Dr M. Shanmugalingam Defining Realism In Eastern TheatreBorn in 1931 to a Jaffna family, Dr M. Shanmugalingam grew up in Negombo till he was 10 years old. The family would visit Dankotuwa as Shanmugalingam’s father worked as an assistant superintendent at a coconut estate that belonged to the British. “We lived among working class Singhalese and Estate Indians even now, I feel it is my home. As a youth, I knew much about the Singhalese people and their nature. Every person is good to others, if not to their own,” Shan said, “Those days the Singhalese loved us as we did them.”
As a child, he had no real interest in drama. He did not participate in any cultural programmes throughout his education, not even to witness a sports meet.
“I can’t understand me. How can I understand the community of the nation if I cannot know me?” he asked. “Even now, I can just sit here without knowing anything.”
In 1950, a neighbour asked if Shan act in a play that was being produced for the Sinhala-Tamil New Year, as he had seen his imitation of an old man that milked the cow. “This old man had no teeth. I would place my lips on my teeth to emulate his voice; this is the technique that sealed my fate.”
For the next six years, Shan was typecast as an old man with no teeth.
Shan studied at Jaffna Hindu College. By the time he finished schooling, he had lost interest in studies. However, when a friend was to leave to India for higher studies, his mother pushed him to tag along. In 1953, he studied Inter-Arts at Mysore University, Bangalore and read for his degree at the University Of Madras where he graduated with a BA.
In 1957, Shan returned to Jaffna and became a teacher at the Sengudda Hindu College that was close to his home. He taught Tamil, English, Civics, Political Science and Hinduism and retired at the age of 56.
In 1958, he wrote a play.
“I do not know why. At the time, The Young Men’s Hindu Association would produce plays and I was involved in their literary circle,” he explained.
The play was titled ‘Arumai Nanbar’ (Dear Friend) and it was about attending school.
“There is too much stress placed on education,” according to Shan, “especially today. In Jaffna, there is a millionaire tuition teacher who profits from this stress.”
Shan considers himself, primarily, an actor.
“I acted under Kalaiarasu Swarnalingam whose brand of realism was influenced by the Madras director Pammal Sumbanthan Mudaliyar. Realism is a concept of the West, in Shan’s opinion, and, so, we cannot talk of realism in Eastern theatre. Hinduism and Buddhism say that life is not real. The body is a lie. What is real to us is unreal to others,” he explained.
Shanmugalingam would bring down Summbanthan’s plays to Jaffna. “I had the opportunity of acting with Swarnalingum in three plays in which he also directed.”
At the time, he explained, there was a craze that was called the ‘Cinema Culture’; people would celebrate the opening night of a new film. “A cousin of mine jumped off his balcony imitating a famous scene from an action film.”
The drama culture, on the other hand, could be categorized as follows. There were plays written in the South Indian style of scripting that covered social and historical topics without using colloquial language and instead, Senth – ‘pure’ – Tamil. Then, there was the imitation of Tamil cinema, from the style of performance to plagiarizing a whole cinema script on stage – complete with Indian accent. There were only a few who would write original plays in Jaffna Tamil colloquial tongue. “Last, but certainly not least,” he said, “there was improvised theatre. I feel that it was my experience with acting in improvised theatre that helped my playwriting.”
In 1976, Shan took up a course in teaching drama and theatre at the University of Colombo. Theatre had been introduced to the A level curriculum, and, so, a Diploma in Education was being offered. “It was during this time that I was exposed and influenced by Singhala theatre. I saw a children’s play, ‘Sathunge Punchi Gedara’ in 1976 produced by a German playwright and featured young Singhalese artists. There was song and dance. It was playful,” he said, “I was thrilled and flabbergasted.”
On January 23, 1978, together with his friend Thasisivam, Shan set up a school of drama and theatre in Jaffna. “I was not a born playwright, but now I had to write plays. I wrote ‘Kadi Velayadu Paapa’, a children’s play, heavily influenced by ‘Sathunge Punchi Gedara’. I was well received because thousand seats were sold out at the Veerasingham Hall.”
Those who were influenced by Western theatre criticized his plays by refusing to accept them as plays. Other critics said his theatre was not believable; they called it “South Indian scum”.
“The way in which I treated subject matter was distasteful to them.”
“There was a demand for more plays as we had a ‘rasigaravai’ (fan club) for whom we produced six plays each year for three years.”
A season ticket was sold at 15 rupees, and daily tickets were sold at five, three and two rupees; it was always ‘house-full’.
“We would start at 6.30PM sharp. Once, we had a festival and the Jaffna GA was the Guest of Honour. He was half a minute late, but the show had already begun. I could see people running to Veerasingham Hall. We were able to mobilize people,” he said.
“In 1983, when everything came down, we had to call the curtains.”
If there is no continuity, he explained, the people cannot be blamed for low attendance. There is a Tamil proverb that says ‘the God who gives will give through the roof’, “I interpret this as Cable Television. This is what we were destined for: South Indian scum.” (IM)
Courtesy: Sunday Leader