Fr. Marcelline Jayakody’s enduring impactby J. A. K. Jayakody for Ceylon Daily News Thursday, 16 January 2003
“Being a Catholic does not mean that one should lose one’s national identity. At the same time admiring something else does not mean that I lose the respect for what is mine. God reels himself in different forms to different people”, so said the late Fr. Marcelline Jayakody, a Catholic priest, poet, lyricist, writer and journalist who used the local languages and the international language to widen the sensibility of the people of this country.
The spreading of indigenous values in the Catholic Church, in the face of a Western ethos was a formidable task for which the greater part of the credit should go to Fr. Mercelline Jayakody, the Polar Star which dawned on June 3, 1902 in the North Western periphery of the Sri Lankan firmament, centered in Dankotuwa, close to Negombo.
This is a Catholic stronghold which is 23 miles to the north of Colombo and famous for its fish, shellfish and palm-fringed lagoons glistening like streaks of silver outlined against a turquoise sky on sunny days. He had his early education in Madampe Vidyalaya and later at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo finally entering St. Bernard’s Seminary and being ordained as a priest in 1927. That was the acorn which gave birth to the mighty oak tree.
His father was a native physician and his mother was a Buddhist. From his toddling years, the family environment made him accustomed to the indigenous culture and to the verses recited by his father from medical scriptures which stood him in good stead in his later life as a poet. He represented and enlivened the school of Colombo poets who did not deviate from the traditional path, metrical structure with rhythmic quatrains ending with rhymes.
His contemporaries were PB Alwis Perera, Meemana Premathilake and Sagara Palansuriya, who was known as Keyas. The year 1956 saw a transformation of revolutionary proportions with the advent of the non-metric form ‘Nissandas’, through the adroit hand of the great innovative philosophic scholar, Siri Gunasinghe of the Peradeniya School of poetry who emphasized equivocation. But poets like Fr. Mercelline Jayakody remained within the traditional style, to bring to light the natural matchless beauty abundant in this splendid land.
Fr. Mercelline Jayakody said, ‘Structural poetry is what has been coming through the years to us that is our tradition of poetry. I believe that a true poet can’t ignore the aspect of rhythm and rhyme. Olu and Nelum blossomed in their tangle, in wealth of flowers and leaf which decorated water stretches like a Polka dotted fabric which were the subjects to create lilting songs”.
He further observed:
“Though the confinement to structure is difficult. It is something that poetry must have, I have nothing against free verse and feel that anyone who wants to write in that style has the freedom to do so but I personally do not think that philosophical thing expressed in beautiful and poetic prose can really be called a poem”.
Rich suggestive quality is the unique feature endemic to his poetic language which addresses the intellectual faculty of the reader. The aesthetic denoting function of the word as well as the in-depth meaning have been used to affect a fortuitous marching of both sense and sound to produce images or awareness.
‘Muthu’is an anthology consisting of poems he wrote for the ‘Kaviya’ magazine, for which he won the Presidential Award for the best poetic work in 1979. His service to the sphere of literature was recognised when he won the coveted Magsaysay Prize in 1983. The book ‘Muthu’ affects the reader like a cooling draught after the heat and burden of a day.
In 1995 Ven. Dr. Ittapane Dhammalankara Thera authored a book on the life of Fr. Mercelline Jayakody, මල් පැලේ උපන් පන්සලේ පියතුමා ‘Malpale Upan Pansale Piyathuma’, which is recorded as the first book in the world by a Buddhist prelate on a Catholic priest.
He who authored several books of prose and poetry in Sinhala and in English was honoured with the Kalasuri title by the state and ‘Kithu Nandana Pranamaya’ by the Catholic Church in recognition of his contribution to arts and culture for decades in this little island. At the Shanthi Nikethana, the famous oriental Thagorian Art Centre in India, he exposed himself to the fine arts and sharpened his inborn talents. It is said that he left for India to overcome a disappointment.
On his return he was sent to Jaffna which enabled him to study the Hindu religion and Tamil culture and he wrote a series of articles to the Times of Ceylon on Hindu culture from Jaffna. Later these articles were brought out ‘In Search of Ceylon’ which reflects his first-hand knowledge and experience of this country. Having been appointed to the staff of St. Peter’s College, Colombo he set up an oriental art centre there to expose the students to indigenous fine arts. His contribution to the then emerging local cinematic industry is etched in the history of Sri Lankan cinema.
The film ‘Rekawa’ presented by Lester James Pieris took on revolutionary proportions and won many international awards as the first cinematic work with a real indigenous outlook.
At a pool conducted by the Sunday Observer, Fr. Mercelline Jayakody was selected as the leading personality in the film world for the fascinating lyrics he wrote for the songs in ‘Rekawa’.
The Minister of Education of the day, W. Dahanayake the eloquent orater is recorded to have said at the film award presenting function, ‘if I can write one song like this, I hold it higher than my portfolio’. His magnificent effort to train the choir to sing ‘Namo Namo Matha’ for the first independence anniversary celebrations, as the composer Ananda Samarakoon was on an overseas trip, paved the way to adopt the song as our national anthem.
Mother Lanka can be proud of her sons of high calibre such as Fr. Mercelline Jayakody who passed away on January 15, 1998 at the ripe old age of 96 years.