Remembering a Renaissance Man, Ediriweera Sarachchandra

Ranjini Obeyesekere

Born at the cusp of the 20th century, at a moment when the cross influences of colonialism, nationalism, and Buddhist revivalism had a powerful impact on the psyche of Sri Lankan intellectuals, — generative as well as conflictual — the life and work of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, represents a transformation of these forces into works of path breaking scholarship and brilliant creativity. His erudition was legendary, and his influence on generations of students as well as the public has made him a household word in the country.


I will present a few vignettes to try to capture the intellectual range of his erudition, his sensitivity to the cultural and social demands of his time and his innate creativity that enabled him to fuse the many influences and exposures of his life into magnificent literary and dramatic works.

Born to a Christian mother and a Buddhist father, and named Eustace Reginald de Silva, he transformed himself, his name, and his world, to become Ediriweera Sarachchandra —  perhaps the foremost intellectual, scholar, teacher, and creative artist of 20th century Sri Lanka. 

SARACHCHANDRA 33-dailynewsHis early childhood in a family of devout Christians had exposed him to the English language and western music – he is said to have played the organ in his village church.  This double exposure stimulated his intellectual interests which always remained unfettered, and also nurtured his sensitivity and love of music which quickly extended to eastern music and its musical instruments.  Much later, after his stay in Japan he was fascinated by the music of Noh performances.  Music is then a central element in his later achievements and as H.L.Seneviratne remarked, “It becomes a metaphor for his east-west personality.”[1]

As a young intellectual caught in the ferment of anti-colonial nationalism and Buddhist revivalism he fiercely rejected his early Christian cum western identity, studied Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhala, at the University of Ceylon, and with his sharp intellect and amazing memory became very proficient in those languages and their literature.  After graduation he chose to go to Shantiniketan, the Mecca for young Asian nationalist intellectuals, and spent two years there as a full time student of music. Tagore’s world with its openness to a range of influences, its fusion of native cultural, and artistic modes of expression in creative experiments in art, music, and performance, had a deep impact on the young Sarachchandra and strengthened his innate critical and creative instincts.

When he returned to Sri Lanka, aware now that a western academic training was indispensable to the scholarly enterprise he joined the University of London for graduate work. Again he combined his Pali and Sanskrit background with his interest in philosophy and psychology and wrote his PhD dissertation on ‘Buddhist Psychology and Perception.[2]

As a University teacher, Sarachchandra’s earliest contribution to the world of scholarship was in the sphere of literary criticism. The late 19th century and early 20th century had seen an enormous growth in Sinhala literary activity in Sri Lanka, fuelled by scholarly monks and lay intellectuals steeped in the theories and traditions of classical Sanskrit aesthetics and philosophy.  The anti- colonial mood of the time necessarily focused around a revival of the native language and literature.  It involved a looking back to the earlier classical heritage coming through Pali and Sanskrit and a rejection of English and western influences associated with colonialism.  Accordingly the school of classical critical theorists was readily embraced and flourished.  The success or failure of literary works was judged on how strictly the rules of poetics and prosody as laid down by the Sanskrit aestheticians was applied.

The late 19th century had also seen the growth and spread of printing, which in turn produced an avid reading public.  A spate of journals, newspapers and critical works surfaced to serve this public.  Journals sprang up overnight to express or support a particular point of view in a currently raging critical controversy.

Sarachchandra’s earliest foray into this public melee of critical controversy and scholarship was with his book Modern Sinhala Fiction (1943) in which he assessed the work of some contemporary Sinhala novelists from a totally different perspective than the current schools of classical theory.  Prof. Malalasekera, in his preface to the book, while praising Sarchchandra’s special equipment for this task because of his university training, his travels abroad, his wide reading and his bilingual background, yet has this to add. “The charge can be made against Sarachchandra, with some justification, that he has based his judgement on standards that are unduly high.  ….   Viewed from that standpoint his verdicts may appear unnecessarily severe” Then with great diplomacy he goes on to say, “No one has yet evolved a complete definition of what constitutes good literature.  In the last resort the reader is the final judge.”[3]These remarks convey some idea of the tricky position of a critic attempting to evaluate works of contemporaries in a small literary community in a small country like Sri Lanka where many of them were personal acquaintances if not friends!!

