By Saumya Liyanage –
This paper is partly a recollection of a man, who dedicated his life and time for the alternative theatre in Sri Lanka, and partly a reflection of his work. Further, it discusses his writing, particularly on Sinhala speaking theatre, and his meticulous analyses and rigorous discussions documented in his limited publications. The dominant narratives of Sinhala speaking theatre have already forgotten the man, his work and his writings published in journals, newspapers and occasional handouts. Nevertheless, his intention was not to produce a pile of papers and book publications under his name and earn a reputation as a wordsmith. He knew that when he first started Wayside & Open Theatre (Street Theatre), in the early 70s, he was not going to be a history maker within the mediocre academia and media. He could have further submitted his thesis and obtained a doctoral degree from his own University where he learnt during his undergraduate years and worked as a lecturer, but he never wanted to be a literary virtuoso. He had the capacity and visionary reading of film, theatre, poetry, and other art forms, yet he never wanted to be a critique who would write and develop his own school of thought. He was a man who gave up his acquisitions and became thin air, evaporating without a trace. Talking about Artaud, Polish theatre director Grotowski once said: ‘The paradox of Artaud lies in the fact it is impossible to carry out his proposal. Does this mean he was wrong? Certainly not. But Artaud left no concrete technique behind him. Indicated no method. He left vision, metaphor’(Barba & Grotowski, 2002, p. 118).
Now the question is, what was this man’s proposal for Sri Lankan theatre, he who lived and worked for 70 years? This attempt is to provide a brief account of his life and to learn about his intervention in theatre criticism in Sinhala speaking theatre. He is Gamini Haththotuwegama (1939-2009), the founding father of the Sri Lankan Film Critique and Journalists Association and the first Sri Lankan street theatre known as Vivurtha Veedi Natya Kandayama (Wayside & Open Theatre). As Grotowski reminded us in the foregoing, Haththotuwegama left no trace of his method, a set of technique, or a group of disciples, or a tradition. He left no trace of a gurukula practice or a pedagogy through which others can build up their own work on. He left no disciples who blindly follow him and commemorate his legacy every year. However, he left something intangible, a vision and a metaphor as Grotowski referred, that can only be extricated from his life and his limited number of essays he has published. He applied a method that can be coined as ‘elimination’ (via-negativa); elimination of his life from the bourgeoisie comfort and step into the street with bare hands. He eliminated his attachment to the conventional theatre, the glorified proscenium arch and broke the illusionists’ compassion of darkness. He eliminated the stardom of the actor and let his actors to do ‘self-sacrifice’, allowing themselves to perform self-penetration with him. Hence his life was transient and became nothingness. As far as his writing is concerned, his essays were hidden in the time of history; no one has ever attempted to dig into them and see what his vision is for the people and theatre. Only a very few, such as Kanchuka Dharmasiri (Dharmasiri 2012, Sengupta 2014)) has meticulously gathered, complied and analyzed his life and work. Particularly, writers who have weaved tapestries of Sinhala theatre histories with glorifications and back scratching criticism never saw what Haththotuwegama has contributed to enhance the criticism of Sri Lankan theatre.
