Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Food for thought

When nations grow old, the arts grow cold and commerce settles on every tree.
-William Blake, poet, engraver, and painter (1757-1827)

I think Blake meant 'old' in terms of non-renewal, a situation where the flow of fresh ideas dwindled or even dried up completely. This may happen when the Establishment grows too conservative or strong, killing off ideas by scepticism, scorn or lack of support, so that artists (or scientists for that matter) have to literally starve, leading them to abandon their work and find more mundane ways of earning a living.

Its symptoms may be seen when the only voices heard in public discourse are those of businessmen and perhaps politicians. Has this fate overtaken us? Perhaps. Open a newspaper or watch a programme on television, or listen to one on the radio. Where are the voices of academia or of other independent minds?


Dullness pervades our land,
The dunces are getting out of hand;
Alexander Pope saw it coming
The age of Chaos descending.

It is easier to love your enemy
Than consord with stupidity;
Wordsworth extolled the ordinary
And sank into inanity.

Don't traffic with the normal,
Chase the exceptional,
If you would soar into poetry,
Shun mediocrity.

Find your bedfellows
Away from the shallows;
Cultivate the eccentric virus
to nourish your genius.
This advice is not Christian;
But remember the ruffian
Who baited the dull Pharisee
In and out of Galilee.

-Guy Amirthanayagam-

Monday, February 14, 2011

Omar Musa

I enjoyed Omar Musa's poetry immensely at the Galle Literary Festival, particularly a piece called 'Airforce Ones', which I thought was not in his the book available for sale. Subsequently discovered that it was in his book, The Clocks. I was searching for it on the web, could not find it, but this was enjoyable. Just discovered another very moving one here.

Did finally manage to find the poem, the book is available at Barefoot.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka - New World Concert

I had been thinking about going to the SOSL concert, mainly to listen to Tharanga Goonetilleke, but had forgotten about it completely until a friend rang in the morning to offer me his tickets because he was unable to attend.

I did not know what the programme was, except for the fact that Tharanga was singing and she did sing very well, earning a standing ovation from the packed audience.

The opening piece of the concert was a flute concerto by a modern Brazilian composer, whose name I did not quite catch and whose identity remains unknown to me since all the programmes were sold out. It was an agreeable enough piece and reasonably short. I find the flute to be rather inexpressive instrument, so in my book concerti for the instrument should be kept fairly short if the listeners attention is to be held.

The real highlight of the day was however, the Dvořák ninth. It is a symphony I have heard several times (on recordings, not in a live concert) but I realised today that I had never listened to it closely enough. I have always heard the brass and strings (I used to think that symphony was actually dominated by these) but never paid enough attention to the woodwind passages, which are many and beautiful and which the SOSL played with great felicity. The brass played with great refinement and the string tone, warm and rich.

Although tempi were a little slow, the conductor used this to bring out the inner voices, especially in the woodwind parts. I would rank this particular performance by the SOSL the best I have ever heard, beating even the superb performance of the Dvořák eighth under James Ross a couple of years ago.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Unravelling of Pakistan

All eyes seem to be focused on Egypt these days, but there are far more troubling developments in our own neighbourhood. Pakistan is seen by the rulers as a reliable friend in the region, unlike the double-dealing bully of the region, India. We are judged by the company we keep, so it is especially troubling when one hears of reports like this.

How can one arrest a 17 year old schoolboy for scribbling something in an exam paper, when no one is at liberty to disclose what it was that he wrote in the first place?

How did Jinnah's vision "equality of men, justice and fairly play to everybody. We are the inheritors of these glorious traditions and are fully alive to our responsibilities and obligations as framers of the future constitution of Pakistan. In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State -- to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non- Muslims -- Hindus, Christians, and Parsis -- but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan" be reconciled with what goes on in that benighted land?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

RSF's boycott of the Galle Literary Festival was damaging to free speech

Reporters sans frontières (RSF), an organisation that campaigns for freedom of the press called for a boycott of the Galle Literary Festival.

I think this is wrong.

In the first place, this is a privately organised festival for the celebration of literature. It not a State organised event and has nothing to do with the government. Two state owned entities, Sri Lankan Airlines and the Tourist Board are sponsors, on commercial terms but they are two of a list of many that includes several embassies, UNESCO as well as companies.

Why target individuals who have nothing to do with the crimes committed?

Second, the festival does provide a space, however small, for the sharing of ideas and shutting it down would only hurt the very cause that RSF trying to further. To give just two examples from this years festival, on the opening day the BBC Forum event; After Shock: The Lingering Legacy of Civil War, lead to some useful discussion while more thought provoking ideas were looked at the Farish Noor talk.

It is not just at the organised events that discussion takes place, the festival brings together some every interesting minds and chatting to people one meets in the cafes and street is just as productive.

Personally speaking, I find the festival refreshes the mind and sharpens thinking, which is precisely what RSF is trying to promote.

This is not to say that there is no serious problem of media freedom, as the attack on the the LankaeNews office yesterday demonstrates, it is just that this is the wrong way to go about promoting media freedom, something RSF chief editor Gilles Lordet admitted when he said that a boycott was "never a constructive solution".

Whether you like the literary festival or not, whether you support the government or not, if you feel that Reporters without Borders' boycott was damaging to the cause of free speech, please join this group, to prove that most people oppose the boycott.

Sunila Abeysekera, an award winning human rights activist also wrote against the boycott, see her letter here.