A Form of Political Discourse

Ranjini Obeyesekere

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 [1952]: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 such performances.

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 klam , 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 klam 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 Sio (Seor) and a white woman character named Nna (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 klam 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 ndi gur 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 landsi (Dutch) couple.

These klam 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 (ndagam).  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 klam and folk ritual performances too began to slowly die out even in the villages. In fact the words " klam" and "ndagam" 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 Utur Rhula (Rhula 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 pipl (The Talipot Palm Blooms),3 K.B. Herat's sensitive and searing play My Dvi (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 contexts.

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 theatre.

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--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 international press.

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 several months.

The play was a crude satire on the president and his family.  A summary of the text was published in the Communist party paper ttha 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 "eliminated."

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 provincial circuits.

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 year’s 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 performance, etc.)

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 [1952]) 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.


Obeysekere, Gananath
1970.  "Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon."  Modern Ceylon Studies I (no. I) 43-63

Sarachchandra, Ediriweera
1966 (1952). The Folk Drama of Ceylon.  Colombo, Sri Lanka:  Ministry of Cultural Affairs.