by Rajan Hoole
What Education is about: Think through to the end
In writing for a major anniversary of our school, we affirm its greatness, the good times we had, the eccentricities of the teachers who acted for our own good, the scenery and environment that stay etched in memory; and the achievements of fellow students who made their mark in the world. In the memory of a little boy in the age of innocence, I am awed by the beams of sunlight pouring through the foliage of tall mahoganies that seemed to reach up to the sky. It symbolised the greatness of the institution we were part of. In remembering and reaffirming this in the company of old students from all parts of the wide world, we assure ourselves of our place in it and it is no mean corner of it that is ours. I indulged in such thoughts when I wrote 25 years ago, but that seems out of place against present reality.
I now write as one of the exceptions in my class, whether at Chundikuli or St. John’s, that actually lives in Jaffna. Many people in this country, in view of the past tragic decades have decided this is not the place for their children. Being at the tail end of the Psalmist’s life span, I see very few of my old mates. A number of them came to Jaffna after the war ended to reclaim their properties, smiled, exchanged pleasantries with old friends, or thanked those who had protected their belongings and said their last good-byes after getting the best prices for their land, often to the detriment of those left behind.
Many would claim that they had no alternative, but there should be no pretence that they left behind a healthy society and schools, and share no responsibility for the fate of a people who were their neighbours for generations. On the surface things could appear normal, but behind it lurks loneliness, absence of civic sense, coupled with a fear of going beyond personal interest and standing up for what one believes is right and decent.
It has a debilitating effect on education. Another writer in this series has referred to my mother Jeevamany Somasundaram, an old girl of Chundikuli who sat for her Cambridge Senior (O Levels) about 1934. A story that moved me deeply was related by my piano teacher Miss. Abbey Hunt. She said that during lunch intervals, when the girls were amusing themselves with various pursuits, my mother sat beneath a mahogany tree, working riders in Euclidian Geometry. It was an injunction setting a standard: once you take a problem in hand, think it through to the end. It is not a story about one woman, but about a school, an atmosphere, the teachers and their personal interest that challenged students to a high level of intellectual rigor.
Until about the 1970s several schools in Jaffna had teachers who identified capable students and took a keen interest in their future. A student of my age at Hartley told me that his Mathematics teacher, R.M. Gunaratnam, once caught him in a vice-like grip in Pt. Pedro town and warned him about his absence from classes. Today that link between teachers and students has greatly diminished, and teaching has largely been sub-contracted to tutories. It has led to a marked fall in intellectual standards and the near disappearance of intellectual life in Jaffna.
Tutories are not about teaching students to think, but produce good grades in A. Levels. My experience in university teaching too has been that few students attempt tutorial questions, but wait for answers to be given in class. It has resulted in a culture of not wanting to think through a problem. The university training amounts to teaching people to apply formulae and get results, and not bother with foundations. Many of them emigrate and get jobs abroad, which makes me suspect that we are good at producing engineer-clerks and doctor-clerks who perform their routines quite well.
Leaving behind a desert
I have referred to the ongoing sale of expatriate properties in Jaffna, which are followed by the capricious appearance of high rise buildings and the disappearance of tanks and drains. Common sense points to danger. The most damning indicator was the flooding of Jaffna Hospital during the last rains when medical staff and patients were knee-deep in water.
Coming to the issue of thinking a problem through to the end, the building spree in Jaffna has been promoted by persons in authority promising modernised water, drainage and sewage systems for Jaffna. When there is prospect of huge foreign loans, perks and contracts, basic constraints are swept under the carpet. Foreign experts are all for it and, and of our own experts who sold it, few will ultimately be rooted in Jaffna. Novel possibilities were talked about for many years and dropped; such as desalination in Vadamaratchi East, water from Iranamadu Tank for Jaffna only in flood years, or finding new sources, all of which showed that something was wrong at the root of the idea. I must digress a little.
Iranamadu has an average inflow of 147 MCM (Mega Cubic Metres), adequate for cultivation of 95 percent of paddy in Winter and 30 percent in Summer (World Bank, 1984). Supplying Jaffna means pinching 10 MCM of inflow to be piped out. A very basic constraint can be worked out from variations in river flow studied by older professionals like R. Sakthivadivel. The studies which are available on the web have been ignored. I worked out in my book Palmyra Fallen (2015) commemorating Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, that the 75 percent reliable flow into Iranamadu is 80 MCM. Nature has a cycle of about four years, and once in those four years (25 percent of the time), you could get 80 MCM or less, even though the average is 147 MCM.
