The death of Sugathapala de Silva last Monday at the age of 74 after a long illness evokes a sense of epochal loss. For if Ediriweera Sarachchandra gave the Sinhala theatre a local habitation and a name by taking it to its roots in folk drama Sugath as everybody knew him, accomplished the next task of bringing the new theatre to the audiences of the 1960’s. It has been said of the Russian novel that it emerged from Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Great Coat.’ In the same sense all serious Sinhala drama of today has emerged from Sugathadasa de Silva’s womb although he may not have fathered them himself.
Dissatisfied with his own translations and adaptations of the plays of Moliere, Gogol and Chekhov (done in collaboration with E.F.C. Ludowyke and A.P. Gunaratne) Sarachchandra after studying the Japanese folk theatre turned to our own nadagam, kolam and sokari plays and the thovil ceremonies to seek the roots of an indigenous theatre which would evoke a resonance from the soul of a people only recently liberated from the imperial yoke. The fruit of this labour was, of course, ‘Maname’ his refined adaptation to the stage of the original nadagama as enacted by Charles Silva Gunasinghe Gurunnanse of Balapitiya.
He reached the apogee of these labours with ‘Sinhabahu’, his own play where with skilful stylised movements, memorable poetry and haunting music he was able to narrate the story of the origin of the Sinhala race and suggest through it a contemporaneous generational gap. But by the early 1960’s the stylised form had spawned mindless imitators who had made a caricature of Sarachchandra’s mode. What is more, there was the feeling that the mode had exhausted itself and it was this new thinking which Sugath’s generation represented. This was a generation of bi-lingual youth either of urban origin or who had come to Colombo in search of the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow. They were a middle class generation working in newspapers or the advertising industry.
They were also excited by the new trends in English literature, drama and the cinema. Most of them were grouped round the ‘Sinhala Jathiya’ paper (published by Gilbert Perera of the Perera and Sons family) and the magazine ‘Dina Dina’ edited by Anandatissa de Alwis. The late Cyril B. Perera recalls in a tribute to Neil I. Perera how of a Sunday, Neil would somehow find the money to watch a film with a couple of friends to the accompaniment of a few bottles of beer, a packet of kaju and a packet of Bristol cigarettes! Basically outsiders to the Big City these young men would chase the sun down into the sea with their conversation which centred on bringing about an awakening in the arts.
It was out of these conversations that the idea of forming ‘Apey Kattiya’ emerged. Established as a loose artistic grouping at the now extinct Indian Club in Kollupitiya it took the Sinhala theatre by storm with such plays as ‘Boarding Karayo’ and ‘Thattu Geval.’ But it was not confined to drama alone. Sugath himself brought out several novels during this time such as ‘Asuru Nikaya’ and ‘Biththi Hathara’ later made into a film by Parakrama de Silva.
Sugath was no doubt inspired by dramatists such as Tennesse Williams and Pirandello translating or adapting successively their ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ but there was no doubt that he was a natural dramatist wishing to break through the mould of the proscenium arch. Technique which he used at the time such as a character running up on stage through the audience were revolutionary for their times and was like a whirlwind blowing through the claustrophobic corridors of the Sinhala theatre as well as ossified middle-class manners and morals.
This was a personification of the aspirations, satisfactions and frustrations of a new urbanised generation which was burgeoning in the 1960’s.
But if in the 1960’s Sugath expressed an existentialist sense of alienation, by the 1970’s he had become a more overt politically inclined dramatist and writer. By this I do not mean that he ever waved a party flag or fell victim to the wave of socialist realism which swept the arts sometimes in deference to the new United Front regime led by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1970. Sugath was too percipient a writer for that. In fact there is no other artist in Sri Lanka (With the exception perhaps of Gunadasa Kapuge) who has been so battered by the bludgeon of blind political power as Sugath. However Sugathapala de Silva never fell into the intellectual error of confusing personal political convictions (which he firmly held) with partisan party politics.
His best play will perhaps remain ‘Dunna Dunu Gamuwe’ which was made in the aftermath of the 1971 Insurrection. Although centred on a trade union struggle (which might have looked like small beer to the brave insurrectionists) it had an admixture of politics and art expertly mixed with technique and aided by some superb acting by the late U. Ariyawimal and W. Jayasiri was the percussor of the serious political theatre which followed at the end of the decade.
