An olden tale of sweetness : A review of the play Vellavehum | Sunday Observer

An olden tale of sweetness : A review of the play Vellavehum

On August 18 the children’s stage play Vellavehum came alive on the boards at the Wendt. This work of Sinhala theatre was written for the stage by the great Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Today, it continues as a performance under the stewardship of Lalitha Sarachchandra.

The word ‘vellavehum’ refers to a traditional Sri Lankan sweetmeat made with rice flour, treacle, and coconut as its principal ingredients. Like the many plays by the maestro Sarachchandra which have a basis of folklore or legend of antiquity, to the best of my knowledge Vellavehum too is a play inspired by a folktale.

My first encounter with the ‘vellavehum story’ goes back to my age of a preschooler and the maternal grandparental haven that was 102 Fife Road, Colombo 5 (at which address now stands the Selyn boutique store).

This was a story told me by my maternal grandmother the late Nalini Madugalle Eramudugolla. It was one of the many my grandmother narrated as she fed me lunch. And, as I sat under the gentle darkness of the Wendt occupying seat Q-7, memories from childhood sought to gently whisper in my ear that tale heard in another age, told back then by a voice that now resides in the past.

Delectable sweetmeat

The play is narrated by both, song and dialogue, and delivered through a chorus as well as a cast of characters that bring to life the story which revolves around the old villager ‘Elaya’ his hyper talkative wife ‘Mechchamee’ and the incidents that follow after the former tastes the delectable sweetmeat called vellavehum during a visit to his youngest daughter’s household. Elaya is portrayed as somewhat a crotchety, senile old man with a limp, who is treated as an object of jest by some of the villagers. Elaya’s wife is renowned for her brash loudmouthed ways and isn’t dearly loved by all, so to say. Among the traits that are shown of people in this play is the scheming vein for opportunism that belies the benign façade of ‘neighbourliness’.

This facet of human nature is brought out when some of the village women pilfer belongings from Elaya’s house when they think the old man and his wife are dead, although the old couple are in fact locked in a duel of silence, in a challenge to see which of them will speak first and lose the right to all five vellavehum made through the joint labours of both Elaya and Mechchamee. What ensues is pandemonium when the villagers believe Elaya and Mechchamee have suddenly breathed their last.

Elaya’s senility and poor memory is shown by how he keeps repeating the name of the delectable sweetmeat (vellavehum) after he gets a taste of it at his daughter’s home, so he can get his wife to make it at home. He mishears it at first as ‘lellakevum’. Interestingly, that word can be construed as a type of ‘kevum’ a Lankan sweetmeat which is commonly called an ‘oil cake’.

The word ‘lella’ in Sinhala meaning skin, husk, cover, of a fruit or nut. However the real confusion happens when Elaya trips and falls on the way back home and exclaims ‘hoththeripanchang’. The word itself appears to have no lexical meaning nor can it be deduced as a term composed of several words. Whether it has some obscure meaning in folk parlance I cannot say. It appears more as a spontaneous utterance which embeds itself in his psyche as the word of the sweetmeat he had earlier that day. Here begins the confusion when he keeps telling his wife to make ‘hoththeripanchang’ the most delectable sweetmeat he had ever eaten, as Mechchamee is befuddled as to what her husband keeps demanding.

Hankering

The ensuing hullabaloo in their household over the confusion makes the neighbours rush to the scene. Mechchamee who is already irate chases them away and one woman derides the loudmouthed old woman as having a mouth that looks like a ‘vellavehum’.

Hearing this word Elaya rejoices that he recalls the name of the sweetmeat he has been hankering after and the initial issue is resolved.

This juncture of the storyline where Elaya rediscovers the word ‘vellavehum’ presents a different turn to what I was told as a child by my grandmother. I distinctly remember in the story I heard as a child that Mechchamee begins to make one sweetmeat after another to see if any of them match the item that her husband keeps referring to by an obscure term. Each time she presents what she prepares, Elaya smacks her chin as it proves not to be what he has in mind.

And, over the course of several days the swollen chin which is seen by a neighbour is remarked to resemble a ‘vellevehum’ which Elaya on overhearing joyfully exclaims to be the word that eluded him all the while. The narrative craft seen in the Vellavehum play shows an effect of ‘meta-theatre’ as the chorus breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience as well as the characters –Elaya in particular, and therefore the chorus is not necessarily an element that functions outside the ‘realm of the characters’.

The chorus is both a voice that speaks about the story as an observer while also accessing the space of the characters to interact with them.

Applause

In effect, the chorus becomes a device that acts as a channel between the world of the characters and the audience. The costumes were well done in this production and must be commended. While acting was overall appreciable I must particularly applaud the performance by the player who played the role of Elaya.

A question that lingered in my mind that evening at the Wendt and still lingers, is whether the story told me as a child was an oral retelling of what my late maternal grandmother or perhaps even both my late maternal grandparents may have seen as a stage play during their days, or was I as a child told a folktale heard in their childhood? The fact is that, sadly, circumstances have fated that question to remain forever unanswered.

My applause to the team behind the Vellavehum production. The performance was indeed enjoyed by this reviewer. And, as I think back most fondly of those days of grandparental warmth when stories as these were passed from one generation to another, I further say that children’s plays of this calibre must be supported and encouraged to carry forth the delights they offer to the next generation. 

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