ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 33

Maname at 50: The magic behind the masterpiece

Indrani Wijesinghe, a member of the original cast of Sarachchandra’s classic, reminisces about the beginning and the journey of this all-time hit

It was early 1956. The university park at Peradeniya looked exotic. The meandering roads decorated by none other than Mother Nature, were a beautiful sight.

Our generation was lucky. We had experienced a modest but adequate life, at home. The exposure at Peradeniya made us strong. We inhaled the goodness and the quality of Peradeniya effortlessly and ended up as a mature and educated lot, with a simple outlook and a balanced mind.

A scene from Maname

Against this backdrop of coolness and serenity, we sensed that there was a "fuss and a buzz" that Dr. Ediriweera Sarachchandra was returning to the campus from Japan. We were impatient to have a glimpse of him. My eagerness to see him was great. But I was disappointed every time I peered into the lecture rooms, until one day I saw him getting out of his green Volkswagen car - EL 497. My expectations collapsed! The great academic, the literary 'giant' was small in stature.

After the annual vacation, we returned to the campus, for the second academic year. There was good news. Dr. Sarachchandra was to produce a drama and anyone interested could meet him at an audition. With trepidation I walked in with a few others. I had never studied music at a special academy. My early education in a Roman Catholic convent provided exposure to Western music, with basic voice training and choral singing, taught by English and Irish nuns. At home a musical atmosphere was provided by my father, who owned all the oriental musical instruments -- the serphina, tabla, violin, etc., although he could not play a single note. He acted the role of music conductor. Without dissent my sister and I had to sing to please him.

Once, inside the audition room, I was at ease, when I discovered that all who had gathered there Trelicia, Hemamali, Trixie. Swarna, Lionel, Shyamon, Pastor etc. were all like me. Looking back after fifty years, it could be concluded that the 'Great Master' had no choice, but to absorb all of us into his fold.

Practices for the drama started (maybe in July '56) first, inside the artistic setting of doctor's bungalow — with Dumbara mats and cushions of all colours and sizes. In this drawing room, we had our first-ever encounter with Charles Silva Gunasingha Gurunnanse.

Gurunnanse was a fascinating person, indeed. The first steps of a rhythmic walk, getting used to a meaningful and musical language and singing 'Nadagam' songs, were initiated in his drawing room. The magic had begun.

Gurunnanse and his son Norman brought life to this exciting episode with the vigorous beating of the drums. The rhythms of the dance, music and the drums seemed to be reverberating with life. Suddenly Gurunnanse would stand erect like a youth. In the eyes of the young team he looked quite old, with white hair tied into a small knot, konde and minus a few teeth. In a flash, he would transform himself into a sprightly, agile dancer.

In this small room where the foundation was laid to raise a rare piece of artistry, was the great artiste Sarachchandra, a man of charm, with a deep Buddhistic outlook. What was his role in this scenario of drum-beating dancing and singing? How did he inspire us? Standing at the back of the room with one arm bent, the elbow resting on the palm of the other hand, he would only gaze at us. Maybe, he imparted his gentle rays of silent therapy to convey to us a message related to the goal he targeted. Seldom would he guide us with minimum but precise words. Just then a tray of hot tea would arrive from the Sarachchandra household, for a short break.

Hunt for the Veddah king

The initial work had begun, yet two main characters, other than the Maname Queen were missing. One evening at practices, there appeared a young but mature-looking, robust man. He seemed to command respect, rather than warm friendship from the young crowd. However, in a few days, Sirimanne became one of us. A teacher by profession, he fitted well into the role of Prince Maname.

Things were getting into shape gradually, but still there was the hunt for the Veddah king. One wouldn't expect a Veddah to roam the manicured paths of a university campus. Obviously he had to be hunted down. Entrapping the Veddah was cleverly done, by none other than the President of the Drama Society, Arthur Silva, at the Bogambara grounds carnival, Kandy. Who else, but the 'Master Sir' only, would have accurately sensed the innate ability and skill of Edmund Wijesinghe at playing the character role of a rugged, uncouth Veddah king.

Even way back in 1956, Arthur in his youth was totally different to all of us. He was responsible, dependable, sober and patient. He was the care-taker, doctoring us with Panadol and plaster. He was the heart and soul behind the "Dram Soc", arranging trips every week-end, and seeing to our comfort.

The girls in the cast were docile and easy to handle. Trelicia was lighthearted, friendly flitting from one to another, telling jokes, and laughing herself before anyone could enjoy them. Trixie and Swarna Mahipala were quiet unlike the not-so-quiet me. Hemamali was a bouncing personality. She left Maname after her marriage to Dr. Siri Gunasinghe. It was only later that we realized that romance had developed, while Siri was doing the make-up on Hemamali's face.

Among the boys, Pastor was the naughty one, commenting on all the girls, sending us into giggles while the show was going on. Ruth, his talented wife, was the only woman who could tame him. Shyamon was respected by all of us for his demanding role, that of "Pothe-Guru". He paid much attention to his make-up, being aware that he was the first actor to appear on the dark stage, with the spotlight focused on him. Congratulations to you Shyamon, for the great pride you brought us, on Nov 3, 2006, by accomplishing a rare feat, that of appearing on the same stage at the Lionel Wendt.

Master conductor

My reminiscences would be incomplete, without a mention of Lionel Fernando. Lionel who is easily noticed in a crowd even today by his thick white mop of hair and broad grin, made it a point to make himself noticed, even fifty years ago. He was the 'Master Conductor' of the 'Maname Band', during our trips from one town to another.

The bus-rides were full of fun, and excitement. When all the boys were dressed in simple shirts, Lionel, why would you wear a coat? You wanted to cut a fine figure. Standing behind the driver's seat, clapping your hands, you would yell, "Hey gals - boys, let's start". Then you would hit the bus and sing "Dinaka-nadin-dina-Sihine seba vuna". Did you then realise that without the 'bus chorus', you could never have sung a single line by yourself? Do you remember with what strain you learnt your one and only song on stage, "Me ve ma dutu Komala liya"?

At the same time Lionel, you were the daring Veddah who pushed the "King of the Gang" to bait a princess. This is the one time Jaffna Government Agent who charmed the Tamil population there, the Secretary who flitted from one ministry to another, and tried his skills as peace-maker to meet Prabhakaran.

With sadness I remember Vimal Nawagamuwa, the treasurer and K.D. Perera, the secretary of the Dram Soc. In Sri Lanka I cannot recollect any Minister of Finance being showered with praise. Likewise the decent and shy Vimal, was the target of brickbats, with no chance of defence. I miss Trelicia very much and also Trixie and Swarna, who are with us no more, on the 50th anniversary this year.

Dear Master Sir, you gave us immense joy and experience by taking us under your wing. Without a single harsh word and maintaining your equilibrium, you moulded the young undergraduates to be the players.

Your home was a haven for weary minds. Sir, you would sit on a mat along with us and sing songs of nadagam style and Tower Hall days. Your favourite hit "Esa Preethi Karavana Rupa" would rouse our hearts. Both your households, earlier at Peradeniya and later on at Kotte, provided a rendezvous and an ideal setting for relaxation and contemplation on the finer things in life. Lalitha, you have taken upon yourself the obligatory task of carrying the torch ablaze. May you be blessed with strength to go forward!
'Master-Sir' , it was just your sheer brilliance and appealing personality that beckoned us to rally round you for you to display Maname, the masterpiece. The 1955-59 batch of undergraduates seemed to be the luckiest. The icing on the cake was Maname indeed!

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.