Courtesy - The Island By Nanda Abeywickrama
Professor K N O Dharmadasa’(KNO)s feature in theSatMag of The Island of Nov. 19 and the comments of my Peradeniya and public service colleagues Dr. Punchihewa and Shyamon Jayasinghe that followed, inspired me to pen this note about not one as suggested by KNO, but, in fact, two momentous anniversaries deserving to be celebrated in the year 2011 namely Professor Sarachchandra’s all time classicSinhabahu, which completed 50 years of continuous running and his first break through on stage, Maname Natakaya, which counted 55 years on stage bereft of much celebration. They both deserve celebration at national level because perhaps no other production of the performing arts in Sri lanka seems to have endured unbroken public acceptance for such length of time. Indeed there was such a joint celebration held 10 years ago at the Elphinstone Theatre, at which several generations of players were present. I was delighted to see a further elaboration of the Sinhabahu related events by KNO in the Midweek Review of Dec. 07. I was also fortunate to be invited to the delightful evening at the Tower Hall Foundation on Oct. 25, where the original cast of Sinhabahuled by Charlie Jayawardhana presented a memorable rendering of the Sinhabahu classics. With terrorism related tensions hopefully behind us, the time appears to be right for us to open a dialogue on the revitalisation of Sinhala theatre and connected activities;the space provided by the editor of The Island newspaper in this effort has to be appreciated.
Sinhabahu at 50 and Maname at 55
While KNO has written his original piece purely as a Rasika (a highly sophisticated one at that) ofSinhabahu I write as a rasika of both Maname and of Sinhabahu and more important as an ‘insider of Maname’ having been associated with its production from nearly the inception as an undergraduate. To deal with Sinhabahu first, my first sighting of it was 50 years back in late 1961 in Kandy (at Pushpadana Hall, I guess). This would have been one of its first performances outside the Peradeniya University and I had to drive all the way from Trincomalee from my first public service posting to see the new play. To convey the range of delightful emotions thatSinhabahu generated in me that evening, on seeing this ‘unprecedented work of art’ as KNO puts it I have to borrow his own expression chamathkara (joyful surprise) in no small measure. I was not only mesmerized by the fusion of lyrics and the melodies underpinned by the drumming and the matching dance forms but carried to a new plane of enjoyment by the multiple climaxes of the tragic drama which left behind a set of deep emotions to ponder over for a long time to come. So, I fully share the KNO’s view that Sinhabahu is ‘the classic and the poem’ that set the Sinhala stage on fire and perhaps will remain so for some time to come.
Since then I have seldom missed an opportunity to witness Sinhabahu with friends and family and still experience afresh those generationally valid set of emotions that rest on one’s bone marrow. Just like KNO’s experience the best response came from some of my non-Sri Lankan colleagues –who saw Sinhabahu as my guests. One was a Banglaseshi and the other a Frenchman, both of whom without any prompting from me regarding the plot understood and enjoyed the set of emotions and tragic drama as if they were Sri Lankans, which demonstrates the universality of the play and the presentation. So in summary, there is no doubt that Sinhabahu remains the classic poem on the Sri Lankan stage.
Having said that I come to Maname –– the significance of its 55th anniversary and how it helped with the birth of Sinhabahu itself. Again as a rasika I keep enjoying seeing Maname over and over again; we enjoy the movements, the lyrics, the singing but above all the dramatic expression.Maname has also not lost its popularity among theatre goers even after 55 years. Hence public acceptance is not at all in doubt. What is significant though is how it got there and how it made the breakthrough to tread a new path for a generation of new dramatists and for the author ofSinhabahu himself.
Most present-day theatre lovers may not recall or may not be aware that by the middle of the 20th century (1950) theatre in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) had reached a dead end as it were and was awaiting a resurgence. After the decline of Nurthi and Jayamanne stage plays the lead was taken by the Ranga Sabha of the Ceylon University since 1945 to produce naturalistic dialogue plays following the western tradition then in vogue. But by the mid fifties they, too, had lost steam and lost direction. Learned society looked up to the University to provide the leadership in the resurgence of arts and letters. It is against this backdrop that Dr. Sarathchandra, who had by then done considerable research on the subject and also studied traditional theatre in the Far East, moved in to the breach and ventured out to take the challenge of experimenting with what he thought could be a truly Sri Lankan form of modern theatre. The attempt was a complete departure from the beaten track, for which Sarachchandra opted to draw from the traditional forms of rudimentary ritualistic drama that were surviving but not accepted in learned society.
To elaborate the enormity of this challenge and to present to the reader a flavour of the risk Dr. Sarathchandra was taking it appears appropriate to give an ‘insider’s view’ of a few of the little known facts and events by ‘churning the memories’ of how the form and content of Manameevolved 55 years back ‘from the ground up’. It happened in my second year at Peradeniya in mid 1956. Part I exams at the end of second year had been dispensed with allowing undergraduates to pursue other interests free of examination pressures. So when the then President of the University Sinhala Drama Circle, Arthur Silva persuaded me to join rehearsals in a stage play, I was completely innocent of what I was walking in to. I had a love for music and theatre and that was about all. When I walked in to Dr Sarachchandra’s bungalow on Sanghamitta Hill, there were seated on the floor a couple of fellow undergraduates drawn mostly from my batch and I had to just zip in as the rehearsal was in progress (in due course Sarachandra auditioned me briefly and inducted me in to the chorus).
