The selfless matriarch of Children’s theatre | Sunday Observer

The selfless matriarch of Children’s theatre

The sphere of drama and theatre continues to grow in Sri Lanka. When discussing drama and theatre as an art that addresses children, the legacy of the late Somalatha Subasinghe is indelible. May 30 this year marks her third death anniversary and tomorrow, July 2, marks her 81st birth anniversary.

Somalatha Subasinghe is best known as a thespian, playwright, and director. She was also an educationist who sought to instil values and knowledge in children and youth using the medium of theatre.

Not having had the good fortune to meet the late Mrs. Subasinghe during her lifetime, I set out to discover the personality behind plays such as ‘Vikurthi’, ‘Thoppi Velenda’, ‘Punchi Apata Den Therei’, ‘Walas Paula’ which I have seen come alive on the boards. This article thus attempts to capture the essence of who she was through recollections and impression of persons who knew her from different vantages and propinquities.

Mayura Perera

Mayura Perera is a professional actor who was a student of Somalatha Subasinghe. “After watching a performance of Vikurthi I promised myself that I will one day act in a production of that play.” Mayura now plays the role of Sampath in Vikurthi. Having heard about Somalatha Subasinghe’s Kotte Play House drama school he had phoned and asked if he could enrol. “At the Play House I didn’t come in contact with her much at the initial sessions.

One day, some of us rehearsed and acted a scene from Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’, Ms Somalatha happened to catch sight of us from a distance. Afterwards she called me over and had a small chat.” That was the start of how his guru in theatre would guide him along his journey.

“She didn’t believe in definite inborn talent as the championing factor of an actor. She looked for a passion for performance. Once she gauged a person for their abilities she knew how to get the best out of them. People think of stage acting as melodramatic and exaggerated. She wanted a more natural style. The natural expression of a person in a given situation of a story was what she brought out.” Mayura’s descriptions made me ask if her influence itself was a form of ‘education’.

“Absolutely”, affirmed Mayura. “She gave us confidence. She strengthened us to seek knowledge and not classroom learning.” I asked how she moulded his acting skills. “A lot of people say my acting is ‘relaxed’, they say I look ‘relaxed’ on screen. That is the result of the natural style of acting that I learnt. The character that lives in front of the viewers becomes ‘believable’.”

Namel Weeramuni

Recollections came next from veteran theatre practitioner Namel Weeramuni who shared impressions of ‘Sontha’. “Ours was a friendship from schooldays. While I was studying at Nalanda College she was at Buddhist Ladies’ College. We met through school debates and literary activities, and later on again in Peradeniya. She was called ‘Sontha’. That was her nickname, even Prof. Sarachchandra called her that.” Sarachchandra selected him and her to act in the play ‘Raththaran’. “I played the son and Sontha was the mother.”

He said the maiden show was outside Hilda Obeysekera Hall on a stage constructed outdoors. “That day in 1958, Somalatha and I stepped onto stage together to start our life in theatre.” The next production that saw them reunite on stage was when Namel directed ‘Nattukkari’ in 1970. “We opened at the Lumbini theatre. Sontha played Madam Alexandra. I played Julian. After over a decade since ‘Raththaran’, we played mother and son on stage once more!”

Filial memories

I next encountered a voice whose propinquity to Somalatha Subasinghe was from a much different vantage. Kaushalya Fernando, the elder daughter of Somalatha Subasinghe who is now a renowned actress of both stage and screen, shared her impressions. “She always saw theatre as a serious art and followed to an extent the classical oriental ideal that was followed by Sarachchandra.

Yet, in her creations my mother broke away from those strict traditional oriental forms. She wanted me, specifically, to be an actress. But it was not acting as an isolated art. She got me to learn the sitar and violin. I was trained in classical Indian vocals, as well as upcountry and low country dancing and a bit of Bharatha Natyam as well.” Looking back at her mother’s career, Kaushalya feels, “I think my mother was a better writer and director than an actress. She was an intellectual searching knowledge, and an educationist imparting knowledge.

She was concerned about giving something special to children through her life and work, and started to do theatre for children in 1979. And our family’s finances, resources were all diverted to that goal. She came from a family of educationists. Both her parents were teachers. That mindset prevailed in my mother in a big way.”

Chandani Seneviratne

Popular screen actress Chandani Seneviratne found her calling through Somalatha Subasinghe. Her impressions come firstly as a student of St. Paul’s Girls’ School Milagiriya. “We saw her first in the film Madol Doowa. And then one day, we saw that actress as a teacher in school! She liked the boisterous students more than the studious ones. I was quite boisterous. She saw that there was energy in our youth that had to be harnessed productively.

She created the St. Paul’s Girls’ School cinema circle, and encouraged us to watch good stage plays and films. Teachers like that were rare those days.” Chandani recalled her first experience of acting. “We had a school benefit show called ‘Kathandara Dekak’. ‘Thoppi Velenda’ and ‘Punchi Apita Dan Therei’. I was a tomboy.

