and the celebrated translator had this to say of Martin Wickramasinghe:
"In the meantime... the original work... still continues to be the most daring and thought provoking estimate of classical Sinhalese literature that has emanated from the band of any critic. Most of the critical works subsequently written has been merely a rehash of the views expressed by Wickramasinghe. By and large, his estimate of the classics has stood the test of time and has come to be generally accepted by the critical reader."
Wickramasinghe was not a writer or a scholar who amassed knowledge just for the sake of amassing it. Any kind of pedantry was not evident in his writings. The wealth of knowledge he acquired from various sources, be it Sinhala folklore, Indian Vedanta philosophy, the Russian Novel or the Freudian psycho analysis, he incisively interpreted it in terms of culture and society, in a thought provoking manner, thereby adding his wisdom to the world intellectual heritage. In an essay as short as this, I do not for a moment think that justice could be done to this literary colossus, in the context of his contribution in the academic arena. Nevertheless, I cannot resist quoting a few random sentences from his interesting comparison of "The Buddhist Jataka Stories and the Russian Novel", where he dismisses scholars of the calibre of Prof. Winternitz, thus:
"The spiritual, psychological and sometimes the environmental elements that combine to make some peculiar characters in the novels of certain Russian writers, have affinities to those elements of the characters of some of the Jataka Stories. These affinities may be many due to similarities of experience and the philosophy of life of the Russian novelists and the Buddhist writers who handled the Jataka Stories. Ancient India was like pre-revolutionary Russia, a vast country, with more or less similar economic conditions, and a heterogeneous population oppressed by rigid social and religious conventions."
It was this critical approach to many branches of learning, so characteristic of Martin Wickramasinghe’s intellectual discipline that inspired Prof. Joseph Needham to call him "one of the most active minds of contemporary Ceylon."
|Born||Lama Hewage Don Martin Wickramasinghe|
(1890-05-29)29 May 1890
Koggala, Sri Lanka
|Died||23 July 1976(1976-07-23) (aged 86)|
Colombo, Sri Lanka
|Spouse(s)||Kataluwe Balage Prema de Silva|
Lama Hewage Don Martin Wickramasinghe commonly Martin Wickramasinghe, MBE (Sinhalese: මාර්ටින් වික්රමසිංහ) (29 May 1890 – 23 July 1976) was a Sri Lankan novelist. His books have been translated into several languages.
The search for roots is a central theme in Wickramasinghe's writings on the culture and life of the people of Sri Lanka. His work explored and applied modern knowledge in natural and social sciences, literature, linguistics, the arts, philosophy, education, Buddhism and comparative religion. Wickramasinghe is often acclaimed as the father of modern Sinhala literature.
Wickramasinghe was born on 29 May 1890, in the town of Koggala, in Southern Sri Lanka, the only son of Peace Officer (Muladeniya alias Opisara) Don Bastian Wickramasinghe of Koggala , and Magalle Balapitiya Liyanage Thochchohamy. Koggala was bounded on one side by a reef, and on the other by Koggala Lagoon, a large coastal lake into which the numerous tributaries of the Koggala Oya drained. The landscapes of the sea, Koggala Lagoon studded with little islands, the flora and fauna, the forested hinterland, and the changing patterns of life and culture of the people of the village would later influence his work.
At the age of five Wickramasinghe was taught the Sinhala alphabet, at home and in the village temple, by a monk, Andiris Gurunnanse. He also learned the Devanagari script and could recite by memory long sections of the Hitopadesa. After two years he was taken to a vernacular school where he prospered until 1897 when he was sent to an English school in Galle called Buona Vista . In the two years spent at the school Wickramasinghe became fluent in English as well as Latin. When his father died, he returned to a vernacular school in Ahangama and subsequently lost interest in schooling.