In such lean years sending 10 MCM to Jaffna would be very hard on the local farmer. There are years of severe flooding but that excess has to be allowed to run to the sea. That is the short explanation of the problem. Funds were rolled out, pipes were sunk and holding towers were built. Going by press reports the matter has been at standstill from before 13 January 2019 (Sunday Observer), against protests in Killinochchi.
Although we had some of Jaffna’s leading professionals on the job, they did not think the problem through. They simply defined the problem as water being available at Iranamadu (the average inflow) and laying the works for piping it to Jaffna. The cyclical variations of river flow (Kanagarayan Aru) were simply ignored by those who should have known best.
The problem comes down to present-day Jaffna lacking an educated critical mass with the motivation, ability and connections to look after their basic interests like a clean environment and drinking water. Those with money and power have their interests elsewhere. The problems faced by many residents in Jaffna are not dissimilar to those of civilians in Rathupaswala, Gampaha, three of whom were killed on August 1, 2013 over their protest for clean drinking water.
One Jaffna family saw a hotel and a high rise building coming up on the lands of well-to-do former neighbours, which they had looked after during the war. Prices offered from black money were what their left-behind neighbours could not match. The well water in the area remains undrinkable or murky in addition to noise pollution. In the absence of a sewage system they do not know how human waste is being disposed of. Excessive drawing of water from one urban well could cause others in the neighbourhood to run dry.
Black money came, according to the well informed grapevine, in post war years from funds connected to the departing rulers held by selected businessmen. In time this black money made connections to political and similar funds in the South and in an unhealthy way fills the present gap our once independent institutions are unable to fill, particularly in health and education.
The Church that sustained Jaffna’s premier institutions in education and health fell victim to emigration and division. There is no local vision or qualified presence in Jaffna to sustain the education up to tertiary level and the medical network it pioneered. Money-centred education and medicine have thrown up a class of nouveau riche, whose impact could be classed along with that of black money.
Absence of a civic voice for Jaffna
Between Chundikuli and St. John’s, it was C.E. Anandarajah who, as principal, stood forthright as a leading voice of civil concerns in Jaffna until he was killed by the LTTE in 1985. I see the two schools as having remained timid on social concerns since. Chundikuli produced in Dr. Rajani Thiranagama a rare voice of defiance, courage and compassion, whom I was close to in the path-breaking finale of her activism ending with her assassination by the LTTE in 1989. Her civic sense as a doctor led her to treat an LTTE injured when no one else could be found. She then became involved with the LTTE. Having then become disgusted with its inhumanity, she stood up and challenged it in Jaffna itself out of compassion for those it was destroying. What she was up against is illustrated by elite politics in a society that still extols an ideology; one that in its last stand in 2009 held hostage 300,000 civilians under fire, in order to strike a deal for the safety of its leaders.
I began with the importance of educational training that urges one to spare no effort in thinking a problem through. It applies equally to the state of our politics. There was no strong resistance in Jaffna society when G.G. Ponnambalam, who was our leader in 1948, cooperated with Prime Minister Senanayake in nullifying the rights of Up Country Tamils. Ponnambalam was only following the line of several notables from the North; many of them not his supporters (A.J. Wilson, Political Biography of Chelvanayakam). The damage we did to the Up Country Tamils hurt us grievously in the long term. Since then we have been crying over spilt milk – the large numbers of dead and the exile of our brightest and best to Austro-eur-america.
Our fragmentation and growing isolation is reflected in queries about how the dowry of a bride from Jaffna would translate into real estate in Colombo or Sydney. We cannot stop at observing that we have been poorly served by most of those who left us. The present girls of Chundikuli have as much talent as there was in the time of our mothers and aunts. What they need is to rediscover the tradition that questions everything they are told and reason them out to the end. I don’t think I am wrong when I say that what made Jaffna great in the 1930s and 1940s was the strong surge of sympathy for the Indian independence struggle. That was when the influence of Gandhi and liberated women like Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya and Sarojini Naidu, all of whom came to Jaffna, made a tremendous impact on its people.
