06 July 2012

Remembering a truly national icon

[Today, July 6, 2012, is the 81st birth anniversary of Henry Jayasena.  The first time I met him was in April 2001, when I interviewed him for the Sunday Island.  Genial, patient and full of stories, he entertained me as he had entertained the entire nation.  Henry Jayasena is no more, but he left us much richer than he found us.  Reproduced below is what I wrote 11 years ago]

When I was barely 10 years old I remember listening to my brother and my uncle arguing over science and predictability. My uncle, who was an engineer, maintained that Henry Jayasena, in his play "Apita Puthe Magak Nethe" (Son, there is no way out for us) produced in the late sixties had predicted the explosion that took place in 1971 and said that this ranked on par with anything that "science" could come up with.

Years later, I came to the conclusion that literature teaches us more about the social condition and the processes within it in a much more nuanced way that social theory can ever aspire to. The social sciences are, after all, more closely related to the humanities than to the hard sciences. I suspect my uncle’s comment that day contributed much to this view.

Not all writers are trained in the social sciences. In fact I would venture that such training is a handicap they can well do without. Among writers there are those who complement their creative genius with hard work, sacrifice and a relentless search for the essentials that constitute the human condition. They help us expand the horizons of our collective and individual longings, not so much by prescription but by the rendering of life in ways that help us discover ourselves and so give us the tools and strength to transcend our social and psychological limitations. Henry Jayasena, a household name in this country, is certainly one such man.

"The Complete Works of Henry Jayasena" is a volume that deserves more serious commentary than that which a sketchy profile in a newspaper can generate. It is a dissertation that is waiting to be researched and written, packed with literary criticism and aesthetic assessment. Here I offer some of the more memorable stories of the life of this versatile man who related our own stories played out in languages that were not foreign nor plagued with convoluted academic innuendo.

He was born in 1931 and the youngest in a family of four. His father, Albert Rodrigo Jayasena hailed from Balangoda. Albert Jayasena practically grew up on his own, educated himself, travelled the world, and took up a variety of jobs. "He was a well read man, self-taught and self-made. He taught two of my brothers upto the SSC. He was well versed in Sanskrit and Pali. In fact he translated English poetry into Sinhala and wrote for Sinhala newspapers as a freelance journalist.

He was once the private secretary of Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. In fact Henry remembers his saying that he was the one who gave young SWRD his first Sinhala lessons. A colourful man, Albert’s life was full of ups and downs, some of which his son has captured in a novel called Lazarus. In "Minisun vu daruwo" Henry has related what he considers the salient events of his own childhood. A portrait of the old man, his relationships with the rest of the family, etc., are poignantly laid out for the reader in this book.

His parents had not had the best of marriages. They had separated when Henry was very young and he hadn’t seen his father until he was five or six, when the old man had come to take him away. His mother had washed and dressed him and sent him out to meet the rest of his siblings. "I played with my sister, not knowing the fact," he said. It was when his mother had come out in tears that he realised he was being taken away.

Before the war, he had attended a Sinhala school for sometime, but his early education was essentially obtained from his father, who was at that time working a ten-acre plot of land. The war had seen many job opportunities opening up and Henry’s father was appointed as manager in a co-operative society. Prior to that his eldest brother who was working in the Marketing Department had been the provider of a regular income to the family. After the war, Albert had started a business of his own, opening an oilman’s store. "He tried to expand, brought in a lot of people and became a pauper. He was in many ways a remarkable man, and he suffered a lot, just as my mother did. These things affected us as well, that’s natural isn’t it?"

At this time, young Henry was attending Lorenz College in Gampaha, having joined the fifth standard. While at Lorenz, he had gone for a radio program handled by W. A. S. Perera, the famous teacher at Nalanda who has nurtured generations of writers. "Siri Aiya" as he was affectionately known, had asked Henry to sit the entrance exam and in 1946 he joined Nalanda College. Karunaratne Abeysekera, Stanley Jayasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekera were among the more well known of his classmates.

