29 January 2013

The thinking and making of Maha Samayama

 On the 31st of January, 2013 and on the 1st and 2nd of February, a unique theater production will unfold at the Nelum Pokuna, Colombo 7.  ‘Maha Samayama’ is special not just because of a spectacular congregation of artists from a wide range of fields.  Not because of the numbers on stage (over 200).  Not because of the grandeur of rendering.  It is special for all these reasons but most as an attempt by a new generation, nourished by two distinctive theatrical epochs, to venture into  a brand new era without chaffing those roots. 

The narrative line is drawn from ancient but well known folk lore, elements of which have found expression in multiple forms including literature, dance, drama and song, in traditional form and modern, stylized rendering and everything in between.   It’s a legend but one which has real, historical characters.  It is mythical but in it we find ourselves and people we know, both well-known and nondescript.  It is about gods and demons, men and women, the classic encounter between weak and strong, good and evil, but laced with the nuance that tease out complexity from the clash of stark categories.  
The story will be read as per the preferences, cultural location, sensitivity and readiness of viewer, like all performances of course.  Prof. Ariyaratne Athugala who authored the script and is also the director, a keen student of culture, history and the arts, seeks in this endeavor to obtain entrance to how the human mind gathers, distills, synthesizes and reconfigures experience and knowledge.   His is an exploration, therefore, and one which draws from the traditional art forms which he believes were heavily laden with philosophical, social, cultural and political meaning. 

Athugala is of the view that if there was a ‘great(er) tradition’ it came to a halt after Sarachchandra’s endeavors and other efforts of that generation which sought a fusion of opera, the Japanese dance-drama genre kabuki  and the nadagam and related forms.  While he acknowledges that there have been excellent productions of the more classical forms of theatre, he believes that we are yet to forge a truly Sri Lankan operatic form. 
‘Today, theatre has been reduced to political satire where “hacking” is what’s offered and what’s embraced heartily.  This is not a bad thing but theatre is much more than that.  There’s politics and politics, and not all political commentary is about politics of the day.  You can speak of broader issues.  Power is just one element. There is ideology  and philosophy.  And then there’s the overriding need to entertain that must be addressed.  The engagement can be made richer if we draw from a wider range of intellectual and cultural resources.’

Athugala believes that the great tradition has been submerged by a lesser one but not necessarily for a better theatrical experience:
‘Aesthetics has fallen by the wayside. There is very little study of the theatrical art form and therefore its rich treasury of devices are unknown and under-utilized.  We are yet to see a situation where theater in general makes maximum use of language, music and style.  I believe there is a dire need for a theater that goes beyond words, dialog, routine characterization and use of stage.’

The older native tradition is often dismissed as ‘ritual’, but such dismissal indicates a certain poverty in seeing meaning and therefore potential for contemporary rendering.  ‘Masks,’ Athugala points out, ‘is not just about religion or exorcism; we see masks all the time and everywhere too’.  Faces, he says, are in fact masks or rather they are made for all kinds of masking, all kinds of (mis) representation.  Today, however, ‘masks are there to show white people’.  Athugala points out that none of it was ‘decoration’ as is often held.  Every element was inscribed with meaning that included psychological considerations quite apart from cultural, political and religious significance.    
‘Mahasamayama’ draws from the ‘Mahasona’ story.  ‘It is not about Ritigala Jayasena, the figure that some associate with Mahasona.  It is a story involving Ishwara, Vishnu, Basma Asura, Mahasona, the consort Sona and Gotaimbara, one of the ten yodhayas (giants) who served King Dutugemunu.’ 

Naturally, he had to engage in extensive archival research prior to writing the script.  This exercise also involved a revisiting of theater history and digesting of a plethora of traditions.  ‘There were elements in the traditional yathukarma that Sarachchandra himself did not use. 
Framed by all this the script had to be rendered in a manner that was grandiose, or rather it was more conducive to an operatic performance.  ‘Nelum Pokuna,’ Athugala maintains, was made for productions such as this.  ‘The facilities are unmatched and moreover are ideal for the visual enhancement of what’s in the words, the story and the dramatic articulation’. 

