19th November 2000
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An eco-friendly designer

Walking into the BMICH for the recent Amaradeva show, 'Amara Uvasara', one could not miss the novel decor as one walked down the aisle to the main hall. The decor was simple and it was unusual. At a few vantage points, one could spot Amaradeva's picture in black and white along with a quotation. The stage decor too was different. The decor projected the evolution of Sinhala music and dancing. A few masks hanging on panels traced the development of Sinhala music from the 'nurti' and 'nadagam' days to Maname and thereafter. A gramaphone symbolised the era when 33 1/3 rpm records played a prominent role in Sinhala music. The historical record ended with a huge CD being depicted on a panel.

I was curious to find out who was responsible for turning out something novel, something different. To track down the 'inventor' wasn't that easy. Being publicity shy, he prefers to do a job of work and take a back seat. Jayantha Gamage is his name. As an old Anandian, he had contributed his share towards the show which was organised by the Old Anandians Sports Club. 

Jayantha's initial interest had been hotel management. Having done a course at the Hotel School he had spent seven years in Kuwait where, quite by accident, the top management of the hotel where he worked, had wanted him to refurbish the entire hotel. "It was a challenging task. Yet I was willing to give it a try. As I progressed step by step, everyone began appreciating what I was doing. That's how I got interested in designing", Jayantha recalled.

Having had a stint with the world famous IKEA, the Swedish firm renowned for design, Jayantha has matured to be a design consultant. After returning to Sri Lanka, he had been serving in several state sponsored organisations as well as the private sector. He is quite happy with what he had been able to achieve.

"I try to mix the traditional with the modern. In whatever I do, I am conscious in maintaining the 'ape kama'. We shouldn't just create for the sake of creation or change something merely because we have to change," he said. He is also quite conscious about space. "Often we have to manage with little space in any outfit in the city. So what I try to do is to manage that space in the most effective way". He has transformed a dinghy looking barber salon in Bambalapitiya to an ultra modern one. A bakery in Borella looks no different to the ones we see in magazines and rave about.

Jayantha has not lost interest in hotel management. He has recently opened an eco- friendly restaurant in Hanwella. "I am giving the finishing touches to this wayside cafe doing the least possible changes to the existing landscape," he said.

A new writer

Senior administrative officers tend to write their memoirs after they retire. These are either in the form of novels, short stories or narratives and give an insight to social life of the times. Meeting a Peradeniya university colleague P.G.Punchihewa after many years, we naturally talked about 'the good old days' . Though his looks don't indicate it, he has retired from government service and leading a quiet life. "I have written a little book. Shall send you a copy," he said as we parted.

I expected the usual narrative of a retired civil servant. It turned out to be a very readable collection of short stories. Titled 'Piyek Saha Puthek' (A father and a son), the book contains 14 short stories - a varied mix. Some of the stories do have a touch of a bureaucrat's experiences. There is the story of the poor fisherman who tries hard to get a grant to repair his house roof but is turned down due to red tape. He relates the tale of two helpless Kachcheri officials listening to a couple at the rest house boasting about shooting down a rare bird and thus committing an offence.

Punchihewa's simple human interest stories are well written. A good response to the book will encourage him to write more.

Back to the sixties

The sixties saw the emergence of Sinhala music groups. The Los Caberellos and Los Muchachos were among the pioneers. As the names suggest, they were influenced by Spanish and Latin American music. Among the more popular musicians was Neville Fernando whose creations set a new trend in Sinhala music. 'Malbara Himidriye' which he sang with Rukmani Devi is yet among the favourites.

Milroy Dharmaratne and Clarence Wijewardena soon made their mark along with their groups - Dharmaratne Brothers and the Moonstones. Over the years the trend has been for faster and faster beats resulting in the virtual elimination of the more sober melodies. Recently Rupavahini brought back the early creations through a novel programme 'Rhythm Chat' compered by the talented young man Harsha Bulathsinhala. The opening programme featured some of the popular singers of the time including Annesley Malawana and Indrani Perera who came into the limelight with the Moonstones. Sunil Perera (Gypsies) acted as the anchor man playing some of the early numbers. Several others representing the early days participated bringing back memories of yesteryear.

The rather unusual backdrops (parts of an old Morris Minor, worn out tyres, remnants of a fishing net) and the informal nature of the presentation made it a welcome change.

All for the sake of a laugh!

