A review of Akhila Sapumal’s Guththila Kavya : Composing Theatrical Life to a Legend of Literature | Sunday Observer

A review of Akhila Sapumal’s Guththila Kavya : Composing Theatrical Life to a Legend of Literature

4 March, 2018

Following the success of his last creation for the Sinhala stage –Giri Koota Kashyapa, playwright and director Akhila Sapumal unveiled on January 11 this year, on the boards of the Lionel Wendt auditorium, his latest work –Guththila Kavya. Yours truly sat in the gentle darkness of the Wendt on opening night to witness this work of Sinhala musical theatre which brings to life a historical episode from the period of the Kotte Kingdom, highlighting the significance of ancient Buddhist literature upon the growth of classical Sinhala literature as well as its impact on the Sinhala psyche.

Sapumal’s creation is based on, and relates to, the text Guththila Kawya which is a highly celebrated work of classical Sinhala poetry written in the traditional four line stanza form by the Ven. Veththeve thero as a result of having fallen from the favour of his teacher or guru, the Ven. Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula thero. The reasons are said to be that malicious individuals sought to cause a rift between the revered high priest and his most talented student. Tales were spread that Ven. Veththeve thero whose reputation as a poet was rising in the Kingdom of Kotte, used his creativity with disregard to conventions and traditions related to Sinhala poetry and verse, advocated by his guru. The convictions borne by Ven. Veththeve thero as to how his creativity should be used caused an unpleasant state of affairs to arise. The result was, the young priest, skilled in the art of language, was discredited and compelled to adapt self exile. His Guththila Kavya was meant to be a reverential statement of silent leave taking from his guru to whom he professed no ill will.

The Ven. Veththeve thero’s magnum opus was a rendition in traditional Sinhala verse form (kavi) of the Buddhist ‘Jataka Story’ known as the ‘Guththila Jathakaya’. Said to be numbered at 235 in the Jathaka story collection of 550 stories, the Guththila Jathaka story narrates the story of two musicians of two different generations –Guththila and Moosila who were from two different Kingdoms. It is a story of how an ungrateful student unsuccessfully tries to usurp his master’s position and finally, meets banishment from the Kingdom as the price for his arrogance and greed. However, what is interesting to note is that the Guththila Kawya composed by the Ven. Veththeve thero seeks to portray Moosila not in the traditional light of villainy that is ascribed to him in the Jathaka story, but as an unfortunate victim who was forced to duel his guru to please the malevolent royal courtiers and the King himself, who took wicked delight in seeing an open conflict between two superlatively talented musicians whose relationship with each other had been quite harmonious.

This unorthodox take on the Guththila Jathaka story humanises Moosila and does not demonize him. The unfortunate plight of artistes at the hands of political power masters is brought out through this story. Sapumal’s creation does successfully evoke sympathy for the character of Moosila, who, after losing the contest to his guru is subjected to merciless persecution and vilification. The story thus shows that within the vein of mankind’s nature is a diabolical need to make villains of estimable persons and subject them to humiliation so as to revel for a moment in frenzied mob rule.

Sapumal’s creation depicts how the Ven. Veththeve thero faces adulation and tribulation as the talented student of a very powerful figure in the Kingdom of Kotte, whose downfall was engineered by those jealous of his attainments. Together with the story of Ven. Veththeve thero, the persecution he faces by people of rank and rabble, and his journey into self exile, is the bringing to life of the story of Guththila and Moosila as per the conception of the Ven. Veththeve thero in composing his magnum opus. Thus, Sapumal gives life to the times of the Ven. Veththeve thero as well as the much loved Jathaka story as conceived in the mind of the priest who would become a colossal figure in Sinhala literature due to the poetic work he composed.

This play is in effect the playwright cum director’s attempt to gauge the genius of the Ven. Veththeve thero through the use of theatre. It is an endeavour to portray the mind of the poet at work when he was faced with great adversity and emotional turbulence, yet, committed himself to achieve the great composition to which he set his heart and hand. Considering the nature of the subject that forms the thematic and narrative substance of this work of theatre, it is apt that it was written as a musical; a performance that has at its heart a lyrical text.

The production I would say was generally commendable with costumes and makeup that bore credibility to give an impression of the times that were depicted, switching between the Kotte Kingdom period and times misted in legend when the story of Guththila and Moosila unfolded in the ancient land of Bharatha, from which modern India was carved out by the British.

Among the devices in the structure of the play’s narrative there is an element of a puppeteer who relates tales of antiquity to the masses. This element in my opinion could be lessened for brevity. There was a touch of tediousness coming onstage with the length of time given to this aspect of the narrative. Although there were no visible opening night jitters among the actors on stage there was I believe some slight miscalculations that occurred from the lighting team. The foreground lights were not optimally handled and hindered an opening night’s performance that would have otherwise flowed more smoothly.

Another notable feature of this production is that its ensemble of acting talent was composed of seasoned actors of the Sinhala stage like Prasannajith Abeysuriya, Jayanath Bandara and Thilanka Gamage as well as relatively new and upcoming young actors. The host of actors on stage may not have woven a fabric of performance that showed definite symmetry of acting talent, but I cannot say there were visible ripples of damning disparity. Overall, they blended quite well and delivered a creditable performance.

Guththila Kavya by Akhila Sapumal is a creation that gives life to history, literature and lore through the medium of theatre. It can, I believe, become an instrument for education through entertainment. Works of theatre that can educate the present young generation about Sri Lankan history can render a noteworthy service. Schoolchildren in particular, who learn extracts of the Ven. Veththeve thero’s Guththila Kavya as part of the Sinhala curriculum may find Sapumal’s Guththila Kavya a captivating experience that gives theatrical life to the classroom text they encounter from times of hallowed antiquity.