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DateLine Wednesday, 20 June 2007

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A play about brain drain

THEATRE: The year was 1975. I had completed more than 25 years of activity in the Theatre scene by then. To commemorate the Silver Jubilee I wanted to bring out an original play of mine. It had better be good, I told myself.

I did have a subject in mind and that was the ‘brain drain’ that was taking place at an alarming rate. At that time most of the men and women who went in search of ‘richer’ pastures were our intellectuals - doctors, engineers, scientists, technicians and such persons.

Ours was the only country, even at that time that provided free education, free health care and various other welfare benefits to its people. From the triple injection to the new born baby, education from kindergarten to University and even past that - all were given free.

Health services were free. University students had all kinds of benefits supplied to them. A six-year course for medical students was given free. Similarly, an Engineering degree. Our men and women took all those benefits and at the very first opportunity flew away to other countries like birds running away from the winter!

Kinds of excuses

This trend had disturbed me very much. I thought it was unethical and ungrateful of them to do so. Of course they had all kinds of excuses for doing so. Low pay, lack of facilities, privileges, perks, lack of appreciation and a hundred other excuses.

They even argued that it was to give their children a ‘better’ education that they were compelled to leave and THAT after receiving ALL the education free here and AFTER qualifying as doctors, engineers, scientists and technicians!

At first the West, America and other countries too were glad to have ready made doctors, engineers and other highly qualified men and women at no cost to them at all. Of course they paid better salaries and our men and women could work in posh circumstances.

Their training here as interns in practically every department, whether it was medicine or engineering made them cleverer than the Suddas with much less experience and perhaps with experience only in one or two special fields of their profession. No wonder our men and women succeeded like hell!

New play

Anyway, this brain-drain thing had been bothering my mind quite a bit. So I launched on a new play not only to celebrate my 25 years of service to theatre, but also to make the professionals as well as the public aware of the ‘responsibility’ of these professionals to serve THEIR country, which provided them with their knowledge, first - and ‘fly away’ later - if they must.

I must say I worked hard on the play, as usual. I had a long title for it - ‘SARANA SIYOTH SE PUTHUNI HAMBA YANA’ -loosely translated ‘Sons, who fly away like the birds’. It had an ageing father and a mother played by Santin Gunawardhana and Chitra Warakagoda, and a son who has just become a Doctor of Medicine and like most others, wants to run away.

This role was played well by Somaratne Dissanayake. Manel and Wijeratne Warakagoda played the role of a beggar couple who sing for a living in front of a posh hotel, frequented by posh people - like the men and women who have made good in foreign climes and have come back for a brief holiday.

That couple was introduced rather like a catalyst to the main theme of the play. I had a chorus of young men and women - all new comers. I had employment agents, recruiting offices, ‘kolomba kaakkas’ and the whole lot.

The father is vehemently against the decision of the Doctor son to migrate. He reminds the son of his duty by the country - whatever the other circumstances are. The young man leaves anyway. Much later the parents receive a letter from the son. He is disillusioned and wants to come back but he cannot do so because of the ‘education of his children’.

This situation of course I have observed with a good many of our migrant population, during my own visits to some of those countries. The children soon adjust themselves to the new environment - they even enjoy the new culture of freedom, dance floors, discotheques and other innate attraction in any big city.

They even indulge in ‘living together’ By this time, if the children have gone ‘astray’ - in our parlance - it is too late for the parents to do anything about it.

River bath

I have met hundreds of parents, who flew away like the birds, but who still long for the simple things back at home when they were children - like a bath in the well, a river bath, a chat with the neighbour over the fence, an unannounced visit to a friend’s or a relative’s place and a hundred other things.

In spite of all my philosophizing, my new play “SARANA SIYOTH” was a total failure. We did not have more than just a few shows and one show at Peradeniya in front of that young crowd was hooted down mercilessly. Structurally it must have been a bad play. I was so preoccupied with the ‘message’ that I had totally neglected the essential ‘dramatic elements’ of the play.

There could have been another reason too for the resentment it generated. It is of course just a guess. Young men - especially educated young men and women, who were rearing to ‘go’ at the very first opportunity did not wish to be dissuaded. They did not want any ‘Bana’ from a ‘patriotic pundit’ like me.

Anyway we wound up the play as gracefully as we could and that was the end of my Silver Jubilee celebration! I was so shattered by the experience, I never wrote an original play after that! Although ‘Sarana Siyoth’ failed we had plenty of demand for our other plays such as Hunuwataya, Diriya Mava, Makara and Manaranjana, etc.