I first met him, a tall, sharp eyed man, walking with wide steps, while hanging a bag of books and occasionally a guitar in his hand. In 1980s, he used to visit and spend some time with us, talking and singing his favorite street theatre songs, ‘oba dutuvā…mama dutuvā’. My memory is filled with his presence and his belongings that he sometimes left at our place. He was a visitor in disguise, who came to see us, particularly my father, Hemasiri Liyanage, and I enjoyed his company along with my brothers. He became my first acting teacher, who taught me how to perform mime. At the time, I was studying at Janadhipathi Vidyalaya Horana (current Royal College). I was selected for a performance project organized by the Divisional Educational Secretariat Horana to perform a mime act for a variety show. Haththotuwegama designed the act for me while my father designed the costume. I used to go to his house, which was located closer to the Sri Palee campus, and practice the mime act with him. It is a story about an acrobat working in a circus with a lion. He brings the lion to the arena and starts performing, forcing the lion to jump through fire rings. Yet, at a particular point, the lion goes crazy and uncontrollable. Being furious and anxious, the lion trainer catches the lion and puts his hand into his mouth. He pushes his hand further into the mouth of the lion, goes through the belly and grabs the tail. Being humiliated in the front of the audience, the man turns the lion inside out by pulling his tail. In the next moment, lion becomes an inanimate object, like a pillowcase on the floor. This is the way he wanted people to see the life; turning inside out. However, people in Horana or elsewhere, those who knew him, didn’t see him as he wished. To them, he was a man of letters, but they hesitated to engage with him. This tendency was there in the lower and middle classes, who were much secured with their lives and business. Everybody knew him very well, but didn’t want him to enter their lives because his way of thinking, behavior and his ideas which were somewhat bizarre and challenging to their mundane, comfortable lives. Therefore, when he was in Horana, he closely associated with peasants, laborers and even with coconut pluckers. After finishing our daily routine of rehearsals, he invites me to go for a walk. His son and daughter always used to accompany us. We ended up in a Laima (Tamil settlement) located in the rubber estate nearby. Ravi, a coconut tree climber was one of our friends. We spend our evening with him at Laima, having tea and listening to stories told by elders.
He was fully engaged with his reading, always carrying books on theatre and literature, meeting various sectors of the society, talking and living with them, going everywhere with his collaborators in the Wayside & Open Theatre to perform, and watching every single theatre performance taking place everywhere in the country. During his stay at our place, he began translating Romeo and Juliet. At the time, we didn’t have electricity. At night, he takes the book and reading it with the dim light of the kerosene lamp, then spontaneously begins translating it sentence by sentence in Sinhala. My task is to write them. During his stay, he brought a couple of things with him: his usual guitar, a set of books and, to our surprise, this time, a framed painting of Picasso. The painting is ‘Young Acrobat on a Ball’ (1905) that Picasso painted in his pink period. Haththotuwegama brought this framed print and kept it in our house. This image of the fragile dancer balancing on the ball and the muscular, strong man sitting on a cube got engraved in my mind. This painting depicts a traveling circus team practicing at a short interval. Haththotuwegama’s life resemblances Picasso’s painting. He stations at a place for a while, he reads, does his translations and writing, and he vanishes. Thus, his life was vacillating between two poles – the fragile girl balancing on the ball and the muscular man sitting on a cube – transience, yet firm and outcast.
Haththotuwegama was a student of Richmond College Galle. During his school years he was exposed to a variety of literature including Shakespeare (Dharmasiri 2012, p. 10). His reading of literature, particularly Western classics and his exposure to Shakespeare may have been the reason that he chose theatre as a form of expression and also a tool for social engagement. After finishing his primary and secondary education he joined the University of Peradeniya and got his honors degree in English. During his undergraduate years, he was engaged with theatre productions at the University. One notable production was Agamemnon (ibid 2012). One of the turning points in his career was joining the Kala Kendra Ranga Shilpa Shalika (Art Centre Theatre Studio/K.K.R.S.S) initiated by Dhamma Jagoda. Inspired by the American actor training and workshop model, Haththotuwegama and a few others began the workshop for young theatre enthusiasts in 1970. In the beginning, 150 students were registered for the first batch of the workshop. The patron of the collective was Prof. Sarachchandra (Jayamanne 1971). The workshop was affected by 1971 armed insurgency and was temporary closed. When it restarted upon aftermath of insurgency, the number of participants were reduced to 50. Within a short period of time, Kala Kendra Ranga Shilpa Shalika was beginning to decline. One of the students of the workshop at the time has left a remarkable note on the problem of the workshop at Lionel Wendt theatre. In this letter she has criticized the nature and the way that the workshop was conducted and the lack of social and political awareness of the students and some lecturers. After experiencing the first youth insurgence of the country and the Sirimavo Government’s involvement in subjugating the rebellious movement, the country was in a transient period. This young writer, Sriranthi Jayamanne, was highly critical to the philosophy of the theatre school. She wrote:
But since the reopening, the somewhat amorphous character of a workshop devoted to the training of directors and actors itself seems unreal, and unrelated to our present sociopolitical context. Since we do not have a professional theatre we cannot produce actors and directors in the manner of the R.A.D.A. or other drama schools in the West, to feed the various other professional groups. [….] We, the young, should create a new kind of theatre in Ceylon, a socially alive theatre, (as distinct from propaganda), a radical theatre that is socially alive and artistically experimental. This is the only kind of theatre that is valid for the third world (Jayamanne 1971, p. 55).
