When I entered the hallowed precincts of the almost brand new Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon in 1955 it was like a dream come true. The breathtakingly beautiful landscape of the campus and its pleasing revivalist architecture nestling in the idyllic surroundings of the misty green Hantane Valley was indeed haunting. We spent [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

That unforgettable Maname moment

K.H.J. Wijayadasa recalls the magic of a pioneering production, 60 years ago

Edmund Wijesinghe as Veddha King and Trilicia Abeykoon as the Princess

When I entered the hallowed precincts of the almost brand new Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon in 1955 it was like a dream come true. The breathtakingly beautiful landscape of the campus and its pleasing revivalist architecture nestling in the idyllic surroundings of the misty green Hantane Valley was indeed haunting.

We spent the first year fully immersed in academic pursuits while enjoying the newly won freedom from parental oversight and supervision. Yet for all, we were blissfully ignorant of the fact that the ensuing year 1956 would be a revolutionary one in the political, social, cultural and aesthetic history of Sri Lanka. Bandaranaike’s electoral triumph of 1956 brought about a political transformation which heralded the common man’s era, the birth of linguistic nationalism and a social and cultural revival of unprecedented magnitude. However, by some strange coincidence 1956 marked the birth of three classical landmark artistic creations in the fields of Sinhala drama, cinema and fiction namely  Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Maname, Lester James Peiris’s Rekhawa and Martin Wickremasinghe’sViragaya.

Of them Maname and Rekhawa are the most celebrated stage and cinematic productions while Viragaya stands out as the most outstanding novel of our generation. Even though the literary, aesthetic and artistic renaissance of 1956 was not the direct result of the dawn of the common man’s era, yet it could be surmised that socio-political revolutions have a tendency to march hand in hand with aesthetic and artistic transformations.

The story of Maname has been built on two types of folk plays namely the Kavi Nadagama entirely in verse and Kolam performed with masks. The story as found in these folk plays is as follows. The son of the King of Benares proceeds to Thaksala the great centre of learning and acquires the liberal arts. Being proficient in archery he is given the title of Danuddhara. The Master of Thaksala greatly pleased with his pupil gives him his daughter in marriage. The Prince sets out with his consort to go back to Benares. On the way they encounter forest dwellers who make an attempt to capture them. The Prince overcomes them and finally engages in hand to hand combat with the forest chief after giving the sword to his wife. The Prince overpowers the forest chief and while sitting on his chest bids his wife to give him the sword so that he could cut off the forest chief’s head.

In the meantime she has conceived a passion for the forest chief and places the hilt of the sword in the forest chief’s hand and the sheath in her husband’s. The forester kills the Prince and takes the woman with him. As they journey together she confesses her love. The forester begins to fear that if she killed her husband for his sake, she will probably treat him in the same manner when she meets another man. So, he decides to get rid of her. On the way they have to cross a stream. The forester tells the woman that he will first wade across with her ornaments and come for her after leaving them in a safe place. After wading across he abandons her. The woman dies of grief and repentance in the forest.

The plot itself is both conflicting and intriguing. It is full of surprises and upsets all the way. In Sarachchandra’s Maname he made use of this story for another traditional drama form known as Nadagama which is operatic throughout with a definite convention and style of its own and which though rooted in the basic conventions of the Kavi Nadagama and Kolam is yet too sophisticated to be called a folk form. The fragility of human character, of human relationships and indeed of human life itself is the dominant undertone in Maname. This perennial relevance to the human condition does probably guarantee an all time appeal for the play.

The exuberant personal presence of Ampe Charles de Silva Gunasinge Gurunnanse as an instructor in Nadagama style opera; singing, drumming and dancing throughout the rigorous rehearsals which incidentally were conducted in a room at the Senate building of the University ensured that there was no deviation from the original authentic operatic Nadagama style. While following the Nadagama tradition in stylized speech, song and dance Dr. Sarachchandra enriched it further by incorporating classical dance steps and movements from Indian ballet with the help of Kalaguru Vasantha Kumar. Dr. Siri Gunasinghe ably assisted by Mrs. Aileen Sarachchandra were responsible for the exquisite costumes and the expressional make up.

