By Shenali Pilapitiya
Language and power are explicitly intertwined in the politics of Sri Lanka. Upon the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, which called for Sinhala to constitute the sole national language of the country, a 26-year civil war was catalysed. As a language, Sinhalese shares an intrinsic link with the Sinhala-Buddhist identity, originating from ancient Pali, the sacred language of Southern Buddhism. Hence, Sinhalese is made connotative not only of its ethnic group, but of a cultural and spiritual niche. Thus, the 1956 language policy deepened a social and cultural rift between Sinhalese and Tamil communities, as well as displaced those of Burgher descent, and created a convoluted sense of identity politics between ethnic subdivisions of the country.
2016 has thus seen the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, particularly in the form of the Sinhale Jathika Balamaluwa party. The party is motivated by the objective of safeguarding the Sinhalese-Buddhist identity, and rendering Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy in the nation. According to the chairman of the Sinhale Jathika Balamaluwa party, Venerable Yakkalamulle Pawara Thera, the party “is not a politically motivated organisation and we will make sure that it is not politicized for any reason in the future”. By refusing to streamline the party into Sri Lanka’s political front, the Sinhale Jathika Balamaluwa positions itself as a party waging cultural war. This has been evidenced by decentralised local attacks on citizens, the spread of Sinhale slogans around the country, and rhetorical attacks made by the Buddhist clergy on several occasions.
However, this new “cultural war” has not only been exemplified through attacks and political turmoil, but also through Sri Lanka’s artistic front – particularly, Kishani Jayasinghe’s performance at the 2017 Independence Day celebration. Upon invitation to the event, world-renowned opera singer Kishani Jayasinghe delivered her rendition of the Buddhist devotional song “Danno Budunge.” Subsequently, heavy controversy was sparked due to her delivery in the Western operatic style. By interpreting a Sinhalese Buddhist song in a Western genre, a cultural dichotomy was created. The outcry in response to setting Sinhalese-Buddhist text within a Western musical language was a testament not only to Sri Lanka’s active cultural war, but to the power of language and the connotations it holds within Sri Lanka’s society.
At an event celebrating independence from colonial rule, masses were unable to grapple with a Western style claiming Sinhalese-Buddhist text. Additionally, the incident was further muddied by the fact that the original “Danno Budunge,” is a Christian “Hymn for Ceylon” by Wagner, which was subsequently claimed by the Sinhalese and rewritten in Sinhala. With roots in the nation’s unshakable colonial history, Danno Budunge is a text which represents the plurality, and sometimes polarity, of Sri Lankan national identity. As a result, Sri Lanka’s ongoing cultural war continues to manifest itself in many ways.