Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Amaradeva at 85: Maestro W.D.Amaradeva

Amaradeva at 85: Giving tongue to a nation’s soul

by Ajith Samaranayake

Maestro W.D.Amaradeva

(December 5th 2012 is the 85th birthday of Maestro W.D.Amaradeva. This article by Ajith Samaranayake appearing in the “Sunday Observer” of January 10th 1999 was written to celebrate the Doyen of Sinhala music receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Peradeniya on December 29th 1998. It is reproduced here as a birthday tribute to the man who gave tongue to a nation’s soul)
Last year ended on a note of epiphany at the University of Peradeniya. December 29 as the day of the general convocation, for the graduates the highpoint of their academic life. There were also three eminent men who received honorary doctorates that evening in the sylvan groves of academe.

Among them was W. D. Amaradeva, the nation’s leading musician who wrapped in an ermine cloak lit the oil lamp to inaugurate the festivities. Later after dinner at the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge the hills of Hantane resounded and resonated to his songs as the dons and their spouses gave voice to his melodies while the maestro watched in silent wonder.

Of all the accolades and encomiums showered on him during the last so many decades Amaradeva confesses to being most greatly touched with this degree of Doctor of Letters (Honoris Causa) since coming from Sri Lanka’s first and still leading university it seals his place not merely as Sri Lanka’s leading composer and vocalist but also recognises the intellectual richness and depth of his musical knowledge and how deftly he has applied this to produce a vast corpus of semi-classical light music which has been outstandingly popular without ever being vulgar of meretricious.

As the Dean of the Faculty of Arts Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa said presenting the musician to the Chancellor, ‘In the field of contemporary music there is one person who has earned the rare distinction of being admired by artist, connoisseur and ordinary rasika alike for his dynamic influence on the creation of a national tradition and for his incomparable virtuosity and creative genius. I refer, Chancellor, to Pandit W. D Amaradeva who as the trail-blazer of a distinctively Sri Lankan musical tradition had as a comproser, conductor, violinist and singer over a period of more than half a century immensely enriched life in our country.’

Classical academic tradition

More than any other musician in Sri Lanka, past or present, Amaradeva has consistently sought to synthesise the classical academic tradition with the best features of contemporary culture.

This he has done without showing either any misplaced reverence or awe towards high culture or populist deference to mass culture. He has discovered the golden mean between the two and without breaching the walls of high culture so that the popular hordes would trample through the garden has nevertheless been able to open up the enclosed garden so that the ordinary rasika can taste the sweetest fruits plucked from its trees.

This Wannakawattawaduge Don Amaradeva has been able to accomplish perhaps because of the peculiarly fortunate position he has been occupying as a musician. Amaradeva like many others did not emerge as a musician after a fully-blown academic education.

On the contrary his formal education at the Bhathkande Institute of Music in Lucknow came after many years of actual experience in the field as a violinist, director of music for films and vocalist. Because of this unique apprenticeship and early conditioning Amaradeva was singularly equipped to reconcile within himself both the theoretical and the practical, both the high and the popular strands of contemporary music.

Amaradeva was born 72 years ago in Moratuwa, which was heavily influenced both by Catholicism and a consequent cosmopolitan way of life. It is the most popular seat of baila in Sri Lanka. The baila which is a genre of music borrowed from the Portuguese who were Sri Lanka’s first colonial invaders, is still the favourite mode of music at middle-class parties.

Amaradeva has no highbrow hang-ups about the baila. He concedes that it has its valid place in the natural order of things. In fact he had composed the music for the song ‘Pipi Pipi Renu Natana’ using baila melody, he says. Talking to me he hums that most popular Moratuwa baila, ‘Pun Sanda Paya Moratuwa Dilenna’.

But the baila was not all. Even as a schoolboy Amaradeva was quite a skilful violinist. The violin also showed the way forward for Amaradeva’s music has always and above all else been clean, purifying and soul-enriching. Even when as the assistant director to Mohamed Ghouse he was composing the music for and singing such songs as ‘Eli Kale Yameku Ale’ in ‘Asokamala’ there was nothing gaudy in Amaradeva’s songs unlike that of most of the early Sinhala films with their heavy South Indian influence.

Cultural renaissance

Amaradeva was also fortunate to be very much part of the cultural renaissance of this time expressed mostly through music and dance. As a schoolboy he had met Munidasa Kumaratunge from the adjacent town of Panadura, a scholar whose poetry has been overshadowed by his literary puritanism. Amaradeva’s song ‘Handapane Welithala’ is based on a poem by him.

Amaradeva also associated with the other giants of the time such as Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Shantha, Vasantha Kumara, Premakumara, Panibharatha and Sesha Palihakkara while Chitrasena’s studio at Kollupitiya often provided them with a meeting place, a kind of cultural ashram later demolished by unthinking officialdom with monumental callousness.

The highpoint of Amaradeva’s achievements during this period is considered the music he composed for Premakumara Epitawela’s ‘Selalihini Sandesaya’ where he was able to offer a new interpretation to the traditional ‘samudragosha’ metre in which much of classical Sinhala poetry has been written and also a new style in poetry recitation.

It was with all these achievements behind him that Amaradeva proceeded to India for his formal musical education on an initiative taken by D.B. Dhanapala, then the editor of the ‘Lankadeepa’ and Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra who had already discovered his potential and introduced him to the Peradeniya University environment.

As Prof. Dharmadasa was to say in his presentation: ‘It was at this stage that Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra introduced Amaradeva to the university environs, thus marking not only the commencement of his association with this university, an association which has now lasted for more than fifty years, but also the abiding friendship between Sarachchandra and Amaradeva, which as some of us has the good fortune to observe, was highly productive, and was marked by deep mutual respect and affection.