Creative writer and pioneer critic
Wickramasinghe began his literary career with the novel Leela (1914) and an anthology of essays on literary criticism, Shastriya Lekhana (1919). Shortly thereafter he began a campaign to raise literary standards for the Sinhalese reading public with work such as Sahityodaya Katha (1932), Vichara Lipi (1941), Guttila Geetaya (1943) and Sinhala Sahityaye Nageema (1946) in which he evaluated the traditional literally heritage according to set rules of critical criteria formed by synthesising the best in Indian and western traditions of literary criticism.
Through the 1940s Wickramasinghe dabbled with the double role of literary critic and creative writer. Gamperaliya (1944) is widely held as the first Sinhalese novel with a serious intent that compares, in content and technique, with the great novels of modern world literature. The novel depicts the crumbling of traditional village life under the pressure of modernisation. The story of a successful family in a Southern village is used to portray the gradual replacement of traditional economic and social structure of the village by commercial city influence.
Wickramasinghe followed Gamperaliya with Yuganthaya (1948) and Kaliyugaya (1957) forming a trilogy. After the decay of the traditional life, the story details the rise of the bourgeoisie, with its urban base and entrepreneurial drive, ending with the formation of the labour movement and socialist theology and rise of hopes for a new social order. The trilogy was made into film by the renowned Sri Lankan director Dr. Lester James Peries.
With the development of a literary criticism movement in the early-'50s, Wickramasinghe presented the works Sahitya Kalava ('The Art of Literature' 1950) and Kawya Vicharaya ('The Criticism of Poetry' 1954). He received an MBE around this time.
Wickramasinghe's most heralded work came in 1956 with Viragaya. Due to the significance of its theme and the sophistication of its technique, the novel has come to be hailed as the greatest work of Sinhalese fiction. It follows the spiritual problems of a fragile Sinhalese youth raised in a traditional Buddhist home after being confronted with the spectre of adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it all made more complex with the modernisation of society. First-person narrative is used to put forth the autobiographical story of the anti-hero in impressionistic vignettes rather than in chronological order. It is a seminal work and spawned a spew of imitators, some good on their own right.
Peradeniya school and poet
Wickramasinghe was an early practitioner of the genre of poetry called nisandas, which ignored the restrictions placed on poetry by the traditional prosodic patterns. It drew inspiration from the work of Eliot, Pound, Whitman and other western poets and was part of a movement called Peradeniya School. Wickramasinghe's work was Teri Gi (1952).
The movement dissolved in the 1960s prompted by Wickramasinghe's contention that other writers of the Peradeniya School were not sensitive to cultural traditions and the Buddhist background of Sinhalese society. He accused Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekara and others of imitating "decadent" western and post-war Japanese literature and of supporting a nihilistic look on life with cyncial disregard for national tradition.
In 1973, Wickramasinghe wrote a new biography of Lord Buddha titled Bava Taranaya. In it the great teacher's change from royal heir in-waiting to philosopher-mendicant is portrayed as being a result of his sympathy to the poor and the downtrodden of society. Wickramasinghe died on 23 July 1976 and his home is now a folk museum.