In that sense Sugathapala de Silva will remain the one bridge which brought together the realistic theatre of the 1960’s with the absurdist theatre of the 1970’s and the post-modernist theatre which followed. Whether it is Simon Navagaththegama, Parakrama Niriella, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake or the latest star Rajitha Dissanayake all of them owe their origins to Sugath. Some may have followed his politics and others his techniques and some a mixture of both but the debt is beyond doubt and will certainly not be challenged.
Born in Nawalapitiya, the son of a small trader, Sugath grew up in that peculiar milieu of small town commerce with its mix of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim traders. He has portrayed these experiences of Colombo and Nawalapitiya in different ways in the novels ‘Ballo Bath Kathi,’ ‘Ikbithi Siyalloma Sathutin Jeevathvuha’ and ‘Esewenam Minisune Me Asaw’ which were peculiar political novels in their own ways. Here we see the agonies and ecstasies of a newly-arrived class, their gradual evolution into a national bourgeoisie and finally their bid to challenge and even dialodge the old comprador class. As a political novelist Sugath was no propagandist and was too subtle a writer to make overt political statements but all his work is shot through with his sense of immense humanism and his hope for a better society for the wretched of the Sri Lankan earth.
A self-made man Sugath was widely read and belonged to a class of self-reliant and self-supporting artistes who are now extinct in the country.
Even though politically battered, economically derelict and at times his family itself scattered he never gave up hope or went behind the patronage of politicians. Even though bed-ridden for the last several years he did important translations the last being Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Funny Boy’ which was released only last month.
This showed his readiness to keep up with the young and the latest in literature and ideas even in the seventh decade of a crowded life.
Sugath worked for long at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation as a producer and in the late 1960’s was in charge of the weekly radio drama and the weekly short story programs which were the first stamping grounds of writers and dramatists who are today well-known in their own right. But he himself led no school or cult and ‘Apey Kattiya’ was a loose democratic organisation with no formal structure although he was certainly its undisputed leader or the ‘Loveable Dictator’ as he sought to describe the role of the director in the theatre.
In both the theatre and literature Sugath can be seen as an early percussor of post-modernism, a much abused term today. One of his earliest novels ‘Asura Nikaya’ was a depiction of the silver screen of the 1950’s and 1960’s when stars were worshipped as gods and goddesses. ‘Biththi Hathara’ was about the aimless life of a philandering young man adrift in the heartless city. In ‘Hitler Ella Marai’ he re-created the life of Adolph Hitler in his own idiosyncratic manner.
Sugathapala de Silva was almost the last of a generation. This was a time when Government servants like Henry Jayasena, S. Karunaratne, Sugathapala Senarath Yapa, R.R. Samarakone, Sandun Wijesiri and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake (to name only a few which presently come to mind) were active in the theatre and the cinema although receiving no duty leave for these cultural activities.
The cost of living was reasonable and a middle-class family could go to the theatre or the cinema without much strain on the family budget. Buses ran late into the night so that they could go back home. The Lumbini and the Lionel Wendt theatre were hives of activity before the Centre could not hold any more.
Today, however, we live in the electronic age which some call progress but where much of the decencies of life have been lost. Sugath himself was a victim of this decay and death of decency but watched it all with a philosophic detachment from his sick-bed in a ground floor Moratuwa Soysapura scheme flat.
Many of the luminaries of ‘Apey Kattiya’ such as Cyril B. Perera, Neil I. Perera, Augustus Vinayagaratnam and G.W. Surendra went before him. He follows them bringing down the curtain not only on a full and chequered life but also a cultural era in our troubled country.
Ape kattiya dared to differ
By Madhubhashini Disanayaka -16th March 1997
The young Sugathapala de Silva In an article published two years ago in the drama magazine ‘Preksha’, Simon Navgattegama speaks of a group of young players who had made a major contribution to drama in our society – the group ‘Ape Kattiya’ (Our Group). He concludes:
The change that occurred during the fifties and sixties in the Sinhala stage can still be seen in a mature form today. The change that Navagattegama speaks about is the portrayal of social problems on stage – the bringing in of social realism on to the field of drama that had been swept away into the form of stylized drama with its plots taken from myths and legends, distant in time and space, with the success of Sarachchandra’s ‘Maname’ in 1956.
Though it is hard to agree with the belief that the universal themes that stylized drama usually dealt with had no relevance to the present, there did exist a criticism (and still does, as apparent in the article ‘Hitting at Maname’ in The Sunday Times of 16 February 1997) that the form that took the country by storm did not deal with the problems that affected its people.
