By Ernest Macintyre –
It was an encounter of a man assessing the world he was growing up in. His native soil had been artificially separated from its Indian cultural estate by European poachers. Sarachchandra was imaginative, more than enough, to identify what was real, and so derive the best from his recently resident foreign separators, while recovering the distanced connections with India.
The cultural life of the Sinhalese, and to a lesser extent, of the Tamils of Lanka, in literature, drama, music and dance had declined due to a number of economic, environmental and socio-political factors including European colonisation and the resulting attenuation of relations with the subcontinent. Why, to a lesser extent, in the case of the Tamils may be understood from a statement by H.L. Seneviratne. When the Sinhalese and Tamils began to revive their cultures, it “ placed the Sinhala ethnic group in the position of having to look inwards for inspiration, to the only indigenous culture it possessed, the folk culture, whereas the Tamils could look up to a larger and more complex, religion-based artistic tradition beyond the shores of Sri Lanka.”(1)
The higher Indian culture in Lanka during the long pre-European period of occupation would have been confined to Sinhala royal court society and its extensions. All this was no more. Only the authentic folk culture remained. It is clear from the way he deployed his energies, that of all the arts, Sarachchandra identified a drama that used as conveyance, dance, music, and poetic chant and song as having the greatest potential for a broad based national cultural revival. The existing form of this was the folk Nadagama which had its origins in South India and which had evolved to be authentically Sinhala by the early twentieth century. Unlike in the case of the Sinhalese, even during the European occupations, the Lankan Tamils had a cultural highway of contemporary language to the arts and life of another part of the world, South India. From here the Koothu folk drama had come to Jaffna and Batticoloa and had been used by the Catholic Church for their religious plays. The Church then took it to their Ceylon west coast Sinhala communities, and the Sinhala Nadagama came into being. This Nadagama was only the promising foundation on which Sarachchandra set out to “rebuild a culture which, while being rooted in a tradition, is yet progressive and adapted to survival in the modern world.” (2) To achieve this Sarachchandra standing confidently on his own soil looked at the world, the world of Europe, classical, medieval and modern, the world of India, companion from ancient times, and the world of Japan which had established a unique cultural identity including its own variation of Buddhism.
If the English language and literature, his Ceylon inheritance, gave Sarachchandra his way to European civilization, his mastery of Pali and Sanskrit confirmed his Indian sub- continental affinities, which he later broadened to encompass Asia in general, with special focus on the culture of Japan. While he was on a mission to revive Sinhala culture, but with an openness to the world, he had contemporaries on the same mission without access to the modern world. This was the exclusively Sinhala- educated sector, about whose insularity Sarachchandra revealed regret, at the same time rejoicing in their passion for Sinhala language and literature. He identified that very largely, culture was rooted in language, and that the Sinhala language had survived the colonial period. “Although the Sinhalese lost almost everything in the demoralization that set in from repeated foreign conquests, they had at least their language to go back to. And going back to the language is almost going back to the roots of the culture.” (3).
Of the exclusively Sinhala- educated, like Piyadasa Sirisena, he said, “…the attitudes of this entirely Sinhala educated middle class, whether it be in respect of literature and the arts, or in matters relating to life, have been …the natural result of a lack of acquaintance with the development of thought in the modern world.”(4)
Yet this statement by Sarachchandra is a well thought out prologue, not a closed off dismissal, for he goes on to acknowledge the debt to these people and pays his respects to them for being the passionate carers of Sinhala. “It was this class that preserved anything at all of the native tradition, and it is necessary to find a footing in some sort of tradition to take a step forward. …….” (5)
Most of Sarachchandra’s specialization had languages functioning as complex kinds of conduits, the vehicle and the substance being conveyed inseparable in dynamic inter- related performance. Greek and Latin he learnt at school. English was not only learnt, it was part of the colonial environment he grew up in. There may not be an explicit acknowledgement of his entry to world culture through English, only statements, generally, such as about the class that Piyadasa Sirisena represented quoted above. “This lack of explicit acknowledgement is perhaps rooted in his imbibing these as part of his socialization, from early childhood to mature scholar, which made these his own, thereby making any acknowledgement uncalled for, says H.L. Seneviratne “(6)
After schooling in English medium Christian institutions, Richmond College, Galle, St. Aloysius College, Galle, St. John’s College, Panadura, St. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, he matriculated with English, Latin and Greek. His Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936 was with Sanskrit ,Pali and Sinhala, after which he studied Indian Philosophy and Indian music at Santiniketan. Following this he did a Master’s in Western Philosophy at London University. In 1949 Sarachchandra earned his Ph.D. from London University with the thesis, “The Buddhist Psychology of Perception”, about which Professor K.N.O. Dharmadasa very relevantly observes, “He then returned to the Buddhist tradition, but with a Western outlook.” (7)
If his understanding and imbibing of Western culture was a part of his Ceylonese inheritance it seems equally true that his rootedness in Sinhala and Eastern culture was also a result of the same culture, except as a rebellion against it.
