60th Anniversary of Maname : The play’s the thing…’ | Sunday Observer

60th Anniversary of Maname : The play’s the thing…’

Maname - the word, the name, the ‘title’, is almost an institution by itself. The very utterance “Maname” is wrapped with almost a sense of sanctity when spoken by practitioners in Sinhala theatre.

Sri Lankan theatre finds in this classic work by the late great maestro, Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, a height of literary and theatrical accomplishment that is possibly unrivalled, and unmatched. This year marks a significant milestone for this revered work of Sinhala theatre and celebrations of State are planned together with celebrating two other notable works.

A significant fact about 2016, related to Sri Lankan arts and letters is that three monumental works celebrate their 60th anniversary of creation. The film Rekhava directed by Dr. Lester James Peries, the novel Viragaya by Martin Wickramasinghe and Maname by Prof. Sarachchandra all turn 60 this year. Three works from the streams of cinema, literature and theatre are thus the focus of commemorations envisioned under an initiative of the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who believes the State must galvanise efforts to inculcate good taste in the arts and letters among the youth of today who will be the leaders of tomorrow’s Sri Lanka.

Depth of insight

Director-General (DG) of the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation (THTF), former senior administrative service officer and former Governor of the North and East, Lionel Fernando, and Project Coordinator for the THTF, Anura Fonseka, revealed with a great depth of insight and information the grand vision and scheme that is driving this commemoration programme which will culminate to a ceremonial point at Temple Trees on 25th October under the patronage of the PM.

The THTF headed by Fernando has been tasked directly by the PM to head this programme of fostering awareness about the aforesaid works in the year of their 60th anniversary. Fernando stated for each work to be celebrated the THTF is partnering with three other institutions. The National Film Corporation joins hands with the THTF to mark celebrations for Rekhava while the National Library Services Board will partner with respect to Viragaya and the Lionel Wendt Foundation will be the partner to deliver the celebrations for Maname.

Both Fernando and Fonseka were students of the maestro Sarachchandra whom they hail as the doyen of Sinhala theatre. Fonseka was Fernando’s successor in Sarachchandra’s Maname troupe. They had both played the role of the Vedda King’s ‘Chief Minister’ whom Sarachchandra named in the very first programme booklet printed for the debut of Maname, as ‘Chief of the Foresters’. And the king of the aboriginal forest dwelling tribe that accosts Prince Maname and his princess has been designated –‘King of the Foresters’.

Fernando explained: “The Foundation is part and parcel of the government’s plan to develop skilled youth for the country’s future. Our country’s tomorrow must not be formed of men and women who are solely educated along technical disciplines. The arts play an invaluable part in moulding men and women of sound character and broad vision while also honing analytical skills.” Fernando explained that the THTF is about to launch an island wide programme aimed at promoting good taste in the arts among school children.

Promoting the arts

The celebrations will revive a set of classics that find their birth in the era of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Says Fernando: “Politics apart, the PM has excellent taste and a sincere love for promoting the arts and letters. The renaissance achieved in Sinhala arts and letters by the local intelligentsia during the ‘SWRD era’ is something he is ready to celebrate as a matter of national significance. That was an era when a lot of monumental works were produced by eminent scholars and artistes. Sigiri Graffiti by Dr. Senarath Paranavithana, and Peradeni Nisanda by Siri Gunasinghe were also written in that era.”

“In order to have diverse perspectives enter the fold of this programme, the PM formed a committee of eminent persons to develop a commemoration programme and appointed me to chair it.” Another fact that speaks of the background that has nurtured a love for the arts in the PM is how his mother the late Nalini Wickremasinghe was a great patroness of the arts. She had been the person instrumental in producing the first gramophone record of Maname.

Fernando is no newbie to the sphere of arts. Apart from being a member on the very first Maname cast he shared a life committed to fostering theatre with his beloved wife the late Somalatha Subasinghe. And being tasked to be at the centre of this cultural reviva was perhaps providential. To him, this is not a job, not a project per se he admitted. “It is a goal that is held dear to my conscience.”

Perhaps his efforts will be a way of reaffirming his love for the art of theatre to which he committed much of his young days as much as it is a tribute to the guru whose memory he still reveres.

According to Fernando, the THTF is set to expand its programmetic scope to encompass a wider education in the arts for students who want to pursue education on those lines.

Project Coordinator Fonseka pointed out: “This is an institution that was established with the hope of continuing the artistic legacies bequeathed by senior artists such as B.A. Jayamana, John de Silva who contributed to our modern heritage of performance arts through works like Sirisangabo, Padmawathi. It is the role of the Foundation to ensure that heritage is preserved and passed onto future generations.”