We should recall that from about the early 1950′s, Amaradeva has been visiting our university, and through lucid lecture-demonstrations of the type which he alone could present, provided us glimpses into the world of raghadari sangita. University audiences have also had, from time to time, the enchanting experience of his music recitals’.

The rest is the stuff of recent history steadily developing into legend. Armed with both practical training and formal education Amaradeva was now in a position to explore the whole spectrum of music, both local and foreign, for new and innovative methods of expression.

He drew his melodies both from the folk as well as the North Indian classical tradition. He did not make a fetish of folk music but drew inspiration from it as it suited him. On the other hand, he drew from the Indian ragas for some of his best melodies while at times creatively combining as in ‘Pile Padura’ the folk ‘seepada’ with an Indian folk raga. For his Buddhist devotional songs of which John Ross Carter has written extensively in his monograph ‘On understanding Buddhists: Essays on the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka’ he was inspired by Buddhist gathas and the manner in which they are rendered.

As a pure musician too he is in a class of his own. The music compositions he did for Chitrasena’s ballet ‘Karadiya’ are justly famous not only in Sri Lanka but wherever this masterpiece has been staged.
Amaradeva therefore stands today at the bridgehead of modern Sinhala music. He is without doubt the father of contemporary Sinhala music at its best. He has rescued Sinhala music from the crudities of the early film music. He has built on the works of Ananda Samarakoon, Suryashankar Molligoda and Sunil Shantha whose one ambition was to develop a clean and wholesome indigenous musical tradition.

That ambition it was left to Amaradeva to bring to fruition. Here he was well-served by his lyric writers chief among them being Mahagama Sekera (their partnership was particularly fruitful), Madawala S. Ratnayake and Dalton de Alwis all of them now dead. Of the contemporary lyricists W. A. Abeysinghe, Sunil Sarath Perera and of late Ratnasiri Wijesinghe have done some inspired work for him.

Parricide being a pastime of some in all ages there are those who would like to slay the sacred cow. Marxists and modernists alike sometimes charge Amaradeva with living in a golden past, of invoking a dead village and being trapped in petrified feudal social relations. But there is nothing mawkishly sentimental or saccharin about Amaradeva’s village unlike the romantically-blinkered vision of the Colombo poets.

The village he invokes is healthy and wholesome and embodies values which are salutary antidote to the contemporary rat race, the scramble for office, position, wealth and privilege. Anyway who are we to question the vision of the poet? Certainly it would be comic to demand that poetry and music should at all times be necessarily socially relevant.

We can only be thankful to Providence that we have Amaradeva amidst us to give tongue to the soul of a newly-awakened people. courtesy: Sunday Observer

Sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar

Sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar, who helped introduce the sitar to the Western world through his collaborations with The Beatles, died in Southern California on Tuesday, his family said. He was 92.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The veteran street theatre activist and scholar Mr.Gamini Haththotuwegama of Sri Lanka.

I am generally inclined to be deeply suspicious about art that claims to be “political.” It is for this reason that street plays by Gamini Haththotuwegama’s “The Wayside and Open Theatre” did not immediately ingratiate themselves with me. However, despite this, Haththotuwegama’s Cyanide inspired the last scene of my own theatrical (misad) venture The Commode, which was staged a few years ago. Recently I enjoyed the opportunity of reading Streets Ahead with Haththotuwegama, a compilation of essays by and about Gamini Haththotuwegama. Hats off to the editors for bringing to the general readership the idiosyncratic genius and intrepid radicalism of a man who has now attained legendary status! I can’t claim that Streets Ahead made me a convert to the craft of Haththotuwegama. I still find some of the plays by “The Wayside and Open Theatre,” too Manichean and for that reason too simplistic in outlook. However, I do feel that my initial assessment of his work, at least to some extent, was predicated on a bias that favored aesthetics over politics. Let us not debate the baffling question: what stuff constitutes great art? But to look at Haththotuwegama’s work from a solely aesthetic perspective is perhaps a flawed approach for most certainly it was not his intention to please us aesthetically, nor was it his intention to remain within the politically complacent comfort zone of “high-art” and enjoy its suavity. On the other hand, how much thoughtful gravity could you invest theatre with when your avowed purpose is to take it to the masses? Perhaps this (condescending) argument accounts for the lack of analytical depth in quite a few of Haththotuwegama’s better known numbers. It could be said that Sinhala theatre has an incurable tendency to engage politically. This is perhaps because of the immediacy of theatre to the masses. In Haththotuwegama’s most profoundly analytical critique of Sinhala Theatre (which is impressive both in terms of scope and depth) entitled “Unresolved Contradictions, Paradoxical Discourses and Alternative Strategies in the Postcolonial Sinhala Theatre” (this essay could be found in Streets Ahead), he traces the political trajectory of Sinhala theatre. This essay is by far the best critique of Sinhala theatre that I have ever read. Politics got into theatre (most notably in the theatre of Sugathapala de Silva’s ‘Ape Kattiya’) almost as a knee-jerk reaction to Sarachchandra’s highfaluting and seemingly politically detached ‘operas’. However, it should be questioned if theatre and art in general, could animate people into meaningful political action; if it could stir people out of their middleclass complacency and inertia? I personally feel that art does not have that kind of clout over the lives of people. Art does not bring about revolutions, hunger does. If this is the case, then, is political theatre impotent? Does it have the potency to achieve the political ends that it desires? After all what change has the politically charged theatre of Haththotuwegama and Co. has brought about? It has only substantiated the Wildean truism: All Art is quite useless. Amongst the essays in Streets Ahead, Haththotuwegama’s perceptive analysis of the discontents of English academe is particularly interesting. Haththotuwegama, who was a wayward “product” of the English Department of University of Peradeniya, could shun the English Department only to the extent to which Maupassant could shun the Eiffel Tower. In that, he could never really leave it. “Unreasonable Postulates and Treasonable Practices Correlative to English-Rescuing the Liberal Impulse,” is Haththotuwegama’s E.F.C. Ludowyk memorial lecture. In his lecture he directs his polemics against the English education in the country. This lecture is refreshing in its appeal to more “radical” and “progressive” elements within the English academe who in Haththotuwegama would, no doubt, find a worthy ally. Haththotuwegama’s memorial tribute to Lakdasa Wickramsinghe has a story of its own. As the legend has it, he delivered this critique off the top of his head at an event organized to honor the memory of Wickramasinghe following his death. It was later edited and published in Navasilu II. Among other essays in the collection ‘50 Years of Sinhala Cinema: Sacred Cows to Buffaloes: Reverse Althernatives’ provides an incisive overview of Sinhala Cinema. Haththotuwegama’s early journalistic writings on theatre and cinema, although not as insightful as his later criticism, do not lack the rigorously critical approach that Haththotuwegama practices in his criticism. And, of course, it should be mentioned that his witty and intelligent writing style makes his criticism infinitely readable. However, a prominent short-coming of Streets Ahead is its lack of critical engagement with Haththotuwegama’s craft. In most of the pieces ‘about’ Haththotuwegama, the contributors fall short of providing any critical insight into his work and limit their criticism to awed idolizing. Perhaps it is not with idolatry zeal that we should appreciate his work but with critical precision; an approach that the great man himself would have, no doubt, approved. Courtesy:The Nation