Navagattegama speaks of the challenge of producing realistic drama in the fifties when the powerful “Peradeniya School” was propagating the stylized form which they considered to be closer to our traditional roots. ‘”Luckily for modern Sinhala drama, Ape Kattiya was stubborn enough to follow their own vision with obstinacy, completely ignoring the enormous challenge posed to them by the Peradeniya school.”
OldSugathapala de Silva: Optimistic about the future of Sinhala drama
“The first name that comes to mind when I think of Ape Kattiya is Sugathapala de Silva”, says Navagattegama. Banduala Jayawardena in his newest book “A brush stroke sketch of contemporary Sinhala theatre 1950-1980” (1977) says, “These plays (Sugathapala de Silva’s Bodinkarayo – 1961, and Thattu geval – 1964) of the Ape Kattiya were in fact a concurrently growing protest movement against the so-called stylized theatre of tradition.
Sugathapala de Silva named this genre Thatvika or realistic drama, implying apparently that the plays which utilized myth and had lions, kings, princes and princesses for characters, had no relevance to reality. Plays of the Ape Kattiya, were on the other hand full of characters one meets in urban streets, boarding houses and mercantile offices….”
When there seems to be some interest in assessing the worth of stylized theatre in the field of Sinhala drama, it seemed fitting that we should meet the man who is supposed to be one of the founders of the opposing trend.
“I am against the word ‘opposing’,” says Sugathapala de Silva. “An artist is supposed to be a man of sensitivity. What has anger against another artist got to do with that kind of person? At that time what we wanted to show was that the stylized form was not the ultimate method. We had enough confidence in ourselves to go ahead and do what we believed in. We wanted to do the best we could – not put someone else down.”
Also, the playwright believes that the form is subjugated to the content. He feels that the content itself would determine what the form of the drama should be. If we look at the last play of Ape Kattiya “Maratsad” (1987), we see that he does not hesitate to use a form that is far removed from realistic drama, when it suited what he had to say.
‘We should be open to all styles from all over the world and enrich ourselves with what we can get,” he says and this view shows why he feels that translations and adaptations have a positive influence on the drama of any country. “If we did not have drama from other countries to compare our productions with, then we can deceive the people here that everything we do is good.
“There must be a yardstick for people to judge. And why is it that we consider it all right to borrow from the West when it comes to Science and Technology, and it is wrong to do so in the field of art?” he asks, as a response to another belief that bringing in adaptations and translations of foreign playwrights was detrimental to original work produced within the country.
For Sugathapala de Silva, drama is, one way of expression. ln his involvement in it, he did not have a clear cut desire to serve any other idea than the desire to create. “Theatre is what I chose to express things I wanted to communicate. It is the expression that is important. The medium comes to one. Perhaps if my father had bought me a racing car when I was very young, driving may have been the medium of expression. Who knows?”
According to Bandula Jayawardena, however, Mr. de Silva’s contribution has far reaching consequences: “But a daringly different tendency (than the drama that was done under political patronage) had been initiated in 1972 by Sugathapala de Silva in Dunna Dunu Gamuwe which had for background a company strike with trade union leaders, blacklegs and middle class wives as in Jayasena’s Mana Ranjana Vada Varjana but the play ends entirely on the side of the strikers… the play opened the doors for an outburst that had been silently simmering among youthful playwrights. It took the form of a play of protest. Hindsight would make of Dunna a virtual Pandora’s Box…”
Mr. Jayawardena feels that “neither de Silva’s first attempt at traditional stylization in Nil Katrol Mal (1967) nor his Nandivisala (1977) attempting to make satirical use of a Jataka, nor the host of translations and adaptations he produced had as far reaching an influence as the Dunna.”
It is not only in stage drama that Sugathapala de Silva has made a change for the better. His 19 years at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation had resulted in the radio plays done by the Sinhala Service at that time, becoming enormously popular. Since he had already had experience in stage drama it was not difficult for him to deal with radio plays, he says and apart from introducing many newcomers into ‘Guvanviduli ranga mandala’ (radio drama) he himself wrote scripts for it.
