Expatriates and Sinhala Culture
Posted on September 16th, 2017

By Dr.Tilak S. Fernando

During Ranasingha Premadasa’s Executive Presidency, the Sri Lankan expatriate community in the UK had grown excessively due to an exodus of ‘genuine’ and ‘economic’ refugees followed by the devastating situations that existed during 1971, 1987 and 1989 with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency, along with the Black July (Kaṟuppu Yúlai) against the anti-Tamil campaign in 1983.

The Black July was the result of a deadly ambush on 23 July 1983 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) killing 13 Army soldiers. Due to the psychosis that prevailed in society following brutalities and unmerciful killings of innocent civilians became a common occurrence, probably the local folks were under the impression that unaffected expatriates in the UK were having a rosy life abroad; and they were not concerned about their ‘cousins’ back at home.

General Sepala Attygalle when he assumed duties as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner for the UK believed in such imaginary fabrications about the expatriate community abroad, which he promptly conveyed to the President when he was in London. Consequently, the President indiscriminately increased the dual nationality fee from Rs 5,00 to Rs 100,000 overnight as a reprisal. Minister of Defence Lalith Athulathmudali opined about the unwise decision as “killing the goose that laid the golden eggs”.

Expatriate communities

Contrary to such mindsets, the Sri Lankan expatriate communities around the world (not only in the UK) came to the rescue of their motherland in various forms and strategies to counter the LTTE propaganda machine that was said to be highly advanced and operative at the time. In this respect, the expatriates in London noticeably outperformed the Sri Lankan High Commission staff, when the supreme government office in London did not have the calibre of officials to face the LTTE propagandists or the dynamic British journalists, face to face, on British TV and radio, but the President of the Sinhala Association in London has gone on record being always the spokesman to appear on TV panels and face to face discussions to crush fabricated terrorist arguments against Sri Lanka. Such achievements certainly helped to save the skin of the High Commission’s reputation and as well as the bad image painted by the terrorists about Sri Lanka.

Cultural vacuum

With the increase in the Sri Lankan population in London those who were accustomed to aesthetic and culture based lifestyles at home began to feel a vacuum in their new surroundings. This very feeling managed to mushroom various social associations in London for the welfare of the expatriate community. Namel Weeramuni, a popular film director and dramatist, was working at the time in London as a Solicitor. He was totally committed to aesthetic principles and drama from the time he was an undergraduate at Peradeniya University along with H.H. Bandara. Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra, a connoisseur of art and a senior lecturer at Peradeniya University, mentored Namel and Bandara in their aesthetic latent talents, which made Namel as a popular dramatist, scriptwriter, producer as well as a stage actor. In London, Namel and Malini set up a theatrical group called Namel and Malini Art Productions and started to produce numerous stage dramas starting from Nattukkari (Dancer) Kattadiya, The Bear, Lame and the Blind and Raththaran and Elova Gihin Melowa Ava (two of Sarathchandra’s plays) where the writer too was absorbed into dramatics as the beggar in Elova Gihin Melowa Ava. Namel Weeramuni has gone on record as the first Sri Lankan to produce a Sinhala stage drama in London (Nattukkari). The late H. H Bandara, who directed music for the latter plays remodelled his creative talents and intensified into stylized dramas.

Household name

Ediriweera Sarathchandra thrust responsibility on Bandara to compose music for his (Sarathchandra’s) play Sinhabahu in Sri Lanka. With the professor’s experience and young Bandara’s originality in music, Sinhabahu became an exceedingly popular play and remained so, as a household name, for over three decades.

G.D.L. Perera was Edwin Hewakapuge’s pupil in dramatics. He walked into fame in 1960 with his stage show Sama. Later he formed a cultural group with Walter Wimalaratne and five other enthusiasts called Kala Pela and produced several stage dramas.

Considering their individual backgrounds, the trio suited as the perfect combination to revive the cultural scene in London, and to quench the expatriates’ thirst for Sri Lankan theatre. As far back as 1976, Namel Weeramuni became the first ever Sri Lankan to produce a stage play in London called Nattukkari, which has gone down the annals of Sri Lankan expatriate cultural history.

Iconic teledrama

Subsequently, GDL decided to produce the first Sri Lankan iconic teledrama, Rata Giya Aththo in London. He published this news item in a London-based tabloid requesting interested volunteer expats to participate in a gathering at Namel’s London flat. It was during this gathering, the writer was introduced to Namel and Malini Weeramuni.