This was an undefeatable critique that a student could have brought to the attention of the founders of K.K.R.S. S. The author’s target was to raise the question of physical regimentation and the lack of theoretical rigor in the pedagogy. In this letter, she further mentions that the staff was much favorable to teach physical refinement than teaching ‘theory’. What she meant by theory in this context is the sociopolitical understanding and the discussion that they were lacking in the school curriculum. The documentation of K.K.R.S.S. activities and the discussion that went on between its teachers and students are unknown to us today. Yet, I believe that Haththotuwegama had taken this critique seriously; not only because they had this criticism at the K.K.R.S.S., but because his lifelong search for alternative theatre culminated in 1974, when he first performed street theatre in Anuradhapura with a group of students at the workshop. Their debut street theatre productions, ‘Raja Dekma (Seeing the King/ Homage to the King) Bosath Dekma (Seeing the Bodisathva/Homage to the Bodhisathva) and Minihekuta Ellila Marenna Berida (Can’t a Man Hang Himself?) marked the introduction of a different theatre experience to Sri Lankan audiences’ (Dharmasiri 2012, p. 12). This happened on a poson poya day.
Since the inception of Wayside & Open theatre in 1974, he and his theatre group performed street theatre in every corner of Sri Lanka. From paddy fields to playgrounds, market spaces and school playgrounds to factories and Universities, his street theatre flourished and embraced thousands of marginal and underprivileged people in the country. Sarachchandra once shared his view about Wayside & Open Theatre Group and said that ‘he took the drama from the village but never took it back there’ (Haththotuwegama 1998, p. 133). As Haththotuwegama sees it, it is a stark revelation and a confession of bourgeois theatre. This division between village and the city was a clear-cut split in post-independence theatre when Sarachchandra started his career. However, this understanding of the urban/village binary was blurring when Haththotuwegama started his street theatre. The idealization of the village and its people did not exist anymore, as literary minds conceptualized it, when Haththotuwegama engaged with the peripheral lives. His method of developing street theatre was eclectic, bringing various literary resources, poetry, elements of folk and popular culture and colloquial language to develop his performative texts. He was radical enough to adapt some of the pop songs such as Bob Malay’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ into Sinhala by changing its lyrics to suite the laymen’s preferences. Not only that, he used baila such as ‘erapiya lusiya dora’ in his performance vesak dekka (Homage to the Bodhisathva) hybridizing pop, Sinhala poetry, Guttile Kavya, and folk songs in a single tapestry to humiliate the ‘protestant Buddhists’ bourgeois practices in Buddha’s commemoration of enlightenment. Haththotuwegama very often talked about his theatre as a polemic art, informing the power of voice, words and oratory in acting. He strengthened his polemic art with diverse materials taken from common people’s rhetoric. In doing so, he demonstrated that folklore is not something that is inherited from the past or a hibernated phenomenon but is a living and evolving one that is constantly being nourished and carried out by people of the time. Improvisation with actors and developing a theatrical score was a predominantly used method for developing his plays. His actors who came from diverse social strata contributed a lot to enhance the narratives and the physical enactments of his plays. As Kanchuka (2012) explains, Haththotuwegama’s biggest claim against Sinhala mainstream theatre was that of its particular attention on bilingual bourgeoisie who flocked around Lionel Wendt and other limited Theatres in Colombo. Sinhala theatre has never been able to get out from the proscenium theatre that was concretely established by the modern theatre led by Sarachchandra and his later successors. Furthermore, avant-gardes in the 60s opposed the stylized, subjective, theatre of Sarachchandra, their dialogic narratives further limited to proscenium arch. Hathtotuwegama identified them and their approaches as ‘blatant petit-bourgeois plays’ (Haththotuwegama 1998, p. 142). Haththotuwegama hence rejected the bourgeois theatre and started a new connection between theatre and the people those who are been marginalized in the main cultural discourse.