The room was full of surprises and strange happenings. The first was the presence of the Gurunnanse (Charles Silva Gunasinghe) advisor to Dr Sarachchandra in native dress and ‘konde’ looking menacingly at us young students; at that time there was no common ground or bond between the Gurunnanse and the students. At best we took him as an aberration although as time passed we realised his true value. He was a true ‘uncompromising professional’ to use current terminology; Dr. Sarachchandra often had to cave in when it came to conforming to traditional basics which the Gurunnanse felt could not be violated. The second surprise was the stylised ‘unnatural’ step or ‘gamana’ which the players had to adopt. The ‘gamana’ which involved taking one step and two half steps at a time and varied from character to character appeared comic to us who were used to the naturalistic play; the players had to struggle to get accustomed to it. Initial audience reaction to the ‘gamana’ when the play was staged finally, was similar.
Then came the singing and the dialogue; the kind of songs and the style of singing was totally different from what we untrained youth were used to. The lyrics had a strong classical bias and were designed to convey messages and events. The main characters had to have strong voices as in opera and be able to communicate with the audience. To be in sync with the main character the chorus had to follow the shruthi-pitch and the laya-tempo; timing and beat were of the essence. Further, as we proceeded into the drama we had to cope with the wide range of notes from as deep as Disapamok’s Vidyaa saagarayehi Pathulen Godagena to the highest pitch in the battle song Maage Avasara Nomagena.Timing had to be impeccable and synchronised with theMaddala beat, which again was different from all other drums we were accustomed to. And all this had to match with the ‘gamana’
The most curious part of the drama though was the dialogue or vachana which was a complete departure from the dialogue employed so far on stage, screen or in public speech. It was both queer and comic at the beginning and the characters had to struggle to get used to it both mentally and physically. All in all, it was a major challenge.
On top of all this came the new character ‘Potheguru’ the Narrator who was expected to play a critical role in the play. With no precedent to go by Shyamon Jayasinghe had to define his novel role (and define he did setting a standard that has not been matched to date!)
While all this was queer yet challenging the big question in every body’s mind however was what this exercise would turn out to be eventually? What will be the audience response? Critical, indifferent or appreciative? Will it be a flop altogether? All these were unknowns. Indeed I would expect that another surviving insider like Arthur Silva would document the many organisational and logistical issues that Maname had to contend with during rehearsals and in getting th right audience in the early years.
To go back to my story as the rehearsals progressed and our main actors Ben Sirimanne Trillicia and Wijesinghe displayed their theatrical talents combined with their unique singing skills and as the dramatic expression of the play unfolded we gained some self confidence and looked forward to the end. We also noted that Dr. Sarachchandra did not start with a ready-made script but was developing it on the go; perhaps the talents and commitment of the cast inspired him to enrich the content of the script. At this stage he brought in the renowned ballet virtuoso Vasantha Kumar, who lived close to the University to review the key dance steps including the climax of the confrontation between the Maname and the Veddah king. Here we saw the confluence of genius––how Vasantha kumar introduced dance forms drawn from classical traditions to blend with the nadagam style and produce an unbelievable dramatic effect. The confrontations and the final duel will remain masterpieces of dance drama for all time.
Nevertheless, although several university dons and outside rasikas dropped by to witness the rehearsals- now in the arts theatre, none would venture to give any hope for the play’s success. General perception was that it would be a faithful presentation of the traditional story of Manamedepicting the frailty of woman. While the main characters were now starting to ‘live’ their roles the Pothegura off stage and without the costume did not as yet make much of an impression.
It was clear though that Dr. Sarathchandra was moving in unchartered territory and was taking a major risk and a challenge at a time when Sinhala theatre was in the doldrums. He probably had only the strength of his own conviction and confidence and the desire to test the audience at large. This was quite evident when we had to perform before a half full hall made up largely of invitees at the Lionel Wendt on 3 Nov. 1956
As insiders we got a new and exhilarating experience when we went through the dress rehearsal. The Lionel Wendt was a different theatre in the first place; it was relatively small, had theatre style tiered seating, excellent acoustics, so there were many plus points. But, what made the real difference was the stage setting. With no props or screens to change scenes the whole play presentation was founded on the techniques of stage lighting. The stage was bare all the time but the lighting system––spot lights––which changed the scenes and brought out the dramatic effects were simply magical. So, all the new features that I referred to above the ‘gamana’ ‘vachana ’the chorus were brought in to high relief with the colourful costumes by Siri Gunasinghe and imaginative make up by Eileen Sarachchandra to give the audience a totally new experience. It has been remarked that "here was a stage with no painted scene, no card board palaces, no canvas forests, nothing to dazzle the eye and dull the mind, nothing to distract the audience from the poetry music and the movement." I imagine that night we experienced the same ‘Chamathkara’ that KNO and his colleagues did at the open air theatre in 1961. The major surprise on the first night was the emergence of Potheguru brought to life by the inimitable performance of Shyamon. To us it was clear that the breakthrough had been made.
