REVISITING EDIRIWEERA SARACHCHANDRA’S ‘MANAME’ Pt 2
Posted on November 19th, 2022

KAMALIKA PIERIS

‘Maname made its first appearance, not in Peradeniya but at the Lionel Wendt Theatre in Colombo. ‘I selected Lionel Wendt as it had a good stage and auditorium, also the facilities needed for the actors.  Its chairman, Harold Pieris gave me the hall free and it was shown for four days running,’ Sarachchandra said in an interview.

 However, Sarachchandra had to be persuaded to present   Maname at the Lionel Wendt.  We insisted that Maname must be shown at the Lionel Wendt, Ralph Pieris told me. ‘Sarath was hesitant, but we insisted.’  That  was how it came to Colombo.

Sarachchandra  knew the Colombo audience and he  was not sure that this was a good move. He   wrote to Harold Pieris asking him to reserve the theatre for four nights but said he  had doubts whether people would come. Harold Pieris had replied that there was no reason why they should not come to see a Sinhala play and offered the hall for four nights charging only for two.

The Natya Mandalaya members and a host of volunteers went to Colombo to plaster the walls with posters announcing Maname.  The play was advertised in English as well as Sinhala and the posters were pasted side by side on walls. The English posters said that Maname was an operetta in traditional style. Slides were projected in cinema halls which were popular with   Sinhala film goers.  K.T Wimalasekera of Horana, a  well known photographer  did the slides.

 When the undergraduates went to sell ticket in the high society areas of Colombo 7 , they were told   by the residents  that they did not go to see  Sinhala plays and the students  were asked to go away.  Since the ticket sales were unsatisfactory, Sarachchandra again wrote to Harold Pieris, who wrote back offering the hall free for all four nights.

So the cast arrived at the Lionel Wendt theatre. Lionel Wendt authorities received us warmly recalled Shyamon and provided all facilities and freedom for the final rehearsals.  The women performers were accomodated  in the bungalow which is now the Medical clinic of the University of Colombo ,  the men at College House.

 Maname was first shown on 3rd  November 1956 at the Lionel Wendt Hall in Colombo. We paid two rupees for a ticket which was given in a nicely designed envelope. On opening night there were only about fifty, mostly invitees and press, said D.C Ranatunga. Sarath Amunugama was at the first performance of ‘Maname’ in Colombo. The Lionel Wendt was half empty[1]  he said, but those who saw the play liked it.

Ranjini Obeyesekera recalls the first night of ‘Maname’.  ‘As the curtain rose, the rich chant of the Potegura filled the auditorium in what seemed to me a theatrical miracle.  Here was something new and exciting, different from anything seen in Sinhala theatre before. Sarachchandra had created from a traditional source a sophisticated modern drama, breaking way from the western influenced fourth wall proscenium drama.’

Shyamon Jayasinghe as Potegura had contributed greatly to the impact of Maname in its first performance. He dazzled at the first performance, making a ‘near miraculous transformation’ of the role from humdrum narrator to an actor of extraordinary power. It was he who most captivated the audient on the first night and had it in his grip, said HL.

 As each   sequence tapered off, the audience waited eagerly for the appearance of the Potegura. He had not shown this ability at the rehearsals. But at the first performance Shyamon gave the role an animation beyond all expectations.  Shyamon confirmed this. He     said as Potegura I opened the performance on 3 Nov 1956. Until then I had no clue about my role but the power of the script, the music, and the audience stimulated me.  Sarachchandra later said that no narrator who came after Shyamon could excel him.

Before the performance Sarachchandra had told the cast that the press will attack the play and to be prepared and not to get discouraged. But the newspapers gave it rave reviews. The first performance of ‘Maname’ in Colombo was on a Saturday  and the first review was by Regie Siriwardene in Daily News on Monday.

Regi praised it extravagantly, writing in English.  His review appeared in the Ceylon Daily News on 5th November 1959.He said he had gone to most Sinhala plays hoping that someday something would turn up which could give him hope for Sinhala theatre and this was it. ‘Maname’ had a finish and style which raises it far above the traditional nadagama.

Maname was very impressive, continued Regi. There is song and stylized movement. the intelligent Sinhala playgoer who had been dissatisfied with nrutya hotch potch will find in Maname that Sinhala drama did have an indigenous dramatic form which as immensely superior to the hybrid which has be foisted on us as national art.  There was considerable dramatic variety, the formalized chant of potegura, the love duet, the veddah king.

The performance called for a most exacting combination of talent, singing, time movement and character acting. it was astonishing that a student cast should reach such a consistently high standard in all these aspects of drama   concluded Regi. Regi  observed that Charles Gurunanse had joined in the singing at the end of the play.

 Later, Regie Siriwardena recalled  in 2006 that when he first saw ‘Maname’, what struck him most forcefully was the breakthrough in theatrical form. This was the reaction of several other early critics of the play as well.

Regi’s review was followed by an equally laudatory Sinhala review by Charles Abeysekera, in  Dinamina. Never before had a Sinhala play been received so jubilantly by critics. These rhapsodic reviews gave the play an excellent boost, encouraging the upper class audience who read Regi, to go and see it, said HL

Gunasena Galappaththy    got pupils from nearby schools to come and fill up the hall for the  performances that followed at the Lionel Wendt theatre. J.B. Disanayake recalled that his teachers at Ananda took them to see the play. Maname had a second run at   the Wendt about three months later, tickets fared better word having got round that the Nadagama was worth seeing.