GDL chose Namel for the main role as a diplomat working at the Sri Lankan High Commission and his wife Geetha as the diplomat’s wife in the teledrama. The story revolved on this Sri Lankan family where the elder daughter worked as a nurse in a hospital and got involved with a Tamil doctor, and the second daughter got hooked on drugs. The teenage son played havoc by pretending to be sharing a flat with a college buddy, but cohabited with a white girl.

The plot took a different twist when the diplomat’s sister (Malini Weeramuni) came to London on holiday and became inquisitive about the elder daughter’s love affair; her covert intentions being to get her brother’s daughter married to her son. The entire stratagem was based on the complexity of life centred on a family living in London portraying both dramatic and non-dramatic scenarios of day- to-day life of an imaginary Sri Lankan family; the moral being, when disciplined children at home are brought to alien environments how children get spoiled.

Combined effort

Whilst engrossed in a busy lifestyle in London, and devoting time for Sinhala dramatics simultaneously, Namel Weeramuni had a single pointed dream, to establish a little theatre in Sri Lanka for the benefit of theatregoers, as Lionel Wendt theatre was the only venue available at the time. It took him 47 years to fulfill this dream, needless to say, with the rock-solid support from his wife Malini, an equally talented and popular actress fully committed to the practice of theatrical art.

Malini maintains that, “Money alone cannot buy happiness. It is through such deeds of kindness that we can attain a high level of happiness. The pleasure you get when you see the joy on these artists’ faces is immeasurable”. Malini named the building as The Punchi Theatre. Today, the fully equipped and unique Punchi Theatre, with a seating capacity of 230, stands out prominently from other stereotype buildings in the heart of Borella, as the most popular venue for book launches, seminars, and ‘muhurats‘.

Theatre drama is mainly about meeting and creating a bond between the performer and the audience through acting, directing and set-design in different depictions and performances.

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3 Responses to “Expatriates and Sinhala Culture”

  1. Christie Says:

    To call uprising of Sinhalese against the Indian terrorists Black July is wrong. The then Prime Minister of UK Barones Thatcher made sure no terrorist enter UK from Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

  2. RohanJay Says:

    I was living in Sri Lanka for a good chunk of the 1980s. I have no complaints as I managed to avoid a lot grim cold British winters by living in sunny Sri Lanka, having been born in London myself.
    As a teenager in the 1980s, my family were avid watchers of Sinhala film and Television drama. Most of the Sinhala teledramas were excellent in the 1980s on Sri Lankan television. In the middle to late 1984 a very popular sinhala teledrama was shown on Sri Lankan television at the time called Ratha Giya Aththo brought to you by a very Succuessful middle class Sri Lankan lawyer living in London with this own small business firm employing something like more than 50 people under him called Namel Weeramuni. He was also a closet artist and film maker.
    He and his wife Malini Weeramuni, were the artistic duo who brought you the teledrama Ratha Giya Aththo to Sri Lankan tv screens.
    It was a potrayal of what life is like and its realities for many Sri Lankan Sinhala families living in London and much of the west. The struggles to adapt to another culture. The struggle with coping with the grim British climate.The struggles of Living in London in all its grim realities was a real eye opener for Sri Lankan viewers in Sri Lanka. The teledrama was a very grim potrayal of life for a particular Sri Lankan family potrayed by Namel and Malini Weeramuni themselves as actors in the tv drama.
    Here are some clips.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZPIgDIScaw
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmcd6druxgI

    While watching it I cannot help but feel sorry for the Sri Lankan characters in the TV drama. Who are not really happy deep down to be living in London. As the Sri Lankan family in the TV drama was likeable and you want them to be happy where ever they are, and you feel sad for them that they couldnt find their happiness and peace they deserved. Whatever the reasons that brought them to live in the UK. As they struggle to adapt to another way of life away from their beloved Sri Lanka. It was a memorable TV drama. I havent seen it in 34 years since it was shown on Sri Lankan TV screens while I was living in Sri Lanka in the 1980s

  3. RohanJay Says:

    I understand Namel and Manel Weeramuni, returned back to Sri Lanka from living in London for 30 years in 2002 and built their own Theatre company and theatre with the money he made over the decades living in London as a lawyer with his own successful small business. I am sure since the end of the war in 2009. Many Sri lankans who had lived in the west for decades returned back to live out the rest of their lives in Sri Lanka with money they made in the west.

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