It was in this context of fervent intellectual debate that Sarachchandra together with Martin Wickremasinghe, made a bold bid to introduce critical concepts and theories from the western world into the Sinhala writing of the time.  By mid century, there was already a growing recognition among some critics, like Munidasa Kumaranatunge, of the need for developing evaluative criteria that could escape the rigid bounds set by the Sanskrit aestheticians, and  create a space for new writing.  Like many of his contemporaries Sarachchandra was influenced by the New Critical schools of England and America and the modern literature that was flourishing in the West.  His seminal contribution came however with the brilliant tour de force by which he took concepts now current among the New Critics in the west and reinterpreted them in terms of the concepts used by Sanskrit aestheticians –an area he knew well. To mention just a few, the idea of rasa he related to the concept of aesthetic pleasure derived from a work of art. The concept of dhavani, the secondary or suggested meaning of a word was not different he claimed from the western critical concept of ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings in a work. The concept of aucitya or the appropriateness of words or images in a poem could be related to the western critical concept of organic unity in a work of poetry, and so on. By doing this he cut the ground under the feet of his classical critics. What better justification for the use of modern western critical criteria for evaluating literary works than the fact of their endorsement in the work of the ancient and venerated Sanskrit theorists![4]

In his Principles of Literary Criticism, Abercrombie states that the realm of literature was occupied by the activities of three distinct powers: the power to create, the power to enjoy, and the power to criticize.  A good critic may not necessarily be a good creative writer and vice versa.  Nor did everyone have the ability to experience and appreciate the full power ( rasa ) of a creative work. One had to be a rasika to do so.  This was something that Sarachchandra endorsed and consistently maintained to the end of his life.  Yet ironically Sarachchandra himself epitomized the unusual combination or fusion of these very powers.  He was a brilliant creative artist, passionate in his enjoyment and appreciation of good art and literature, a perceptive and extremely sensitive critic who did in fact create an audience of rasikas to appreciate modern literature.   Like F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards, the theoreticians of the then popular school of New Criticism, Sarachchandra’s influence as a critic is closely related, like theirs, to his role as a University teacher.  It enabled him to play a pivotal role in the creation, direction, and diffusion of modern western oriented evaluative criticism. Through his influence on successive generations of students he was able to give a new direction to modern Sinhala writing and so make a major contribution to Sinhala literature.

Pandit Amaradeva, in a talk he gave in 2002, recalled how Sarachchandra would quote classical poetry while driving his car or seated in a corner of a wayside restaurant. Once in order to convey the kind of subtle musical effect he needed for the love scene for his play Pabavati that he was then working on, Amaradeva says Sarathchandra suddenly quoted a verse from the 13th century poem the Kavsilumina and passionately expounded on it.

Kataka bota mihivita                               A young woman was drinking liquor

Heta kiyabu mihi siduvara                      when a siduvara flower from her hair fell (into her cup)

Duralannasin pimbiyē                             as if to remove it away the king blew

Muva mī gate naravarā                            and took the nectar from her mouth.

.   .   .   .

Tota nosimiye                                           Dear One I was unaware

Kiyaga topa tuda vakī tan                          show me the place where your lip touched

Viyata iti nirindu si                                    when the king said this, forgetting her anger

Piyakal mӓsi piyā pevū                               smiling, the lovely woman fed him nectar.

This 13th century classical Sinhala can hardly be understood by most of us today, but Sarachchandra’s fine poetic sensibility could bring out the nuances underlying the verse.

Pandit Ameradeva relates how Sarachchandra described that drinking scene and expounded on the minimalist lines with which the poet describes the kiss, and then went into a long discourse on the poet’s descriptive power, his language and usage.[5] It was this sensitivity to language, literature and music and his uncanny ability to communicate it to others, that galvanized and inspired successive generations both in the classroom and outside.

