REVISITING EDIRIWEERA SARACHCHANDRA’S ‘MANAME’. Part 1
Posted on November 19th, 2022

KAMALIKA PIERIS

This essay is a revised version of the earlier essay titled EDIRIWEERA SARACHCHANDRA’S ‘MANAME’ (2015)

‘Maname’ was a landmark event in   Sinhala theatre. But the events leading up to it have received little attention. The emergence of ‘Maname’ at Peradeniya was no accident. The Arts faculty of the University of Ceylon was exposed to a new atmosphere when they moved to Peradeniya in 1953. Peradeniya was secluded, residential and ‘outstation.’ it was safely   away from Colombo and Colombo’s preference for imitative, half-baked western culture. 

There was a change also in the undergraduate population. For the first time students drawn from rural schools were arriving in the university.[1] Many were bilingual. They were very enthusiastic about Sinhala theatre  and were determined to   make a contribution to   it, while in university.

 In Colombo, the university had formed a Ranga Sabhava which had   produced plays for Colombo.  In Peradeniya this Association   got   a new lease of life.  It abandoned its Indian sounding name and became   Sinhala Natya Mandalaya, a significant change of name.  This Sinhala Natya Mandalaya became a robust organization with P.E.E. Fernando, senior lecturer in Sinhala as patron and W. Arthur Silva, an undergraduate   as president, said H.L. Seneviratne.

When Sarachchandra returned in 1956 after a year abroad, studying theatre, the Natya Mandalaya embarked on a series of ‘play reading’ sessions but what they really wanted was a new play from Sarachchandra. Sarachchandra had meanwhile realized that naturalistic Sinhala theatre had not gone down well with audiences. Something else was needed.

H.L. Seneviratne says that at this time, Sarachchandra was influenced by the Noh plays he saw in Japan. Sarachchandra would surely have known about Noh theatre before he arrived in Japan. My guess is that in Japan he   found   that   that   the traditional Noh, resuscitated and probably heavily doctored to suit modern  taste, was   going down well with modern audiences. This would have encouraged him to look afresh at traditional theatre in Sri Lanka.

Sarachchandra inspected the local folk plays and decided ‘the most suitable for modern theater was the Nadagama. Kolam and Sokari could not be used’ he said in an interview. The advantage of Nadagama, though Sarachchandra did not say so, was that it could be manipulated for artistic entertainment without creating a mighty rumpus. It was alien anyway, and had no ritual implications.

It was the insistent persuasion of a small group of enthusiastic Natya Mandalaya members, led by its president W. Arthur Silva which led to Maname said H.L. Persuading Sarachchandra was no easy task,  he said. Sarachchandra was not keen on doing a new play since his previous plays had not met with public approval. The university authorities did not respond to his requests for assistance either.  He had known the bitter experience of repeatedly asking the university authorities for help with no response, said HL.  So   he   hesitated, but the students kept on pressing him  and   one day he said ‘api ehenam nadagamak natamu’.

In a ‘Nadagama ‘the story is told through song. There was also an element of dance, because each character had set movements which were performed on entry. Certain events were also depicted through stylized movement.[2]There was a narrator. The play was acted on a raised semi-circular platform adjacent to a shed, and the sloping roof of the shed became its roof as well.

‘I did not try to reproduce the old Nadagama style intact, but used its essence and certain aspects only ‘, said Sarachchandra.  He selected Chulla Dhanuddara Jatakaya for the story. This jataka had been performed as Maname’ in kolam and kavi nadagam[3]but not as a sindu nadagama. Sindu nadagama went on all night for about 7 days and the ‘Maname’ story had been too short for this. ‘But I realized that I could create a good dramatic presentation of ‘Maname’, said Sarachchandra. ’ He knew that he had got the right idea’, said HL Seneviratne

When creating ‘Maname’, Sarachchandra first wrote the songs. For this Sarachchandra obtained the services of Charles Silva Gunasinghe. Charles knew nadagama songs   including kavi nadagama  and he could sing them without a break.  He sang away, Sarachchandra listened, selected what he wanted and composed the lyrics. ‘I used the most musical nadagama tunes that Charles knew’. Sarachchandra had included nadagama songs earlier in ‘Pabavati’ too.

‘Maname’ adopted the nadagama style for movement as well. In a nadagama, characters come in dancing, as they are introduced. Each character had a different beat and different movement. They went round and round in a circle. ‘Maname’ performers did the same. Charles Silva Gunasinghe created the movements,   using the dance steps of nadagama, selecting those which suited each ‘Maname’ character. Vasanta Kumar created two highly original Veddah dances also the combat dance between Veddah king and ‘Maname’.[4] The orchestra consisted of harmonium, flute, esraj and violin with only one nadagama instrument, the Tamil maddala drum.

The greatest contribution in Maname was from Charles Silva Gunasinghe, who knew the nadagama tradition well. He knew Kolam and Tovil too. Charles was an outstanding performer, talented and versatile, he could sing, dance and play the maddala. Charles had provided the music for the two nadagama songs in ‘Pabavati’and had acted as Poteguru in it. Sarachchandra admired his singing which he considered far superior to any Sinhala singer he had ever heard.

