AJ Gunawardana and Lester James Peiris

September 2008 marks 10 years because the sudden demise of Dr Ariyasena Jayasekera (A J) Gunawardana, an impressive college trainer, author/journalist, cinema persona and artwork critic. When he did not regain consciousness from open coronary heart surgical procedure, on the comparatively younger age of 65, we misplaced a uncommon mental who had his toes firmly on the bottom, and continuously constructed bridges linking media, tradition and society.

AJ’s educational {and professional} accomplishments are well-known and remembered. Having began as a journalist with Each day Information, the place he was a famous arts and tradition correspondent within the 1960s, he went on to acquire a doctorate in performing arts from New York College. Upon return, he pursued a profession in academia as a professor of English on the Vidyodaya College (later College of Sri Jayawardenapura) and was intently related to movie and media training. He chaired a Presidential Committee of Inquiry on the Sri Lankan movie trade, which issued its report in 1985. Within the arts world, he’s maybe finest remembered for the screenplays he wrote for 3 movies by Lester James Peries: Baddegama (1980), Kaliyugaya (1982) and Yuganthaya (1985). On the time of his demise in September 1998, AJ was engaged on a biography of the doyen of the Sri Lankan cinema, which was posthumously revealed in 2005.

AJ’s contributions as opinion author and columnist haven’t been as extensively acknowledged. AJ was a uncommon public mental who — in his writing and public talking — stood for a united and multicultural Sri Lankan society. In doing so, he stood aside from many fellow members within the academia and media, his twin fraternities, whose parochialism and misplaced nationalism have propelled us into the present depths of despair. As Sir Arthur C Clarke, a very long time buddy and affiliate of AJ, remarked in a poignant tribute: “AJ’s sudden demise is a setback in our collective struggles in opposition to fanaticism and fundamentalism.

Moderates are exhausting to search out in any society even in peacetime, and particularly uncommon and endangered in instances of battle. AJ was one such man, however on the similar time, he held agency opinions and had the braveness of his conviction to precise them. He articulated his (usually dissenting) views brilliantly, which made him one of many best commentary writers in our English language press, the place he wrote a daily media and tradition column for over a decade within the 1980s and 1990s.

AJ was extremely multi-disciplinary, had great sense of humour and was completely devoid of pomposity. At a time when artistes and intellectuals assume extremist positions to attract low-cost reputation or construct larger-than-life photos, AJ by no means used his media platform to oversell a private agenda. He belonged to that diminishing tribe that also assigns extra significance to the tune than the singer; therefore his use of the pseudonym Jayadeva.

My affiliation with him was within the final decade of his life. Though we shared the identical surname (spelt in another way!), we weren’t associated, and I by no means had the chance of being his scholar. His junior by a technology, I associated to the genial professor as a fellow author and occasional associate in mischief within the domains of media and standard tradition.

Not so marginal feedback

For a number of years, his and my writing used to look in each Thursday in The Island (then Sri Lanka’s solely impartial English each day, and earlier than it was run over by Sinhala nationalists). Usually, his Marginal Feedback column could be on the chief web page, whereas the weekly science web page I compiled and edited was printed on the reverse.

I admired AJ for his column lengthy earlier than I developed a private acquaintance. Its intentional misnomer was attribute of the author. Marginal Feedback carried some profound reflections on the bigger cultural and societal realities and idiosyncrasies of the time. His depth of understanding and breadth of matters have been distinctive, if not distinctive, in Sri Lankan journalism. Solely parallel I can consider is one other colleague Ajith Samaranayake, who left us much more prematurely — and simply as abruptly — a few years in the past.

AJ’s weekly column was written throughout a interval that noticed many dramatic and generally scary developments in Sri Lankan politics, financial system, tradition and social life. Financial liberalisation insurance policies launched in 1977 have been now manifesting their social and cultural impacts. The dual genies of Sinhala and Tamil ultra-nationalism have been already unleashed, and slowly tightening their ruthless grip over an unsuspecting individuals. After many years of full monopoly, the state had lastly begun to permit personal participation in broadcast media.

This was additionally the time when intolerance in our society reached such alarming ranges that expressing sturdy opinions on any topic might carry severe private repercussions — starting from lack of job to lack of life (sadly, issues have solely turn out to be worse since). Conveniently hiding behind this actuality, most intellectuals confined their opinions to the cocktail circuit or college lecture rooms. The betel-chewing, pipe-smoking A J Gunawardana begged to vary — and expressed his views with out concern or favour.

His feedback spanned a broad scope; the person was unpigeonholeable. This once more is a uncommon phenomenon. On the one hand, we’ve specialists within the arts, tradition and humanities writing about their fields of experience with various levels of candour, compassion and erudition. However, there are a couple of with science and technical backgrounds making an attempt to remark — usually not too eloquently — on the social and cultural impacts of developments in their very own fields.

Straddling two cultures

AJ, in distinction, demonstrated a powerful grasp of each the humanities and sciences (thus straddling the ‘two cultures’). Having been uncovered to the perfect of each jap and western traditions, he additionally had no insularity or inferiority complexes that pervade our academia.

His column lined a shocking array of sectors, fields and topics in an authoritative but readable type. He mentioned with authority on the music of Amaradeva, Sri Lankan writing in English, new tendencies in Sinhala drama, the parable of an ‘Asian cinema’, and the implications of satellite tv for pc tv and the Web — the favorite ‘whipping boys’ of our self-appointed guardians of ‘tradition’. AJ handled these and lots of different matters with the correct mix of personalised commentary and dispassionate evaluation.

