A new twist to an olden tale | Sunday Observer

A new twist to an olden tale

23 September, 2018

When it comes to Indo–Lanka relations there is no greater story than the Ramayana which has found a place in history as a story that is passed down from generation to generation, for millennia. The significance the Ramayana has in the collective Indian psyche is that of a religious text and holds sanctity as a narrative of the triumph of dharma (righteousness) over adharma (unrighteousness). To the Sri Lankan mindset the basis is not the same. It is seen not as a sacred text but a narrative that reflects a more political context with geopolitical significance.

Many are the works of art in the form of theatre, song and ballet that have been developed in India of the story of Prince Rama, his wife Princess Sita and ‘Demon King’ of Lanka – Ravana. Many are the versions of this epic story which are conventionally seen more as myth than history.

The growing interest in the story of King Ravana of Lanka among the present younger generations and even among some of the more freethinkers of the older generation has given the Yaksha King whose historical basis is misted in what is thought of as a time before ‘known history’, a cult status that ensures his name will never be forgotten.

As October approaches theatergoers can hope to see Sri Lanka’s most senior theatre practitioner at present, Namel Weeramuni bring to life on the boards of the Punchi Theatre a production that is certain to attract ‘Ravana fans’ as well as those who enjoy musical theatre. This stage play is certain to cause more than the simple raising of an eye brow, when it comes to the purists who wish to see dogmatic adherence to conventional mainstream history when subjects of a historical basis are turned into works of performance.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Namel Weeramuni on September 16, at his residence to get an insight as to what theatergoers can expect to see in this production that would attract those who are captivated by the mystery and intricacies of the Ramayana story. The stage play that is set to unfold is based on a collaborative script between eminent Sinhala don, Prof. J.B. Dissanayake and Sri Lanka’s most senior theatre practitioner Namel Weeramuni.

The script is composed of two segments, but not two plays, assured Weeramuni when I questioned on the cohesion of this upcoming work on the boards. “J.B’s script, written many years ago is combined in part with a script that I wrote, especially, for this show. J.B and I have different ways of looking at this legendary story.

And so the result is that this is a collaborated script.” The drama will be presented as Prof. J.B Dissanayake’s “Ravana” and Namel Weeramuni’s “Seethabilashaya”. Weeramuni said, he edited the script he wrote, more than 20 times. “I did research on the different versions of the Ramayana story and found it fascinating as to how so many versions exist.

In some, there is heroism attributed to Ravana and he is not the typical villain made out to be in the Valmiki Ramayana. So I used my creative licence to develop something that should hopefully prove to be new.”

When I listened to the crux of the storyline of what Weeramuni has scripted it was obvious that ‘newness’ would be an understatement! This play is bound to hit a few nerves, I venture. The twists that Weeramuni has written and planned for the stage are radical deviations from the ‘conventional story’ so to say. And, at the same time it is certain to win admiration from those who applaud radical inventiveness.

After listening to the storyline of what Weeramuni adduces as his part of the script, I asked him what was the principal source and inspiration for him to adopt the twist that he developed.

“There were several sources,” began Weeramuni who said, “Jataka Stories were one of the main sources that inspired the twist that I bring into the storyline. My script begins with the fire test that Sita is made to undergo by her husband to prove her purity.”

Without throwing spoilers at readers I will simply reveal that Weeramuni’s production will be one where Ravana doesn’t die but in fact rescues Sita from the flames when she steps in.

What happens afterwards? I was astounded when I listened to it.

But I am more desirous to see it as a performance and thus will resist from revealing further!

I asked Weeramuni quite frankly whether he intends to present a Sri Lankan version or interpretation of the Ramayana. “I am not giving a Sri Lankan interpretation. That is not my intention.” Weeramuni’s words were both affirmative and remonstrative. “I intend to capture the universality of certain qualities through the character of Ravana’s mother. The boundlessness of a mother’s love to her child is one of them.”

What does Ravana’s mother have to do in this story? It was quite fascinating to hear I assure you.

“In this play there will be two ways of looking at who the protagonist is. J.B’s part brings out Rama as the hero while my part of the story which is the latter, will show Ravana as the protagonist.” There is not merely a twist in the tale but a contrast of viewpoints in this collaborated script between two eminent senior personalities connected to the arts and letters.

Among the talented persons who have come together to create this work of theatre are musicians Jayantha Aravinda and Lionel Gunathileke. “Several instruments will combine for the music score in this play.

The traditional low country drum or the Yak beraya will be used as well as the mandolin,” explained Weeramuni who added “It is quite a fusion in that way.”

This ‘tragedy’ as Weeramuni called the play will be a performance that narrates the story through song, music and choreography and is sure to be quite an unorthodox portrayal of near mythical figures whose status move between being human and divine.

‘Ravana’ and ‘Seethabilashaya’ will surely offer theatergoers something novel. And it is a show that yours truly is certainly looking forward to see come alive on the boards.