A tribute to Sir

By Kanchuka Dharmasiri

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of
Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence
the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an
enchanter fleeing,…

When G.K. Haththotuwegama, whom we later simply called Sir, breezed into the lecture room and recited Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” we first-year students at the University of Peradeniya were mesmerized by the passion and vigour in his voice. Later, he tried to get us to see not only the revolutionary potential of the poem, but the poet’s mastery of language as well, pointing out lines such as “Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams.” During five long, cold winters in western Massachusetts I often found hope and comfort in remembering Sir’s recitation of the poem’s final lines: “O Wind, If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Mr. Haththotuwegama taught us subjects ranging from Romantic poetry, Shakespeare, American drama, Brecht and Epic theatre, to Sarachchandra and Sinhala theatre. In lectures, he argued that Sarachchandra had created two of the most radical and independent women in Sinhala literature – Princess Maname and Suppa Devi – but that, as a result of the social system, both women had no option but to assume conservative roles in the end. He also asked us to consider the colonial power politics that were reflected in the relationship between Prince Maname and the Veddah. Sir sang and performed in class, and always delivered the most memorable lectures.

He was the teacher who defied convention; we never knew what to expect. Some days, he showed up for lectures wearing the same black shirt he had worn the previous day, when he had rolled in mud and sand on live television.

Sir, who always wore a necklace with a black clenched fist for a pendant, talked about the potential for art to change society. Our arguments pertaining to the Theatre of the Absurd came about as a result of our different perspectives towards this particular theatre form. While I was of the view that theatre of the absurd had its own subversive dimension, he maintained that absurd theatre was not political compared to work by dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht. Yet, when I told him that I was about to translate and produce Eugène Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) into Sinhala, he was delighted and we had lengthy discussions about the play in the WUS canteen and the English department staff room (I had begun teaching in the department at this point), of the Peradeniya University.

Commenting on Ionesco’s superb play with language, he came up with his own absurd line and recited: “Krishantha is a very good student who lays fantastic eggs.” One day in the staff room, he asked me to read the first few pages of the translation. The translated line “We had chicken curry, fried potatoes, and English salad” caught his eye and he suggested that we should “get some potatoes on stage and play around.” And we did. In fact, we ended up using an entire ala goniya for the duration of the play. The full ala goniya gets emptied as the play unravels, an apt metaphor for the emptiness of language in the end of Ionesco’s anti-play.

Translation, or transcreation – as Sir preferred to call his work – was something he did with great mastery. Mr. Haththotuwegama used the term transcreation to indicate how a text from a specific context goes through a linguistic and cultural transformation and takes on new form and meaning in a different socio-political and cultural setting. The play Nurussana Handa, which depicts a bullock cart driver, as opposed to a horseman in the original version, is based on a short story by Anton Chekhov.

Sir took one of Bertolt Brecht’s parables “Mr. K” and made it into Marawara Mehewara, a play that poses serious questions about the nature of the oppressor and the oppressed. This play is particularly remarkable in the way in which it makes use of the actors’ bodies in creating stage props. A trilingual play based on Brecht’s poem “The Importance of Governance,” performed in Jaffna, Peradeniya, and Kelaniya, was subsequently banned in 1978 because of its political content. He was a master of transcreations, a man who integrated the creative potential of many worlds and combined them together to come up with powerful, innovative art.

On my last visit to his house in Bokundara on October 16, we had a lengthy conversation about the history of the Wayside and Open Theatre as we feasted on sugarless ice cream and dark chocolate. He laughed with delight as he recalled the way in which the Wayside and Open Theatre made use of a population conference at the Foundation Centre in 1975 to offer a scathing critique of global economic injustice and the misguided efforts of certain authorities to address problems of famine and scarcity. In a satire of the FAO’s World Food Conference which had been held in Rome the previous year, the group sought to demonstrate the irony of lavish spending on gourmet food for a meeting that purported to address the question of world hunger.

As Sir went into details about how Wickrama Senevirathne – in the role of an economist – came and started counting the audience members to get an idea of the population in the room, he laughed out in mirth. Meanwhile the actors representing western superpowers devoured food like animals and the hungry delegate from Bangladesh only got the discarded chicken bones and the leftovers from the wealthy nations. The representatives of the powerful countries decided that the solution to the world food and population problem resided in a pill to be given to the developing nations. The performance ended with all the performers crying in unison, “food for them, pills for us. Food for them, pills for us.”

A further layer of uncomfortable irony was added by the presence of the audience who were happily enjoying cocktails as the performance unfolded. According to Sir, while some of the participants were shocked some were angry and outraged; “Brilliant play; bad politics,” commented one audience member.

One of the qualities I admired in Sir was his constant will to create discomfort, and to make people question and think. I often recall Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, one of Sir’s good friend’s poem “Poet” when I think about Sir: “He is the one that tossing a bomb into/The crowd, takes notes.”

Mr. Haththotuwegama delighted in such acts as when he came to the second annual translation conference held in 2006 in Hotel Citadel, Kandy and delivered a paper called "Translation Theory Drives Me Mad: An Anti Pedagogical Confession."

He proceeded to theorize translation and transcreation through the example of his own practical engagement in the arts. He baldly described his frustration about the disconnect between theory and practice. In fact, he often spoke about that distance with concern. Once he told me, “We teach the most radical of feminist and postcolonial theories in the English Department. Yet, what do the students do and become when they leave the classroom? What is the purpose of such teachings if they are not in the least bit practised in life?” He sought to find a balance between high theory and practice and I think he found his vehicle for it in street theatre.

Mr. Haththotuwegama was a man who navigated many different worlds: the streets, villages, factory premises, mines, village threshing floors, English departments, and theatres. He was an art and film critic, writer, transcreator, teacher, guide, trainer of actors, and a wonderful human being.

This is my tribute to you, Sir.

(In commemoration of Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama’s life and work, a performance will be held on November 29– his 71st birthday – near the Methodist Church in Kadolana, Moratuwa, at 6 p.m. The performance will feature past and present members of the Wayside and Open Theatre and will be the first step towards preserving and continuing Dr. Haththotuwegama’s work. This article is written to mark this event.)

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