Saman Chandraratne's production of Daya Wyman's Neinage Sooduwa was staged at the Trinity College main hall on November 10 sponsored by the school's staff guild. While the production did not match the standards set by the best Sinhala theatre, it may be said in mitigation that it did not intend to, the onus being firmly placed on public entertainment. Indeed, this writer was greatly entertained during the 2 hour 20 minute duration of the show, although the duties of entertainment seemed to rest in the hands of a single character.

Deepal Silva and Ananda Wickramage in a scene from the playThe play was based on a true incident in which John Kotalawala, a high-ranking policeman (and father of the more famous Sir John) masterminds the arrest of a gambling den kingpin who had hitherto escaped captivity through bribing the officers of the Grandpass police station. In the play, Kotalawala (Ananda Wickramage) is called into the case by no lesser person than the Governor of Ceylon himself, and by request of a village song smith (Daya Wyman). However, Kotalawala has to call on the services of officers under the command of a certain Sgt. Nallathumbi (Deepal Silva) and it is the presence of this archetypal Sri Lankan vaudeville character that provides Neinage Sooduwa with its comic thrust. 

Nallathumbi, famous more for his role in the eponymous stage play (also produced by Chandraratne and originally staring the late Nihal Silva) in fact represent a character-type present in many theatre traditions. His rude, brash, clowning character can be traced back to the vidushaka (clown) character of the Sanskrit temple drama of Kerala. The vidushaka functioned as the alter ego and (as with Shakespeare's 'low' characters) spoke in the local vernacular, thus distinguishing him from the other, Sanskrit-speaking characters. 

He worked to a strict set of conventions, and as he paralleled the hero's escapades with his own, substantially baser ones- with verses on food and sex proliferating- he was a catalyst for much hilarity. 

John de Silva (who combined elements of both the Sanskrit and Nadagam traditions in his plays) brought this persona to the Sinhala stage during the 19th century with such characters as 'Bammanna' in Siri Sangabo and 'Piyadasa' in Devanampiya Tissa. A parallel can also be drawn between Nallathambi and the 'parasite' character of Greek new and Roman comedy; indeed the brash humour and comic set pieces of Roman comedy are paralleled in Sooduwa, which is not surprising considering the similarity in audiences.

Thus a character with something of a history behind him, Nallathumbi was the star of the show. Many of his gags were genuinely funny, and his dual with Seedawatte John-, which turned into a solo Kandyan dancing performance by the sergeant-, was absolutely hilarious. His punch lines- delivered in what can only be described as a Dravidian lingo resembling Sinhala- also elicited much laughter. Sri Lankan playwrights have always shown a tendency to use mangled language to create humour; the broken English of the Mudliyar plays and the vowel-murdering policeman of E.M.W. Joseph's The Foreign Expert are examples from this country's English theatre.

However, the fact that Nallathumbi's performance represented the high point of the show pointed to its limitations. The play had a vaudeville, almost pantomime-like style, and the onus seemed to have been placed on gags at the expense of flow in the storyline, proper enunciation and anything resembling decent stage presence. Admittedly, no attempt was made at realism- the Brecht-influenced style is the norm in much Sinhala theatre- but much of the acting was little more than shoddy. A major drawback of the play's style was that it allowed for little development of the historical context in which the action was set, and subsequently Kotalawala's character was nothing more than a cipher. 

It was of no help that Wickramage's performance was little more than perfunctory; his single action method of self-defence-he felled two armed thugs and a goat (a huge creature that is apparently a historical figure) with a series of kicks- cried out for variation, and at times he appeared not unlike the stereotypical millionaire villain seen in virtually every Bollywood creation. The melodrama present in the popular films of the subcontinent was a strong feature, with music irritatingly animating Nallathumbi's actions and film-style set pieces galore, and the presence of traditional stereotypes (the Sinhala-mangling Governor and the village idiot) further emphasized the play's focus on entertaining the senses at the expense of the mind; of simplifying the historical context for the sake of a laugh.

However, as this writer pointed out earlier, this production never pretended to be anything more than a crowd-pleaser, and although the play was in the end little more than a vehicle for the antics of the irrepressible Nallathumbi (created with care and historical attention by Wyman and acted out with gusto by Silva), it may be said that it succeeded in this respect. The fact that this night's show was its 2104th in 16 years is a measure of its popularity with the Sri Lankan audience, as well as the success of the theatre in creating a link between the arts and the masses. It is pleasing to note that this medium, more than any other, has succeeded in this enterprise. 

One hopes that the Sinhala theatre will popularise more serious productions, such as the recent productions of translations of Death and the Maiden, The Trojan Women and Macbeth, by bringing them to wider audiences. More importantly, more original serious material backed up with tighter performances should be made available to the discerning theatergoer. 

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