Haththotuwegama had left no collection of books or theoretical manual for the future generation. Yet, he has been continuously engaging in theoretical and cultural discussions taking place around the country. Being the first Chairman of the Film Critique and Journalists Association of Sri Lanka, he regularly published his film reviews in English new papers. From time to time, he edited and published newsletters and pamphlets with his co-authors at the University and elsewhere. Sometimes, he would send small notes and letters to theatre writers and directors after watching their plays. Yet, these brief notes and comments rightly captured the whole theatrical experience and its production qualities. I remember one such note that he sent to my father in the 1980s. In this particular note he mentioned: ‘Hemasiri, I liked your play. It was very inventive and free. Mano was brilliant. The general standard was pleasing. This is your best play and close to our work. Mano was like a good street drama actor-very flexible and very free’ (Letter dated 06.03.1982). This is his review that he sent to the playwright. He edited a newsletter titled Nisi Risi, a publication, generally typed in a typewriter and circulated them in ronio papers. He circulated his ideas through any means that he can afford. The history of Sinhala criticism suggests that there were two main groups that emerged in the post-independence era. As Obeyesekere argues, (1984) bilingual intelligentsia have immensely contributed to developing the literary and ideological construction of modern Sinhala literature and theatre. In this dominant force, Sarachchandra has been a kernel figure and the theoretician who provided groundwork for others to propel their literary enterprises. While Sarachchandra was influenced by Liberal Humanism in the West, his famous literary works such as Modern Sinhala Fiction (1943), and Sahithya Vidybaava (1965) laid the framework for criteria for literary and theatre criticism (Obeyesekere 1984). The second group was writers who wrote in Sinhala, who continued Sarachchandra’s tradition to understand theatre as a moral enterprise and a social cleansing tool. Many of the Sinhala language critiques laid binaries of lokadharmi and natyadharmi, the Sanskrit theatre categories to identify Sinhala speaking theatre. This has been one of the grounding concepts for those who identified genres of theatre since independence. In addition, Sinhala theatre has been identified within the categories of vidhagdha (Classical) or maha sampradaaya (greater culture) and chula sampradaya (minor culture) binary. What they emphasize is that Sarachchandra has developed a moral, aesthetic and greater tradition of theatre and this greater tradition has to be continued with the enhancement of the playwriting and literary studies (Ranaweera 1998). Haththotuwegama’s theatre criticism identified these deficits of Sinhala literary criticism and introduced alternative tools and theories to locate genres of theatre developed after independence. My special attention is drawn to one of his seminal essays on Sri Lankan theatre. No other writer has attempted such a critical and analytical essay covering four decades of Sri Lankan theatre, its trends, turns, and its political nuances but him. The essay was titled ‘Unresolved Contradictions, Paradoxical Discourses & Alternative Strategies in the Post-Colonial Sinhala Theatre’ (1998). Beginning from Sarachchandra’s intervention as a modernist theatre director staging ‘Maname’ and overriding the Western theatrical tradition in the University theatres, he has rightly identified the trends and the periodical evolution of Sinhala speaking theatre from the 50s to the 90s. It surprised me and simultaneously agitated me to see how one could grasp such a vast array of theatrical trends and journeys interlaced with diverse styles and modes covering decades of human endeavours. How can one be attentive to all the theatre works produced within half a century, whether amateur or experienced, comprehending them and analyzing them while aligning their approaches with the theatrical and philosophical reading? That was beyond expectation. In this unique essay, Hathtotuwegama has touched theories such as Marxist literary criticism, existentialism, absurdism, feminism, post colonialism and many other isms while naming and categorizing trends and their relations to sociopolitical changes in the country. He begins the essay by setting up the situation of the early Sinhala theatre in the pre-independence era and discusses how a playwright and director like Sarachchandra emerged within this particular colonial context. His close reading of Sarachchandra as a cultural phenomenon and his intervention in the cultural revival in the early 50s within anti-colonial discourse is compelling. He clearly articulated the complexity of his arrival and his intervention to explore the Sinhala deshiya natyakala (native theatre) tradition through an eclectic applications of Natagam, and other local and Asian theatrical influences. Hence, he called him multiculturalist and he coined his de-colonizing project, ‘transcreational’ (Haththotuwegama 1998) He wrote:
‘Pan-Indian – anti – British anticolonial movement ……Now, the decolonizing negotiations as far as Sinhala theatre was concerned, proved so difficult because the question of identity entered at precisely this point when, we see, artistic heritage was so mixed & cultural commerce so complex, as epistomized in the career & make-up of the (then) new theatre’s founder-figure’ (Haththotuwegama 1998, p. 131).
He published two paper articles in ‘Ceylon Daily News’, one for Maname soon after it was staged in 1956, and for Sinhabhahu, one month after staging it. He discussed Maname Kumari and Suppadevi as two of the most daring characters produced by Sinhala theatre. His article written in 1967 titled ‘Sinhala theatre between two plagues?’ he further discusses the limitations of stylistic plays and the dialogue plays introduced in response to the poetic and stylistic tradition (Dharmasiri 2012, p.17). It is likely that Haththotuwegama referred Artuadian terminology to critique two distinctive waves of Sinhala theatre that emerged after independence. When Peradeni critiques established Sarachandra’s theatrical intervention as the ‘invention of tradition’, he critically analyzed the paradoxes and contradictions of such cultural formation. He wrote: ‘Already, however, the Sarachchandra’s ouvre had become the site of contradictions, and the paradoxes that have never come to be resolved’ (Haththotuwegama 1998, p. 131). He was one of the few who saw the problematic of Sarachchandra’s cultural revivals and his acculturation of establishing Sinhala identity. He saw that two distinctive branches of theatre germinated with Sarachchandra’s project: one group led his legacy, staging a stylized form of theatre by emphasizing liberal humanism. The other group took the path of an anti-stylistic mode which emphasized the daily mundane life and its portrayal on stage. Furthermore, he identified and categorized a trend of ‘protest theatre’, which, according to him, was first precursorized by two directors – Chandrasena Dasanayake and Hemasiri Liyanage of Horana Vidyarathne Pirivena. He argued that both playwrights attempted to rejuvenate what Sarachchandra had offered to Sinhala theatre-borrowing elements of traditional Sri Lankan dance drama and literature – and elaborating the source material that they had into a political ending and creating Sinhala theatre as a political idiom (Haththotuwegama 1998, p. 138). This point has never been discussed or highlighted in the hegemonic theatre history of Sri Lanka. These playwrights working from the 1960s until the 80s have attempted to prove a unique genre of theatre which did not belong to dialogic and symbolic dramas, and 70s political assembly theatres. His discussion of 1960s theatre primarily germinated through Sugathapala De Silva and ape kattiya has succinctly captured it as a petti-bourgeois theatre which was erected opposing the modern theatre of Sarachchandra. Yet, as Haththotuwegama sees, this trend also had certain contradictions and paradoxes embedded within it. While trying to get away from the national-cultural hegemony, they themselves have faced and are trapped in certain binaries such as, original vs. translations/adaptations and realistic vs. stylized/mixed. The 1956 national revival and its consequences seen in the late 60s, and the emergence of the open economic establishment of the UNP government have clearly been juxtaposed with theatre’s transformation in his writings. He argued that the glory of the national cultural revival discourse came to a hold when the new sociopolitical text was introduced by the capitalist regimes that was elected after 70s. He clearly saw how this transformation was taking place not only in the political and economic terrains but in the cultural text as well. In theatre in the 60s, he saw that a new discussion about contemporary theatre or ‘contemporaneity emerge as the new ‘mystique’ for the newly invented theatre. He stated that ‘Maname and Sinhhahu lost their present tense’ (ibid, 142) because of the domination of the new theatre’s hegemony. The