Ediriweera Sarachchandra (3 June 1914 – 16 August 1996) was an artist unparalleled. He was playwright, novelist, poet, literary critic, essayist and social commentator. Considered as Sri Lanka’s premier playwright, he was a senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya for many years and served as Sri Lankan Ambassador to France ( 1974–1977)
Sarachchandra was born on 3 June 1914. He completed his early education at Richmond College in Galle, St. John’s College in Panadura, S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and St. Aloysius’ College in Galle.Sarachchandra started his career as a teacher at St. Peter’s College in Colombo 4. He then joined the publishing company Lake House in an administrative position. 1933, gained admission to the University College,Colombo and offered Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhala for the first degree and passed out in 1936 with a first class and sat for the Ceylon Civil Service examination (because of his parents insistence) and came first in the island.In 1939 Sarachchandra wed Aileen Beleth. He subsequently travelled to Santiniketan to study Indian Philosophy and Music. Sarachchandra returned to Sri Lanka in 1940 and resumed his teaching career at St. Thomas College in Mt. Lavinia. From 1942 to 1944 he worked on his Masters Degree in Indian Philosophy as an external student of the University of London while holding the position of Sub-Editor of the Sinhala Dictionary.Sarachchandra returned to the University College (Now University of Colombo) serving as a lecturer in Pali from 1947 to 1949. He gained entry to the University of London in 1949 to study towards a post graduate degree in Western Philosophy.
Sarachchandra produced his first stylist play Maname in 1956 to widespread acclaim. Maname is generally considered the first real Sinhala drama, signaling the transition from the Nadagam or folk drama to the modern theatrical drama format. It was praised especially for drawing influence from the traditional nadagam play style. He continued as a playwright, developing his play Sinhabahu in 1961, which is widely considered as his best work. Most of his plays were adaptations from Buddhist Jathakas or Sinhala folklore giving his work instant and lasting popularity with the population that identified with their roots.
The University of Jaffna and the University of Peradeniya conferred Sarachchandra the degree of Doctor of Literature in 1982. Also in that year he was made an Emeritus Professor at the University of Peradeniya. In 1983 the State of Kerala in South India awarded Sarachchandra the Kumaran Asian World Prize. In 1988 he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Literature.
Prof. Ediriwira Sarachchandra Memorial Orations presided over by Dr. Pundit Amaradeva Sarachchandra Sahurjjana Sansadaya is organising third annual orations at Sri Lanka Foundation Institute on Friday 14th June at 4.30 p.m. in appreciation of the service rendered by Prof. Ediriwira Sarachchandra to Sinhala Literature, Theatre and Social thought. The Sansadaya has invited Dr. Pundit Amaradeva, who was honoured recently with the prestigious awards, Magsaysay by the Government of Philippines and Bharat Padmasri by the Government of India, as a mark of honour to preside over these orations. Pandit Amaradeva will deliver one of the key note addresses on “my pleasant experience in composin g music to some plays of Prof. Sarachchandra. He hopes to discuss his experience working in close collaboration with Sarachchandra, while demonstrating his application of North Indian rages and folk melodies in his composition of music for the plays Pabawathie, Vessantara, Lomahansa and Bhawakadaturawa. This would be a novel experience to the audience as he hopes to present the original form of the Raga and demonstrate how he has changed this to suit the dramatic situations of the Play. Mahanama Wickremasinghe, Nissanka Diddeniya, Menike Attanayake the veteran dramatists who took part in Sarachchandra’s Plays would assist him in singing. The other lecture will be delivered by Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere of the Department of Anthropology, University of Princeton, U.S.A. on “Modern Sinhala Literary Criticism; Professor Ediriwira Sarachchandra’s contribution.” Dr. Obeyesekere will examine in this lecture the Contribution of Sarachchandra as a pioneer in search of a method to evaluate Sinhala Literature. How he was influenced by Sanskrit and modern English critical theories will be discussed in detail. Dr. Obeyesekere was a pupil of Sarachchandra and had taken part in Sarachchandra’s Plays and published a book on modern Sinhala Literary Criticism. Sarachchandra Sahurjjana Sansadaya invites all who are interested to listen to the above orations to be held on Friday 14th June, 2002 at 4.30 p.m. at Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, 100, Independence Mawatha, Colombo 07.From ‘Poetic Drama and Poetic Theory’ (edited by Dr. James Hogg) – Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s’s ‘Pemato Jayathi Soko’ translated by D. M. de Silva.
