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“The Stage is my passion”

Mano, as he is fondly called, is a master of stage, song and the small screen. The Nation, recently, met this versatile artiste, Jayalath Manoratna, to delve into his wealth of experience

Q: Can you recollect memories of your school stage, which commenced at Poramadulla Maha Vidyalaya, and your early experiences with drama?

A: My village is Dehipe in the Nuwara Eliya district- a very agrarian and a picturesque hamlet. After the Grade V scholarship, I entered Poramadulla Maha Vidyalaya. There, I came under the guidance of my first drama guru- Sunil Sriyananda, a very talented drama teacher. In his production of Aspa Gudung, I won the award for the Best Actor. This drama came first in the Central Province at the All Island Children’s Drama Competition and reached the finals too. Apart from the school productions, I was involved in sokari and kinduru- forms of Traditional local drama. Following the seasonal harvest, the village farmers themselves used to stage these dramas, and this exposure also enriched my dramatic faculties, which later reflected in my adult productions.

Q: Tell us about your Peradeniya days and your association with Prof. Sarathchandra

A: Like many of my batchmates, I had the good fortune of working closely with Prof. Sarathchandra. I played minor roles in Prof. Sarathchandra’s Maname and Sinhabahu and my breakthrough came with his Prematho Jayatho Soko, in which I played the lead role. It was Prof. Sarathchandra who widened our horizons of the theatre. He not only imparted his knowledge of local drama traditions, but enlightened us about many other developed traditions, such as that of India, Japan, China, Europe and the US. This solid foundation laid during the Peradeniya days, became a stepping stone to many other endeavours under the leadership of pioneer dramatists such as Henry Jayasena, Dayananda Gunawardene, Gunasena Galappathi and Sugathapala de Silva.

Q: Apart from the literary revival in Peradeniya, what other specialties do you perceive in that distinct university culture?

A: Apart from excelling in academic annals, all undergraduates were very much a part of aesthetics in Peradeniya. The atmosphere of the university itself contributed to this distinct culture. In addition, we came under a unique school of academics. We had one of the best libraries in Asia, and the famous wala of Peradeniya became a hallowed ground of rich drama. Peradeniya days constituted a life experience for us. Also, during our times, Art was one of the chief forms of expression, as opposed to politics. Of course, we were involved in student politics, but the entire university setup was not so politicised, as it is now. Today, politics has become the sole means of expression among university students. One of the main drawbacks I identify in the university culture today is this aesthetic vacuum.

Q: Could you share some of your memorable moments of Peradeniya and who were your renowned peers?

A: As undergraduates, we were film buffs and Film Society was a very close phenomenon to us. This was also the golden era of Sinhala cinema. I still remember vividly, the making of Hanthane Kathawa. My colleague, Dharmasena Pathiraja, together with Berty Gunasekera and Berty Jayasekera, was involved in Hanthane Kathawa. I remember, how we envied great actors like Tony Ranasinghe, during the shooting! Some of my renowned peers were Nissanka Diddeniya, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Vimal Disanayake, Sarath Amunugama, Gunadasa Amarasekera and Siri Gunasinghe.

Q: Your theatrical exploration is a fusion of originals as well as translations. How would you like to interpret these two genres?

A: Out of the ten plays I have done, Makara and Puthra Samagama are translations. We often harbour this misconception that, if we are to explore local, traditional drama, we need to do more and more originals. But the truth is, we can go along this long theatrical journey successfully, only if we explore global trends, together with original work. Sometimes, we tend to believe that translations can be prejudicial to the local genre of dramas, but it is not so. The reality is that, the essence of any drama could be of a universal impact. For instance, if we look at Maname, there is inspiration drawn from our jathaka stories in it. It is the same with Brecht’s Chalk Circle, which is similar to the principles of justice Mahaushada Pandithuma believed in. However, there should be a balance struck between originals and translations.

Q: You were also instrumental in carrying forward Dayananda Gunawardene’s legacy of ‘Documentary Drama’. Can you shed light upon this concept?

A: This is the concept conceived by German dramatist Ervin Piscattor, which was further developed by Brecht. Dayananda Gunwaradene’s Gajaman Puwatha is the first such local exploration of this concept, in which, I too, acted. Documentary Drama is very much akin to the Eastern tradition of drama, owing to its unique structure. It is a fusion of singing and acting, similar to our naadagam tradition. This is also a mode of strong political dialogue, which means, it is capable of forceful argument and logical reasoning. The audience will not merely accept what is being dished out by the dramatist, but will require much more than that. It also addresses to the wisdom of the audience.