At that time in history, it would have been rare to have had a son who developed a world view, at an early age, that identified indigenous culture as the rooted position for assessing the new big world introduced by the British. It was a reaction against what was seen as an easy upper middle class one-way Western track enticingly suggested by British colonization. Sarachchandra, when he was about twenty five was at the cross influences of colonialism, nationalism and Buddhist revivalism. He grew up as a Christian, in a family of devout Christians two of whom were priests. As a boy he played the organ at the local church. His father, a Buddhist, was converted to Christianity at marriage, one would imagine under the duress. His name was Eustace Reginold de Silva, and all other members of the family and clan had similar western names.
Then, under the influence of Indian cultural nationalism of the time, he relinquished his western name and renamed himself after the legendary Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadyay). His stay in Shantiniketan re-emphasized the cultural nationalism within him, and the opportunity to experience Shantiniketan life under Tagore would have been particularly inspiring.
Thus, his entry into and development in Western culture together with his simultaneous firming of roots in Sinhala and Eastern culture, resulting from rebellion probably incited by oppressive Christianising within his family, provided the creative tensions from the pulls of East and West, to produce what was unique in Sarachchandra. He stands out separately as an intellectual, scholar and creative artist who, regardless of colonizing circumstances recognized in Western culture, some substances which could “manure” his Sinhala roots with no distortions of identity. These were carefully and discriminatingly infused to produce his contribution to the revival of post- Ceylon Sinhala culture.
Under the influence of British colonial domination, the continuity of the many thousands of years of cultural interactions between India and the Sinhalese was interrupted and distorted. “The distinction between Sinhalese art and Indian art certainly did not exist in the twenty centuries preceding independence, and such a long period of time cannot be discounted in considering a tradition” writes Sarachchandra (8). And “…the tendency for Ceylon to isolate itself from the cultural context of Greater India, which began with British times and continues today, may act as a hindrance.”(9) It is clear that the upper class English-educated, who received on their held out palms the platter of Independence, confused post-British political/legal sovereignty with cultural independence from India as well, especially as this initial political leadership class, “ in every possible way tried not to identify themselves with the people of the country”, says Sarachchandra.(10) Ediriweera Sarachchandra was a leader amongst a group of men and women who, like Thejawathie Gunawardane , Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Shantha and W.D. Amaradeva, to mention a few, understood that for revival, cultural sustenance needed to be drawn from India. There was evidence of the Indian connections in painting, sculpture and architecture, and in literature too, but not in dance, drama and music, which had been courtly and now no more. Sarachchandra’s artistic interests were in these areas, and he understood that for these, he had to resort to India.
There was an apparently important qualification though, about the sustenance from India. “Although the culture of the Sinhalese stems from that of India, Theravada Buddhism has given it a stamp of its own which makes it distinguishable from the Hindu culture of India” (11) This statement of Sarachchandra coupled with his belief that “The national culture could be restored only on the basis of Buddhism and the language of the country, namely Sinhala” (12) when viewed against his passion for the theatre arts presented him with a need for an imaginative approach. While he cherished the belief that Theravada in Lanka preserves the religion in its most authentic form he found that it had to adjust, imaginatively, to modernization of a Buddhist society. Particularly in the arts of dance, music and drama which were his personality interests, the strictures of Theravada came in his way. He recalls with a deep sigh that the Theravada texts cite with approval the example of a monk who lived for more than thirty years in a rock cave , but because he was engaged in meditation, did not notice the paintings on the wall.(13). So, I discern from his writings that, he was also slanted towards Zen Buddhism of Japan in which the contemplation of the beauty and harmony in nature, as well as the beauty and harmony created by man leads to a calming of the passions and to a stilling of the mind, which are necessary preparations for the realization of Nirvana, while serving the worldly needs of man as well. (14) Maname and Sinhabahu are art forms that engage the passions during their progressions and so are not within the Theravada frame. But in the fact that the overall sentiment the audience is left with at the end of these great plays is compassion and pity, one senses an accommodation of the Zen position with Theravada values.
These then were Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s encounters. The Tamil culture of Lanka was not an encounter for Sarachchandra. He refers to “the close connection that seems to have existed even from early times between the Sinhala folk culture and the folk culture of the Tamils.”(15). From his writings in The folk Drama of Ceylon one could say that for him the Lankan Tamil culture was another organ that developed in the complex origins of the same body; functioning inter relatedly for the whole system. So he was unselfconscious about his identifying the derivations of Nadagama music and dance (the roots of his theatre) from Tamil sources.
