||THE SINHALA THEATRE OF SRI LANKA
A Form of Political Discourse
The past decade has been a time of intense and violent political upheaval in Sri Lanka.
The disruption of everyday life has occurred at every level of society.
Socio-cultural changes have been dramatic even drastic. Yet in this atmosphere of
anomie and disruption, the continuing, even growing vitality of the Sinhala theatre and
the important role it has come to per- form (judging from the audience support it gets) is
as unexpected as it is challenging. In the past three or four years, during my
visits to Sri Lanka, I was amazed at the sheer number of Sinhala plays I saw advertised in
the city of Colombo; and that almost entirely by means of posters stuck on city walls,
along major roads, or banners hung at intersections. (Few productions are advertised
in the newspapers since the costs are high.) I could have, if I had the time and
energy, seen a different play every evening during my three-month stay. Since there is no
theatre season in Sri Lanka, unlike in the West, one can assume that such performances are
a year-round phenomenon.
These performances are by amateur groups of dedicated and talented actors, directors,
and playwrights, working on tight budgets and yet producing works often of a Very high
standard of creativity and sophistication. It is the Peter Brook kind of creativity,
imaginatively constructing theatre out of the bare bones of what is available.
While there is as yet no professional theatre in Sri Lanka (in the Western sense of the
term) some of these groups have brought to the Sinhala theatre a dedication and a degree
of professionalism that has resulted in productions of the highest standards. The
works of the dynamic figures of the Sinhala theatre, Ediriweera Sarachchandra (whose
impact was seminal in the '6os), Henry Jayasena, Sugathapala de Silva, Simon Navagattegama
(who were a powerful influence in the '70s), or more recently, young directors like
Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, jayantha Chandrasiri, Ranjit Dharmakirti, Asoka Handagama,
Camani Hathotuwegama, Parakrama Nirielle, Somalatha Subasinghe, R.R. Sarnarakoon and many
others, have given the Sinhala theatre a new image and a vital presence in the life of the
country as a whole. Many of the established actors also perform in Tele
dramas (though these are a somewhat different category) so they are widely
known. Drama today is considered a vital and important from of creative activity a
standing it did not have earlier in the culture.
Until the 19th century, the theatre tradition in Sri Lanka existed mainly in the form
of ritual performance and folk drama. There was no sophisticated tradition of court
drama as in India. E. R. Sarachchandra attributes the absence of a sophisticated secular
theatre tradition to the influence of Theravada Buddhism which, tended more towards
solitary contemplation and the attainment of insight (vidassana) than towards
congregational practices or participation in community life (1966 :7-8. Thus,
while it permitted the growth of poetry and painting, described by Sarachchandra as
solitary arts, it frowned on more communal arts such as the drama.
It is possible that court theatre did exist (dancing and singing were known to part
of court culture even in Sri Lanka) but since Buddhist monks were the scribes and
guardians of the literary tradition, that they chose to ignore and not record texts of
Whatever the reason, theatre in Sri Lanka was confined to the village and never
achieved the heights of creativity and sophistication seen in painting, sculpture, and
literature. What is interesting, however, is that although Theravada Buddhism gave
little official support to theatrical or performative arts and made no attempt to develop
even a didactic religious drama, the lively tradition of dramatic performance in the folk
religion, closely tied to exorcistic rituals and propitiation rites for gods and demons,
existed and flourished. Beginning as comic interludes and impromptu dialogs interspersed
between masked dances, they later took on a life of their own and became masked
dance-dramas of a secular nature.
These dance-dramas, called kõlam , consisted of a loosely structured array of
characters drawn from the socio-cultural world of everyday reality. The characters
of kolam were, for the most part, figures of fun, satirized and lampooned, if not in the
actual texts (which were verses sung or chanted, generally to introduce and describe a
character), then through the masks and the miming of the roles. The very looseness
of the structure provided for a variety and range of characters that could be added or
subtracted according to the wishes of the performing group. Thus many kõlam
performances included a town crier, a king, various ranks of officials like the headman,
the clerk, the mudaliyar or king's representative, and the policeman, and these could vary
considerably from performance to performance. There were also several village
characters such as the farmer and his wife, the washerman and his wife, and a range of
gods, demons, and animals. Some performances, especially after colonial contact, had a
white man character named Siñño (Señor) and a white woman character named Nõna (lady).
