Vibrancy of classical Sinhala poetry

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By 2017-10-29

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
Ceylon Today Mosaic

It is with a certain measure of sadness that I am moved to state that informed commentaries on classical Sinhala literature are becoming increasingly rare. Scholars with the requisite understanding of classical Sinhala and a love of classical poetry are rapidly swindling, which is indeed a cause for alarm.

It is against this background that I wish to comment briefly on Pro. Rohini Paranavithan's new book on classical Sinhala poetry titled 'GiMimansa.' Meaning analyses of Gi poetry. Let me state at the outside that this is a well-written book that is full of important insights. The author is deeply knowledgeable about her chosen area of analysis and displays a remarkable sensitivity to poems such as Muvadevdavata, Sasadavata and Kavsilumina.

GiKavya Mimansa consists of a Preface and eight chapters. In the Preaface, Prof. Rohini Paranavithana has sought to explain the nature and significance of Gi poetry very lucidly and economically.
The first and second chapters are devoted to useful discussions of certain important facets of Sigiri poetry.
In the second chapter the author investigates the kind of imagination displayed by the diverse writers of Sigiri poems paying particular attention to the deployment of tropes. The second chapter is given over to a topic that is not often explored – the Buddhist ethos and discipline that characterizes a significant portion of Sigiri poetry. The Sigiri poetry, in my judgment, provides us with a rich resource for focused and sustained literary analysis. In an essay titled 'EnframingSigiri Poetry I made the following observation.

'The Sigiri graffiti constitute a very rich and important segment of classical Sinhala poetry. Written largely during the period from 8th to the 10th centuries, although some of the verses belong to an earlier period,this body of poetry is marked by a compression of form, wit, playfulness, an acute drama of argument and an imagination of a high order. The strength of these poems is to be seen in the way in which they work within the rubrics of inherited rhetorical frameworks. Many of the poems are responses,some spontaneous, some studies, to the beautiful figures drawn on the Sigiriya wall. The flawed innocence of the damsels depicted in the paintings, as refracted through the imagination of the Sigiriya poets,makes for lyrically intense and dramatically poignant poetry. Many of these poems are highly compact, where silences,suppressions o feeling,and half-articulated thoughts play a crucial role in poetic communication.'
The third chapter explores a very important classical text dealing with poetics – the Siyabaslakara.

Prof. Paranavitana has examined the importance of this work situating it in its proper historical and discursive context. Her analysis of this work is thoughtful and judicious.

She points out cogently why this text should not be regarded as a mere translation of Dandin's Kavyadarsha, which it is not. The fourth chapter addresses the important topic of poetry written during the Polonnaruwa period against the backdrop of Sinhala literary tradition and the evolving nature of social formations. The author's deep familiarity with the historical, social, cultural and political factors that gave rise to the strong poetic tradition in the Polonnaruwa period is clearly evident in the texture of the writing. The fifth chapter has as its focus of analysis a reading of the poem Muvadevdavata in relation to the trajectories of growth of classical Sinhala poetry.

This is a narrative poem that has got short shrift from most literary critics. To be sure, it does not contain the weightiness and achieved poetic brilliance of Kasilumina; it pales in comparison to the overpowering Kasilumina.

However, Muvadecdavata in his own way, has achieved a measure of success that needs to be recognized. As Prof Paranavitana accurately points outit is more compact and cohesive that the other narrative with which it is often linked, the Sasadavata. I am persuaded by the case the author makes for this poem while recording its deficiencies.

The rest of the chapters – three in all – are devoted to interpretations of the Sinhala mahakavya the Kasilumina chapter six discusses the imagery contained in this poem and the concepts that under ride them with understanding and discernment. Chapter seven contains a useful discussion of the complex and persuasive ways in which the author of Kasilumina has reconfirmed nature in his narrative discourse. Here Prof. RohiniParanavitana displays her skills as a close reader of classical poetictexts. The last chapter highlights the role of myths in the poetic discourse of this poem and how the deft use of these myths reveals to us an important aspect of the poet's sensibility. Reading Prof. Paranavitanas 'Gee KavyaMeemansa, I was struck by four indubitable strengths of the author. First, as I stated earlier, she is a very sensitive reader of classical Sinhala poetic texts; she is able to respond to the classical idiom classical locutions, turns of phrase with a remarkable adroitness. Second, she has a deep knowledge of the historical period in which the texts being analyzed were produced. Her deep historical consciousness serves to enframe her interpretations cogently. Third,she has the ability illuminate the complex interactions between texts and contexts – how texts influence the context and how the contexts in turn inflect the tests. Fourth, she writes extremely lucidly and compellingly without violating grammatical norms which is unfortunately a common practice in Sinhala critical writing today. One shortcoming I observed is that there is some repetition and overlap among the eight essays. This is, of course, understandable in view of the fact that these are occasional essays – occasional in the sense that they were dictated by specific occasions. So their genealogy helps us to understand this repetition.

Gee KavyaMeemansa by Prof. Rohini Paranavitama is a welcome addition to Sinhala poetic commentarial literature.
Personally, I would have liked to see her become more venturesome and interpret these classical texts in the light of modern critical theory.This is, of course, a common enough practice among Western scholars. Let me cite some texts that are relative easy to comprehend. Terry Eagleton, in his book titled William Shakespeare, examines the bard's plays using modern semiotic, Marxist and feminist theories to underscore the fact that in Shakespeare's plays there is a split between the ideas of social order that the plays endorse and the subversive and unsettling force of language. Catherine Belsey in her book on Milton adopts a deconstructive approach to point out the intersections of language and power in the poetic text. To cite a more complex essay, GayatriSpivak examines Wordsworth's The Prelude in the light of deconstruction. In my book titled Buddhist Confessional Poetry, I have sought to draw on modern critical theories in explication the importance of the Their Gatha. One can site many such instances. This fact connects interestingly with the idea of a classic as enunciated by such scholars as Frank Kermode. A classic is timeless, and one way in which it achieves this feat is by allowing and assimilating new interpretations of it in keeping with the zeitgeist. Evolving interpretations keep classics like the Kasilumina alive.

All in all, Prof. Rihini Paranavitana's GiKavyaMimansa can be recommended as a valuable addition to the corpus of critical literature on classical Sinhala poetry.

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