I first came into contact with Prof. Neluka Silva in the year 2005, when my school St. Joseph's College won the Trophy for the All-Island Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition, with our excerpts from 'Julius Caesar'. I played the role of Calpurnia, the wife of Caesar who begs him not to go to the Senate House the day he ends up being assassinated, after having a horribly portentous nightmare. I remember our Director changed the blocking of my climactic scene close to the Finals, and wanted me to move around the stage quite a bit while trying to convince Caesar to stay at home on the famous Ides of March; however, while enacting the scene before Prof. Neluka Silva and the other judges, I felt instinctively that it would be far more effective if I stayed rooted to one spot and relied on the power of my words alone, without an excess of movement. It was Neluka, as she prefers to be called, herself who announced St. Joseph's as the victor later that night, and I felt like it was a particularly meaningful and mighty victory for us, because Neluka was a University Professor who had studied the texts of Shakespeare academically, and brought a very erudite perspective to the judging panel, which some judges lack completely. She talked on my show today about how school Directors need to focus on the TEXT, and thus the appropriately CONTEXTUALIZED ACTING, when mounting productions of Shakespeare for this famous All-Island Competition, rather than emphasizing superfluous and superficial elements like fancy lighting and excessively elaborate sets. She bemoaned the fact that some Directors tend to focus on the flashy outward 'spectacle' of a production, which while she understood might make a cast feel special and privileged, is ultimately not at all what Shakespeare is about. In fact, I remind the viewers today that high-tech lights, props and sets simply did not EXIST back in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, and Neluka stressed that the beauty of erstwhile playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe is how their TEXTS themselves conveyed everything that the audience needed to know, by way of the richness, opulence, and exquisiteness of the LANGUAGE, which is what a good Director and good actors need to focus on.
Neluka is Senior Professor in English at the University of Colombo, Immediate Past President of the Oxford Society of Sri Lanka and a Past President of the Rotary Club of Colombo Metropolitan. She was educated at the Universities of Colombo, Leeds, Oxford and Cambridge. When I sat for my A levels in 2006, I took Theatre and Drama as one of my subjects, and since this was not offered at St. Joseph's College, Neluka became one of my three private tutors. Although most people are completely unaware of such an Advanced Level subject even existing in Sri Lanka, it turned out to be a Herculean enterprise because the paper is nine hours long unlike even Physics or Chemistry, or should I say, there were three separate papers, each three hours in length, encompassing such a superhuman scope of academic knowledge starting from Ancient Greek and Sanskrit texts all the way down to contemporary dramatic forms around the world, that when I did a Bachelor of Arts degree in Dramatic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles soon afterwards, I was exempt from a number of their mandatory courses on the strength of our local A Level Theatre and Drama syllabus, and was able to graduate an entire year earlier than the other students in my university batch. I feel like Neluka whetted my appetite for Academia during our one-on-one lessons leading up to my A Levels, and made me aware of the fact that there is simply no substitute for a University education. To me, she exemplified the Beauty and Sublimity of Academia, and still does.
This relentless lady is also the Founder and Director of "Kids at Play", a children’s theatre workshop, which she invited me to come co-direct with her back in 2006, before I moved to Los Angeles. What is most remarkable about this particular workshop of Neluka's is that she does not get the children to enact pre-existing scripts. Rather, she gets them to come up with their own stories and their own scripts, by harnessing the full scope of their imaginations. I still fondly remember the very vivid and exciting plays that her very young proteges came up with, with such expert guidance from Neluka that I felt like I wasn't co-directing mere "child's play" but rather the kind of original material that could stand right next to classic fantasy material like 'The Wizard of Oz' or 'Alice in Wonderland'. Neluka's ability to inspire and provoke the best from the students who work with her is absolutely uncanny. She does not believe in being "prescriptive" as she calls it, but believes in unleashing the latent imaginary powers of our youth. She has also conducted Creative Writing Workshops for children, unto this end, the culmination of which was the publication of "Eagle Eyes and Other Stories" in 2018, which comprises short stories written entirely by child authors.
In 2019, Neluka published a collection of her own original short stories for children entitled "My Elephant Secret and Other Stories", some of which we discuss on my show today, because they contain PROFOUND PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHTS, and delve into very moving Societal Issues that children have to deal with such as Divorce and even Racism. Neluka talked about how some children open up about their personal experiences while working with her, and even end up in tears, because many of them have no outlet to express their emotions, and feel like they have not been provided a safe space by their parents and elders elsewhere to give voice to the very real pain that many of them undergo.
However, Neluka believes, and I do agree with her, that there is hope and also healing, if one is able to find the right kind of support, which is what her literary work for children ultimately encapsulates. We talked about how some parents believe in sweeping the harsh realities and vicissitudes of life under the rug, rather than equipping children psychologically and emotionally to deal with the kind of issues that either they themselves or at least their friends will have to experience inevitably. For even the support of a good friend or two can make all the difference in a child's life, no matter how difficult the situation on the home front might be. Very few adults and teachers bring all this to the forefront the way Prof. Neluka Silva has done, and continues to. She really sees things from the child's point of view, and although she could easily stick to lecturing young adults at the Colombo University, she continues to work with children and help them to the very best of her abilities.
For all this and oh so much more with Neluka, whose novel 'The Iron Fence' (2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize and was longlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Prize 2012 and the Dublin IMPAC prize 2012, and whose collection of Vijitha Yapa published short stories "Our Neighbours and other stories" was one of the twenty stories placed in the Highly Commended Winner category in the 2008 Commonwealth Short Story Competition, do tune into Episode Eight of GEHAN COORAY'S MEETING OF THE MINDS today, on Daily Mirror Online's platforms (YouTube, Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). Wish you all a very very happy Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Ladies and Gentlemen.