Under the tutelage of Siri Aiya, young Henry was able to discover the artist within him. He not only helped out with the Lama Thiraya programme on radio, but took to the stage as well. Apparently Siri Aiya used to organise stage shows where popular artistes would perform. "During the breaks, us kids were sent in for short skits. And this was my introduction to the stage. As a result I was never afflicted with things like ‘stage-fright’. The Lama Thiraya was an important forum for me. I met a lot of people through it. We did radha-krishna, thotiya saha velendiya and vijaya-kuveni. And I acted in Harischandra, produced by Siri Aiya."

All his life, Henry has been an avid reader and student of literature. He read whatever books he could lay hands on. His father had a fair collection which he had voraciously consumed. He had been influenced by Tagore, Kafka, Thomas Hardy, and Martin Wickramasinghe. His literary skills were also honed by the Jathaka Stories, works such as the Buduguna Alankaraya, Saddharma Ratnavaliya, and Amavathura. He preferred books that left a nice feeling. "I didn’t much care for books that were full of spikes. We have enough in our own lives."

He mentioned Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Paul Galico’s The Love of Seven Dwarfs, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince as being among his all time favourites. "To me, ‘literature’ refers to works that are of lasting quality. That is what separates a good book from a popular book. I return to these books again and again and they never fail to give me joy."

He had learnt from Chekov and Shakespeare. "I tried but failed to translate Shakespeare. He has a very personal style and is extremely poetic. Still he influenced me a lot. I have gone through Becket, Ionesco, Tennesse Williams, Arthur Miller and of course Bertold Brecht. I gathered more of Brecht style than anything else. He knew how to use words for the stage, which is of course different from using words for poetry. Words have to brush against you, like a breeze, a stream....and sometimes hit you hard. Brecht could do that. Among the Sinhala playwrights, Sarachchandra and Dayananda Gunawardena were the best. Sarachchandra was richer in language, Dayananda superior in his research. The man next to Sarachchandra is him."

Unfortunately Henry didn’t have the means to continue his studies, and so he took up a job as a clerk in the Registrar General’s office in 1949. Then he applied for the post of assistant teacher and was appointed to a small school in Dehipe, off Padiyapelella.

Henry has fond memories of his teaching experience in Dehipe. He had taught English to primary school students, using poetry as one of the main instruments of instruction. "They found it more interesting this way. In fact I have heard them reciting these poems while they were bathing!"

He had also written a play based on the Ramayana, "Janaki". He had written the songs, trained the players, only to discover that there was no one to give the music. He had heard of a musician tailor in Elamale and had gone their to obtain his help. The teachers had chipped in with contributions. The play had run into problems just before the performance, because it had suddenly been pointed out that there would be no lights after dark. Eight petromax lanterns had been brought to remedy the situation. The chief guest, Charles Barton, a visiting superintendent in the estates and later a senator, had been a bit peeved at the delay but at the end of the show he had said that it was well worth the wait. The profits (Rs. 250) had been used to buy books.

In November 1951 he had passed the clerical exam and joined the Public Works Department (PWD) where he worked until retirement around 1981. It was while he was stationed in Colombo that Henry really flowered as a theatre man, working with a number of theatre groups, producing and acting in a number of plays.

I asked him if his work in the PWD didn’t interfere with his work in theatre. "Not at all. They were very happy to have an artiste. They liked it whenever I won an award and the newspapers carried headlines such as ‘PWD man wins award’. Actually had I been in a field related to the arts, I would not have achieved as much because petty jealousies would have inevitably got in the way."

Overall, Henry Jayasena has written and/or directed eight plays, written six novels, acted in many films and teledramas. "Some of the films were cheap copies of Indian films. The more memorable ones were Gamperaliya, Handaya, Palangetiyo, Hansa Vilak, Kaliyugaya and Beddegama. Teledramas were more to earn a living than anything else. My main source of inspiration and satisfaction came from writing and from the stage. Now, it is only writing, although I still conduct drama workshops and occasionally direct a play."

