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A research paper on Sinhala Theatre


Ravindra Ranasinha

Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s ‘Stylized Theatre” gained popularity 1 as the ‘modern indigenous
theatre’ of Ceylon, at a time the theatergoers were in need of an ‘intellectual theatre’. It
emerged as the pioneer of an ‘indigenous theatre tradition’ encompassing the ‘totality’ 2 of
drama. Sarachchandra was influenced by a variety of folk theatre devices in forming his stylized
theatre. He was chiefly indebted to the folk drama of Ceylon, India, Japan and China. His study
into folk drama was a result of his dissatisfaction over the theatrical productions 3 in the
University College. As the then prevalent theatre 4 in Ceylon failed to attract the English
educated bourgeoisie, Sarachchandra and his milieu at the University College endeavored to
change the theatre to a ‘sophisticated art from’ by adapting plays of Gogol, Moliere and
Chekhov. With Prof. E.F.C.Ludowyk’s directions, such plays transformed into hilarious comedies
and since no other theatrical value was visible from them, the modern bourgeoisie gradually
detached themselves from the theatre. Martin Wickramasinghe (1954) who observed this
downfall of theatre said that, “Sinhala drama cannot be revived by laughter alone”. The
emphasis of Wickramsinghe would have caused a great impact on Sarachchandra to effect an
extensive study into folk drama, which could have been the only source in ascertaining the path
to a modern indigenous theatre.

Sarachchandra’s deep research into folk drama was an enormous collection of data, which saw
the publication under the title ‘Sinhalese Folk Play’ (1952). His research had been carried out in
the remote villages, where the folk theatre was extant and pure. According to Sarachchandra
(1995), “the rural folk theatre lacks aestheticism and drama in the modern sense”. It operates
with primitive rituals of exorcism, where an exorcist performs the role of a speaker, who
develops a discourse with the ‘unseen spirits’ to get the sick person relieved under the spell
befell on him or her. The conversation that ensues with the ‘spirits’ is accompanied by dancing,
singing, drumming and ‘horana’5 blowing. He noted in his text (1952) that, ‘Thovil’, ‘Kankariya’

In 1956 with the production of the play ‘Maname’.
Music, dance, song and acting creates a ‘total theatre’.
During the period 1933 to 1954.
Jayamanne drama or the Negombo Minerva drama was a kind of social drama that followed Nadagam and Nurthi
traditions in their crude forms.
A local flute.

and ‘Gam Madu” are the folk rituals that were deeply rooted in the Sinhala rural society. It is to
bring good health and good life that such rituals were practiced by the rural folk, traditionally.

Apart from the folk rituals, Sarachchandra noted some theatricals that could be really
considered as ‘folk drama’. The variety included ‘Sokari’, ‘Nadagam’ and ‘Kolam’ which differ
from each other in the manner of their idiom and presentation. The many theatrical devices
that created the ‘form’ of folk drama drew Sarachchandra’s attention due to their popular
application in attracting audiences. In his text ‘Sinhala Gami Natakaya’, Sarachchandra (1968)
stated that “in Kolam, the vital characteristic was the use of colourful masks by the characters
when dancing. ‘Kavi’ (poetry) and impromptu dialogues were used to relate the story. The
mimetic action of the drama was to ridicule and laugh at the characters portrayed. The mask
and dance which were specifically designed to suit each character enhanced the comic element
as action developed…. In ‘Sokari’, miming was used to tell the story. The leader of the troupe
described a situation through ‘kavi’ and the actors engaged in a mimetic dance to suit the
leader’s description. Sokari was filled with comic incidents that made the audience laugh…. The
style of acting in ‘Kavi Nadagam’ was similar to ‘Kolam’ though the actors in it did not wear
masks. The actors in ‘Kavi Nadagam’ presented their characters when ‘Pothe Gurunnanse’ (the
narrator) finished his introduction to the play through a ‘kaviya’. The story was revealed
through the poetic conversation between characters and should the audience needed
explanation to a particular situation, the narrator intervened. When describing the story,
‘Nadagam’ also made use of some of the Kolam ‘kavi’. It could be that the Kolam performers
had contributed to the evolution of Nadagam by performing without masks and using