His huge studying was accompanied by considerable empathy and, the place warranted, sympathy. He by no means used his column to demolish people or establishments holding completely different factors of view; neither did he flip columns into crass shows of his erudition. To cite from Arthur Clarke’s tribute once more:

He changed the mental vanity of academia with a wholesome scepticism, deep-rooted humanism and a tremendous sense of humour: in his writing and public talking, he would question, replicate or ridicule with out being devastating.”

One space which him an incredible deal, and fashioned the premise of many columns, was the various faces of standard tradition. Most senior teachers would hesitate to probe into such a nebulous and quirky topic, however AJ excelled on this respect. He mirrored with equal dexterity on H R Jothipala’s songs, Sri Lanka’s road theatre, the most recent field workplace hits from Bollywood and Hollywood, our near-religious obsession with the sport of cricket, and the enduring attraction of political cartoonists from Collette to Wijesoma.

For positive, AJ was not the one one to take up these matters. Sometimes, a sociologist would possibly research a pattern with scientific detachment and produce a jargon-heavy analysis paper. Or a journalist would write a purely descriptive article with out a lot evaluation. In distinction, AJ might carry life to any subject he picked, regardless of how esoteric it may appear at first look. He chronicled and commented on established and rising social and cultural phenomena, generally along with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Cartoon universe

One such side of popular culture introduced us nearer collectively: the syndicated newspaper sketch referred to as Calvin and Hobbes. Someday within the early 1990s, we found that we have been each ardent followers of American cartoonist Invoice Watterson’s enduring creation of a six 12 months outdated boy (Calvin) and his each day adventures with stuffed toy tiger (Hobbes).

In truth, it was AJ’s reflections that heightened my curiosity within the characters that appeared on a regular basis in The Island on the time. AJ and I noticed Watterson participating in witty and perceptive social commentary by the seemingly mundane and outrageous misdemeanours of Calvin — an over-imaginative little one residing in a media-saturated (American) society. The sketch bolstered our perception that good cartoonists are usually not simply good entertainers and social satirists, but additionally mass philosophers of our time.

For us, Calvin and Hobbes was the very first thing we turned to in every day’s situation of The Island; the actual world would hit us a minute or two later. On my travels, I used to choose up the most recent ebook collections of Calvin and Hobbes, and cross on to AJ probably the most attention-grabbing extracts. He commented on some in his column; I do know he loved all.

And when Watterson — for a posh set of non-public {and professional} causes — selected 31 December 1995 to cease drawing the favored comedian, we have been each devastated. AJ reproduced components of a letter I wrote, expressing dismay over this calamity. After Calvin and Hobbes, our personal universes have been by no means fairly the identical once more. There have been reruns, after all, however no extra authentic C&H. Every so often, AJ would ask me whether or not I’d heard something about Watterson altering his thoughts. Alas, I bore no such excellent news. (Greater than 13 years since, Watterson has caught to his resolve.)

His fascination with Calvin and Hobbes indicated AJ’s child-like curiosity and curiosity within the widest attainable vary of human endeavours. These qualities have been unaffected by the excessive positions he held in academia and public life. He was a uncommon public mental for whom nothing was too mundane, and nothing was too subtle. Simply as Calvin was a relentless misfit in his conformist (learn: boring) major college, AJ too was in some methods a ‘misfit’ within the citadels of mediocrity that our establishments of upper studying have turn out to be. Lengthy dwell the misfits — we’d like loads extra of them!

Public broadcasting

It was solely after I moved away from deadline journalism within the mid 1990s that I began interacting extra intently with AJ. He suggested and partnered with me in endeavours starting from organising a South Asian documentary movie pageant in Colombo to catalysing debate on a brand new imaginative and prescient for public service broadcasting.

He lamented that the custom of public broadcasting in Sri Lanka had been hijacked by political events in workplace to serve their slender propaganda wants. In a commentary written to the Lanka Guardian only some weeks earlier than his demise, he argued in opposition to the then prevailing annual license price to personal radio and tv receivers, which was producing thousands and thousands for SLBC, Rupavahini and ITN. He claimed that our rights as shoppers have been being grossly violated; we have been paying for a product that wasn’t being delivered. (Shortly afterwards, the TV and radio license price was abolished by the then PA authorities. In a single fell sweep, that eliminated a key authorized argument in opposition to the political abuse of state media…was that intentional?)

Throughout the 10 years since his departure, I’ve usually wished we had the advantage of his perception — and foresight — to assist navigate by the customarily bewildering developments in mass media and standard tradition, such because the running a blog, social networking on-line, cell phones and actuality tv. I can simply think about how he would have ridiculed the latest crude makes an attempt at cultural policing, media censorship and the extremely misplaced ‘patriotism’ now standard amongst sure teachers and artistes.

I maintain hoping that AJ’s authentic Marginal Feedback would sooner or later be compiled right into a ebook. Years after they have been revealed, many can nonetheless be helpful tough guides to these of us who wrestle to make sense of our topsy-turvy instances and our hopelessly mixed-up and globalised world.

Nalaka Gunawardene blogs on media, tradition and society at http://movingimages.wordpress.com, and lives within the hope that Invoice Watterson would sooner or later come out of retirement…

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