26th August 2001
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Kala korner by Dee Cee

Delightful theatre
"Give us good theatre. We will fill the halls." This was the message given loud and clear at the recent Somalatha Subasinghe Children's & Youth Drama Festival at the Elphinstone Theatre. It was a full house, and more, for the two shows 'Hima Kumariya', the delightful play written and produced by Somalatha. "We have had good crowds for the other plays too, but today is the best," Assistant Director Chandana Aluthge said.

"One thing is very clear. People are starved of decent entertainment. So they turn up in their numbers." That was Somalatha's response. True. They came with their families. And I am sure there were many who, like me, thought it was a children's play (meaning acted by children) or one meant exclusively for children. So they brought the children along irrespective of their ages. The play was excellent entertainment, good theatre and a fine production. 

Seeing so many children in the hall and judging from the noise they were making before the play, one wondered whether one would be able to enjoy the play. But once it started so absorbing was the play that one forgot that the bulk of the audience were children. They behaved well. Of course, they went into hysterics when the 'kurumittas' appeared. It was superlative entertainment by the seven dwarfs. The success of 'Hima Kumarariya' is its ability to hold the interest of an adult audience. It is well rounded theatre. M. R. Chulasinghe's music score adds to the quality of the drama. The 'Kurumittas' song, for example, based on the eternal favourite 'Wa-duweden Divi Rakina' became an instant hit. 

Somalatha should feel happy that her efforts at building a youth theatre group (through the Lanka Children's and Youth Theatre Organization) over the past years is paying dividends. She is a seasoned dramatist having devoted four decades and more to theatre. An ardent follower of her 'guru', Professor Sarachchandra, in the early years, she showed us what good acting is. Who will ever forget Sara in Gunasena Galappatti's 'Muhudu Puttu'? And now she is building up a disciplined team of young players. It's heartening also to see daughter Kaushalya following in the footsteps of the mother. Apart from acting, she helps her mother in directing.

A great effort
Apart from 'Hima Kumariya', the Festival featured several other children's plays - 'Ratmali', 'Toppi Velenda', 'Punchi Apata Den Therei' & ' Gamarala Divyalokayata'. Somalatha has also made these plays available in book form. Neatly illustrated by Sybil Wettasinghe, the books are a treat in that the children are able to browse through them and recollect what they saw.

Somalatha's has been a great effort at building up a children's theatre over the past four decades. With no planned effort either by the Education Department or the Cultural Department to develop young talent in the field of drama (except for the annual competition), she confesses it has been a tough task.

"Today our children are only exposed to advertisements and programmes which build up a child's physique and not the child's mind. Parents are also concerned only about building up the child's body and totally ignore his mind," she says.

After intense research, Somalatha realized that our folk tales and folk songs provide ideal material to form the core of children's drama. They are simple yet developed intelligently. They don't ignore the psychological aspects of the child or the adult. Thus she found them most useful in creating the base for her plays. She also picked one or two popular tales in world literature as in 'Hima Kumariya' which is a Sinhala adaptation of 'Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs'.

Believing in life again

The Sorrow of Unanswered Questions by Jayshree Misra was launched at the ICES auditorium recently
By Nimanthi Rajasingham 
The Sorrow of Unanswered Questions is a recollection of not simply one woman's trials, but a collective expression of sorrow. This book expresses the often suppressed and quickly forgotten writings and experiences of women. It is also then a tribute to how the sorrow of unanswered questions can be resolved. Indeed, the creative spirit of Misra has finally been given space.

As she says, "So you find me here, talking to you about love, despair and hope in my verse. These poems have been written, torn up, lost, and rewritten over two decades. It is hope that compelled me to write them, the hope that is so vital to the essence of our beings." 

While language and writing are tools that have often been used by one group to oppress another, they are also tools of liberation that can release frustrations and so become avenues of expression and creativity. 

The book's title here is worth mentioning for it is used both to speak of not only the sorrow of suppressed emotions, and ambitions of women, but also as a testimony to the resolutions of many of these problems. This collection is a triumph , an overcoming of these sorrows through the many women who face obstacles and move on successfully with their lives.

In the poem titled Epilogue as Prologue, Misra talks of the sorrows of a failed marriage, of many dreams left unfulfilled through the lines: 

I longed to watch dawn break by the sea/And paint the landscape in all its glory.... This was not to be, it all eluded me. My wings were clipped ere I could fly. 

Yet, while this poem expresses the sorrows she felt, the poem I Shall.... is a testimony to her affirmation of her own self and a confirmation of a determination for the future. Here Misra shows a stronger will to change her future as she says, I am done with pleasing others/And service before self,/I shall now devote the rest of my life/To thinking of myself. 

Yet, again this poem talks not simply of sorrow but of fulfilling experiences of love. In her poem Simply Love she says, 

My mind is alive 

To the warmth of your love

My heart beats in gladness 

As your hands cup my face. 

The world stands still 

As your fingers trace my cheeks

And the nightmares recede.

My lost eyes do see 

By the power of your Love. 

It heals my wounded spirit, 

Eases my pain 

And makes me believe 

In Life, once again. (59).

Here then is the poem of a survivor who has moved beyond the sorrows of her past experiences to appreciate and cherish what she has found. Her poems encompass a variety of situations and emotions from the past to the present. Some of her poems on forced marriage, child brides and the victimization of women are not new themes and have been spoken of many times before. However, the fact that it is said here again is a clear reminder of how much work still needs to be done and how much effort needs to be put into bringing about equality for women. 