Yet the downside was that there was hardly an appreciative audience on those first few nights. In fact, Dr. Sarachchandra protested when he was invited on stage for a ‘curtain call’ presumably because the type of audience he expected were not present. But following press reviews and a few more shows there was a sea change; through the year 1957 Maname was tested with the most sophisticated and critical audiences-––the southern upper class who were both patrons and connoisseurs of theatre and the arts . Maname was staged in all the southern coastal towns from Panadura to Matara and the reception and response was overwhelming.
Reggie Siriwardana had this to say in the Ceylon Daily News in early 1958 when the Maname text was published in book form:
"I can remember vividly the first performance of Maname in November 1956. The little Lionel Wendt Theatre was only half full and most of the audience , I suspected were present on invitation while the socialites and the upper class patrons of Sinhalese culture were conspicuously absent.Yet many in that audience must have come away that night, as I did, that something momentous had happened in Sinhalese theatre"
Since that time our first night’s conviction has been confirmed by crowded houses at nearly fifty performances of the opera ... as theatre goers of all classes up and down the country ,both cultivated and unsophisticated took Maname to their hearts"
"Looking ahead"said Reggie", it is in this fusion of music and drama above all that Maname has its great importance for the future of the Sinhalese theatre"
By this time Maname had a regular following too and some fans wanted to keep chasing Manameat different locations; this affliction was termed "Manamania." In fact, in these early years there was this interest on the part of traditionally wealthy socialites to be associated with the intellectual aura of Sarachchandra and his talented band of university students; hence we were enthusiastically welcomed in their sprawling homes with great affection and hospitality. It invariably ended up with a musical evening (much like a Paeduru Patiya) where local artistes and fans would join in and socialise with the Maname crew Those were delightful and endearing evenings.
Senior students in schools aspiring to enter University were another group of fans who wanted to be identified with the undergraduate cast. And there were those who had recently graduated from especially the Peradeniya University, who had seen in Maname the realisation of their dreams. In this way, Maname in the early years ushered in an extended group of rasikas.
A Strange Coincidence
By a strange coincidence by the time Sinhabahu emerged, Maname was celebrating its fifth year and 100th show in November 1961. Reggie Siriwardena on this occasion said, "During these five years Maname has been acted before every kind of audience and has pleased every kind of playgoer……….In Maname Dr Sarachchandra created a form that was both popular and capable of serving as a medium of the highest dramatic experience Theatre for the Sinhala audience as for audiences in many other countries of Asia, has been closely associated with poetry and song and dance. Dr Sarathchandra’s triumph was in making a dramatic unity out of these popular elements. Maname is no longer a play merely; it has become the fount and source of a whole dramatic movement ... Dr Sarathchandra himself has continued to experiment. and in his newest play, Sinhabahu, he has developed further the form he introduced in Maname and has used it to convey a deeper tragic experience. But Maname will remain the great historical landmark, the turning point in our theatre a source of joy to playgoers and inspiration to playwrights for many years to come."
n early 1958, Sarachchahdra took the next logical step of experimenting with the help of Manameto get on to what appeared to be closest to the traditional stage of the nadagama––the Open Air Theatre (OAT or Wala) at the Peradeniya campus, where Henry Iayasena made his debut as Prince Maname substituting for Ben. By mid 1958 although I had no opportunity to be at the OAT after that first night, the fact that Sinhabahu was premiered at the OAT is a testimony to its success and popularity.
Original Maname Crew
The Maname crew made up of the cast, the instrumentalists, the Drama Circle Committee, stage managers and helpers were as ‘original’ as the play itself. Each one was a different character but together they were great camaraderie; young, imaginative, enthusiastic bound by one objective––to put on a breathtaking show and enjoy the rest of the evening! The bulk of the original Maname cast were leaving Peradeniya after completion of studies in mid 1958; one of our colleagues then raised the question of ‘winding up Maname’. Dr Sarachchadra to our surprise commented that there was no need to wind up if a new generation could take over. And that did happen with the Jana Ranga Sabha formed in Colombo outside the University taking responsibility for continuing Maname and some of the original crew continued to participate when possible. Since then Maname has had a succession of players now for 55 years. Interestingly, I have noted that at each mile post celebration the organisers have made sure to pay tribute to the original crew by listing them in the main programme brochure. The ‘originals’ who survived had a reunion in July 1993 –that was 37 years after the commencement of Maname.
Thus, while Reggie Siriwardena’s comments remain valid half a century on Maname and Sinhabahuin tandem continue to dominate the Sinhala stage holding the apex position. While we hope this phenomenon will continue for many years to come we also hope that new dramatists who could create such masterpieces for the Sri Lankan theatre lovers will emerge soon since Sinhala theatre appears to be slipping back to the early 1950s for want of new creative efforts. The surest way to achieve this would be to keep the dialogue and the reunions alive.