He danced his way out of academia
The colourful story of veteran Kathakali dancer Premakumara Epitawala
Veteran artiste and famed kathakali dancer Premakumara Epitawala celebrated his 89th birthday on October 22, this year. The only boy of a family of seven, he was his parents' and sisters' pet. They had high hopes for him academically, but contrary to expectations, he went on to become an artiste.
His early education was at the Sinhala school in Epitawala in the Ratnapura District where he excelled in his studies. "I was even made a monitor," he smiles. He recalls how on his daily trek to the village school, he saw some boys who looked different, dressed in shorts and shirt, with socks and shoes (he wore sarong and banian). Realising they attended the English school, he too wanted to be like them.
He joined this school and had fun learning English. "Once we went on a bicycle trip and there was a boy, my classmate David, a son of a rich mudalali. Passing a rubber estate, where the name board read 'St. Peter's Estate', David translated it to Sinhala as "Upasaka Peterge Watta". "We burst out laughing and from that day he was 'Upasaka David'.
Studying first at Horana Vidyalaya, he went on to Sri Pali Vidyalaya where he completed his ESLC (English School Learning Certificate). He could have easily become an English teacher but another school nearby where dancing and music was taught interested him and he would go there to see the children learn dancing.
By the age of 17 he had studied Kandyan and Low Country dancing. After seeing Indian artistes like Udaya Shankar, Ram Gopal and Rukmani Arundale he dropped a 'bombshell' by informing his father that he wished to learn dancing in India !
His father was adamant that he should go to England to study law and become a Civil Servant. "He was prepared to fund me to go to England but not to India!" he says with a smile.
"Those days we went by ship. Though finances were difficult, my father found the money and was quite pleased that I was finally going to England "to become an English gentleman". He did go to England in 1952 but there too he was interested in the arts and did not wish to become too English. "After a disastrous stay in England I returned to Ceylon," he says.
He was chasing his dream and once again wanted to go to India.
Though his father refused to fund him, he made it to Shanthinikethan and studied Kathakali, going on to write a book called Guru Kunju Ku rup, the language of Kathakali, which was considered an authoritative book on Kathakali.
In India, he met many national leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Kamala Devi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Indira Gandhi who influenced him to be more national minded. Mahatmaji's Ahimsa movement and Vinoba Bhave's Sarvodaya movement led him to visit the 'ashrams' and spend time in peace and contemplation.
After returning to Ceylon he met a school teacher in Deraniyagala, later to become his wife. Soma Udabage, a pioneer in 'Batik' in Ceylon had visited Indonesia, China, India and Russia to learn 'batik' and other forms of painting. "The day after we got married we went to India," says Mr. Epitawala. He developed an interest in handicrafts and textile designing and wanted to introduce these to Ceylon.
The young blood in him made him militant and he joined stalwarts such as Dr. Gunapala Malalasekera to work on the language issue. Dr. E.W. Adikaram started two schools, the Kotte Ananda Sastralaya and the Nugegoda Balika. As he admired Dr. Adikaram he wanted to help him in his work. The girls’ school was named Anula Vidyalaya and they had to find money for the school. "I suggested that we perform a ballet - Selalihini Sandeshaya."
"There was only one University, the Colombo University and we had to find students from there. Finding the performers was difficult at that time. "Thahir, a Muslim boy from the University was chosen to be Saman deiyo and Tamil and Sinhala boys to take part in the ballet. Mohamed Ghouse composed the music. To recite the 'Kavi' (verses) I found Albert Perera from Koralawella, Moratuwa, who had a beautiful voice. He is now famously known as Amaradeva, the great artiste," he smiles.
He travelled once again in Europe and gathered more knowledge. "When I returned people were angry as the price of rice had gone up and this gave rise to another ballet - "Thittha Batha' (Bitter Rice).
Realising the talents of Albert Perera, a scholarship fund was launched to send him to study music. A special performance of 'Thittha Batha' was organised at the Borella Young Men's Buddhist Association. This was advertised in the 'Lanka Deepa' of 27.10.1953. "With the proceeds of 'Thittha Batha', about Rs. 3,000 (a ticket cost only Rs.5-) we started the Albert Perera Scholarship Fund. Though this was popular with the people the leaders did not favour "Thittha Batha!" When he tried to take the ballet to Matara, it was banned.
Mr. Epitawala has many ballets to his credit, among them Diyawanna Ballet performed in 1980.
He formed the Thambapanni Cultural Institution on January 28, 1950 in Nugegoda which has as its logo five lotuses. "The idea is that these five lotus flowers are born with the rays of the Sun and depict - Basa, Resa, Desa, Sanwaraya and Siyasaviya," says Mr. Epitawala. Shifted to Peradeniya, close to Kandy in the 1980s, he continued to teach batik, making of hand made paper, weaving of Petham Pili ( a type of cloth made in Bombay called Pocham Palli but which he named Petham Pili meaning Peradeniya Thamban\panni Pili), languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English, cane work, leather products and carpentry there, bringing down experts in these fields from India too.
Thousands of young men and women have benefited and have their own self employment projects. At present he has only the language classes. "Now I cannot dance," says this Kathakali master adding " Natanta beri ei? polowa edi" ( Why can't I dance? because the floor is not even )with a mischievous twinkle in his eye!