29 May 1890|
Koggala, Sri Lanka
|Died||23 July 1976
Colombo, Sri Lanka
|Other names||Lama Hewage Don Martin Wickramasinghe|
|Occupation||Writer, Author in Sri Lanka|
|Spouse(s)||Kataluwe Balage Prema de Silva|
The search for roots is a central theme in Wickramasinghe's writings on the culture and life of the people of Sri Lanka. His work explored and applied modern knowledge in natural and social sciences, literature, linguistics, the arts, philosophy, education, and Buddhism and comparative religion to reach beyond the superficial emotionalism of vulgar nationalism, and guide Sri Lankan readers to the enduring roots of their common national identity that exists in the folk life and folk culture of Sri Lanka.
Wickramasinghe was born on May 29, 1890, in the town of Koggala, in Sri Lanka, the only son of Lamahewage Don Bastian Wickramasinghe, and Magalle Balapitiya Liyanage Thochchohamy. Koggala was bounded on one side by a reef, and on the other by a large lake into which the numerous tributaries of the Koggala Oya drained. The landscapes of the sea, lake studded with little islands, the flora and fauna, the forested hinterland, and the changing patterns of life and culture of the people of the village would later influence his work.
At the age of five Wickramasinghe was taught the Sinhala alphabet, at home and in the village temple, by a monk, Andiris Gunananse. He also learned the Devanagari script and could recite by memory long sections of the Hitopadesa. After two years he was taken to a vernacular school where he prospered until 1897 when he was sent to an English school in Galle called Buena Vista. In the two years spent at the school Wickramasinghe became fluent in English as well as Latin. When his father died, he returned to a vernacular school in Ahangama and subsequently lost interest in schooling. He went to Louvre International School.
Wickramasinghe began his literary career with the novel Leela (1914) and an anthology of essays on literary criticism, 'Shastriya Lekhana (1919). Shortly thereafter he began a campaign to raise literary standards for the Sinhalese reading public with work such as Sahityodaya Katha (1932), Vichara Lipi (1941), Guttila Geetaya (1943) and Sinhala Sahityaye Nageema (1946) in which he evaluated the traditional literally heritage according to set rules of critical criteria formed by synthesizing the best in Indian and western traditions of literary criticism.
Through the 1940s Wickramasinghe dabbled with the double role of literary critic and creative writer. Gamperaliya (1944) is widely held as the first Sinhalese novel with a serious intent that compares, in content and technique, with the great novels of modern world literature. The novel depicts the crumbling of traditional village life under the pressure of modernization. The story of a successful family in a Southern village is used to portray the gradual replacement of traditional economic and social structure of the village by commercial city influence.
Wickramasinghe followed Gamperaliya with Yuganthaya (1948) and Kaliyugaya (1957) forming a trilogy. After the decay of the traditional life, the story details the rise of the bourgeoisie, with its urban base and entrepreneurial drive, ending with the formation of the labor movement and socialist theology and rise of hopes for a new social order.
With the development of a literary criticism movement in the early-'50s, Wickramasinghe presented the works Sahitya Kalava ('The Art of Literature' 1950) and Kawya Vicharaya ('The Criticism of Poetry' 1954). He received an MBE around this time.
Wickramasinghe's most heralded work came in 1956 with Viragaya. Due to the significance of its theme and the sophistication of its technique, the novel has come to be hailed as the greatest work of Sinhalese fiction. It follows the spiritual problems of a fragile Sinhalese youth raised in a traditional Buddhist home after being confronted with the spectre of adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it all made more complex with the modernization of society. First-person narrative is used to put forth the autobiographical story of the anti-hero in impressionistic vignettes rather than in chronological order. It is a seminal work and spawned a spew of imitators, some good on their own right.
Wickramasinghe was an early practitioner of the genre of poetry called nisandas, which ignored the restrictions placed on poetry by the traditional prosodic patterns. It drew inspiration from the work of Eliot, Pound, Whitman and other western poets and was part of a movement called Peradeniya School. Wickramasinghe's work was Teri Gi (1952).
The movement dissolved in the 1960s prompted by Wickramasinghe's contention that other writers of the Peradeniya School were not sensitive to cultural traditions and the Buddhist background of Sinhalese society. He accused Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekara and others of imitating "decadent" western and post-war Japanese literature and of supporting a nihilistic look on life with cyncial disregard for national tradition.
In 1973, Wickramasinghe wrote a new biography of Lord Buddha titled Bava Taranaya. In it the great teacher's change from royal heir in-waiting to philosopher-mendicant is portrayed as being a result of his sympathy to the poor and the downtrodden of society. Wickramasinghe died on July 23, 1976.