They danced together (in contrast to the local characters who performed individual
dances in the arena) and the woman ended up climbing on the man's back! Another
commonly seen character was the soldier, probably again a white man because John Calloway,
an Englishman who made the first recorded description of a kõlam performance in 1829,
describes him as "a Lascoreen, most hideous in appearance his face disfigured by
wounds and smeared with blood. He suffers from catarrah and has a broken nose"
(in Sarachchandra 1966:69). Another popular object of satire was the Ãndi gurã or guru
from Andhra, an Indian astrologer cum snake charmer who acted the role of a holy man and
wandered from village to.village fraudulently collecting money. In yet other
versions there was a landësi (Dutch) couple.
These kõlam plays never developed beyond a crude form of satiric masquerade, with
impromptu comic dialog between the narrator and the character and sometimes between two
characters such as the farmer and his wife. However, the concept of using a public
arena to satirize persons of the everyday world (big and small) became an accepted part of
theatrical performances and it is this tradition that the modern Sinhala serious theatre
has so successfully tapped.
Interest in the theatre in the modern sense of the term, a form of serious art as well
as secular entertainment, began only in the 19th century after colonial contact and with
the growth of an urban middle class. At first, it was very much a derivative art
form, heavily influenced by English and Continental drama on the one hand, and by Parsee
musicals (nurti) imported from Bombay and South Indian operatic plays (nãdagam). 1Such
dramas were very much an urban phenomenon and supported by only small sections of the
population. The majority of the Sinhala Buddhist middle class considered theatre a
frivolous form of secular entertainment, marginal to the culture. This became more
so when, with the impact of colonialism and Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, a new "protestant" (see Obeyesekere 1970) or revivalist Buddhism
swept the country.
The emphasis on doctrinal Buddhism, viewed by the revivalists as a modern
"rational religion," resulted in the denigration of folk rituals so that kõlam
and folk ritual performances too began to slowly die out even in the villages. In fact the
words " kõlam" and "nãdagam" soon came to denote anything that was
ridiculous or frivolous nonsense.
In the 50s, however, after Independence and the revival of interest in indigenous
culture there was a self-conscious attempt to create a serious Sinhala theatre. E.R.
Sarachchandra was in the forefront of this movement. His experiments, which blended
elements from the folk ritual and dance-drama tradition with Western theatre techniques
and stage craft resulted in the creation of a new genre of theatre which had an immediate
and wide appeal that cut across class barriers. It is this tradition that today has
blossomed into an exuberant and vital creative theatre, resilient enough to weather the
political upheavals of recent times. In fact, it seems to draw sustenance from the
very traumas of the political situation, and its wide popular appeal is perhaps because
today it is one of the few forms of critical political discourse left.
Few Sri Lankan actors or directors make a living entirely from their work in the
theatre, but some of the better-known ones have in recent years obtained access to jobs in
areas that are related to their theatre interests. Thus several work at Rupavahini,
the television network, at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, or in the Department of
Cultural Affairs. The majority, however, still have full-time jobs outside theatre.
This makes all the more fascinating the hold the theatre exercises on these men and
women, who are willing to spend their leisure hours rehearsing late into the night
producing plays that may or may not be a financial success.
Given the disruption of the economy, the exponential rise in the cost of living, and
consequently also of theatre costs, one might ask, who can afford to produce these plays?
Or for that matter, who can afford to pay for theatre tickets? What is amazing,
therefore, is not only that a large number of plays are being produced but that they play
to very nearly full houses. There is little or no state support or other sources of
public funding. Thus the theatre to be viable must have audience support. The
extent of this support can be gauged by the fact that good plays not only cover costs but
make very handsome profits, which is no doubt why so many new plays continue to surface.
In the 60s I knew of one enthusiastic director who not only ran through his
personal finances but finally mortgaged his house to cover the production costs of his
plays. Today, perhaps directors are surer of their theatre-going public and so it
may be a low-risk exercise. The subject is worth study purely because of the
ubiquitous nature of these performances and the social impact they must necessarily have.
Most plays initially open in Colombo but they also tour the provincial towns.