The name of Professor Ediriwira Sarachchandra is today a household word in Sri Lanka. He is the author of three major plays: Maname (1956), Sinhabahu (1961) and Pemato Jayati Soko (1969) as well as of a number of smaller pieces which have enjoyed great popularity with the theatre-goer and take pride of place in the dramatic literature of his country. He has achieved the unusual distinction (the more unusual for an academic) of being recognised in his own lifetime as the national dramatist of his country. The recognition came with Maname in 1956, nearly twenty years ago. Since then many things have changed in the country, and in the theatre, new plays have been written and new reputations made; but the standing of Professor Sarachchandra has continued in the general estimation refreshingly unchanged. In 1974 he was appointed Ceylonese Ambassador in Paris. It was an appointment which was very clearly meant to have a special significance. For though his personal culture and his achievements in the Sinhalese theatre made him an eminently suitable representative of his people, he had no diplomatic career behind him and certainly no political qualifications. The appointment came appropriately as an acknowledgement by a Government, entrusted with power for a period only, of his more stable distinction beyond the reach of political and other vicissitudes.
The question of his continued distinction is an interesting one, and a consideration of it will help to define the nature of his achievement and the place it occupies in the national consciousness. His finest writing dates from 1956, the year in which the phenomenon which used to be called South-East Asian resurgence was at its highest in Sri Lanka. It marked the 2500th anniversary of Buddhism which was expected to inaugurate a second efflorescence of the Buddhist teaching and of the Singhalese people who were its custodians. The nation was invited to look forward to an era of millennial prosperity under a righteous ruler called Diyasena whose advent had been prophesied in the thirteenth century. The victory at the General Elections, in the same year, of the People’s United Front, a political party with an emphatically populist and Sinhalese Buddhist programme, seemed to offer a palpable guarantee of just this; and its leader Mr. Bandaranaike, though not perhaps the legendary Diyasena, came with all the charisma of a Messianic figure to Singhalese-Buddhist nationalism. By the mid 1960’s however the enthusiasm had sadly waned. The assassination of Mr. Bandaranaike at the hands of (of all people) a Buddhist monk put a cruel end to all hopes of the millennium. Even in his own life-time, his more futuristic legislation had been adroitly frustrated by cautious statesmen with a clear eye to their own immediate interest, and the Freedom Party Government which succeeded to his name and programme could hardly be expected to fulfil expectations so monumental. The road to the millennium was blocked by the hard facts of economics; and the endemic ills of a “developing” country – unemployment, food scarcities, the complicated inefficacies of a stultifying political system -came to constitute the national pre-occupation. Sarachchandra’s plays which do not address themselves to any one of these particular problems, might seem in the current ethos of depression to stem from a period of outdated, if enviable, innocence.
On the face of it, the plays might appear to countenance this view. Sarachchandra’s dramatic personae are usually royal or mythical personages and the particular situations they find themselves in might seem to have little relevance to a modern condition. Added to this, they are given to poetic utterance, the playwright’s characteristic idiom being the highly embellished and un-contemporary diction of classical Singhalese poetry. Other Sinhalese dramatists writing at the moment dramatise social problems in contemporary terms in a partisan spirit. They quite frequently achieve theatrical success as well as the congenial notoriety that goes with tendentious writing. But this in no way affects the reception of the Sarachchandra plays. With no ideo- logical bias to assure their success, they still continue – to the occasional embarrassment of Sunday journalists – to attract and hold their audiences.
