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20th December 1998

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The beginning of passion plays

The recent exhibition of Pasku or Passion Plays in Colombo brought to the limelight the longstanding history of this popular form of folk drama. Pasku is considered a milestone in the evolution of Sinhala drama alongside the Nadagama.

It also has its origins closely connected to the puppet play since people did not act in passion plays until the early part of this century.

The exhibition was a rich collection of well preserved theatre artifacts including wooden heads carved hundreds of years ago to depict the numerous characters connected with the passion play.

The puppets used in passion plays were different from the traditional Ambalangoda puppets. They were bigger,some of them life size figures. Another main difference is that passion play puppets are manipulated from underneath and not by strings from above as is done with miniature traditional Sri Lankan puppets.

Passion plays are performed during Easter usually lasting the entire Holy Week. On Good Friday the wooden statue of Christ is crucified.

Pasku is believed to have originated in the Catholic areas of Jaffna and gradually migrated to the Sinhala speaking areas along the west coast. A Passion play performed in the church premises at Pesalai in Mannar is considered the first.That is the starting point of the Jaffna tradition.

Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra in his authoritative study on the 'Folk Drama of Ceylon' mentions that the Jaffna Pasku was performed by means of life- size statues carried by people. "The performance took place inside a large pavilion with a roof about 20 feet high, open in front and closed at the back, facing the audience seated on the ground in the open air.

"The lower part of the pavilion was covered from view by means of a wall made of cadjans to the height of about six feet from the ground so that the statues as they are carried about by people inside the pavilion could be seen above the level of this wall, having the effect of a raised stage with the cadjan wall as its base. The back wall of the pavilion was fitted with painted scenes.

"The play was interpreted by a Reciter who stood in front of the pavilion facing the audience. A man with a loud, stentorian voice was selected for this purpose.

"The play was not confined to the stage. There was lot of participation by the villagers." Dr. Sarachchandra describes how people used to walk along the paddy fields, one of them carrying the figure of Christ,to depict the incident of Christ carrying the cross from the Garden of Gethsemane to Cavalry.

"The incident of the devils being let loose on the morning after the Crucifixion was enacted in a playful manner by several young boys looting the surrounding shops. The shopkeepers are prepared for this and leave unwanted articles of no value outside".

"The Passion play was performed in the precincts of churches with statues to represent the five main characters, Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Saint John and Veronica. Human beings represented the rest. Among the most famous Passion plays was the Duwa play. Here Pasku begins on Palm Sunday when after mass, the statue of Christ riding on a donkey is taken in procession round the island.

"The Boralessa Passion Play made a name for itself after K. Lawrence Perera wrote and produced one with a cast entirely composed of living actors.In 1912, he obtained a text of the Oberammergau Passion Play and set about writing a Sinhalese play similar to it, on the same theme. Adopting the local dramatic traditions, he introduced songs into the play. The melodies for these were mostly taken from Ragas," Dr. Sarachchandra writes.

The play, called 'Shridhara Boralessa Passion Play' was first performed in 1923 with actors drawn from the village folk who wore their natural beards and hair. The female roles were played by men and there was a cast of over a hundred. The play began around three in the afternoon and ended the next morning about four with an interval of about an hour in between.

The recent exhibition coincided with the release of two publications on passion plays. One is a massive 480- page study of the Pitipana Passion Play. A Godage publication the book has been edited by Vijitha Rohana of the Catholic Media Institute. Incidentally, the Institute has undertaken an island-wide study of places which have made a name for themselves for passion plays. The first publication covered those in the Kalutara area consisting of Maggona, Diyalagoda, Payagala, Kalamulla, Wadduwa and Moratuwa.

The other publication carries the text of a Passion play by Pandit Sri Charles de Silva (1903-1987) titled Parama Puda (The Supreme Sacrifice).


Giving 'em a new smile

A team of plastic surgeons from Interplast Germany came on a mercy mission. Chamintha Thilakarathna reports

By Chamintha Thilakarathna

K.K.Eminona from Pallekiriya in Lunugala was suffering from a congenital disorder. It was as if her teeth had come out from her nose. Her face was badly disfigured. For 28 years, she was subjected to undue humiliation and was ashamed of her appearance to which she was not responsible.

