By Michael Fernando –
The contribution of Gamini Hattotuwegama (1938-2009) to the postcolonial Sri Lankan theatre, especially, to the Sinhala language theatre that is the main component of the trilingual (Sinhala, Tamil and English) Sri Lankan theatre is unique. Current Sinhala theatre landscape is marked with a) a still functioning folk tradition, b) the mainstream semi-or non professional theatre and c) a multi faceted alternative theatre consisting of several traditions and trends. Further more there prevails a set of live performances practiced mainly as religious or therapeutic rituals but also possesses elements of entertainment.
Hattotuwegama was born in 1938 and was ten years old when the British colonial rulers left the country in 1948. His active participation in the Sri Lankan theatre runs through a period of about 55 years since his admission to the then University of Ceylon in Peradeniya. As an undergraduate following a special degree course in English he became a student very close to Professor E. F.C Ludowyk, one of the two pioneers of the modern Sinhala theatre. Ludowyk was also the person who laid foundation to a serious English language theatre in Sri Lanka and was the mentor of the dramatist Ediriweera Sarachchandra who is considered as the doyen of modern Sinhala Theatre (Sarachchandra, Ediriweera 1985 p 139).
Hattotutwegama experienced the process of the birth of a new Sinhala theatre based on the traditional folk drama and its culmination with the production of Maname in 1956.
(A similar achievement to Sarachchandra’s invention of a dramaturgy based on the folk tradition which is also within the oriental theory of drama in general in 1956 seemed to have occurred in India only in 1972 with B.V Karanth’s direction of Girish Karnard’s Hayawadana even though there was a strong movement in India to develop a ‘theatre of roots’ since 1930s. As Suresh Avasti says “With this event [Karnath’s direction], we might say, contemporary theatre began its encounter with tradition” (Suresh Awasthi 1989 p. 49)
Ediriweera Sarachchandrea who invented a new dramaturgy was a Professor of the University of Pereadeniya where Hattotuwegama studied English at the time.
The emergence of a new dramaturgy by 1956 was an event that made a deep impact on Hattotuwegama.
On one hand it helped him to be free from a complex of which the earlier generation of dramatists suffered.
As Sarachchandra himself elucidated his experience under colonial conditions, in a lecture delivered in Japan in 1957 “…the very presence of a ruling class with an entirely different culture naturally gives the indigenous culture an inferior place,. and creates a kind of unhealthy psychology which is detrimental to the native traditions, preventing their complete disappearance.” . (Ediriweera Sarachchandra.1995 p.17)
There were several socio-political and philosophical factors which made Hattotuwegama an open minded and independent dramatist free of all kinds of chauvinisms based on gender, race or religion.
As a child and a adolescent he grew up in a time when there was a strong left movement in Sri Lanka From his school days he has had the opportunity to read and learn about great dramatists of the world. In the University he studied world theatre deeply. His friendship with a scholar of the caliber of E F.C. Ludowyk who was politically a “leftist” and an academic who studied Shakespeare in Cambridge and directed a play by the “Communist” Brecht in Sri Lanka so early as 1949 (this direction of Brecht’s Der gute Mencsh von Sechuan was most probably the first production of as Brecht play in an Asian country) was a decisive factor in making a dramatist of Hattotuegama’s qualities.
Hattotuwegama was a student leader whose allegiances were always with the left when he was in the university. He was anti-colonial and anti imperialist but never anti-West like many of the intellectuals of the postcolonial Sri Lanka.
His philosophy of life was, to a certain extent, a reflection of his socio-political stance. He was a university teacher until his death, but never interested in obtaining a post-graduate degree and did not want to add titles such as Dr. or Professor to his name. However he never seized learning, teaching and writing and directing plays. He loved actor training and most of the famous personalities active in Sri Lankan theatre are his students. He lectured university students on the theories of world theatre and directed plays by world famous dramatists or written by himself with the students of Universities in Kelaniya and Perdeniya in Sinhala, English and also using all these three languages including Tamil. He called such experiments as trilingual productions.
After 1965 when the department of English was moved to Kelaniya he became a regular theatre critic of the Ceylon Daily News which was then the main English language news paper of the country. As Hattotuwegama himself told the present writer he considered this journalistic engagement as a waste of time. However it is a fact that his articles on world theater and also reviews on plays produced in Sri Lanka were of great importance not only the audience but also to the artists as well.
It is necessary to understand the strengths and the challenges faced by the contemporary Sri Lankan Sinhala theatre for a rational evaluation of Hattotuwegama’s contribution to its development.
Firstly, when compared with any modern theatre Sinhala theatre has reached professional standards qualitatively. That does not mean that all plays written, produced and staged in this country are of high standards. The crux of the situation is that there are artists in this country who have the ability to write and direct “good drama” and there are actors and other artists who can perform their activities successfully.
