|Wednesday, 13 November 2002|
Sugathapala de Silva : Dramatist of the people
by Somachandre Wijesuriya
Years ago, I met Sugath in his tiny hovel of a flat at Soysapura, Moratuwa when I went there to study the background of his play "Marasaad", in order to write a review. I wondered within my middle class musings, why such an acknowledged dramatist should not have been better domiciled. My friend who took me there, Thilak Jayaratna, told me that Sugath had been recently retired from the SLBC and until his retirement, he had no house of his own and recently procured it.
Conversing with Sugath was a pleasant experience because he was well-versed not only in drama but also in recent trends in literary development. I wondered how he acquired such a wealth of knowledge in such subjects because the dramatist was not privileged with a university education.
After many hours of conversation, Sugath mentioned that he returned from an assignment in Chilaw, where he went to conduct a workshop. The workshop, under Church sponsorship was for a section of poor people in the area, who were taking an interest in drama. Sugath told us that he had not received any payment for his work but the grateful people had given him two bottles of the best cottage brew.
He sheepishly inquired from us whether we would enjoy the white spirit with him. Thilak and myself literary warmed ourselves to his kind offer. While immersed in mine host's company, I wanted to use the toilet and Sugath's wife, Sheila, showed me the way.
On my way back to where we were sitting, I saw racks of books and almost unconsciously, stopped and looked at his library. There was an immense collection of paperbacks of world drama and literature. I thought that he had a better collection than myself and wondered how he acquired some titles because I had not seen them in bookshops in Colombo. I realised that he must have acquired them when he was in London, studying drama, under a British government scholarship.
That was my introduction to the dramatist of the people. I had seen his dramas and read his novels earlier and that encounter gave me clues as to why Sugath became the kind of a dramatist and literati he was. It was a novel experience to me because I studied drama within the confines of lecture notes of Peradeniya. The contribution of Sugath to theatre and literature was outside those notes. He innovated a dramatic trend external to the scholarly, research oriented, Peradeniya one.
The art of Sugath cannot be divorced from the period he lived. He matured in a period when the post-war economic boom was in full swing. The inflation in the country was within manageable proportions.
However, this does not mean that the life in the island was a Utopian dream. The economic crisis is not something that one could perceive within daily events. People went on their work daily. They came home, made their purchases of groceries from the co-operative, cooked, ate and went to sleep. This pastoral existence was violently disturbed in 1953 with the Hartal, which showed that appearances were deceptive, Sugath matured in this background as an artist. That is not to say that he was politically inclined.
As a teen
This writer used to read his interesting account about Saibu Nana in the 'Sinhala Jathiya', paper as a teenager and was captivated by its simple style and the lucid language, which was a hallmark of Sugath's writings. That style was unique to Sugath who employed it in many novels he wrote. His contribution to theatre direction, 'Sonduru Akgnadayaka' (Lovable Dictator cum Theatre Director), is the epitome of this style. In theatre direction, the book surpasses anything the Peradeniya School produced. It is so lucid that one feels Sugath is on the other side of the desk talking to you on theatre production.
In the novels, he adopted this style to draw the characters of ordinary people, (unemployed, frustrated youth etc) who were very much alive in his novels, 'Ikbithi Siyalloma Sathutin Jeevathwuha' is an example.
He was able to produce that unique style simply because he was a man of the people. His style was free from structuralist limitations. One has to be a Brahmin in a language department in a university to abide by structural limitations.
An artist exists in his time and Sugath was no exception. His work in drama and literature cannot be understood without reference to socio-political trends, which influenced the country after its independence from the British. They were very much reflected in his work. The main political pre-occupation during the post-war boom was the debate, which centred on Populism vs Revolution, which produced leaders of different genre. Juan Peron, Kwame Nkrumah, Nehru, Nassar, Ho-Chi Ming, Sukarno and Bandaranaike in this country. Most of them were leaders of the national bourgeoisie who controlled the destinies of millions.
A number of Sugath's dramas were adaptations. However, his own creations reflected the social trends he perceived. 'Bodingkarayo' (Boarders) and 'Thattu Geval' (Flats) reflected the rootlessness of people who live in such surroundings. Perhaps one could read Satre's philosophy of alienation in them. Yet, the dramatist did not imply any comments into his plays. His drama was popular because they reflected the common experience of a generation. Sugath's mastery in production, good casting and acting by actors in the calibre of Tony Ranasinghe, Prema Ganegoda, Weeramunis and G. W. Surendra, among others, made it worthwhile to spend money for a very entertaining theatre in the evenings.