Thus while Colombo is the center for almost 90 percent of the plays, there is a steadily
growing audience in the provinces. This theatre has not yet reached the village in
the direct way that television has. However, since the rural/urban distinction has
become increasingly blurred, and large numbers of sons and daughters of peasants go
through the universities, get jobs in the towns, but still maintain their ties with
villages and sometimes even commute from there, it is likely that this educated rural
group composes a considerable part of the provincial audiences. Little is known
about the composition of the numerous theatre groups whose plays surface each month.
Where do they get their initial funds, their actors, and how long do they survive?
Nor is very much known about the composition of city audiences.
Interesting questions arise about the social composition of these theatre groups and
their audiences, their economic and educational background, what attracts them to the
theatre, and why the theatre rather than other forms of entertainment like the cinema?
From my experience (limited now to annual three-month visits) not only has the
number of theatre groups and their productions risen exponentially but the composition of
the theatre-going audience too has changed. Where in the '50s it was mainly a
solidly professional, generally middle-aged, middle-class, audience, with only a
scattering of students, now the larger percentage seems to come from a new and younger
middle class-the children of smalltime entrepreneurs. Theatre today is the most
popular form of entertainment for the non-English speaking sections of educated society
and especially of the constantly burgeoning population of educated youth. The latter
actively support theatre, act, direct, participate in workshops, organize, sell tickets,
paste posters, make sets, and do the million tasks needed to put a show on the boards.
What is equally fascinating, however, is the role theatre has come to play in the
consciousness of the society at large. So much so that when most other literary
activities have withered or died during the past years of political upheaval, the theatre
has continued to grow and flourish in the teeth of crisis situations.
In August 1989 I was in Colombo at a time of great tension, because of the sudden
curfews ordered by the political activists (JVP)2 on the one hand and the
government on the other. People hardly went out, nobody talked politics in public
places, in buses or trains and that in a culture which in the '60s and '70s talked nothing
but politics. Yet the posters advertising plays continued to appear on the walls,
ironically enough, often side-by-side with political posters put up by the JVP and counter
posters by the government.
One might ask again, in a time of political tension, when official censorship of the
press and unofficial self-censorship, and controls of all kinds were being imposed, how
did the theatre escape? Why did not the JVP, who were extremely puritanical in their
opposition to drinking, smoking, etc., not also demand the closing down of all forms of
theatrical entertainment? Or why did the government, which clamped down on so many
avenues of political expression, allow sometimes extremely radical plays to pass the
censor? These are questions that call for investigation. The answers might say
something about the nature of Third World politics and the unusual ways in which the
democratic processes surface and survive even in times of stress.
An incident concerning a well-known actress, who has dedicated a lifetime to her dual
roles as a teacher and a theatre person, provides an insight into the important almost
dependent relationship that has come about between the public and the theatre. In
1991, the actress had been invited to Germany to participate in a workshop. It was a
time when hundreds of Sri Lankans were leaving for study or employment abroad because of
political uncertainties, the closure of the universities and schools, and the possible
collapse of the economy. When my friend went to collect her bags at the Hamburg
airport, she saw, scribbled in white chalk all over her luggage, comments in Sinhala
saying: "Don't go away." "We want you here." "Good wishes."
"Come back." She was very moved and proud that the baggage handlers at the
Colombo airport who had seen the name tag knew and supported her work in the theatre.
Protest literature, poetry, fiction, or drama is neither an unfamiliar nor a new
phenomenon. It comes alive most intensely in times of political upheaval and suppression.
The 2oth century has probably seen more of it in more parts of the world than ever
before in history. But the case of the Sri Lankan theatre is I believe slightly different.
And I would like to explore some of those differences.
Judging from the plays I have seen in recent times, the themes cover a wide range.
There are a few that are straightforward political satire, like Uturë Rãhula
(Rãhula of the North), which has been playing for several years now, the text changing to
accommodate shifts in the political arena. Many others, such as Somalatha
Subasinghe's brilliant musical, Vikurti, Jayalath Manoratne's excellent Tala mala piplã
(The Talipot Palm Blooms),3 K.B. Herat's sensitive and searing play Mãyã
Dëvi (Queen Maya), deal with a critique of society, values, and the pressures of modern
life on the young. Almost all of them can no doubt be considered political in a
fundamental sense but their appeal I think is that they deal with and explore (not
necessarily protest) issues that the society is concerned about but cannot raise in other
Economists and social scientists writing on Sri Lanka in the '70s and early '80s
commented on the stability of the political system and the enormous interest and
involvement of ordinary people in politics. Whether in the bus stands, train
stations, village tea shops, in public gatherings or in private homes, politics was a
popular topic of conversation. It was a politics of discourse, not the activist
politics of today.