If we are not to accuse Ceylonese audiences of a particularly debased appreciation or of sentimental self-indulgence – something which the extreme sophistication of his literary style precludes – it would appear that even at the present time the plays of Sarachchandra are in some wise relevant and fulfil a national need. The nature of this need and the playwright’s mode of answering it become clear to us when we consider his creative endeavour and achievement in the context of the cultural life- history of the nation of which they are inextricably a part.
The life-history of the nation has until recently been to a great extent a history of foreign rule.For over four centuries Sri Lanka had known the burden of subjection to foreign imperialisms. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, all three of them Western and Christian powers, had- ruled the island in succession. The political and economic consequences of this need no elaboration; they have been established by the researches of the historian and the rhetoric of politicians. It is only necessary for our purpose to notice that, all other burdens apart, the very presence of the stranger – alien, imperial and so unconscionably over-long in time – was of itself a grievous burden to the national psyche. It resulted in a demoralisation more insidious and fundamentally ruinous than economic hardship, involving a resentful feeling, often submerged but fiercely active nonetheless, of ethnic and cultural inferiority. The road to salvation or a restoration of national self-respect lay of course in the resentment. Its most potent spokesman was the turn of the century religious and social reformer
Anagarika Dharmapˆla (1864-1933). Displaying equally with moral intensity a remarkable force and versatility in invective, he raged against “the diabolism of vicious paganism introduced by the British administrators” and reminded the Singhalese people (“the sweet, gentle Aryan children of an ancient and historic race”) of their splendid past: “There exists no race on the earth today that has had a more glorious, triumphant record of victory.” His tirades are unreadably ill-bred today, and the rhetorical assertions about past glory sound fatuous merely . But in a man not lacking in intelligence and possessed of a genuine moral afflatus, both the ill-breeding and the fatuousness are evidence of an intense and fundamental need for a new valuation of the national psyche. The Anagˆrika (the Homeless One) was expressing a feeling, that was to grow stronger through his influence, of opposition to the Westernising and Christianising influences that British imperialism meant, which were threatening to submerge and utterly destroy the national identity. That identity he insisted on and firmly defined: to be genuinely Sinhalese one must also be a Buddhist. In the face of the threat to it the Anagˆrika succeeded in establishing the Sinhalese-Buddhist self-consciousness. (It is notable that he used the label, which has since gained wide currency, of Sinhala Bauddhaya as the title of his influential newspaper in 1906.) The fact remained however that the glories he pointed to, in so far as they had ever existed, belonged to a distant antiquity: the pride he invoked found pitifully little to sustain itself in the shabby context of our modern dispossession.
The Anagarika expressed a social and religious pre-occupation. In the movement of Singhalese-Buddhist resurgence there were also men with specifically aesthetic and literary concerns. As might be expected, they looked back in the same spirit of patriotic fervour to the literary glories of the past. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century lay pundits and learned monks issued and re- issued the lost classics of Singhalese-Buddhist literature through the newly available medium of the printing press. The style of language in which these works were written, their rhetorical conventions and grammar, came to provide a standard for contemporary writing, so that a staple of literary expression was evolved which based itself on one developed around the thirteenth century. The phenomenon is no more curious than it is natural. Foreign invasion, internal political dissension and all the long agony of a culture in decline had necessarily entailed the decline of letters. Consequently, any attempt at original writing had to be also an attempt to restore the interrupted tradition of Singhalese literature. The Singhalese of modern colloquy was admittedly remote from the literary idiom but the convention of separate registers had always existed (as it still exists), and the question of its sometimes difficult intelligibility could not in the climate of resurgence prevent its general acceptability. The idiom of the classics had a certain splendour of association: its Sanskritic sonorities came to the modern ear with the reverberations of a glorious antiquity, while its patterns of rhetoric and conventions of mythological allusion seemed to be palpable witness of the sumptuous rituals of an ancient culture.