The social realities were much more prominently reflected in his enormously popular 'Dunna Dunu Gamuwe', which may be taken as a political drama. It is no accident that the play was staged after the coalition victory of 1970. Before that Sugath, as a member of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) was involved in a strike at SLBC, which went over 100 days. Although he was not sacked by the SLBC management, he, on his own, kept away from work to support his comrades. That was the stature of the man.
The government was adamant and had no truce with the striker's demands. The victory of 1970 coalition paved the way for settling the strike. I mention this because Sugath was a person involved in people's struggles and his literature and drama were very much people's drama in the sense they portrayed the life of normal people. Hunger, unemployment, deprivation were not strange experiences for him.
'Dunna' dealt with a trade union struggle and in the aftermath of the 1970 election as well as the 1971 insurrection it was immensely popular as it gave some coveted political messages. However, politically speaking the drama was an aberration on the Leninist thesis that trade unionism reflects bourgeoisie consciousness.
This is not a criticism of the dramatist because he was reflecting the common consciousness of the people.
What he brought to the stage was the suffering of the strikers and the pressure imposed on a striker to betray the cause. 'Dunna's weakness and strengths were both political. The 1970 coalition was a watershed in the political history of the country, as much the 1953 Hartal was. People elected the strongest government, after independence with a 2/3rd majority to find socialist solutions.
We now know that it also paved the way for great betrayals and within one year was challenged by armed youths. The economic crises had reached such levels. Sugath was a dramatist and was not politically mature to reveal the true nature of the coalition of the national bourgeoisie and leftists. Like any 'common man,' Sugath was a populist by hindsight.
The novels he wrote were about the lives of common people and had political tings. The exception was his novel on Hitler. The book was based on Hitler's diaries and Alan Bullock's excellent study of the dictator.
Sugath had started writing the novel in 1988, which was a period of the second insurgency. He comments in the book jacket that if one looks around one could see many replicas of Hitler.
The novel had a surrealistic approach and Sugath says that if dictators are bred we ourselves are to be blamed. His approach, subject and comments reveal that Sugath was thinking of the period in which he existed. Another novel of Sugath is based on the shooting of the monk Dambarawe Ratanasara and was titled 'Ikbithi Siyalloma Sathutin Jeevathvuha' which won the best literary prize in 1971. His dramatic and literary contributions reflected the mass mood. That novel reflected the procoalition wave in vogue.
This was entrapped many intellectuals in this country and Sugath was no exception. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, one of our finest intellectuals, was a propagandist for the 1970 coalition. These intellectuals could not understand that the co-habitation of the capitalist class with the down-trodden had ended. The post war boom was over. The objective conditions, the world economic crises, had set in the age of insurrections, whether in South or North of Ceylon.
These intellectuals shrunk their minds in 1980s to support 'Jathika Chinthanaya' which was a form of disguised Sinhala chauvinism. Writers like Gunadasa Amarasekera, who were disappointed with the politics in vogue, gave implicit support to the JVP trend as well as 'Chinthanaya'. I have no evidence that Sugath supported the middle class 'Jathika Chinthana' viewpoint.
As I said earlier a writer lives in his times. Sugath's writings reflected such trends. His novel titled 'Ese woo num minisune asaw' is an attempt to find the roots of social crises through the study of crises itself. The novel contains typical characters like power hungry politicians, heroin dealers, fallen women, corrupt police personnel etc. Sugath's novels lack the organic unity of his dramas and definitely, he was a better dramatist than a novelist.
Sugath left us at a time when the characters he described in his novels have multiplied. The kind of readers and drama audience who appreciated Sugath have vanished. The 'nouveau riche' is showing their cultural barrenness in public. Recently, I read a press report that one of these persons had used thugs to assault his rivals in a five star hotel. The interests of this new class are not serious drama but possibly, pornography. This social debasement can be seen in forms of audiovisual art like advertising, films, Teledramas.
We are living in a period of dying culture. Sugath was one among few in an earlier generation who enriched the literary culture of the country. His fierce independence was a characteristic of his time. People like Damma Jagoda and G. B. Senanayake who were self-made were characteristic of that age. In the present age, the media Moguls are suffocating us with the daily serving of Soma, stifling independence in thought and building, the Brand Consciousness to the tune of corporate profit.
Farewell thee my friend, Sugath. We may never see the likes of you within this dying civilisation.
Produced by Lake House