era, beginning from 1970, was first established as an era of social insurgences and economic turmoil. The first armed insurgency was attempted against the Sri Lankan Freedom Party by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Yet, the attempt failed and the JVP carders were taken into custody, and some were killed while others were captured and imprisoned. The failure of the first revolutionary attempt impacted upon the cultural text, and theatre directors and writers attempted to capture the fate of the youth and their future in the capitalist system. With the Marxist turn, theatre became a political assembly for many young and energetic writers and directors. Critiques such as Gunadasa Amarasekara famously coined this theatre trend as ‘papadam’ theatre and rejected its intervention as political assembly. Yet, Haththotuwegama was somewhat sympathetic to them. His criticism targeted their lack of ideological competency and the narrow usage of theatrical techniques that stifled theatre. He correctly identified the drawback of theatrical techniques that were employed in 70s and how these stale techniques adversely affected the next generation of theatre makers. His understanding about the nature of theatre in the 80s were somewhat akin to the text/author conundrum. Many playwrights who entered Sinhala speaking theatre were the possessors of text and the authors who dominated the textual based theatre and the dominance of authorship. Of course, Sri Lankan theatre has been developing through text-based theatre and it is still the dominant mode of practice. However, what Haththotuwegama meant by this is the domination of the author’s shadow on theatre and its Aristotelian emphasis. In early theatres in Europe, this issue was mainly dealt by directors such as Grotowski and Artaud. Understanding theatre as a text and the interpretation and dramatization of the text was a tradition that was founded in European modern theatre. By the 1960s European and American theatre had already rejected the centrality of the text as the locus of theatre making. This is what Haththotuwegama signalled in his essay. Further, he identified additional drawbacks in 80-90s theatre that prevented Sinhala theatre from growing further. The main issue seemed to be the playwrights’ understanding about the socio-political relevance of their works and their theatrical interpretations and articulations. Many of the theatre makers in the 80s and 90s were the guardians of the Sinhala Buddhist cultural hegemony and they believed that this supreme culture was flourishing in the history and with the emergence of the open economy, all glorifications had been destroyed. Some of the understandings of theatre makers were problematic that they executed theatre to lament for this lost civilization, or romantic cultural nostalgia. Haththotuwegama argued that the 80s Sinhala speaking theatre was suffering from historical nostalgic symptom. He argued that these directors had no idea how to rip off these ‘ideological naivetés and romantic camouflage’ to bring out the flesh of the society.
In this long and complex essay, Haththotuwegama has addressed some of the key issues, paradoxes and challenges that Sinhala theatre has been experiencing since independence. One of his main emphasis was the lack of research and study in the Sinhala theatre. He invited young and seasoned theatre writers to explore and conduct more research and develop the ideological competence and the political awareness of their interventions. He invited young generation of artists to explore the changing nature of ‘script constructions’ that he foresaw many years ago. Theatre is not a solitary art anymore and so is writing. He signalled the trends in the post-dramatic era and how artistes develop their text with various improvisational methods. His discussion on the lack of training methodologies was prominent throughout his essay. He further signalled the emerging intermediality in theatre at a time when others were not aware of it. He further wished that the future of Sri Lankan theatre would embrace some of these global trends and enhance the current practice of theatre in Sri Lanka. He was very much ambitious about the emergence of the short play genre and the engagement of the youth in the 90s in theatre arts. He always shared these ideas with the people he associated with and his ultimate slogan was: ‘there is no creativity possible without the emancipation’. Both in his life and art, he proved it.
The author pays his gratitude to Savi Ferdinando for proofreading this text.
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