9th January 2000
A return to the Gods
Winston Serasinghe, whom I have always thought of as Nataraja, (one of the many names of Siva ) or more precisely Nata - Raja, "King of Actors" left the performance space, quietly and peacefully at about six in the morning of December 13, four days after his ninetieth birthday party. At this small function, " He ate a lot, especially birthday cake, and he blew out the candles," his wife Irangani told me.
He was "King" in the original sense that Stanislavsky found during his researches, that great actors seemed to reach the inner lives of characters without specific actor training. This observation motivated Stanislavsky to search for a system or "method" to make possible, creative performances by actors not in the category of natural greats. He then found the thesis of the French psychologist Ribot, that our nervous system bears traces of all previous emotional experiences of significance. They are recorded in the mind and can be summoned up by suitable stimuli enabling actors to relive relevant past emotions and merge them with the characters being acted.
Winston Serasinghe without the availability of formal training, used emotion memory for entering into the lives of a wide range of personalities. The comic fatalist Gogo in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot", the Moor of great heart but not of wisdom in Shakespeare's Othello, Azdak the rogue judge delivering social justice in Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle", and the tragic victim of capitalism: Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman", to mention a few. Long before these Sera had distinguished himself in Liliom by Molnar and "The Lower Depths" by Gorky.
In his youth he had the ability to spread his predisposition for active and immediate communication to two diferent places, with spectators at drama and with fans at Rugby Union. He had prowess at the game and love for the "scrum" of it. And one day at the Lionel Wendt, long after he had retired from his sport, he discovered the connection between his two loves, rugby and drama. When he arrived for a rehearsal of Gorky's "The Lower Depths ", the play that was to open the Lionel Wendt in 1953, his director the Hungarian Numan Jubal noticed that his great actor was in a state of considerable emotional exhaustion. Sera had come straight in from a superb CR & FC victory at Longden Place and his condition was palpable. Jubal called off the important rehearsal. He explained to Sera that there was not much left in him to use as " actor's emotion " after he had expended most of it as " real emotion" at Longden Place.
Sera's wife Irangani, as much naturally talented as Sera, combined Godgivenness with man's devices at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and at University in old Ceylon. Sera, picked up the same things simply moving along the road. Jubal's admonition and advice identified for him that emotions in the theatre were as real as those in everyday life; otherwise how could your expending of it in "real" life deplete it for the " fiction" of theatre?
And so it was that he came across an ancient Indian theory of the theatre through an on-the-job encounter. That the theatre was an arena of behaviour as real as everyday life, but in which the art of acting intervened to mercifully strip the emotions of all that was base in them, the temporal elements of time and place. Even tempestuous emotions like passionate love or immensely deep ones like absolute hatred and tragic sadness could then be experienced in their purest form, that is, without the hopeless, cruel and unpredictable proximities of everyday life. Winston Serasinghe was drawn to the stage in a way that sometimes hinted to me that he had discovered this secret of the theatre in the way the ancient Indians had seen it. And so it seemed to me that he wanted to live on the stage as much as it was possible.
In the same way that Sera came to know of the theatre, he became a crucial teacher of theatre, effortlessly, by unselfconsciously demonstrating amongst the young. The Peradeniya graduates of my generation who had tasted theatre on the campus came into Colombo and dispersed into various suburbs. We searched for another point of congregation and soon found that it would be around the figure of Winston Serasinghe, about twenty five years ahead in the mystery of theatre. He held "missions" on many evenings at the Art Centre Club, Guildford Cresent, just above the auditorium of the Lionel Wendt Theatre. Karan Breckenridge, Shelagh Goonewardene,Chula Unamboowa, Sidat Sri Nandalochana, Sriantha Senaratne, Nalini Mather, Haig Karunaratna, Marie Philips, Norman Jinadasa, Brian Rutnam, Maureen and Jayantha Dhanapala, Philip Coorey, Neville de Silva, Lucky Wickremanayake, were some of those possibly with an yet incomplete feeling that theatre was more than a passing undergraduate diversion. We found that Sera at the Art Centre Club confirmed our " suspicion ". None of us had formal training in theatre, and speaking for myself, it was Sera's transmission in ceaseless waves of great performances from the repertory of world theatre that transfigured my initial attraction to things merely theatrical into what Sarachchandra called" a substitute for religion".
Winston Serasinghe first experienced the enigmatic art of ambiguous tensions between what is actual and what is fictional at Royal College. He recalled to me that he played the First Citizen of the Roman crowd in Julius Caesar, in the company of the late President J.R. Jayewardene who performed the Third Citizen. He added with a laugh over an arrack, " the theatre is sometimes more substantial, so I don't mind the reversal I have suffered in so-called real life ". It was while he kept custody of N.M. Perera at Bogambara prison during World War Two that the young prisons officer Serasinghe was approached by Bishop Lakdasa De Mel and R.R. Breckenridge, " because of my voice", to resume theatre after his schooldays, " in some religious play that R.R. was doing ". And so began the long public career that Sera was able to sustain even when functioning as the Managing Director of a leading Colombo commercial house at the time I first met him.
