The small screen’s pledge to theatre: Ranga Bhoomi | Sunday Observer

The small screen’s pledge to theatre: Ranga Bhoomi

23 December, 2018
On the studio set of Rupavahini Corporation, the dedicated duo spearheading Ranga Bhoomi, the show’s Producer Mao Lakshitha (left) and Host Jayanath Bandara.

My active involvement in theatre related writing with the Sunday Observer began in 2012 with a review of Udayasiri Wickremaratne’s stage play Suddek Oba Amathai (A White Man Addresses You), and since then my theatre related writing has included over 130 reviews to date, several interview based features with practitioners on theatre productions, as well as reportage pieces on theatre events. Recently, I had the idea of broadening this spectrum by deciding to write an article on the only television show in Sri Lanka at present, dedicated to promoting the art of theatre. The show is none other than Ranga Bhoomi, a Sinhala medium talk show telecast on Rupavahini fortnightly, every other Sunday at 10am. It is a show watched by theatre lovers and is sought after by theatre practitioners to help gain exposure for their productions.

After calling the host of the show, seasoned thespian of Sinhala stage, Jayanath Bandara who I have known cordially since of some years, I made the acquaintance of the producer of Ranga Bhoomi, Mao Lakshitha, and arranged to have a discussion with the duo who have been passionately committed to keep Ranga Bhoomi on its track on national television. Last Sunday, December16, I had the pleasure of sitting down to an insightful and stimulating conversation with the producer Mao Lakshitha and the show’s host Jayanath Bandara, in the premises of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) where Ranga Bhoomi is telecast as a live studio show.

The path to Ranga Bhoomi

I first wanted to get an idea about the background as to what paved the path for Ranga Bhoomi to be initiated by the SLRC, and both Lakshitha and Bandara provided an informative insight on that topic. They related how the SLRC took an interest from its inception to promote theatre via TV to the public, in the early 1980s.

The archives at SLRC contain many recorded footage of prominent works of theatre which they had been in the practice of telecasting as ‘shows’. At that time TV became a medium to broadcast works of theatre to the public. Thus the SLRC archives, is now a veritable treasure house of theatre footage of old Sinhala plays. I learnt that the introduction of a ‘talk show’ to discuss theatre as a form of art, and create interest for it among television viewers started with the show ‘Eheta Kanata’ in the late 1980s, and progressed with the show Balan Sahbe Mithure in the 1990s.

I was then told that Ranga Bhoomi’s birth happened when director Nalin Mapitiya submitted a proposal to the SLRC to introduce a show by the title of ‘Ranga Bhoomi’ under the Drama Unit of SLRC, the original concept being for a show that discussed a combination of theatre, cinema, and television as arts.

Simultaneously, the need had existed for the Educational Programs Unit of the SLRC to have a show providing an educational perspective on theatre. And the outcome had been that the weekly time slot would be shared by the two units to produce shows that gave emphasis to their respective themes and focus areas.

The weekly airtime was thus given successively to the drama programs unit and educational programs unit until the former was given exclusive claim over it after the latter had completed the spectrum of subjects they had wished to cover to reach their objectives.

I asked the duo - Lakshitha and Bandara who clearly had an excellent working relationship with a shared passion for the art of theatre, as to how the content is selected and the format and structure of the show decided. Lakshitha very forthrightly said, when it comes to the script, how the questions should be posed to the interviewees, and the flow of the discussion should be crafted, Bandara as the host is given the reins.

However, since there are many requests that come in regularly from practitioners in the Sinhala theatre for an opportunity to get exposure for their works through Ranga Bhoomi, the selection of subject matter and the inviting of guests on the show is done with the consensus of both. The duo thus explained that they zealously maintain the credo of the show as one meant to promote works of theatre with high aesthetic and academic merits.

Target audience

Lakshitha explained further, “Our target audience is not really the general audience. It’s more for viewers who have an interest in theatre as an art of high calibre and not look at theatre as a popular form of entertainment for cheap humour.” Ranga Bhoomi’s mission is therefore to try to inculcate among its viewership an interest in high quality works of theatre. The show also takes an active interest to be of educational use to schoolchildren, since drama and theatre is a subject for both O/L and A/L examinations, and of course also since drama and theatre is broadly studied at university level, they develop content to address that segment of the viewership as well. The duo said, one of their principal aims through Ranga Bhoomi is to help schoolchildren to get exposure for their endeavours in theatre encouraging them to pursue their love for theatre when they grow up.