My mother spoke of her teachers with great affection. When she was on the staff of the school and was engaged in 1947, the Principal Dr. Miss. Evangeline Thilliayampalam (PhD Columbia, 1929, aged 34) counselled her that an engagement should not be prolonged. Her Jubilee message in 1946 points to a woman who was silently politicised: “The forces which retard human progress are poverty, ignorance and class rivalry.” My mother also spoke fondly of the Mutthiah sisters, Kanaham and Yogam. I quote from Lorna Vandendriesen who said in a tribute to three Chundikuli teachers, ‘who really set high standards and ran the school regardless of who was the Principal. Gracious Miss. Grace Hensman, gentle Miss. Kanaham Mutthiah and beautiful Miss. Yogam. They were wonderful teachers. I know. I was their pupil.’
I.P. Thurairatnam, who was later principal of Union College, said that he won the ‘Mixed Doubles Championship with Yogam Muttiah of Chundikuli. Spurred by these victories we tried our mettle at the All Ceylon Tennis Meet in Nuwara Eliya in 1932 and 1933, and met with moderate success.’ Chundikuli girls long had a reputation as trend setters.
I may add that admitted to Chundikuli as a boy of seven I spent two golden years as a novice to the world of the fairer sex (1956/7). I too was pleasantly affected by my charming class teachers Miss. Nesamalar Seevaratnam (now Mrs. Yogaratnam) and Miss. Agnes Champion (later Mrs. Ponniah).
Today’s Jaffna could be a very discouraging place. In order to sharpen our analytical ability and think problems through without resting satisfied with half-baked solutions we need public discussion, friends and colleagues who would tell us bluntly when we are being asinine. When we become defensive and take offence at criticism, even a well-endowed institution like a university would fail to prepare students to think through problems and aspire to a just society, while the teachers themselves remain frogs-in-the-well.
We cannot change things overnight, but what well-wishers could do for schools like Chundikuli is to expose students to speakers who will encourage them to question everything. This we used to have in the 1950s and 1960s when visitors from India were frequent. It also means reversing swabasha isolationism.
My father, the unforgettable Premnath Moaraes
Birth centenary fell on Jan. 31
by Pradeep Moraes
Singer, Songwriter, Lyricist.
Actor, Film Director, Scriptwriter, Producer.
Weightlifter, Wrestler, Footballer, Cricketer, Athlete, Gymnast
Journalist, Sports Editor, Creative Head & Copywriter.
Commentator, Compere and Silver tongued Orator,
Believe me, the list goes on.
Renaissance Man? , Bohemian Artist? Yes to both, but to me, most importantly, the gentlest human being one could hope to meet, and the most devoted husband to my mother and loving father my sister Rehani or I could ever have hoped to have .
Premnath Joseph Moraes – born Joseph Peter Moraes Fernando on January 31, 1923, was of solid middle class stock, who carried his simple and devout Catholic faith right through life.In many ways he epitomized the essence of the very best of the Benedictine trademark ,with traits and talents that wove a rich tapestry of Arts, Sports, Humanity, Simplicity and a Christianity that was lived rather than preached.
Abundantly blessed with talent and versatility, he was however trusting to a foolish degree and unfailingly gullible so as to be a target for exploiters and worse, resulting in the vicissitudes of economic circumstances. So it was not his largesse that begets the incredible goodwill he has left as his legacy to his family, but rather a tribute from people of all walks of life to Premnath the man.
Talking of all walks of life, my father trod many paths; a short outline of which I hope will make good reading.
Joining the Police force soon after school , he was seconded to the CID and later advised to leave by a senior police officer after having spoken openly at the funeral of a colleague who had been gunned down when leading an unarmed raid on a den of vice.
Thereafter he sought and secured a position as a reporter with the Times of Ceylon after an interview with its Editor, Frank Moraes ( later Editor of the Times of India and father of the poet Dom), who reminded him that “the coincidence of our surnames will remain just that! “
Leaving the Times of Ceylon building , Premnath was almost knocked down by a vehicle driven by his friend Sangare Sellamuttu (later Mayor of Colombo ) with whom he got chatting and informed him of the job he had just landed . “What nonsense ” said Sellamuttu , “with your looks you should be in films . Let me introduce you to Sir Chittampalm Gardiner. ” Good looks he had, no doubt about it, but rather than me being accused of understandably favourable bias let me quote an excerpt from a long , eloquent and emotional appreciation by the late, great Gamini Fonseka:
“On those extra broad shoulders
rested that handsome head
of a barrel chested man
with a wasp like waist
His features stirred envy
In the hearts of “stars” of his day. “
The shoulders were actually very broad prompting the late T.B. Illangaratne (author and later Govt. Minister) to describe the hero in one of his books (in Sinhala) as having a moustache like Ronald Colman, and shoulders like Premnath Moraes.