Honors and awards
A comprehensive list of publications of Martin Wikramasinghe,
- Leela (1914)
- Soma (1920)
- Irangani (1923)
- Seetha (1923)
- Miringu Diya (Mirage) (1925)
- Unmada Chitra (1929)
- Rohini (1929)
- Gamperaliya (The Uprooted/Changing Village) (1944)
- Madol Doova (Mangrove Island) (1947)
- Yuganthaya (End of the Era) (1949)
- Viragaya (Devoid of Passions) (1956)
- Kaliyugaya (Age of Destruction) (1957)
- Karuvala Gedara (House of Shadows) (1963)
- Bhavatharanaya (Siddhartha's Quest) (1973)
Collections of short stories
- Geheniyak (A Woman) (1924)
- Magul Gedara (The Wedding) (1927)
- Pavkarayata Galgesima (Stoning the Sinner) (1936)
- Apuru Muhuna (The Strange Face) (1944)
- Handa Sakki Kima (The Moon is Witness) (1945)
- Mara Yuddhaya (Mara's War) (1945)
- Mage Kathawa (My Story) (1947)
- Vahallu (Bondage) (1951)
- Chithra (1940)
- Mayuri (1944)
- Vijitha (1952)
- Shastriya Lekshana (Educational Essays) (1919)
- Sinhala Sahitya Katha (Sinhala Literary Essays) (1932)
- Sahitya Shiksha 1 (Essays on Literatura) (1936)
- Sahitya Shiksha 2 (1938)
- Vichara Lipi (Literary Criticism) (1941)
- Guttila Gitaya 1 (Critical Review) (1943)
- Sinhala Sahityaye Negima (Landmarks of Sinhala Literature) (1945)
- Sahitya Kalava (Art of Literature) (1950)
- Kavya Vicharaya (Sinhala Poetry:A critical Review) (1954)
- Atta Yutta (Essays in Literature) (1955)
- Bana Katha Sahitya (Buddhist Folk Literature) (1955)
- Nava Padya Sinhalaya (Modern Sinhala Poetry) (1957)
- Rasavadaya Ha Bauddha Kavyaya (Aesthetics and Buddhist Poetry) (1961)
- Sinhala Vichara Maga (Sinhala Literary Criticism) (1964)
- Navakathanga Ha Viragaya (Literary Aspects of Buddhist Jataka Stories) (1968)
- Sinhala Navakathawa Ha Japan Kama Katha Sevanella (The Sinhala Novel in the Shadow of the Japanese Erotic Novel) (1969)
- Sinhala Natakaya Ha Sanda Kinduruwa (Sanda Kinduru and Sinhala Drama) (1970)
- Sampradaya Ha Vicharaya (Tradition and Criticism) (1971)
- Vyavahara Bhashava Ha Parinama Dharmaya (Contemporary Sinhala and Its Evolotion) (?)
Evolution and Anthropology
- Sathwa Sanhathiya (Biological Evolution) (1934)
- Bhavakarma Vikashaya (An Unorthodox Interpretation of Buddhist Philosophy) (1967)
- Manava Vidyava Ha Bauddha Vignana Vadaya (Anthropology and Buddhist Idealism) (1974)
- Sinhala Lakuna (The Sinhalese Identity) (1947)
- Budu Samaya Ha Samaja Darshanaya (Buddhism and Social Philosophy) (1948)
- Denuma Ha Dekuma (Knowledge and Reality) (1958)
- Sinhala Sakaskada (Sociological Writings) (1962)
- Bauddha Darshanaya Ha Margaya (Buddhist Philosophy and the Way) (1968)
- Nivan Muhunuvara Ha Bamunu Dittiya (Face of Nirvana and Brahmin Dogma) (1972)
- Ape Gama (Our Village) (1940)
- Upanda Sita (From My Childhood) (1961)
- Chechov Ha Lankava (Chechov and Sri Lanka) (1970)
- Ape Urumaya Ha Bhikshun Vahanse (The contribution of Buddhist Monks to our Cultural Heritage) (?)
- Ape Viyath Parapura Ha Bhasha Samaja Parinamaya (The role of Our Leaders in the Evolution of Our Language and Society) (?)
Books in English
- Aspects of Sinhalese Culture (1952)
- The Buddhist Jataka Stories and the Russian Novel (1952)
- The Mysticism of D H Lawrence (1957)
- Buddhism and Culture (1964)
- Revolution and Evolution (1971)
- Buddhism and Art (1973)
- Sinhala Language and Culture (1975)
- Purana Sinhala Stringe Enduma (Women's Attire in Ancient Lanka) (1935)
- Kalunika Sevima (Search for Our Past) (1950)
- Soviet Deshaye Negima (The Rise of the Soviet Union) (1962)
Translations in other languages
Books translated in to other languages,
Films and television productions
Films and television productions, based on Martin Wikramasinghe's books,
- Leli (Daughter in law) (1989)
- Gamperaliya (1989)
- Madol Doova (1994)
- Upasakamma (The Pious Woman) (1994)
- Mudiyanse Mama (Honourable Uncle) (1994)
- Mava (Mother) (1994)
- Sisiliyata Padamak (A Lesson for Ceciliya) (1994)