According to Sarachchandra (1958), “there were certain theatrical conventions common to

Sokari, Kolam and Nadagam. The plays were acted in an open arena and scenic changes were
done through the actor’s shifting of the position or by making a reference to a particular place.
The plays were viewed by the spectators, who sat in a semi-circular or a circular, so that the
actors were fully visible. The audience could see the actor acting a particular role and his skill in
performance was what enthralled the spectator. The use of mask, mask-like make-up or

stylized costumes and symbolic properties were what the actors had in control, in order to
cause enjoyment among the audience. The thoughts of the characters were expressed through
songs and chants in addition to the words spoken by the actors. When spoken word or the song
did not suffice for the actor to articulate the emotions, he could break into gesticulation or

Consequent to this extensive research on folk theatre in Ceylon, Sarachchandra was awarded
with a scholarship6 to study folk drama in foreign lands. “I firstly selected to visit India. That was
at a time my thoughts were on archaic dramatic concepts. I wanted to see the (traditional)
conditions of India”, Sarachchandra (1985) had stated in his autobiography. On his visit, he
ascertained that the genuine Indian theatre had never been a ‘realistic’ one. Bharatha Muni’s
‘Natya Sastra’7 AND OTHER AVAILABLE TEXTS OF Sanskrit drama had testified this conclusion.
Natya Sastra had mentioned of two ‘types’ of drama, ‘Lokadhrami’ – the realistic type and
‘Natyadharmi’ – the stylized type. In the stylized theatre, the place of prose dialogue was taken
over by song or chant. The natural movement was substituted by dance. Instead of facial
expressions, masks or mask-like make-up was employed. The costumes and stage properties
were designed not as in real life but as imaginative creations. According to the descriptions
available in the texts, the Indian theatres had had a protruded portion towards the audience.
There was no evidence to prove of a curtain been used to separate the stage from the
auditorium. A curtain named ‘Janaki’ had been used to separate the ‘green room’8 from the
acting area. The actor showed the change of place either by dancing ambulatorily in a circular
or taking few steps forward. There were no scenic changes to show of the new place arrived. By
way of actor’s speech or gestures, the background was described. The stylized theatre as
described in Natya Sasthra and Sanskrit texts was witnessed by Sarachchandra (1995) when the
Gujarati play ‘Mena Jurjari’ was performed. It was an experimental production based on the
popular folk theatre style ‘Bhavai” in Gujarat. ‘Mena Gurjari’ gave him an insight into how
traditional theatrical devices could be utilized in a modern context.

In 1954 he was awarded the Rockerfeller scholarship by Gill Patrick, a representative of the Rockerfeller
Written in 1 B.C.
The place for the performers to change costumes.

The subsequent visit to Japan was fruitful for Sarachchandra, as he saw the theater that
Bharatha Muni described, in its living form, through ‘No’ and ‘Kabuki’ drama. Also he had the
opportunity to view some excerpts from Chinese opera, which were staged in Tokyo by a
visiting theatre troupe led by the famous actor Mei Lang Fang. What Sarachchandra observed
from the Chinese Theatre was that the Chinese actors have a specific way of walking according
to the status of the character. There were neither scenic designs nor stage properties in the
acting area. Movements were done gesturally or symbolically. If an actor needed some
property that was provided by a helper, who wore complete black. The No drama too, used
gestures and symbols profusely, as Sarachchandra had noted 9. In both Chinese drama and
Japanese ‘No’, the actor comes forward and introduces himself. He explains in detail of what he
is going to do and what direction he takes. The change of place was shown by walking in a
circular or taking few steps forward. In common, these dramas did not use a curtain to separate
the stage from the audience. There was no practice of darkening the stage. Even to show the
time or any other effect, lights were not used. On all three sides of the protruded stage, the
spectators were able to sit. They sat very close to the actors. The Chinese drama used only a
pastoral to depict the background. Instead of a pastoral there was a painted ‘Matsu’ tree as the
background of No stage. These observations made Sarachchandra to develop a notion as to
how the ‘form of Asiatic theatre’ should be.

