Anthropology behind creativity


“Martin Wickramasinghe is a prominent symbol who contributed to various academic spheres in Sri Lanka. Many who define Martin Wickramasinghe only as a creative writer disregards the fact that he was an expert who contributed to a Sri Lankan approach in anthropology.”

— Prof. Praneeth Abhayasundere, Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura

This week’s anthropological gleaning, to coincide with the literary month which has reawakened the topic of literature among the readers, writers as well the publishers, is taking a different approach by seeking into the writings of the ‘Sage of Koggala’, Martin Wickramasinghe, to discover the anthropological approaches he has taken in his literature. Ceylon Today reached out to Professor at University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Prof. Praneeth Abhayasundere, who has been studying in this regard for many years, with Kanishka Wijayarathna to obtain an insight from him.

Martin Wickramasinghe

Born to a family of the Village Headman class in the Southern Province on 29 May, 1891, Wickramasinghe received his formal education not from well-known colleges or famous educational institutions but from the village schools which, in fact, did not last for more than five years. Hence, most of his knowledge was gathered by himself through reading and life experiences.

“Without receiving any formal education in any leading school or from academics, I developed my mind through life experience and reading books”

Upanda Sita,
Martin Wickramasinghe

Wickramasinghe taught himself not only Sinhala and English but also Pali and Sanskrit, which makes him exceptional. Wickramasinghe faced a significant turning point in his life when, at the age of 14, he was forced to leave his native town, Koggala for Colombo and distant Batticaloa in search of employment opportunities that would earn himself a living.

“The first appearance of Wickramasinghe as a published author was at the age of 23, when he was a youth with immense experiences of life. Since then, Wickramasinghe started to add many and many books and writings to the list of his publications so that he had published over 80 books, innumerable articles and papers on the culture and civilisation of the Sinhalese people, as he reached the final years of life,” noted Prof. Abhayasundere.

His works have been translated into numerous international languages including English, Hindi, Tamil, Russian, Chinese, Romanian, Dutch, German, French and Japanese. Also, some of his works have been adapted into award-winning films such as Gamperaliya, which won the Indian Golden Peacock award for the best film produced in the year of 1964. “A noteworthy characteristic of Wickramasinghe’s writings is that the language he utilised was not derived from the classical literary texts with its heavy dependency on the classical languages such as Pali and Sanskrit. Instead, he was more tending towards the use of common-place language and idioms of ordinary people to which he was exposed in his village, in Southern Province. Figures of speech that are unique to the region have added colours to the texts of Wickramasinghe, indeed.”

According to Prof. Abhayasundere, the works of Wickramasinghe mark an important landmark in Sri Lankan literature as they have discarded the romanticism and the anti-Western feeling with which the early Sinhala novels had been written and in the place, have concentrated on bringing forth the genuine events in real life which were more familiar to the readership. It must have been a reason behind the fact that most of the people in Sri Lanka thoroughly embraced his literature. Also, it has to be noted that the vision of Wickramasinghe was primarily nurtured in the tolerant, humane as well as realistic attitude to life that is traditional to Buddhist folk culture in Sri Lanka.

“Wickramasinghe’s contribution does not confine to the field of literature in Sri Lanka, but also it extends in to the field of literary criticism as well as he has had an equally powerful influence in other fields such as archaeology, anthropology and sociology. He constantly raised his voice against dogmatism, casuistry, and elitism that caused many issues in society, through his works until he died on 23 July, 1976,” Prof. Abhayasundere shared.

Martin Wickramasinghe, the ethnographer

Sharing his thoughts with Ceylon Today, Prof. Abhayasundere elaborated on the anthropological facet of the works of Wickramasinghe, with references to several of them.

“Wickramasinghe, of course, has had an interest in studying and analysing the effects of culture and religion on lives of people. He has tried to take a balanced view in Sinhala culture in the book Aspects of Sinhalese Culture, in the same way he examines the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism on Sri Lankan culture in a very critical manner in his book, Sinhala Lakuna. As he exemplifies in his books, our culture has been weakened by the ceaseless conflict it had to go through against the Western culture, and it has been Buddhism and Hinduism that had immensely contributed to prevent it from collapsing and disappearing from the world. It is indeed a novel idea which opened up a new portal for us to perceive these two institutions in a different light. The works of Darwin, Spencer, Huxley as well as the ethnographies of scholars such as Malinowski and Ruth Benedict which Wickramasinghe had been used to read, should have been a reason behind this differing and anthropological perspective of life he had developed over time.