Sarachchandra was not merely a good teacher, scholar and critic he was also a novelist and a writer. Here is a vignette from his early writings about his travels in India. In an essay titled asampurna carika satahanak [Notes of an Uncompleted Journey] he writes: “It is a great misfortune to form your impressions of India in the trying heat of summer. . … Quite unknowingly I fell into the trap of the Indian summer.  While writhing and sweating in the heat and wondering whether this saṃsāra would never end I still remember the reply my wife got from an Indian gentleman who happened to get into our compartment near Calcutta. ‘Is there no place that you can get away from this heat?’ she asked.  His words had the inevitability of the teachings of the Indian saints.  ‘No madam there is no place in the whole of India where you can escape the summer.’  Sarachchandra adds, “There is nothing you can do under circumstances such as these but resign yourself to your fate.  You have merely to sit cross-legged on your seat, close your eyes and forgetting the flesh endeavor to merge yourself in the Absolute.  And it is not surprising that under conditions such as these there grew those philosophies and practices which are peculiar to Indian civilization.  I mean the doctrines of karma, nirvāṇa and dyāna.[6]

There is a typically Sarachchandra irony that plays over the whole scene described. The intellectual leap he makes from the cross-legged equanimity of his fellow traveler to the philosophies of the subcontinent, engendered probably by this very heat, are characteristic of the man!

If literary criticism and the introduction of modern forms of critical thinking were Sarachcandra’s major achievements as a teacher and a scholar, it was in the field of drama, the explosive new direction he gave to the Sinhala theatre with his experimental works such as Maname and Sinhabahu, that were the high point of his creative career.

maname-- wwwkapruka com Courtesy

I remember vividly the first night performance of Maname in 1956.  As the curtain rose and the rich chant of the Pothegura (narrator) filled the auditorium, I sat spellbound at what seemed to me a theatrical miracle.  Sarachchandra’s total transformation of ideas and theatrical aspects that he had taken from the traditional rituals and folk plays, into a sophisticated modern drama; the bare stage emblazoned with colorful costumes, the sheer poetry of his verse enhanced by his creative use of music and dance, left me and the audience stunned.  Here was something new, exciting, and different from anything seen in the Sinhala theatre so far, breaking away from the western influenced fourth wall proscenium dramas and opening new directions for the Sinhala theatre.  As I walked out dazed and excited I remember meeting Regi Siriwardene, at the time the leading critic for the English newspapers, and he was equally transfixed. We talked briefly, at a loss for words to express our excitement.

That was the first night performance.  Since then it has played to generations of audiences, and hundreds of performances.  Although the stylized dance drama that he introduced has now become standard fare in the theatre and even somewhat passe, yet the sheer poetry of Sarachchandra’s  language and music still enthrall his audiences.

Years later when teaching at the Peradeniya University, I remember attending again a performance of Maname.  It was at the open air theatre — grass tiered seating under towering Taboobia trees that shed their delicate pink blossoms on a packed audience of students, teachers, monks, government bureaucrats, workers, and villagers from the surrounding area. Then, in the scene where the lovers walk in the forest and the now familiar song ‘prēmeyen maṇa ranjita vey’ was being sung, a student voice spontaneously joined in, and instantly the entire audience burst into the song.  It was an unforgettable magical moment.

If Maname was his first experimental drama, then his next play Sinhabahu with its rich dramatic text, the powerfully, complex tragic characters he created around the popular yet simple folk legend, their singing of his poignant poetry was I think the high point in his dramatic career.   Sarachchandra remained a dramatist to the end of his life and continued to write poetic drama yet none has remained as popular or as powerful as Sinhabahu.

I will quote some lines from Lakshmi de Silva’s translation of the dramatic encounter between the lion and his son Sinhabahu:[7] No translation can capture the full poetic power of the original – but it is the best we can do.

[The raging lion comes on stage dancing to drum music and singing.]


I will besiege the universe

Unsphere the earth – around the world

Turn and return to seek –to seek.

Those who would trap me I will rend

Crush, tear, with red these claws shall reek

As I lap up their dripping blood,

Shatter their ear drums with my sound

as loud my sky hurled roars resound.


Look is it another man

Destined to die, facing in me

Retribution for past misdeeds?

Why must they come in quest of death?

I cannot understand their ire.

I merely come to seek my wife.

Whom have I wronged? These men bereft me

Of kith and kin, now seek my life.

Ripped crushed and mangled they shall die

In fragments rent their limbs shall lie.


Then the lion recognizes it is his son who has come. The chorus now takes over:

That dread lion wild with pain

Of love in severance,

Saw his son’s face like the moon

Over the dark trees rising

And his mind like white night-bloom flowered

In its radiance.

The arrow sped and fell

But by the power of love

Grazed neither fell nor flesh.