Getting back to Sir Chittampalan (also an old Ben) , the great man was too busy to see my father that day and instead told him “meet me in Madras on Monday morning” (this was Friday) leaving the young applicant to find his own fare – perhaps a test of mettle.
Young Premnath (a name he then assumed ) was signed on as an actor and thus started a romance with the film industry which lasted over 50 years ( from 1947 to 1998 , from starring in ” Kadawanu Poronduwa “ (also known as Broken Promise) the second Sinhala film to be produced, to Demodara Palama, circa 1997. Warada Kageda and Kapati Arakshakaya in the late forties were followed by several others .
This was followed by a stint in Shanthiniketan the Centre of Arts north of Calcutta , the stay which was undertaken for purely aesthetic reasons, gave my father the most pleasant memories among which was seeing and hearing Maestro Ravi Shankar perform for over a hundred cumulative hours.
The long visitation was in the company of his close friend Shanthi Kumar Seneviratne (Star and Director of Ashokamala – the first Sinhala film). Though they both learned classical dance in Shanthiniketan, my father unlike Shanti was never a fan of ballroom dancing – much to the chagrin of Rani , my mother.
From Shanthenikitan, Premnath moved to Bombay where he was in the famed Raj Kapoor/Nargis circle , and was close friends of Dilip Kumar (Mohamed Yusuf Khan), and closer still to one of the most beautiful Hindi actresses of the time, whose gift to him – a gold , Universal Genève watch , I wear to this day.
Back to Ceylon , and the man took up to singing, was contracted to the HMV label (His Masters Voice) , recorded solo, and with Latha (Walpola) and Chitra (Somapala), of the many recordings perhaps the most famed are “Sri Lanka Rani Meniye” ( the de facto Catholic anthem of Sri Lanka) and “LakDeepe” .
Mellifluous to a high degree, his voice had the unusual combination of mellowness and power, in fact we have a photograph of my father recording “5 ths” in a studio a full 20 ft away from the “mike”.
Here, permit me to express a son’s view albeit emotionally flavoured ; I truly believe that no one could sing Olu Pipila or Kokilayane Kolila Nade, better . Incidentally the great Sunil Santha who immortalized these songs was also a Ben .
The Sri Lankan Nightingale Rukmani Devi once told me that she and her husband Eddie Jayamanne (both of whom were very close to him) used to badger my father to sing the 1939 classic “Over the Rainbow ” at every possible opportunity, and redoubtable fellow Benedictine Ben Navaratne ( argued to be the best wicketkeeper Sri Lanka or Ceylon ever produced) used to always ask my father to promise to sing ” O Danny Boy ” over his grave; very poignantly Ben Navaratne and Premnath Moraes are buried within yards of each other at the Jawatte Cemetery.
On to 1953. Production Assistant (titles were not grandiose in those days ), and Second Unit Director for Elephant Walk , directed by William De Telle , the son in law of the legendary Cecil B De Mille ( of Ten Commandments Fame ) .
Starring Vivien Leigh, Peter Finch and Dana Andrews – all Oscar Winners – (Peter Finch and Dana Andrews later, Vivien had already won hers for Streetcar named Desire). Living at the Galle Face Hotel for a full nine months, interspersed with long stays at up country locations, my father enjoyed close interaction with the best acting talent the world had to offer, with the huge bonus of frequent visits from Laurence Olivier, probably the most acclaimed Thespian and Actor who was obliged to check on his wife Vivien, who succumbed to a nervous breakdown within the shooting period. Many were the occasions when the “master” himself was coerced to perform Hamlet to a private audience,
What is remarkable (given that this was 1953) is that Vivien’s condition was recognized , possible inability to proceed was anticipated, and EVERY scene was shot twice, one with Vivien Leigh, one without. So upon Vivien being unable to proceed with the film, the images of Elizabeth Taylor were superimposed – without her ever having visited Ceylon. Not bad for 1953!
