23 October, 2021

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Sarachchandra At Denison: Along The Trails Of A Forefather

By Saumya Liyanage

Dr. Saumya Liyanage

This paper marks the 64th anniversary of the theatrical masterpiece, Maname written and directed by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra and his legacy on Sinhala modern theatre.

I was busy in early April 2019, with preparations to leave the country for two weeks long creative arts residency at Denison University, Granville Ohio, USA. A group of academics, dance alumni and a few students from the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Modern Dance of the University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) and the Dept. of Fine Arts, University of Peradeniya were invited to take part in a two week long creative collaboration with the Department of Dance and Theatre at Denison University. Denison alumni and dancer Umeshi Rajeendra also joined the delegation. The project was titled ‘Challenging Borders: Embodied Cross-Border Encounters through Dance and Music’ funded by the Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) Mellon Foundation led by Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies, Taku Suzuki.  

Our collaboration with the Department of Dance and Theatre at Denison is a long one. First, with my invitation, Sandra Mathern-Smith, Professor of dance at Denison came to the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance at the UVPA Colombo in 2017. Since then I had a privilege of working with brilliant and enthusiastic academic community especially Prof. Sandra and Prof. Cheryl McFarren at Denison. These collaborations brought many academics to UVPA, provided professional and academic benefits to those who studied at the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance. We came to the Denison University mid-April 2019.

Figure 1: Denison University has archived some paper articles published on Prof. Sarachchandra’s visit to Denison University in 1966. Images retrieved from Denison

Two weeks of intensive teaching, collaborative workshops, discussions, and rehearsals filled up our daily routine. Myself and other three academics, Dr Sudesh Manthilake, Senior Lecturer Asela Rangadeva and accompanist Ruwan Pushpakumara stayed at a residential home provided by the Denison University. It was walking distance from the Dance department. Dancer teacher Umeshi, our students, and alumni stayed at a double storied house located at very close proximity to Denison performing arts centre. We all had free meals at all three University residential halls. In addition we received stipend to buy our additional needs. Freshly cooked food, milk, bread, meat, fruits and a variety of green vegetables were available for us day and night. Food represented various cultures and satisfied our taste buds while we lamented on how our students have meals at our University canteens and walk away with dissatisfaction and hatred.

Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra | Photo credit sarachchandra.org

During our stay at Denison, my close companion, Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith asked me if I was aware that one of Prof. Sarachchandra’s granddaughters was born in Granville and she was already an undergraduate at Denison at that time. I had no clue of when or how Prof. Sarachchandra’s granddaughter would have born or studied at Denison. Also Sarachchandra had several children and I did not have adequate information to guess which granddaughter that Prof. Sandra was referring to. But she somehow managed to get in touch with a Professor at the Department of religion studies at Denison where I could go and talk.

In the meantime, on that particular day, a lecture on Sri Lankan film and culture was organized by the Faculty of Social Sciences. I prepared my slide show and went to the lecture theatre without delay. An enthusiastic group of students was waiting to see me and we had an hour of talks and discussions on Sri Lankan film and society. I was surprised, as even before I started my lecture they had prepared their readings and had already watched some of the movies I have acted in. The difference between their learning from our undergraduates was that they had many questions to ask the teacher. Therefore, two thirds of the seminar was about questioning, answering, and developing a discussion around key points that were delivered in the lecture.

Figure 2: UVPA delegation and Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith meet Denison University President at his office, Granville Ohio USA. Photo Credit Dr Saumya Liyanage 2019.

After finishing my lecture, I was invited to the Department of Religion where I met John Cort, Professor of Asian, and Comparative Religion. He is a brilliant scholar in Jain religion studies, speaks several Indian languages, and translates poetry from those languages into English. His welcome was warm and cheerful. We had a long discussion about Asia, India and south Asian culture and religious traditions. With that conversation, I realized that as an Asian I have a lot to learn from him. Somehow or other we came to the topic of theatre and I mentioned the name of Prof. Sarachchandra and his contribution to the modern Sri Lankan theatre. 

Our conversation went on for more than an hour and it was accelerating as I found that Prof. Sarachchandra had come to Denison in 1966. When Prof. Cort mentioned about him, I was amazed because all this time I was thinking that I was the first one to come to Denison as a part of an academic exchange. Further I could not believe the fact that 53 years back, a Sri Lankan scholar had visited Denison and stayed there for months to teach Asian aesthetics and Sri Lankan dance and drama.

Figure 3: UVPA – Denison contemporary dance collaboration choreographed by Umeshi Rajeendra. Photo credit Tim Black, Denison University Granville Ohio 2019.

Above all, I could not imagine that how Sarachchandra went to Denison because, our experience to go to Denison was long and hectic though we have sophisticated flights and transport facilities. It is not simply getting in and out of a flight. It took more than 15 hours for us to get to our destination with our heavy luggage packed with costumes, masks, and drums. This man of letters had selected a place thousands of miles away from home and decided to share his expertise on Asian aesthetics, Buddhism, and Sri Lankan dance drama with academics and students at a place where liberal arts education is flourished. 

After having a fruitful discussion about my predecessor at Denison, I came to my residence. We had many workshops, seminars, and discussions not only at Denison but we went to both Wooster and Kenyon colleges in the same region. Going to Kenyon was a two hour drive and similar to Denison, it is also a liberal arts University located in a remote country side. At Kenyon, I delivered a lecture on Sri Lankan film industry with special reference to the third wave of Sri Lankan cinema. The lecture was organized and facilitated by a Sri Lankan scholar working at the Dept. of English, Assistant Prof. Kathleen Fernando. Kathleen resided with her husband, a physicist at a beautiful country house located in the corner of the ten acres of the University land. Her husband was a friendly person who loved Sri Lankan cricket and pop songs. Kathleen treated us with a Sri Lankan meal, basmati rice, and many curries to fulfill our nostalgic desires. We in return entertained them with what we possessed; singing and dance. 

