Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne and cultural studies

In this week’s column, I examine the life and times of Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne and his singular contribution to mark Sri Lankan cultural studies in the arena of international academia.

Before embarking on analysing the contribution made by Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne to Sri Lankan cultural studies, it is imperative to briefly discuss what exactly meant by the term cultural studies and how it associates itself with other branches of social sciences. At a rudimentary level, cultural studies is grounded in critical theory and literary criticism. Cultural studies primarily examines political nature of contemporary culture and also its historical foundations, conflicts and defining traits. It is on these lines that cultural studies distinguishes itself, by and large, from academics from anthropology and ethnic studies in both objectives and methodologies employed.

Cultural studies is a multi-disciplinary field which encompasses myriads of subjects such as feminist theory, social theory, political theory, history, philosophy, literary theory, media theory, film/video studies, communication studies, political economy, translation studies, museum studies and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in various societies. The core logic of the multi-disciplinary nature of cultural studies is that it seeks to understand the ways in which meaning is generated, disseminated and produced through diverse practises, belief systems, institutions and political, economic or social structure within the confines of a given culture.

However, the term cultural studies was coined by Richard Hoggart in 1964 when he founded the now famous Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies or CCCS. The CCCS was strongly associated with Stuart Hall who was the successor of Hoggart as the Director of CCS.

Stuart Hall’s pioneering works with works of colleagues such as Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Tony Jefferson, and Angela McRobbie, created an international intellectual movement, establishing Cultural Studies as a major discipline in Social Sciences.

At the initial stages of Cultural Studies, scholars employed Marxist methods of analysis in exploring subtle and complex kinships between cultural forms ( the superstructure) and that of the political economy ( the base).

However, this dominant school was virtually challenged rapid socio-economic changes took place in the UK virtually reconfiguring the social order; the politically dominant British working class was declining against the backdrop of collapse of manufacturing industries and the dominant role played by unions. One of the major events that shock the very foundation of the old school was mass support of the British working class for Margaret Thatcher. For Stuart Hall and other Marxist theorists, the shift of loyalty of British working class from Labour Party to Conservative Party, was antithetical to the interests of the working class and the development could only be explained in terms of cultural politics.

It was at this stage that scholars at the CCCS began to consider the works of Antonio Gramsci, Italian political thinker to analyse and understand the changing political circumstances of class, politics and culture in the UK.

Gramsci’s groundbreaking theories

Gramsci had also confronted with similar issues in Italy; why would the Italian workers and peasants vote for fascists? Why workers yield their control to corporations and see their own rights and freedom abrogated?

Gramsci’s key contribution to theory building in this regard is that he modified classical Marxist theory considering culture as a major instrument of political and social control. Even the modern nation states profitably used and sometimes, abused cultural artifacts not only to indirectly impose their ideologies on other but also to expand their markets abroad.

In Gramsci’s view , capitalists use not only brute force through established social institutions and infrastructure such as police, prison and military to physically control the population but also infiltrate into the minds of working class through popular culture. A primary contribution of Gramsci to Cultural Studies and his modernisation of classical Marxist theory is the introduction of the idea of cultural hegemony. About Gramsci’s contribution, Scott Lash states, “In the work of Hall, Hebdige and McRobbie, popular culture came to the fore... What Gramsci gave to this was the importance of consent and culture. If the fundamental Marxists saw power in terms of class versus class, then Gramsci gave to us a question of class alliance. The rise of cultural studies itself was based on the decline of the prominence of fundamental class-versus-class politics. “

Sri Lankan cultural studies

Although cultural studies is not developed in Sri Lankan academia as it is in the West, the early works which can be classified as belonging to cultural studies were done by colonial administrators such as H.Parker, H.Nevil, Hocart, Codrinton and Emerson Tenent.

Following the initial stage of cultural studies, it was the Sri Lankan cultural anthropologists such as Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Charles Godakumbura and S.Paranavithane who substantially contributed to the growth of cultural studies in Sri Lanka. The focus of most of the early texts on Sri Lankan cultural studies was on mediaeval period. A classic example in this regard was Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy’s lengthy work Mediaeval Sinhalese Arts.

Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne’s footprints on cultural studies

It is that this stage that Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne’s singular contribution becomes an important source for both researches in the field of cultural studies and readers interested in studying deeply Sri Lankan culture and arts.

Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne’s research focus was primarily on the mediaeval period. Being an outstanding scholar in the field, Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne wrote over 70 books on Sinhalese culture both in Sinhalese and English. His corpus of works , most of which are standards references on Sri Lankan culture at universities around the world, is made up of such pioneering and insightful works as Golden rock temple Dambulla(1983), Kandy(1985), The Springs of Sinhala civilization(1993), Ancient Anuradhapura(1994),Pollonnaruwa(1998), Sunset at the valley Kothmale(2001).

He served as a Senior Professor in the Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya. At the university of Colombo, he was the Director of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies. Among his most popular books were those published by the Archaeological Survey Department and the Central Cultural Fund on various Archaeological monuments and sites in Sri Lanka.

Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne was an internationally reputed Sri Lankan academic who widely toured widely on invitations addressing many academic organisations and was a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford. In 1998, he was appointed a senior fellow at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London where he taught for two years.

In recognition of his contribution to scholarship, the Government of Sri Lanka conferred him the National Honours - Kala Keerti in 1994.

An important aspect of his multi-faceted personality is that apart from being an exceptional academic Prof. Seneviratne was also a creative artist, spreading his talents over diverse areas. For instance, in the early seventies, he was famous among listeners of SLBC (then Radio Ceylon) as a lyricist who wrote songs such as "Budukaruna dasa themi" sung by Nanda Malani, "Jayathu Jayathu Srilanka derane" sung by Pandith Amaradeva.

He served as an adviser and composed several geetha nataka's (Radio drama in songs) such as “Era mudumal" and "Geethagovinda" for SLBC. Perhaps, the best way to preserve and contribute to his enduring legacy of academic works is to establish a scholarly tradition of furthering the subject of cultural studies in Sri Lanka.