Out of Sarachchandra’s encounters came the scholar, the novelist, the literary critic, and most enduring, the dramatist. Mention of his scholarly work in philosophy and psychology has been made earlier in this piece. Time, inevitably washes over scholarship depositing new material in waves of research. The one work of his scholarship that, I think, will remain unaltered, is “The Folk Drama of Ceylon” (1952, revised 1956) because the living, raw, folk material of his research is hardly found now. Even if otherwise, the long and patient observational research produces a design that emerges from the work, not constructed upon it. For scholars and imaginative readers, it is a work that does not confine itself to Ceylon, for as The Times of London Literary Supplement notes, “it is so wide in scope that it must surely interest all who wish to trace the development of dramatic forms “(16).
Saarchchandra was a novelist of note both in Sinhala and English, Malagiya Attho (The Dead,1959) being considered his best in Sinhala and Curfew and A Full Moon and With A Begging Bowl in English.
The British introduced novel was new to Sinhala literature (Nava Katha) and Sarachchandra produced a new literary evaluation based on both the then current English literary criticism and Sanskrit poetics. (17)
About his plays, knowledge and appreciation are widespread. So, I will confine myself to what I think Sarachchandra did, in effect, for drama in Sri Lanka, which may not yet be correctly identified. Here was a country with no developed dramatic theatre, only rudimentary folk performances. When he conceived creating such developed drama using the folk forms as the ground soil on which he would transplant European, Indian and Japanese classical growths, his colleague, Professor of English, E.F.C.Ludowyk recommended instead a twentieth century start up from scratch, with contemporary prose drama. Sarachchandra gradually moved away from this idea. He decided, in effect, to ignore linear time, and create a classical verse, dance, song drama, which would then, in effect, be “timeless”, not marked as 1956 or 1961. In theatrical form it was classical and pre -prose. Sarachchandra later said that he was mistaken in thinking that Maname and Sinhabahu would provide the form for a national drama, and which partly vindicates Ludowyk’s position. Where Sarachchandra was right, though, in effect, was that great drama in the classical genre, would lead to new dramatists, yet to come, creating contemporary prose drama as great. He was well aware that Ibsen and Chekhov, the great masters of modern prose drama had behind them the impetus of the classical drama of Greece, and Shakespeare. They didn’t start from scratch.
2014, the year of the hundredth birth anniversary of Ediraweera Sarachchandra, fades. Will people still be writing in the hundred and fiftieth or two hundredth birth anniversary? My guess is that they will. I said so at a seventy fifth birthday celebration for professor Sarachchandra in Colombo in 1989. It happened to be a time when British educational authorities had done a survey of what young people knew of the public personalities of a hundred years before. The political leaders were unknown, even the great William Gladstone , Prime Minister in 1889. They were joyously familiar, though, with Wilde, Congreve, Sheridan, Milton and of course the much earlier Shakespeare. These once living bodies, particularly Shakespeare, had left their great souls behind for temporal enrichment. So it will be with all the ephemeral excitement of Presidential elections. It is probable that, long from now, no one will know of the political leaders since 1948, while lights will still be going up on stages, as two young actors perform joyously , unknowing of what’s to come, “ Prema Yen Mana Ranjitha We Nanditha We” or a lone actor sings his heart out, wrenchingly, with “ Gal lena bindala, len dora harala”.
1. Home and the World, Essays in honour of Sarath Amunugama. Colombo: Siripa Publishers, 2010, H.L. Seneviratne’s Essay, Towards a National Art, p.74
2. Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon Collected Papers of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Ed. P.B. Galahitiyawa and K.N.O. Dharmadasa. Colombo: S.Godage and Bros, 1995. Essay, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.31
3. Ibid, p.30
4. Ibid, p. 29
5 Ibid, p.30
6. Personal communication from H.L. Seneviratne 11/9/2014
7. Collected Papers of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Ed. P.B. Galahitiyawa and K.N.O. Dharmadasa. Colombo: S.Godage and Bros, 1995. Introduction by Professor K.N.O. Dharmadasa, p.2
8. Ibid, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.34
9. Ibid, Traditional Values and The Modernization Of A Buddhist Society, p. 47
10. Ibid, The Traditional Culture of Ceylon And Its Present Position, p.8
11. Ibid, Essay, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.31
12. Ibid, Essay, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.27
13. Ibid, Essay, Traditional Values and The Modernization of A Buddhist Society: The Case of Ceylon, p.45
14. Ibid, Essay, Traditional Values and The Modernization of A Buddhist Society: The Case of Ceylon, p.45
15. The Folk Drama of Ceylon, by Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Colombo: Department of Cultural Affairs, Ceylon 1966 p.92
16. The Folk Drama of Ceylon, by Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Colombo: Department of Cultural Affairs, Ceylon 1966, flyleaf cover
17. Sinhala Writers and The New Critics, by Ranjini Obeyesekere: Colombo M.D. Gunasena 1974, pp.39-53
*The writer grew into a playwright and director from the University Dramatic Society of Peradeniya University producing theatre work in Sri Lanka and Australia.