Monday, June 16, 2014

Dennis McGilvray In the cozy darkness of a velvet blindfold

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 21 July 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Stupidity is no stranger to academia. It lurks behind reputed and respected scholarly facades and waits for the owner of the fa├žade 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"

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