Thursday, March 26, 2015

Walking on the shadows of Hattottuwagama

Deepani Silva, who is committed to promoting street dramas, talks about the interesting times, experiences and lessons learnt while working with a legendary father figure in the field of acting  

(Pics by Ravindra Dharmathilake)

Award winning actress Deepani Silva celebrates four decades in her acting career in March 2015.

The late Gamini Hattottuwagama, through street dramas in Sri Lanka, offered citizens an amazing theatrical experience.  This roadside experience was offered free to the public. Yet, several decades later, there was a period where street dramas were not shown. Deepani Silva, one of the first stage drama students of Hattottuwagama, with the support of several other former members of Hattottuwagama’s drama team established Gamini Hattottuwagama Foundation to develop this theatrical component, identifying this downfall.
Deepani said that her voyage in the drama field began unexpectedly as she joined Ranga Shilpa Shalika looking for a way to spend time after her final school examinations in 1975 with her cousin sisters. Ranga Shilpa Shalika was the first institute to introduce a program to teach drama and theater studies.  Late veteran Gamini Hattottuwagama was one of the instructors at the institution and he was trying to build up a street drama group by the time Deepani joined the class.
 “I didn’t know anything about street drama. Yet Hattottuwagama Sir invited me to join in with them as he observed that I have acting skills which can be useful in street drama,” she recalled.  She said that she didn’t have an expectation to become an actress, but was curious to learn how things happened behind the curtains. She said that she developed an interest because of the stage dramas she watched during her school days at Kalutara Balika Vidyalaya and Colombo Buddhist Ladies’ College.
After joining Hattottuwagama’s street drama team she received the opportunity to take part in two special role-plays produced by Hattottuwagama and H. Karunarathna for Christmas. “I was a part of these two dramas, Akeekaru Puthraya and Jesu Jerusalamata Pamineema. Therefore my acting career started on an altar,” she reminisced. She also recalled how she traveled across the country with this drama group. “I was amazed by this new experience and was surprised how the team was enthusiastic about the performances although it didn’t benefit them financially. Luckily I received the blessings from my family,” she said recalling how the family shared her interest and encouraged her to follow her heart once they got to know how exciting street drama was. 
Deepani’s father, J Peter Silva was a teacher as well as trade union leader in Kalutara, Katukurunda.  She grew up in an environment where they openly discussed political and social issues. “I believe that was the reason why I wasn’t too scared to engage in street drama. I was familiar with the subjects due to the experiences I received at home mingling with the society,” she said.  She also said that politics and art always went hand in hand and even though an artiste doesn’t get on to a political stage she or he will always be speaking politics. “To engage in party politics or not is a personal choice. It depends on the person. However, the artiste should always take the general public’s side, always speaking against the unjust happening to them, if there is any,” she stressed.
After Hattottuwagama passed away, the need for a leadership reemerged in the street drama field.  “We identified this need and a few from the first group got together again to create a program for the younger generation. She also mentioned how Hattottuwagama Sir taught them the techniques in a practical manner while engaged in a drama. As a tribute to him they established the Gamini Hattottuwagama Foundation to support the Sri Lankan Street Drama.  
 “Street drama is open to anyone in the society. Performances will be on the road, so anyone-from a person who drives a luxurious car to a beggar on the road- can come and see,” she explained. Street theatre as she said goes to its audience rather than the other way round. Its different performances depend on time and place; it can range from public theatre through a town or village to a demonstration at a factory or an organization, linked up with a social or political campaign. 
She iterated that a street drama artiste should be highly skilled. “Everyone at the audience should hear what he or she is saying despite the disturbances in the environment. Performance should be directed to everyone around the circle.  None of the spectators should be missed,” she said.  “It’s a difficult task as the spectator can see every step from getting ready- wearing costumes to the performance,” she added. She further said that the street dramatist should also be knowledgeable about the current situation of the society apart from the street drama and acting skills that they have to engage with the spectators and should be ready accept or respond to the feedback.
She said that economical benefits are secondary in street dramas and that the group is more focused on sending out a message. “Most of the time, a street drama is organized from personnel funds of the dramatist.  If the organizers are ready to pay for our transport, that will be welcomed and appreciated. Even if not, we won’t fuss,” she said.  She also said that whatever money they raise through the hat collection at the end of the performance satisfies them. They use the money for their accommodation and improvements of their costumes and decorations.  “A hat collection is a tradition carried out in street drama, not that we receive a lot of money through this,” she reflected.
 She argued that street drama has the potential to convey political messages to the society stronger than other form of art. “That should also be the responsibility of the artiste engaged in street drama. Problems and issues concerning the society can be easily convinced to the society through this. Since the drama goes to the people on the road, the messengers don’t have to wait until the audience comes to them to convey the message,” she added.
Deepani also joined stage drama, television and the silver screen later in her career. She has contributed in over 25 stage dramas including Weddikkarayo. She first joined the Television through Shrimathi Liyanage’s Children’s drama. Her debut episodic drama was Lucian Bulathsinhala’s Thara Devi. The dumb woman’s character she played in Thara Devi was much loved an appreciated. This role made her a star in the teledrama field. She said that she feels proud that she has been able to maintain her popularity continuously until today. “I have never played the lead role of a teledrama, yet most of the characters I played were loved by the teledrama fans,” she said.
She entered the silver screen with the role in Hewawasam’s Meeharaka in 1980s. She got nominated for the Best Actress Award for the character she played in Anura Chndrandrasiri’s  Thunweni Aha.
Today she mostly contributes to teledramas apart from her involvement in Street theater. She also spoke about the teledrama industry in the country. She lamented that the teledrama industry has become a factory which caters to the demand of the buyers. “Producers are more interested in finishing more episodes in a day rather than producing a drama high in aesthetic qualities,” she lamented.
She identified few disadvantages an artiste faces today. “In Sri Lanka acting is not a recognized profession. You can’t apply for a bank loan being an artiste. You won’t receive a pension when you are old. Most of all, acting is not a secure job. You’ll get roles until you have the demand.  If you lose it you lose your financial stability,” she pointed out.
She also emphasized the need for a valid institute to teach drama and theater studies. “There should be a place where students can observe skills of veterans and learn and a place where they get a valid recognition,” she said. “Acting is no easy job if done properly. It requires training and constant practice as well as confidence. This is why people who started the career as stage dramatists tend to remain in the field for a longer time than others who are not,” she said.

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