He then visited United States at a time the scholars in America were searching for a theatre that
could vie with the cinema. Sarachchandra found, the Open stage, Thrust stage, Arena Theatre
and theatre in the Round as some valuable theatrical devices experimented by the American
dramatists. Also he witnessed the subtle manner in which the American dramatists utilize the
techniques of Chinese Opera and Japanese No and Kabuki, in order to recapture the poetry of
the theatre. This kind of theatre was named ‘The Total Theatre’ by the west, which in fact, an
absolute departure from the realistic dialogue play.

Through these experiences Sarachchandra was convinced of the fact that the Asian civilization,
mainly India, China and Japan have a concept of theatre which is completely different to the

(1985) pg. 140.

concept of theatre in the West. Thus, he states 10: “On viewing the Japanese and Chinese drama
I realized that ‘Theatre” should not be imprisoned in the limits of Western proscenium stage.
The Asian theatre’s requirement is an open arena. It is an art of the actor. Therefore between
the actor and audience there need not to have a separation. To generate ‘rasa’ (emotions), not
only dialogues but dramatic songs and music too could be utilized”.

This image of Asiatic theatre, resulted as a global experience, was used in experimenting an
indigenous theatrical tradition in 1956. The only Sinhala dramtic form that Sarachchandra
could compare with Indian, Chinese and Japanese drama was Nadagam, which was stylized and
devoid of Naturalism. For this form he selected the plot of ‘Maname’, a popular tale, the source
of which was a ‘Jathaka Tale’11 named ‘Chulla Danugga Jathaka’. In fact, in Japan
Sarachchandra had viewed the cinematic production of the Japanese tale ‘Roshomon’ by
Riyunosuko Akutagawa, which was more similar to the ‘Maname’ story, and it had inspired him
to transorm ‘Maname’ into a ‘Sindu Nadagam’ 12.

The traditional tale of ‘Maname’ highlighted the unfaithfulness of the woman and her pathetic
fate due to her erratic behavior. When compared with ‘Rashomon’, the ‘Maname’ story lacked
the complexity needed in characterizing and hence “the incident in the play needed to be built
up in a different manner” 13. Therefore, modification to the story was effected to show the
audience of the emotional conflict of the woman who falls into a state of discomfiture in a
patriarchal system, which was, in fact, the universal quality of her. As Mahendra (1973) had
stated, “it was Sarachchandra who firstly experimented and understood that the Sinhala drama
is a subtle medium where traditional tales and folklore could be presented with adaptation and
re-interpretation”. He had further stated 14 that “Maname is a reflection of his
(Sarachchandra’s) basic knowledge in tradition and modernity”. Of how Sarachchandra brought
in modernity to ‘Maname’ is still to be discussed.

(1985) pg. 142.
Jathaka tales are stories of Lord Buddha’s previous births.
A nadagam with songs (sindu).
(1985) 154.
Mahendra, Sunanda (1973).

As Subasinghe (1996) had stated, “the dramatic structure of Maname consists of a powerful
text. The introduction of the characters at the beginning, the reasoning from incident to
incident as the story flows, the suspense created to attract the audience and the finale, are all
tied up in one concrete theme”. The arrival of the theme was done through a minor incision in
the original Maname story 15. The original tale in the Jathaka story as well as the folk play had
the princess as an unfaithful wife who handed over prince’s sword to the Veddha king to kill her
husband. It brought her own destruction. According to Gunaratne (1999), “Sarachchandra left
matters more complex, obscure and the truth undecided. The queen does not hand over the
sword to the Veddha king in the play. When Maname, having defeated the Veddha king in
combat, asks for the sword to slay him, the queen hesitates for a moment. The prince, shaken
by this hesitation on the part of his wife, loses his grip on the Veddha king who grabs the
opportunity tin turn, snatches the sword from the queen and kills Maname. But after the event,
the queen tells the Veddha king that she saved his life as she fell in love with him when he
fought valorously but the Veddha king shows surprise and says;

“I do not understand you beloved.

I defeated him by my own prowess, not by your aid.

I saw you prepare to give the sword, which he demanded to slay me”.

