GK Haththotuwagama and His Riveting Street Theatre

Extracts from the Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama Memorial Lecture delivered by Nihal Rajapakse at OPA Auditorium on the invitation of Richmond 60-70 Group.

Wikipedia describes Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama in the following manner. “He was a Sri Lankan playwright, director, actor, critic and educator. He is widely known as the father of modern street theatre. He is among the most influential directors of post independent Sri Lanka.”

 Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama … GK to us Galileans and to the occupants of Ramanathan Hall at Peradeniya in the late 1950s

Therefore it is quite obvious that it was with considerable trepidation that I accepted the invitation because I am neither an academic nor a playwright nor anyone who has anything do with “DramSoc” viz drama and theatre and much less an orator! The only oratory I’ve ever practised was in 1970 when I was appointed as Senior Lecturer of the Staff Training School of my former employer, People’s Bank. That too was for a period of less than one year. As lecturing was not my forte, I asked for a transfer which was granted.

G.K. was about four years my senior in school and therefore I do not consider myself as one of his ‘mango’ friends. However, we have one thing in common. He was a student at Richmond for 13 years (from 1942 to 1954) whilst I was a student there for 12 years (from 1947 to 1958.) Therefore, both of us are full blooded products of that famous institution called Richmond College. Further, among my peers in the banking sector, I was often categorized as a “rebel without a cause.” The only difference between G.K. and myself is that G.K. is “a rebel with a cause!” For those in the audience who do not know me, I am a Chartered Banker having spent almost my entire working life in the banking industry.

Charismatic personality

As many of you know, banking and drama do not go together. The only time in my living memory that drama and banking got mixed up were the recent drama over the Treasury Bond issue involving the Central Bank of Sri Lanka which in my view was much more than just a drama! Coming back to the life and times of this charismatic personality called G.K. de Silva or simply as G.K. as he was popularly known in school, it was in or about 1960, while attached to the tutorial staff at Richmond after his graduation, that he decided to shed the last vestiges of colonialism from him and decided to revert to his ancestral name, Haththotuwegama.

Hereinafter, with due respect to him and for purposes of simplification, I shall refer to him simply as G.K. as he was better known to us in school. I shall concentrate mostly on his school life because these are the areas I have a first-hand knowledge of him.

Had G.K. been alive, he would have been 79-years-old today. I am not going to dwell at length about his family background except to add a few anecdotes. This area was already been covered by the Chief Guest in her lecture. G.K’s initials stand for Gamini Kalyanadharsha. His family comprised of eight children- two boys and six girls. G.K. was the third. According to his own confession, he was by far the most mischievous of the children so much so that during school holidays, his father used to carter him away from home and place him under the care of his relations in Akuressa or Matara so that the parents could give due care to his other seven siblings.

His father used to bring him back home only after school holidays are over. Singing was the passion of the entire family. Even without a radio, the family used to sing regularly so much so that those neighbours who had radios, used to switch them off and listen to the music emanating from the Haththotuwegama household! I knew both boys; his younger brother Srinivasa or “Jeffrey” as he was popularly known, was a contemporary of mine and a brilliant science student who entered the University in 1959 and qualified as an engineer.

He has been domiciled in New Zealand for quite some time. I have never met him since leaving school. To me, the most inspirational member of the Haththotuwegama family is G.K’s elder sister, Iranganie.

She had a profound influence on my education. Out of the four subjects I studied for the University Entrance and H.S.C. Examinations of 1958, she tutored me in three of them, viz; Ceylon History, European History and Government. She had throughout been a very dedicated teacher. Her tutoring was of such high quality that I was quite confident that I’ll gain admission to the University without much difficulty. Therefore, in 1958 after sitting for this examination for the very first time, I left school and was preparing to enter the University. However, when the results were announced lo and behold! I had failed in one subject thereby failing to gain admission to the University but passed the H.S.C. Examination.

However, less than six months later in May/June 1959, when I sat for the G.C.E. (Adv. Level) Examination of the University of London, which is equivalent to University Intermediate level, I passed in all three subjects and became eligible to proceed with the Degree course of study. All I used for this examination was the study material provided by Miss Haththotuwegama at Richmond which speaks volumes about the quality of her teaching skills. I shall make use of this opportunity to pay my homage to her for the immense contribution she has made to my life although it is more than half a century late!

