Posted on February 6th, 2023


KS Sivakumaran in his book Sri Lankan Tamil literature and culture” (2019) wrote of the evolution of an indigenous Tamil literature of Sri Lanka.    Prior to this, in 2015, the Annasi and Kadalagotu festival”   had a session Tamil footprint in Sri Lanka literature”, focusing on Tamil writers writing in Sri Lanka. In 1990, LeRoy Robinson   interviewed Sivakumaran on Tamil writing for   Nagasaki University.” Mavata”, a Sinhala literary magazine, published in the 1970s and 80s, edited by Piyal Somaratne, had dedicated a whole issue, its 46th, to Tamil literature in Sri Lanka.

Sivakumaran said that in 1891 S. Innacitamby of Trincomalee adapted into Tamil a Portuguese novella called Orzon and Valentine”. This was the first Tamil novel written in Ceylon. Siddique Lebbe had written Asenbae sarithiram” in 1888. In 1895 T. Saravanamuttu Pillai of Trincomalee wrote Mohanangi.

Things improved in the 20th century. The Cultural Council of Sri Lanka had an advisory panel on Tamil literature.  From 1948-1970 there were a total of 71 novels, 57 collection of short stories, 98 anthologies of poetry and 49 plays published in Tamil by Ceylonese. There were 10 novels in the period 1943-1955, 35 between 1956- 1965 and 26 between 1966- 1970. The period 1965-1970 had two important writers, S Ponnuthurai and M. Thalayasingham. There were several good poets, such as Cheran, continued Sivakumaran.

Sivakumaran speaks of a novel by S Balamanoharan. S Yoganathan wrote five novellas. K Daniel wrote short stories and a novel. Arul Subramaniam also wrote novels. Zubair a Jaffna Muslim, who had also lived in Malaysia and South India wrote a novel and published a short lived magazine. Kohila Mahendran, a trained science teacher wrote short stories and also a novel, said Sivakumaran.

Initially most Tamil novels written in Sri Lanka were either adaptations or translations. Serious novels came to be written after 1956. There was a new political consciousness after 1956. Between 1956 and 1963 a progressive literary movement in Tamil came into full force, said Sivakumaran. S Ganeshalingam,  in his novel ‘Tharaiyum Tarakaiyum’ uses the 1958 riots as the background. K Rasathurai wrote a novel where there is reference to a rapacious Sinhala landlord.

One has to go a long way to change conservative thinking in Jaffna. Despite some beneficial material changes, there are areas in Jaffna society where the basic orientation towards an egalitarian society is still lacking. Many Tamil writers deal with this problem, said Sivakumaran.

In the period 1948-1955 there was only one collection of short stories, but there were 40 in 1956-1965, and 16 between 1966-1970. In 1988, that there were more than 200 Tamil short story writers in Sri Lanka, said Sivakumaran.

Short story writers included N Sivaganasundram, a DRO. There was Pathukai by Dominic Jeeva. M. Kanagarasan was a fairly well known writer said Sivakumaran. Poetry, fiction, drama, criticism – he does them all. Also he has translated short stories from Sinhala to Tamil. He is one of the most important Tamil short story writers in Sri Lanka. Absolute mastery of form with a deep concern for the people, said Sivakumaran. There were    short story collections such as ‘Eelathu parisuk kathaigal’ and Pottik Kathaikal’. In 1982 Sivakumaran published Sivakumaran Kathaihal, a collection of his short stories previously published in Tamil newspapers. 

Some short stories were modeled on the south Indian magazine stories of the 1960s.These were mediocre, romantic escapist pieces. There were other short stories which carried social comment.  They depicted the actual situation of the Tamils and were gloomy, said Sivakumaran.

In one short story, by S Yogarasa, a person collecting funds for rehabilitation of Tamils refuses to release the funds to a low caste community. Some stories depict the Eelam war from the eyes of ordinary people who have not taken part in the war.  One story is about how these people manage interrogation and attack by armed forces who suspect them all of being terrorist which they aren’t.

M. Kanagarasan’s Bagavanin Pathangalil is on Buddhism. In Colombo, a teenage Tamil girl living in an upstairs flat looks at a Bo-tree through her window. Under the tree a statue of Lord Buddha is enshrined. A little girl near the tree has a piece of bread in her hand. A crow snatches the bread out of her hand. The child’s mother beats her. That was the only food they had for the day. Then the child’s father beats the mother.

The teenage girl comes downstairs with a ten rupee note to give to the poor family. On her way, a passerby steals the bill out of her hand and she returns to her room. Then from her window she sees a father and child come to the Bo tree to offer flowers to the Buddha. The child who was beaten watches them. They see her. They put a few cents in the till and pay their tributes to the Buddha and go away, ignoring the child.

Sivakumaran makes special mention of short stories written by Tamil writers from the estate sector (Malaiha). He reported that Anthony Jeeva, a Catholic, from hill country, ran a small publishing house and started a literary journal edited by him, on the subject of hill country life.

The estate Tamil writers identify themselves according to their hometowns. Somu and Vadivelan were from Matale and indentified as such. Thotta Kaddinalai was published by the Matale Tamil Writers Union.

N. S. M. Ramiah began his career in the late 1950s when a conscious effort was made to evolve Tamil writing based on Sri Lankan life. In his Oru Koodaik Kolunthu (A Basket of Budding Tea Leaves) Ramiah tried to depict plantation life of that era.