Two short stints as Second Unit Director for United Artists “Captain’s Table” and “Purple Plains” which starred Gregory Peck , on to India where he was Production Manager at Gemini Studios in Madras, where most of the Sinhala Films at the time were edited, dubbed and produced. Coincidentally his uncanny look alike, the Tamil film star Gemini Ganeshan, got his eponymous name through association with this studio.
Wide varied and versatile though my father’s exposure to the celluloid world, in my opinion his single most significant to the Sinhala Cinema were his unremitting efforts to get Gamini Fonseka into it, culminating in a successful introduction to Lester James Peiris who brought Gamini into Rekawa in a non starring role. The rest – to use a cliché – is history!. Gamini never lost an opportunity to credit my father (whom he referred to as his “guru “) with his entry to films, and Lester has also endorsed the fact over the years.
Many are the others whom Premnath introduced and inducted into the Film world, stars, cameramen, sound artists, script writers, editors , music directors et al, and many are the pioneering developments he introduced to Sinhala cinema.
A classic example is Sri 296 which he directed in 1959, wherein he provided Henry Jayasena , Joe Abeywickrema and Punya Heendeniya with their first “starring ” roles (all had played small roles earlier), introduced the very beautiful Zeena Valencia to whom he attributed the screen name “Sumitra” (a name she retained for life) who then went on to marry Gamini Fonseka.
is considered a watershed in Sinhala Cinema with the introduction for the first time of an all Ceylonese crew (film crew up to that point were from India) and also for the introduction of two full colour sequences under the mastery of cameraman A.V.M . Vasagam
followed circa 1961 with Gamini in the starring role and Shane Gunaratne as Migara. Scenes from the filming of this film form some of my earliest, distinct, memories with sword fighting being practiced in the main hall of our home at Colpetty (this house had previously been perhaps Ceylon’s only synagogue and an extremely large mosaic floored circular hall). And the equestrian escapades of the horsemen who were trained by Ranjith Dahanayake , later of Hermes International fame . Space does not permit a fair recording of his film career but mention might be made of his roles in Kathuru Muwath, Priyanga (where he played Vijaya Kumaratunga’s father ) and Hitha Honda Minihek where he at Gamini’s insistence played a virtual real life role as Gamini’s “finder” and mentor.
Association with Tyronne Fernando (Minister) and Manik Sandarasaga led to my father writing and scripting the rather ribald Colomba Sanniya (Coming Sweet). He also was the “ghost writer of the Hollywood Production of God King , and to use the term employed by that great Ben, Ravindra Randeniya who was the star of the film – “the de facto director” of much acclaimed Kalu Diya Dahara .
Ironically, given his long involvement with Sinhala cinema, Premnath won the most kudos , and international and local acclaim for directing the Tamil Film “Vaadai Kaatru” in the seventies, shot on the arid dunes of Pesalai. As recently as on September 26, 2015, that redoubtable and insightful journalist , DBS Jeyaraj referred to Vaadai Kaatru as “probably the best Tamil Film” ever made in Sri Lanka .
(To be continued next week)
National Day and news from across the oceans
Cassandra has groused, groaned and suffered, yes suffered both emotionally and in mere existence by the stubbornness with which the National Day parade and all that will take place tomorrow. She is joined by almost the entire population of Sri Lanka. We are greatly angered by the expense of 200 million rupees on a pointless, useless, far too extravagant celebration with no feeling of freedom or democracy enjoyed. This grand show is on (almost solely for Ranil’s W R’s benefit) while officials circumvent the globe with the begging bowl; us Ordinaries suffer privations; and many almost starve in this land which is bountiful and kind but for the craft, corruption and sheer incompetence of government leaders down the years.
Cass never fails to watch the February 4th celebration at Galle Face Green, Independence Square or in front of Parliament by the Diyawanna. She is involved emotionally: impressed by the dignified splendour of the event; bursting with pride when the Lion Flag is hoisted, getting all teary at the sight of the young girls and boys in three types of national dress singing the Country Anthem, Jayamangala Gatha and the blessing. During the Yahapalana era, tears were doubled in her eyes, compounded with the sense of justice and non-racialism that was evident when the National Anthem was sung both in Sinhala and Tamil. This year only two events to earn reluctant kudos: singing the N Anthem is two languages, which is hoped will be the order of the day, and garlanding the Father of the Nation. This last has a canker in the flowers; its stupendous cost was questioned by the President. So, the native cunning must have crept in the quotation with money slipping into private pockets and not only to the florist.