It was only after ‘Maname’ was shown at YMBA hall at Borella several months later,  that the other Sinhala newspapers responded.  Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe, who regularly disparaged the work of the Sinhala department at Peradeniya, went out of his way to praise this new play in his popular Vaga Tuga column in Lankadipa.

He called it an abhiranganaya, a super drama.  He said the interpretation of characters in the play had given the Maname story a new robustness. One is encouraged to explore the events in a critical way rather than at face value. Other critics took notice said Sarachchandra.

When Maname played at YMBA, the men stayed where ever they could, but mostly at YMBA. For this they were  helped by YMBA residents, HM Gunasekera and Madawela Ratnayake who were friends of  Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe. They  slept on the floor. They were treated to sumptuous dinners  by  friends  of Sarachchandra who supported his work. But there were times when they had to get by with much less. HL recalls sharing a thosay dinner with two orchestra members at    the exorbitant cost of ten cents each, which was all they could afford.

‘Maname’ expanded the audience for Sinhala theatre, in all directions. Firstly, it appealed to those in major towns, who were caught up in the resurgence of cultural nationalism.  Even Colombo 7 types who used to wait patiently for the annual Dramsoc offering now went to the Borella YMBA, said Amunugama..Others pointed out that Sarachchandra found his initial and most ardent support, in the western educated elite and it was this which enabled the play to make its first forceful impression in the public. But this support was confined to those who were bi-lingual and bi-cultural. However, Sarachchandra said that it was only when ‘Maname’ was shown at YMBA hall at Borella that ‘we got the audience that could actually appreciate the play’.

Another commentator said ‘from my impression of the audience at Borella, YMBA and Lumbini, I would say the new audience of 1956 and thereafter, was predominantly Sinhala speaking urban lower middle class.  Sinhala theatre was not able in those years to reach out to any group beyond the middle class. However the broadening of the theatre audience in 1956 was significant.

The real breakthrough was in the provinces, Amunugama said. The play went outstation, helped by young graduates who had fanned out into the country as school principals, DROs and social service officers. ‘Maname’ was taken to towns which had never seen ‘serious’ theatre before, with the local cinema hall or school hall used for the show. To accommodate the growing demand for the play from towns that could barely provide a school hall, the cyclorama  was abandoned. Siri Gunasinghe’s set which depicted a ‘nadagam maduwa’ was also abandoned as it was difficult to transport. Getting the cast, who were by now employed, together in some outlandish town was also difficult. 

‘Maname’ was taken over by Jana Ranga Sabha in 1957, they  took it round the Island. ‘Maname’ went everywhere, Ambalangoda,     Anuradhapura, Bandarawela,   Galle, Gampaha, Gampola, Kalutara, Kandy, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Matale, Matara. Moratuwa,   Panadura,   Ratnapura. Several towns were visited more than once. Ralph Pieris arranged for a performance at the Bogala Mines .He knew the owners. In Colombo ‘Maname’ played at YMBA, Lumbini and Lionel Wendt. 

Sarachchandra had expected ‘Maname’ to be followed by several plays in the same style. ‘Before long we would possess body of plays that would reflect our national genius like the Kabuki and Noh of Japan.’ A.J. Gunawardene (Jayadeva) said that though ‘Maname’ did not succeed in generating a new dramatic tradition as the dramatist had hoped, it had released trapped energies.

it was triumphantly asserted years later  that modern urban Sinhala theatre owed its very existence to Tamil culture, since the nadagama style on which it was based came from the Terukuttu performed in Jaffna by the Roman Catholics. This was brushed aside. The Sinhala play was no longer trying to modernize by imitation. It had passed that stage. ‘Maname’ was to be an experiment in form using the nadagama style. Critics also pointed out that some of  the melodies  used  were not original to nadagama  . Music of ‘premayen mana rangita’ is from a Christian hymn in Tamil and ‘lapa noma van sanda’ and ‘dula nethupula’ are North Indian. Admirers of Maname ignored this too. It was not considered important.

 ‘Maname’ is still very popular and much admired .Sarachchandra’s language and music, its sheer poetry still enthralls, said  Ranjini Obeyesekera (2014).   ‘Maname’ was shown years later at Peradeniya, to a packed audience, of students, teachers, monks, workers, villagers from the surrounding areas. When the actress started to sing ‘premayen’, a student voice spontaneously joined in and instantly the entire audience burst into song. It was an unforgettable magical moment, she said.

I intended ‘Maname’ originally to be an experiment in form but the fact that it has survived for thirty years when the form is no more a novelty must have some explanation other than its external attraction, said Sarachchandra. ‘Maname’ was an outstanding combination of theatrical craft, poetic sophistication and dramatic concentration, in which the folk theatrical tradition was [successfully] adapted to the modern stage, observed K.N.O. Dharmadasa (1992).  [2]Its success led to  Sinhabahu, which remains the high point of Sinhala urban theatre today. ( continued)  


[1]Sarath Amunugama.  Notes on Sinhala culture.Ist ed. 1980. P 43.

[2]KNO Dharmadasa.The Peradeniya School.In ‘More open than usual.’ 1992 p 129

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