Love of a son goes deep

Piercing skin, flesh and nerve

Seeking the very bone,

Cleaving deep to the marrow

It gives incessant sorrow.


Why does my son shoot at me? Does he not know,

Or fail to recognize me? Was it wrath  /Or was it fear that made him bend his bow?

I have wondered long seeking your mother, you and your sister.  I would know if they are happy.  I will not harm you. Do not fear me.  Lay aside your bow and arrow.  Come to me.


How can I when my father calls to me

With tender words, kill him relentlessly?.

My mother spoke truth: bitter suffering

Of love-loss has caused his cruelties.

A dreaded king of beasts, and yet to us

He never spoke except with tenderness.


I cannot let hot pity melt my mind.

I must fulfill the duty that is mine.

This time its aim this arrow shall not miss,

Shot as he comes to greet me with a kiss.

(He shoots)

Of course the audience knows that the first two arrows did not touch the lion because of the  overpowering love and compassion that suffused his being.  But when angered by the second arrow he decides to teach his son a lesson, the third arrow strikes home and he is killed.

Ediriweera-Sarachchandra--col telCourtesy of Colombo Telegraph

As a critic Sarachchandra has always remained a controversial figure in spite of his increasing impact on generations of writers and poets. The Peradeniya school of modern criticism of which he was a central figure, though it spread fast from the universities to the schools, has remained controversial.  Not so with his dramas.  There he stands a colossus and has remained so, even though other modes and other styles and experiments have followed in the theatre.

In the late sixties and seventies as young faculty at the University of Peradeniya, living at Mahakande, he was our neighbor and we became close friends. Soon he became a frequent evening visitor at our home.  Those evening gatherings were memorable. Sitting over drinks or a pot luck dinner we would talk into the night on any and every topic that currently absorbed us. Often other friends dropped in, Alex Gunasekera, H. L. Seneviratne,  Ian VandenDriesen, Bandula Jayawardene, to mention a few. The conversation would range from concepts in Buddhist or European philosophy, or modern Sociology, to recent literary criticism, music, drama, folk ritual performances — in short anything that any of us happened to be engaged in.  Sarath as we called him was at his scintillating best – ready with a quote of a Pali stanza, or a Sanskrit sloka or a piece of classical Sinhala poetry to make a point or clinch an argument.  He was equally quick with his jokes and word play. The nicknames he coined for his friends and himself were legendary for their punning and perceptiveness.  I shall not attempt a translation.  But typical of Sarath he not only had fun names for others but he gave himself one too — “Harak Andare” (court jester of cattle)!  His sharp wit and light hearted jokes enlivened the evenings, as the conversations ranged over a gamut of social political and literary concerns. I realize now that the seeds of my own intellectual stimulation came from those evening conversations and my earliest work on Sinhala Literary Criticism germinated there.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra was a renaissance man. His brilliant, wide ranging intellect, could compare, absorb and integrate the multifaceted influences he was exposed to and transform them into powerful works of critical scholarship, fiction, biography, poignant poetry and magnificent dramas.   It was done effortlessly, with ironic wit and often a slight note of self deprecation that endeared him to his friends and subtly destabilized his critics.  His boyish laughter was always directed at all forms of intellectual or ideological pomposity. Over his long life he touched the minds and lives of many, but to the very end he was a man on whom years of fame and popularity sat lightly.

RANJINIRanjini Obeyesekere,  Kandy, May 2014.


[1] H.L.Seneviratne in an email communication with me. May 10th 2014.

[2] Buddhist Psychology and Perception, University of Colombo press, 1958.

[3] G.P. Malalasekera in the foreward toModern Sinhala Fiction, p.x, 1943.

[4] For a fuller discussion of the Sanskrit terms and their transformation by Sarachchandra  see R. Obeyesekere, Sinhala Writing and the New Critics, Colombo 1974, p38-53

[5] Pandit Amaradeva in his talk, “Pleasurable experiences I had when I was creating the music for several of Sarachchandra’s plays.”  Ediriweera Sarachchandra memorial oration, June 14, 2003, p.19 ,20.

[6] Essay titled “Notes on an Uncompleted Journey”  in Kesari republished as Through Shanthiniketan Eyes, 201.p.55

[7] Sinhabahu; Ediriweera Sarachchandra, translated by Lakshmi de Silva, Colombo 2002 p.38 and 39

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