KNO Dharmadasa, in the Island, 4 and 5 June 2013
“Maname is not only without question the finest thing I have seen on the Sinhalese stage”, wrote Regi Siriwardena in his regular column on the arts to the Ceylon Daily News on November 6, 1956, and added further , ” It is also one of the three or four most impressive dramatic performances in any language I have been privileged to attend.” Such an adulatory statement from a critic who was widely considered the highest authority on the arts in the country was something totally unexpected as far as the Maname team who had come down from Peradeniya were concerned. The producer- director Dr. E.R. Sarchchandra, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sinhalese in the one and only university in the island, the University of Ceylon, had warned his young cast that there was a possibility of adverse reaction from the audiences in Colombo. He had had a short meeting of the cast just before setting out to the metropoiis and told them not to get disheartened if that was to happen. In fact he himself called the production ” an experiment” Writing “A Note to the Production” for the programme Note handed to the audience on the first night, November 3, at the Lionel Wendt Theatre, he stated ” the aim of this experiment is both to explore potentialities as a traditional form may possess in the search for an indigenous tradition in drama as well as to bring to light another type of play which may be enjoyed on its own merits.”
Modest Aspirations: This was indeed a modest statement. Given the background in which the Sinhala theatre of the day was struggling for survival, the nurtiya musical imported from North India in late 19th century had outgrown its use and the melodramatic Jayamanne plays which inherited its mantle were almost extinct as those plays were being put into celluloid one by one, the task of finding a viable theatrical form acceptable to the society at large was no easy task. As far as popular taste of the day was concerned the Sinhala theatre was an art form in the periphery, no one being prepared to buy a ticket for a performance except as a matter of charity. This the university students learnt when they tried to walk to houses in the environs of the Lionel Wendt Theatre on the four days they stayed during the time of first performance. Sarachchandra himself recounted in his autobiographical Pin Eti Sarasavi Waramak Denne an incident he faced on the second or the third night. He was seated in the foyer while the play was in progress and all of a sudden a limousine came to a halt at the entrance and a well dressed woman walked in. She asked “What is being staged here today?” and being told that it was a Sinhala play wanted to know when it was going to be over. When Sarchchandra told her that it would be over in two hours she was not prepared to believe him. “What! A Sinhala play being over in two hours? I am sure it will go on till about 9 or 10PM” Then Sarchchandra told her that he was pretty sure of the duration of the play and if she was keen to see it she could get in without any payment and leave whenever she wanted. The lady looked disdainfully at Sarchchandra and declared “Shih! I don’t want to see these Sinhala plays. I only wanted to send my servant woman and she cannot be allowed to waste three four hours here” and walked away. While the higher classes were thus looking down upon the Sinhala theatre an attempt was being made in the University by theatre lovers such as Prof. E.F.C. Ludowyk to demonstrate to the Sinhala audiences what good theatre was like in the European context. There were several translations from European works staged with great skill by Sinhala actors. But while such attempts were appreciated as laudable there was something lacking in them. Sarachchandra himself who was party to those efforts felt that theatre had still not become an art form which appealed to the heart and soul of the people. To quote again from his Pin Eti Sarasavi Waramak Denne, those European plays were unable to bring home to our audiences “an artistic experience which could penetrate deep into the flesh, nerves and bones and would stir one’s soul resting on the very bone-marrow” (p.170) Here we note that by this time Sarachchandra had come to realize that the theatre was a unique art from which had to be enjoyed communally, a live current passing between the actor and the audience while the play was being enacted. Furthermore, good theatre was much more than the comedies that were being translated from the European repertoire that were staged by the university group so far. The form and content of a truly indigenous theatre had to address deeper aspects of the human condition. It was with such a theatre that one would realize the soul stirring experience he described as one penetrating deep down into the very bone marrow. ( I should add here that Sarchcandra is borrowing this powerful metaphor from a Pali text describing an incident in the life of the Buddha ) In early 1950’s Sarchchandra had been searching for the rudiments of theatre in the ritualistic enactments in Sinhala folk religion and had a hunch that it was here that one could look for raw material which could be utilized for the creation of an indigenous theatrical form. It was the fortuitous accident of discovering the existence of such a national theatrical tradition in far away Japan in the form of the Noh and Kabuki plays that provided him with the key to create from the elementary framework of the folk opera known as Nadagama a form of theatrical structure that would serve as the base for a new play which while being rooted in the tradition was also amenable to modifications appealing to modern taste and sensibility.
The Accomplishment: The fact that Maname accomplished those with total success was attested on the very first night when as the play ended an enthusiastic applause seemed to come up spontaneously from the small audience who hardly filled half of the seats in the theatre. I can do no better than quote from Amaradasa Gunawardena who was there on that day as a member of the original Maname team:
The play ended The concluding song Mangalam suba mangalam wewa jayasiri mangalam…was sung, and as it ended the the curtain was closed and the hall was lighted up. A great applause arose and continued without ceasing . The demand, ‘We want the producer, we want the producer’ was coming up from the front rows.At that time we did not know who were seated there. It was only later that we came to know that they were people such as Messers M.J.Perera and D.G.Dayaratne who were Sarchchandra’s contemporaries in the University College. By this time another drama was being enacted behind the stage The actors and actresses as well as the stage assistants were appealing to the our teacher (Sarchcandra) to come up on stage. Those days there was no custom of a curtain call, as it happens these days, whereby the actors and actresses come ion stage at the end of a performance. I remember the late Gunasena Galappatti, Arther Silva and myself appealing to our teacher to go up on stage.