Friday, September 21, 2012

For Aung San Suu Kyi

Muhammad Samad 

 For Aung San Suu Kyi

Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,
it was a long time ago that, marking a radiant photograph of yours,
you in your full youth decorated with roses in your bun of hair
and jasmine flowers blooming in the garland on your neck,  
I made one unnoticed comment: Wow! the East Asian beauty has outmatched the matchless Aryan ladies.

Later on, ignoring the comforts of your dear husband and children,
and immersing yourself in the cordial love
of the speechless and oppressed Burmese people,
yearning for light, you have, like Nelson Mandela,
become a dear Nobel-laureate political prisoner.

Dear Suu Kyi, on the day of Victory,
you put on garland of Bakul flowers on the neck;
a bouquet of roses drenched in people’s love was in your hand;
Kyang, green hills, forests and crop-fields
were soothing our eyes with the rhythm of your laughter as full as
the flow of the full moon; new leaves of spring were dancing in joy.

The flag of NLD, for bearing which
simple and freedom-seeking people and innocent
Buddhist monks of Burma were thrown into prisons,
that flag studded with white stars between red ground
and golden peacock is now swinging to the rhythms of dance
by colorful adolescents on the streets from Yangon to Mandalay,
from Mandalay to Naypido, the new city of bunkers of the junta,
swinging in the enchanting manner of elated pop singer Shakira.
And the waves of long-awaited freedom
are spilling over the banks of Iravati
into the turbulent stream of the Naf.

Suu Kyii,
you are free today. Many paths are open to you.
Know you surely which one to take; yet,
at the sight of grit and stone under your feet,
and the frequent appearance of hawks in the sky of Yangon
I am frightened a little.
So, remembrance of the grief of Chandrani,
the heroine created by the Bengali poet Doulat Kazi at the royal
court of the Arakan King and those in that of Alaol’s Padmabati,
makes it a liability for this present-day poet of Bangladesh
to tell it in the Bakul-covered ears of yours:
`Though the speed of light is about two hundred thousand miles
per second, one cannot be sure as to how and when that light
will find an entry into a society of bare subsistence,
society seized by engulfing flames, bloodshed
and avaricious foes at home and abroad.’

May 2012, University of Dhaka

Translated by Kajal Bandyopadhyay
Muhammad Samad

Muhammad Samad was born in a remote village in 1956 in the Jamalpur District of Bangladesh. He earned his Bachelor of Social Science (BSS) with honors and master’s degrees in Social Welfare (mostly known as Social Work) from the Institute of Social Welfare and Research (ISWR), University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He completed his PhD on the participation of the rural poor in development programs of government and NGOs in Bangladesh. Dr. Muhammad Samad was the Director at the Institute of Social Work & Research, University of Dhaka. Dr. Samad has taught the course Globalization of Social Welfare as a visiting Professor at the Department of Social Work of Winona State University (WSU), Minnesota, USA twice in 2005 and 2009 respectively. He has worked as a Fellow of Katherine A. Kendall Institute of International Social Work Education, CSWE, Washington DC, USA in 2009. Currently he is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Information Technology and Sciences (UITS).

Dr. Muhammad Samad has done extensive research on the rural poor, indigenous peoples and the underprivileged classes in Bangladesh. He has more than 30 articles published in national and international journals.  A well-known social scientist Dr. Muhammad Samad has authored and edited more than 10 books in the field of social science and development. Highlights include The Invisible People: Poverty and Resiliency in the Dhaka Slums (2008; Jointly with Dr. Cathleen Jo Faruque), PublishAmerica, Baltimore, USA, Participation of the Rural Poor in Government and NGO Programs: A Comparative Study (2002), Awareness About the Role of UN in Bangladesh: An Opinion Survey (2000), The Santal Community in Bangladesh: Problems and Prospects (2003; Jointly), Human Rights: 50 Years of Advancement 1999, (Ed. in Bengali), The Fourth World Conference on Women: Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action (Ed. 1997 in Bengali), Role of NGOs in Rural Poverty Alleviation of Bangladesh (1984, in Bengali) and The Struggle of Poets and Poems (A collection essays ed. in Bengali, 1994). He is widely published in America, China, India, Japan, Indonesia and Korea.