One example is how Ranga Bhoomi gave exposure to the inter-house drama competition of Pasdunrata National College of Education in Kalutara. Another aspect of how Ranga Bhoomi has reached out to different quarters in the growing spectrum of theatre activity is with regard to Tamil theatre.

Admittedly, the output of works of theatre in Tamil is considerably less compared to its Sinhala counterpart, however, both Lakshitha and Bandara noted that there is more work being done now and that they have been able to provide some exposure to Tamil stage plays through the show.

The main goal

The Ranga Bhoomi duo shared their thoughts on the credo of the show further, with Lakshitha saying, “Ranga Bhoomi’s goal is to help uplift good quality theatre through television, encouraging viewers to develop a taste for good quality stage plays.

Theatre is not a commercially robust field. Theatre artistes and practitioners undergo immense financial hardship to sustain their art. And the continuance of theatre rests on how much support it gets from the general public.” Bandara said, “Newcomers to the field have said, the show has been greatly helpful to them to get exposure for their work.

That is an important aspect. We also believe, Ranga Bhoomi must be relevant in keeping the heritage of Sri Lankan theatre alive in the hearts and minds of the viewers. To this end we also highlight legends of Sri Lankan theatre like Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Sugathapala de Silva and do commemorative shows.

There are no commercial goals involved in Ranga Bhoomi. It’s not for the purpose of ‘selling theatre to the masses’, it’s all about uplifting the taste for good theatre among our viewers.”

Lakshitha as the producer treats Ranga Bhoomi much more than just a part of his job description at SLRC. He said, he is an avid theatregoer and watches nearly all the plays staged for the State Drama Festival each year. That gives him a good idea about which stage plays are worthy to be given exposure through Ranga Bhoomi.

Whenever a request comes for airtime on the show about a theatre production, Lakshitha and Bandara carefully scrutinise to ascertain whether the stage play that seeks airtime has sufficient artistic merits and warrants to be brought on the show in keeping with the show’s credo.

“It is actually the state media that can afford to keep a show like this going,” observed Lakshitha. “It is hard to imagine that a private TV station would spend its resources for a show like this when airtime is highly competitive on the basis of being commercially valuable.” The duo agreed that the support given them by the SLRC’s management is appreciable and that the management has not been obstructive and doesn’t interfere with their decisions about content for the show.

Any space for English theatre?

I ventured to ask my interviewees if Ranga Bhoomi has ever made a conscious effort to give exposure to Sri Lanka’s admittedly Colombo centric, yet, prolifically growing English theatre. The duo agreed that over the last decade or so the English theatre in the country has grown remarkably and deserves to be appreciated. Yet Bandara on that note explained, “The reason we have not been able to get English theatre practitioners on the show has been mainly due to the practical lack of a bridge with that segment of the theatre community. We believe, English theatre works must also be given exposure on Ranga Bhoomi and we will gladly welcome them to the show if they approach us.

The show is not meant only to highlight good quality Sinhala theatre but Sri Lankan theatre of all languages. And featuring discussions about English theatre of good quality is something we look forward to.”

Their satisfaction of being involved with the show over the years has been to see that Ranga Bhoomi has contributed to provide newcomers to the theatre, exposure and encouragement to pursue their passions, and in general, to be a factor that contributes to keeping the heritage of Sri Lankan theatre conscious among viewers. Both, Lakshitha and Bandara said, it is heartening to know that the theatre community has shown much solidarity with their efforts and taken an active stance to promote the show and see Ranga Bhoomi as something they must help flourish.

Concluding message

On a concluding note I asked the duo if they have a specific message to convey to the readership of the Sunday Observer through this article. They said, what they would like to ask from Sri Lanka’s public is, “Please go to the theatre. Watch stage plays.” They both stressed that the purpose of Ranga Bhoomi is not to showcase theatre as an academic exercise only to be ‘talked about’. “Theatre”, they said, “is for watching.”

It is indeed commendable for state media institutions like the SLRC to keep allocating funds for a TV show like Ranga Bhoomi which aims at developing a widespread theatregoing culture in Sri Lanka, to foster a society that will become more aesthetically and culturally enriched.