Says Palitha Perera, now the Director of the Sinhala Service, who worked in the same unit with
Sugathapala de Silva when de Silva first joined the SLBC, “Sugath had a very good sense of judgment, when it came to understanding the worth of scripts and the skill of newcomers. That was of enormous value.” Sugathapala de Silva says that it was by watching Palitha Perera, who had preceded him at the unit, that he learnt how to tackle this new medium. As a response to that, Palitha Perera smiles to say, “coming from such a man as Sugath, that would be one of the greatest honors I could get.”Sugathapala de Silva is also a writer of novels, now working on his seventh. His first novel,
Biththi Hathara (1963) (The Enclosure) which was turned into a film, has a protagonist whose life seems to have resemblance to the writer’s own, specially with regard to the death of the mother at a young age, and the death of the closest friend in his youth. Asked about it, de Silva smiles to say, the first novel would always have an element of autobiography.Biththi Hathara is a story of a young man’s journey through various relationships, of his finding (and losing) himself through his contact with others in the process of growing up. The criss-crossing of time in the novel though somewhat confusing to the reader, gives it, even at that point, an element of audio visual art. For a first novel, the depth that he explores with regard to the complex process of living and of feeling alive is impressive.
In his novels too one can see a trend that parallels his theatre work. There are novels – original and translated – that deal with political issues. His Ballo bath Kathi (Dogs eat rice) deals with the life of a high politician, with all its intrigues, complexities and hypocrisies. His fearlessness to tackle issues that are most often left alone is still apparent when he speaks of Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Funny Boy’s as a work that he might consider for translation. Homosexuality is not a theme that is usually dealt with in Sinhala literature. De Silva had touched upon that theme earlier in a drama and even in his novels, aspects of sexuality dealt in a forthright manner.
Born in 1928 in Weligama, de Silva studied in a few schools in Galle and after passing the tenth grade from Jinaraja College, Gampola, came to Colombo. The expectation of his uncle, who took care of his education, was that he should study to be a doctor. But one look at the frog that he had to cut, put an end to that education.
As a boy he had been exposed to the popular Tower Hall plays and the Minerva plays of the time, brought to Gampola by his uncle. With his grandfather, he had visited the many thovils that the grandfather had been very fond of seeing. And his curiosity to learn more about art had led him to books and a great deal of reading and learning. With such a background perhaps the decision not to be a doctor may not have surprised many. Also, in Colombo, his exposure to the world of art was greater and he made full use of it by going to see as many plays as he could.
His various jobs after that time included teaching English, and working at the K.V.G. Bookshop, where he could continue his dearly loved reading. It was when he was working on the newspaper, ‘Sinhala Jathiya’, that he was one of a group of young men who met regularly at the Indo-Ceylon Cafe to sip tea and bite into a wade and discuss art, and exchange ideas found in books that they had read individually.
The others of the crowd included Cyril B Perera, G.W. Surendra, Vipula Dharmawardena, Ralec Ranasinghe and so on.
“I used to criticise the plays that were running at that time quite a lot” says Sugathapala de Silva, smiling at the recollection. “And once, Cyril said, then you do one and show us. That was when I wrote Bodinkarayo”.
That script was entered into a drama competition organized by the Arts Council in 1962. It won awards for the best script, best production and the best male actor. Just to prove that this was not a fluke, de Silva wrote his next play, Thattu Geval in the same style.
“To enter Bodinkarayo to the competition we had to fill a form which had asked which group was presenting the play. We just put ‘Our Group’ (Ape Kattiya) there,” says de Silva speaking of the name that had since then become very well known in the field of Sinhala drama.
Another legend in this field, that of Maname and Sarachchandra, of whom it is generally believed, Sugathapala de Silva stood in contrast according to the recent article ‘Hitting at Maname’ comes to mind. Among other things, it does not seem fair to criticize Maname for the paucity of its imitations. And to think that Sarachchandra himself admitted that Maname did more harm than good in Sinhala drama, is to miss Sarachchandra’s subtle humour and sarcasm completely.
Perhaps it is fitting here to mention that various forms of art, once created in a country, can only enrich it. Art grows in opposition and contrast. Sometimes the reason something new grows is the existence of the old.
Mr. De Silva himself is a proponent of enrichment by whichever way it is possible and holds that form really is incidental to what has to be said. His contribution to Sinhala drama has not been slight and even now the spirit of his creative power takes him to more modern mediums like the teledrama with equal vigour and enthusiasm.
With a cheerfulness that seemed characteristic, De Silva admits that it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce stage dramas, when television attracts most of the talent, but admits that it is inevitable, given the financial difficulties that most people have to face.
But he speaks with optimism about the future of Sinhala drama. He has detected a trend of upcoming young men in this field, who produce plays for the sheer joy of its creation. They are dedicated enough to the art not to be lured into commercial, popular productions and in them, he sees hope. And when such a man as he, who has been so long in the field and has done so much by his work, does not consider the future to be too bleak, perhaps we too can take heart.