Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dr. Jayalath Manoratne is fifteen thousand days strong

 Theater’s potential to shift politics

Pics by Chandana Wijesinghe

“It’s almost 15,000 days since I first set foot on a stage. This is why the festival was named Dawas Pahalos Daha (Fifteen thousand days). In other words it’s been almost 45 years since then,” Dr. Jayalath Manoratne told The Nation, speaking about his drama festival which is scheduled to commence tomorrow. Seven dramas out of 12 he has scripted and directed will be staged at the festival. “We always try to do a similar festival every five to six years, since it helps university and school students engaged in theater and it offers a great opportunity for anyone rehearsal who is in love with theater,” he said. “It is also a great opportunity for us, as we get to meet the audience, talk to them and see what they feel or whether their expectations were fulfilled.” He explained that this creates a sub culture within the field, which he sees as a blessing in the development in Sri Lankan theater.

Dr. Manoratne, fondly referred to as Mano, is an extraordinary character on the stage. He has mastered singing, acting, directing as well as playwriting. His folk songs, stage songs and Noorthi enrich Sinhala song culture. Although he has acted in several tele-dramas and movies and was highly appreciated for his contribution, his love for the theater remains steadfast. Manoratne has won several awards including the State Drama Awards for best actor, director and also playwright during his journey of 45 years. Peradeniya University presented him with a Doctorate in Literature (D. Litt) honoring the service he has rendered to the field of arts.

Manoratne was born on June 12, 1948 in the village called Dehipe in Nuwara Eliya District. “My village was a farming village. During spare time after harvesting, villagers act out folk plays such as Sokari or Sandakinduru and I felt the wonder of it. That’s how I became enthusiastic about plays,” he explained. Receiving his primary education from Dehipe Mixed School, Manoratne entered Poramadulla Madya Maha Vidyalaya for his secondary education. “Sunil Sriyananda, music teacher of our school was the earliest to recognize my talent. He selected me for many school dramas he produced. I was selected for the main role of the school play, Assa Gudun and it won the first place at the Interschool Drama Competition of Central Province the same year,” he recalled.

Passing his advanced level examination in the arts stream he entered Peradeniya University in 1966. Fortunate enough to learn under a legend, Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandara, he set foot on popular theater during his university days. Being one of Prof Ediriweera’s brightest students, Manoratne got to act in his play, Pematho Jayathi Soko. He also contributed to Maname and Singhabahu. Since then, he has been engaged in theater work for over 45 years, continuously. His latest production, based on the life of the last Sinhala king Weera Parakrama Narendra Singha, Sellan Nirindu, was staged for the first time last December. With Manoratne himself enacting the main role as Narendra Singha, who was said to be a flamboyant king, Manoratne said that this story relates to the present social situation.

Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Henry Jayasena, Sugathapala de Silva, Dayananda Gunawardena and Gunasena Galappaththi are the five pillars of modern Sri Lankan stage. They were all able to create unique styles. “These five were exceptional and I got the opportunity to act under all of them. Their knowledge on local and foreign stages was a blessing; it was like studying in five different universities,” he said. “They enlightened us about theater studies and my love and respect towards the theater grew.” Gaining knowledge under veterans for many years, Manoratne wrote and produced his own play, Maha Giri Damba in 1980.

So far he has written and produced 11 stage plays. Puthra Samagama; a translation of Alexander Vampilov’s The Elder Son is the only adaptation among his plays. “I love to experiment with different styles,” said Manoratne. He uses both naturalized (Swabhawika) and stylized (Shailigatha) genres. Most of my experimental plays fall into the documentary genre.” Documentary theatre was first introduced to the Sri Lankan audience by Dayananda Gunawardena through Gajaman Puwatha. According him historical incidents and biographies can be staged in documentary form. “Historical stories are adapted according to the contemporary society. Many parallels can be drawn between incidents that took place in the 1700s or 1600s and present. It’s true that history repeats,” he said.

