Honouring Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra

Miran Perera, in the Daily News, 16 August 2012

The 16th death anniversary of Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra falls today, August 16, 2012. Professor Sarachchandra’s advent to our cultural scene occurred at a critical time of its development and it is very much similar to the socio-cultural background which prevailed at the time of Rabindranath Tagore’s emergence in India. A moment comes which comes but rarely in history when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment of Prof Sarachchandra’s death anniversary, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of Sri Lanka and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity. At the dawn of history, Sri Lanka started on her unending quest and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and grandeur of her success and her failures.

Among the Sri Lankan intellectuals engaged in the noble task, Ediriweera Sarachchandra ranks above most of his contemporaries. Through good and ill-fortune alike Sri Lanka has never lost sight of the quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength.

Academic excellence:

The achievement we celebrate in late Professor Sarachchandra is but a step, an opening of opportunity to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future? Taking a quite walk climbing up the hillock to Sanghamitta then taking the curve round just behind adjoining the university medical centre was the abode of Prof Sarachchandra.

The university was of world standing and a magnificent seat of learning where nature itself had created an ideal and a favourable site to achieve all round academic excellence. It was against this backdrop that the greatest drama ‘Maname’, the brainchild of Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra emerged in mid 1956. With this master piece he set in motion the wheel of drama. Unequivocally, he was a prominent integral dramatist completing the wider literary picture in South Asia.

Prof. Sarachchandra in his ‘Sahitya Vidyawa’, a discussion of the theory of poetry certainly much more accommodating than the ‘Sinhala Navakatha’, ‘Ithihasa Vicharaya’ limits himself to the classical Sanskrit literary criticism where he finds himself more at home than in the Western counterparts. It is noted that though he resorts to the mention of and quotations from several Indian classical and modern critics in the former work he never quotes from or mentions any critic of the West, besides Aristotle in the latter.

Sarachchandra’s critical theories and evaluative criteria have become totally accepted and taken for granted and he did succeed in what he set out to do, he did create a popular audience.

Positive criticism:

How did Sarachchandra create that indispensable audience? Sarachchandra’s criticism of the Sinhala novel; ‘bottle necked’ the fiction writing of the day. Though the new Sinhala novel emerged in the form of Gamperaliya in 1944 only two years after the appearance of Sarachchandra’s Modern Sinhala fiction, the latter did not have any bearing or influence on the former. Sarachchandra’s literateur is marked by a superabundance of contradictions.

He has written one of the best two Sinhala novels, yet he has not been a satisfactory critic of the novel. He never wrote a comprehensive study of modern drama though his brilliant study ‘The folk drama of Ceylon’ remains a hallmark in the field of drama criticism; inspite of his being the greatest dramatist of the country.

While Sarachchandra upholds the value of the ancient tradition in his great work on folk drama in ‘Sinhala Navakatha, Itihasaya ha Vicharaya’, he does quite the opposite of it. He was the best poet of modern Sri Lanka without ever having written poetry proper. He started his career as a teacher at a Christian college but his doctoral thesis was ‘Buddhist Psychology of perception and the theory of Bhavanga’.

Amidst all negative and positive criticism one thing must be emphasised though it may be not only a tinglier but also a prickler to some of our critics. The worst Sarachchandra wrote is better than the best written by any of his younger contemporaries. All drama loving people seemed to be in love with Sarachchandra.

Subsequently his whole university and the entire island. ‘Maname’ came to be ranked as the first ever best drama written and produced at the time. Maname was a superb drama par excellence. Due to Sarachchandra’s gifted interest and determination, young talent was explored to its fullest. Its actors were indeed privileged to participate and enjoy. He produced them to be the most talented actors Sri Lanka had ever produced at the time.

Apart from being famous for creating a revolutionary change in drama, he was hailed as the greatest contributor to the drama world. Sarachchandra mercilessly attacked and rejected two of the principal founder writers of Sinhala fiction, Piyadasa Sirisena and W A Silva, in his ‘Sinhala Navakata Itihasaye ha Vicharaya’.

Ironically, enough here it is Sarachchandra who indulges in criticism in the process of which several misconceptions of literary criticism were given air to and hence the readership who were till then completely innocent of these Western concepts were largely misguided. This new but misconstrued knowledge of criticism also affected ‘Swashbuckler critics’.

Folk rituals:

In the chapter entitled ‘Piyadasa Sirisena’ in the 1968 edition of the ‘Sinhala Navakatha Ithihasaya ha Vicharaya’ Sarachchandra’s language is charged with sarcasm and pointed witticism as well both of which are strongly suggestive of vilification and rejection of the writer as a novelist though towards the end of the chapter and else where he praises Sirisena for his patriotism condemnation of national depravity, clamour for national resuscitation etc.

The strong conviction is that as has been mentioned earlier sarcasm along with pointedness in witticism and in comments are directly associated with emotion hence the critic is liable to be questionable in using them.

The book ‘The Sinhalese folk play’ published in 1952 was the end result of a research project. Therein Sarachchandra demonstrated that the forms of folk rituals and entertainments could be founding dramatic interludes and other theatrical features which were parallel to certain forms of folk theatre in the present day India and which could in the final analysis betrays to the classical Sanskrith theatre as evident in ‘Natya Sastra of Bharata’. As a sequel to this publication the Rockefeller Foundation in the USA granted him a scholarship to study World theatre and this provided Sarachchandra with an opportunity to visit Eastern countries like Japan and China. When Sarachchandra saw the Noh and Kabuki theatres of Japan he felt as if the image he had of the traditional oriental theatre had suddenly appeared on stage in front of his very eyes as he states in his autobiography.

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