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Sarath Amunugama's 'Maname Mathakvi' 

The Return to Peradeniya


Sarath Amunugama
Sarath Amunugama

A review by Ranjani Obeysekere of this book by Sarath Amunugama which appeared in an English daily recently was titled 'The politician as literary critic'. That was catchy as titles go but historically, of course, it has to be inverted for long before he became a politician Amunugama was a critic.

Those were the days when he presided over kachcheris, departments and Ministries as a mandarin of the CCS and the SLAS. In fact the present book can be seen as an attempt by Amunugama to remind us that although he might be intimately involved in all the manipulations and machinations of party politics his heart really lies in literature and drama.

In 'Maname Mathakvi' (Nuwana Madhya Seva - Rs. 300) Amunugama goes back to his roots as a student at Trinity College, Kandy and an undergraduate at the University of Peradeniya. Like much of Amunugama's writings the book has a heavy autobiographical motif.

The language of 'Maname' and 'Sinhabahu' alone are enough to testify to Sarachchandra's talents as a poet.

He recalls how he had first watched a performance of 'Maname' as a student at the Pushpadana Balika Vidyalaya hall in the company of fellow Trinitian Jayantha Dhanapala, himself a Thespian, and the exhilaration this had induced in him. He recounts how he himself had entered the University subsequently and gained almost immediate access to that magic circle which surrounded Sarachchandra in his heyday.

He recalls many of the talented undergraduates of the time such as H.H. Bandara and G.W. Jayantha or Jayantha Aravinda who had enriched Sarachchandra's plays with their music and how he himself had figured in the play 'Kadawalalu' playing the role of Kachchaputa, the good merchant, opposite Edmund Wijesinghe, the Veddah King, playing the villain, Seriwanija.

As Amunugama observes the strength of 'Maname' lies in the peculiar historic conjunction which produced it. Sarachchandra himself had produced plays before but these were adaptations of or translations from French or Russian comedies such as 'Kapuwa Kapothi, 'Ibe Veda' or 'Rahas Commasaris'.

The closest he came to doing an indigenous play was 'Pabavathi' but here the stylised movements and song and the naturalistic dialogue constituted at best an unsatisfactory marriage. But in the course of his doing this play he had discovered Charles de Silva Gunasinghe Gurunnanse of Ambalangoda, a rich store-house of the 'nadagam' tradition.

This combined with Sarachchandra's researches into the Japanese theatre produced an indigenous form of drama rooted in the 'nadagam' tradition but capable of finding a resonance with a modern audience.

As Amunugama further observes the most peculiar strength of 'Maname' is the highly poetic and evocative language which Sarachchandra employs. Strangely enough Sarachchandra has never brought out any anthologies of poetry but the language of 'Maname' and 'Sinhabahu' alone are enough to testify to his talents as a poet.

Here Sarachchandra mobilises all his skills as a student of the classics to forge a poetic diction which is capable of conveying emotion at a very refined level. Because of this his stories, plots and characters have necessarily to involve royal courts, regal characters, the academy or the ashram, that is to say the classical high culture. The common people are left outside the pale or are identified as the uncouth such as the Veddahs or consigned to the outer peripheries of folk drama. Sarachchandra certainly borrowed some of his plots from the 'nadagam' tradition but his language has refined his stories so much that they no longer belong to the native or folk theatre.

Hence the label of 'humanism' which has inevitably been stuck on Sarachchandra's work. Amunugama says that towards the end of his life Sarachchandra even described himself as a 'Buddhist writer'. From this it follows that in their themes and situations Sarachchandra's work was necessarily circumscribed by its environment of high culture.

Amunugama himself concedes this when he writes that compared, say to a dramatist like Brecht, there is a lack of any political or social attitude in Sarachchandra's plays. Of course several generations have been brought up to believe that Sarachchandra was an unassailable sacred cow but now in retrospect he might well appear as a poet of a severely limited theatrical vision.

Although this lies outside the ambit of Amunugama's book these limitations of Sarachchandra can perhaps be traced to the fact that most of his best work are a kind of private drama played out in the minds of men and women. 'Maname' centres on the ambiguity in the Princess' mind, the conflicting pulls of loyalty between the Prince and the Veddah King. 'Sinhabahu' has for its theme the clash between the Lion father and the human son. 'Pemato Jayathi Sohko' explores the darkly enigmatic mind of the Brahmin teacher attracted by a young woman who poses a grave threat to his ascetic upbringing.

Coupled with Sarachchandra's fine prose the result is a kind of individualistic drama which does not touch political or social horizons. This does not mean that such work is inferior to literature or drama which operate within a wider ambit but merely acknowledges the confines which Sarachchandra consciously had set for himself.

As Sarachchandra is said to have observed it was almost a miracle that he was able to discover from the Peradeniya University itself all the talent necessary for 'Maname'. Here Amnugama comes up with some invaluable tit-bits which only somebody who had moved closely with the production of Sarachchandra's plays could have provided. For example he says that at the beginning the music for 'Maname' had been provided by undergraduates who had come from a musical background in schools in Horana.

Among them had been H.L. Seneviratne, Hemapala Wijewardene and Kithsiri Amaratunga. But under the influence of H.H. Bandara who was a product of Ibbagamuwa Central and an expert flute player the music had taken on a more classical flavour he says.

It had been Bandara who had trained the chorus to sing in the classical manner and the introduction of a long flute section after the death of the Princess and the well-known song 'Nodanemi Kage Dosa' he attributes to the partnership of Sarachchandra, Bandara and G.W. Jayantha.

Amunugama strikes an elegiac note when he discusses the cast of 'Maname' who contributed immensely to its success and was again drawn entirely from the University. It is with a pang of sadness that we realise that with the exception of the Pothe Gura all the main characters are dead. The first to go was Ben Sirimanne, the Prince himself.

Having been a teacher already and following a refresher course for teachers at the University at the time he met Sarachchandra, Sirimanne had a maturity which the average undergraduate did not possess and was therefore the ideal candidate to play the Prince's role, says Amunugama. In contrast Edmund Wijesinghe who played the two roles of Rajaguru and the Veddah King had had a chequered career passing out rather late from the University. Amunugama says that he could not quite cope with his popularity but that he was an immensely gifted actor who could strike awe among audiences.

Likewise Trelicia Gunawardena (nee Abeykoon) whose death and that of her husband A.J. impoverished all those who had the good fortune to know them. Trelicia who played the role of the Princess from 1956 to 1971 brought a hint of sexuality into her performance, says Amunugama. Of the other main characters the 'Pothe Gura' Shyamon Jayasinghe lives currently in Australia, far away from the scenes of his glory while the senior Veddah was played by Lionel Fernando who retired as Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to take up an ambassadorial appointment.

To be continued

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