Secondly, Sri Lankan theatre is essentially a non-or semi-professional theatre. There are hardly any artist, other than a few who perform technical functions whose sole source of income is theatre work. Most of the artists earn their “living” by engaging in some sort of an occupation in public or private sector enterprises or finding a way of self employment..
Thirdly, the politicized theatre or the plays which handle direct political themes are also a part of the mainstream of Sinhala theatre.
Fourthly, the absence of investors whose main purpose is profit making and the non-existence of direct state sector sponsorship have avoided a commercialization and an interference of politicians. However killings of dramatists by government forces or censorships based on political or moral reasons are not completely absent. What is most important is the prevalent of an independence for artists which they can and have been practicing. There have been moments when the Sinhala dramatists have used this independence meaningfully.
Fifthly, the current non-or-semi-professional travel theatre framework is becoming a big and sometimes unbearable burden to the artists due to increasing expenses at all moments of the process of producing a play and staging it. The resulting high costs of theatre tickets has already affected the theatre goers and might even pose a death blow to the national theatre of the country.
This is not a problem specific to Sri Lanka. Artists in most developed countries have been trying to find solutions to this problem.
Under these circumstances the movement of “Street Theatre” (Veedi Natya) introduced to Sri Lanka in 1974 by Gamini Hattotuwegama has added a very positive perspective widening the vistas of the semi- or non-professional mainstream Sinhala theatre. It is well known that the idea of an unconventional form of drama has been experimented in many parts of the world. The non-profit community theatre, Off Broad Way and Off- Off Broad Way Theatres in the USA and the Street Theatre groups in India Are a few examples. Currently in countries like Germany attempts are being made to establish small theaters such as so called “Black Box Theatres” that have only the very basic facilities. This concept has already been introduced to Sri Lanka by M Safeer following the example of “Black Box Theatre” that he has seen in Germany. Recently a “Theatre Festival” was held in his “Inter Act Art Theatre House” situated by the side of Diyawanna Oya in Rajagiriya. Among the participants was a play produced by the Department of Fine Arts Unversity oif Peradeniya. Safeer’s experiment seemed to be encouraged by Hattotuwegama,s work.
“The Street Theatre” introduced by Hattotuwegama has already become a very active grass root level theatre spread in many parts of Sri Lanka (Please see: Ajith Krishanta Saram 2000) and seems to be satisfying the interests of dramatists and spectators of rural and suburban areas in the country. Gamini Hattotuwegama’s committed leadership is the main reason for the success of this form of performance. He himself has written more than 50 short plays (Athula Samarakoon and Sudesh Manthilaka pp. 174-75) on social and political themes including the ethnic disharmony and the civil war in Sri Lanka. Gamini has developed a dramaturgy based on Sinhala folk plays including the puppet play of southern Sri Lanka. Stage props were minimal and the actors sometimes played the roles of stage propos as well.
The organizers who arranged performances of his productions were not supposed to charge any fee from the spectators. The group also did not charge any specific payment for the performance but only the transport costs (usually bus or train fare) was to reimburse and meals for the troupe were to be provided as experienced by the present author when he brought down Hattotuwegama plays to the University of Peradeniya .
As already mentioned the main contribution of Hattotuwegama to the non-professional travel theatre of Sri Lanka was to expand its influence to a wider audience who usually find it difficult or even impossible to visit regular and formal performances and also giving the opportunity to talented artists who live far away from cities and also who live in the marginalized areas in cities.
Hattotuwegama has also contributed to the mainstream Sinhala theatre significantly by training actors some of whom later became leading playwrights and directors of Sri Lankan Sinhala theatre. “The head quarters” of his Vivurta Veedi Natya Kandayama (The Open Street Theatre Group) was at Pinwatta Road Panadura where he lived until his death. However his workshops were held in several places in Colombo and outstations. He also took part in workshops organized by other dramatists as a resource person or a partner including in the pioneering Ranga Shilpa Shalika (Gamini Hattotruwegama 2009 pp 5-8) held at Lionel Wendt Theatre under trhe leadership ofthe late dramatist Dhamma Jagoda and the patronship of Ediriweera Sarachchandra in the 1970s.
As Hattotuwegama intimated the author of this article he had mix feelings about his association with the Ranga Shilpa Shalika. On one hand he appreciated the introduction of the concept of “Theatre Workshop” to Sri Lanka by Jagoda through this workshop. On trhe other hand he had preferred to organize theatre activities in other areas of the country without concentrating only to Colombo. This idea and his experience at the University of Kelaniya in directing Ranga Käbali or ‘pieces of theatre” with the undergraduates of the University have finally lead him to the establishment of the “Open Street Theatre Group” in 1974 which opened a new chapter in the history of Sinhala theatre.