Somewhere in 1976, Hunuwataye Kathawa was made a text for the Degree course in Fine Arts in the universities and there was a big demand for it. Instead of the 2.30 and 6.30 shows there were more demands for two matinees -at 10.30 a.m. and at 2.30 p.m.

Secret of success

I had the extra task of explaining the play after each show, which was rather exhausting - while also playing the role of Azdak I sat on the stage with a couple of helpers such as P.L.D. Perera, Nimal Jayasinghe and Chula Kariyawasam and the students sent their questions in little bits of paper. ‘Is Hunuwataya a translation or an adaptation?’, ‘What is the secret of its success ?’, ‘What are the dramatic points in the play?’

‘Hunuwataya’s characters are either black or white. The good are totally good, the bad are totally bad’, ‘Do you agree with the judgement to give the child to the mother who brought him up? If so why?’ ‘Tell us something about Bertolt Brecht’, ‘Please explain alienation’ Similar questions came up for answers and discussion.

Very soon I realized one thing. Only a faction of the students who came to see the play had ACTUALLY read the book! They depended on various booklets that tried to analyze and ‘explain’ the play and not on the text itself. When I asked for a show of hands it was clear that less than one fourth of the audience had actually READ the play!

That IS a trend in our country - especially among the Arts students. They are either too lazy or too busy to read the book itself. Of course when a book becomes a ‘text’ hundreds of ‘critiques’ of the book flood the market with answers for likely questions.

So no wonder the students are misled. Hunuwataya remained a text for the Arts Degree course for nearly twenty years from 1976 onwards. Those were busy days for us. We had to perform in every nook and corner of the country and I had to answer questions after each show.

Our hero in ‘Sarana Siyoth’ - Somaratne Dissanayake too eventually migrated to Australia. I am not sure if it was a scholarship or a regular migration. Anyway he too decided to stay out, I believe, for the ‘education’ of his children. About ten years later I received a very strange letter from him.

It was more or less the same letter that the parents in Sarana Siyoth receive from their son. Somaratne had written that he is very unhappy in Australia and wants to come back very much, but that he could not do so because of the ‘education’ of his children!

Anyway he managed to come back from time to time to do a play, a film or a teledrama and get back again. His children are grown up now and employed and at least one of his sons is married. He must have given up his job in Australia and is now a permanent resident here together with his partner, Renuka Balasuriya.

I must say they have done some excellent work here, including their award winning films SAROJA and SOORIYA ARANA and they have brought much credit and honour to our country.

Most often they are abroad, screening one of their films for a festival, a competition or screening special shows for the Sri Lankan crowd in places like Australia, France, England etc.

They seem to be dabbling in politics too - the two of them. Whether that is a wise move, I don’t know. I am ever grateful to them for helping me to bring out a C.D. and cassette containing the songs of all my plays - ‘Sath Siyak’. The Peoples Bank and the National Savings Bank also helped me immensely in the venture.

We did it just in time, in 2002, just two years before its main singer, Manel, passed away. Thanks to them we have Manel’s voice preserved for posterity. They played those songs at the Art Gallery where her body was kept for public view and I don’t think there was a single dry eye in the crowd!

Thought of the week

Yesterday, the 12th of June was the birthday of one of our most multi-talented men - Jayalath Manoratne. He is a playwright, actor, director, TV script writer, novelist and poet.

I believe he has won more awards for acting than any other actor that I know of - especially for his performances on stage. Mano has produced some memorable teledramas too and won many awards in that field.

I have a special corner in my mind for Mano for more than one reason. He comes from the village of Denike in the Padiyapelella district. One of my earliest jobs was as an English Assistant Teacher in the Dehipe Primary School - the very next village to Denike.

This was in 1950 and 51. Mano’s sister Indra Kumari Wijeratne was in grade four in my school at that time. I have seen Mano as a toddler accompanying his sister to school on many occasions.

From Dehipe he moved to Poramadulla Central College and there he appeared on stage for the first time in a school play - Assa Gudung - for which he won an award in Colombo.

He must be one of the very first students to have entered Peradeniya University from Poramadulla Central. He was fortunate to have come under the tutelage of Dr. Ediriweera Sarachchandra. He had the fortune of acting in many of Dr. Sarachchandra’s plays such as Mahasara, Vessantara, Pemato Jayati Soko etc.

most significant factor of his life is that he keeps doing new things year after year, on the stage, cinema and on television. It has been a long journey for Mano from Mahagiri Damba to Lokaya Thani Yayak. He has not fallen by the way like most others do.

I wish you more strength and even more wisdom on your birthday, Mano. You wanted to revive ‘Makara’ in a new production. I wish you all the luck and you have my blessings, as always.



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