Muhammad Samad is a genius and popular poet of Bengali language. He has been writing poems since his school days. The first book of his verses Ekjan Rajnaitik Netar Menifesto (Manifesto of a Political Leader) was published in 1983 and won the Trivuj Literary Award in the same year from among the young poets aged 25 years in Bangladesh. His other published books of verses are Selected Poems (bi-lingual), Premer Kabita (Love Poems) Kabitasangraha (Selected Collection of Poems), Aaj Sharater Akashe Purnima  (The Full Moon in the Autumn Sky) Cholo, Tumi Bristite Bhiji (Let Us Be Drenched in Torrential Rain), Podabe Chandan Kaath (Will Burn Sandal Wood) Ami Noi Indrajit Megher Adale (I am not Indrajit Behind the Clouds) and  Utsaber Kabita (Poems From Festival ed. Bengali poems rendered in the National Poetry Festival). Dr. Samad has been serving as the President of Bangladesh Council for Social Work Education (BCSWE) since 2007. He has visited China, India, Nepal, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, United Kingdom and United States of America on invitation as academic and poet.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ini Avan Review

Ini Avan Review

By: Sivahami Vijenthira
The title of Asoka Handagama’s beautiful film Ini Avan is a play on words. The phrase “ini avan” means “him hereafter”, while the single word “iniavan” means “sweet, good-natured man”.
In the aftermath/hereafter of the war, the titular “Avan” (“Him”), an unnamed LTTE soldier, comes home from a government rehabilitation camp hoping to find meaningful work, reconnect with his lost love, and create a new life as an “iniavan” in his old village. But the village has turned against Avan and the separatist cause he fought for. From the first moments in the film, his old neighbours, all believably portrayed by amateur actors, stare at him in disapproving silence, and a child runs away from him. An old man comes to shout that Avan “killed” the man’s sons by luring them into the LTTE; we learn that he recruited everyone in the village who supported the cause, and they all died in the war. It was only Avan who survived to return and face those who were left behind to mourn their relatives while living in fear of LTTE extortion and government violence. He doesn’t want to face them, though. When anyone tries to talk to him, he replies, “piraiyosanam illai”: “no point”.
The film is slow, quiet, and elegantly framed, with long tracking shots of Avan riding his bicycle along dirt roads lined with palmyra trees, or through arid, windswept fields. People say little, and when they speak they use simple language that floats on the surface of their meaning. At the end of the TIFF premiere on September 7, a young audience member asked Handagama why the Sri Lankan military didn’t have a role in the film. They may not be there in uniform, Handagama replied cryptically, but their presence is felt. This is true: a woman in the film is described as unafraid, with “nothing left to save”, because she lived through war and refugee camps—a reference to rape and torture by military soldiers. While riding home in the dark, a sudden paranoid fear that he’s being followed makes Avan hide, shaking, behind a rock.
Handagama’s responses to audience questions were generally as inscrutable and seemingly simple as his characters’ dialogue. You would understand if you were close to the situation, he told a white woman who asked about the Canadian character in the film. “I don’t think you answered my question!” she called back. Maybe Handagama, like his film, had to be indirect because of the context in which he works. He was facing, that night, an audience full of emotional, politically-minded Tamils who may have done what the Canadian character is accused by Avan of doing (giving guns to the soldiers and getting visas for themselves), and he will soon fly home to a country where art and journalism are still tightly controlled. His work has been banned in the past, but he continues to produce it, because he sees its importance in times of oppression. “Why did you make this film?” asked one man. “I am a filmmaker,” Handagama replied, to laughter from people who saw this as a joke.
The brilliance of Ini Avan, which the TIFF audience repeatedly praised for its realism, is that its quiet simplicity allows us to find our own perspectives within the wide swath of characters and experiences it portrays: the widow who married while underage in order to avoid LTTE conscription; the impoverished father who loses his livelihood to
Avan; his wife, who survived refugee camps and giggles at her domestic abuse; Avan himself, now sapped of the charisma that was apparently so appealing to the soldiers he recruited; and the villagers around him, who have seen too much and buried too many to still believe that the war had any purpose.
Only the refugee camp survivor seems to have hope, and it is truly positive even though it is the hope of someone at the very nadir of her existence, someone looking up because she can no longer look down. If there is a message in Ini Avan, it is that it is possible to look up and try to “just live”, but it must still be acknowledged that the scars of war—physical, geographical, emotional, mental—will remain hereafter.
About the author: Sivahami Vijenthira was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Toronto when she was four years old. She graduated from McMaster University, and a frequent contributor to the Toronto Star.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Dhawala Bheeshana breaks the silence

By Randima Attygalle

"Everything has been figured out, except how to live"- Jean-Paul Satre

Jean-Paul Satre’s globally acclaimed play, Men without Shadows is set in the backdrop of German-occupied France in 1944 and concerns the capture of five French resistors after a failed action against the Vichy-occupying forces. Interrogated and tortured, the capture also tests the morals and validates the meanings each rebel gives to his/her respective life whilst awaiting a cruel ending to it. Sixteen-year-old Francois, the youngest captive yearns to liberate himself and live life again. So does his sister Lucie despite hearing bugle calls of death. No sooner Lucie and Henri, the other captive fantasize a life amidst flowing brooks, buzzing of bees and laughing children, three bullets annihilate them (together with Canoris), denying them of life and Satre’s play is conceived in that shock, sharing the same with the audience. Through out the play Satre’s philosophic musing- "the meaning of man’s life is not established before his existence. Once the terrible freedom is acknowledged, man has to make the meaning himself, has to commit himself to a role in this world, has to commit his freedom," is reverberated.