“Wickramasinghe has further written that culture had been an informing force of tradition and even of human nature. Among the various ideas and concepts that he brought into light, Wickramasinghe moreover, emphasised the meaning of culture as a character of a particular human category. Add to that, he has comparatively expressed his ideas of the Diffusionism – the diffusion or transmission of cultural characteristics or traits from the common society to all other societies – as an ordinary process which takes place in every society,” explained Prof. Abhayasundere.

“He has further stated that, that what is new is the same old thing, which has taken on a strange form of change. Hence, he argues that our customs were protected due to their continuous process of evolution and thus, changing or adjusting the culture according to new components will protect a particular culture, rather than standing straight against the change, which would eventually break down the mentioned culture. He has also expressed his point regarding the importance of Sinhala language and how it could be used to secure the independence and the patterns of culture as a result of that.”

As Prof. Abhayasundere states, Wickramasinghe has been very keen on the scientific works on evolution, and he has long been a sympathiser of the evolutionary comprehension of the universe and of human society too. Most importantly, his works awakened a new social sensitivity among several generations of readers through all these years. “He has endeavoured to relate the ideals of democracy, humanism, socialism, religion and culture to the context of Sri Lanka,” he added. Indeed, Wickramasinghe’s this sense of anthropology has aided him to make his stories more realistic and precise to the social context. Widely discussed issues in anthropology, such as social change, can be noticed as themes in many of Wickramasinghe’s works. Also, Wickramasinghe has regarded human beings as cultural artefacts just as Clifford Geertz’s claims the same idea, and it has a ready resonance in Wickramasinghe.

“There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture. Men without culture . . . would be unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognisable sentiments, and no intellect: mental basket cases.”

— Clifford Geertz, The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man

Wickramasinghe’s Contribution to anthropology

“According to various scholars such as Prof. Tennyson Perera there has not been any research publications in this regard by the time Wickramasinghe started to write anthropology in Sri Lanka,” said Prof. Abhayasundere.” He is one of the prominent persons who canvassed for the establishment of a Department of Anthropology at the University of Ceylon (University of Peradeniya as called now) also.”

In the same token, Wickramasinghe has constructed several elements of physical anthropology such as animal evolution, human evolution, palaeontology and archaeology for Sri Lankan readership through his writings that focus on anthropology, including the great book that he wrote during the British reign in Sri Lanka, Sathwa Santhathiya (Animal Continuity). He has had a similar focus on cultural anthropology too.

“His works such as Sinhala Sakaskada and Manawa Vidyawa saha Sinhala Sanskruthiya (Anthropology and Sinhalese Culture) were known as the prominent writings based on anthropology, especially cultural anthropology. In studying of these books, we can clearly identify comparative analyses about the elements of Sinhalese culture. He has used different theories in analysing the concept of culture, especially including Darwin’s theory of Evolution. His ideas were simply stated and they were vastly closed to the general Sri Lankan readers,” Prof. Abhayasundere added.

“In 1962, Anthropology Society of University of Sri Jayawardenapura published the second issue of their journal of Anthropology (Manawa Vidya) and Wickramasinghe provided an article for that publication and it is one of the most significant incidents for the department as well as the university. In his article which appeared under the heading, ‘Manawa Vidyawa Ha Bhashawa’ (Anthropology and Language) he emphasised the importance of language in the field of anthropology. Wickramasinghe, in that particular article, has stated the functions of language in the transportation of culture from generation to generation. He has also applied the ideas of Franz Boas and Edward Sapir for the interconnection of language and cultural anthropology. However, his argument in the article is quite controversial and some are still valid.”

There is no doubt that his insightfully written works on subjects such as, anthropology, evolution, ethnography, ethnology, art and sculpture, Buddhist philosophy and folklore are still playing the prominent roles in Sri Lankan academic capacities. They introduced such subjects to the Sinhala reader;

– Anthropology

– Evolution

– Darwinism

– Genetics and

– Ethnocentrism, at a time when there was hardly a lexicon in which the complex ideas associated with these fields.