November has already arrived, and Covid 19 has restricted our movements at campus. I am in the middle of a research project related to 1956. During the months before November that year, University of Peradeniya was not under the attack of any virus but it was busy getting ready for a landmark event. Those who were in the midst of it perhaps did not know that they were creating history. They were attending to the routine activities of the campus, which was a vibrant place anyway. E.F.C. Ludowyk in English, Raplh Pieris in Sociology, Senarath Paranavithana in Archaeology, D. E. Hettiaracchi in Sinhala, K. Kanapathipillai in Tamil, K. N. Jayathilake in philosophy, among others, were renowned scholars and they were making Peradeniya a world class university. That was in the Humanities. Other faculties were equally vibrant, too.
At the faculty of Arts Dr. Sarachchandara, recently returned from a year-long stay in Japan, was busy directing a play in the months leading to that November. Siri Gunasinghe, Gunadasa Amarasekara and some others, who were later to become major literary and intellectual figures in their generation, were eagerly helping the Doctor; Keeping him company nearly always.
A set of brilliant young students were attending everything related to producing the play. Many of them were the members of Dram Soc, and had some previous experience of reading or producing plays with professor Ludowyk. As Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere, recently told me, Professor Ludowyk used to read aloud plays with students at his office. “If you are free, come and let’s read a play” he would say. Students would happily oblige. Those days, English students interacted with other students. And ‘other students’ could interact with their cohorts by using English. There was no or little gap among students in different subjects.
Inherit the Wind
Though that is not the case today, we, in producing Inherit the Wind in Sinhala, were making some bridges across the language gap. During this November, under the attack of Covid 19, wearing a face mask, I was busy at the library reading about that distant November in 56. If Corona did not hit us, we at the faculty of Arts, would have been putting the final touches on our own production of Rala Nagana Minissu, a Sinhala translation of Inherit the Wind, a brilliant American play. Priyantha Fonseka, a senior lecturer, and the department of Fine Arts were at the middle of directing the play when Corona arrived. Our cast included students from all kinds of subjects and mediums of instruction. One aim of that theater activity was to build bridges. But Corona came and burned all those brittle bridges – an additional reason to be nostalgic about that distant November in 1956.
Years later, Indrani Wijesinghe reminisces:
“After the annual vacation, we returned to the campus, for the second academic year, There was good news awaiting us that Dr. Sarachchandra was going to produce a drama and anyone interested could meet him at an audition… Once inside the audition room I was at complete ease, when I discovered that all who had gathered there were in the same boat- Trelicia, Hemamali, Trixie, Swarna, Lional, Pastor and etc.”These students, along with so many others did not know that they were making themselves immortal by being a part of that group.
Corona and Maname
With the arrival Corona, it has dawned on us that universities are not universities without students. And reading about the history that group of students who were together producing history, I wanted to pay my tribute them once again for being part of Maname, the play. According many who remember that day, November 3rd of that year, a miracle happened on stage. A few days later Regi Siriwardena was to announce the world through Ceylon Daily News that Sinhala theater has produced a masterpiece and, along with that, a great playwright. Though he had written some favorable reviews of Pabavati, (directed by J.D. Dhirasekara), Siriwardena was amazed by the spectacle Maname created on stage in Colombo. On that November 3rd, Trilicia Abeyrathne was the princess Maname. In the second show in Kandy, Hemamali Gunasekara played the princess. Professor H. L. Seneviratne, who was also a student member of the crew, recalls Hemamali as a unique Maname-Princess. Hemamali herself tells us how she entered the world of Maname in that historic year, 1956:
“So one damp and drizzly Saturday afternoon, Piyaseeli Sirisena and I walked up Sangamitta Hill, past Sangamitta Hall, to the secluded B Bungalow that was the Sarachchandra residence. It is funny how little details retained in your memory suddenly spring to mind when you try to reminisce. My most vivid image of that rather hesitant walk up to the Sarachchandra door is of a rain-drenched Thumbergia creeper, its few remaining blossoms, beaten down but bravely glistening with raindrops trembling upon the velvety petals like dew. Even the drizzle outside, the door was open. Shaking the raindrops off our hair and clothes, we entered a world of chaos and buzzing activity…”
Hemamali and Trilicia both played the role of the Princess Maname. After a few years, however, Hemamali was taken away from the world of Maname by the makeup artist of the very play, Siri Gunasinghe. Looking at photographs of that celebrated event in 1956, I can imagine Dr. Gunasinghe putting makeup on Hemamali’s face and looking at her beautiful big eyes. Perhaps, the already trend-setting poet had just enough time to utter a line of ‘free verse’ to her. Now the poet is no more but Hemamali is still translating Sinhala literature into English.
Dram Soc Crew
In addition to those students in the Maname cast, some other students were instrumental in getting the play on stage on November 3rd, 1956. One of them was W. Arthur Silva. Professor H.L. Seneviratane believes that it was Arthur’s perseverance that pushed the production forward. Though he had finished writing the script, Sarachchandra was not all that enthusiastic about producing the play. He did not receive the expected support from the university, and he did not think he would be able to find actors with required skills from among students. Arthur ran about and got things moving. Saracchandra himself came out of his semi-hibernation, and the rest is the history.
During these Corona days, living at a beautiful university park with no students, I want to pay my tribute to that group of students who joined with one of their beloved teachers to give us a classic work of drama. In the process, they made their teacher immortal as well. Shyamon Jayasinghe, Ben Sirimanne, Trilicia Abeykoon, Hemamali Guanasekara, Edmand Wijesinghe, Lional Fernando, Piyathilaka Weerasinghe, M. B. Adikaram, D. B. Herath, Karunadasa Gunarathne, Trixie de Silva, Indrani Pieris, Swarna Mahipala, Pastor Pieris, Nanda Abeywikrama, P. W. Sathischandra, Daya Jayasundara, Ramya Thumpela, H. L. Seneviratne, Kithsiri Amaratunghe, Somathne Edirisinghe, L. R. Mudalihami were students in the Maname original crew. In addition to them, office bearers of the Drama Society also contributed to make this historic achievement. K.D. A. Perera, Wimal Nawagamuwa, Rathnasuriya Hemapala, Sumana Gunarathne, Amaradasa Gunawardhane, and Indrani Pieris tirelessly worked for the first Maname production. Showing the cosmopolitan nature of Peradeniya those days, Peter La Sha, an American student residing at the campus, contributed with the management of the stage lights!
Maname, the play has now become a classic, and it is part of everyone’s cultural heritage. For some, it is part of what makes us Sinhala. For some the play signifies a revival of Sinhala art and culture. For me, it is a great artistic expression about the value of female voice and agency in postcolonial Sri Lankan society. ‘Without opportunity to intervene in making crucial ethical judgments, women in independent Sri Lanka are not really free’, the play seems to say among other things. And being a true work of art, it is open to multiple interpretations.
Being at the same university that produced the play, reflecting on the meaning of a university without students, I wanted to pay this tribute to that dynamic group of students who worked hard to give us a great play, on that distant November day.
*To write this essay, I consulted Home and the World: Essays in Honor of Sarath Amunugama. Ed. Varuni and Ramanika Amunugama and and Maname in Retrospect. Ed. K.N.O. Dharmadasa and P.B. Galahitiyawa