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Drama, woodworms and Dharmasiri

14 October 2019 12:03 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



  • The launch of Drama magazine by Jehan Srikantha Appuhami is both exhilarating and sad
  • present generation Politically, seems to be more shrewd, often with shifting loyalties


The launch of ‘Drama,’ a new magazine on that subject by Jehan Srikantha Appuhami, turned out to be an event both exhilarating and sad – exhilarating because the large auditorium at ‘Ape Gama’ (the former Jana Kala Kendraya) in Pelawatta had an almost capacity crowd, and many familiar faces from the arts sphere, especially the performing arts, were there.
The sadness came from what some of the speakers said at the event. But more about that, later. They brought the louse crawling out of the woodwork out of the fragile proscenium of our theatre world.
Jehan Srikantha may not be a household name, but he’s a young actor with a solid reputation in the theatre, and among the best of the new generation, as his hypnotic performance as Caligula in the recent stage version of Albert Camus’ play shows. His contribution to film too should be considerable assuming he gets good films and the right roles, as his role in the recent biopic about JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera showed.

Now he has come out with this magazine, a bold new venture. He’s the editor and driving force behind it. A man of few words, Jehan Shrikantha left the talking to other people, including veteran film and theatre director Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Mrs. Anusha Gokula from the Ministry of Culture and Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardhane, the unofficial spokesman for our arts and, if one may think of an analogy from another era, the longstanding and authoritative dukgannarala of the arts scene.
The magazine is a thing of beauty, printed on quality paper with fine colour and black and white photographs and interviews with prominent figures. It’s a bold venture because only the brave would think of launching a journal about the arts even at the best of times, and this is hardly such a time. 
Dr. Wijesiriwardhane drove the point home when he said in his speech that no arts magazine in this country has lasted beyond five years. He rambled on to talk about ‘Mawatha,’ a very popular publication launched and run by him and a group of friends until it was dealt the coup de grace by the post-1977 ‘liberal economy’ maelstrom in the shape of offset printing. ‘Mawatha,’ a low tech letterpress product, simply could not compete. The lesson here is that to survive in the glitzy new world, the product’s surface qualities have to be as important, if not more, than its content.


"The sadness came from what some of the speakers said at the event. They brought the louse crawling out of the woodwork out of the fragile proscenium of our theatre world"

This was part of a lament about the decline of the arts from the 1980s to its present low. As for the cause, many theories have been put forward. But the bleak truth is that the arts are at the bottom of everyone’s list. As the professor pointed out, this is not the case even in India, where if we go by the given socio-economic indicators things should be worse. He offered the example of Kerala, where enthusiasts get together to fund drama and other art projects. 
If he sounded pessimistic, Dharmasiri Bandaranaike was apocalyptic. He told the audience that the same morning, he had received word from the navy’s censors that the proposed staging of his play ‘Dhawala Bheeshana’ at a navy camp has been cancelled because it was deemed a political drama about the JVP.
How can a drama written by Jean-Paul Sartre about a group of French resistance fighters in a Gestapo prison be interpreted as a presentation of our politics by other means? Clearly, the fears, the aspirations and the betrayals are universal. This is one drama which can be said to have blighted Dharmasiri’s life as a dramatist; those who read this script in the navy may not have been aware of that, when it was first staged at the height of the JVP’s second rebellion, the party’s cadres thought it satirized them and downgraded their leader, and Dharmasiri was forced to flee to India for safety.

From then on, his life has been on a roller coaster ride in the macabre carnival of our politics. He was a key figure in the people’s power movement which brought about the startling regime change in 2015 toppling Mahinda Rajapakse and his brothers from power. Surely it’s a bitter twist of irony that the same people are now making a strong bid to take it back unless another miracle happens within the next few months.
With the people’s democratic revolution a shambles, those artists who were its torch bearers give in to despair – at least, the more sensitive among them such as Dharmasiri do. The tragedy of Sri Lankan art in all its manifest forms is that it has always been subordinate to politics. Politics shape the artist, making use of him, and then the artist is forgotten. The politically astute, unscrupulous artists will get some capital out of it. The scrupulous and the naïve are left wondering what went wrong.
Dharmasiri’s speech left out the analysis and post mortems. Instead, it’s total despair which gushed out. To a stunned audience, he talked of wanting to die in a car accident and may have sounded suicidal. I was left wondering – is this one of our foremost dramatists talking? Hasn’t he got anything to say that will inspire the present? When looking back, don’t any of his considerable achievements make him happy?


"The tragedy of Sri Lankan art in all its manifest forms is that it has always been subordinate to politics. Politics shape the artist, making use of him, and then the artist is forgotten"

Whether the present generation wants to be inspired is another matter. Politically, they seem to be more shrewd, often with shifting loyalties or no loyalties at all. Their theatre, movies and writing leave out by and large the big themes which pre-occupied the likes of Dharmasiri, Simon Navagattegama, Henry Jayasena and Sugathapala de Silva – the corrupting influence of power, democracy vs. dictatorship and how the human spirit can be manipulated by diabolical politics. Even ordinary tragedy seems to be a little beyond them, leaving us with black comedy. 
Nonetheless, it’s the present generation which is behind ‘Drama,’ while the veterans despair.
As for Dharmasiri, the fighter always lurks beneath the despair. ‘Paradeesayaka Kandulu,’ the second part of his epic documentary covering Sri Lanka’s politics, was screened at the Tharangani theatre a week after ‘Drama’ was launched. Both documentaries may be aptly called tragedies because that is what our modern political history is. 

What’s hard to understand is why the president was invited as chief guest for the event. He came as the chief guest when the first part was screened soon after the 2015 election victory. It was supposed to herald a new era – a new constitution, corruption-free government and an end to extra-judicial murder by Catch-22 figures – everyone knows who they are but they cannot be named because they are above the law.
All those pipe dreams have leaked to ungainly dry deaths. That’s why it was hard to understand the president’s presence. The hope that he may have learnt something while watching the mistakes made by his predecessors, and left the theatre determined not to go down in history as another bad joke shrivelled to such an extent halfway through his term that a withered beanstalk may look nourishing by comparison. 
Dharmasiri, forever the political idealist, should leave Maithripala Sirisena and the haunting legacy of Dhawala Bheeshana and move on. He still has vision and energy enough for that.


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