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Dharmasiri Bandaranayake Stages Satre in Sinhala at New Delhi Drama Festival

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by Randima Attygalle

When five French resistance fighters after failed action against the Vichy occupying forces are tortured, we in the audience flinch. When Lucie, a young woman among the captives, is raped, we weep in our minds with her.

When she returns with the lifeless body of her young brother, Francoise, we endorse the bitter truth – the agonizing attempt to live amidst shadows of looming death.

Veteran dramatist Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s play, Dhawala Bheeshana, the Sinhala version of Jean-Paul Satre’s Men without Shadows justifies Satre’s existentialist philosophy that the meaning of man’s life is not established before his existence and once the terrible freedom is acknowledged, man has to make his own choices committing himself to a role in this world – let it be hero or coward.

A forum of sharing

Satre’s play was conceived in a political fabric of violence and death; so was Bandaranayake’s production which came on the boards last September, after more than a decade of hibernation. Dhawala Bheeshana made it to the 15th New Delhi International Drama Festival (Bharat Rang Mahotsav) organized by the National School of Drama which concluded recently. The festival comprised 80 plays, represented by Indian as well as European and US artistes.

Sri Lankan representation of Dhawala Bheeshana was staged in Abhimanch Theatre, New Delhi and Rabindra Manch Theatre, Jaipur, before a diverse audience of scholars, dramatists, students of theatre and journalists, providing a stimulating theatrical dialogue as confirmed by the dramatist. Bandaranayake whose production Eka Adhipathi which made to the New Delhi Festival in 2011 observes that, it’s a sustainable venture which is enriched each year.

“It is essentially a forum of learning and sharing, being exposed to diverse theatre. As observed by Chongtham Jayanta Meetiei, the director representing Manipur, there should be a sense of connectivity among dramatists internationally in order to build a richer theatre culture in their respective countries,” he explained.

Fostering connectivity

Stanislavsky’s approach utilized in Dhawala Bheeshana was commended by the audience as a mode which facilitated their involvement in the psyche of the entire play. So much so as Bandaranayake recalled, the tension and ethos which permeates the play were ‘lived’ by the audience, acknowledging by way of applause or giving a standing ovation. The play, which opened to Delhi audience in the aftermath of the recent headline-making brutal gang rape of a young physiotherapy student, affected the audience strongly. As the scene in which Lucie returns after she’s raped by the interrogators unfolded, tension in the hall was palpable.

“It was amazing how they reacted to a production in a foreign vernacular, depending on sub-titles alone for understanding the content. This strong connectivity with the play is something lacking in the local audience,” observes Bandaranayake who perceives a ‘theatre vacuum’ here of passive watching rather than being an active participant of the play. “India is inundated with mega soaps, yet the theatre remains untarnished by such forces.”

‘Meet the Director’ program which introduced two directors from Manipur and Kashmir- Chongtham Jayanta Meetiei and Arshad Mushtaq respectively and Bandaranayake, to the audience, enabled a dialogue deeply exploring the psyche of the play. ‘Why this plot?’, ‘had the drama being viewed by the Tamil-speaking community?’, ‘had the play ever become a subject of controversy?’ were some of the significant questions posed at the forum. “Such questions bear testimony of a vigilant mind of those inclined not only theatrically but also of those socially responsible,” he mused.

National will

The freedom of expression enjoyed by the Indian theatre artistes is conducive to a more liberal platform of creativity Bandaranayake pointed out. “None of their plays come for a pre-view before a censor board and the fact that we are different here in this respect was news for them.” The public involvement in drama and innovative vehicles used by Indian playwrights was a valuable educative experience for us,” he remarked. “Parallel to the Delhi International Drama Festival, the exhibition of Indian theatre heritage was particularly useful to overseas dramatists and stage artistes.”

The commitment displayed by the Indian authorities to promote and enrich theatre in the states, despite changing and testing social and political climates, is exemplary, he said. “On the other hand, there was zero patronage here and the official attitude towards art as an area of national importance is indeed disheartening.’’

“What was represented in Delhi was not meant to be an isolated production but the collective Sri Lankan voice. Sadly, this was not the case,” reflected Bandaranayake. His cast of 20 had to depend on sponsorships provided by well wishers and private organizations.

In times of cultural and artistic erosion where consumerism holds sway, Bandaranayake’s valiant attempt to raise a voice inviting public attention for ‘quality theatre’ surely deserves a standing ovation. Courtesy: Sunday Island

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