Great teachers

Coming back to the subject under discussions, like his father and uncles, G.K. had almost his entire education at Richmond from 1942 up to the time he entered the University of Peradeniya in 1955. During this time, his first love, outside his family, of course, was Richmond.

During his early days at Richmond, he came under the benign influence of great teachers like Major Adhihetty, a strict disciplinarian, who always insisted students to have a short cropped hairstyle and walk with chest forward. Then there is that much-respected Principal, E.R. de Silva who will walk into a class without any notice and deliver a short lecture, be it English, Sinhala, Maths or Science.

Towards the latter part of his student days at Richmond G.K. came under the tutorage of Clara Nanayakkara, Daphne Dissanayake (whose daughter incidentally is a leading Cardiologist and mine as well, named Naomali Amarasena), Then there was that debonair trio of Messrs. J.H. Ariaratnam, Walter May and, Shelton Abeysuriya all of them straight from the university. G.K’s tutors at HSC level was probably Thampoe, Daphne Dissanayake, J H Ariaratnam, Walter May and that fiery S.K. Goonawardene (brother of the LSSP ideologue, Cholmondeley Goonawardene of Kalutara).

There is no doubt that G.K.’s love for music was largely influenced by iconic figures like Shelton Wirasinha and Ivor de Silva. In my view, his leaning towards the left and his anti-colonial beliefs coupled with his critical and inquiring mind may have been greatly nurtured by some of these teachers in his Upper School at Richmond. This also would have paved the way for the development of his creative thinking abilities which blossomed in him after he joined the University. By his very nature, until his death in 2009, he remained a non-conformist and a maverick. To what extent Richmond contributed to such a development is a matter for debate.

I have to mention another important facet of the life of G.K. There is no doubt in my mind that he remained an avowed anti-imperialist and anti-colonial throughout his life but was NOT anti- West. Let me elucidate this point. Firstly, G.K. remained faithful to his original dress code which was shirt and trouser throughout. He never changed his attire to Ariya Sinhala or Kapati Suit worn by politicians.

Secondly, the inspiration for most of his works originated from Western Literature. For example from Greek mythology, (Agamemnon), Checkov and Dostoyevsky of Russia, Brecht of Germany and above all, Shakespeare of England and even Tennessee Williams of the U.S. Thirdly, in one of his interviews, he articulated that the J.V.P. Insurrection of 1971 failed because they neglected and/or failed to enlist the support of the English educated middle-class elite towards their cause. Take the people who were charged with the Insurrection. They were all Sinhala educated youth. On this score, history was on G.K’s side.

Major upheavals in world history

Take the major upheavals in world history. The French Revolution of 1789 was successful because its inspiration and leadership came from the intellectual community from persons like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Robespierre. It was Montesquieu who propounded the doctrine of separation of powers which later remained the bedrock of the U.S. Constitution. Then came Rousseau’s famous publication, “Social Contract,” which hit France like a time bomb and gave the much-needed impetus for the Revolution. This book starts with the famous words, Everyman is born free but is everywhere in chains.” Then look at the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was led by intellectuals like Lenin and Trotsky.

Even the more recent Cuban Revolution of 1957 was also led by intellectuals like Dr. Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara. Therefore there is considerable truth in G.K’s assertion that the JVP Insurrection of 1971 failed due to their failure to entice the English educated middle class for their movement. After all, he was a Lecturer in English in both Universities of Kelaniya and Peradeniya. He was thinking probably in English. Therefore, G.K. somewhere in his heart has had some soft corner for the English educated middle class of the country and certainly not anti-West in his outlook. That is my candid opinion. I leave it entirely to the audience to decide whether or not G.K. was anti-West.

G.K. got involved in most of the extracurricular activities in school, viz; the Debating Team, School Choir and Theatre, the Cheering Squad etc. In sports he never went beyond the Cheering Squad and as an announcer in sports meets but remained a keen cricket enthusiast.

