Remembering a milieu-defining dramatist:

Published on October 24, 2010   ·   No Comments

Sugathapala de Silva and contemporary Sinhala theatre

By Ranga CHANDRARATHNE

‘’Let nothing be called natural

In an age of bloody confusion,

Ordered disorder, planned caprice,

And dehumanized humanity, lest all things

Be held unalterable!’’

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German dramatist, poet. The Exception and the Rule, Prologue (1937).

“For if Ediriweera Sarachchandra gave the Sinhala theatre a local habitation and a name by taking it to its roots in folk drama Sugath as everybody knew him, accomplished the next task of bringing the new theatre to the audiences of the 1960s. It has been said of the Russian novel that it emerged from Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Great Coat.’ In the same sense all serious Sinhala drama of today has emerged from Sugathadasa de Silva’s womb although he may not have fathered them himself.

Dissatisfied with his own translations and adaptations of the plays of Moliere, Gogol and Chekhov (done in collaboration with E.F.C. Ludowyke and A.P. Gunaratne) Sarachchandra after studying the Japanese folk theatre turned to our own nadagam, kolam and sokari plays and the thovil ceremonies to seek the roots of an indigenous theatre which would evoke a resonance from the soul of a people only recently liberated from the imperial yoke. The fruit of this labour was, of course, ‘Maname’ his refined adaptation to the stage of the original nadagama as enacted by Charles Silva Gunasinghe Gurunnanse of Balapitiya.

He reached the apogee of these labours with ‘Sinhabahu’, his own play where with skilful stylised movements, memorable poetry and haunting music he was able to narrate the story of the origin of the Sinhala race and suggest through it a contemporaneous generational gap.

But by the early 1960s the stylised form had spawned mindless imitators who had made a caricature of Sarachchandra’s mode. What is more, there was the feeling that the mode had exhausted itself and it was this new thinking which Sugath’s generation represented.

This was a generation of bi-lingual youth either of urban origin or who had come to Colombo in search of the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow. They were a middle class generation working in newspapers or the advertising industry.” – Wrote Ajith Samaranayake in his Sunday Essay on the demise of Sugathapala de Silva following a prolonged illness. In his last days though active, he was bed-ridden. However, he translated Sam Selvadorai’s ‘Funny Boy’ into Sinhalese.

Sugathapala de Silva’s pivotal role in Sri Lankan theatre should be assessed against the backdrop of evolution of Sinhala theatre. If Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra brought about a dramatic transformation in Sinhalese theatre with his adaptations of traditional Nadagam into highly crafted plays suited to proscenium stage, Sugathapala de Silva shaped the contours of the next stage of development in Sinhalese theatre by bringing new drama into it. At first, Sugathapala de Silva began to translate and adopt foreign plays such as those of Tennessee Williams and Pirandello following the formation of loosely-kitted drama group ‘Apey Kattiya’.

Sugath recalled how an informal gathering of like-minded youth led to the birth of drama society which almost dominated the next phase of the Sinhalese theatre. Sugathapala de Silva stated:

“On hearing my criticisms, one day Cyril B Perera challenged me. You criticise each and every drama, can you produce a good drama? Those days (1962) Arts Council had advisertised in newspapers for drama scripts for State Drama Festival. Though I wanted to present my drama script ‘Bodinkarayo’ (Boarders), we had no drama society to fill the lines ‘the society which presents the drama’. We discussed what we were going to do as we did not have a drama society. Different views were expressed. Meanwhile, I saw, one day, Cyril B jotting down on a piece of paper the word ‘‘Apey Kattiya’, I liked the name. Later it became ‘Apey Kattiya’ (our group). We had no chairman. If someone asked how he could join the group, I invited him to spend an evening with me. Over a drink, I chatted with the person for one hour or two, and then I knew whether that person would remain with us or will break away from the group. Thus six persons joined “Apey Kattiya.”

Though there wasn’t a formal leader for Apey Kattiya, Sugath was the undisputed leader of the group which produced a number of landmark plays in Sinhala theatre such as Thattu Geval and Boarding Karayo. Thattu Geval (Flats) and Boarding Karayo (Boarders) encapsulate the sub-culture of newly city-bred middle class and their socio-cultural ethos. Among his repertoire of plays includes Eka Walle Pol, Boodin Karayo, Hithahonda Ammandi, Harima Badu Hayak, Mutu Kumari, Esala Sanda , Marat Sade and Snthuvara sebalano.

Bilingual par excellence

Sugathapala de Silva belonged to a generation of bilinguals who derived the best from both Western and Eastern knowledge base. Apart from being a gifted dramatist, Sugathapala de Silva was an excellent translator. Some of his translations include Ata messa- Gad fly , Hathara veni Thattuva, Deiyampa Sahathika Eththa, Re bo ikbithi -When nights fall, Amuthu Ilandariya (Funny Boy), Ginidalu mal, Marasadh. One of the remarkable features of his translations and adaptations was that they became masterpieces in Sinhalese and contributed not only to the enrichment of language of drama in Sinhalese but also the Sinhala language in general.

He firmly believed that translations should not be mere mechanical word for words translations which have destroyed many of the original dramas in their Sinhalese versions, but should be done according to the prosody of the target language.

This is one of the reasons that made Sugathapala de Silva’s translations such as Ata Messa (Gad fly) and Marasadh are still popular in Sinhalese theatre. Sugathapala de Silva’s play ‘Dunna Dunu Gamuwe’ which was made in the aftermath of the 1971 insurrection had a lasting impression in Sinhalese theatre triggering off a trend in the production of political dramas. Though the play was centred on a trade union struggle it had a fine mixture of politics with the defining techniques of the medium. It should be mentioned here that it was Sugathapala de Silva who introduced some of the novel techniques such as players walking to the stage through the audience which was quite revolutionary at the time.

Sugathapala de Silva’s books and dramas will register in mind particularly for their extremely rich dialogues. For instance, the dialogues of Banduwardena and Ratnasekara in Ballo Bathkathi are prophetic.

“Sri Lanka has wonderful creatures. However much men from the lower rung serve the masses, the people will forget them as soon as they turn the other way. If it is to be recognised, one should come from high class. People even accept Buddhism because it was preached by a prince.

If people really want to develop the country, they should be born into right parents. Because, still we have feudal values” (Ballo Bathkathi-page 71)

“You train people to hate. Can you solve problems with hate? The other side of hatred is love. Therefore, understanding is more important than hatred. “

–(Ballo Bathkathi-31)

Known as the ‘lovable dictator’ of Sinhalese theatre, Sugathapala de Silva will remain in the heart of thousands of theatre- goers and theatre lovers as colossus, and a man who defined his era. He was essentially a product of the era which was dominated by self-less artists who dedicated their lives to the arts they passionately believed in.

The greatest tribute that the present day dramatist particularly in Sinhala medium could pay to Sugathapala de Silva is to aspire to the heights that he reached through dint of perseverance and dedication.

Courtesy Sunday Observer

http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2010/10/24/mon01.asp

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