New Documentary Series From Dharmasiri Bandaranayake
By Prasanna Ratnayake
17 July, 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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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