Saturday, 2 November 2002  
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The rebel who shed new light on the stage

by Namel Weeramuni

Its nature that shapes human beings when they are born to this world to whatever backgrounds they are placed into. So was Sugathapala de Silva, whom we called Sugath.

Sugath came to Colombo from Gampola and did different jobs. In papers he was a journalist, and in books stores a salesman. It was during this time that his first publication came out as "Saibo Nana". It stamped his novel approach to creativity.

He did not achieve fame overnight, but through dedication and hard work and in silence. He made his environment his University and K. V. G. de Silva's bookstall at Wellawatta his library.

Sugath while working as a salesman at KVG's dutifully and honestly, did not waste time waiting until customers arrived at the counters. He read books. This made him a voracious reader. That habit amassed in him the body of knowledge which sharpened his mind to become a free thinker, a creator, an innovator, a radical and non-conformist. His inborn radicalism made him bold and courageous in whatever he did. He thus became a brilliant dramatist, novelist and literati of a different character.

I cannot exactly remember when I met Sugath, but it was in the early sixties. The meeting took place on the stage at Havelock Town Theatre, now known as "Lumbini" when I saw for the first time his production "Thattu Geval". I was highly impressed by the craft, the theme and structure of the play.

I had heard and read about him when I was in the University at Peradeniya as a final year student when my friends were instilling dramatic and literary germs in our minds through the association of late Prof. Sarachchandra, Prof. Siri Gunasinghe and many other similar literati figures. This was in 1961.

At this time I read that under the friendly and collective leadership of Sugatahapala de Silva, along with Ralex Ranasinghe, his brother Tony Ranasinghe, Wickrama Bogoda, Cyril B. Perera, G. W. Surendra and Neil I Perera have joined together as Ape Kattiya. I was attracted by this group's motto. It was not a formal organisation having office bearers clamouring for positions, but they worked on a common cause and objective.

They had in fact two objectives. One was to rebel against the stylised form of drama. Apey Kattiya implied that it was not enough but an alternative form too should emerge for the growth of theatre.

The other objective was to rebel against the so-called Peradeniya literary school of thought, challenging its approach to literature and other forms of art. Sugath's Apey Kattiya were highly influenced by the Western existentialist philosophical doctrine of Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and many writers of that calibre including the American Black writer James Baldwin.

Going back to my reading of the news item about the formation of Apey Kattiya and their first play, "Boarding Karayo", two reactions came to my mind. The first reaction was the emergence of cynicism at their comment about building up a national theatre only through realistic drama.

The second reaction was thoughtful. I believed that Apey Kattiya might do something different. Their group's name itself sounded novel. I believed that they perhaps would prove to be different from the usual and do something innovative. This they proved to be correct producing a number of new plays.

Sugath was the stalwart of the group with Ralex particularly rebelling, but leading the group in the right direction having Cyril B. Perera becoming their official critic like Kenneth Tynan of the new wave of dramatists in the West. First I laughed to myself at the name Apey Kattiya and questioned in my own mind as to what they mean. Now only I understand. A different path and an approach to creativity. I embraced them and joined Apey Kattiya and worked with them for some time. This was after I saw Sugath's Tattu Geval.

Like John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" in Sri Lanka Sugath produced "Thattu Geval" and opened a new approach to theatre. I personally do not acclaim that "Boarding Karayo" to be great though it won the Cultural Department's Theatre Award at the Festival. But with the fame Sugath gained through this play he created his best in "Thattu Geval" and stirred the theatre critics and paved the way for a realistic theatre.

It was after seeing the first performance of "Thattu Geval", we, late Prof. Douglas Amerasekera and Hemantha Waranakulasuriya became very close friends having assembled at "Simeon Aiyya's" famous "The Press Club" at Galle Face where the critics and the lovers of the arts met.

There we discussed, criticised and valued the play as something superb for its craft, structure, and the universal theme which Sugath depicted very subtly, and with a thorough dramatic grip.

This encouraged Sugath to become totally innovative and creative which he did without fear and boldly until last week, even in the sick bed until he shed his last breadth leaving a wealth of dramatic literary works- plays, novels and critical discourses through radio talks, lectures, and articles in the papers.

Sugath had the brilliance for creating catchy titles for his plays like "Dunna Dunu Gamuwe", "Harima Badu Hayak", "Hele Nagga Dong Putha", "Hitha Honda Ammandi", and for novels, "Ballo Bath Kathi", "Bitti Hatara", and the latest which he did on the sick bed "Amuthu Ilandariya".

Another clever predisposition that he had was the ability to impose himself, as characters to a play and create characters accordingly having the cast he was going to employ. Through this device he gained the best out of a particular cast directing them to perform and pour out the experience that he intended to portray in a play.

Only one that he failed was in "Harima Badu Hayak' when he waited for Surendra to turn up for rehearsals to portray the producer's character of the play within the play. Surendra was thoroughly engaged as an editor of a newspaper during an election time and was unable to attend rehearsals. He did not turn up at all. But Sugath had written the character for Surendra.

During this period, I was taking Malini for rehearsals and was only a spectator of the rehearsals and suggested to Sugath that this practice of waiting for an actor should not go on indefinitely. I sincerely felt that the play was not progressing. I opted to play as an understudy until Surendra came and progress on the rehearsals of the play. Sugath had no trust in me as an actor, but he agreed immediately.

Sugath divulged "Namel you gave me a better character than what I had in mind and thereby enriched the meaning of the play". I have to mention this because Sugath was not a tyrant but a kind and understanding one, as of actors whose ability was usurped and used as a professional, to the utmost, giving actors the freedom to do whatever they felt appropriate to portray a character.

Sugatahapala de Silva was a fearless fighter who never succumbed to the threats of others or the authorities for whom he worked. He fought for the rights of his equals and humanity. He addressed the social dilemmas of the times in his works with subtlety.

He was not a social reformer, but a genuine artist of the highest order with a great vision for the society he lived in. It is this quality of Sugath that will make him immortal. That is what a great artist can leave behind when he takes leave to leave this mundane world.

The writer is a contemporary of Sugath.


Short drama festival

The final round of the State Short Drama Festival will be held from November 04 to 07 at the John de Silva Memorial Theatre. Sixteen plays have been selected for the final round.

Organised by the Cultural Affairs Department and the Sinhala Drama Panel of the Arts Council, four plays will be staged at the festival on each day commencing at 6.30 pm.The Awards ceremony will be held under the patronage of Human Resource Development, Education and Cultural Affairs Minister Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku on November 09 at the same venue.

A discussion on "Internal Criticism and External Criticism " will also be held on November 10.


Another spider sticks to silver screen

Arachnid, a thriller on a secret expedition to a South Pacific island in search for an unknown deadly virus, will be screened from next week.

Directed by Jack Sholder, the films stars Alex Reid, Chris Patter and Pepe Sancho.

Could this virus become an alien invader threatening the very existence of mankind?

The team scramble to save their own lives - will they be able to save the world?


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