The musicality of Maname is undoubtedly a major factor in its artistic success. The new stylized dramatic medium with beautiful melodies and choreographed dances was intriguing if not hypnotic.  As the rehearsals progressed it was difficult to visualize how the play would unfold from the simple straightforward story to a highly emotional and complex dance drama. It was also difficult to comprehend how the melodies and lyrics were combined and matched so well to bring out the right mood. The intricacies of innovation, depth and lustre of these varying scenes bound all of us to the play in its totality. The entire repertoire of music, melodies and songs were so enchanting that when a few of us Maname addicts get together even today; lo and behold 60 years after it was first staged; we could still render all the top hits without any blemish.

Why was Maname such a huge success sixty years ago? And why is it so popular even today? Firstly, Maname happened to be an absolute departure from the popular theatre of the time which consisted of social satires such as Kapuwa Kapothi and He Comes From Jaffna., Tower Hall Nurtis, sentimental melodramas of the Minerva Players and adaptations of famous French and Russian playwrights. In hindsight they were alien, hackneyed and did not appeal to the Sinhala psyche.  Secondly, in contrast Maname gripped the imagination of both the westernized urban audience as well as the traditionalists. It introduced a new genre to the Sinhala theatre. Its lyrics, music, choreography, costumes and make up heralded a new trend into the theatrical world.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra has confessed that the new concept of oriental theatre was formed in his mind when he saw Noh and Kabuki in Japan. The stylized format of Maname created a theatrical illusion which was deeply attractive to first time audiences. Sarachchandra, sage and scholar was totally engrossed with the object of his creation like a master craftsman of yesteryear. Maname conjured up a special world that our audiences had not seen before. Larger than life players in unusual costumes and distinctive make-up walking the stage in a mild dance like manner (gamana) talking in an unfamiliar way and telling the story in melody, rhythm and drum, all beautifully integrated gave the audience an uncanny feeling.

The saga of Maname would not have been so sweet and bright if not for the fantastic singing, dancing and acting capabilities displayed by the original cast of talented young men and women drawn mainly from the Peradeniya batch of 1955 and a few from the intake of 1956. Professor Sarachchandra and Gunasinghe Gurunnanse spent long hours auditioning, interviewing and testing the applicants before they got the green light to join in the rehearsals proper. The rehearsals of course were rigorous and exacting and the players had to achieve perfection. On the opening day as the curtain rose and the rich chant of the potheguru (narrator) Shyamon Jayasinghe filled the auditorium we sat spellbound and speechless at what appeared to be a theatrical miracle. The key roles of Prince Maname, the Princess and the Veddha King were played by Ben Sirimanna, Trilicia Abeykoon or Hemamali Gunasekara and Edmund Wijesinghe respectively. Of these great players only Shyamon Jayasinghe and Hemamali Gunasekara are among the living today. The support cast and management team consisted of some eminent public servants of yester year such as Nanda Abeywickrema, Lionel Fernando, Amaradasa Gunawardena and Arthur Silva.

Being ardent Maname fans as well as Maname addicts we firmly believed it would be a trendsetter and a trail blazer. This did not happen the way we expected and the following is Professor Sarachchandra’s explanation for that. “I expected that Maname would be followed by several plays in the same style and that before long we would possess a body of plays that would reflect our national genius like the Kabuki and Noh of the Japanese or the Beijing opera of the Chinese. But the social pressures began to bear on the playwrights and the demand for the theatre to have relevance to the day to day problems that people were facing became strong. And since stylized drama could not deal with such problems overtly, the theatre has gone to the naturalistic mode, and is today largely a theatre of protest critical of the establishment”.

However, Maname has remained a major living landmark in the Sinhala dramatic scene and is a living and enduring testimonial to the toils, sacrifices and achievements of its creator and all who assisted him in the pioneering endeavour.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.