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Sri Lanka's doyen of culture, Emeritus Professor Ediriwira Sarachchandra died, aged 82. But, he is not dead, for his unique contribution to Sinhala culture can never die. How, for example, can his magnificent play 'Sinhabahu' die? Just as Shakespeare wrote for all time, Sarachchandra's plays transcend the bounds of time and space.
Even more magnificent than his great 'Maname', which ushered in the "Age of Sarachchandra", Sinhabahu is poetic drama - a play not only about the contrast between primitive life and civilized life and the generational clash but also a moving exploration of love and 'metta', and their loss. Something akin to the helpless fear that Alan Paton expressed in his "Cry, the Beloved Country" that when 'they are turned to loving they will find that we have turned to hating' is to be found in Sarachchandra 's recreation in Sinhabahu of myth and legend, giving it both universality and contemporary significance.
First staged in 1963, the play has, over three decades later, not only retained its popularity but acquired new meaning and significance. This is what we experienced over and over again on Rupavahini at the week- end when a nation mourned the passing of one of its greatest sons.
We saw Mark Antony Fernando, who as a Peradeniya undergraduate acted in the original production, again playing the Lion with renewed vigour and maturity. He has returned home on holiday from England, where he now lives, and also returned to Sarachchandra's stage.
Other recent productions of 'Sinhabahu' feature the playwright's daughter Yasodara playing Sinhaseevali, Nissanka Diddeniya Sinhabahu and Jayasiri Chandrajith the Lion. Of the original vintage cast, Terrence Ranasinghe still plays the 'pothe guru' while Malini de Silva, (now Terrence's wife), plays Suppadevi, their performance remaining as fresh as if new, after thirty years.
One of the many striking elements in 'Sinhabahu' is Professor Sarachchandra's treatment of the theme of love and loving-kindness at various levels. At the end of the drama, it is love and loving-kindness that keeps the Lion from being felled by his son Sinhabahu's first two arrows. A peace overture has succeeded. Hetred ceaseth not by hatred but by love, it seems.
But then in the end a father's love is turned to anger, strong enough to defile and taint his mind and remove every protection that love alone can supply. Sinhabahu's third and final arrow pierces the Lion-father's angry heart. A peace process has failed.
The remarkable English translation of 'Sinhabahu' by Dr. Lakshmni de Silva of the English Department of the University of Kelaniya has made this traditional story of warring generations available to a wider non- sinhala speaking audience. Her English is a marvellous recapturing of both the poetry an the drama of the Sinhala play, and also its darker shades of contemporary relevance.
She renders into moving and memorable English - as moving and memorable as the Sinhala - the words of the Chorus that describe the power of paternal love:
The dread Lion, wild with pain Of love in severance, Saw the son's face like the moon Over the dark trees rising And his mind like white night-blooms flowered In radience. The arrow sped and fell, But by the power of love Grazed neither fell nor flesh: Love of a son goes deep Piercing skin, flesh and nerve, Seeking the bone, Cleaving deep to the marrow, It gives incessant sorrow.
Love has conquered all, even a son's wrath, and Sinhabahu is compelled to ponder:
How can I, when my father calls to me With tender words, kill him relentlessly?
"Soon afterwards, however, Sinhabahu seeks justification to shoot a second time:
I cannot let hot pity melt my mind, I must fulfil the duty that is mine. This time its aim the arrow shall not miss. Shot as he comes to greet me with a kiss.
Love for his son leaves the Lion unharmed. But love turns to anger when in a spirit of chastisement the Lion asks:
Was it not this son that I reared in love, Protecting him from peril in the wilds? Shattering his pride, his vaunts, I will chastise! His waywardness shall have due punishment.
Sinhabahu is perplexed that his second arrow too has gone astray, but is aware of the danger of paternal love turned to anger, and the third time he shoots to kill:
Why does the arrow fly away? The second arrow did not pierce. His flesh, and I shall not escape When kindled anger makes him fierce. The third shaft I will aim and shoot Before, enraged, he leaps to slay.
Professor Sarachchandra focuses on a pasionate desire for self-determination that drives Sinhabahu to liberate himself from his father, whose tyranical authority powerfully evoked in his first majestic appearance on the stage:
Of every quarter I am Lord King of the beasts; all own my sway None dare challenge my strength and power: Mine to command; theirs to obey.
Sinhabahu rebels against his father's authority, rejecting the restrictions imposed on his freedom. In Macbethian metaphor ("But now I am combin'd, cribb'd, confin'd") Dr. Lakshmi de Silva conveys the suffocation of Sinhabahu's imprisoned cave-life and his resolve to escape from it in:
Pent up for ever in this cave Cribbed and cabined, how can I live? Day after dayCaged in this den I will not stay, I will burst wide the rock door Thence to go free Why in this cavern Cribbed must I live?
For Princess Suppadevi, her two children are "as my two eyes", her son "my jewel, so I hold so dear", and love a healing balm against "The world's harsh blows that incessant strike. The body and the mind alike". For the Lion, the children are "A balm as soothing to my sight. As precious salve, a dear delight." Such is the ardour of love that binds this mythical family that gave birth to the Sinhala race.
The play's most touching moment is at the end of Act 2 when the Lion cries his heart out when he finds his wife, son and daughter all gone from him, leaving him devastated and desolate. This is a scene of anguish which is becoming more and more painfully familiar to us as more and more families are broken, lovd ones murdered, and when "each new day a gash is added to (our) wounds".
Dr. de Silva's conveys the turmoil in the Lion's heart, a turmoil that Professor Sarachchandra himself felt in his life:
The cave is shattered The den-door agape. Sinhaba - Sinhaba - Sinhaba! My love, my love, my love! Sinhasivali, my precious daughter - All are gone There is no one My tender daughter With caressing words Comforted me, cooked for me, Fed me, cared for me, feared for me, You lived with me in love,Two bright jewels gave; Two children given, beloved, How did I grow Displeasing to you? Have my children no love for me? Have I done them wrong?
To the end of his days, Professor Sarachchandra basked in the glory, beauty and ardour of love and loving-kindness. He also knew "love in severance" - to sever and to be severed from love. (Pemato jayati soko.) He drank deep of both the ecstasy and the agony of love. These are eternal themes that occupy, as they did in his life, a dominant place in his plays.
"Sinhabahu" and others of Sarachchandra's plays will continue to be performed. His dear wife Lalitha will continue to organize Sarachchandra Drama Festivals. We shall continue to enjoy these "gems of purest ray serene", but what we shall miss is Sarachchandra at the sitar and seeing him self-effacingly acknowledging the warm applause of an appreciative audience. And generations of his students will miss him as they go back- stage to greet him and worship him. But they will worship his memory. Of that there can be do doubt.
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