Henry Jayasena’s work speaks for itself. His thoughts on the nation, our society and the future, I found to be extremely perceptive. He said that he could never dream of living in another country, but given the way things are going, he was advising his son to leave. "I read the piece in the Midweek Review of the Island titled ‘The Last Frontier’ and it disturbed me a lot. If things continue this way, we won’t be able to even breathe. They will sell off our water, our forests and everything else because it doesn’t effect them. They are all comfortable. Our people will have to stay inside their houses and watch white people enjoy our resources. They point guns at us and plunder beaches, our forests and our water. And they tell us: ‘kala beela hitapalla,’ and we have to buy the food at their prices. What I find most surprising is that our so-called leaders are yet to be struck down by thunderbolts! (‘munta hena gahanne nehe ne!’)"

At 70, this genial and sensitive man, in spite of the good humour that his entire persona exudes, remain fundamentally ill at ease with what is happening around him. Last September Apata Puthe Magak Nethe was staged once again at the Lumbini ("That is the only place I can afford") but the response had been very poor. He puts it down to the fact that the people have been drugged into deep slumber by consumerism and slices of the good life that is very carefully delivered over TV. He is convinced that things will not continue this way and that there will be yet another eruption that would be as bloody or worse than the ones that came before.

Over his long career in theatre, Henry Jayasena has won many awards, the most recent being the Gratien, where Lakshmi de Silva’s translation of his play Kuveni was adjudged joint winner, along with Ruwanthi de Chickera’s "The Middle of Silence". "Someone had criticised the judges for awarding a prize for a translation. As I said during my acceptance speech, I wrote that play because I felt deeply for the character of the woman, Kuveni, and when I wrote it I never thought it would be translated or that it would win a prize. They gave it to me, what can I do?"

All those who have watched him perform on stage and on the silver screen would have their favourite portrayal. Some were undoubtedly excellent. A. J. Gunawardena claims that Henry as Piyal in "Gamperaliya" and as Azdak in "Hunuwataye Kathava" are to him the strongest and most persistent, and "bespeak two classical moments in the modern arts of Sri Lanka". I would agree.

Perhaps the most accolades come from Sarachchandra, who describes Henry as "A most unassuming figure, not indulging in pettifrogging or image-breaking, but continuing without fanfares in the field that he has selected for himself, not expecting encomiums and not worrying about ungracious criticism, and satisfied with the pleasure he gives thousands who sit in the auditorium."

Today, recovering from cancer, Henry Jayasena spends much of his time reading and writing at home, playing with his grandchildren in the company of his wife Manel, his constant companion on life’s stage whom he had met while staying with a friend at Dehiwala. Apparently they were shooting a film and the work began early in the morning so he couldn’t travel from home. Manel lived nearby. That was the beginning of a partnership that played on all manner of stages. Indeed for those who are close to them, they are not separate individuals, but as a collective, and one that is immensely creative and beneficial both the constituent parts as well as to the world outside. Henry would not disagree.

Long years ago, Henry had sung the veddah lullaby that Amaradeva later made popular, chando ma bilinde nuba nadan. He had sung to a tune of his own making. Amaradeva had come across the lyrics in a collection of folk songs put together by Kirihami Mohottala in the Sanskruthi magazine. This most versatile man, grandfather and teacher, entertainer and philosopher, is also a child in many ways. Unspoilt. After all these years. Truly a national icon.


SANDIKA said...

Thank you for taking us back to the unforgettable 'Henry Jayasena yugaya'(the Era of Henry Jayasena)
this is a brilliant article.

Rashmi said...

Thank you for the journey in the memory lane.

Usin Kandin Wedunath Puthune Ruwata,
Kusin Deroo Bilindaamai Numba Memata,
Nethin Kandulu Naawath Numba Idiripita,
Rosin Dedu Niyaaweth Dukakiya Memata.