An acclaimed production

"Jean-Paul Satre wrote Men without Shadows in the aftermath of the victorious Resistance Movement in France, yet he didn’t write about the victory, but about his philosophy of-existentialism," says veteran dramatist Dharmasiri Bandaranayake whose adaptation of Men Without Shadows- Dhawala Bheeshana, first staged in 1988, came among the local audience once more at the Lionel Wendt last week, breaking a silence of 12 years since its last production in 2000. First staged in a socio-political set up ridden in violence and terror in the country, Dhawala Bheeshana was nevertheless highly acclaimed, securing nine coveted awards at the State Drama Festival of 1990, including the Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Lighting.

With the exception of the senior artiste W. Jayasiri who has been portraying the role of Landrieu since the play’s maiden performance, this year’s new production of Dhawala Bheeshana launched several new artistes, including Jehan Sri Kantha (Henri), Oshadie Gunasekera (Lucie), Ishara Wickramasinghe (Francois), Susanga Kahandawalaarachchi (Sorbier), Jagath Chandralal (Canoris) Nigel Raymond (Jean) Arunod Wijesinghe (Pellerin), Charith Senanayake (Clochet) Sunimal Perera, Samitha Amarasinghe and Kosala Lakshitha as soldiers who did justice to the play. It once more enticed the audience to engage in a stimulating theatrical dialogue.

How challenging was it to the dramatist to inculcate the ‘experience of a time gone by’ in a new generation? "I never expected the new cast to ape the artistes of the original production including Jackson Anthony, Kaushalya Fernando and Daya Alwis who played the roles of Henri, Lucie and Clochet respectively. However, I strongly advocated the importance of respecting the experience of history. Although Satre’s social fabric was different to the trials of Lankan society, we can certainly find common grounds in the philosophy in which the play was conceived. We cannot close chapters of history as easily as closing files. If one is pro-war, one cannot validate Trojan Women, similarly Men without Shadows cannot be justified if you cannot identify with the concept," replies Bandaranayake.

As the dramatist recalls, the encounter with the LTTE troupes in Mankulam in 1987, first sowed the seeds of the theatrical effort of Dhawala Bheeshana. Bandaranayake and his group traveling to Jaffna for a documentary film, were stranded in Mankulam, their vehicle robbed by the LTTE. "The mortal fear which engulfed all of us and myriad human emotions experienced, brought the reality of Satre’s play closer than ever before," recalls the dramatist whose request for a translation was fulfilled by Cyril C. Perera. Bandaranayake shedding light upon the aborted first attempt of a translation by the celebrated dramatist Namel Weeramuni said, "in 1972, Namel Weeramuni’s first translation of Men without Shadows could not be produced since it was banned by the then SLFP regime. I remember reading the script as the young actor chosen by Namel to play the role of Francois, the youngest captive!"

Myriad interpretations

The first staging of Dhawala Bheeshana took place in 1988, the timing of which was ‘alarmingly coincidental’ with the insurgency as Bandaranayake points out. "The objective of my effort was not to localize the French experience but unfortunately it was applied to various political and social agendas of several agents," he adds. This application went to the extreme of Bandaranayake receiving numerous death threats, halting not only the staging of Dhawala Bheeshana by mid 1989 but compelling him to flee the country. "The expression in the play inspired by the French experience in Nazi-occupied France was given multi-faceted interpretations by various agents applying it to the contemporary violent Sri Lankan society. Lucie in the play laments witnessing exposed bodies deprived of a honourable death. This was a common experience by Lankans for whom floating bodies in waterways was an everyday sight in the late 80s. Thus, the play became highly controversial. Nevertheless, crowds flocked to see it," recalls Bandaranayake.

Universal and timeless

In 2000, Dhawala Bheeshana was once again reproduced in a social milieu different to that of the late 80s. After a lapse of 12 years, the play once more pulled crowds to the Lionel Wendt last week, holding testimony to the truth that great theatrical labours are universal and timeless. For Bandaranayake, preserving the original flavour of a play is vital. "Works of globally acclaimed playwrights are produced all over the world. For example, Men without Shadows has been produced in India with completely an Indian flavour. I personally believe that localizing such a play largely diminished the dialogue it seeks to create," opines the dramatist. Answering the often posed question, ‘what about the possibility of an original play?’ Bandaranayake replies, "after Ekadhipathi I have not done an original play. It is not that I fail to write a good script, but the fact that I’m more inspired by great dramatists," adding that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the local drama idiom is nourished only by original work. "For me, Brecht is dearer than a play of my own," he adds an after thought.

Bandaranayake who was privy to the rich theatre culture championed by Prof. Sarachchandra and Sugathapala de Silva, shares his concerns over the absence of a ‘disciplined theatre’. "There is tremendous potential in the new generation and the mastery of the veteran lies in his ability to reap that potential, adhering to the highest theatrical standards," concludes the dramatist.


