Encountering John de Silva’s Ramayanaya | Sunday Observer

Encountering John de Silva’s Ramayanaya

19 February, 2017

On 26 January I watched, seated under the gentle darkness of the Tower Hall in Colombo, a performance of the Sinhala musical stage play, Ramayanaya written by the late John de Silva, which was brought to life on the boards after 37 years by an initiative of the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation (THTF) and the Ministry of Education. The music direction of the performance was by Kalashuri Lionel Gunathilaka.

The play opened with what was quite clearly a modern day addition to the show, to give a glimpse of the creative synthesis between the playwright and director, the late John de Silva and Indian musician the late Pandith Vishvanath Lauji, who composed the music score for the play.

A meeting between John de Silva and Pandith Vishvanath Lauji that spoke of the great work of theatre that was to come to fruition as de Silva’s Ramayanaya, was enacted on the foreground of the stage that then made way for the curtain to open for a traditional overture by a narrator and a chorus to witness a work of classical Sinhala theatre of the musical genre known as nurthi.

The costumes and stage sets were attractive and makeup was commendable. The acting although, not of exceptional calibre was fairly good and did manage to evoke a vein of the melodramatic reminiscent of the more olden forms of theatre.

The story starts as the hermitage of a venerated sage is subjected to the violence of a miscreant female demon or a rakshasi named ‘Tharaka’.

The sage goes to the court of King of Ayodhya and seeks the help of his eldest son Rama and his younger brother Lakshman to come to his ashram or hermitage and slay Tharaka. After their mission is completed the sage and the two princes arrive in the realm of King Janaka whose daughter Princess Seetha is said, would be given in marriage to the man who can string a certain extraordinary bow which no man had yet been able to string. And thus, what follows in this play scripted by de Silva is pretty much the principal storyline of the epic poem, The Ramayanaya, as credited to the composition of the sage Valmiki

The mutilation of Princess Supurnika at the hands of Prince Lakshman, and her brother, the mighty King Ravana of Lanka’s abduction of Princess Seetha, as retribution, the consequent invasion launched on Lanka with the simian Hanuman leading the way, all unfold with song and dialogue to render a very faithful dramatised version of the principal storyline in The Ramayanaya of Valmiki.

There was however, a crucial part of Valmiki’s Ramayanaya that has been left out in de Silva’s Ramayanaya, which is how Prince Rama and Lakshman, being wandering princes in exile, secure an army of apes to launch a campaign on Lanka to reclaim Princess Seetha.

The text of The Ramayana by Valmiki says that Prince Rama exploited a rift between the fraternal heirs to the tribal throne of the Vanaras (monkeys/simians), – Vali and Sugriva, and aided Sugriva to claim the throne by shooting Vali with an arrow, hiding behind a tree.

Hanuman was Sugriva’s main henchman, and honouring the deal struck with Prince Rama, Hanuman and a brigade of simians were placed by Sugriva at the disposal of Prince Rama to invade Lanka.

If one does peruse the text of The Ramayana the conduct of Prince Rama is found to be not so saintly.

However, the Indian glorification of their hero in this epic story and the demonization of Lanka’s King Ravana as the deplorable villain as per the narrative of Valmiki, has been clearly upheld in de Silva’s work.

Thus, it can be said, de Silva sought to uphold the status quo as per Valmiki’s politics of heroism and villainy, and of course, the purported basis of righteousness triumphing over evil.

Another aspect of the play I wish to critically discuss is with regard to the characterisation of Prince Indrajith. King Ravana’s heir who was named Meghanada, better known by his honorific title – Indrajith, was portrayed by a player, visibly older than the actor portraying King Ravana. And the way in which he is slain was rather pitiful.

That too did not subscribe to what is narrated as the ‘fall of Indrajith’ in the text of Valmiki’s Ramayana.

In this postcolonial era I cannot help but wonder if it never occurred to de Silva who was a pioneer of Sinhala theatre rendering an indelible yeomen service by giving theatrical form to our own historical Sinhala stories through works, such as, Siri Sangabo (1903), Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1906), Devanampiya Tissa (1914), Vihara Maha Devi (1916) and Dutugemunu, whether it would not have been of more sound patriotic mettle for him to have imaginatively designed a storyline that does not hold dogmatic adherence to the politics of Valmiki’s narrative? Had de Silva ventured to write his own Lankan version of the epic battle between Prince Rama and King Ravana, giving pulse to what our own Lankan perspectives seek to gain voice through art, his work would perhaps prove to resonate with generations that are now awakening to question the purported righteousness of the protagonist in The Ramayana.

The Ramayana is after all a narrative that carries strong implications of geopolitics between Sri Lanka and her giant neighbour, tilting in favour of the politics of the land on the other side of the Palk Strait.

De Silva’s Ramayanaya was brought to the stage after thirty seven years. In comparison with works of Sinhala theatre today, these works of the ‘nurthi’ genre hold a symbolic value no doubt, although they may not become crowd pullers with repeated performances.

Further, how much will John de Silva’s Ramayanaya connect with the pulse of the young generations of today’s Sri Lanka, is in question, seeing how more critical home grown outlooks are fervently rising to evaluate the politics and purported status quo of heroism and villainy in Valmiki’s narrative of the battle between ‘good and evil’, rendered through The Ramayana.