After a long discussion, Prof. Cort shared two important documents with me that the Denison University had archived. One was a paper article published on Sarachchandra’s visit as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. This old official document had been issued from the Committee on International Exchange of Persons Conference Board of Associated Research Council Washington D. C. In this particular document which included scholars coming from Asia-pacific region, my attention was drawn towards two people. First one was Dr Sarachchandra and the other one was Dr Shanmuganathan Suppiah Senthe, a research officer in Biochemistry who used to work at medical Research Institute in Colombo. But unfortunately I could trace neither his research works nor his affiliations.

Figure 4: UVPA –UVPA Dance delegation visits to Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, 2019. Photo credit, Saumya Liyanage

Sarachchandra was at the Denison University from February 1966 till December 1966. From January 1967 to March 1967, he had gone to Earlham College Richmond Indiana to continue his residency. He was supposed to teach and conduct seminars on various subject expertise he possessed including Buddhism, Hindu Philosophy, Indian Aesthetic Theory, Asian and Sri Lankan folk theatre and especially Indian classical music. In this Fulbright-Hays document, to my surprise, within brackets, says, ‘with demonstration on Sitar’. I was further carried away when I imagined how he brought his Sitar with him this far. Denisonians might have undoubtedly been influenced and got motivated with his Indian classical music and sharing of his knowledge on aesthetic theories of Bharatha and other commentators. Sarachchandra has not visited Denison empty handed. As this Fulbright document depicts, for his lectures he had delivered, he has used slides and photos of Sri Lankan theatre and dance dramas, his own sound recordings that he had collected throughout during his own personal visits to various Sri Lankan country regions. He might have used all these supplementary teaching materials to deliver his lectures and demonstrations at Denison.

Figure 5: UVPA – Denison Contemporary Dance collaboration choreographed by Umeshi Rajeendra. Photo credit Tim Black, Denison University Granville Ohio 2019.

I walked down to my resident hall thinking about how Sarachchandra must have been walking in these Denison trails, before me, talking to students and academics he had met in lecturer theatres, dining halls, and at his resident. I was thinking how the sound of his Sitar must have echoed through the Denison theatre spaces, sometimes playing under leafy trees, surrounded by his followers and admirers bringing North Indian Classical music to an unknown world of listeners lived in Granville Ohio. The Sri Lankan traditional masks he brought to Denison would have been an exotic treasure for Denisonians, slides consisted of ritual practices, dance, dramas, and audio recordings of numerous Sri Lankan rituals and folk songs would have been played and discussed over and over again at lecture theatres here. Now I realize that I have not started this journey alone but have begun to step on the foot prints that he has left behind at Denison. My destiny has brought me here to realize this truth of my ancestral heritage. I remember that Eugenio Barba once said that ‘in my family of professional ethos there are no parents. There is an older brother, Jurek Jerzy Grotowski, Many uncles and relatives […] Ahead of them all, the two grandfathers: Stanislavski and Meyerhold’ (Barba 2003). I began to contemplate how I have lost the connection with my grandfather who has left his wealth behind unnoticed to me and to my siblings. 

I sat in the verandah of my resident, looking over the campus ahead, thinking about my forefather. Only a few days were remaining to stage our final collaborative performance with Denison students. All my colleagues were still rehearsing at the theatre, preparing and doing final refinements to the pieces that we were developing for two weeks. I came a bit early as to prepare a Sri Lankan meal for the nights gathering. My colleagues, Prof. Sandra, Prof. Cheryl, Randy (who was the husband of Prof. Sandra and he was driving me to all my unknown destinations throughout my stay at Denison), Prof. Ron Abraham, Prof. Lee and Prof. Christopher were to come for dinner that night.

Through the pine trees and green lawn ahead of me, I sat down on the couch in the verandah. Peaceful tranquility hovered in the air of Denison University grounds. I was sipping my American Bourbon whisky glass I bought from a nearby supermarket. Then I saw a dark skinny man with a brown jacket stepping towards the staff residential blocks holding a Sitar in the most sacred manner in his arm. I leaned on my couch, took my chilled glass of whisky with the bubbling ice cubes, and began sipping it. 

The following morning I suddenly woke up receiving a viber call from Sri Lanka. Several terrorist attacks had been carried out in some of the five star hotels and prominent churches islandwide, killing hundreds of people gathered to celebrate Easter Sunday. Sarachchandra proved that as a theatre artiste and an academic, I have a difficult world and a challenging journey ahead. 

I heard that the man carrying the Sitar playing rāga Malkauns at a distance.   

*The author of this paper wishes to pay his gratitude to Emeritus Professor John Cort, Denison University Granville Ohio USA who provided useful archived material. Also he would like to thank Himansi Dehigama for copy edit this paper. 

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    “Sarachchandra (who dabbled with music in Shanthinikethan in 1939 and who gave it up realizing that it was not his vocation) in Denisov with his Sitar way back in 1966 like the great Ravi
    Shankar did, spreading the gospel of Eastern music and Raga to the West ! How sweetly romantic!”

    “The following morning I suddenly woke up receiving a viber call from Sri Lanka. Several terrorist attacks had been carried out in some of the five star hotels and prominent churches islandwide, killing hundreds of people gathered to celebrate Easter Sunday. Sarachchandra proved that as a theatre artiste and an academic, I have a difficult world and a challenging journey ahead”.
    What is the connection between the Easter bomb, Sarachchandra and your realization of the difficulty of your journey as an artist?
    As a learned man and an exceptionally talented actor whom we all respect, I am sure you can do better. Regards and hoping that the injustice that happened to you recently has been redressed. MJA

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