Manoratne admitted that he has noticed a lack of interest, on the part of the younger generation, in developing their own style. “However a handful of amateurs are keen on experiments rather than following the same old styles. Eventually they’ll find the best style suited for them. This would only happen with maturity and experience,” he noted. He also noted that youngsters are more interested in foreign scripts. “I think 99 percent of the dramas written by the youngsters are adaptations. As with styles, autonomous scripts are very rare. I have noticed a lack of interest towards native styles,” he emphasized. “I don’t say this is off beam, but if you take foreign countries like USA, Germany or Italy; they seem to have built-up their own identity even though their theater does not have a long history,” he added. Manoratne stressed that if the dramatists want to build-up a unique identity on Sri Lankan stage, they should be exposed to native drama styles. He said that it is not fair to complain about lack of opportunities anymore since Drama and theater studies are a subject in school and university curriculum.

Manoratne has staged his plays in many countries. With over 45 years of experience and knowledge he gathered traveling around the world, Manoratne observes that, compared to world theater Sri Lankan plays are still in a primitive stage. “Recently we had shows in Nikaweratiya, Bandarawela and Ampara. I was in those places in 1970s. I notice no development in these theaters, not the least bit,” he expressed his displeasure. “I don’t think any of the responsible parties have noticed this. It’s the spirit of the dramatists that takes their dramas around the country,” he said. “We can’t wait until all these issues are resolved. We can only do our best with the resources available to us,” he added. He said that the massive crowds the theaters in rural areas draw is proof that audiences still love theater despite these shortcomings. He also spoke about the need of preserving the scripts as well as plays and pointed out that currently there is no such system.

According to Manoratne, the number of people in the audience fluctuates from time to time depending on the country’s social situation. “There was a huge decrease in numbers during the war. Now it’s comparatively high. There is a small decrease in numbers these few days because of the election,” he said. He noted a general decrease in the numbers with the impact of the television. “There is an increase in the numbers again now. It’s a good sign,” he added. While explaining he said that the quality of what dramatists gift the audience should be looked into as some dramatists try to sell ‘cheap laugh’ to the audience. “There are a few who always act responsibly to present dramas of aesthetic quality.”

There are folk, popular and classical plays. Classics are few and the average audience is rarely exposed to these as opposed to popular or folk dramas. Manoratne pointed out that Sri Lankan dramatists have misunderstood the concept behind popular dramas. “Dramas cannot be called popular dramas just because they are widespread. Popular dramas are not like classics. They might be simple, but the storyline conveys a strong message. Our dramatists have mistaken it for humor and profanity,” he noted. “Making the audience laugh should not be the motive of the dramatist. Laugh is essential, but it should be meaningful,” he reiterated. Manoratne said that the audience should laugh, but they should be made to think what and whom they are laughing at, at the end of the play. He elaborated on this fact using Prof Sarachchandra’s Mahasara, KB Herath’s Mayadevi and his own script Andarela as examples. “Dramatists should see to it that the audience is enlightened with the artistry,” he said.

He also spoke about theater’s potential to change a person’s political ideologies. As he explained, a strong political message could be sent to the audience through a play. Manoratne emphasized that an artiste does not have to engage in party politics to make the country better, contrary to many Sri Lankan artistes who choose party politics to ‘serve the country’. “I do vote for a political party which compliments my views. But I don’t do political campaigns for them. It’s unnecessary,” he reiterated. “A dramatist’s responsibility is to serve the common man, but he doesn’t have to restrict himself to a political party.”


Manoratne’s stage plays

Maha Giri Daba (1980)

Puthra Samagama (1985)

Thala Mala Pipila (1988)

Andarela (1993)

Guru Tharuwa

Sanda Gira

Kaneru Mal

Lokaya Thani Yayak

Sudu Redi Horu

Buruwa Mahaththaya
Rehearsals of Lokaya Thani Yayak
Sellam Nirindu (2013)

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