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