Championing Illusions of Democracy | Sunday Observer

Championing Illusions of Democracy

30 August, 2020

“Democracy means, governing people who commute by bus by people who don’t take the bus.” This phrase that was articulated in the ‘legislature’ brought to life in Udayasiri Wickremaratne’s latest stage play Garu Katanayakethmani stands in stark contrast to Lincoln’s phrasing of democracy, as a ‘people’s government’, described in the famous Gettysburg address. However, in my opinion, Wickremaratne’s words spoken through his character donned with a maroon–burgundy coloured shawl, describes a much more truthful picture of what ‘democracy’ has ‘devolved’ (and not evolved) to, over the course of time.

On November 9 last year, seated in the gentle darkness of Punchi Theatre in Borella I watched Wickremeratne’s ‘lively theatrical caricature’ on matters of the legislature and the State, come alive on the boards, as Sri Lanka was gearing up for the Presidential polls. Watching the myriad of behaviour of the ‘Honourable members’ of ‘the House’, which ranges from whimsically frolicsome to humorously braggadocios to unapologetically bawdy to musically rambunctious, one must ask, how serious a ‘political critique’ mounted on the boards is Garu Katanayakathumani?

This, in my opinion, is not a play that intelligentsia would care to make the subject of critical analysis on art that defines the times.

And I for one doubt that Wickremeratne has any grand notions that his latest play will be appraised and praised as a work of theatre that holds immense ‘intellectual merit’ that ‘encapsulates the times’ while being ‘timeless’. Garu Katanayakathumani reflects our times to an extent that it projects the image of ‘franchised’ people’s ‘representation’ that cares not for meaningful representation, nor the ‘people’.

Humour and nonsensical theatrics

There is much truth in the larger picture that belies the humour and nonsensical theatrics to the effect that one may bear an afterthought that this comedic play insinuates that the ‘people’ are a myth in the folds of the workings of the legislature, and that pretty much all forms of politics has transformed into a play of song, dance and mayhem which ‘the people’, ‘the electors’, may watch passively.

It is clear that in this world, politics is a drama that cannot be scripted nor directed by the people but only watched.

What really goes on at the various committee stages of legislation formulation in Parliament? How does a parliamentary committee call upon evidence and what evidence does it decide to accept in a matter under inquiry? An interesting turn of events and a much welcome change to the tone and pace of action takes place in the play when a parliamentary select committee decides to investigate the burning question of who exactly gave the sword to Princess Maname to give it to the King of the Veddhas (forest dwelling aboriginal folk) to kill Prince Maname? Was Princess Maname given the sword by someone else or did she take possession of the sword in her own volition? While the humorous narrative that unfolds on stage, when characters of the classic Maname by the late great Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra are summoned before the parliamentary committee is an investigation into a work of classical Sinhala theatre, it can perhaps also be read in the metaphorical sense of how the aspirations of the people are betrayed by a government. It is no secret that looking at the antics of politicians over the decades in Sri Lanka, the people, time and again, feel betrayed.


The essence of the classical Sinhala play Maname is about betrayal. Perhaps the parliamentary committee on stage, by going into this subject, is performing a metaphoric, investigative, self critique of how ‘the original betrayal’ took place.

As all political play acting leads to no final resolution of an issue for sincere redress, this investigation too is a process of a politically contrived trip ‘around the mulberry bush’ that goes ‘up the garden path’.

If one thinks deeply about a possible larger picture this stage play may subtly speaks of, it is perhaps the truth about the subject of the ‘troubled contract’ between the ‘elector’, and the ‘elected’ is but an unending cycle of betrayal and forgiveness that the people and their representatives unfailingly amend and perpetuate each time, with almost natural ease.

Garu Katanayakathumani is a play that will unfailingly tickle the funny bones of the ‘gallery’ with comedic entertainment. It is not timeless but very much built on caricaturing events, incidents and ‘sayings’ that echo the political landscape of today. It is in that sense easily identifiable for what it is.

A very saleable mass market work of comedic Sinhala theatrical entertainment. While the acting and flow of action is appreciable in most parts of the narrative, the element of Sinhala song and dance was overdone in my personal opinion to the point that it was more irksome than entertaining, to me. Wickremaratne is bold in his approach to the extent that he gives voice to much ‘political sentiment’ of what was at the time of this performance being reviewed, a turn of regime that would usher in a new order. I could not help but wonder later, how far will Garu Katanayakathumani be allowed to stride if it gains the colour of a brazen lampoon? Time will tell one may suppose as this play is still not banned or censored and continues to mount the boards to entertain theatregoers. And how long will this play continue to be on the boards and adopt new events and incidents to caricature as the political drama of Sri Lanka flows on? Time will tell.