13 November 2015

Break chain, make necklace

Cover page of a collection of essays on Gamini Haththotuwegama, edited by Kanchuka Dharmasiri
December 1987 was a time when the University of Peradeniya was, contrary to the stone-etched hope of Ivor Jennings, ‘more closed than usual’ and even when open was marked by class boycotts.  I remember walking up to the WUS Canteen from the rugger grounds and finding a bunch of my friends taking part in a drama workshop.  I recognized Gamini Haththotuwegama, GK to some, Gamini to others, Hatha to still others and ‘Haththa’ to us.  ‘Haththa’ was my parents’ contemporary at Peradeniya and was therefore someone I had known from the time I was very small.  I joined.

At some point during a break in rehearsals, Haththa related a story.  On March 16, 1978, one Piyadasa (later appointed as a Director of the Hardware Corporation by Cyril Matthew) led the gang who were sent to tame the anti-UNP union at Kelaniya, supported by JSS members of the Tyre Corporation.  A lot of blood was spilled. A thug named Christopher Hyacinth Jayatilleke was literally stoned to death by the students after the student body saw some union members bringing out from the ‘battleground’ a much loved leader, blood pouring from his head.  Haththa had been a witness.
That workshop yielded a collage-production, aptly called ‘Sarasavi Kurutu Gee’ or ‘Campus Graffiti’, played just once between showers on the wet ‘stage’ of the Sarachchandra ‘Wala’.  It was a snapshot album of university life, academic issues and student politics, held together tenuously and deliberately so, by reference to the political turmoil that not too long after bled to what came to be known as the Bheeshanaya

One of those ‘snapshots’ was of a student held in a dark room for so long that he loses his eyesight.  There is an album-flip and the next scene is of the student, dead, being carried on the shoulders of friends.  The university system closed down a few months later.  We couldn’t carry all our dead.  We couldn’t even bury them.  They were slaughtered in their thousands, tortured and burnt on tyres, sent down waterways or just left to rot on roadsides.  Among the 60,000 ‘disappeared’ in those brutal 2 years was a member of the troupe, Atapattu, a first year medical student. 

Looking back that ‘snippet’ was prophetic, even though it did not require a prophet to predict what was to unfold.  Looking back, 25 years later almost and almost 3 years after Haththa passed on, I realize that he had an acute sense of the political moment; he knew what needed to be communicated. 

Haththa was an exceptional observer.  He had a memory for incidents that had dramatic potential, however trivial they may have been at the time.   Almost every little thing he wove into the many stories he developed with his players contained real life play-outs he had observed.  He would regale us with such anecdotes all the time and not really being a student of theatre it took me years to understand that there was no magic to the genre called street theatre, that ancient tradition which 
Haththa rebirthed in 20th Century Sri Lanka.  All we needed to learn was that theatre is not recounting of life but life itself, a device made for communication as well as self-clarification, to teach as well as learn, to object and assert, to hold ground and recover lost territories of truth.  There was, after all, as much dramatic-nuance in the indelible image of Haththa going on his knees on that slippery ‘Wala’ and worshipping an obdurate and appreciative audience as anything in the entire script.  

His was not the only street theatre group in the country, but every outfit that followed carried his signature.  The exercises, wit, costumes, songs, props, themes and even (or should I say ‘especially’) the audacity evident in street theatre productions contain a strain of unspoken homage to this man. 
He was a scholar when he wanted to be.  He was a lazy scholar.  He took refuge in a defensible argument: ‘there’s no longer anyone competent around to supervise my thesis.’  He laughed then, knowing that he wasn’t fooling anyone.  He laughed a lot at himself and in doing so taught us how important it is to laugh at ourselves in order to be more effective in fighting the fights we believe we cannot shy away from.  

He taught more by engaging in theatre and through his ways of being than he did in classroom or academic paper.  That said, ‘Streets Ahead with Haththotuwegama’, a selection of his seminal articles on theatre and cinema in a single volume, due to be launched on July 26, 2012 at ‘Sudarshi’, promises to be a treat for all those associated with theatre and of course those who are interested in all kinds of histories, not just particular genres of theatre but of people and processes, challenges and resistance, being pinned against a wall and fighting back.  He was, after all, not exactly liked in academic circles.  He didn’t lose any sleep over it.  He won the respect of the academy anyway for when he did put paper to pen in non-script exercises he could put pen-pushing academics to shame. 

But right now, as has been the case these past three years, there’s nothing that haunts me more about Haththa, than the story of the student leader in Kelaniya and its recounting in the ‘Wala’, because my last memory of him is the astounding spectacle of his students and fellow players carrying him from the Kala Bhavana to the Kanatte, along the street as always, singing all the songs he taught and/or sang with them, tears pouring down their cheeks.  That final ‘send-off’ captured his life, teaching and art: igillilaa gihin ahasa badaa ganin….rankurulo…rankurulo (O Golden Bird go….soar high and embrace the sky). 

That was an exit, and the most dramatic moment in the theatre-history of this country (so far) which made Antony’s demagogic line, ‘Here was a Caesar, when comes such another!’ seem insipid and weak.  That was enactment, this not so.  He was a man, after all, and not a king; he rebelled against the crown.  And he made us all streets ahead, not of other people, but the ‘ourselves’ he taught us to leave behind. 


Every character scripted in
the kings, queens and ghosts
the jester and the prince
the pothe gura and the purohitha
clothed in wit and meaning
comment and critique 
armed with song and slogan
literary allusion 
and flipping of text,
they were there
on the street
in the street
with and for the street:
and every line and lyric
gesture and glance
and all the props and make-up
that turned player into audience
made street stage and stage street
float like ghosts behind a king and citizen
teacher and student 
it is the unscripted theatre moment
the mortalizing of the immortal,
the flight of he who never would flee,
the cremation of he who would not die.

*Written upon the death of Gamini Haththotuwegama.

This article was first published in 'The Nation', three years ago.