During his young days, he used to walk up to the house of our mutual friend, Ananda Jayasinghe who is here with us today, to listen to the cricket commentaries of Christopher Martin Jenkins in the Ashes series.

Further, when he joined Kelaniya University as a Lecturer, he not only introduced cricket to the University but even became their cricket coach! He was in the S.S.C. Prep Form when he was selected for the College Debating Team along with youngster Stanley Wickremaratne. As a junior, I remember having seen “Merchant of Venice,” which was produced and directed by Ariaratnam and Tampoe. In this play, he gave a stellar performance as Shylock. He was also the Editor of the School Magazine for three years. Following his brilliant academic career, he was made a Prefect in or about 1953.

****  ****


 A snap that is typically GK**

Another activity he was deeply involved in whilst at Richmond, both as a student and later as a teacher was the Wednesday Evening Club, introduced to the school by that beloved Principal, Shelton Wirasinha. Like G.K. this Principal was also a literary genius. The Club was a literary, cultural and even a political forum confined to H.S.C. students and the academic staff. Due to the gap in our seniority, I was not fortunate enough to have been associated with G.K. at that time, in the activities of the Club. However, I vividly remember Shelton Wirasinghe once lamenting the loss of G.K. who he said was not only very articulate but also spoke impeccable English and who made the Club very vibrant during the period he was associated with it.

I vividly still remember a memorable encounter I had with G.K. more than half a century ago whilst both of us were students at Richmond. In my early days, I was in the College hostel. In the hostel, there was an organisation called RCBLA which stands for Richmond College Boarders’ Literary Association. Friday evenings were set aside for debates. On one such occasion, I was nominated as a debater which comprised of 4 students on each side.

The subject of the debate was “English should be the medium of instructions in schools.” I was on the proposing side. The debate was in Sinhala. I was probably in the Std. VII Class at that time. To get a helping hand I approached G.K. who I knew was always helpful to his juniors and brilliant in his command of English. I told him my problem in that I want him to give me some salient points to be used in the debate. He erroneously believed that I was on the opposing side and gave me enough material to argue as to why English should NOT be the medium of instruction and subjected the English Language to much ridicule by stating that it was a bahubootha language to have words like BUT and PUT pronounced in two different ways!.

At that time I knew that he had missed the bus! When I corrected him stating that I am on the proposing side, he then asked me to go to the hostel master and ask him to change my side which obviously would never have been allowed. It is a well-known fact that G.K. had coached and helped thousands of his students across the length and breadth of the country with utmost dedication and commitment. But when I sought his help it was unfortunate that it ended up in a big disappointment.

Hostel life at Richmond

A word about the hostel life at Richmond. G.K. had never been a hosteller because his house is a few doorsteps away from the College premises, located opposite the residence of Dr. W Dahanayake. However he always makes it a point to meet his hostel colleagues practising sports on College Grounds in the afternoons and evenings. His preoccupation with the hostellers after school hours led him to neglect his homework which was reported to his parents. This weakness even continued at the University level when he often failed to submit his tutorials. However, when he did submit them they were always outstanding and brilliant.

As for me, my hostel life came to an abrupt end in 1953 when I scooted off home under the pretext of going to watch a cricket match at the Galle Esplanade. Following this escapade, I was not only expelled from the hostel but also from the school! However, after my father’s intensive pleading (he was a pupil of E.R. de Silva), I was taken back to school but the hostel remained out of bounds for me for life. Academically, G.K. was simply brilliant. He passed the S.S.C. probably in 1952 securing distinctions in English and Civics for which he won the Queen’s Jubilee Scholarship. He is the only person I know who had secured a distinction in Civics from any school at any time. However, it is no longer a subject in the school curricula. He would have invariably studied English, Government, Ceylon and European History for his H.S.C. and University Entrance Examinations. He passed this Examination with flying colours in 1954 and was selected to proceed to study for the degree in English Honours. For the General Arts Qualifying Examination (G.A.Q.) along with English, he studied History and Economics. It was probably due to his brilliant performance at this Examination that he was allowed to proceed to study for an English Honours Degree course which was rare even those days but unheard of nowadays.

