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A Day in July 2019:A socio-political critique

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By Sajitha Prematunge

It was a year that defined a decade. And Rajitha Dissanayake’s new play A Day in July 2019 revolves around something that could have happened on any regular day in 2019, subject to the socio-political and economic conditions of the time. In fact, A Day in July 2019 is a socio-political critique as are many other popular and award-winning plays produced by him, such as Weeraya Merila, Sihina Horu Aran, Apahu Herenna Be, Bakamoona Veedi Basi and Nethuwa Beri Minihek.

“Year 2019 was a turning point in terms of politics. It’s important to revisit what happened in order to better prepare for what’s to come,” said Dissanayake. The play examines the origins of the various crises faced by the country today. Dissanayake hopes that the play would coax audiences to reflect on past and present incidents as well as future outcomes. He pointed out that the Sri Lankan society is forgetful and reluctant to think. “Individuals tend to edit memories to their advantage. But art can refresh memory and be thought provoking at the same time.”

The play is an in-depth analysis of the human tendency to constantly perceive others as threats and how suspicion and fear affects human behaviour. “It’s also about missed opportunities,” said Dissanayake, without giving too much away. “There are certain things that we can’t take back in life, certain wrongs we cannot make right, and the results can be devastating.”

Rajitha Dissanayake ranks among the top original playwrights to emerge in Sri Lanka in the last 25 years. His plays have drawn crowds, sparked debate, winning numerous awards while touring internationally. In the late 80’s, while studying at St. Mary’s College, Chilaw, Dissanayake’s father often took him to plays. After O/Ls, the habit continued in the company of like-minded friends. With the help of teachers and friends, Dissanayake wrote his debut play in 1988. It was a year of political turmoil and being a play written by a youth, it attempted to vent the anguish that resulted from government suppression. In fact, the period of social upheavals, between 1988 and 1989, were his most productive.

He spent the almost two and half year interim between secondary and university education, due to the insurgency, writing and producing plays. Although he did not study theatre at the Colombo University, he wrote and produced a play every year. Sakwadawala, which he produced in his final year at the university, is his first play staged publicly at the Lionel Wendt in 1995. A Day in July 2019 is the 12th play written and produced by him to go on the boards at the Wendt in 26 years.

Asked whether socio-political instability in the 80’s made a better dramatist out of him, he said that drama was an ideal means of venting youth frustration at the unjust system. “It was also the only respite at a time we could not take up arms, in that it was a formidable tool of resistance against suppression.” He observed that the media is a driving force behind society and the individual. Specifically how media manoeuvres society for profit and power, was discussed in plays like Weeraya Merila in early 2000.

When asked how his plays, often inspired by contemporary socio-political issues, were received by the powers that be, Dissanayake said that even when other artistic and press freedom were being curtailed, theatre remained relatively unfettered. “One of the reasons that theatre was not subject to much censorship is that plays don’t attract huge crowds.” However, there was a general concern about the political controversy of Bakamuna Weedi Basi and Apahu Harenna Be. “This was a time when journalists were being murdered and assaulted.”

Theatre of the 80’s had a particular attraction for Dissanayake. He said that, in particular Prakrama Niriella’s Uththamavi, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s Dhawala Bheeshana and Makarakshaya, out of the box plays such as Deepthi Kumara Gunarathne’s absurdist play Godo Unnehe Enakam, Sinhala version of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros by Kapila Kumara Kalinga, Simon Navagattegama’s Suba saha Yasa, Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Mora and Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Dayananda Gunawardena’s plays in general inspired him. Among foreign playwrights who influenced Dissanayake’s playwriting are Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller and William Gibson. “Arthur Miller in particular I read over and over.” He was also influenced by literature and film. Despite such influences, adaptation had not appealed to Dissanayake. “I prefer to share contemporary experiences with my audience.”