Stella Maris College (Autonomous), Chennai
Namma Theatre
(Silenced Prophecies)
13 Septmeber 2012: 7 p.m.
14 & 15 September 2012: 3 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Venue: M 0-1
The play was produced in 1994 through the efforts of Maunak Kural (Voicing Silence), a project of M.S. Swaminathan Research Institute. It is being staged again after a gap of 18 years. The protagonist of this play is a gypsy woman, a Kurathi, who lives a life which is in consonance with nature and is self-sufficient. She enjoys a love-life which is egalitarian. From her perspective, the epic and Puranic heroines Chandramati, Draupadi and Seetha are women who have lost their sense of identity and have been devalued. The play is staged in the Indian theatrical tradition – an amalgam of song, dance and acting – and comes to you with the vigour and energy of Tamil folk forms. A. Mangai has revived the play which was first directed by Prof Ramanujam.
·         The chorus explores the context in which male/female and masculine/feminine are always seen as binaries.
·         The chorus announces that this is not a rhetorical debate but the story of a Kurathi from the hills.
·         The Kuravan enters looking for the Kurathi. He looks for her in the city at the ration shop, the railway station and the cinema theatre. On his way back to the forest, he laments about the Kurathi to the grass, rocks, the koel, the monkey and the river.
·         The two meet. They get over their lovers’ tiff and are reconciled.
·         The Kuravan asks her about the new ornaments she is wearing. The Kurathi visualizes the life of the women whose future she had prophesied – to be sold like Chandramati was, to be humiliated like Draupadi was, to be pushed into the fire out of suspicion as Seetha was – such is the terrible life awaiting women!
·         As the Kurathi and the Kuravan return to the hills, they affirm that, fortunately, such a tendency to demean women is not found amongst them.

Direction: A Mangai                                                      Assistant Direction: Nayantara Nayar

Monday, August 27, 2012

Diminishing legacy of Dr. Sarathchandara and arrival of the ‘outsiders’

Diminishing legacy of Dr. Sarathchandara and arrival of the ‘outsiders’

by Ariyawansa Ranaweera

The cultural and social upheaval of 1956 was not something that occurred all of a sudden. Their genesis could be traced to the struggle for independence, Anagarika Dharmapala’s crusade for national revival. But that year was a watershed in that the long suppressed emotions of the people on politics, social and cultural spheres exploded

The natural outcome of this phenomenon is that the arts and crafts of the country were also suffused with tremendous enthusiasm. Drama was one such area where this impact was strongly felt.

The era of the Nurti and Nadagam was on the wane not only because creative minds behind those productions had disappeared by then, but also because the newly emerging intelligentsia were asking for an entirely different kind of entertainment. The song-and-dance performances with very weak story lines were getting stale and moribund.

The new audience with bilingual capabilities was looking forward to a new kind of drama where entertainment was to culminate in edification. The first batch of indigenous language products entered the universities in 1960. Higher education syllabuses accommodated texts to delve into theatrical aspects of drama. Nadagam and Nurti mainly catered to the urban workers and the nascent merchant class. But the taste of the new audience was classical and refined rather than overtly popular. It was this need that was catered to by Dr. Sarachchandra's brilliant products such as Maname and Sinhabahu. They were well received in all parts of the country and have left an indelible land mark on the Sinhala drama tradition.

But, we have to pause here and ask ourselves a very pertinent question regarding the future of Sri Lankan drama. Was there anyone among the contemporaries of Dr. Sarachchandra or others who could build on his style of drama? Sadly, the answer is an emphatic ‘No’. Those who tried their hand at producing dramas a la Dr. S failed. The songs, the steps, the music of Dr. S’ dramas were only the outer layers which, no doubt, contributed immensely to the overall effects of his plays. But in each and every play of Dr. S, be it a tragedy, comedy or a satire, there was an inner substance, a holistic message about human nature that was highly important. It was this dramatic kernel that the imitators of Dr. S. have failed to grasp.

Maname is more than an interesting narrative with glamourous scenes and tragic movements; it is a complex study of the feminine mind in a milieu of male domination. Sinhabahu emanates a myriad strange of emotions which have been discussed at length. Take one of his later dramas. Swarnahansa is a study of the rapacious market forces which propelled by greed subjugates all human relations to filthy lucre. In fact, this drama is an extension of that book ‘Darmishta Samajaya’ which sent jitters through the new advocates of open economic in 1977.

Here is an interesting aside. The 1966 batch at the University of Peradeniya, recently organised a public show, Hanthana Nimnada, to honour Dr. S. and the other dramatists spawned by him. To their utter surprise they discovered that Peradeniya University had not produced a single dramatist after 1978. The fountain seems to have run dry.

What were the reasons for the inability of other dramatist to build on the edifice created by Dr.S? I think one main reason is the sheer genius of the man. Here was a person who possessed a very sound educational background which had been enriched both by the Eastern and Western streams of knowledge. He was a philosopher well versed in both Buddhist theory of perception and Bergsonian philosophy. He caught the sense of the time with an ability to write, besides plays, the age in which he lived in the Eliotic sense.

His knowledge in Sri Lankan folk drama, folk lore and the myths was deep. He imbued the dramatic styles of both the Sanskrit tradition and other oriental traditions. A deep sense of music, dance and prosody enhanced his overall abilities. All these skills helped him to write memorable drama scripts and make them ‘dazzle’ on the stage.

Even if you observe the world scene this situation is not unnatural. After all, man has been producing dramas continuously form the era of Greek plays. But how many world renowned play rights they have produced? Only a handful! Elymer Maude, renowned a drama critic, in one of her essays has mentioned that there have been only five world class dramatists. They are a three Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, then Shakespeare and in the modern era only Henrick Ibsen. One may not agree with her totally, but the essential argument is clear. The dramatist with all the necessary ingredients is a very rare product indeed! So is the case with Dr.S. in Sri Lanka. No other Sri Lankan dramatist could reach that high pedestal.

