Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Priest from Dankotuwa

I can understand the layman’s respect for the clergy. Particularly the Catholic clergy, given its historical import and how it’s spread the world over. Perhaps this is derived from my fascination with priests and the priesthood and how, at the end of the day, a faith congeals into a doctrine on suffering and the necessity of ending it. I used to believe then, for this reason perhaps, that the role of the clergy was to detach the institutions connected with it from the secular world, and by secular I included the culture of a country.

I realise now that I was wrong. Would the priesthood have suffered if it didn’t have its share of poets, philosophers, and artists? I doubt it. There is a dividing line between the secular and the mystical, but I have come to understand that it can get blurred at times (and thankfully so) when monks, priests, and imams take on the social, the political, and the artistic. I admire, for instance, the poetry of Mahinda Thero, that can by no stretch of the imagination be conflated with the anti-secular thrust of his faith, whereas I find constant solace and refuge in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Films are a different kettle of fish, however. As the youngest of the arts (and, if we are to take Lenin’s word for it, the most powerful) it still hasn’t gone beyond the much derided “bioscope” status it acquired during its first few decades in our part of the world. That’s a given. Films are by nature personal and secular: you can’t bring out a religious theme successfully and if you do, you have to be careful to not be sectarian in your outlook. That is why the best directors weren’t propagandists or preachers, but humanists. By that token, my guess is that the clergy can’t be filmmakers.

This week’s star was a priest. He was involved with our cinema in more ways than one (though he never directed or scripted a film). He was also a poet, a scholar, and above all a man who appreciated that the Catholic ethos could be rooted in his country if it was made to relate to its rites and rituals. He was successful in all fields, though he had his share of detractors and was unjustly deprived of those positions of power that lesser men aspired for and got. There are probably a hundred or so stories that can be related about him. I wouldn’t really know them all.

His name? Father Marcelline Jayakody.

Father Marcelline was born in June at Dankotuwa, a Catholic heartland if there ever was one in Sri Lanka, located near Negombo. He was born a Catholic by virtue of his father, a native doctor who knew his trade well and achieved the unenviable task of balancing tradition and faith in his life. Young Marcelline learnt about Ayurveda from him, no doubt inculcating in himself a love for tradition and the past. His mother, on the other hand, was a Buddhist: that would have helped him in understanding a faith which, for the better part of his career, aided in what he did and what he achieved in the name of his culture.

He was educated firstly at Madampe Vidyalaya and later at St Joseph’s College, Maradana. This was before free education, so when his parents found it difficult to spend money on his education, he was taken out of the latter school and was groomed to enter the priesthood at the Borella Seminary. Young Marcelline was ordained as a priest in 1927. He was 25 at the time.

Before he entered the cinema or became a lyricist, he was a poet. He came from a tradition that took in the ornate and the colourful in venerating our way of life. Predictably therefore, he joined the Colombo School of Poetry, housed as it was then by the likes of Meemana Premathilake and P. B. Alwis Perera. He would have found solace in the metric verses that these poets went for, as opposed to the modernist revolution that would eventually find its way to Sri Lanka through the nisadhas movement pioneered by G. B. Senanayake. For Father Marcelline, the role of poetry was primarily to extol tradition. Which is why he was zealously committed to the stanzas and structures endemic to our poetry.

His first real achievement, however, was the Duwa Passion Play. Until he became the parish priest in Duwa in 1939, the play was performed with puppets, not actors. No one dared to use real people, for such a thing would have been too secular for a festival that reflected on faith, forgiveness, and divinity.

Father Marcelline broke with tradition: except for the characters of Christ and Mother Mary, he used real, live actors for his cast, revised the entire play, instilled certain indigenous elements to it, and staged it. It goes without saying that the Passion Play at Duwa remains the most colourful, it not most vibrant, of all such plays in Asia.

And in a way, that showed him at his best: respectful of culture and tradition, always aware that relating a faith that was, for better or worse, connected with the outside world to the people of his country was tough. He therefore moved on. He composed melodies and rewrote several hymns. In Sinhala. He did this so effortlessly that they remain a vital part of the Catholic ethos today.

Not that he wasn’t opposed. I remember Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, delivering the keynote address at some function at the BMICH in 2013, observing that when Lester James Peries (who initiated Father Marcelline to the cinema with Rekava) called Father Marcelline to write down the lyrics for his film Sandeshaya, he politely refused, afraid (allegedly) that the Church would interfere with his involvement in a film that depicted the Portuguese (who brought his faith to Sri Lanka) rather unflatteringly.

That’s nonsense. There’s no harm caricaturing the invader while being respectful of what they contributed to our way of life, but back then I believe the Catholic Church would have been more conservative and hence less tolerant about such forays into the Arts among its flock and clergy.

He was a remarkable man in other fields too. He wrote books. His songs became more and more pronounced in their extolling of traditional life. Listen to them today – in particular, “Kahawan Goyamata” and “Olu Nelum Neriya Rangala” – and you will realise how much against the grain they went in valorising our rites and rituals. The latter song, for instance, composed for Rekava, has a line that is as atypical as it could have been: “Kabaragoya uge surathali”, one which Professor Ariyaratne joked about in that aforementioned speech when he commented that no one in their right mind would have opted for the kabaragoya in a song about love.

He was like that. Wrote what he felt. From his heart. With no frills.

The Catholic Church has clearly gone a long way since his time. I suppose it would be an extrapolation to suggest that all that’s owing to him, as there were other names (not least of which, Ernest Poruthota and Tissa Balasuriya) that rebelled against institutions and triumphed.

The thing with Father Marcelline, however, was that he created a precedent. He encouraged others to take after him, to question authority while being mindful that the faith adhered to and that authority weren’t necessarily the same.

And along the way, he gave us something to remember him by. We called him “pansale piyathuma.” Rightly. He would have shrugged off the title, being the modest man he was. But he needn’t have. He took that title the moment he entered the priesthood, and the moment he rebelled against authority.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, September 28 2016