A letter writer to the Editor of this newspaper classified Ranil W. as a deaf, unseeing, uncaring, stubborn President; also vain. Cass endorses this characterisation; many of the traits thought originally to be alien to this man of good family, good school, good education and good principles –THEN.
It’s Wednesday as Cass writes this Cry and so far she has not heard the practicing jet planes fly past overhead. Has that been cancelled as a compromise to protests? Jolly good if it has as that part of celebration is a fuel guzzler and thus adding tremendously to the cost. Also, doubly unfair as Capt Elmo Jayawardena pointed out in an article last Sunday in the sister paper that “The F7 fighter jets in this aero-ballet burn 40 litres of fuel a minute at low level. And we minions of Paradise loiter in snaking queues down below with our QR codes to get 20 liters for one week.” Do hope at least this crit was taken.
If I were Prez – my speech
An appropriate, non-insulting, above-board video clip is making its rounds. Dr Rohan Pethiyagoda with excellent inunciation of British English gave voice to the speech he would have made if he were President of this country. Cass adds here that zoologist par excellence, knowledgeable scientist with pragmatism and sincere humane being that Rohan P is, he should thank his stars he is not the Prez of present day Siri Lanka – vilified and thought so little of by the general public and puppet-stringed by a person who should live in his adopted country, not here.
Rohan, speaking as a pretend politician, addressing his Fellow Citizens, traced the history of Sri Lanka succinctly from the prosperous Polonnaruwa period -16th C, through colonialism to Independence Day February 4, 1948, when Ceylon was the most prosperous country in Asia and definitely of S Asia. India before colonialism was at its apex of prosperity; export oriented with manageable population. Over here post-independence, in 16 years from living amicably multi-racially and multi-religiously, we were fractured. First the Burghers migrated, then Tamils and now Sinhalese and all Sri Lankans where possible. While in 1955 we had a surplus of rice and a dollar cost less than Rs 50.00, things changed for the far worse. The pretend Prez Rohan blamed politicians but “you, the citizens” more for the rapid downfall. There were the pluses: free education, free health services, free rice, but then the minuses: the Diyaw Diyaw demand of the populace and elections becoming a lottery – biggest bidder and greatest giver winning votes. Hence nationalisation and giving pensionable jobs to most. Gotabaya comes along and destroys agriculture; many in power are thugs, criminals and morons. Again, the politico blames us the people and tells us to look in the mirror to see the bigger faulters.
No truer words were said. No blacker can our mood be; no streaks of light in the bleak future. For how long will this dark spell last, we ask?
Blots overcome by tennis’ No. I
It was an excellent diversion from our sea of troubles and darkness of tunnel we travel through with no glimmer of redeeming light at its end, to watch the Australian Open tennis. Relief was great when Novak Djokovic won the finals in a nail biting three sets. Cass invariably reprimands herself for getting worked up over a match played by, to her, unknown persons, but she does get stressed watching the finals.
She missed seeing Djokovic’s wife and kids who are normally in the area of seats allocated to him. This time noticeably absent. He mentioned, after the semis win, his ten-year-old son as playing good tennis with him and hoped one day he’d compete in the men’s double as a team of father and son. Cass googled to see whether the family is together. They are. Maybe the children’s schooling or whatever kept them away.
A minor upset was his father being banned from witnessing the men’s semifinals because Djokovic had been seen in a video with Vladimir Putin fans on the tennis grounds in Melbourne and Russia is now anathema to the Australians and many others. In fact, the Russian flag was banned from the meet such that against Daniil Medvedev’s name on the score board, there was a blank space where the country flag would be displayed. However, Craig Tiley, manager of the AO – lifted the ban on him for the finals and permitted attending the finals in the Rod Laver court. He absented himself. These would have been troubling Novak who is very family oriented but he won his 10th title in Australia beating Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and equalling Nadal’s number of wins.
See you after the celebration of independence and nationalism, hoping there will not be massive walkouts of workers protesting the tax hikes.