That was my qualification to be chosen for the play. I never had specific aspirations in acting. She was the first teacher who saw tomboys like me with value.” The journey thus started for Chandani. “For her, developing an actor involved learning about cinema and theatre through discussion and criticism. Learning about art from her made me become an actress. She never told us to be actors for an industry. And I will say I am a follower of her vision for the art of acting.”

Spousal reminiscences

Looking at the success Somalatha Subasinghe achieved in a male dominated world one cannot help but wonder how vital a role did her husband, Lionel Fernando play during their life together. He offered his recollections thus:

“In 1958 Prof. Sarachchandra set out to do experimental theatre. Then I was in my third year, and President of the University Sinhala Drama Society.

Professor began auditioning younger boys and girls for his new drama. It was to be two works performed back to back. The first was ‘Raththaran’, and the other was ‘Elowa Gihin Melowa Awa’. For ‘Raththaran’ the Prof wanted a girl who could appear like an old mother in her 70s. Several tried out but none could satisfy the casting vision of the director except for one girl.”

Taking a moment to silently reminisce that moment evoked from his store house of memories of nostalgically romanticised ‘Peradeniya days’, Somalatha Subasinghe’s mild mannered husband resumed his words, “When I look back, I can still recall her clad in a faded floral frock, her hair tied with an equally faded handkerchief as she came on stage for the audition along with other girls. I was not interested in her at all at that time. She looked so pedestrian!” I could not help but laugh causing amusement to Lionel Fernando.

Apparently, it was not a ‘love at first sight encounter’! “There were no adornments on her. No bangles or necklace. But she had a classy presentation when she acted at the audition. And I soon heard that she had studied at Musaeus and Buddhist Ladies’ College.” Somalatha Subasinghe was two batches junior to her future husband and it was a gradually developed familiarity that finally led them to enter a partnership in life.

“Life went on uneventfully for me during my final year. I sat the finals and passed. But something happened with regard to Somalatha. It was not infatuation but a gradual closeness.” The narrative continued evoking memories from their days of youth. “As president of the drama society I was approached by many undergraduates in Peradeniya.

And she was also one of them. So there was developing familiarity. I began studying for the DRO exams and civil service exams. Although I passed out of university I frequented the Peradeniya main library. That was where I prepared for the civil service exams, especially, on the subject of world affairs.

“When I was there she would pass by my study table at the library and we had small chats. She would ask me sometimes tauntingly why I came since I had by then passed out from university. It was loose light banter at times.” Recounting further, the gentle voice evoked more memories.

“She would come to the campus tuck-shop with her gang of friends such as, Erica Dias, Chandra Amarasinghe and Jayalatha Ganepola. When the girls got together they used to tease her about me and ‘promoted’ me. Depending on how much I had in my purse, some days I would invite them to join me and treat them to evening tea. That was how the familiarity between us grew into a bond.” The story then moved to the next stage. “I passed the civil service exams. The DRO exam results were also released. The civil service jobs came with better salaries but I opted for the DRO job. I wanted a position that would take me to serve the people directly. And so I was sent to Galle as a DRO on January 8, 1960. Though I went as DRO to Galle I was still involved with Prof. Sarachchandra’s theatre troupe.

Almost every weekend I would go to Kandy to visit my family and I would also visit Peradeniya. And thus, the bond with Somalatha took us to our nuptials on September 6, 1962.”

I asked Lionel Fernando how his career and her pursuits in theatre managed to go side by side in their life together. “I was a government officer based in Unawatuna. She became a teacher and was transferred to Richmond College in Galle. In 1962 Gunasena Galappaththi asked her to take up the lead role in his production ‘Mudu Puththu’. I encouraged her to pursue her passions in theatre. I never held her back. At that time our first daughter Kaushalya was growing up and I helped with parenting. I had a series of transfers during that time and Somalatha also got the chance to take part in several productions from the likes of Henry Jayasena and Dayananda Gunawardena.”

The recollections of a supportive husband then continued to reveal how dedicated he was to help his wife progress in her career. “In 1965 she won a one year scholarship to the Mozarteum University in Salzburg Austria. It was the foremost leaning institute for children’s theatre and music. I never held her back.

“I took on the responsibility of looking after our two daughters until she returned. I never demanded her role as a housewife. I didn’t feel neglected when she attended rehearsals and workshops. I became a source of encouragement to her to do greater things. She was awarded the Honoris Causa doctorate from the University of Visual and Performing Arts. I felt so happy for her.”

I then asked for impressions on his late wife as an educationist and theatre practitioner. “A very simple, very caring, but dominant personality among her own students, since she was determined to have a decent society coming out of the collective responsibility of the youth under her.” I asked him what qualities about her he admired as he supported her goals unreservedly.

“Her severe independence and being quite honestly outspoken to the master and student alike. She feared none. In adversity whether from the state or subject she fought back relentlessly for justice and fair play. She possessed a character with unwavering resolve and courage.”

The recollections captured in this article speak of a life resolutely dedicated to ideals that sought to utilise the art of theatre for enriching children with salutary values. Somalatha Subasinghe can be rightfully called the progenitor of children’s theatre in Sri Lanka. With maternal warmth, giving selflessly to further theatre for children, modern Sri Lanka is culturally richer because of her. 

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