By the mid-'80s, all that changed. The descent into political violence and
economic chaos was as rapid as it was unpredicted. The violence, unleashed on
society by almost every category of political group, successfully killed any popular,
interest in politics. Rigorous censorship exercised by governments in power, the
takeover of certain presses and the sealing of others, undermined the function of
newspapers, which had played an important role in the dissemination of information, in
fostering debate and discourse, and in the cultivation of public interest in political
issues. Soon, political commentary or news, whether it came on the radio, television
or in the newspapers, was satirically referred to as pacha puvat (bogus bulletins) and
given little credit.
The growth and popularity of the theatre is perhaps partly because it has filled the
space left by the loss of credibility of the other media. When people no longer
believe what is being officially said, when the encompassing violence prevents individuals
from participating or ex- pressing opinions on important political or social issues, the
theatre provides a comforting space where in the anonymity and darkness of an auditorium
one can be part of a group that can see and hear issues of interest raised, discussed,
even satirized. The individual's contribution to this discourse is through his/her
physical presence in that audience. Though silent for the most part, it is an active
involvement. The social and political criticism in the best, of these plays is
hardly ever one dimensional or ideologically didactic (as was the case with the
"socialist-relevant drama" of the 70s. It is multifaceted, expressed
in exhilarating, imaginative, and creative, performances within the charmed world of the
Thus the theatre is not so much a form of protest, though it is that too. It is
rather a form of socio-political discourse at a time when all other such forms of
discourse are not readily available to the general public. The challenge for the
creative artist is to find new and exciting ways and forms in which to carry on this
discourse, engage the public interest, and give it imaginative expression. I have
just learned of a director who is planning a translation/adaptation and production of
Sophocles' Antigone. The immense possibilities and enormous resonance such a
production would have can be appreciated by anyone who has followed the happenings in Sri
Lanka in the recent past.
One might also ask, how is it that censorship, which successive governments, however
democratic they claim to be, have continued to exercise, has not killed the theatre?
What is it about drama rather than most other art forms that gives it this special
advantage vis-ã-vis the censor? Perhaps it is one form where the distance between
the text and the interpretation or performance of that text can be so far as to allow for
almost two different texts. What one reads on the printed page may be very different
from what the actor by the slightest gesture, shift of emphasis, intonation, or movement
expresses on stage, or what the director through the sets, costumes, and lighting conveys.
The performance text is an ephemeral one, momentary, transitory, and lives only in
the mind of the viewer. This I believe is one important reason. Another is
that the majority of playwrights and producers today are engaged in serious theatre; works
that are subtle, challenging, critical but not easy to censor because for the most part
they are not didactic political pieces or ideological treatises.
The complexities and involutions of the process can be illustrated by a tragic incident
involving a theatre personality. In February 1990 a very well-known actor, TV
newscaster and press reporter, Richard de Soysa was abducted at midnight from his home and
killed. In a country where abductions and killings of this sort had become so commonplace
as to register as no more than "another body" seen on a road or waterway, de
Soysa's killing sent shock waves through the society. It galvanized the Sri Lankan
middle-class public and brought an outpouring of letters of condemnation of the killers,
which the press for the first time boldly published. Because he also happened to be
a foreign news correspondent his death brought the human rights issue before the
What is important is that it was because his face was known that a fisherman who found
the body washed up on the shore, who would otherwise have buried it, did not do so but
went instead to the police with the news. Once identified, it was no longer a case
of another missing person but a body reported to the police. Legal procedures had to
be carried through and the police had to investigate the case.
The first rumors that spread concerning the who and why of the killing are significant.
Two possible reasons were given for de Soysa's abduction. The first story to
get around was that he had worked on (acted, directed or had written the script for) a
play that was critical of the president. Its title was Who Is He? What Has He Done?