‘We need to reach and maintain international standards of quality.  “Nelum Pokuna” offers an opportunity to reach those.  But it is not just about location, obviously.  It is about performance. It is about a team of professionals working together, complementing one another.  It is about relentless pursuit of perfection.  Hard work.’
It was not easy, he confessed, to handle such a big cast.  The main characters are played by highly accomplished actors and actresses.  Scheduling had been a problem.  Rehearsals were held over 5 months, he said.  Most of the players belong to the security forces.  Given the stylistic preferences of ‘Mahasamayama’ he had to secure the support of accomplished choreographers, musicians and other important theater functionaries. 

Channa Wijewardena and Ravibandu Vidyapathi, who play Ishwara and Asura respectively, were in charge of the dancing and choreography. Jackson Anthony (Mahasona), Sriyantha Mendis (Gotaimbara), Chathurika Peiris, Indika Upamali, Badini Malwatta, Nissanka Diddeniya, Kumara Thiramadura as well as other accomplished theater personalities dominate the stage, while Samantha Perera is in charge of music. 
Channa considers this a landmark production.  ‘There is drama, there is ballet and it is operatic. The emphasis is on movement and not word.’  He referred to earlier productions such as Karadiya, Moodu Puththu and Nala Damayanthi, but insisted this was different and unique.  ‘It can be said that this was designed for ‘Nelum Pokuna’.  If there is high-tech we should use it. This script allows it.’

He believes that the main players, Jackson, Upamali and Sriyantha have their own unique styles.  ‘What we did was to use this unique character and create a different color.’  The costumes, he said, are modern. ‘It might not be easy to pick up the characters immediately.  But they are designed to bring out the character.’
Channa had to work with security services personnel.  ‘They were disciplined.  They were good dancers.  What they lacked was inexperience when it comes to dance exercises.  This is very necessary to obtain freedom of movement.’

Working with Athugala was easy, he said.  ‘It was in the style of a workshop, really.  A lot of what you will see in the performance was developed on location.  Athugala in his inimical and unobtrusive way would make suggestions.  He seemed to have studied the two of us, myself and Ravibandu (with whom I was choreographing for the first time), very well.  What we produced will require a new name!’
For Jackson Anthony the entire exercise has been extra special. 

‘First of all the grandeur is very striking.  For generations we were limited by the dimensions of the stage.  We danced within those confines.  The giants among our teachers, Chitrasena, Makuloluwa and Khemadasa developed productions that were made for theaters like Nelum Pokuna but had to be played in smaller places. 
‘Secondly, the roots, the source.  This has been drawn from folklore, our very own yathukarma.  Athugala has taken the uppaththi kathava (birth-story) of the Mahasona legend and developed a philosophical and political text.’

Ishwara, the destroyer in the Hindu Trinity, is key here.  However, Jackson points out that Athugala has given a new reading, a Buddhist one, to the notion of destruction, end or death. 
‘Destruction is really evolution, destruction is not “end”.  Mahasona rises from the ashes.  Now that’s a materialistic angle.  But Athugala adds or rather marks the political dimension as well.  The defeated is an entity that is in transformation, evolving and not dying.  There are often embers in a fire that is thought to have died.  Circumspect is called for, therefore. 

Mahasona is not ‘foreign’ to Jackson.  He has played the ‘Mahasona’ of the ‘Handae Samayama’ in a Kaluwamodara hut.  He said that he is familiar with the experience of ‘possession’.  And here, he plays the ‘Mahasona’ in a modern theater.  ‘There is a difference; but both are born of the same root, the same soil’. 
It is about root, then.  And movement.  A from-here-to-there.  A death that is not.  A real life story in which we are told we can recognize ourselves, in our current avatar, our former selves and who we are likely to become. As individuals and collectives.  A political text.  A philosophical treatise.  Theater.  That’s entertainment, put together, we might conclude.