Smile of hope: after the operation"In addition to that, she found it difficult to get used to the abnormality since a baby. When we sought the help of doctors to correct it, they asked us to return when she was 15 years. At 15 they turned us back saying that it was impossible for the hospital to conduct plastic surgery on Eminona," said U.T.M.Anulawathi, a relation at her bedside.

Previous week her 28 year shame disappeared in a three-hour operation . Eminona couldn't speak too well when The Sunday Times met her, for she was recovering from the operation. But, her facial expression spoke volumes. Looking at a mirror nearby, she twisted her head in great pride and appreciation seeing her new self for the first time.

Sixteen-year-old Anushka Charini hid herself from the world for the last three years at every possible occasion ever since she burnt herself from the bottle lamp which was her only source of light at night. Even when she would go to school, her once pretty face would be covered with a thick handkerchief at all times. But now she no longer need's a handkerchief to hide her face. Although Charini may not look the same as three years back, she undoubtedly looks nice and is happy.

The surgery in progressWhen I visited her at the Badulla General Hospital recently she smiled through the bandages and said that a dream has come true. Neither Charini nor Eminona would have been able to smile as they do today without shame to show themselves, if not for a team of voluntary German surgeons who were in Sri Lanka from November 30 to December 10.

The free plastic surgery camp for the poor was conducted by a six member team. The team was headed by Dr.Med. Matthias Gensior, Plastic Surgeon and Hand Surgeon, Dr. Med. Bernd Niederhagen, Maxillo-Facial Surgeon, Dr. Med. Markus Reidt, Doctor for Anaesthesiology, Sibylle Baronesse von Welck, OT-nurse, Mrs. Malgorzata Walterbach, OT-nurse, Mrs. Irene Hertweck, Nurse for Anesthesia and Dr. Ulrich Huehne, Organizer of the German Help Foundation.

Dr. Ulrich said that in Sri Lanka there is a great need to help victims of severe burns, which mainly occur through negligence in the use of bottle lamps in areas without electricity. In rural areas patients with more than 20% burnt skin have nearly no chance to survive as the medical staff is inadequately trained for such events, and sophisticated and expensive equipment for treatment is not available. As a result, they create painful deformations, leaving the patient unable to close the mouth or eyes, lift the arms, stretch his elbow or leg, use the deformed hand or move his neck.

According to them, another major problem is the unattended cleft lip, palates and congenital deformations. The team Interplast Germany therefore, always includes an experienced Maxillo Facial surgeon to treat such defects.

The committed German surgeons have spent their own money on the air tickets and medicine. The local authorities are only in charge of providing them with a hospital to work at. However, volunteers have come forward in providing transport, food and accommodation to the doctors.

One can visit at eight in the morning or at eight in the night to find the closed, dark corridors of the Badulla General Hospital leading to a group of enthusiastic and hard-working doctors who are still on the job, trying to brighten the life of one more person before they take a break.

"We hoped to perform surgery on at least 200 patients. We work on an average of 10 patients a day," said Dr. Ulrich.

In one theatre they perform two operations side by side continuously. No, they don't take a lunch break or a nap in between. At the end of one operation, they rush back to grab a piece of pineapple or a biscuit and then hurry back for the next patient in line. It is not possible to meet all the doctors at the same time either.

"These doctors are doing a great service," said Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Director of the Badulla General Hospital, "Plastic surgery in Sri Lanka is very expensive and not accessible. I think there are only two specialized doctors on plastic surgery in here. They are based in Colombo and these people cannot afford such surgery. And, facilities are equally poor."

And, what do these surgeons get out of this? "We like coming to your country to help these underprivileged and helpless people. We don't get anything except the satisfaction of seeing the smiles on the faces of these patients," the doctors said.

In fact, one patient whom they had operated on last year had come in search of the doctors to thank them for the new life they had given her.

Each project costs Rs 8-12 million. This year, fortunately the local expenses were borne by CTC Eagle. And the Rotarians of Badulla also helped in the project.

"Our mission could not have been successful if it wasn't for the support we received from the hospital staff, Rotarians and sponsors," the doctors said.

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