It is my contention here that, by this one move, Sarachchandra made his play…..modern”. The
psychic condition of princess Maname thus became the crux of the whole play. Firstly, on
seeing the Veddha king she guesses that he may not be frightful even though he looks bold in
appearance. Such manly appearance attracts her very much, since the forest brought fear to
her mind, and “for a moment, (she) feels a sense of security in the Veddha king, which
prompted her hesitation16”. Also Sarachchandra impresses her mind of the greatness of the
Veddha king as a man by getting him to confront Maname alone. Finally, with the death of
Maname, she required protection for which she fell in love with the Veddha king. And she tells
him that she really wanted to give the sword to the Veddha king, which puzzled the Veddha to

Gunaratne, Prof. R.D. (1999) pg. 205.

leave her behind in the jungle. By all these psychologizing, Sarachchandra tried to get the
audience to pity the women, who could not arrive at a quick and firm decision with regard to
their love. In fact, “in Maname, the problem is not only that we, the spectators, do not know
the truth. The way Sarachchandra constructs it, the Maname queen herself may not know the
truth…… Her truth could be a truth of contradiction and hence no truth”, says Gunaratne 17.

The modernizing was deepened in two levels, should we to clarify, as “modern play revolves
much around psychology. Fear and sex are two of the fundamental forces manipulating the
psyche, and Sarachchandra uses the idea of a woman’s fear and need for security in Maname,
marginally mingling it with the possibility of sexual temptation.

“The story of Maname has compelling room for exploiting contemporary Western psychology
of sex in the development of the character of the queen. The sudctive attraction of robust,
crude, physically powerful breast in the Veddha king, a woman’s yearning for a man who fights
to get her….and so on; but no Lawrencean use of animal prowess for Sarachchandra. The
Jathaka story depicts the infidelity of the queen, and in the circumstances, the suggestion
seems to be the physical attraction the Veddha king had for the queen, so that Sarachchandra
could be have developed that aspect while being faithful to the Jathaka story. But he does not
overplay this aspect, though he does not rule it out for the spectator 18.

The language used to present the modified version Maname was poetic and full of imageries,
that relates to the style of language in traditional Nadam. Charles Silva Gunasinghe, who was a
maestro of Nadagam songs and ‘maddal’ playing incessantly worked with Sarachchandra
introducing old Nadagam songs to him that enabled Sarachchandrra to decide on the melodies.
The language selected by him was a mixture of Sinhala, Sanskrit and Pali that reach its height of
poeticism with rhyme and alliteration. The linguistic beauty was enhanced with such techniques
entwining with the heroic sentiment in Nadagam. The singing in Maname was repeated by a
chorus. According to Sarachchandra (1985), “the traditional Nadagam did not contain a well
arranged chorus…. As if in ‘Thovil” ritual, Gurunnanse (Narrator), the drummers and the other


helpers of Nadagam sat wherever they found space and followed singing”. However, the chorus
in ‘Maname’ sat on either side of the stage to follow singing which reflected a proper organized
form. The crudities of the old traditions were thus removed by Sarachchandra to ensure the
smooth flow of his play.

The ‘natural style’ of make-up for ‘Maname’ was insufficient and therefore to depict the inner
qualities of the characters, make-up styles in the Beijing Opera, Kabuki and Kathakali were
taken as models. The amplification of make-up amounted to ‘Expressionism’ in Sarachchandra’s
theatre. Even the costumes were designed after a study on Indian and Ceylonese sculpture.
Together with these re-structured techniques of old traditions, the style of acting was formed
with rhythmic postures and an ambulatory dance.

