Misted in a past that holds to be a ‘time before known time’, the epic story of the battle between Prince Rama of Ayodhya from the Indian subcontinent and King Ravana of Sri Lanka, which has been constructed as a poetic narrative, an epic poem known as the Ramayanaya (or Ramayana in English) has reigned in the imaginations of the people on both sides of the Palk Strait for centuries. The belief in this tale looms larger than a legend and deeper than folklore, in the cultural mindset of Sri Lankans, as much as Indians.
While there are of course, today, many creations across different media that narrate the story of the battle between Rama and Ravana, one of the very first works of theatre created in Sri Lanka as a rendition of the Ramayanaya on stage was by a pioneer of Sri Lankan theatre, whose name today stands as a legend to be saluted and celebrated. It is none other than the late great John de Silva. His works of theatre captured the aesthetic being within the average Sri Lankan to create a rise in the love for Sinhala theatre and traditional Sinhala musical plays of the stage.
The Tower Hall Theatre Foundation (THTF) under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which is under the leadership of the Prime Minister as ex-officio chairman, and its Director General, veteran civil servant, Lionel Fernando, is now reawakening a legend from days of yore.
|Kalashuri Lionel Gunathilaka|
John de Silva’s Ramayanaya is set to be brought back to life on the boards after 37 years. This momentous event can be truly considered as a cultural renaissance in Sri Lanka. It is an endeavour to be saluted and applauded and deserves the respect of every Sri Lankan who believes Sri Lanka’s heritage in the arts must be preserved and reawakened to the consciousness of every succeeding generation.
I was cordially invited to the Tower Hall on 17 January by the Director General of THTF to gain an insight to this praiseworthy project, while rehearsals were underway under the most conscientious direction of music maestro Kalashuri Lionel Gunathilaka. The maestro spoke with ardour of how the story for the Ramayanaya as a musical stage play was conceptualized by the late great John de Silva. Gunathilaka impressed upon me the uniqueness of this work of theatre which belongs to the nurthi style of song and music, and is in fact a play narrated with an array of songs that captures a poetic facet of the epic poem, the Ramayana, composed centuries ago by the Indian sage Valmiki.
The late John de Silva, according to Gunathilaka had seen that the Ramayana composed by Valmiki, reflected the depth and magnitude of genius within the great sage who composed the epic poem with 24,000 shlokas (verse), and has supposedly said to the effect–“From the character of Valmiki that is like the great ocean, what I have taken for this work is but an amount that can be cupped in my hands.”
This work of theatre, John de Silva’s Ramayanaya, has a performance history spanning beyond a century and had first come to life on the boards of the Floral Hall at Malwatte Road in the Pettah, said maestro Gunathilaka.
That venue sadly stands no more today. I was told the story of how the great patron of the arts, John de Silva had met the Indian maestro of music, Pandith Vishvanath Lauji at a Christmas party hosted by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike (the father of the late prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike) at his manor in Kotahena, and how the fantastic compositions that constitute the substance of this play were created by Lauji in the course of time. There is no doubt that this work marks a great juncture as to how a convergence of talent and vision from different streams to achieve an artistic goal, bequeathed to succeeding generations of Sri Lankans, a grand legacy in theatre.
A work of musical theatre comprising 54 songs, Ramayanaya is gaining its lustre under the music direction of Kalashuri Lionel Gunathilaka, who has a monumental task of colossal proportions on his shoulders, as he edits this work to be a rendition of 34 songs, by which he assures the fabric of the story will not be ruptured.
As a work which occupies a place in the local education syllabi of Grade 5, the significance of this work being brought back to be experienced as not merely a text, but a work of live theatre must be appreciated for what it offers to the benefit of young schoolchildren.
Ramayanaya by John de Silva, was last staged in 1979 as a production of the Ministry of Education. Today, this work is gaining resurgence on the boards as a result of the efforts of the Ministry of Education, together with the untiring commitment of the THTF. Chandana Wijesundera Bandara, THTF’s designated officer overseeing this event, said, the Ramayanaya will reawaken after 37 years on the evening of 24 January at the Tower Hall in Colombo, under the distinguished patronage of PM Ranil Wickremesinghe.
A performance is to be done on the evening of the 25th under the patronage of the Minister of Education and the Minister of Cultural Affairs. Two school shows are to be held at 10.30 am on 25 and 26 January, while the public show is to unfold on 26 January at 6 pm at the Tower Hall.
As I said before, the story of the battle between Rama and Ravana looms large in the minds of traditional India and traditional Sri Lanka. But, adding to that it must be noted, unshakable is the belief among some Sri Lankans whose ardour for the glorious legends of, the old run deep, about the redoubtable might of King Ravana, and his indubitable honour as a ruler.
And that his ‘death’ at the end of the war with Rama is but merely a deep slumber from which he will one day awaken to restore glory to his beloved kingdom. Perhaps, the reawakening of John de Silva’s Ramayanaya signifies Sri Lanka’s heritage in theatre, which shows our aesthetic depths, being passed on to the next generation.
The team behind the Ramayanaya production