Unfortunately, dramatic style of Dr.S did not become a live force, which could be studied by later generations. Sarachchandra sought perfection. He experimented in the 1930s with the realistic dramas of the day. Then he took to folk drama. Through Maname and Sinhabahu he transcended the Nadagam style of drama. Premati Jayati Soko was an attempt to forge an oriental Opera. He would have gathered ample experience through this voyage. But as mentioned by Dr. M. Fernando in his speech delivered at Peradeniya, on the 50th Anniversary of Sinhabahu, Dr. S never committed such experiences to writing.

If one looks at the Western drama scene, dramatist like Stainslawsky, Meyarhold, Peter Brooks, Grotowski, Antonin Artaud, wrote down their methods of acting and stage craft systematically for others to follow. This did not happen as far as Dr. S was concerned. Was this another reason that his successors could not pick up a thread form where Dr. S left it.

It is in this setting that one has to examine the role of the young ‘hot- heads ‘ led by Sugathapala de Silva. When they entered the drama scene, Sinhala stage was all agog with ‘Manamania’ there was practically no room for any other form of drama.

A book which inspired this group substantially was Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’. A land mark revelation where ‘nobodies’ form the society became ‘somebodies’, adorning the fields of religion, politics and arts. The most noteworthy feature of all these characters was that they were the fore-runners who broke the stranglehold of feudal hegemony in these fields during the 19th and 20th century in Europe. There was and uncanny resemblance between these European characters and the ‘outsiders ‘ who championed a new thrust into the art world of Sri Lanka in the 1950s. Some of them are Ralex Ranasinghe, Tony Ranasinghe, Wickrama Bogoda, Prema Ranjith Thilakarathne, Benedict Dodampegama and Cyril B. Perera. Majority of them did not have university education. They all came form lower middle class background. They were a Bohemian lot, for most of them did not have regular employment. But all of them had one distinctive advantage. For, they were bilingual products. They were highly attuned to new winds that were blowing across the Western hemisphere.

Their focus was not only on drama but also all avant-garde interventions that were taking place. They immersed themselves in works of Satre, Camus, Andre Gide, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, a wave of films of Vitorio De Sica, Fedrico Felini, Ingmar Bergson, Roaman Polansky, dance forms of Martha Graham, Isadora Dancan and new poetry of French Symbolists, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. They also admired the abstract art of Picasso, Kandinsky, Gaughan, and Van Goh. In other words, they were fallowing faithfully all the activities of the ‘’Lost Generation’’ of the 1930s.

Thus it is clear that these new entrants were not a group of mere experimenters without sound roots. They had the confidence and daring of their new found intellectual grounding. They presented an alternative dramatic style different form that of Dr. S. In fact there was a healthy competition between these two genres in the 1960s.

There is another extremely important fact that should be taken into account when studying the impact on indigenous drama by these new comers. They were not introducing the brand of realistic drama propounded by Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Bernard Shaw. The plays of these dramatists, though revolutionary when they were first introduced, lacked novelty by the 1960s. The drawing room, closet drama where picture perfect reality and endless dialogues were found inadequate to grasp the facets of a drastically change world.

The belief in man’s perfectibility had been shattered especially by the onset of first and second world wars. The underlying belief in the early realistic drama was that in spite of all social ills that stalked the human beings, the rational side of the man could overcome them if they were properly guided. The two wars and the attendant miseries gave the lie to that grand notion. The wars proved that intellect would not save the human beings. They were inherently prone to animal passions, greed, aggrandizement, torture and massacre.

This new ‘mental frame’ gave rise to a more pessimistic view of human nature. Dadaism, Anarchism, and Existentialism became the creeds of the post-war generations.

Drama was also caught up in this transition. The realistic drama which gave preference to the ‘human word ‘ was found inadequate to articulate this new human condition. Dramatis were in search of new modes of dramatic art. Three strands of drama emerged eventually due to these efforts over time. Drama of the Absurd, whose major proponents were Becket, Lonesco, the expressionists , whose ranks were strengthened by dramatists like, Luigi Pirandello, Tennessee Williams, John Osborne ( ‘’Of Look back in Anger’’fame) and, of course, the epic drama championed by the Germans, Irvin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.

Although these three types of drama possessed their individual characteristics, what is common to all three is that they went beyond the orthodox realist drama towards a Surrealistic approach. They called that a search for ‘’total theatre’. First introduced by Antonin Artough the French Surrealistic playwright and rebel through his ‘’Theatre of the Cruelty’ was an invocation of the total body rather than only the mind of the spectator. For this they went back to the early theatre of human beings in search of inspiration. Usage of masks, dance steps, incantation, articulation of nonsense words, enlargement of dramatic props were some of the ploys they used in their dramas.

Martin Esslin in his land mark book, ‘’Theatre of the Absurd’, has this to say on this development: "The theatre of the absurd is a return to the old, even archaic traditions. It’s novelty rise in its somewhat unusual combination of such antecedents and a very survey of these will show that what may strike the unprepared spectator as iconoclastic and incomprehensible innovation is in fact merely an expansion , revaluation and development of procedures that are familiar and completely acceptable in only slightly different contexts.’’

It was these plays with more action and magic rather than ‘verbiage’ that Sugathapala de Silva and his colleagues presented to the Sri Lankan audience. In fact, all three types of new drama were produced by those new comers.

