JAYALATH MANORATNE: A TRIBUTE
Posted on January 21st, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

‘The Child is father of the Man’

  • William Wordsworth, ‘My Heart Leaps Up’

I will not try to label a diamond.

But diamonds deserve to be on display.

Trained valuers assess them in terms of-

Colour, clarity, carat weight, and cut. 

But those who view them whole just admire them. 

The recently deceased Jayalath Manoratne was a verbal artist par excellence. He was a Sinhala dramatist and playwright, versatile actor and singer, poet, creative writer, scholar, lecturer, cultural critic, humanist and philosopher. A product of Peradeniya University under Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, he believed in a single humanity and expressed that belief in his art, to which he was dedicated. Mano was never after money or fame. He had the courage to refuse, on principle, an award under president JRJ and later to similarly give up, after a short stint, the job of liaison officer with good pay and perks under president CBK. The fact that he had had to engage in some sort of livelihood other than drama which was his  lifelong passion tells us about Mano, and perhaps, more about the society he lived in.

An important theme that he said he wanted to convey through his art was that love was equal to life and vice versa. That was an artist’s perception. His great wish was the creation of such a society. Mano used to say that although we all can sometimes afford to tell lies in our day to day life, and in other various contexts, one cannot lie in art.

As a student of English literature, in my unrevealed personal musings, I compare Mano to Shakespeare in the use of dramatic and literary artifices, to Wordsworth in his tendency to reflect on the human condition (‘…..the heavy and the weary weight – Of all this unintelligible world…’ – Tintern Abbey), to Keats in invoking the power of the imagination (as in the famous Odes), and to Shelley in the precision of verbal expression (‘Life like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity, Until Death tramples it to fragments.’- Adonais). Mano also talked about the (Keatsian) equivalence of Beauty and Truth, which, I think, gives a hint of what he really meant by his assertion that an artist cannot lie. These comparisons need to be understood in a secular, nonreligious sense. (The Shelley extract above is from his elegy on his friend Keats, who died prematurely, ‘Adonais’. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ concludes: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all – You know on earth, and all you need to know’.) Mano worked within the parameters of the Sinhala Buddhist culture. He considered culture to be more important to a society than everything else. The Buddhist culture that has got into our genetic makeup fashions the expression of our inborn aesthetic sense. The wonder, the awe, the reverence people feel at the beauty and majesty of the phenomenal world (i.e., the world as understood by our senses, whether we consider it to be eternal and unchanging, or transient and ever changing) is the source of fairy tales, religions, sciences, arts, and what not. In his short poem ‘My Heart Leaps Up’, Wordsworth says that when he was a child, his heart leapt up with excitement on seeing a rainbow, and that he still has that ability as a man. He fervently hopes that he will have it in his old age; he wishes his days to be ‘Bound each to each by natural piety’, if not, he declares, ‘let me die.’ That is according to his Christian religious belief. While his aphoristic observation ‘The Child is father of the Man’ lends itself to various complicated interpretations, it may be read as saying that one’s childhood experiences shape one as an adult. Keats and Shelley also saw beauty in nature different circumstances. They did not express any religious beliefs. Shouldn’t the sort of aesthetic experience that Shelley has in ‘Adonais’ be called ’pahan sanvegaya’ or what Geiger, the translator of the Mahavamsa, interpreted as ‘serene joy’ (even though the term is not perfectly capable of expressing that Buddhist sentiment)? That is the recurrent theme of the historical poem in Pali, the Mahavamsa. So, in our culture too, the theory holds that art leads one from pleasure to wisdom. Mano often emphasized his acceptance of this theory. Mano’s own life may be cited in support of Wordsworth’s dictum, which also implies the same theme. 

Jayalath Manoratne and I started secondary school at Poramadulla Madya Maha Vidyalaya in the picturesque hamlet bearing that name, nestled among green hills in central Sri Lanka, in January 1962. We were both in our early teens then, but I was a year or so older than Manoratne. Mr D.S. Senanayake, the first prime minister, had laid the cornerstone of the buildings for locating the school in its present site about ten years before that, on June 1st 1952. During his address as the guest of honour on that occasion, he reportedly described the school due to come up in the place as a ‘Jungle University’; obviously, he was inspired to coin that fond nickname for the centre of learning he had envisioned, by the serene beauty of the sylvan surroundings of the scenic spot. Generations of students have lived up to the expectations implicit in the promise and prophecy of that nickname. Manoratne is the most highly acclaimed past pupil of that institution to date. He has raised the flag of victory the highest in the school’s history in fulfilment of the eternal wish expressed in the first lines of the school song: viduhala vaenjambeva//nang va keheli lovay viduhala vaenjambeva! My eyes are welling up with scalding tears for the love of my dear departed friend Mano and our beloved alma mater.

