Sinhabahu: Reverberating Memories

KNO Dharmadasa, in The Island, 18 November 2011, where the title is “Sinhabahu : Fifty Years’ Memories”

The year 2011 marks fifty years after the first staging of Professor Sarachchandra’s play Sinhabahu which shares with his own Maname (1956) the record of enduring presence among theatre goers in Sri Lanka since the day they were first staged. The University of Peradeniya, the birth-place of the play, will ceremonially celebrate this golden jubilee on the 22 nd and 23rd of this month. The first item of this celebration will be the staging of the play in its original venue the Sarachchandra Open Air Theatre on the 22nd. The Rasikas will enjoy this performance free of charge, the University bearing the expenses. It will be followed on the 23rd with a seminar-discussion in which the original and later generations of actors and Rasikas will share their views and reminiscences.

The day was the 31st of August, 1961. The venue was The Open Air Theatre in the University of Peradeniya, the first and the most celebrated of such theatres in the island. There would have been an audience of about three to four thousand undergraduates, teachers and other employees of the university and people from Uda Peradeniya, Hindagala and other adjoining villages waiting eagerly to see Sarachchandra’s latest production which was called Sinhabahu. I who was there on that day as an undergraduate have since been living with this play as a rasika and would like to pen my memories and views on this most remarkable of artistic creations in the annals of the history of arts Sri Lanka.

The Genesis of Sinhabahu

What prompted Sarachchandra to write this play? When we look at the plot we find several aspects of the story but above all, what strikes us most is the battle of the father and the son, something out of the ordinary, but as Sarachchandra has often told us in his lectures, literature is not about the ordinary but of the extraordinary. As for the genesis of Sinhabahu, this is what Sarachchandra has to say in his autobiographical Pin Eti Sarasavi Waramak Denne (1985):

The plot of Sinhabahu was conceived in my mind about ten years before writing it…The seed of the plot is related to an incident mentioned in the Mahavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka. The Buddha when he re-visited [his birth-place] Kapilavastu [several years after Enlightenment] he ordained his step-brother Price Nanada. Sometime later [when he was walking down the streets of the city] Princess Yasodhara [his wife in his lay life] sent to him his son Prince Rahula telling him ‘ you go and ask for your inheritance from your father’ The Buddha then ordained Prince Rahula as well.

Thereafter, [ his own father] king Suddhodana went to the Buddha and said:‘Sire, when you discarded lay lie and left me I was profoundly grieved, I was similarly sorrowed on the day when Prince Nanada became a monk. I was much more grieved on the day prince Rahula was ordained. Love for a child penetrates the skin, having penetrated the skin it penetrates the muscles, having penetrated the muscles it penetrates the veins, penetrating the veins it penetrates the bones, penetrating the bones it sinks down to the bone-marrow and rests there [bringing unendurable pain] . I wish that the pain of filial loss with which I am afflicted today should not occur to all parents who have borne children. [Therefore] as a favour to me alone please give me the assurance that in your Order of Monks there can be no ordaining without parental consent’ These words [ of King Suddhodana] describing filial love continued to echo in my mind. I realized that this could be portrayed through the Sinhabahu story. The following lines in the play Sinhabahu

Love for the child penetrates muscle, vein and skin

Goes in searching the bones, enters the bones

Rests on the bone marrow and brings eternal pain

which are made to be uttered by the Presenter Pote Guru were composed by me to give expression to those very sentiments (pp. 227 – 28)

All these explanations were, however, not available to us when we were sitting there in that rainy night in August 1961. (There is a folk belief among those living in Peradeniya that a theatre performance at the Open Air Theatre will invariably bring in a small shower ) On August 31 1961, it was only an intermittent drizzle and we could sit through it. I would like here to mention my first impression when I was sitting there viewing this wonderful play for the first time.

First Impressions

The first thing that struck me was the chamatkara (joyful surprise) of being face to face with an unprecedented work of art. It was a totally new creation. based on a well known story. We knew this story from our childhood but here before us was a work which made us see that story in a totally different light. The dramatist had selected a special aspect of the story, and concentrating on it, filled the characters with flesh and blood as befitting the way he wanted to portray them, and brought them live on stage with the four abhinayas verbal, physical, facial and costume. The language, music and song were all emanating from our cultural roots and the play immediately evoked a responsive chord within us. Although the tradition had been utilized the most striking feature of the play as I saw it on that day was its novelty. Let me explain.