Why Neighbours (AsalWasiyo) should be considered an exemplary piece of Sri Lankan drama
By Charith Gamage and Gem Taylor
With the doorbell ring echoing through the house, Mrs. Josephine, living in the suburbs with her three unmarried daughters, gets excited as she realises someone has come to inspect her vacant annexe house. In the next scene, the face of the sturdy woman (wearing an old patched dress) soon disappoints after seeing her potential rental tenant – a married couple! They have fulfilled all the typical qualifications, such as financials, and are okay with higher rent, but Mrs Josephine turns them down without much consideration. Although Mrs Josephine should only be concerned about receiving a smooth higher rent – all she needs as a landlord – it is not necessarily her expectation through renting out her annexure house.
The answer to the strange behaviour of Mrs Josephine lies in the thirteen dramatic episodes of AsalWasiyo First aired in 1989 in Rupavahini and directed by the veteran director Bandula Vithanage (with assistant direction by Wimalarathna Adikari), the format of the drama can be considered as something that single-handedly challenged the face of Sri Lankan teledrama in the 1980s. Many Sri Lankan viewers still love the drama, proving that it also stood the test of time to become a timeless art piece that can exemplify a quality drama. Although it talks about profound themes and socio-economic issues in that period of Sri Lanka – a mother’s sacrifices, the housing crisis, and even dowry – the director preserves the dramatic quality rather than giving an explicit socio-economic or socio-political tone. In addition, among other reasons, the drama’s unpredictable nature, high-quality comedic elements, realistic acting, and music also make it stand out and intriguing to watch.
As the drama unfolds, it shows Josephine’s circumventing strategy in searching for marriage partners for her daughters. She rents out her annexe house to people whom she thinks have affluent backgrounds so that her daughters build relationships with them. The middle-aged widower Paul, who is going through a housing issue, meets Josephine after seeing her newspaper advertisement. Paul’s family, with his two unmarried sons, seemingly matches Josephine’s dream tenant perfectly, except that he only boasts about himself and his sons without having the qualifications Josephine is looking for. Despite not having the desired qualifications, Paul who just worked for a lawyer for some time introduces himself to Mrs Josephine as a lawyer. Meantime, his younger son is introduced as an Engineer when he is a casual employee at a motor garage.
As Paul’s family lives in their false identity about their status, drama develops with subsequent clashes from Josephine’s family entertaining revenge when their true identities are revealed. Although one may classify it as a comedy, from a socio-economic standpoint, the drama also depicts a segmental view of the lower-middle-class and middle-class life of Sri Lanka at that time. It shows how hopes of solving one problem can lead to a bigger problem, bringing them back to square one.
What does the drama structure tell us?
AsalWasiyo has a simple but rich storyline, making it an excellent blueprint for those who want to study quintessential family dramas which depict wider Sri Lankan society. The show follows a climactic plot structure similar to as laid out in Fig 1, which offers plenty for viewers to analyse. In drama, a climactic plot structure is a term used for when we witness a rise in action throughout the storyline before we eventually witness a dramatic climax and subsequent fallout. The drama initially shows Paul searching for accommodation, while at the same time, Josephine is desperately searching for wealthy tenants to match her taste and needs. As their lives – and the lives of their various children – intertwine, the show’s writer (Somaweera Senanayake) and director bring multiple (character-wise) storylines together, which leads to a dramatic and humorous climax.
The climax in the drama comes when it is revealed that not only is Paul’s son not an Engineer – but he also loses his garage job for using clients’ vehicles to maintain his status. Similarly, as a father, Paul considers himself a master planner throughout the show – and he insists on the annexe house as a dowry to approve the marriage between his son and Josephine’s second daughter. However, his plans fail when he and his sons are exposed. Lastly, viewers watch as Josephine and her daughters go through the full circle of making friends with Paul and his family, building relationships with them initially, and trusting them in their lives and home – only to learn that they were being deceived the whole time. Overall, the climactic plot structure allows audiences to enjoy the tension of these two mismatched families coming together and trying to impress each other – as well as the drama of their secrets being exposed in the climactic finale.
How much Shakespearean influence have helped?
