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A New Documentary Series From Dharmasiri Bandaranayake

By Prasanna Ratnayake

17 July, 2007

E.J. Hobsbawm & T.O. Ranger have shown in The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1992) that each post-Independence country is keen to establish their unique culture as it emerges from the shadows of colonialism. In Sri Lanka, this re-invention process focused exclusively on Sinhala culture and ignored the many other traditions which had contributed to the nation’s identity. This estrangement, quite intentional, means that the country as a whole has been losing the coherence of its interlocked cultural histories; a process which underlies other mortal antagonisms.

The establishment of ‘authentic’ Sri Lankan traditions has some idiosyncratic roots. In the late 19th century, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, an American, visited the island and took it upon himself to make some contributions to local culture. He invented a Buddhist flag for the Sinhalese, taught them to sing carols with a Buddhist message and introduced Vesak cards on the model of Christmas cards. Like many of our official ‘traditions’, these rituals and ritual objects were established within the past 100 years.

In 1948 Sri Lanka was granted Independence, a year after it had been won in India. The two nations went about rediscovering and re-legitimating their cultures in very different ways. In India, the multiplicity of traditions inspired wide-ranging acknowledgement of these diverse contributions. In Sri Lanka the complexity of its interrelated cultures was reduced to a narrow Sinhala Buddhist representation of the country’s heritage, thereby suppressing the Tamil, Muslim, Berger and Malay traditions which had survived the amnesias of the colonial period.

This politicising of Sri Lanka as a monocultural authoritarian state was initiated by S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake in 1956. There were many intellectuals behind this project to Sinhalize the country’s history and establish the parameters of a nationalist culture. Two of these ideologues behind the throne, Professor Sarachchandra and the famous writer Martin Wickramasinghe, produced influential theories and books about the Sinhala Buddhist folk tradition. These gentleman scholars saw themselves as serving a noble mission.

Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra was a Professor of Literature at Peradiniya University. A cultural critic and a specialist on Indian dramaturgy and the work of I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot; Eliot’s criticism of secular society resonated for Professor Sarachchandra. As Eliot was committed to the Catholic Church, so Professor Sarachchandra was committed to the Sinhala cultural project. In 1952 his authoritative book Sinhala Folk Drama was published by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. It established the orthodoxy, the traditions and forms which would thenceforth be understood as the sole ‘authentic’ expressions of the nation’s culture. Although Professor Sarachchandra had carried out his research in all regions of the country, his book intentionally subsumed all non-Sinhala forms as elements of the Southern tradition.

Professor Sarachchandra then wrote two stage plays, Maname and Sinhabahu, based on his researches. To this day these dramas are performed over and over again, always greeted as classic works of our national heritage — always understood as the Sinhala tradition.

Theatre Education, this set of documentary films from Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, addresses the discrimination and exclusion at the core of this post-Independence political manoeuvring to establish our ‘traditions’. But these films are not just about the theatre. They open a new act in our social, political, cultural and ethnic discourses by reconnecting to lost dimensions of our shared cultural legacies. The following notes indicate some aspects of what Dharmasiri reveals in these documentaries.

Kooththu and Kooththu Workshop

Kooththu is the traditional theatre of the Tamil community of Sri Lanka, rich in colours, gestures and rhythms. There are many styles in Kooththu and it is a narrative theatre that is performed all through the night in the Vadda Kalari, (round stage) in the villages. The performers dance and sing around the Annaviyar and the Sabaiyor who are in the centre of the Vadda Kalari. Playing maththalam and sallari and supporting the performers with pinpattu (background singing), The audience sits around the

Vadda Kalari.

According to Dharmasiri, the late Prof. S. Viththiananthan modified the traditional Kooththu, and in the process of modification he re-shaped Kooththu into a proscenium stage with Annaviyar and Sabaiyor positioned in front of the proscenium stage of the auditorium. He used modern lighting and introduced traditional instruments such as savanikkai, udukku and sanggu with maththalam and sallari and made changes in costumes, make-up and music. Students of Peradeniya University took part in this modification process of the late Prof. S. Viththiananthan in the 1960s and Prof. S. Mounaguru who was at that time an undergraduate of the same University, not only played the major role in it but also composed the script with the guidance of the late Prof. S. Viththiananthan and Prof. K. Sivathamby.
Before the making of this documentary, only one Sinhala commentator, Professor M.H. Gunathilake, in his two-volume Kooththu (2000), had investigated this element of our overall cultural heritage. These two films on Kooththu, give this traditional dance-drama the recognition it deserves.