The Mahavamsa has a story about the lineage of Prince Vijaya, the eponymous hero of the Sinhala race. Vijaya was the eldest son of Sinhabahu and his sister Sinhasivali who in turn were the children of a lion and a royal princess, Suppa Devi. We were used to viewing these characters from the traditionalist point of view which has been depicted in works such as the early 19th century poem Syabas Maldama (1821) by Kirama Dhammananda Thero, the mid-19th century Sinhavalli Nadagama attributed to Pilippu Singho and the late 19th century Sinhavalli Natakaya by C Con Bastiyan Jayaweera Bandara. The Nadagama and the Natakaya are not available to most of us but the poem is. The Siyabas Lakara portrays vividly this traditional view of the main protagonists of the story. For example, Suppa Devi is depicted as a highly sexed damsel who leaves the palace in search of carnal pleasure. Sinhabahu kills his father for the promised rewards, the wealth and glory that would come his way once the marauding lion is removed. As for the lion, Dhammananda Thero sees his tragic end as a consequence of breaking the laws of nature and taking a human to his wife.

With Sarachcandra’s play, however, there was a complete transformation. The characters emerged as people with very humane feelings. Suppa Devi was, according to his portrayal, a woman who had suffered social injustice. She had been denied the fulfillment of her individual aspirations and she fled the palace, discarding wealth and luxury, to live with the lion with whom she was deeply in love. It was this attachment that brought her solace from the wrongs she had suffered. But later, after sixteen tears, when the children had grown up, she had to make a choice whether to be with her husband or go with the children whose future well-being had to be ensured. This decision was extremely difficult and her choice of taking the side of the children was destined to lead to tragic consequences for which she was to suffer for the rest of her life.

Sinhabahu as depicted by Sarchchandrs was a restless young man who was in pursuit of ideals. As he grew up he was intrigued by the physical disparity between his mother and father. In the meantime, both he and his sister had been listening as children to the mother’s fascinating stories about palace life and princes and princesses which gradually brought the realization that there was a beautiful world outside, access to which was denied to them. In fact the first dramatic moment of the play emerges with Sinhabahu’s desire to see the outside world, free from the cave-prison in which the father had confined them. It is in this scene right in the First Act that the children come to know the history of the relationship between father and mother. As for Sinhabahu, the revelation that he was a prince of royal blood arouses a strong urge to pursue his destiny as a heir to the crown who has a duty by the people of Vanga Desa, his grandfather’s kingdom. Finally, when he confronts his father in battle, as he had already become the Yuvaraja, it was his commitment to duty, the pledge he had given to the people to free them from the marauding lion, that provides him the courage to shoot the fatal arrow killing his father.

Sarachcandra’s lion, as he has described in the long introduction to the first publication of the script (Sinhabahu Natakaya, Maharahama, Saman Press, 1962) is the typical middle-class parent. He believes that as long as he provides them with food, clothing and shelter, they will have no other things to aspire to. “That is why,” states Sarachcandra ” he [the middle-class parent]tries to provide for them husbands and wives as he provided food and lodgings. They should accept these things in the same way they accepted those other things he had supplied. If they reject them he is greatly disturbed in mind.”

If we go back to the original story, the lion in Sinhabahu evokes our sympathy because of his unrelenting and deep attachment to his wife and children. His “faults” emanate from this basic premise. He keeps the family confined to the cave, securing the door with a huge rock because he fears for their safety in this beast-infested jungle. Not knowing anything beyond the fact that he has provided everything to them he is unable to comprehend why his wife, who had lived with him happily for so many years and his children whose every desire he had fulfilled have left him. In his view they had been abducted by people living outside the forest and when he goes in search of them he is attacked by them. He retaliates and they get killed. He sometimes feels sorry for them “Is it wrong for me to go in search of my wife and children?” he asks. Finally, when he sees Sinhabahu entering the forest he believes that he is coming in search of the father. With great filial love he extends his hands to embrace the son. Sinhabahu’s his first arrows, the lion believes, were shot in self-defense .But when he sees his son behaving wantonly he wants to punish him, not to kill him.

Sarachcandra explained all this in 1962 in the Introduction to his book Sinhabahu Natakaya. Although we did not understand all these subtleties when we sat there in the Open Air Theatre that night, we were immediately impressed by the novelty of looking at a set of known characters in a totally different light.Lines such as ,

Neta love an rasanduna

Aadare se suva dena (Suppa Devi)

(There is no sweet ointment giving such solace as love)


Vanga dese vesens janata

Kerehi ve ma yutukama (Sinhabahu)

( There is a duty to be performed by me for the people of Vanga Desa)

continued to reverberate in our youthful ears for many days to come. The total effect of the confluence of literary excellence, stylized movements, melodic chant and dramatic song, and the spectacle of unprecedented costume was spell-bounding. This was an experience very much different from that of viewing Maname. In that play the pace was majestic and slow, except for the battle scene. But here the pace was intense, the character conflict was felt deeply.