Whilst studying in the University he produced and appeared as the leading actor in the Sinhala version of Anton Chekhov’s play “The Proposal.” During this period in the University, he also played the title role in the play “Agamemnon.” His university career as an undergraduate was greatly influenced by two giants associated with theatre and drama at that relevant time, viz; Prof. Sarathchandra and Prof. E.F.C. Ludowyke, both happened to be products of Richmond, the latter, of course, was full blooded. In 2005, G.K. was invited to deliver the prestigious E.F.C. Ludowyke Memorial Oration. As expected, he was a member of the University Debating Team as well. He is probably the only English graduate to have moved away from English to produce plays for the Sinhala audience. I have yet to come across an English Honours Graduate produced by Richmond after G.K. although there had been a few before him.

The little-known fact is G.K. among other things, is also a prankster. At Richmond, there was a teacher by the name of Christopher Wickramasinghe. He was the Head Master of the Primary School. He had been a very popular teacher, who was loved by all, by both students and teachers alike. He taught me in school and probably G.K. as well.

He lived in a bungalow on the College premises. It was this bungalow that has recently been converted to the College Museum. Occasionally, he will throw a dinner to those teachers who used to reside in the hostel. On one such occasion in the 1960s the Master in Charge of the hostel at that time, a well-known personality was invited along with other teachers residing in the hostel for a sumptuous dinner at Christopher’s bungalow. The invitees included G.K. as well who at that time was attached to the tutorial staff of the school. Before the dinner was served, the Master in Charge of the hostel referred to above, had got himself excused to answer a call of nature. He entered the toilet leaving his footwear outside. When he came out of the toilet he found that one of his shoes was missing. An intensive search was conducted by all concerned but to no avail. On the following day when Christopher opened his refrigerator, to his horror, he found the missing shoe inside it. On further investigation, it was discovered the culprit is none other than G.K. himself.

Theatre and drama

In 1959, G.K. graduated with honours in English. Armed with an English Honours Degree, he would have literally walked into any major school in the City but like his elder sister Iranganie, he opted to come back to his alma mater to impart his knowledge to fellow students of Richmond. It was in 1960 that he joined the academic staff there. Unfortunately, by this time I had left Richmond. Like a fish taken to water, he immediately immersed himself in theatre and drama whilst tutoring English to the students in the Upper School.

He directed several plays during his short tenure at Richmond including Shakespeare in Sarong, Hamlyn the Pied Piper, Awa Madai Maruwa and several other plays. After he assumed office, theatre and drama underwent a rapid transformation at Richmond. During his brief tenure, he also made another significant contribution to the extra curricula segment of the School. It was he who introduced badminton to Richmond. He laid the groundwork for Richmond to later become the All Island Badminton Champions.

His brief spell came to an end in 1964 when he was invited by the University of Kelaniya to join their academic staff as a Lecturer in English. Although his tenure as a member of the academic staff at Richmond was limited to only 4 years, he left behind an indelible mark and his legacy at Richmond still lives on. G.K. was a prolific writer as well. He was the Editor of the University Magazine for a number of years. He has also contributed many articles to prestigious and learned journals. In addition, he was also a film critic and an actor who had even played a minor role in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s film “Thunweni Yaamaya” and the lead role in Vijitha Gunaratne’s film called “Walapatala”.

In 1967 he was unanimously elected as the first President of the Film Critics and Journalists’ Association. Apart from lecturing at universities which were his main forte, he has conducted workshops for thousands of students across the length and breadth of the country as well as abroad and is well known as one of the most accomplished and skilled trainers of actors as well as one of the best voice trainers in the country. In 2005 he was given the Kala Keerthi Award by the State. In 2007, at the National Arts Festival, he was conferred a Doctorate for his immense contribution towards the upliftment of theatre and drama of the country by the University of Kelaniya.

The bud that was at Richmond really blossomed into full bloom with all its glory at the University of Kelaniya. He was attached to this University from 1965 up until 1977 when he was recalled to the University of Peradeniya. Unlike at Richmond, the University of Kelaniya had the necessary infrastructure and fertile ground for him to develop his theatrical skills. Besides his busy schedule in lecturing, he always found the time to produce a large number of plays during this period. These included “Ranga Kebili, Sangeetha Sochchamak, Jesu Jerusalamata Pemineema, Akeekaru Puthraya etc. It was during this period that a momentous development took place in his career and that too by sheer accident.

