Tuesday, September 26, 2017

'Bhava' and 'Harasara Pranama': Of craft and homage

Ranjith Rubasinghe, who occasionally acts (even now) but is better known to those in his field as an Assistant Director, was born in Akuressa, Matara to a father who operated as a peon by day and an amateur playwright by night. “He could sing, he could act, he could craft,” he remembered him for me some months ago, at my house. The father’s passion for theatre had naturally trickled down to the son, and soon enough young Ranjith and his friends were helping him with the choreography and the sets. “Lighting was a problem back then, so we went for the simplest combination: Petromax Lamps and coloured paper.” I was bewildered, which is why I asked him how. He replied, “Depending on the characters and the mood we wanted to convey, we were given cues to change the coloured paper to green, red, or yellow.”

I fervently believe that no art form can survive for long without a proper grasp of both the technical and the artistic. It’s the same story in both theatre and cinema: you need imagination and craft just as much as you need technicians. Rubasinghe grew up to be a “technician” himself, but that love for relating stories, for conveying a mood by resorting to the simplest method, turned him in later years into a director on his own accord. There’s a lesson to be learnt here, obviously, which is why the dichotomy between those who think and those who do remains one of the most simplistic and destructive today. Nowhere is it more simplistic and destructive than in the theatre, the most ritualistic, and at times primeval, of all art forms.

The gap between English and Sinhala theatre is so patently wide that it merits an entire article to itself, particularly with respect to how each is nurtured in our schools. This gap, I will get to next week. For now, though, I’m concerned about how a drama society, from a school and from this country, is trying to get its members to understand that point I highlighted above: that for the theatre to thrive, there must be both active participation and a felt, honest tribute and throwback to how it was sustained in the past. In other words, a consistent culture of craft and homage.

On two days over two months, the Sinhala Drama Society of Royal College, Colombo will hold two events that will respectively “give back” to these two theatrical cultures: on September 25 and 26 with Bhava, and on November 27 with Harasara Pranama. Bhava is, for all intents and purposes, done and dusted. Harasara Pranama is not. Because the one can’t be written and sketched down without the other, however, I will write on both. And because neither can be talked about without at least a footnote about the Society, its members, history, and trajectory, I’ll write on those as well.

First and foremost, the Society. Online records indicate that it was first established in 1998. Written records, though, indicate an earlier timeframe, with the first play to be directed by the students in school for the National Interschool Drama Competition staged in 1967 (it would win second place, while the following year’s play would come first). However, what was considered to be a promising start deteriorated rapidly, and soon enough we come across a break in the Society’s history throughout the seventies and eighties, before it was properly revived in, yes, 1998. The first few years thereafter were inconsequential, after which another revival of sorts was brought about by students and teachers in the early 2000s. It’s in this context that one should dwell on all the shows, competitions, and skits organised by it at present.

To a considerable extent, those shows, competitions, and skits are rooted in the Society’s overriding objective: getting its members to explore the aesthetic parameters of the medium. Theatre is arguably the most “live” of all art forms, let’s not forget, so naturally, for it to be sustained in any institution, its interest should be kept alive through workshops, training sessions, and rehearsals. Speaking with the current Chairman of the Society, Ayath Withana, I understood that at Royal, such rehearsals, which follow a veritable set of workshops headed by teachers and Old Boys, can last up to the final week before the unveiling of a show. These are obviously nothing if they don’t get their participants to carve and to reflect on the past. Bhava seeks to address the former, while Harasara Pranama seeks to address the latter.

Bhava is an exhibition and one that strives to tell those who patronise it, “The theatre is as much a product of our labour as it is of our imagination.” That’s being crude and simple I agree, but for now it’s the best way I can sum it up. Begun yesterday and ending today, its reach, so to speak, goes beyond exhibit hours (from 8 am to 2 pm) and venue (the Royal MAS Arena). The fact is that the entire exercise has got its organisers to create, to carve, and so together with various stalls from our Universities, schools, and even Navy, we can expect a veritable display of masks, shoes, costumes, and other ranga baanda from not just Sri Lanka but also China and Japan (two theatrical cultures which have influenced ours).