Fonseka observed that 1956 was a turning point in the arts in our country. He ardently believes the Sri Lankan literary and artistic legacies that were born at that time must be better promoted and that the THTF has a considerable role to perform for the youth.

The THTF provides education in acting and theatre studies through its diploma course for young men and women who are unable to pursue the subject of drama and theatre at national universities due to falling short of the selection mark. “The THTF has a duty to disseminate the legacy of the greats like Sarachchandra throughout the country,” stated Fonseka who explained that the THTF is focused on gathering the best knowledge resources and expertise in the country, to teach the diploma students the different aspects of drama and theatre, incorporating both academics and industry practitioners who have excelled in their craft.

“The students are educated not only in acting but aspects like costume designing, makeup, stage management, lighting, and also directing,” he said. The diploma course of the THTF offers students to study up to earn a bachelor’s degree awarded by the Open University of Sri Lanka through an institutional affiliation. Some students who committed themselves to follow the four year study programme had excelled in their studies to earn First Class Honours from the Open University.

“This shows that students who enrol in the THTF course have great potential to be equipped with academic knowledge and skills from the industry.”

“The very statute that established the THTF places the country’s Prime Minister as the Ex-officio head of the THTF. And under him and the Minister of Education as the THTF is placed under the Ministry of Education, the Director General’s task is to broaden the reach and scope of the THTF,” said Fernando who elaborated on his plans to make the THTF a national asset for the youth. Among those plans is a student hostel with facilities to provide more opportunities for students to live in an environment of fraternity while developing their opportunities for creative education as a fulltime engagement.

From left: First Row - Trilicia Abeykoon - The Princes, Benedict Sirimanne - Prince Maname, Dr Ananda Kulasuriya Salgado - Snr Treasurer, Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra - Libretto and producer, Mrs Aileen Sarachchandra - Make-up, Dr Siri Gunasingha - Stage setting, Charmon Saparamadu - Narrator, W. Arthur Silva (Organiser) - President of the Sinhalese Drama Circle, Hemamali Gunasekera - Maname Princess, Middle Row - Ratnasuriya Hemapala - Stage Manager, Wimal Nawagamuwa - Junior Treasurer, Lionel Fernando - Chief of the Foresters, Nanda Abeywickrama - Chorus, Swarna Mahipala - Chorus, Trixie de Silva - Chorus, Sumana Gunaratne - Committee, Indrani Pieris - Chorus And Committee, Ramya Tumpela - Instrumentalist, Edmond Wijesinghe - Master of Taksala, King of Foresters, Pastor Pieris - Chorus, Somaratne Edirisinghe - Instrumentalist, Amaradasa
Gunawardana - Committee Back Row - H. L. Seneviratne - Instrumentalist, Kitsiri Amaratunga - Instrumentalist, Wimaladharma Deeyasena - Make up Artist, H. Someratne - Stage Assistant, Daya Jayasundara - Chorus, D.B. Herath - Pupil Forester, M.B.Adikaram - Forester and also pupil, Peter La Sha - Lighting, L. B. Dissanayake - Stage Assistant, Karunasena Gunaratne - Forester, R.W. Sathischandra - Chorus, M. Amarawardhana - Stage Decoration, K.A.D. Perera - Secretary.

The THTF has conceived a quiz programme which will benefit from Television, Radio and Print media. “The Minister for Education envisions getting the youth out of the ‘superstar mindset’ and getting on to a wholesome educational experience via media. This programme will be done in both Sinhala and Tamil and will address children who are in rural areas as well as urban areas and focus on matters related to arts and letters on not just a national scale but also internationally, and include aspects of world history and also current affairs. It is not only our own cultural icons that will be highlighted but figures from world literature, from Shakespeare to Chekov to Brecht and much, much more. This will also be related to the school curriculum, and thus in a way become school education integrated through infotainment for children,” said Fernando.

“In covering a spectrum of global art and culture we are not only looking at the west. People tend to think world culture means the west alone. That is an utter misnomer. The grand traditions of the east will also be part of this. Art forms like Kabuki and Hanamichi of Japan will also be included,” he noted.

Fernando and Fonseka said that a host of works are to be launched in view of the 60th anniversary of the 1956 renaissance. “Sarachchandra is like our Shakespeare,” observed Fernando. “And reading Shakespeare is not a cakewalk for school children and sometimes even for students of higher education. Similarly reading the works of Sarachchandra can be a challenging task for students. Understanding each word, phrase and the contextual nuances in those words is not always easy.

