The play ‘Dutu Tena Allanu’ (Arrest on Sight) was staged at the open air theatre of the Peradeniya University on July 12. Part of the audience booed and forced the performance to a stop by throwing corn stalks, slippers and finally stones at the players.
Director Kaushalya Fernando said that female students led the booing, and a Buddhist monk told her afterwards that she had chosen to ‘desecrate a sacred place.’ (the open air theatre).
The source of this ‘desecration’ as it occurred to the monk, lies without doubt in two things – the content of this play, which is about the underworld; it has one mild kissing scene, and one character is a prostitute who is dressed in ‘alluring’ clothes (a short skirt). Hence, the context and content are relatively modern for the Sinhala theatre, though quite tame by standards of modern theatre elsewhere.
The second factor is the history of an association between this university and its open air theatre via Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s play ‘Maname’ first staged here in 1956. To some minds, even six decades later, Maname remains the zenith of Sinhala theatre. Hence, to stage a contextually modern drama about gangsters and prostitutes at such a sacred venue is nothing short of sacrilege. But this is a very arguable, and historically limiting, view point. The story of Maname is based on Buddhist tradition and the play highly stylized, somewhat like traditional forms of theatre in India and the Far East (Sarachchandra studied in Japan and was both impressed and influenced by its traditions).
Modern theatre, on the other hand, is often provocative, bold, even iconoclastic. The hooting at the historic Peradeniya venue was carried out by a new generation of Maname’s grandchildren, still living under the shadow cast by its heritage. People who haven’t evolved beyond Maname’s historical context would be bewildered by anything even remotely modern.
This is a culture clash. That it occurred at Peradeniya does not augur well for Sri Lanka as a progressive nation, because these students are going to be tomorrow’s teachers, bureaucrats and shapers of the country’s destiny. If they are blind worshippers of tradition and unable to tolerate anything deemed to be directly in contradiction with their beliefs, they lack the intellectual depth and flexibility needed to cope with the modern world.
Maname is the story of a young prince and his consort who are challenged by an aboriginal chieftain while passing through a forest. In the ensuing duel, the princess helps the chieftain to kill her husband. It’s a matter of the heart but the moral goes to confirm the old male-hierarchical theory that women are fickle creatures, not to be trusted.
We can enjoy the play without believing in that theory (as I do). Unfortunately, two generations after Maname’s first staging, the same old ideas about women’s psychology and behaviour still seem to dominate a significant segment of the population. Maname, along with the Paththini legend, still influences female thinking and behaviour. It is no wonder that enraged female undergrads threw slippers at an actress in a short skirt, for the image clashes violently with the concept of both Maname and Paththini. Princess Maname proves in a timeless manner that women are both foolish and fickle. But she at least compensates for these sins by dressing properly. The loose woman in ‘Dutu Tena Allanu’ can’t even manage that.
Finally, if the open air theatre Peradeniya is so sanctified, I wonder why it looks so neglected. I must have passed it a dozen times over the past thirty years or so, and each time I saw it looking unkempt and unswept. Such a historic venue surely deserves a memorial, including a picture of the original play, and a flower bed or two in the proximity.