The story of Ravanesan revolves round Ravanan's struggle to keep up his stature of heroism in the face of crisis. Ravanesan portrays the sufferings and struggles of good-hearted people who are trapped into the war machine. The abduction of Seethai, followed by the message from Raman and the manner in which it was conveyed to Ravanan by the messenger Anggathan, posed a challenge to his heroic qualities and leads to his tragedy. It is also the tragedy of the people around him.

In the 1960s, the late Prof. S. Vithiananthan inspired by the creative work of the late Prof. E.R. Sarachchandra in the Sinhala theatre took Vadamody and Thenmody kooththu styles of Batticaloa for his Kooththu revival and modified it to fit into the proscenium stage for modern audience, Dharmasiri noted.
Ravanesan is a re-creation by Prof. S. Mounaguru. In 2003, when Dharmasiri arranged to stage the play at the Lionel Wendt Theatre, this aroused the enmity of the Sinhala fundamentalists and death threats were issued to Dharmasiri and the others involved in the production. It had to be stopped.

Traditional Drums

The Sinhala nationalist project was applied to music as well as to dance and drama. The authority in this instance was C.deS. Kulathilake, who produced his Jana Sangeetha Siddhantha (Theory of Folk Music) in 1984. Although he too had travelled, collected and documented the music of many communities, this book again reproduced only those from the Southern Sinhala region, thereby contributing to the obfuscation of any other ethnicity and religion.

Kathakali and Bhangra

Theatre Education is not limited to dance-drama and marginalised ethnic traditions in Sri Lanka. It also covers the Indian traditional dance form, Kathakali, and the current Europeanised Punjabi music known as Bhangra. These films explore background, technical production and the nature of their music and dance forms.

Unsettling Memories

This film, an Indian play made with the Aruvani community, deals with another tradition of South Indian drama, so much more inclusive than that of Sri Lanka. The South Indian theatre’s capacity for embracing the wider social realities of its audience — political, practical, generational — could be an inspiration and a model for the directions which a liberated Sri Lankan drama might pursue.

Doothikavo (Mission Everlasting)

This film is about a student drama produced at the Holy Family Convent in Kaluthara. The young people had produced a play bringing together two recent news stories which had affected them: the experience of Rachel Corrie, the American girl who went to Palestine and was killed there, and the siege and slaughter at the school in Beslan. The students wrote a play within a play, staging the Corrie story as a drama being prepared in the Russian school, playing Beslan children rehearsing their performance of the story from Palestine. After their capture by the Chechen guerrillas, the Sri Lankan/Beslan children keep their spirits up by continuing to work on their Palestinian drama.

This play, written and performed without any guidance or contribution from the Sri Lankan peace industry, fascinated Dharmasiri and his documentary includes reflections by the children and teachers involved. This extraordinary anti-war intervention, the first for many years, again attracted the wrath of the Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalists. Death threats were sent to the children and to the adults who had worked with them. The play was stopped.

Method and Significance

Compared with European producer directors, Dharmasiri works with simple equipment in a style more like guerrilla or Raindance filmmaking than broadcast documentary. Although the economy of his method is appropriate to the material and environments he is dealing with, his technical expertise and personal skills deliver a sophisticated set of films.

Dharmasiri worked on the Theatre Education series over a period of 4-5 years. The Ceasefire Agreement enabled him to move around the country, to record dance-drama from the North and East and to rediscover and emancipate some of our hidden traditions. Beyond its contribution in the domains of drama and dance; this series’ widening of our cultural spectrum, can enable new sociological discourses and heal some of the fractures in the nation’s knowledge and recognition of its diverse and unique treasures. Significantly, the trilingual subtitles enable all Sri Lanka’s to connect to these important films.

Sri Lanka’s political problems cannot be adequately understood without recognising the decades of systematic discrimination and exclusion from our cultural life of our non-Sinhala heritages. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has made it a personal responsibility to recover and re-present aspects of our true traditions essential to the forging of a culturally coherent and liberated future for Sri Lanka.

© Prasanna Ratnayake

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