It is correct to say that the theatre work he initiated at the University of Kelaniya has created long lasting positive consequences. Even though the University of Peradeniya became the birth place of a modern Sinhala theatre thanks to the activities of Ediriweera Sarachchandra only the University of Kelaniya has as an institute been able to contribute in a tangible way to the contemporary Sinhala theatre . Reason may be the initiative taken by Hattotuwegama since 1970s to “train” artists in a scientific way.
Sarachchandra, the doyen of Sinhala theatre, did great theatre using the talents available in and around the university. Some of the artists who took part in his plays became great actors and also playwrights and directors. But he hardly “taught” theatre acting directing or play writing through practical training. It seems that he expected from the undergraduates to learn practical theatre only through participating in creative work. However he took a great pain to teach students theories of theatre, appreciation and criticism of art.
It is interesting to note that Sarachchandra had some sort of a fear to introduce Drama or Music to the curricula of the universities in Sri Lanka under the prevailing conditions in the pre-1956 Sri Lankan Society. . In March 1956 contributing to a UNESCO symposium held in Peradeniya he stressed his stance making the following “recommendation”:
“In most universities in the United States the great deal of creative writing is done by the members of the staff. Of course these universities have departments of Dramatic Art and Music, and at present it is advisable that we do not establish such departments in our University because they will inevitably become departments reading English drama and Western music.” (ER Sarachchandra 1956 p.102)
This was actually a criticism of the pre-1956 education culture in Sri Lankan universities rather than an objection to start departments teaching these subjects. The fear he expressed here however seemed to have created a disadvantageous environment made use by the authorities. It is also noteworthy that this fear was also not an unfounded one when one looks back into the history.
At the time when Hattotuwegama started teaching practical theatre in 1970s he was free of the fears which Sarachchandra expressed in March 1956. In other words by that time people like Sarachchandra, Makuloluwa, Amaradeva, Sunil Santha , Chitrasena , Martin Wickramasingha et el have changed the cultural mileaue in Sri Lanka. And the political landscape was also different to the pre-1956 period.
Hence Hattotuwegama started his encounter with the enterprise of “drama teaching” as one of the few members of a new type of postcolonial artists who was free from the colonial as well as nationalist or racist baggage.
Even with regard to the politicization of Sri Lankan theatre Hattotuwegama’s contribution was remarkable. As already mentioned political play has become an integral part of the mainstream Sinhala theatre. Sinhala dramatists have tried “not only to depict but also to take part in the socio-political developments in the country”.(Michael Fernando 1999 pp.63-77). However it is very interesting to note that only a few dramatists of the mainstream Sinhala theatre have made serious attempts to discuss the most serious and also “dramatic” event of “social drama” of the recent political history of Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict and the civil war that dominated the life of the people for several decades. Hattotuwegama was one of the two dramatists who had a clear vision to look at this problem and to show the spectators the absurdity of all kinds of racisms and chauvinisms. In several of his short plays he ridiculed both Sinhala and Tamil nationalism and the opportunistic politics of political leader from South and North as well. The dramatist Visakesa Chandrasekaram was the other dramatist who depicted successfully the fascistic nature of the LTTE that dragged the Tamil youth in the country into a vicious circle of terrorism.
Another feature of the political plays by Hattotuwegama was his avoidance of a didactic position and trying to make the spectator aware of a certain problem. As Karl Marx observed in his criticism on Ferdinend Lassale’s Frantz Von Sickingen Hattoituwegama too has decided for a Shakespearization (shakespearisieren) instead of a Schillarization (shillern) (Karl Marx 1869 pp.138-148).
In Sri Lanka there prevails a religious theatre among Buddhists that come in to life during the celebrations of Budhdha’s Birth, Enligtenment and Death (Vesak) and the visit of Arhath Mahinda (Poson) who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Among the Catholics who live in the West coast there exists a long tradition of Passion plays. All these performances are free of charge and the organizers of these passion plays consider these performances as “ Exercises of Faith”. Hattotuwegama’s Street Plays’ have become both “Exercises of Faith” and also “Political Exercises” at the same time.
When the prevailing socio-economic conditions and the attitude of the policy makers are taken into consideration Veedi Natya and other alternative forms of theatre, including the productions of university drama departments will definitely play a decisive role in the development of a Sri Lankan Sinhala theatre future.