In the 1920’s the Singhalese purist and social reformer Cumaratunga Munidasa (1887-1944) tried to carry the resumptive tendency of contemporary writing to an even greater extreme and to resuscitate an idiom from beyond the thirteenth century. As purists always will he failed, but in his own writings and speeches achieved the stature of a great symbolic figure of the resurgence, carrying into the sphere of specifically cultural activity the demand of the Anagˆrika for a new valuation of the national psyche. In his addiction to the inane boast he showed himself an heir of the Anagˆrika whom he far outdid, as when he insisted on the antiquity of pure Singhalese (‘Helese’) which he declared to be ‘older than the oldest of Indian languages.’ He repudiated with scorn all suggestions of an Indo-Aryan origin for the language. “There is perhaps no nation older than we. How can we therefore accept the theory that everything of ours is derived from outside?”
Whatever of splendour might have accrued to Singhalese literature in the patriotic retrospect, its present remained unilluminated by original greatness. The energies of the contemporary writer, it appears, were used up in resuscitating and mastering the older styles or (frequently) embarrassed by the incongruity between an ancient idiom and a modern condition. Despite continuous and varied striving throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, there was, when the island achieved independence in 1948, with the notable exception of Martin Wickremasinghe’s novel Gamperaliya (Change in the Village) 1944, no work of signal merit produced. The work of art that was to give brave and beautiful expression to Singhalese-Buddhist self- consciousness still belonged to the future. To the present belonged the depressing awareness or worse, ignorance, that English and with it Western literature, was immeasurably superior, more live and daily discovering itself, while in the light of it the local achievement was provincial, second-rate and lacking in critical direction.
It was the achievement of Professor Sarachchandra, in 1956, to annul this inferiority. His plays, it was immediately recognised, made use of traditional styles and motifs; his dramatic persons were the symbolic figures of national myth, and they spoke a language which, while rich in its classical resonances, was also graciously intelligible to the modern ear. For the Singhalese play- goer the effect of his plays was to dramatise the glory of the past and to demonstrate that the splendour of their ancient civilisation was still current among them, that the creative energies which produced it were active in the present in the soul at least of a single playwright. In other words, in Professor Sarachchandra’s work the inane vaunts with which the leaders of Singhalese resurgence had tried to stimulate – and simulate – national self-confidence found at last their substance. The cultural emancipation the Anagˆrika and Cumaratunga had worked for, Sarachchandra made possible; his plays quite definitely represented in their own sphere a decisive phase in the ‘struggle against imperialism.’ They expressed potently the national sense of identity, re-assured it perhaps, and certainly transfigured it – a function of abiding significance in a postcolonial society. That they performed this function without themselves subsiding in a nationalist hysteria is a vital factor in explaining their continued effectiveness and validity for the ‘outsider.’ For, though the playwright undoubtedly derived his stimulus from the intensification of nationalist feeling around 1956, he was not himself trapped within its confines, and did not, as dramatist, subscribe to its heady optimism. (His major plays, one might interject, are after all, tragedies.) Consequently, his plays do not address themselves to the transient mood of a nation but to its permanent experience, and with it to the experience of all mankind: they contrive to be national without losing their claim to be universal. Thus, at the present time, when the urgency of economic problems has so drastically changed the mood of the nation, his plays, while they still provide a focus of identity, answer also deeply to the spectator’s sense of the complexity of experience.
The achievement was a difficult one, the result of long and complex striving, and cannot properly be understood or rightly valued without an understanding of that striving. Thus it would be useful to consider the playwright’s career in the context of the Sinhalese theatre.
Sarachchandra had little in the form of a live tradition of drama to help him. There had never been, as far as we know, a literary drama in the Singhalese past. The plays of Kalidasa although they were studied, unlike his poems provoked no imitations. Among the folk, however, towards the beginning of the nineteenth century a species of dramatic entertainment had evolved called the nadagam. The nadagam derived from the Roman Catholic folk plays of the Tamils of the North of Ceylon but came among the Singhalese to occupy itself with more secular concerns. However, it preserved in its mingling of song, dance and rustic buffoonery the salient formal characteristics of its original. There was besides the kolam a primitive entertainment which took over demonic and human characters familiar from popular magical rituals and paraded them for the general amusement without any unifying story.