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Dennis McGilvray In the cozy darkness of a velvet blindfold

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 9:51 am

Published in my Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph  on Sunday, 21 July 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Stupidity is no stranger to academia. It lurks behind reputed and respected scholarly facades and waits for the owner of the façade to lower his or her guard. Then it comes out, so brazenly and without apology that one is struck speechless. Recently I had occasion to be entranced by the outing of (the stupidities of) Dennis MCGilvray and one other, who shall remain unnamed until it’s his turn for my attentions.

Though American, MCGilvray is no stranger to Sri Lankan studies, with which he has been associated since the late1960s. Michael Roberts, an anthropologist, though a historian by training, recalls how McGilvray was a participant in the Ceylon Studies Seminar organized by personnel from Peradeniya University in those halcyon days and how he (Mac not Mike) used to visit Peradeniya to meet Gananath Obeyesekere and was one of the many others who were drawn to that University by its global repute as a centre of excellence and the vibrant discourses centering around a happening sociology department. Roberts also has fond memories of staying at McGilvray’s place in Cambridge during a winter. All this connectedness with Sri Lanka and its academics could not save McGilvray from folly however.

From 1993 to 2002 Mac conducted (what he thought of as) independent ethnographic studies in Kuragala, the site of a Sufi shrine, while enjoying the hospitality of the main trustee M. L.M Aboosally. Now there are scholars who are capable of enjoying hospitality without compromising their independence. Dennis was not one of them. In the midst of his ethnographic survey he also made excursions into archaeology, willingly blindfolded and holding on to his host’s hand for guidance. Evidence of these forays, made in the cozy darkness of that velvet blindfold called hospitality, holding on to the comforting arm of his gracious host jumps at the reader from McGilvray’s “Jailani: A Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka’

Exhibit 1- “Jin Malai is a gentle stone slope with few cultural features apart from an early Arabic inscription. (The words have been translated as ‘Ya Allah Hijri 300’ or 907 CE (Aboosally 2002: 61, 87)”. When he wrote this sentence, McGilvray, Professor, PhD, University of Chicago had to have known that no credible epigraphic authority in Sri Lanka or abroad has ever claimed, during the whole of the 30 + years since the Kuragala controversy arose, that there were early Arabic inscriptions on any cliff formation at Kuragala. The source from which the knowledge of this early Arabic inscription flows into McGilvray’s august brain is Aboosally 2002, a political mover and shaker with a socio-financial stake in legitimizing a shrine at this site and the very opposite of a credible authority. Also note McGilvray’s sentence structure that presents claim by an interested party as an established fact. What causes a McGilvray to form sentences like this is the malady called hospitalitis.

Exhibit two ditto- Although Jailani is said to have been a place of Muslim refuge and Sufi meditation from the beginning of the fourth century of the Islamic era—and both a discovered dervish tombstone and some Arabic inscriptions would seem to support this view (Aboosally 2002)—all of the infrastructure of the Jailani shrine today is of twentieth century origin.” Again Mac seems strangely unaware of the incongruity of relying on the main trustee, the whole main trustee and the nothing but the main trustee in establishing the antiquity of a shrine. Equally strangely, Mac knew when he wrote this sentence, that a credible and specialist authority had been consistently repudiating the antiquity and authenticity of the dervish tombstone, Arabic inscriptions et al (henceforth to be called the ‘Aboosally antiques’). This specialist authority is none other than the Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka headed by Dr. S.U Deraniyagala during the time (1992-2001), McGilvray conducted (what he thought of as) independent ethnographic studies.

According to the Antiquities Ordinance, No. 9 of 1940 and its Amendment No. 24 of 1998, the sole responsibility of identifying what constitute  ‘antiquities’ and protecting them rests with the Director General of Archaeology. By the time Dennis was strolling up the garden path of the Aboosallys’ graciously appointed mansion, hand in hand with his host and dashingly accessorized by a velvet blindfold, a long line of Directors General of Archaeology had consistently refused to recognize the ‘Aboosally antiques’ as antiquities. The line started with Dr. C.E. Godakumbura (tenure 1956-1967), who is famously supposed to have said “of no relevance” when asked to record and decipher the Arabic writings at Kuragala, and included R.H. de Silva, Saddhamangala Karunarathna, Roland Siva, M. H Sirisoma and S.U Deraniyagala.

Mac does mention this specialist refusal but words it so as to cover up that it’s the weight of specialist opinion, which disqualifies the Aboosally antiques. Exhibit 3; However, these officially designated, governmentally-gazetted antiquities still do not include the Arabic inscriptions found on tombstones and rock faces at Jailani. “The Archaeological Department,” observes Mr. Aboosally, “appears to be only interested in Sinhala and Buddhist archaeology.” (Aboosally 2002: 85)”

I wonder Watson, if McGilvray realized, at least when proofreading, that the Aboosally 2002 motif recurs in his paper more frequently than the sex motif recurs in Lady Chatterley’s ? More importantly does it occur to Mac that in the matter of the antiquity of the Jailani shrine, he is technically treating M.L.M Aboosally as a higher authority than S. U Deraniyagala, who was the Director General of Archaeology during the period of research? What would cause a Professor, PhD, Uni of Chicago to rate an Aboosally higher than a Deraniyagala in archaeology? The power of hospitality Watson.

 

   http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/  and rathnawalli@gmail.com

 

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