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Traditional Passion shows in Sri Lanka

by W. T. A. Leslie Fernando

There had been a rich tradition of music and dancing in Sri Lanka. The musicians and dancers were endowed with lands by the Kings and the chiefs for their maintenance. They in turn had to perform music and dancing on royal occasions, festivals, ceremonies, pageants and also in the battle field.

Today is Good Friday, a very significant day in the lives of Christians. The enactment of the agony of Christ will be on Rupavahini on Good Friday. The play is directed by Thiraj Lester and Ranil Rajapakse will portray Christ which will be telecast at 10 p.m. (Pic. A. Maduraveeran)

Nevertheless there is no evidence of any organised drama in the ancient past. There are some references to dramatic performances in Mahawansa; Pujavaliya and in some other literary works. There have been also some forms of folk drama like Kolam, Sokari and Gammadu. They not considered as drama in real sense of the term.

It was Buddhism that guided and moulded traditional Sinhala culture. The Buddhist Vihares were the centres of spiritual life, education and culture. The puritinic attitude of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka did not set up a background conducive to the development of serious literary or stage drama.

On the other hand, the Catholic missionaries from the Portuguese times made use of drama as a medium of religious instruction and edification of Catholics.

The events connected with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ have often been dramatised and enacted in the Christian world. It is said that it was the liturgy of Easter that paved the way for Christian drama.

In Sri Lanka we have a form of drama on the Passion of Christ known as Pasku. These traditional Passion Plays performed with a combination of images of sacred personages and human actors are found only in Sri Lanka.

The history of Passion shows in our country relate back to the Portuguese period.

During the Portuguese times, the Fransican Friar at Matara Antonio Peixoto had enacted drama on Christ and on the lives of saints.

These plays have impressed even the non-Catholics. He had also composed hymns on the Passion of Christ and Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez is said to have drawn inspiration from them when he wrote "Pasan" or lamentations during the Dutch times.

It is very likely that Antonio Peixoto had staged plays on the Passion of Christ. However none of those plays during the Portuguese times have come down to us.

It was the Oratorian Fathers from India who came to the island in the latter half of the 17th century who introduced traditional Passion shows in our country.

The Jesuit priests in Goa used the technique of puppet plays to instruct and edify the devotees. Blessed Joseph Vaz seeing that people loved to see puppet drama initiated the performance of Passion plays in Sri Lanka on the model he had witnessed in Goa with images of sacred personages.

It is recorded in the "Oratorian Mission" that there were Passion shows in Kandy and in Vanni during the season of Lent in 1706 and later in Trincomalee and several other places.

Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez, the assistant, companion and successor of Blessed Joseph Vaz did much to improve these Passion plays. Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez wrote "Dukprapthi Prasangaya" a book of nine sermons to be recited while the dumb show was going on. To break the tedium of listening to sermons he also composed "Pasan" or lamentations to be chanted in a plaintive tone. When Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez was at Bolawatta Passion shows were performed there with all the solemnity.

These Passion shows were performed inside a large shed which was covered at the bottom with cadjan walls about six feet in height. The statues were moved by people covered by the cadjan walls so that to the spectators it appears as if the statues were moving on the stage.

According to Prof. E. R. Sarathchandra, the earliest traditional Passion show known in the present form was performed in Pesalai, Mannar. Most of the scenes in these traditional Passion plays except the crucifixion were enacted in the open air. The movements of the statues were effected with strings. A leader called "Annavi Rala" who had an appealing voice explained various scenes in a melodious tone. Later this form was adopted in Jaffna as well.

The fisherfolk from Negombo and Chilaw who went for fishing expeditions in the Mannar area followed the Pesalai Passion Play and enacted Passion shows in their native places as well. Till recently a Passion play similar to that of Pesalai was enacted at St. Sebastian's Church, Sea Street, Negombo.

These Passion plays later spread to Sinhala Catholic areas like Duwa, Pitipana, Negombo, Katuwapitiya, Pamunugama, Nannunnakkara, Bolawatta, Wennappuwa, Katuneriya, Chilaw, Wadduwa, Paiyagala and Maggona.

The famous Duwa Passion Play surpassed all the traditional Passion plays performed in churches. In 1939 when Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was the Parish Priest of Duwa, he recasted and revised the Passion play. He used human actors for all the scenes except for Christ and Mary.

In addition to the traditional Pasan, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody composed his own hymns for the play. Since then the fame of Duwa Passion Play spread far and wide. At that time the colourful Passion play of Duwa enacted with over 250 actors was considered as the greatest Passion show in Asia.

The Pitipana Passion Play was performed once in three years when the outstanding statue of Christ was taken for the Passion show at St. Peter's Church, Negombo. It was enacted with traditional sermons, Pasan and Lathoni in the permanent Pasku shed in front of the church.

Later it was presented by a Pothegura with some Nadagam aspects like Innisai, Thodayama and Demala Bera. Pitipana Passion Play was a blend of Pasku drama and Nadagam traditions.

Likewise the traditional Passion show in each place developed an identity of its own. In Katuwapitiya for instance the Three Hours Agony of Christ on the Cross is presented by a Pothegura found in Nadagam. In most of the churches, Passion shows and Three Hours of Agony of Christ are performed with a combination of statues and human actors.

The famous Boralessa Passion Play staged by Lawrence Perera in 1920s and 1930s had a different approach. He modelled his play on the world famous Passion show performed once in ten years at Oberammergau in West Germany and used human actors for all the scenes.

Though Lawrence Perera followed the model and technique of Oberammergau, he presented the play with traditional dramatic forms with a blend Christian and Oriental music played with Western instruments.

The Boralessa Passion Play was a fantastic performance and it fascinated even the foreigners. In 1939, it was banned by the Catholic church for introducing female actors for the play.

There is a school of thought that include some clergy who advocate that the traditional Passion plays and enactment of Three Hours of Agony of Christ on the Cross should be abandoned. They submit that although Passion shows served some purpose in the past, today they are an anachronism to the enlightened Catholics in the modern age.

They say that Passion shows are a form of idolatory based on emotion. They argue that instead the life of Christ should be inculcated to people in other ways so as to appeal to the intellect.

It should be emphasised that the traditional Passion shows have been enacted for several centuries and they have stood the test of time. Even today when the crucifixion is enacted in churches with the statue of Christ on Good Friday, it moves the people to the depths of their soul with devotion.

It is customary for Catholics in Sri Lanka to come to their native place for religious observances during the Holy week. They do so for Christmas as well. But after the Christmas Mass, they spend the time on festivity, merry making and visiting relations and friends.

On the contrary more emphasis is placed on religious observances at Easter. The Passion plays and Three Hours of Agony of Christ on the Cross have helped in no small measure to maintain this religious atmosphere at Easter.

If Passion plays were to be damned as a useless exercise based on idolatory, the pilgrim centres like Madhu, Talawila and Our Lady of Matara based on legendary statues too could be censured.

We also could hear of bleeding form wooden statues and reflections of statues on walls which are a temporary phenomenon and Catholics flock in thousands for those places. There are also various healing services based on mass hypnotism and similar devices.

One such place at Kudagama, where some decades ago Catholics gathered in thousands for miraculous cures has now proved to be a farce. In comparison with these emotional outbursts Passion plays are a harmless spiritual exercise.

On the other hand by abandoning the traditional Passion plays in churches which are shown free, we would make more room for sophisticated drama and commercialisation on the life and Passion of Christ with various unwarranted aims and objectives.

As such the traditional Passion shows in Sri Lanka should be encouraged, preserved and maintained as a religious exercise.

(The writer is a former High Court Judge)

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