Richard Schechner who is Professor of Performing Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and also the artistic director of the theatre group East Coast Artists [ECA] and the author of many books including Performance Theory and Environmental Theater has suggested a model for his theater group in following words:
“Regarding ECA, I do not foresee a theater staging only live performances, taking months for workshops and rehearsals, presenting shows in small theaters, ever providing “a living” for its member artists. The ECA model is: make movies or TV, or do whatever is necessary (and hopefully pleasant) to bake your daily bread; then work in ECA as you would in a club or religious organization, as a “volunteer”. Think of ECA as life-long training, a place where theater art can be practiced. But don’t think of it as a stepping stone to a “better” career in the theater. ECA is the better career. Don’t expect ECA to provide you with “a living” in the monetary sense, but rather work together so that it can give you “a life in the spiritual sense.” (Richard Schechner 1994)
I decided to quote this long passage (unusually too long for this type of an essay) from a male, white US American Professor mainly because it sounds un-American as we perceive Americans. On the other hand this seemingly too ambitious wish of Schechner seems very apt in understanding the contemporary Sri Lankan Sinhala Theater.
In general Schechner’s ideal has become a near reality in Sri Lanka. Almost all artists of Sinhala theater have to engage in some profession other than theater to “bake their daily bread”. Majority of Sri Lankan theater artists “work in their groups as they would in a religious organization” and some times even sacrificing the lives of their family members. Hattotuwegama was an example par excellence.
However in contrary to Schechner’s ideal many think of there group as a “stepping stone” to a better career. Most of the talented and able artists used Hattotuwegama’s Open Street Theatre Group as a “stepping stone” to the mainstream Sinhala theatre. However by doing so they helped to improve the quality of the mainstream theatre. On the other hand the socio economic conditions in the country and also some inherent weaknesses of the group did not allow them to decide it as “the better career” with regard to Hattotuwegama’s theatre group.. No artist seems thinking that theatre can provide him/her “with a living”. The maximum what they can expect is some extra income to supplement their meager earnings at the work place.
It is difficult to say whether any enjoyment they gain by doing theatre can be called as “a life in the spiritual sense”. However without any doubt almost all theatre artists of the Sinhala theatre receive a great enjoyment and also a satisfaction by doing theatre.
This is a situation developed for decades in the Sinhala theatre after the first ever professional theatre that emerged under capitalist conditions since about 1860s, the Nurti, was fallen prey to the effects of the great depression and collapsed. Since about 1940s a new theatre emerged in Sri Lanka. One of the significant characteristics of it is the non-or semi professional institutional frame work. Sri Lankan theatre has become one of the few theatres in the world that has the ability to exist and also develop under capitalist conditions avoiding the harmful influences of that system, especially the commercialization of the theatre. The alternative theatre forms initiated by Hattotuwewgama’s Street theatre movement have strengthen this positive quality of the contemporary Sinhala theatre.
Hattotuwegama’s contribution to Sinhala theatre is multi-faceted. He brought the Sinhala theatre which was imprisoned in small theatres in the city and school halls in the village out into the street, to work places and to places where people gather to perform their day to day activities. It also amounted to freeing the theatre from the limits of the proscenium stage.
His encounters with the mainstream Sinhala theatre has also helped to improve its quality. His introduction of a form of an alternative theater to the Sri Lankan theatre will have long lasting consequences in setting up the Sinhala theatre to face the future challenges especially under the present situation of spreading Covid-19 pandemic.
Ediriweera Sarachchandra, pin äti sarasavivaramak denne (Colombo: Dayawansa Jayakodi and Company, 1985), pp 153-164.
Ediriwweera Sarachchandra, The Traditional Culture of Ceylon and its Present Position in Some Aspects of Traditional Sinhalese Culture, Ed. Ralph Peiris (Ceylon University Conference on Traditional Culture sponsored by the UNESCO 1956) pp. 17-18
Ediriweera Sarachchandra, “Drama in the Orient”, in Tradition, Values and Modernization:An Asian Perspective Collrvted Papers of Ediriweera Sarachchandra Ed. P.B Galahitriyawa And K.N.O Dharmadasa (Colombo, S.Gofdage and Brothers,1995) p. 17
Gamini Hattotuwegama, Veedi Nātya Ārambhaya hā Ranga Shilpa Shalikāva in Tales about Hatha, Ed. Athuia Samarakoon and Sudesh Mantillake (Peradeniya: Arts Council of Univcersity of Peradeniya, 2010) pp. 5-8.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1956) pp. 138-148.
Michael Fernando, Theatre in Politics and Politics in Theatre: Sri Lankan Experience since Independence in Sri Lanka Journal fd Social Sciences 22: 1and 2 (June/December 1999) pp. 63-76
Richard Schechner, Environmental Theater (New York: Applause Books, 1994) p. XII
Suresh Awasthi, “Theatre of Roots” Encounter with Tradition TDR 33:4 (1989) p.49
Michael Fernando – BA (Ceylon), D.Phil (Berlin)