To make the text of Maname more accessible in terms of reading, for students, a glossary for Maname is being written by Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa and it will be a prescribed text for O/L and A/L students reading Sinhala.” And he added “Dr. Michael Fernando the eminent academic has completed writing a book about Prof. Sarachchandra. This work will be first presented to the PM. It will expound the craft and genius of the maestro Sarachchandra. It will be a work that pays tribute to his greatness.”

Another ambitious project related to Maname is a Tamil translation of Maname which is intended to be done in 2017, by Kavitha Rajaratnam of the Kelaniya University.

Along with the works related to Maname several other endeavours have also been planned in view of Viragaya and Rekhava. “Viragaya is to be translated to Tamil by Mr. Sivagurunadan, and Viragaya the film (adapted from Wickramasinghe’s novel) directed by Tissa Abeysekera is to be released with Tamil subtitles in 2017, and Lester Peries’ Rekhava is to be transformed into the latest D.C package form.

The son of an enterprising businessman from Panadura, Lionel Fernando was born in Kandy and entered Peradeniya University in 1956. “At the time we started our freshman year Dr. Sarachchandra, as he was known then, was in Japan. When I finally did meet him a few months later, I was surprised to see a diminutive figure, in the simplest of attire. He wore a checked long sleeve shirt over a faded blue trouser and had strapped leather shoes on. His manner and conduct was genteel.”

“It all started when a notice appeared in the central notice board under the signature of Mr. Arthur Silva, president of the university Drama Society calling for undergrads to audition for a play by Dr. Sarachchandra. The auditions were to be held in the Arts Theatre.”

The very first audition had failed to decide who would play Prince Maname. The same went for the role of the ‘Vedda king’ or ‘King of the Foresters’ as he would be officially titled. Fernando said he recalls Trilicia Abeykoon (who was selected to play the princess in the very first performance) at that first audition. The music score for Maname had required a particular type of drum called the ‘madhdalaya’. It was found only in Balapitiya and to play this instrument an exponent was brought in. “He was Charles Gunasinghe gurunnanse. And he, together with G.Hemapala Wijewardhana formed the drum ensemble. And those maestros of local drumming gave a very romantic sound to a sensitive audience.”

Charles Gunasinghe gurunnanse had also contributed to choreography by showing how rhythmic movement should be done to complement the music of the ‘madhdalaya’. With a host of new aesthetic elements creating a new experience for the undergrads Fernando recalled how they were in wonderment over what sort of creation would finally transpire. “We were all familiar with plays of Chekov, Gogol, and Moliere. They were staged in that very hall we rehearsed. But this experimental play was a bit of a mystery at that initial stage.”

Finally, after several auditions, the maestro of Sinhala theatre, found his leading men –Maname and the Vedda king, played by Benedict Sirimanne and Edmund Wijesinghe respectively. And the production was ready to be born on the boards to a live audience. The venue for the opening night however was not to be in Peradeniya where it was formulated, but the epicentre of Colombo’s theatre scene – the Lionel Wendt theatre. The show came to fruition amidst pecuniary difficulties admitted Fernando. “There was a gracious lady called Nalini Wickremesinghe who helped this production at that time. That patronage must not go unmentioned.”

Maname today draws crowds to any theatre where it is staged. Was it the same on that night of 3rd November 1956 when Maname had its birth on the boards of the Wendt, I asked the man who played the first ‘Chief Forester’ in that maiden performance. The response was first a pensive gaze into the distance and then a light shake of his head sideways. “As an undergrad I was curious to know how many were there that evening.” He then paused and looked directly at me. “I counted seventeen people in the audience.” My reaction was one of utter disbelief. Fernando repeated the number. “Word had gone around before the show that a Sinhala ‘naadagama’ was to be staged at the Lionel Wendt. And the whole image of the play was twisted to make it sound rustic and unsophisticated. The Colombo theatregoers therefore didn’t think it was to their taste.”

But among that modest number of viewers that evening had been some of the most respected art critics from Sri Lanka’s press. “The presence of Reggie Siriwardena and D.B Dhanapala became the catalyst for Maname to gain recognition as a work of theatre that must be respected by all. I am so thankful, now, as I look back, to those gentlemen, for the raving reviews they wrote in the papers to let people know the calibre of Maname.” His words bespoke the matchless depth of endearment Maname has claimed in his heart. And the bond with which he has embraced the endearing beauty of this revered work.

As Maname, a work that stands out as in a class by itself in the annals of Sinhala theatre, plays on, towards its 60th anniversary this year, Fernando and Fonseka both expressed how this creation must be preserved as a part of Sri Lanka’s art heritage for future generations. Maname must belong to the nation, is what they feel, as a splendorous jewel in our country’s rich treasure trove of art.

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