According to the district demarcation of the time, Poramadulla Central College was located within the large administrative district of Nuwara Eliya, but the school has belonged to the Kandy district since a fresh division done in the later 1960’s. Boys and girls from many places in the hilly Nuwara Eliya district came to study there. Some of them whose homes were too far away for daily commute, and those among them who had been awarded government scholarships stayed in the hostels. Manoratne was a hosteller and I a day-scholar. The school had classes only from Grade 6 to 12. He had been admitted to Poramadulla from the primary school in his native village of Dehipe. We came to know later that veteran stage and film actor Henry Jayasena had worked as a young English teacher in the Dehipe primary school in the early 50’s when Manoratne was still a toddler and was yet to attend his kindergarten. I myself was from an adjoining village. I gained admission to Poramadulla at the secondary level from a preparatory school in the same area, having passed a selection test. On admission, I was enrolled in the same class as Manoratne, which was the GCE O/L prep (i.e., Grade 9). Though we met each other for the first time only then, we immediately became fast friends.

Now, the school had three streams of study: Arts, Science, and Commerce. Manoratne was happy with Arts subjects. But my preference was to join the Science section, where an additional attraction for me was the fact that most of the teaching was still done in English, particularly in the GCE Advanced Level classes in the Science section, though instruction at the Ordinary Level was in Sinhala, which I had to follow. The English medium was retained in the Science department because some of the teachers were Indians who had been delegated to teach in Sri Lankan schools for not enough qualified teachers were available locally. The Indian teachers, not being competent in Sinhala, had no option but to continue teaching in English. Some lessons at the O/L too were taken by them. Even the Sinhala speaking local teachers qualified in science were new to teaching it in Sinhala, and often switched to English halfway through a lesson, which a few of us liked, though the majority detested it. 

While sitting with Mano in the class I was first assigned to, I made a special appeal to the principal to give me a transfer to the science stream. This appeal was written in the scanty English I knew at the time. It took a day or two for my request to be granted. As I was leaving the Arts class finally, having collected my things, Mano said pleasantly, Good luck! machang. I am sad, but it is your wish, and you are not leaving the school after all!”. (When I was admitted to the science class, the classmaster told me that the principal had been impressed by my letter.) The following day, Mano came to me in my new class, and handed me a neatly folded piece of paper: It was a page torn from a square-ruled exercise book with two  short verses in Sinhala written in pencil celebrating our friendship and wishing me well. Later I went back to him and thanked him for that gesture. And he thanked me in return, especially for appreciating his poem! It seemed that clear verbal expression of emotion came to Mano naturally. And drama was in his DNA, it was an essential part of his life. As a born artist Mano remained unchanged until the end of his life in his attitude to his art and life in general: he did what he did because he enjoyed doing it and he did it for the good of fellow humans.

At hardly 14 years of age, Manoratne used to write, rehearse, and then present playlets on the stage of the school’s assembly hall with his friends  at the meetings of the Sinhala Literary Association. As he stayed in the hostel he was able to do these things with some ease. But I didn’t take part in any drama activities as I didn’t have any theatrical ability. In one dramatic episode that Mano staged, I remember, he entertained us playing a hilarious character in the form of a crafty village carpenter: Suddenly seeing a bothersome visitor from whom he had borrowed some money coming towards him, he runs in and comes out a minute later, his face garishly whitened with a thick layer of face powder, cuddling and rocking a big fat pillow, and jabbering incoherently….. (He feigned madness to escape the unwelcome caller).