‘Charles was with me at every stage of the writing of ‘Maname’,’ said Sarachchandra. He provided the music, he advised on dance and song movements and participated in discussions about the content of the play. Sarachchandra recalled, ‘when I started rehearsing the play Charles demonstrated the traditional nadagama style but was agreeable to changes.’ Charles also trained the performers .He was a good teacher, said Sarachchandra.

Sarachchandra was not sure whether the talent he needed for ‘Maname’ was available and whether the students had the necessary staying power. The public auditions were unsuccessful and the students had to find promising actors through personal contact and networks. This placed a heavy burden on    Arthur Silva and the other student enthusiasts of the Natya Sangamaya.

The actual process of recruiting candidates  was  laborious and time consuming, said HL. Candidates would be brought to Sarachchandra’s house,  where they sang and  were usually rejected. Many years later,  Natya Mandalay members  nostalgically  recalled how they had  dragged their  reluctant friends to audition.

The students persevered and eventually came up with a stellar cast. For Prince Maname they found Ben Sirimanne, a school teacher  who had come to do a two year diploma in Sinhala at the university . He had a rich and full throated voice, and a keen musical sense.

To play the princess they found two excellent candidates, Hemamali Goonasekera and Tricilia Abeykoon, where even one was rare. Tricilia had sung on radio in Lama Peetaya and had seen folk plays. She would have been an obvious choice. Trilicia continued to perform in Maname  over the years and the role of Maname   princess came to be associated  with her.

Hemamali  did  not  continue in Maname,  because her parents did not want her to perform outstation. Hemamali is forgotten now, but she should not be, said HL, for it was with her formidable acting talent and her powerful stage presence that the play opened to an enraptured audience on the night of Nov 3. 1956. She was only 18 then but was able rival her two world class male co-players.

The Veddha king was a problem. Every candidate brought for role of Veddha was rejected by Sarachchandra. Edmund Wijesinghewas discovered by the students during an undergraduate ‘sarong strike’ where he was heard singing songs during the  demonstration. Wijesinghe was a mature student who had been a school teacher before he entered university. He  vanished from the university  soon after the ‘Dhoby strike’ and could not be found. He was not living in a hall of residence.

Sometime later, Arthur Silva  and his friends had    gone to a  carnival at Bogambara, and had  found Wijinghe there, intoxicated. They  captured him,  and brought him to  Peradeniya . Arthur  kept him in his room at Arunachalam Hall and delivered him to Sarachchandra the next day. The delighted Sarachchandra, ‘accommodated the precious find’ in his own home, where Charles Gurunanse was also staying.

Maname needed music. Musicians were available and an orchestra  was formed. The entire orchestra   consisted of students from rural schools. The harmonium performer, Kitsiri Amaratunga and flautist Somaratne Edirisinghe were found without difficulty, both were  talented. A maddala drummer was needed. Arthur Silva  brought in his batch mate and fellow A” Hall resident, G.D. Hemapala  Wijayawardhana who  had studied  the  tabla and found the Maddala easy. L.R . Mudalihamy played the violin. He was a school teacher attending the Sinhala diploma course. The esraj was played by Ramya Tumpala. A horanava player could not be found.

We rehearsed  in the old military building   wih a  corrugated metal roof that housed the  Economics Department. We  moved the furniture and sat in a circle and practiced singing. When it came to rehearsals proper we  moved to the Junior Common Room where the play gradually took form,  said HL.

Charles Silva Gunasinghe trained the performers. He taught them to sing nadagama style. The early rehearsals were in fact singing classes. He then   trained     them in nadagama movement, how to go round and round in a circle, using specific   steps.   Tissa Kariyawasam observed that Tricilia did not exactly follow the style given to her by Charles. She made the steps gentler. Most of the performers, had not seen a nadagama and knew nothing about   them, but were very cooperative. Hemamali said it was a privilege to have been trained by Charles.

The stage set designed by Siri Gunasinghe  was a  significant piece of work in itself and one that could have contributed to the diversity of an emerging theatre . This was a stage set       that represented in abstract the  arena of the nadagama, which was its stage. The design primarily consisted of a triangular board representing the thatched roof that sheltered the ‘stage ‘ of the nadagama . It was an imaginative and colorful piece of décor but it was unwieldy and difficult to transport and setting it up demanded  much skill and labor.  It had to  be set up the day before in outstation. it had to be securely done to prevent it from falling on the heads of the actors.  It was soon abandoned as it was difficult to transport and set up.

The production side of ‘Maname’ was a ‘very primitive affair amateur affair’ which depended  a great deal on personal and small group contactsaid HL When the play was to be shown at YMBA, stage lights were needed and the only spotlights in the entire country were at the Lionel Wendt.    Prof MB Ariyapala knew Mahinda Dias, and Arthur Silva took him along to meet Mahinda at the Colombo Commercial Company office where Mahinda was employed as an electrical engineer. Dias agreed to loan the equipment not only for YMBA performances but  for outstation as well .  He also sent along  an assistant  who became a permanent member of the troupe.