This had been the text of a poster appearing all over Colombo on the eve of the
presidential elections, intended to draw attention to the achievements of the presidential
candidate, and to counter the aggressive poster war that the JVP had been carrying on for
The play was a crude satire on the president and his family. A summary of the
text was published in the Communist party paper Ättha shortly after de Soysa's death.
It was so crude that I do not think that de Soysa, who was a very intelligent and
sophisticated director, wrote it. The story goes that it was being produced by a
government party municipal councilor who was a supporter of an anti-president faction.
As such it was an entirely political piece for a political end. What is
surprising is that the play had passed the board of censors. On the day before the
official opening, however, the municipal councillor was "missing." People
talked, rumors spread of yet another killing, but the body was never found, and the play
never opened. The actor's body was identified and reported while the politician's
never surfaced. Now, it was rumored that de Soysa was connected with that same production
and that it was because of this "theatre connection" that he too had been
The second possible reason (probably more correct) was that he was a reporter for an
international paper, was sending out data and information on the many human rights
violations that were taking place in the country, and so was eliminated by a person or
group who feared such exposure. Whether it was one, or the other, or both, or none
of these, the popular perception of the growing power of the theatre and of theatre
personalities is indicated in these stories.
That a play as crudely and obviously satirical of the president (as the account of it
that I read) could have got past the censors and was about to open, amazed me. It
was also the first time that an actor or theatre person had been killed (possibly) for
his/her work in the theatre. I expected (as had happened in every other context
where violence was used) a slowing down of theatre activity to result. However, when
I was in Sri Lanka in August 1990, I was astonished to find little differences in the
number of plays being produced. Perhaps the public, outcry against de Soysa's killing and
the bad publicity in international circles and grantgiving agencies had acted as a cheek
on such killings and strengthened not undermined the theatre. Even if the killing of
Richard de Soysa had nothing to do with his involvement with the play, the role that
theatre has come to play in the consciousness of society or society's perception of that
role is I believe indicated from the persistence of these stories.
There has always been a close, even direct connection between Sinhala literature and
the religious and political issues of the age. Debate, discourse, polemics, were
from very early times an integral part of the literary and religious tradition. Many
of the early works, like the 4th and 6th century chronicles, the Mahavamsa and the
Culavamsa, not merely reflected but often were the very embodiment of those concerns.
With the development of printing in the 19th and early 20th century, journals,
newspapers, and pamphlets became the media for such debates and discussions which covered
a range of issues religious, literary, political and social. By the mid-20th century
this role was taken over primarily by the newspapers, which had so increased their
circulation that they penetrated into the remotest corners of the country. A
recognition of the power and political potential of newspapers led the government of the
day (the '60s) to nationalize the largest newspaper group. That, together with
increasing government censorship of all newspapers and other communications media, has
today strained public credulity to the point where people no longer trust the media.
The deeply felt need for open debate and discussion in a society where democracy is not
merely a recent political ideology but a deeply rooted tradition, has, I believe, found
creative expression in the drama. Thus in spite of the anomie and social disruption,
the theatre today has become the single most important vehicle of political discourse.
It provides a fascinating example of how democratic processes embedded in a culture
find ever new modes of expression.
Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 1992
The violence has abated in the south. The fighting continues in the north.
The one hardly impinges on the other, except for the occasional shrieking of sirens as
ambulances rush the wounded from airport to hospital. They career madly through the
traffic and bustle of Colombo's main thoroughfare, the Galle Road. People pause a
moment, sigh, and go about their business. A tenuous normality, fueled by the open
economy and a frenetically burgeoning commercialism, characterizes the city of Colombo.
Censorship of the press has been lifted and newspapers are once again beginning to play
an important role in political debate and dissent. Political journals are
multiplying as in the preemergency period. The theatre continues to flourish.
New plays surface and theatres are booked up for several months in advance.
A new phenomenon is the rapid rise of sponsors and managers. These are
entrepreneurs, operating often with just a desk and a telephone, and their function is to
market a play as they would any commercial product. This has led to the growth of a
commercial theatre, looked down upon by the more serious playwrights and directors because
such plays often resort to simplistic political satire, crude humor, and whatever gimmicks
make for easy entertainment. But a whole genre of such plays have come on the boards in
the past five years.