Needless to say, Mano had a way with words. One hot humid afternoon in the the annual sports-meet time, we were in the school playground. All the students, boys and girls, divided into different ‘Houses’ (Vijaya, Gemunu, and so on) were practicing for a march-past as the important day of the meet was only a day or two ahead. We were all tired and hungry. The sultriness of the air added to our physical discomfort. With the principal rushing about in his sun-glasses urging the teachers to work to ensure  a flawless execution on the last day, there was no sign of an immediate let-up. Mano stood on my left. From where we were we could see dark clouds banking up over the distant tea-clad mountain range; intermittent flashes of streak lightning branched in all directions. I felt a sense of relief because rain would mean imminent respite for us. Mano probably had an inkling of my thoughts. He said almost inaudibly: ‘perahera vage thamai’ ‘It’s like the perahera’. I immediately understood what he meant: the rain was not going to fall as quickly as we wished. The simile of the perahera was suggested by the usual experience of spectators that peraheras (those annual religious processions held at various temples in the country including the Esala Perahera in Kandy) seemed to start parading the streets intolerably late. (This may be because auspicious times are observed for each day’s perahera to start moving.) Years later, but at the very incipient stage of his artistic journey, Mano used this image in a poem included in an anthology titled ‘vaehi enathuru’ ‘until rains come’.

The principal at that time was the formidable Mr P. Senerat, an old Anandian, whose dedicated predecessor at Poramadulla Mr M.D. Gunawardane had gone on transfer to Thurstan College, Colombo, had a special focus on sports, and other extracurricular activities including various societies (e.g., science, Buddhist, debating) and associations like Sin hala and English literary associations. A dreaded disciplinarian, Mr Senerat looked after the studies aspect as well with similar attention and dedication. So we had opportunities to give expression to our creative potential in various ways.Decades later we were happy to see him included (by educational historians) in the group of legendary central college principals who worked to elevate those non-urban institutions (that Mr C.W.W. Kannangara, the principal pioneer of free education, introduced for the benefit of rural children previously denied a wholesome education that was then exclusively available to a small urban elite) to the stature of English medium public schools of the pre-independence era.

It was decades before the dawn of the Information Age as far as Sri Lanka was concerned. But, not unlike today, the established social norms were being challenged by new developments in science and technology in the civil and political spheres, as elsewhere in the world. As usual in any age the older people were less prepared to accept the changing attitudes, particularly among the young. However, we the young were all for change, though we were not conscious of the fact. As schoolchildren we depended on newspapers, magazines, books and good teachers for information and knowledge. Even the radio was a luxury for most of us. But we were reasonably well informed about the world in general. Russian Air Forces pilot turned cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1961), US president John F. Kennedy (assassinated in 1963 at age 46), American boxer Cassius Clay (later Mohamed Ali) who beat Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight Championship title in 1964 at age 22, the British rock band The Beatles’ blasting into the English musical scene in 1960 boosting countercultural movements in the West through their impact, universally respected Burmese (Myanmar) diplomat U. Thant who became UN Secretary General in 1961, ….and others  of similar prominence were our heros. We admired left politicians of the day for their intellectuality as much as their politics, but their idealism which inspired us was anathema to our parents. We grew up physically and intellectually against such a background.

The principal Mr Senerat and our English teacher Mr D. Victor E. Peiris, who was also the warden of the boys’ hostel, had a great mentorial impact on us youngsters as an educational administrator and a teacher respectively. They were enforcers as much as educators. Of course, times have changed; their strategies won’t work today. They were themselves products of their time. Both Mr Senerat and Mr Peiris should be revered as early models of the most commendable school heads and teachers that there are today. Going by the media it can be said that the school has achieved a great deal for the youth of the area in terms of studies and sports potential that is worthy of those great pioneers due, no doubt, to the efforts of the school’s past pupils in positions of influence.  

Mano and I parted ways in 1966 as our different circumstances dictated. It was a very eventful year for Mano. He entered the Arts Faculty of the Peradeniya University where he met Professor Sarachchandra. I heard Mano saying in an interview with a journalist about a year ago that, while at Poramadulla, he had three dreams: to study in the university, to study in the Peradeniya university, and to be mentored by Professor Sarathchchandra. So, he was happy that all his three dreams came true. In the same year (1966), a school play in which he played the leading role, titled ‘Aspagudung’and produced by the school’s music teacher Sunil Sriyananda, and which had been adjudged the best school play of that year in the Nuwara Eliya district, took part in the All Ceylon School Drama Competition 1966, and was awarded a special merit certificate. 

 I came into contact with him only on five occasions separated from each other by decades sometimes; three times, we met face to face on the road as it were, and twice on the phone, when I congratulated him on some significant achievement. Each time we communicated thus, Mano made me feel as if we were always together like we had been at Poramadulla. That was Mano, a jewel of a human being.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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