The man behind the stories that light up the pandals

Veteran script writer Mervyn Senaratne has done more than 600 scripts of Jathaka stories
By Yasasmin Kaviratne, Pic by Nilan Maligaspe & Mangala Weerasekera

You would not know it but he has a hand in as many as 29 pandals that adorn Colombo commemorating the 2600 Sambuddhathva Jayanthi. In his early eighties, Mervyn Senaratne is the brains behind as many as 600 scripts written on various ‘Jathaka’ stories for Vesak, Poson and Esala.
“I wrote the scripts for most of the pandals in Borella, Dematagoda, Grandpass, Thotalanga and along the High Level road in Maharagama, Kottawa uptil Avissawella,” he said.

Mervyn: A privilege to write the scripts.

The largest pandal he has ever worked on is taking shape at Galle Face – constructed by the Sri Lanka Port Authority this year. It has 22 frames whereas other pandals usually have 10-16 frames.As a special feature marking 2600 years of Buddha’s Enlightenment, Mr. Senaratne said that he started the stories of the 29 pandals with a brief narration on the Great Enlightenment of Lord Buddha.

The veteran script writer who worked for decades at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, has 63 years experience in radio and has written more than 10,000 episodes for radio dramas. “I still write the script of the radio programme called ‘Mahawansa’ which is broadcast weekly,” he added.

He wrote his first pandal script in 1961 Mr. Senaratne recalls, explaining that it was a pandal put up in Rajagiriya where he was living at that time. With many pandals being set up during Vesak, Mr. Senaratne said that the process begins in November when the trade associations that run most of the pandals in Colombo, visit him to discuss the story to be used. Sometimes ‘Teri Gatha’, stories from the Dhammapada, Saddharmarathnawaliya, Saddharmalankaraya too are portrayed in the pandals.

Educated at Holy Cross, Kalutara, Mr. Senaratne received his religious education at Kalutara Ukgalboda Pirivena. A thorough knowledge of religion is a must to enter this field, he says adding that artistic talent alone would not suffice.

Mr. Senaratne has written 250 Buddhist dramas, 228 in Sinhala and 22 in English for half hour radio broadcasting. He has seen several awards come his way. The SLBC had felicitated him for writing “Sugandika” which was selected as its most famous radio drama and he received the UNDA Award twice.

It is not just about writing the story script, he reveals. He has to come up with the script for the frames as well. “I decide on the number of the frames and instruct the artists on what images should appear in each frame of the pandal,” he elaborates. Certain events of the story are given prominence and accordingly, frames are categorised depending on whether songs, duets, dialogues come in the script with regard to each frame.

A huge pandal coming up at Galle Face.

Mr. Senaratne said that after deciding on the frames, he instructs the electricians on the frames that should be illuminated according to the story. “Dark aspects as well as spiritual aspects of the story are portrayed in the frames and should be illuminated accordingly.”

Deciding on the musicians and singers is another matter that should be handled with care as they will be singing about Lord Buddha, he says. Veteran artistes, W.D. Amaradeva, Sarath Dasanayake, and Victor Ratnayake, whom he came into contact with during his SLBC days, contributed with their music for the pandals, he says, with well known artistes Mohideen Beig, H.R. Jothipala, Milton Perera and Wasantha Sandanayake contributing vocals. “Now I work with Rohana Bogoda,” he said.

The narration of the script is important as a dramatic effect is needed to capture and maintain the interest of the listeners. As every artist performs his or her duty well, the final production will be perfect, he feels. “But when everything is put together, the final output should not be too long as you are addressing a crowd that has to keep standing throughout the story while listening to it,” he says.

While the crowds gather to see the pandals, he seldom gets to see the end result, dazzlingly illuminated on Vesak poya. “I visit the pandals once in a while but I don’t get to see them in all their glory,” he says with a smile.

“I am very happy that on May 17, – Vesak Poya day my stories will be broadcast in 29 places. I feel that I am preaching the Dhamma to the entire city. It’s a privilege,” he says humbly.

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