The only puzzle left with Sarachchandra in creating the play was, how to form the character of
‘Pothe Guru’ (Narrator), since he had not witnessed any traditional Nadagam. As he19 had
stated, “the knowledge on ‘Pothe Guru’ depended on the descriptions received. It was difficult
to opine that (in traditional Nadagam) the Pothe Guru’s character had an orderly formation….
There was nothing that could be called as ‘acting’ for ‘Pothe Guru’. He had only to come
forward and introduce characters and to present required descriptions as and when needed.
According to the information of old Nadagam, the Pothe Gurunnanse’s duty was confined only
for narration. In Nadagam, he appeared at the beginning of the act and not in between….The
duty fulfilled by the ‘Chorus’ (Narrator) in Greek drama, was what conferred on our ‘Pothe
Guru’. The Narrator in Greek drama detailed the audio-visual action of the play. The ‘Pothe
Gurunnanse’ in Maname accomplished the same duty”. Sarachchandra’s competency in sieving
the important elements of local and foreign folk theatre, as well as of restructuring the
Nadagam theatrical devices, provided the traditional tale of ‘Maname’ with a modern outlook.
When Maname went on board in 1956, the impact of it made both English and Sinhala
newspapers20 to carry ‘rare’ reviews. Especially, Reggie Siriwardane 21, who wrote to ‘Daily
News’ gave a superlative praise to the play. He said, “the best thing I had seen on the local

(1985) pg. 159.
Charles Obesekera, ‘Dinamina’ and Chandraratne Manwasinghe, ‘Lankadeepa’(1956 Nov. 06).
An acclaimed theatre critic and writer.

stage, and one of the finest things I had seen anywhere”. As had been told by Gunawardane
(1997) who acted as princess ‘Maname’, “the appeal of Manme was not confined to the
sophisticated upper middle class literati of Colombo. It was highly meaningful to the average
person. Everywhere….the response was always warm and enthusiastic. The play cut across
social and cultural barriers”. The modernity that appealed to many in Sarchchandra was his
capability in “the organic expressive fusion of poetry, song, music and dance (Gunawardane

Sarachchandra’s next major Nadagam production was ‘Sinhabahu” (1961), which “made him
the most adequate respondent to the criticism of the inadequacy of the Nadagam form to the
reflection of contemporaneity. ‘Sinhabahu’ was the myth of the origin of the Sinhala race and
was well-known to all classes of Sinhala society. Using it as his medium fused with the
traditional Nadagam style, with, however, a commenting chorus more in the manner of Greek.
Sarachchandra was now speaking of the perennial and universal theme of human relations
bound in the skein of family affections, which shatter inevitably with growth and maturation.
Richly poetic and perceiving complex emotions of his characters with greater depth and
perceptiveness, the play, for a while, silenced the critics by its compelling impact on
audiences”22. ‘Sinhabahu’ was considered as one “of the earliest attempt in modern Asian
theatre to shake off the influence of the Western theatre and to re-discover the theatre of the

A further expedition in the tradition was his highly poetic piece, ‘Pematho Jayathi Soko” (Love
Begets Sorrow – 1961). It is a “complex and subtle dramatic structure, which holds Buddhist
morality and romantic sensibility in delicate tension and exploits the potentialities of an original
dramatic form that may be called ‘geetha natakam’ (lyrical drama), in which melody is
subordinated to meaning, as is done in the Beijing Opera…..”24. Thus, ‘Maname’, ‘Sinhabahu’
and ‘Pematho Jaythi Soko’ revealed “Sarachchandra as the first person to experimentally
understand the Sinhala theatre as a subtle medium, where traditional tales and folklore could

Jayawardane, Bandula (1988).
Paniker, Ayyappa (1988).
Rayan, Krishna (1988).

be modified and re-interpreted. He utilized the theatrical devices in traditional folk drama as a
basic strategy. His need was to bestow new interpretations for traditional folk creations.
‘Maname’ expressed his basic knowledge on ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. The ‘total theaticla’
presentations, which he was unable to accomplish in ‘Maname’ was achieved in ‘Sinhabahu’.
‘Maname’ was able to add one new meaning to the old tale with dance and music, whereas,
‘Sinhabahu’ generated several meanings and a strong ‘Kavya Rasa’ (poetic sentiment). It was,
not just only a musical play or an opera, but its narration occurred, unlike in a natural play, in a
different expressive manner, creating two levels of presentations” 25.