When asked why he is preoccupied with socio-political critique at the risk of ignoring other themes, Dissanayake said that, although critics may find fault with this tendency, he does not consider it as a flaw. “There are other dramatists who, for example, prefer to do historical adaptations. But that is not really my cup of tea. My focus is contemporary life.”

For Dissanayake theatre was more awe-inspiring than cinema because it is essentially a live performance. “I wanted to experience how it would feel to produce such a play and using the medium of theatre share personal thoughts and experiences with the audience.” He realised that not only socio-political issues, theatre has the capacity to convey the intricacies of human relationships and emotions.

Although dialogue drama is Dissanayake’s forte, he was equally attracted to other styles. However, he opined that dialogue drama is able to best capture human nature and behaviour. “For example, what’s said inadvertently as well as what’s not said says a lot more about a person’s psyche than what is said and dialogue drama is capable of capturing these nuances.”

Most of Dissanayake’s plays are minimalist, be it background music, lighting or costume, because he is of the opinion that simplicity leads to excellence. “Besides, we operate on a limited budget and resources. We have to manage our finances, else it would not be sustainable.” He explained that dramatists are capable of producing quality plays that best reflect social realities within limited human, financial and tech resource parameters. Sihina Horu Aran is a case in point. “The minimalist nature of the play didn’t make the dramatic experience any less effective because it was actor oriented.”

Speaking of actors, at an age when overacting is the norm, how do directors cast talented actors? “Fortunately there remain few who don’t consider overacting as proper acting. There are still those who are able to project the nuances of human nature through subtle postures.” Dissanayake explained that overacting is easy, but acting in the absence of a dramatic situation is far more challenging. “Character playing takes training and discipline.” And those capable are very few and they are no doubt a dying breed.

When asked how contemporary critical theatre like his fares compared to slapstick comedy and reproductions of great plays of the past, Dissanayake said that comedy is preferred the world over. “Comedy is not essentially bad. But comedy devoid of substance is.” He pointed out that only a few good comedies have been produced locally. However, there are those who prefer realistic plays with some depth. “In fact, compared to Broadway, Germany or India, there are more of the younger age groups in local audiences.”

As a dramatist who has travelled extensively, he observes that local theatre lacks facilities compared to Broadway, for example. “But it’s a given considering their level of economic and social development. Even under various constraints Sri Lankan theatre is faring relatively well in terms of performance and creativity.” He elaborated that for audiences in developed countries theatre is part of life. “It’s a stable audience with a whole culture built around theatre.” He observed that Sri Lanka does not have theatre companies that can sustain professional actors. “We don’t have professional actors, only part time actors. However, they make huge sacrifices.”

It is obvious that taste in art has deteriorated over the decades. Consequently, he is of the opinion that for artistes to engage in theatre full time, peoples’ taste in the arts in general has to improve considerably. After all, how does one produce quality dramas when there is no audience to appreciate such refined art? “Appreciation of good art is a habit and must be made contagious. Both the school and university systems have failed to inculcate it through education, because our education system is exam oriented. Without it there is no point in developing a full time professional body of stage actors.” He pointed out that the Sri Lankan education system has failed to produce individuals who can appreciate quality art, a prerequisite of a democrat.

Rajitha Dissanayake’s latest play A Day in July 2019 premiered at the Lionel Wendt theatre on January 21 and will be staged on 22 and 23 at 7.00 pm. The cast of A Day in July 2019 includes well-known stage and screen actors Jayani Senanayake, Anuradha Mallawarachchi, Sampath Jayaweera, Gihan de Chickera, Nalin Lusena, Sulochana Weerasinghe, Prasadini Athapattu and Anuk Fernando. Music for the play is composed by Mahira Dissanayake, and the set is designed by Dharmapriya Dias and Anuradha Mallawarachchi. Make-up is by Priyantha Dissanayake, lighting design by Ranga Samarakoon and Anuradha Mallawarachchi and costume design by Nalin Lusena and Samadara Mabulage. Lenin Liyanage is the stage manager.



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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