I am no connoisseur of the theatre and not being one hinders me from delving into what these boys have done. Suffice it to say, then, that the entire enterprise has made them aware of the intricacies of the medium they’re in. Ayath was quite clear on that point: “Before this the younger children didn’t know about spotlighting or set designing or even the different mask cultures in this country. We are questioned on them in the O Level Drama Paper and are asked, for instance, to come up with a set of dialogues and to identify certain sanniyas with respect to particular masks. So when you get involved in not just studying but also carving them, be they masks or shoes or even costumes, you tend to understand the culture, the story, behind them.”

Being able to understand, by default and in the arts, means being able to value, to remember, to reflect. That’s what Harasara Pranama has been organised for. The history behind it is more recent, and goes back to 2001, when the school’s submission for the Interschool Drama Competition, for some reason, was skewed and downright ignored by certain officials. “We felt hard done by, to be honest,” Ayath told me.

Three years later, to address what was felt to be an unjust snub, the then teacher-in-charge of the Society, Rathna Lalani Jayakody, mooted and got the students to organise a single event that would a) award the winners of the school’s Inter House Drama Competition (held earlier that year) and b) honour two veterans in the field. This was Harasara Pranama ("Homage"), the first edition of which felicitated Lucian and Malini Bulathsinhala and was held on March 26 (with March 27 being the World Theatre Day). The following year, the number increased to three: Wijeratne Warakagoda, Lalitha Sarachchandra, Somalatha Subasinghe.

Three years after it was first held, the Society inaugurated another event: Abhina, an interschool competition. It was decided to award the winners at Harasara Pranama as well, until four years later, in 2011, when the teacher-in-charge herself felt that the children were not up to the task of holding such a massive pranama ulela. “We faced a lull after that,” Ayath told me, “It took six years for us to get back. This year, we’re reviving the show. We’re bringing it back.” Scheduled to start at six in the evening at the Navarangahala, this edition of Harasara Pranama will as usual pay tribute to three veterans: Ramya Wanigasekera, Neil Alles, Jayantha Chandrasiri.

That lull after 2011 didn’t come about for no reason, obviously: the truth is that an event of this sort has to wade through certain constraints that the Sinhala theatre, in general, has to suffer. It’s one of the biggest ironies today, but our national theatre finds it more difficult than its English counterpart to get proper, consistent sponsors. It’s all arbitrarily and more often than not self financed. “Even for a two or three hour show, we have to spend heavily,” Ayath confessed, “When our Committee decided to organise it, our past Chairmen had one piece of advice for us: come up with three names, then find the money. The first has been easy; the second, so far, has not.”

All these observations, illuminating as they are, interest me more for how they reflect the general thrust and philosophy of the Drama Society at Royal. Ever since Rathna Jayakody left earlier this year, the boys have sought to maintain her contribution to both Society and school. “She was there for us all, to be honest, helping us find the names, getting the necessary contacts, going out of her way to mould our members to be active participants. Of the 80-odd children we have, only around 20 are ‘active’ in that sense. That’s rather sad, but to be expected, given the horde of other responsibilities and activities they have to put up with. That’s why both Bhava and Harasara Pranama indicate our efforts to keep Sinhala theatre alive at school.”

With about one or two events organised every month, adding up to about 15 or 16 every year, the Society clearly has a lot to maintain. Perhaps what Ranjith Rubasinghe told me, not too long ago, is what drives these boys: in a context where the Sinhala theatre, more than its English counterpart, has to survive on institutional charity and individual effort, we need to nourish it through our schools and our childhoods without forgetting that all too important point about an art form, any art form, flourishing through both labour and imagination, both craft and creativity. Perhaps that’s one lesson Bhava, Harasara Pranama, and even Abhina will teach us.