At the same time it would be wrong to say that her book simply talks of misery and sorrow. Many of these stories talk of the violence, victimization and oppression women feel, yet many of them are also reflective and focus on more positive releases for women. Consider her poem to her great great grandmother Radhika Devi; this woman was a child bride at ten, child widow at thirteen and was "shorn of her hair, her bangles and rings.... covered in a white cloth and cursed." 

There is no denying the pathetic and sorrowful situation of this woman. At the same time, this poem does not simply finish with Radhika Devi giving up on life for in her own small way she does what she can to survive and affirm her identity. 

"Then you took a brave step forward,

There was no looking back, 

You ventured forth to your husband's vacant home, 

To begin life anew, armed with inner fortitude.

You took your nephew to your side

A single mother, against all odds, 

You brought him up alone, with pride. 

I marvel at your strength and courage, 

My dearest, bravest jeje jeje ma."

Then there is the story entitled "Sister", of a girl who on her wedding day commits suicide rather than go through a life and a marriage that has been defined for her by others. The story ends with the lines "Did she think this would be her triumph, that this act would be her final defiance....? It was her decision.... It was her choice." While choosing to commit suicide may be seen as escaping reality, and an act of cowardice, it is also an act of affirmation of a woman who took the last desperate step necessary to regain control of her life. 

This death is then not an abandonment of hope, but a defiance of society and a reaching out for freedom.

The power of conflict

By Carl Muller
"Probably this will be my last book as I am now getting old..." 

This from Punyakante Wijenaike is simply not acceptable. How can a writer ever get old? Physically, I suppose, one can but Punyakante Wijenaike is too much a precious part of this country to even think herself too old. 

"The Unbinding" is a collection of rare intent and purpose. Punyakante has pinned to her main story four rosette-like offerings - "The Sun God", "Tinkling Bells", "Half-Moon, Full Moon" and "Brothers". They glow as they are intended to because they complement "The Unbinding" with its Freudian exploration into a self-tortured mind. Protagonist Udara reminds us of the many irons that twist in the psyche of all about us. 

Punyakante has truly excelled herself in "The Unbinding". So placid a setting to begin with: the morning breeze, the Kandalama landscape, the single tree that gives Udara the aloneness she craves, the space to breathe. She is not prepared to accept, as Descartes did, that knowledge is acquired by reasoning. Everything is flawed... even that which is transmitted by the senses, by memory. 

Reading it, I wonder whether Punyakante actually began it by chance and then went on with it, entreated to do so by her own unconscious. It must have taken some doing, for her voyage into the inner mind must have given her, at first, quite incoherent parcels of thought that would have needed long intervals during which the links needed to be made. Beneath it all, we see an enquiry into the certainty and extent of the human psyche.

"The Unbinding" unleashes conflict. Even drinks before dinner become so male-opinionated, female-defensive, and the undercurrents are freaked with red anger turning black with the thought-flow: 

"Night before last I had dreamt of a woman, not a tree. She was crying out for justice." 

"Today I am carrying the same feelings of this woman whom I have never met. In my conscious mind, I am Udara, wife of Sidat, mother of Danushk and Tiasha. But in my dreams and nightmares I am someone else. A tormented soul crying for justice...." 

It was John Locke who asserted that faith and justice are not owned as principles by everyone and it is hard to think of one moral rule to which general assent is given. What are Udara's feelings exactly? Is it a moral rule that her husband asserts "the power of that small penis", making it "rise as if in anger" to "thrust itself into me time after time"? As a wife, she simply could not feed its hungry need; she had "quivered at each thrust but not responded." What moral rule could she find in the thought that its seed had fathered her children. Was there morality at all in the marriage bed? 

Udara had to go back - back to the white paper of her own genesis where the mind was void of all characters. It was experience that furnished the paper with its characters; and where in this welter of experience, was individual liberty? There arises exploitation, ill-use, silent challenges, problem children, so many useless and unsavoury things; and the underpinning - "Not that she resents the man, but a woman wants to feel a person in her own right!" 

What one begins to see, as Udara comes to grips with the difference of being human, is the spiral so cleverly and symbolically devised by Punyakante. The spiral swirls down, only to reverse and uncoil - an endless timelessness that has bemused us all. It is this unbroken unwinding of the helix that imparts such mystical significance. With rare story-telling skill, Punyakante has brought it all into the present that lives in the past - a past of evil dreams, and the grandmother who held a pre-existing Udara close and said: "This child is possessed by some demon." How inexorable the pushing, the jostling as an older life fights to possess the new!

Udara sits under a tree and her mind is the mind of an Odin who hung himself from the great tree Yggdrasil. From its branches, the Norse God gazed into the netherworld. Udara gazes into her own hells too and knows: "In my dreams and nightmares, I am someone else: A tormented soul crying for justice." Yet, she keeps punching herself. It may be reasonable to expect that Udara would sleep no more, but she stays a-bed, permitting the easy entry of some previous soul-traveller and screaming in the dark room of her long-past terrors, the smell of vomit, the utter subjugation of self, the Laura who comes to torment, the Padmini who is Udara-past now laying her burdens on Udara-present. 

"The Unbinding" is one of the most gripping stories Punyakante has ever written. To tell me that this may be her last is to be as much the ponderer as Udara. I hope - no, I know - that Punyakante will not surrender. We need her to give us so much more of herself, body and soul, and the ghost within the machine as well. 

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