In 1974, a theatre colleague of his who is a well-known artist had conducted a workshop at Anuradhapura. He joined this workshop as a director. In this workshop, he exhibited three plays. They were Raja Dekma, Bosath Dekma and Minihekuta Ellila Merenna Berida? After the workshop was completed, his troupe were waiting for the Colombo bound train at the Anuradhapura railway station. Due to some reason, the train was about three hours late. Whilst waiting for the train, he got the urge to perform a play on the railway platform! He played the leading role brandishing a bogus sword. A large crowd congregated to watch the play in the railway station premises. That was the birth of his pet project which is the Street Theatre Movement that has had a huge impact on the cultural and social fabric of the country. Apart from this brief introduction, I shall refrain myself from speaking about this project as a more competent person, viz, Miss Deepani Silva, who was one of his erstwhile pupils, associated with this project almost from its inception, is lined up to speak authoritatively at length, on this very interesting and inspirational subject.

In 1975, another important and an interesting event took place. There was a conference organized by the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. G.K. had produced a play called “World Food Conference” for this event. After having declined first, the organisers later allowed it provided that the play was limited to no more than 30 minutes.

The play created a sensation as it was highly critical of the policies adopted by the World Food Programme. The play was tri-lingual, in Sinhala, Tamil and English. At the end of the play, the Australian High Commissioner commented, “brilliant theatre, bad politics.” Dr. Sarath Amunugama described it as a “guerilla play.” The play also created an international uproar. The Hongkong and Singapore newspapers blew it up. The FAO news bulletin published a detailed report of the play. The net result was G.K. was taken to the infamous 4th Floor of the C.I.D. and questioned at length by the intelligence people as the Authorities suspected that the play was of subversive nature.

Street performances

In 1977, G.K. joined the University of Peradeniya. During the period he was attached to this University, he did a large number of plays details of which are given in Dr. Kanchuka Dharmasiri’s book titled “Street Ahead with Haththotuwegama.” During this time he got involved in student activism as well which got him into trouble with the University Authorities. One of the academics once said, “whenever that Haththotuwegama opens his mouth, I say there’s sure to be a strike.” Despite his busy schedule as a lecturer and a playwright, he continued his pet project which is street theatre. G.K. passed away from us on October 29, 2009, aged 70 years. His funeral which was state-sponsored was one of the most colourful funerals I have ever witnessed. During his lifetime as a playwright, he had produced by far the largest number of plays than anyone.

He had trained thousands of people. Some of these beneficiaries later became household names in the world of theatre and cinema. To name a few Jayalath Manoratne, Deepani Silva, Cyril Dharmawardene, H. A. Perera, Dhamma Jagoda etc. were all his pupils. Money was never his primary consideration. After all, no one buys tickets for street theatre performances. Neither was he interested in adding titles to his name like Dr. or Prof. He worked through donations he received from well-wishers. Throughout his working life, he had always commanded a huge following! His contribution to the world of theatre and drama is unparalleled and monumental. He is the last of the Mohicans but his legacy shall live on.


    *** ***

GK de Silva as he was known originally attended Richmond College, Galle and this affinity with Galle kicked in when he was my senior at Ramanathan Hall in Peradeniya University — even though our major engagements at the campus were in different fields. Subsequently I sometimes ran into him in Colombo n visits there –most notably when he was courting Sunila Abeysekera at Hansa Press in Colpetty in the 1970s. I had little awareness of his work in street theatre till later …. and this Valediction is truly welcome. Michael Roberts
AUDIENCE at the OPA Oration


1 Comment

Filed under centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, education, female empowerment, heritage, Indian traditions, landscape wondrous, Left politics, life stories, literary achievements, modernity & modernization, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, social justice, sri lankan society, teaching profession, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, world affairs

One response to “GK Haththotuwagama and His Riveting Street Theatre

  1. I was looking forward to the audio presentation.! Anyway the speech had
    good content and did justice to he celebrety. Derrick

Leave a Reply