Siri Gunasinghe  made a substantial contribution to ‘Maname’. Siri was the art director for ‘Maname’. He designed the stage set, giving it a triangular board representing the thatched roof that sheltered the stage of a real nadagama.  He designed the costumes as well. Their striking use of green and orange showed his exquisite color sense, said Sarath Amunugama. [5]The costumes were part of the total color scheme of the stage. This was an unprecedented visual integration of different components of the performance.[6]

Siri was a great support to Sarachchandra, said Amunugama. He was ‘constantly behind’ Sarachchandra, who consulted him on many matters. Siri  saw to the repairs to Sarachchandra’s Volkswagen car as well.

H.L.Seneviratne observed that Aileen Sarachchandra would also have made a contribution behind the scenes, to the success of ‘Maname and her contribution should be recognized. She was a talented actress and very musical. Aileen had made the costumes assisted by her niece, Indrani. The two had also done the striking make up.

Other dons in the Sinhala Department, such as Ananda Kulasuriya, and D.E. Hettiarachchi also showed interest. M.B. Ariyapala had  helped to solve the spotlight  problem. He had later sponsored ‘Maname’ performances in the south and ‘hosted us warmly and lavishly accommodating us in an estate mansion owned by his family’, recalled HL.

I am told that Ralph Pieris had also taken an interest in the production. ‘ Professor Pieris was also   there at the  rehearsals, encouraging us’ ,  I was told. He had  made his car available.  Ralph’s interest in the play, would   have come from his friendship with Sarachchandra. He   admired the costumes  designed by Siri Gunasinghe ( personal communication). I am sure that  other members of University would also have helped though their names are not  on record.

An American student at Peradeniya , Peter La Sha  was  staying at Ramanathan from where a substantial contingent of  the cast  came. He had shown great interest in Sinhala culture. Peter learnt Sinhala, and could sing the Maname songs with musical perfection, said HL.  

Peter knew  stage lighting and was easily persuaded to help. It was Peter  who managed the stage lighting in Colombo, said HL.  Mahinda Dias whose  name is given in the programme  was an absentee lighting expert.  La Sha is also mentioned  By Shyamon Jayasinghe, as one of the persons helping  in the Colombo performance.[7] Peter La Sha spoke Sinhala very well, he said.

HL is definite that the success of ‘Maname’ was due to the support given by the rural students. This group understood what Sarachchandra was trying to achieve. Many of the  performers, the orchestra, the helpers and organizers of ‘Maname’  as well as the office bearers of the Drama circle , who were responsible for the hard background and organization work that went into making ‘Maname’ into a  landmark play, were drawn from this new rural group. Dedicated and hard working   they assisted in creating the ‘new’ Sinhala theatre.  I think that  they would have enjoyed the experience as well.

These supporters  took on  multiple taslks. HL was prepared to play the esraj if needed and provided the calligraphy for the programme in addition to performing in the  original cast. Hemapala Ratnasuriya  was interested in painting and helped Siri with the art work. Hedesigned the program for the play’s  first   run at the Lionel Wendt. He was also stage manager.

HL  stated that without the backing and enthusiastic response of the Natya Sabhava led by its  President Arthur Silva, Sarachchandra  would not have launched ‘Maname’ at the time he did. If ‘Maname’ had appeared later, the impact may not have been the same.

HL makes special mention of W. Arthur Silva. ‘Maname’ owes much to W. Arthur Silva said HL. ‘Maname’ would not have become a reality if not for Silva’s relentless effort in dealing with the people involved, including    Sarachchandra, who demanded very high standards from not only the actors but all associated with the play, including punctuality. Shyamon Jayasinghe corroborates this. The stalwarts of the   Sinhala Drama Society deserve special mention said Shyamon Jayasinghe.  They were Arthur Silva,  KDP Perera and Wimal Nawagamuwa.

As the rehearsals progressed, the indications were that the play was going to be a success. The poetic excellence of the play, the allure of the songs, the music, the visual impact, the excellence of the acting, the perfection of its artistic unity, could be seen at the later       rehearsals, especially the final dress rehearsal. But no one anticipated the impact it would have on the first night audience as indeed it did on all later audiences, said HL. ( continued)


[1]  HL Seneviratne Towards a national art in  Home and world. Essays in honour of  Sarath Amunugama.

[2]Sarachchandra, the folk drama of Ceylon.

[3]T KuruwitaBandara and H Ranasinghe.Charles Silva Gurunanse.

[4]Island 12.12.11. p 9.

[5]SarathAmunugama. Island  Mid week review. 18.2.15 p 2 .

[6]  HL Seneviratne. Island Mid week rev. 18.2.15 p 1

[7] Applause at the Wendt

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