Intellectual, cultural realist and literary critic | Sunday Observer
Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra

Intellectual, cultural realist and literary critic

30 August, 2020

The 24th death anniversary of Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra fell on August 16, 2020. From the beginning of history most Asian nations adored and idealised their saints, philosophers and those who belonged to the Arts and who have stamped infinity on the lives and thoughts of their respective countries. The contribution towards our country’s culture and arts, by Prof. Sarachchandra is considered invaluable to the entire world.

According to American Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, for the artiste, it is not enough that he communicates with others who are experts in their own art. Their fellowship, their understanding and their appreciation may encourage, but that is not the end of their work nor its nature. Similarly, to Prof Sarachchandra the artiste depends on a common sensibility and culture, on a common meaning of symbols, on a community of experience and common ways of describing and interpreting.

How true it is of Prof. Sarachchandra as Robert Oppenheimer says ‘Literate need not write for everyone or paint or play for everyone, but his audience must be humanity and not a specialised set of experts among his fellows.”

Composite image

Today, things have changed. For the community to which the artiste addresses himself is largely not there; the traditions and the history, the myths and the common experience, which is the artistes function to illuminate and to harmonise and portray have been dissolved in a changing world. Among the Sri Lankan literati engaged in this stupendous task Prof. Sarachchandra ranks above most of his contemporaries.

To visualise a composite image of Prof. Sarachchandra, we should go back to the socio-cultural background that had prevailed in this country as well as other South Asian countries at the time of Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s birth in 1914. The interests of Prof. Sarachchandra were centered around drama and he was the first to introduce a new type of drama Sri Lankan society. Among his dramas

Maname was par excellence, a remarkable and historic achievement for him. It came to be ranked as the first drama written and produced at the time. At the Colombo University which is world-class and a magnificent seat of learning nature it self had created an ideal and favourable place to achieve all round academic excellence. It was against this backdrop (Maname) the greatest drama, brainchild of Prof. Ediriweera the great master emerged.

The great Asian cultural tradition that was nurtured and given its ideal shape by Asian intellectuals in different fields had to face totally different cultural traditions once the Asian nations were conquered by Western Imperialists beginning from the 15th century. The dilemmas faced by intellectuals such as Prof. Sarachchandra in these circumstances was a question of selection and synthesis; what aspects of the Western culture were to be admitted in to the fold of national culture; what aspects of tradition were to be revived and how was a synthesis to be achieved so that the foreign element would no longer appear alien. Many actors and actresses in Sarachchandra dramas were indeed privileged to participate and enjoy it. He produced them to be the most talented dramas Sri Lanka had ever produced at the time. A long felt need in drama to be fulfilled since the early

Nadagam style was his prime aim and concern. With his Buddhist outlook ,at times the most interesting and best known

Jataka Stories formed the theme of many of his dramas. These reflected very human, very moving human accounts, very entertaining yet full of advice. All human emotions love, sorrow, and joy are well depicted.

Nadagam songs

In Sarachchandra’s quest for a suitable person to give life to Nadagam songs stylised and rhythmic he came across well versed, efficient and experienced people. In an important sense, this world of ours is new and in which the unity of knowledge, the nature of human communities, the order of society, the order of ideas, the very notions of society and culture have changed and will not return to what they have been in the past.

According to Prof. Sarachchandra, what is new is new not because it has never been there before but because it has changed in quality. Sarachchandra’s critical theories and evaluative criteria have become totally accept able and taken for granted and he did succeed in what he set out to do – to create a popular audience. Drawing attention to very obvious and salient aspects of Sarachchandra’s criticism of the Sinhala novel, it bottle necked the fiction writing of the day. Though the new Sinhala novel emerged in the form of Gamperaliya in 1944, only two years after the appearance of Sarachchandra’s modern Sinhala fiction, the latter did not have any bearing or influence on the former.

The song, Premayen Manaranjithawe has become a favourite of Sri Lankans holding fond memories of the illustrious master of the dramas Maname and Singhabahu.

Among Prof. Sarachchandra’s books are Nisandas, the novel literary verse form which came to the fore. Among his other books are Sahithya Vidyawa dealing with new theories of criticism.

Sinhala Navakatha Ithihasaya is another a well-known literary work. The wealth of experience Sarachchandra had gained from his research work abroad and the foreign exposure were contributing factors to his literary work. His drama, Singhabahu seems to represent what is perhaps the earliest attempt in modern Asian theatre to shake off the influence of the Western theatre and to rediscover the theatre of their roots.

Among many of Sarachchandra’s discourses are the series of lectures which he delivered at American and German Universities (1966-1967, 1972), the series of articles which he wrote to the reputed Japanese journal Asai Shimbu in 1957. His famous lecture on Drama in the orient which he delivered at the International House of Japan in 1956, his essays such as Traditional values and the modernisation of Buddhist Society,

A critical examination of Buddhist teachings of the external world (Journal of Indian Philosophy – 1971), Contemporary Indian theatre (New York USA).

Indigenous theatre

Although Prof Sarachchandra went for his postgraduate studies to the University of London in 1947 and studied Western philosophy his keen interest in the fields of Asia tradition never disappeared. He started his career as a dramatist during the early 1940’s with translations from the world theatre. Thereafter, he began writing his own plays and producing them. Subsequently, it brought the realisation that if there was to be a lively art form commanding a deep commitment from the art loving public a national theatrical idiom had to be established. Prof. Sarachchandra embarked on an intensive search for any remains of what would be called an indigenous theatre.

Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra has left a memory so beautiful as a shining example of an university educationist and as a most versatile drama patriot with his superior performance to the entire student community. He marked a significant milestone in the aesthetic history of Sri Lanka. The service thus rendered by him to his Motherland and Sinhala culture will linger on even in the future.

Today, in a world in which each of us know our limitations, knowing the evils of superficiality and the terrors of lethargy we will have to cling to what is close to us, to what we know, to what we can do, to our friends and our tradition and our love, lest they be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing. Intellectuals and eminent achievers such as Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra has given us memories for us to love as we look forward to the future, never ever forgetting him as he was an immense inspiration and an idol urging all to emulate him. Only the brave and the bold can accept his challenge.