Sera had a sense of propriety which extended even to spoken lines on the stage. It was something he seemed to have got enclosed in because of the pre-modern texts he performed in the beginning of his theatre career. In the playtexts of the fifties and sixties all these public proprieties of possibly Victorian vintage had gone and when I did "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" with Sera as the rascally judge Azdak, we had a problem. Bertolt Brecht had given Azdak the line, "I once knew of a judge who farted at a public dinner ". Sera was reluctant, particularly because he knew that the late Corbet Jayawardene, whom he knew, would be in the audience on the opening night; his daughter Amita Jayawardene was in the cast. Corbet being a judge would take it as a class offence suggested Sera. In the end I had to add to the line to enable him to mouth it. "I once knew of a judge who farted at a public dinner, justifiably to emphasise the independence of the judiciary ", was offered to Sera in deference to him , if not to judge Corbet.", "That seems to balance it", said Sera quite unconvinced, though he did perform the changed line.
During a period when opportunities began to dry up in English language theatre Sera took to the Sinhala stage with great ease and I was told of his numerous performances in " Makara". He also brought his fine skills to Sri Lankan tele-dramas, video copies of which I would get down to Sydney to watch fondly and appreciatively. In November 1998 I visited him at his home at Nawala, so familiar to me over the years. He remembered the Lionel Wendt, sounding almost offended in his reply to me: " What the hell men, I performed there!"
Some years ago Sera tragically lost his son Ravi in a motor accident. He withdrew from all public activity in unbearable grief. I hope it is allowable for me to conjecture that soon afterwards the Gods intervened to enable his psyco - physical mechanism to scrub out gently, all the emotion memory he possessed, the same rich reservoir he once drew upon to become a great actor.
"When the Actor beateth the drum
Everybody cometh to see the show;
When the Actor collecteth the stage properties
He abideth alone in his happiness"
(From Ananda Coomaraswamy's "The Dance of Siva")
It is recorded in the Natyasastra, through the substantial myth of the Origin of Drama that this art was created in the heavens when God Indra failed in his attempts to attack, burn and destroy the non-Aryan indigenes of the subcontinent. Lord Brahma in his wisdom then decreed that an art called drama be set in motion and the actors be sent down to earth to convert through performance, the hearts and minds of the tribals. I like to think that Winston Serasinghe descended from this long line beginning about five hundred years before Christ and that he has now fulfilled his mission and returned to the Gods, from whence he came.
The origins of Vanni
Vanni , very much in the news today, was the name given to the ancient 'Pihiti Rata' (later known as 'Raja Rata') around the 13th century when both the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms had declined and the area was covered with jungle. The word 'Vanniya' had derived from the Sinhala word 'Vanaya' (jungle). Though it was jungle land, it did not mean there were no people living there. There is evidence to show that Vanni was semi-independent .
Dr. K. D. Paranavitana of the Rajarata University traces the origins of Vanni in an interesting article on the historical background of the North Central Province (NCP) which appears in the inaugural issues of 'Studies in Humanities', an annual publication put out by the Department of Humanities in the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka.
According to Dr. Paranavitana, it was around the 9th century at the time of the Anuradhapura kingdom that the present NCP came to be known as 'Rajaratta' or 'Raja Rata' . Earlier, when the country was divided into three main administrative units, it was known as 'Pihiti Rata' along with 'Maya' and 'Ruhunu'. The first reference to Vanni in the Culavamsa is in relation to the reign of King Vijayabahu (1232-1236). The king was hiding in the Vanni and organising his forces against the enemy. Later, the Culavamsa mentions that people from the Vanni helped King Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) to establish a kingdom in Dambadeniya.
Dr. Paranavitana feels that around this time Vanni became a separate administrative district under a prince. There was also a separate clan called 'Vannihuru', the head of which was called 'Mahavanniya'.
The next reference to Vanni is during the reign of King Parakramabahu VI (1411-1466) of Kotte. In 1431 when he waged war to capture 'Yapapatuna' (Jaffna), his first step was to bring the ruler of Vanni under his control.
Dr. Paranavitana goes on to discuss the NCP right up to the British times. In an article on the history of the Sri Maha Bodhi, Vice Chancellor of the Rajarata University, Professor W. I. Siriweera makes a detailed study of the sacred Bo tree and says that some of the trees and the heart shaped leaves with thin elongated ends and well defined veins in the Mohenjodaro and Harappa seals have been identified as representing the 'Asvattha' tree which was later referred to by Buddhists as the 'Bodhi tree' (Ficus Religiosa'). He touches on the rituals attached to trees and describes how the kings guarded and venerated the sacred Bo tree.
He concludes that the history of the Sri Maha Bodhi and its ritual complex, particularly from the time of the collapse of the Rajarata civilization in the middle of the 13th century until the end of the 19th century, suggests that irrespective of the depopulation of the dry zone during this period, dedicated monks and lay disciples of the villages living in isolated pockets of settlements at Anuradhapura have been able to preserve the sacred precincts.
The journal comprises nine research oriented articles, two of which are in English and the balance in Sinhala. Most of them are related to Rajarata. Apart from the ones already mentioned, senior lecturer A.Lagamuwa discusses the origin of the hydraulic society in Raja Rata and senior lecturer Sena Nanayakkara assesses the contribution made by mediaman Swarnasri Bandara through the Raja Rata Broadcasting Service.
Editor Paranavitana who is also the head of the Department of Humanities, invites academicians to send in research contributions to the journal. Emphasis would be given to new and extended research on humanities relating to the NCP. - Ranat
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