There were others. In Dharmikam”, Malaranpan shows how an old estate woman and a Sinhala kangany, a line foreman, help people in adversity regardless of their ethnic connections. During an inter-communal disturbance a mob tries to attack Tamil families in a line. The Sinhala kangany defends them. The old Tamil woman goes out to help deliver the new baby of the leader of the mob, who is a Sinhalese. This situation may seem contrived, but such incidents have actually occurred in real life, said Sivakumaran.

Somu’s story He Is Not Just Another” is about the attempt of a young man to educate his family in a very backward estate. In “Dogs Do Not Become Men” Somu shows that dogs do not show distinctions, unlike human beings who are caste and class conscious. “The Fellow from the Lines” describes distinctions between two old friends who become conscious of their class differences. These are common themes in local Tamil fiction, said Sivakumaran.

In his interview with LeRoy Robinson, Sivakumaran focuses on estate poetry. He spoke of the poet Kurinchi Thennavan, unusual among the writers in that he did not have much formal education. Yet his familiarity with poetic language is surprisingly good. So is his ability to express ideas in a compact manner. Most of his poems are descriptions of the actual hardships of the plantation workers in the hill country.

Tamil creative writing in Sri Lanka was not profitable, said Sivakumaran. The local writer had to bear the cost themselves and also had to see to the sale and distribution of the books. Local Tamil literature did not sell well. There was heavy competition from India.   Books printed in South India were less expensive.    The local writings were not popular either. Readers preferred the books from South India. Also, very few local books were recommended as Tamil texts for schools.  Libraries also did not display books by local Tamil writers, complained Sivakumaran. 

Tamil literary journals fared no better. Magazines such as Marumalarchi  and “Kalaichelvi” were short lived. The south Indian magazines such as Kumudam,” and Kalki” were avidly read by the middle class Tamils in Ceylon. The only people who read the Tamil magazines published in Sri Lanka are its authors, observed Sivakumaran.

The main emphasis in Tamil theatre was on Tamil folk plays. Nine folk plays were published between 1948 and 1966, on the initiative of S Vithianandan, with the help of Arts Council.  Vithiananthan was chair of Tamil drama panel of National Arts Council in 1950. Vithiananthan, backed by the Arts Council, also went to Chilaw, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and other districts and put on drama festivals there. He held seminar and workshops on Tamil folk drama in Jaffna with the support of the Jaffna Cultural Council.

The Folk arts Panel of the Jaffna Cultural Council published Kattavarayan naatakan” edited by E. Balasunderam.This was a religious play in the oral tradition, on a minor god, Kaathavarayar, performed in Batticaloa   , Jaffna, and Trincomalee. Balasunderam had gathered scripts from all three places. He said that Sri Lanka Tamils can be distinguished by the regions they live in; they have their own cultural traditions.

Tamil plays, in modern style were written and performed in the universities, especially in University of Jaffna said Sivakumaran, giving examples. Students of Chundikuli Girls School wrote and published seven plays staged by them.  Two plays were performed at in St John’s Bosco school in Jaffna  under the direction of D.S.Maunaguru, a teacher in Department of Fine arts, University of Jaffna. He was also a skilled performer, recorded Sivakumaran.

 There were 50 Tamil schools participating in the Tamil medium Schools short Drama Competition organized by Tower Hall Theatre Foundation and sponsored by the Education ministry, in 2016. The Sinhala division had 300 schools.

Sri Lanka Tamil cinema was a late starter, unlike Sinhala cinema which started in 1948. Tamil cinema failed to win much attention in Sri Lanka and none at all in Tamilnadu.   Tamil films from Tamil Nadu were more popular in Sri Lanka, too.

The first locally made Tamil film appeared in 1951. Titled Kusumalatha, it was a dubbed version of Sangavunu Pilithura.  In 1962 came  the first original Tamil film, “Samathayam’ ,an adaptation of C.N. Annadurai’s  Velaikkari , made in 16 mm and Technicolor, produced by Henry Chandrawansa. Samathayam’ was shown for 7 days at the YMBA, Borella.

Thottakkari, released on 28 March 1962, was the first Sri Lankan Tamil film in 35 mm format. It included speeches by the trade unionists  S. Thondaman and Azeez and was directed by Krishnakumar who also played the film’s male lead.Krishnakumar had trained under Sirisena Wimalaweera.

1952-1982 saw nearly 50 Tamil films but only about 36 were actually screened said Sivakumaran.  Only 28 films were made between 1962-1993. Many of these films were in 16mI and they lad very short runs, some less than week. Some were not shown in commercial theatres at all, said Sinesith. Yasapalitha Nanayakkara, Wilfred Silva, Dharmasena Pathiraja and Sunilsoma Peries had directed some of these Tamil films.

The most remembered Tamil film is Ponmani’ (1977) a Tamil language film   made by Dharmasena Pathiraja when Pathiraja was attached to the Sinhala Department of the Jaffna University.  This is his only Tamil language film. Set in Jaffna, it traces the fortunes and concerns of an economically depleted upper caste but lower middle class family. The film was produced by Muttiah Rajasingham and the screenplay written by Kavaloor Rajadurai.

The film journal ‘Sinesith’ had an issue celebrating 50 years of Sri Lankan cinema. ( No 34/35, 1997) it did not have an article on Sinhala cinema. Instead it had alengthy article of21 pages on the rise and fall of Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka, followed by a comprehensive list of Tamil films produced in Sri Lanka.

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