Before directing AsalWasiyo, Vthanage had significant exposure to Shakespearean theatre, particularly through Merchant of Venice in 1980. Shakespeare is undoubtedly a formative force in theatre for blending tragedy and comedy, presenting a powerful genre in his plays. In addition, Shakespearean comedies sometimes end with marriage or reuniting. In AsalWasiyo, Shakespeare’s trait of combining tragedy and comedy is visible, except that the drama does not insist on a marriage or reunion. The elements of Shakespearean comedy, such as mistaken identity, reason versus emotion, and idyllic settings, can still be seen in this drama. Paul’s impersonation of a higher-status professional depicts a mistaken identity. In addition, Josephine’s second daughter, led by emotion rather than reason, is similar to A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Hermia, who disobeys her father, and chooses to pursue a romance with Paul’s second son. She insists on the romance even after he is exposed, regardless of Josephine’s approval. Finally, idyllic settings are common in Shakespearean dramas like the mysterious island of Illyria in Twelfth Night. Idyllic settings depict perfection, like having a house when there is a housing crisis for others and having a professional bachelor in the family when there is a demand from middle-class mothers as prospective husbands for their unmarried daughters.
How have characters been used, and how has their acting helped?
Characters and actors in a play as primary communicators help the director to interconnect and deliver the intended plot to the audience. It starts with Elan Silvester, who keeps the motion of the story going through her portrayal of the protagonist, Josephine. Although Josephine seems humorous, she is tough inside, suppressing all her agonies. Elan’s quick facial changes and ability to shift from amusing to serious emotions are remarkable on this front. On the other hand, Paul (portrayed by Hemasiri Liyanage) thinks about his image and likes to show off. The character’s use of mixed Sinhalese-English dialogues, which boosts his perceived identity by thinly veiling the true one, is a significant feature in the drama. The scenes, such as his English dialogues with an innocent lady who supplied them with dinner at the beginning and knowing she had no idea what he was talking about, are examples. This character (Paul) shows less emotion than Josephine and blends well with Josephine’s psychological expectations of a wealthy potential in-law, as he cannot meet their expectations in his real identity.
Besides the leading characters, other characters also show more realistic passion, improving the drama’s quality that could grab the audience’s attention. Priya Ranasinghe, Samantha Epasinghe and Thamali Peiris play Josephine’s first, second, and youngest daughters, depicting their distinct personalities in the drama. Samantha gives life to Josephine’s second daughter and realistically contributes to more funny and dynamic scenes. Her performance contributes considerably to the drama in filler scenes, from hiding under a bed to evade Josephine, getting attacked by a curry in a pot by the eldest sister in defending her boyfriend, and a series of beatings by her mother for passing Paul’s message of dowry requirement.
On the other hand, how the youngest daughter’s character is architected in the drama shows similarities to how such characters can be used in successful productions. Like Zazu from The Lion King and Ron from Harry Potter, she is knowledgeable, diplomatic, and usually a sidekick of the main character. In addition, she does not shy away from expressing brutally honest opinions with humour, even if the recipient is offended. Quotations such as “Now, do we put this rental ad in the rental section of the newspaper or the marriage proposals section?” in response to the mother’s draft, and “They won’t stay here for long if they have to eat what you [eldest sister] cook.” are examples. She also shows characteristics of “Ingénue characters”, the female characters with a virtuous and adorable appeal that make them immediately inspire great affection in the viewers. In addition, Suminda Sirisena and Sriyantha Mendis, who played Paul’s two sons, are also notable for building up the drama with their contrasting character traits under the influence of their father. Overall the drama has carefully selected those elements and coordinated them to get the audience to connect with the plot.
What does the overall evaluation tell us?
The play is a solid effort on the dramatic front, even with the paucity of technology breakthroughs and resources at the time. Times have changed with the formats of Sri Lankan dramas and technology, but the basics of this drama remain valid for present and future drama enthusiasts. These include careful use of direction and script writing to build up characters; employing natural vocal intonation that matches the acting; and good use of music in supporting character emotions and plotlines. In particular, the music by Premasiri Kemadasa helps build the director’s desired atmosphere while setting up the next scene. Efforts made by the camera relative to the 80s to preserve cinematography are also helpful on this front. Finally, William A. Ward once said (paraphrased) the well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope in achieving your goals. The drama depicts a tragedy, but its use of comedic overlay is very effective as a refresher, keeping the audience’s interest (possibly making the scenes memorable) and carrying them to the director’s desired destination effortlessly with the intended message passed. With everything explained, the drama shows the characteristics of a timeless creation, with elements that can still be used as a stencil for young Sri Lankan enthusiasts in drama.
Charith is an Assistant Lecturer attached to Monash University, Australia. Gem is a UK-born theatrical artist (actress) from Atlanta, USA, with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) focused on theatre. Authors would like to thank Wimalarathna Adikari for helping for the article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. Email: email@example.com
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