Nihal Silva's4 Sargeant Nallathamby was probably the first play to be a
truly commercial success. Its enormous popularity and financial success (it played
even to Sinhala audiences in the Middle East and made huge profits) paved the way for this
new genre of commercial potboilers. Many of the plays that have followed such as
Ralla (The Wave), Commando Diyasena,5 or Vadamaarachi 6 have little
of the sophistication and acting skills displayed by Nihal Silva in his production,
Satgeant Nallathamby, but they are nevertheless very popular. The fact that both
categories of plays, those that produce the easy laughs and the more serious
sociopolitical satire, do get audiences says something about the importance of political
theatre, as well as the existence of a solid audience for theatre. This in turn is
what draws so much new talent to the theatre.
The first night audience for a new play consists mainly of invited guests, friends and
kin, and a fair number of young people (a new category of theatre afficionados who seem to
spend their time making the round of theatres). However, as the play gets talked
about, reviewed, or picked up by a manager and advertised, audiences grow. If the
play is good, as for instance in the case of the new young actor/director/dramatist
Prasannajit Abeysuriya's Dukgannarala 7 it may win awards and soon make the
Once an actor or director has acquired a reputation, a sponsor may organize a seven-to
ten-day festival of his or her plays. Audience support for such festivals is
overwhelming. At this year's Sarachchandra, a festival named for the most famous
dramatist of the modern Sinhala stage, spectators filled the hall and overflowed into the
aisles. Likewise the recent Ratna Lalani festival of award winning plays in which
the talented actress for whom the festival is named has played. The theatre was
filled to capacity every single night for seven nights with crowds standing at the back
about four rows deep. In addition to these ad hoc festivals there are the annual
drama festivals in Colombo and in Peradeniya. These always draw capacity crowds,
spectators from all walks of life. For the Peradeniya festival people come from the
surrounding villages as a regular event. Often it is the only chance they get to see
a collection of the years best productions.
Plays do not run for weeks and months consecutively as on Broadway or in the West.
They play only for a day or two at a time and then resurface in different theatres
at different times. It is not always easy therefore to see a particular play when
one wishes to do so. One must watch for the posters and catch it when it comes.
Popular plays are thus advertised not by how long they have been running
continuously but in terms of the number of performances (100th performance, 300th
This has considerable disadvantages. The cast tends to disperse and has to be
gathered together each time the play is reshown. The same actors often rehearse and
act concurrently in different shows. They have to, in order to earn a living.
This calls not only for enormous versatility but also for the juggling of dates and times
and can be quite disruptive. The rapid growth of a commercial theatre may change
this pattern, and with increasing professionalism amongst the actors, plays may begin to
have longer runs than at present. But right now, perhaps this very unstructured ad
hoc quality is what enables it to survive and what helps create the avid audience
interest. Audiences are forced to read all the theatre posters scattered on walls
and roadsides in order to catch a particular play they wish to see. Sometimes
unknown plays may catch the eye. Sometimes one may end up seeing a play one didn't
initially want to see, or arrive at the theatre and see the wrong show, as happened to me
when I got dates mixed up. Ironically, in spite of such inadequacies, or perhaps
because of the lack of formal structuring, the Sinhala theatre in Sri Lanka continues to
generate an enormous vitality and attract a large number of young people to it.
- 1. Sarachchandra (1966 ) gives a full account of this period.
- 2. The JVP (Janata Vimukti Peramuna or the People's Liberation Front) was banned as a
political party but continued as a "subversive" organization engaged in a
violent campaign to overthrow the government in power.
- 3. The talipot palm tree blooms once in a hundred years and dies thereafter. Considered
an ill omen, here it is the symbol of the end of the traditional way of life.
- 4. Nihal Silva met with a tragic death, shot by the army at a checkpoint as he drove
past, apparently not hearing or not heeding a request to stop.
- 5. The name of a messianic figure who, according to tradition and myth, comes to save
the land. The modern-day version comes as a commando.
- 6. The name of a small coastal town in the north where a major battle was fought between
the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers Tamil Elan) "Tigers "
- 7. The traditional title given to the person appointed by the king to hear the
complaints of his subjects a kind of ombudsman.
1970. "Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon." Modern
Ceylon Studies I (no. I) 43-63
1966 (1952). The Folk Drama of Ceylon. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Ministry
of Cultural Affairs.