‘Peradeniya School’ The birth, rise and decline | Sunday Observer

‘Peradeniya School’ The birth, rise and decline

Peradeniya Gurukulaye Upatha, Nageema ha Bindaweteema
Pages : 639
Author: Sena Thoradeniya
Publisher: FAST Publishing (Pvt) Ltd., Colombo 10 ( Surasa Bookshop)

The book title “Peradeniya Gurukulaye Upatha, Nageema ha Bindaweteema” by veteran writer/translator/critic/management consultant Sena Thoradeniya published by FAST Publishing (Surasa Bookshop) of Colombo 10 translates into English as “The birth, rise (to prominence) and decline of the Peradeniya School ( or the Peradeniya Tradition or Lineage). As the title indicates it is about what is referred to as the ‘Peradeniya School’ or ‘Peradeniya Tradition’ of Sinhala literature and drama which needs little introduction. It is difficult to imagine anyone who has not come across the term-even from among those with only a marginal interest in the relevant fields.

For the purpose of this book the Peradeniya Gurukulaya is best described as a phenomenon associated with the Peradeniya University headed by a cluster of individuals, of who, Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra stands as the central figure. In its day it exerted influence over literature, drama and the general perception of aesthetics to a degree that no such school or movement in Sri Lanka, before or afterwards, has been able to come close to, let alone match.

Not unnaturally, the ‘Gurukulaya’ has been the subject of discussions, debates, articles and felicitation ceremonies too numerous to count.

The problem, however, is that despite being inundated with such a large volume of material (i.e., articles, debates etc.), a great many of us are without a clear picture of what the ‘Gurukulaya’ really was, how and why it was able to exert such influence and how it went into decline. This book intends to fill this void.

At 639 pages, the book is not small. It is a scholarly treatise, meant to be read unhurriedly giving adequate reflection to its contents. The listing given at the end of each chapter under ‘Notes’ gives an indication of how heavily referenced the work is. Of its 17 chapters only four have ten or fewer notes and the rest average at 32 notes per chapter with the largest three having more than 50 notes each. Ten pages covering ‘sources’ round off the references. Among the references are some of Prof Sarachchandra’s earliest expressions of his ideas, something many researchers are likely to miss due to lack of knowledge of their existence. The foreword is by Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera - a key figure of the Peradeniya School.

At the outset the readers must be made aware of a caveat - Thoradeniya reveals at the outset that the treatment of the subject matter is from a Marxist point of view. However, this does not appear, in any way, to take away its appeal or reduce its usefulness. Readers are advised not to let the fact that it is treated from a Marxist point of view interfere with its reading or with the consideration of its contents.

A scholarly treatise merits our reining in of any preconceptions or ideological differences to consider (with due regard) what the author has to say. The author of this article personally feels that to have taken it away would perhaps have made it sterile and without life.

The release ceremony was in itself a memorable event. Outside the auditorium you could sense the excitement. Inside the auditorium was a group of people, a substantial portion of who had been at Peradeniya during these years or had come under its influence in a big way. A sense of settled keenness pervaded the air. Prof Wimal Dissanayake, a student during ‘Gurukula’ days at Peradeniya before ending up at Cambridge to study under the likes of Graham Hough, delivered the keynote address.

After a few moments of reminiscing about the Peradeniya days with a couple of anecdotes he went on to describe the distinguishing characteristics of such a school - the existence of a few key figures forming a sort of nucleus, a charismatic personality or two, a journal and writing expressing viewpoints, association with a place of learning - a university, a set of concepts and values, etc. He went on to point out the contributions made by the ‘Gurukulaya’ naming among many things, the enriching of the Sinhala language with the coining of many terms. To illustrate this point, he used the Sinhala word ‘Themawa’.

He pointed out how Sarachchandra had doubts about a word based on the Greek word ‘Thema’ being accepted by people and how it has now become a part of the common man’s lexicon. In concluding the part on the Gurukulaya he said, the Gurukulaya’s greatest mistake was that it got mired in the 1960s and failed to evolve.

He rounded off his lecture with an exhortation that critics today should familiarize themselves with the main or core writing on modern concepts such as, Jacques Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’. He pointed out that one could not talk of deconstruction without having read it. He spoke of Asians who had made strides in the fields of literary theory and criticism pointing out Gayatri Spivak and Kojin Karatani (both of who are considered as being influenced by deconstruction - Karatani being associated with the Yale School of Deconstruction and Spivak with post colonialism) as examples.

Dr Gunadasa Amarasekera, the writer of the foreword and a key figure of the Peradeniya Gurukulaya, was the guest speaker. He re-iterated what he had said in the foreword that Sena Thoradeniya is eminently qualified to write this book. Sena Thoradeniya had been a close observer and a critic, and was also a management consultant trained in the study of group behaviour.

Dr Amarasekera pointed out that the importance of the book lies not merely in it being a history but in the reasons underlying the decline of the Gurukulaya. He stressed that understanding the reasons were critically important in understanding the present state-of-affairs in the field of Sinhala literature and criticism. He stressed that it was time to take a critical relook at the socio-political changes that occurred in the mid-1950s with an open mind if we are to understand the true nature of the problem. This lecture was followed by a presentation by author Thoradeniya bringing the ceremony to a close.

In the keynote address, Prof Dissanayake had said, Inter alia, the ‘Peradeniya Gurukulaya’ was a reference point - something you could not fail to refer to if you were discussing something within its scope-something against which one had to make references.

You could not, for example, talk about Sinhala literature or drama without referring to it. In a similar fashion, from now onwards - in the opinion of this author - one would not be able to discuss the ‘Peradeniya Gurukulaya’ in depth without referring to Thoradeniya’s book.

A thought-provoking book: an essential reference work and the closest thing to a bibliography on this subject.