Sunday, September 7, 2014

By way of tribute to Bandula Vithanage

Shakespeare is universal. Indeed, he may have been the world’s first truly universal artist. That’s hardly a contestable fact. But transposing him to another setting, and in the process spilling half his essence in the dust, is formidable. It cannot be done. Lesser men have given up. Nonetheless, from among those who tried and tested this incomparable writer in their native background, there were those who succeeded. They were rare. This week we mourned the passing away of one of these rare gems. By way of tribute even, we can hardly repay, or even for that matter measure, the debt we owe to him. Bandula Vithanage, one of the Sinhala theatre’s most treasured icons, is no more.

Language and literature are not clean different. They are interconnected in ways few would dare dispute. The problem with Shakespeare, and indeed with many other playwrights, is that, sans his text and idiom, it is difficult to convey to any audience his outlook. This is a problem endemic to every language. Translation in a way castrates the essence of any text. What Bandula Vithanage did was to strip his translations of any dogmatic tendency towards embracing the vernacular while neglecting the Bard’s locale. No-one who had the privilege of seeing his Venisiye Velenda (The Merchant of Venice), as I did, can deny that. But I’m getting myself a little too ahead here.

Bandula Vithanage was born in 1940, at a time when the world had spurned colonialism and countries were striving to reclaim lost identities. Educated initially at a school at Athuruwella, in Bentota, and later at Carey College Colombo, young Vithanage completed his A/Levels at Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda. While his primary education had been in English, he opted for Sinhala in his later studies, a curious anomaly which opened to him the best of both languages. He revelled in this twilight, bilingual world, and his interest in the theatre was furthered by his encounter with Shakespeare. Later, at Colombo University, he came under the influence of Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Here, arguably, he achieved a near-complete fusion of East and West, creating the base on which his later career would rest.

Not surprisingly, he began his career as dramatist with a translation: a play by Harold Pinter. He began associating himself with Sugathapala de Silva, then an unabashed critic of Professor Sarachchandra’s stylized plays, and Simon Navagaththegama, the novelist and playwright. Through de Silva he began his association with another Shakespeare aficionado, Tony Ranasinghe. Meanwhile, of course, a whole spate of plays continued, both translations and originals. These attempts all won award and accolade, with his debut, Gangawak Sapaththu Kabalak saha Maranayak (written by Navagaththegama) gaining two State Drama Festival awards.

To those who thought that an art medium transposed to another setting must be stripped of all its foreign accretions, Bandula Vithanage was an unforgivable rebel. His translations of Thornton Wilder (Senehabara Dolly, Hiru Dahasa) and Jean Anouilh (Becket) were “vernacular” in their language only: in pretty much everything else, the “background” was decidedly Western. This didn’t seem to trouble him, though, and we see the legacy of this anomaly in productions of foreign plays even today.

Every playwright has his baptism of fire, his vigil. Vithanage met his with Shakespeare. His friendship with Tony Ranasinghe resulted in the first “real” translation of the Bard, with Venisiye Velenda. It was first staged in 1980, at a time of deep social revolt. Shakespeare seems to have struck ground with him, when, in a 2009 interview, he admitted that the Bard could influence and indeed had influenced the Sinhala theatre. That’s true. Shakespeare was not foreign to Sri Lanka the same way Brecht had been. Henry Jayasena had brought Brecht to our country; Shakespeare, however, had been with us since the days of Nurti and John de Silva. What Vithanage did, however, was to make available to a lay audience, with no music or melodrama (as was the case with John de Silva), Shakespeare in a local backdrop. That he succeeded is in a large part due to his early schooling and childhood interest in foreign plays.

More were to follow, of course: there were translations of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and A Comedy of Errors. They all won him accolades, none of which could ever hope to measure the ripples in Sinhala theatre he had created.

Then there were his stints at the cinema. Like all thespians deeply rooted in the stage, he exhibited a distaste for the film medium. But he joined it nonetheless. There were roles in Ahas Gawwa, Viragaya, Mathu Yam Davasa, and a whole lot more. There were also stints at television, which is how I first got to see him. But nothing could compare with the stage for him: “I hardly read novels,” he once remarked, “mostly plays.” The only way he could have summed his interest up. It hardly needs to be added that he rarely, if at all, watched films in his childhood. Plays occupied his entire time. The stage was his vindication, an entire vista justifying his career, illustrious as it was.

Looking back, it seems difficult to put down in two or three sentences what more than 30 years accomplished. Writers can do scant justice to monuments, after all. The Bard left us almost 400 years ago. His legacy seems indomitable enough. What Bandula Vithanage, and indeed those who followed him in school productions and elsewhere, did was to bring that legacy closer to home. The Bard had hitherto been mainly confined to Dramsoc and Nurti. Vithanage ensured that Shakespeare need not be open to only those who enjoyed the perks of English education. He also ensured, however, that this did not lead to the Bard’s language being castrated in the process of revealing his magic to a lay audience.

A long time it has been since he caught us unawares with Venisiye Velenda. A much longer time it has been since Dramsoc fell apart in the wake of people like Sarachchandra and the 1956 cultural revolt. Much has happened. We can never pay back Bandula Vithanage for what he unleashed. The greatest tribute to be paid to him, I think, is by immortalizing his legacy. “How?” you may ask. By ensuring that what he unleashed is not contorted, narrowed, or constricted in the pursuit of short-term profit or pleasure. I am sure you will agree.