“What need is there for the people who came to see the play to see me?” were his words of protest. We did not want to find answerers to that question and I remember how we, who normally would never lay hands on his person because of our respect and regard for him , leaving all that aside, pushing him up on to the stage . He was left alone on the flood-lit stage to receive an applause which we knew he never expected.(“Maname Natakaye Atita Kathava” in Maname in Retrospect)
What was begun as an experiment of modest proportions came to be a resounding success. The young men and women undergraduates in their early twenties were unaware that they were creating history that day. When we read the reminiscences of those pioneering actors and actresses we begin to feel the youthful ebullience with which they undertook the tasks assigned to them. But we should note that they were the intellectual cream of the young generation of their time, having entered the university through a highly competitive examination but in a fairly relaxed atmosphere which gave them enough space to enjoy their youth. Shyamon Jayasinghe who gave a memorable performance as Pothe Guru (the Narrator) recalls,
It was simply an innocent collective enjoyment that we experienced.To me and our team of actors and organizers it meant simply the culmination of of a six month period of sheer fun and camaraderie in rehearsing the play, nothing more.Despite the exultant praise of the very small but distinguished first audience of scholars, journalists and critics who gathered that night, it didn’t occur to any of us that we had placed our own humble footprints in the sands of time(“Something Magical Happened that Night” from Maname in Retrospect)
Shyamon Jayasinghe is obviously being very modest. Maname not only did give life to a dying art as far as the Sri Lankan theatre was concerned but it also was of momentous significance in the annals of South Asian theatre. No other folk theatrical form in the region had been thus fully transformed into a modern work of art before 1956 In that sense the birth of Maname is of world significance True, our theatre heritage comes down from the Indian tradition. But it was only in the 1960’s that works like Maname started appearing even in India.
Birth Pangs: We have been so far talking about the beauty of the final product We need to remember however, that the birth-process of the masterpiece had many occasions of agony and despair. Some of which were known only by an inner circle of devoted assistants. Recalls Wimal Navagamuva in a note he wrote for the Silver Jubilee of Maname (1981)
In order to enact the play which was written in the Nadagam style , our Guru (Sarachcandra) wanted actors and actresses highly competent in singing and dancing. Having selected Shyamon Jayasinghe as the Pothe Guru and Trilicia Abeykoon as the Princess and a group to sing in the chorus and proceeding with the rehearsals in parts, suddenly our Guru became disheartened .Although he auditioned several persons to take the role of the Vedda King no one was able to sing in the tone he wanted him to sing. He who always sought perfection in whatever he did, decided at that point to abandon the play and start working on another production.
This was the time the Dalada Perahera was being held in Kandy town and simultaneously a carnival was also in progress in the Bogambara Grounds. Arthur Silva (President of the Drama Circle) and I (its Junior Treasurer) were in town going towards the carnival and all of a sudden we heard over the loudspeaker a deep voice singing the film song “Maya, Maya”We went there to find out who it was. We came to know that he was Edmund Wijesinghe, an undergraduate who had failed the first year examination and was attending classes from outside. We decided that he should be presented to Dr. Sarachchandra and brought him to our romm in Ramanathan Hall that very night and took him next morning to the Sarchcandra residence” (Manase Rangadena Maname Sihiwatana in Maname in Retrospect .Incidentally Navagamuva who graduated with an Honors Degree in Sinhala and later became a distinguished member of the Cylon Civil Service is no more with us)
That was how the the wonderful actor Edmund Wijesinghe whose portrayal of the role of the Vedda King is one of the most memorable in the annals of modern Sinhala theatre made his entry to the Maname team, resurrecting the play which was almost being abandoned. Recalls Hemamali Gunasinhe (nee Gunasekera) who was acting the role of the Princess (alternately with Trilicia Gunawardena (nee Abeykoon),
When he (Edmund Wijesinghe) sang the very walls of the Junior Common Room seemed to listen in hushed silence to the rich timbre of his voice that resonated with a suppressed violence that was also right for the role of the Vedda King. In fact the very awkwardness of his stance and movements fit the image of the feral character perfectly ( “The Birth of a Masterpiece” in Maname in Retrospect).
Hemamali recalls how Edmund Wijesinghe’s voice “contrasted dramatically with the mellow richness of Ben Sirimanne’s voice. Ben was the original Prince Maname, a mature stude4nt who had entered Peradeniya as a school-teacher to follow the Sinhala Diploma course. Hemamali found him “mature, unflappable and gentlemanly, with his pleasant mellifluous voice and gentle ways” putting her completely at ease during the rehearsals.