Q: What are your comments on modes such as Street Drama and Forum Theatre?

A: What I feel is that, according to the needs of the changing society, even dramatic techniques should change and adapt. At different stages of history, we see new dramatic trends emerging to serve different purposes. ‘Theatre of Absurd’ is one such mode, which emerged in the aftermath of World War II. Street Drama, Forum Theatre may not necessarily be related to the traditional art of Drama, but they can be dramatic tools of social enlightenment. Street Drama is not, technically, a complex concept, nevertheless, it can be utilised to discuss complex social issues. Similarly, Forum Theatre can become a very attractive mode of social interaction, capable of a strong socio-political dialogue.

Q: What do you personally identify as landmarks of your theatrical career?

A: When I look back, I feel Thalamala pipila, Guru Tharuwa and Andarela are definitely landmarks of my career.

Q: You have also explored the cinema and the small screen. Are you satisfied with your contribution to these, as much as you are with the stage?

A: Honestly, my contentment is with the stage. It is, undoubtedly, my passion. As a mode of artistic expression, I prefer it to anything else. I have contributed significantly to the TV industry. However, I’m not, personally, happy about the present usage of TV as a tool of expression. We had a very rich tele-drama culture, as TV was introduced and, until a few decades ago, but today, it is going in a very different direction, which we cannot be very happy with. Although I have appeared in a considerable number of films including Sisila gini ganee, Saptha kanya etc, I have not made a significance contribution to the cinema. It was only last year, I played a lead role in Sarath Dharmasiri’s Soovisi Vivarana. This film is yet to be released, and my role is that of a traditional Kandyan dancer.

Q: Do you have any plans to do your own film in future?

A: Actually, in the mid ’80s, I wanted to do a film- Dawasa thamath tharunai. However, it did not materialise. But, I have already written a script meant for the young audience, a plot inspired by one of Sathyajith Ray’s work. However, I’ve yet to find a producer for it.

Q: You are still remembered for the creation of Sindu Bindu, which was a popular children’s TV programme. What are your views of children’s productions in our country?

A: Sindu Bindu was one of my earliest TV productions. I wrote the script myself, and this type of programme is still remembered because we have a dearth of children’s programmes. In developed countries, special TV time is allocated for young audiences. There are special children’s channels which impart not only entertainment, but knowledge at the same time. A child is our most important spectator, and the responsibility towards that spectator is enormous. Within a children’s production, there should be ample space for personality development, vocabulary enhancement etc. It is very sad to say that, what is catered to our children is not sufficient at all. There are fellow artistes who strive very hard to share their knowledge and experience of the stage, at the rural level. But they need more patronage and support to make it a sustainable process. There is lot of talent discovered through workshops, in which, I’m also involved. But there has to be a concrete national policy to enhance this talent. It is a pity that, sometimes, a very strong medium such as TV, exploits this talent. Sometimes, young talent may go in the wrong direction, as a result.

Q: You are also renowned for your singing and writing ability. Could you tell us more about these two media?

A: (Smiling) I like to explore a different medium for each purpose of self expression. If I need to express a simple social message, then, I choose kaviya or a short story. If it is a more deep and complicated subject, then, I resort to novel and drama. I have compiled three collections of short stories and one novel to date.

Q: What are you presently involved in?

A: I’m involved in teaching both at University of Sri Jayewardenepura and Sri Pali, Horana. I also conduct many drama workshops at rural level in schools. I also finished work in Somaratne Disanayake’s film Bindu which was shot in Sigiriya and also completed Piyal Yatawara’s tele-drama, Doratu Palayo.

Q: Local stage dramas are now often toured abroad. What is the response to these?

A: There is a very good response from Sri Lankans living abroad. Dramas such as Puthra Samagama was a tremendous success abroad.

Q: Can you tell us about your family?

A: My wife Thamara Jayanthi is a retired teacher. We met during Peradeniya days, through the drama Prematho Jayako Soko. My son Bhanuka Prabuddha is married and is presently domiciled in Australia with his family. My daughter Uthpala Indeevari is a banker.