Sugathapala de Silva in the introduction to his ‘Mara Sade’ translation attempts to articulate his approach to drama. ‘’Realism should not be narrowed down to superficial realism. One has to go deeper and come close to Surrealism. This is an attempt by the dramatists to grasp the subtleties of human behavior. Psychology enters modern drama. Psycho analysis takes you to ritual and magic. There are demons to be appeased and there should be Sharman’s to do this.

We have a distinct advantage that was not there before the early dramatists. World has become narrower and sources of knowledge are readily accessible. We should not be afraid to be influenced by these sublime dramas and dramaturgy at all. Those who run a way form salutary influences confess their barrenness of their souls ‘’

And unending array of these new dramas appeared on our stage, mainly as translations and adaptations Attempts were made to produce original dramas based on these principles though not with the same success. Gradually these new dramas started wining prizes at the drama festivals. Slowly and surely they gained ascendency on our stage, replacing stylistic dramas introduced by Dr. Sarachchandra.

Courtesy: The Island

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Within and without

Within and without

The core team of India Theatre Forum: Pralayan, K.V. Akshara, Sudhanwa Deshpande, Sanjana Kapoor, Sameera Iyengar and others. Photo: Special Arrangement 

The seminar on “Spaces”, organised by the India Theatre Forum, threw up diverse ideas from practitioners across the world
Even when you have something as organised as a “seminar”, the idea of “space” fails to conjure up a same, uniform thought. Not even when it involves a single, cohesive community, pursuing the common passion of theatre. The idea could be far more dynamic, and highly evolved, trespassing into areas most unanticipated. Languages, histories, memories, cultures bring meaning to a space – emotional as well as intellectual. It is the site of performance and at once an expression of a range of views — from political to philosophical.
“Spaces of Theatre, Spaces for Theatre” — the five-day seminar at Heggodu, Sagara Taluk — organised by the India Theatre Forum, brought together practitioners, critics, architects, stage designers, and academicians, each laying on the table diverse thoughts.
Can space be independent of time? Or time of space? Are time and space one-dimensional – do they locate themselves only in the physical? If one regards them as processes and identifies it as a relationship between space and body, then as India Theatre Forum set out to define, “the act of theatre is always more than simply the act of theatre”. The act is connected to “real” spaces (time intrinsic), not always necessarily contemporary.
It's certainly beyond the physical, argued well-known theatre director Veenapani Chawla. Tracing the notions of space in science and philosophy, as envisioned by Einstein and Aurobindo, she recognised three kinds of spaces in theatre. “There is the inner psychological space of the performer, the external ‘real' space, which she shares with the audience and a larger cosmic space. And all these spaces are fluid, without sharp dividing lines between them; anticipating the aesthetic space of hereness,” she explained. The three states flow into each other like water, with a force of its own. “The conscious energised performer will bring to her performance a concentrated consciousness of her multiple inner spaces and to her external space: her body,” she added. Preeti Athreya shared a similar viewpoint: she took it back to Bharatha's Natyashastra and said, “The body of the performer is the primary space of theatre.”
“Space should trigger imagination,” said theatre director Sankaran Venkateshwaran. Theatre, he said, was a series of impulses for him, and hence the entire act of putting a piece of theatre together was keeping the first impulse connected to the last, and these impulses came from both the inner and outer space. Culture critic Sadanand Menon called it the “jeeva” of a place. The place may be ridden with imperfections, but the play goes on. “There is, I believe, an invisible centre to a space, its soul,” he observed, and “technology certainly cannot pretend to be superior.”
Taking it beyond the “inner” and “outer” regions of space, the debate moved to the recognition of a value system, and deep faith in the community. Playwright and theatre person Satish Alekar's Lalita Kala Academy, or Prithiviraj Kapoor's “Prithvi Theatre” or K.V. Subbanna's “Ninasam” – they were originally beliefs that later assumed a physical space. Alekar said, “It was to create an audience for Marathi performers.” “It grew out of a context. An impulse that tried to find a way in which it could deal with art and society, with community as its centre,” said K.V. Akshara, speaking of his father's dream. “It was with the belief that theatre mattered,” said Sanjana Kapoor, speaking of the Prithvi vision. “We wanted a space that fed the world of the actor and the world of the audiences.”
When Sudhanwa Deshpande, core member of the India Theatre Forum, recalled how SRC Basement, Chhabildas, Padatik, and Sudarshan in Mumbai played an “enormously important role in nurturing non-commercial theatre in cities, because they brought about, fostered, nurtured ‘the most vivid relationships between people'”, it seemed an extension of the Prithvi and Ninasam endeavour. He spoke of an energy that “flowed between performers and audiences.” Though they had not been specifically designed for performances, “they filled a lacuna, they responded to the times,” he explained. For someone who believes in minimal stage design, director Sunil Shanbhag averred that his theatre is never divorced from its social context. “For me text is extremely important. I use theatre as a canvas to tackle larger issues.”
For Peter Brook's stage designer Jean Guy Lecat and Pralayan, who has been doing Street Theatre for nearly four decades, “space” is a tool of defiance. For Jean, who turned garages and quarries into grand theatre spaces, it was aesthetic defiance, but for Pralayan, seeking space between Brooks' “no space is neutral” and Badal Sircar's struggle for “non-commodified and people-friendly performance-spaces”, intervention into exclusive spaces was political defiance.
As theatre critic Samik Bandhopadhyay put it, “cultural spaces are geo-political spaces.” Hence, there can be no standardised theatre spaces that will create standard theatre responses. Language nurtures histories and memories, and it is impossible to blur all spaces into one Indian general reality. “Space” may be a crucial issue, but it's not the primary impulse in theatre. The stimulus comes from a hundred different locations.