As Tragic Drama

Since first seeing Sinhabahu in late 1961 I have written about it several times, in Sinhala and English. My earliest writings on it were when I was an undergraduate. One of them was the article I wrote to Piyawara the annual publication of Peradeniya University Sinhala Sangamaya, the 1962-63 number. It was titled Sinhabahu ; Shokanata Natyayak ( Sinhabahu ; A Tragic Drama) . At the time I was preparing for the paper on theatre which was one of the papers for the final examination. When reading about Greek tragedies I was struck by the parallels between the tragic heroes found in Greek tragedies such as Oedipus by Sophocles and the main characters of Sinhabahu. The characters in tragic dramas are people who earn our respect. They have admirable and lofty qualities but at the same time a little flaw in their character leads to their downfall. Sometimes the ideals they pursue lead to clashes between each other. Such conflicts are inevitable because their characters are such that they can do no other than pursue those ideals. When we look at the character of the lion, in Sinhabahu, we note that he is deeply attached to his wife and children. For him there is no other treasure than the family and he believes that outsiders have abducted them. At one stage he realizes that his son was at the bottom of their leaving him and that the mother and daughter would have been forced by him to go with him. All he asks is “Is it wrong for me to go in search of my family?”

As for Sinhabahu, we too feel with him the trauma of living in a prison like cave. As a youth who has to work out his own destiny he should have the freedom to pursue his own aspirations. The only thing he can aspire to is kingship about which he had constructed a picture out of the various stories his mother had been narrating him from childhood. The sudden realization that he has a claim to the throne of the Vanga Country kindles in him a passion to take up royal duties and responsibilities.

The inevitable occurs when the search of family by the father lion leads to clashes with people and their deaths, forcing them to ask for royal intervention to save them and Sinhabahu coming forward to take up this royal responsibility. He is duty-bound to do so because now he has become the Yuvaraja ( the sub-king). Thus the fatal killing of the father by the son would occur disturbing us deeply.

The dramatist has heightened the tragic effect of this episode by bringing in Suppa Devi to intervene . She pleads with the son not to go forth to battle “the marauding lion” Because only she knows that this lion is no other than the father who has turned violent unable to bear the loss of his loved ones. Besides, it is unbecoming of a son to battle his father:

Nokaran ma putune me stana

Numba pada mula vedala kiyannem

Nokaran ma putune me satana

(Do not engage in this battle my son

I worship at your feet

Do not engage in this battle)

Although the mother tells Sinhabahu that the lion terrorizing the countryside is none other than his father who is unable to bear the loss of his beloved family, Sinhabahu refuses to believe it. Here we note that he is trying to deceive himself. This attempt at self deception will come at the very climax of the drama when the father comes forward and calling him son asks him to come near so that he can embrace him. Sinhabahu feels that the pledge he has given the people to save them from “the marauding lion” cannot be broken.

The immediate success of Sarachcandra’s Sinhabahu should be attributed to the fact that in it was the coming together of a highly poetic and meaningful text, a highly sophisticated choreography, superb melodies based on tradition whereby the chants and songs were rendered and the spectacle of enchanting costumes all brought to life by a group of intelligent and talented cast in the prime of their youth. Since then many moons have gone by and many actors have brought Sinhabahu on stage, using different costumes but the essence of the original play is still intact.

My most memorable experience with Sinhabahu is that in which I sat with an international audience at the International Theatre Festival 2008 held in Trissur, State of Kerala in India three years ago. Ten major plays and several smaller plays were staged representing several countries in Asia and Europe. What I experienced on that day was recorded by me in an article which appeared in the Island on 7th January 2009.There were the concluding lines of that essay: ” Sarachcandra… saw in the theatre of Adia, particularly the drama forms of India… that for the creation of Rasa not only dialogue, but dance, song and music as well, should be employed.This vision of Sarachcandra has undoubtedly materialized in full in Sinhabahu. During the performance at Trissur on the 28th of December [2008], seated next to me was an elderly Indian Professor who had worked in Japan for some time and who was highly conversant with Noh and Kabuki [the classical theatre forms of that country] [While viewing Sinhabahu, although he did not understand the language] He was exclaiming over and over again “wonderful”, “this is pure theatre” Sitting there in the midst of an audience of diverse national backgrounds, I felt proud to be a Sri Lankan and my heart was filled with gratitude to our Guru who has provided us with such a national treasure.”

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