To sum up, the process that Sarchchandra was involved in forming his ‘stylized theater’ as an
‘indigenous theatre tradition’ in Sri Lanka was seen by Gamlath as “the establishment of an
‘intellectual theatre’ in Ceylon, to be noted in the history as a great accomplishment of
Sarachchandra’s odyssey26. Gamlath (1996) uses the word ‘sublation’, for the process that
Sarachchandra was involved, “in sifting the positives from what is extant, dropping the
inappropriate, raising the quality of the selected, also including of new elements that were not
in them and synthesizing them at a higher level”. Such process, for Jayawardane 27 was “the
discovery of the essentials of a universal theatre – a multi-diamensional organic form composed
of poetry and music, dance and song and harmony of colour – delving into the depths of basic
human feeling seen with a contemporary eye”. This ‘modernity’ in him had a great impact on
the playwrights during post-Manme period, though none of them could produce a play to the
standards of ‘Maname’ and ‘Sinhabahu’, instead created a great deal of imitations. “…..for most
of these products and their makers seem to have got hardly beyond the surface elements of the
play”28. Even those dramatists29 who understood the Sarachchandra credo of tradition,
experimented in fusing contemporary themes and traditional tales with the ‘Stylized’ mode,
though their plays could not achieve a lasting effect as what ‘Maname’ and ‘Sinhabahu’ have to
the present day.

Mahendra, Sunanda (1973).
Gamlath, Sucharitha (1989) pg. 26.
Jayawardane, Bandula (1988).
Henry Jayasena – ‘Janelaya’ (1961), ‘Kuveni’ (1963) and Dayananda Gunawardane – ‘Pinguttara’ and ‘Nari Bena’.

Finally, the immense modifications and restructuring effected to develop an ‘indegenous
theatre tradition’ was the uniqueness of Sarachchandra, of whom Gunawardane (1988) had
said that, “he is ‘eclectic’ in his art and ‘internationalist’ in outlook’ yet his feet are firmly
planted in the rich traditions of his own land. He is a ‘modernist’, who both values and
consistently draws sustenance from the great classical heritage of South Asia”.

The End.

Reference List

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Galahitiyawa P.B. and Dharmadasa K.N.O. ‘Tradition, Values and Modernization : An Asian
Perspective’, S.Godage & Bros. Col. 10.

Sarachchandra, Ediriweera (1968) ‘Sinhala Gami Narakaya’, Dept. of Cultural Affairs, Colombo.

Sarachchandra, Ediriweera (1958) ‘Maname Natakaya’, Lake House Printers and Publishers Ltd.,

Sarachchandra, Ediriweera (1985) ‘Pin Ethi Sarasavi Varamak Denne’, Sarasavi Book Shop,

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Galahitiyawa P.B., ‘The Great Savant of Our Times’, S.Godage & Bros., Colombo 10.

Gamlath, Sucharitha (1989) ‘Sarachchandrabhinandana’ Dayawansa Jayakody & Co., Colombo


Gamlath, Sucharitha (1996) ‘Maname Natya Sevanaya’ S.Godage & Bros., Colombo 10.

Jayawardane, Bandula (1988) ‘Sarachchandra and the contemporary Sinhala Theatre’ eds.
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Commission for UNESCO.

Paniker, Ayyappa (1988) ‘Sinhabahu and the theatre of the roots’ eds. Amarasinghe A.R.B. &
Sumanasekara Banda S.J., FESTSCHRIFT 1988, Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO.

Rayan, Krishna (1988) ‘The Fruits of Love’, eds. Amarasinghe A.R.B. & Sumanasekara Banda S.J.,
FESTSCHRIFT 1988, Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO.

Gunawardana, A.J. (1988) ‘Sinhala Drama & Music’, ed. Sivasambu N., Program for an evening
of music presented in the Nash Room of the Institute of Comtemporary Arts, London, on 8th
October 1988.

Mahendra, Sunanda (1973) A Souvenir for the ‘Sinhabahu’ play.

Sanskruthi – Vol. 2, Wickramasinghe, Martin (1954) ‘Sinahavenma Sinhala Natakaya Diyunu Kala
Heki Nove’.

Dinamina - Subasinghe, Somalatha (1996 Nov. 02) ‘Maname mana ranjitha ve nanditha ve’.

The Island - Gunawardane, Trelicia (1977 Nov. 03) ‘My years with Maname’.


23rd April 2003