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Formation of modern Sinhala fiction

In the previous week’s column, I discussed, briefly, on post-independent Sinhala writers and Piyadasa Sirisena who is considered as the father of modern Sinhala fiction although his literary works are full of didactic passages enunciating his political and moral views on social issues.

Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna, a friend of mine and reader of Montage, has rightly pointed out a factual error in the previous column regarding Piyadasa Sirisena’s literary career. Prof. Rajakaruna has stated that Piyadasa Sirisena commenced his literary career before Sri Lanka gained political independence and therefore, he belonged to the pre-independent Sinhala writers. I am thankful to Prof. Rajakaruna for pointing out the factual error and profoundly regret for the mishap.

The pivotal role that pre-independent Sinhala writers played in the formation of modern Sinhala fiction is vital to the understanding of the evolution of Sinhala language itself. Piyadasa Sirisena’s fiction can be identified as the transitional stage of Sinhala from medieval classical prose to a literary language with some elements of embellishments.

Prof. Wimal Dissanayake in ‘Sinhala Novel and Public Sphere’ points out that there are five key Sinhala writers who played an important role in the formation of modern Sinhala fiction; “ One can identify five writers as key players in the inauguration of Sinhala fiction, although some of their earlier works represent a transitional phase between prose narrative and modern fiction. The five writers are Reverend Issac de Silva (1844-1907), Bentota Albert de Silva (1886-1919), A. Simon de Silva (1874-1920), M.C.F Perera (1879-1946) and Piyadasa Sirisena (1875-1946).

Piyadasa Sirisena and early Sinhala fiction

Piyadasa Sirisena’s literary career is important on many counts; Piyadasa Sirisena’s nineteen novels mark the early phase of Sinhala fiction. Sirisena’s work is a precursor to the modern Sinhala novel. It is pertinent to look at his life and the milieu he lived in, which largely reflected in his corpus of works.

Piyadasa Sirisena was born on August 31, 1875 in the village of Aturuvalla, hamlet near Induruwa. As it was the vogue of the day, his would have been given an English name at birth. So his name at birth was Pedrick de Silva. He attended the village school and then the Buddhist temple in the village and attended a missionary school in Aluthgama where he commenced his learning of English. Looking at his childhood, it was clear that Piyadasa Sirisena developed a keen interest in literature.

Prof. Wimal Dissanayake observes, “In 1893, wrote his first book, a volume of poetry titled Ovadan Mutuvala. Two years later when he came to Colombo in search of employment, he published this book. In 1904, he started publishing in installments in the newspaper Sarasavi Sandarasa, his first novel Vasanavanta Vivahaya Hevat Jayatissa Saha Roslin. This later became an exceedingly popular fiction. Since then, he continued to writing fiction that had an enormous impact on the thought and imagination of his time. In 1905, the newspaper Sinhala Jathiya was inaugurated as a weekly. He became its editor. This newspaper played a crucial role in mobilising people behind anti-colonial project of the time. As a consequence of fierce anti-colonial statements in the newspaper, and the speeches he made at public meetings, he was imprisoned by the British administration in 1915. He spent 58 days in prison, and during this period he wrote his novel, Ashta Loka Dharma Chakraya. As a novelist and nationalist, he had a profound impact on the masses. He saw the novel as an efficacious medium for generating and giving focus to anti-imperialistic sentiments and cultural nationalism…He died on May 22, 1946 at the age of 71 after surgery at a private hospital.

During his 88 year that Sirisena was actively involved in the writing of fiction, he produced 19 novels. ”

An important facet of Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels, at the early phase of Sinhala novel, is that provided the rudimentary foundation for modern Sinhala novel. A prominent characteristic of Sirisena’s novels is their crude form with a little or no tropes, diverse embellishments and vividly realised narrative which are hallmark characteristics of his successors’ literary works such as W.A Silva’s and Martin Wickremasinghe’s literary productions. At Sirisena’s hand, the novel functioned primarily as a mode of addressing the masses and offering them his political and social views on the issues at the time.

Describing this aspect of Piyadasa Sirisena’s works, Prof. Wimal Dissanayake observes, “Piyadasa Sirisena made no attempt to conceal the fact that in writing fiction his primary aim was didactic –to focus on what he perceived to be the moral decline visibly in the country. He attributed this to the steady and thoughtless departure from traditional Sinhala Buddhist cultural values. Hence, through his plot and protagonists, he sought to call attention to the imperative need for national cultural revival.

In his preface to the novel, Yantham Galavuna he states that although his works go under the sign of novel, there is nothing in them that goes beyond religious thinking. In his preface to the novel, Maha Viyavula, he makes the point that in writing his novels his intention is to promote nationalist thought and patriotism. In the preface to Vimalatissa Hamuduruvange Mudal Pettiya, he remarks that it had occurred to him for a long time that fiction was a great means of disseminating ideas related to politics, economic development, morality, patriotism and so on. In his preface to the novel Tharuniyakage Premaya, he states that this novel was written with the aim of demonstrating the importance of fostering morality and nationalism. Hence, it is obvious that Piyadasa Sirisena envisaged his novels to be a means to a larger end-the generation of a sense of cultural nationalism and concomitant moral regeneration. Piyadasa Sirisena can be best described as a novelist of advocacy…his primary focus was on the promotion of cultural nationalism as a way of regaining self-esteem and re-possessing history. In order to achieve this goal, he deals with number of overlapping themes in his fiction. ”

A brief study of pre-independent and post-independent Sinhala writers and their primary motives for fiction writing is of utmost importance to understand and to analyse some of the so called ‘great’ Sinhala writers of today who primarily promotes their ‘literary’ works at international literary festivals such as recently concluded HSBC Galle Literary Festival.

 

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