Saturday Magazine

Dhamma Jagoda remembered

R L. Lalprema

In commemoration of his 16th death anniversary, the 4th February, Dhamma Jagoda Foundation erected his monument in Hikkaduwa, his hometown, as a fitting tribute to his enormous service rendered to the Sinhala theatre and television drama. His stage plays and tele-dramas together with a following of pupils disciplined in acting, and play producing, passed out of his Ranga Shilpa Shalika are already a monument to his talent as a leading exponent of dramatic art. Since his introduction through Rupavahini, of a new and highly entertaining feature, ‘Sinhala tele-drama’, he had come to be widely admired in every household that had a television. And it has, today, undisputedly, turned out to be the most popular item on TV programme, with families in almost every home glued to it, although, sad to say, the standards he set in and carefully maintained have drastically fallen off in the hands of mediocre producers, mere entertainers. Theatregoers would know, long before he was made the first head of the drama section of the newly established "Rupavahini" by its chairman, the veteran civil servant, M. J. Perera, in recognition of his vast artistic endowment, Dhamma had initially emerged as an actor and drama producer of exceptional ability. He had proved himself a sensation in both those fields, with his extraordinary versatility in acting and also his adroit use of new techniques in enhancing dramatic effects in play production that pushed him into the limelight.

A sincerely dedicated, highly gifted artiste, Dhamma always had perfection as his criterion when it was ‘art’ in his sense; and until he honestly felt for himself that he had attained it in the process of finalising a work of creativity, he was far from being satisfied. I remember in a book written about his ‘Rupavahini’ performances, his wife, Manel, in her short comment, had confirmed this fact by saying he was a perfectionist for he loved the theatre and other aesthetic arts so much. When it came to intellectual exercise on such subjects, it was one singular quality in his convictions that he would never compromise; in our literary coterie originated in the Department of Survey in late fifties? as a personal friend? I have witnessed this virtue in him, sometimes, in our heated arguments relating to literature, drama, politics etc. As a drama producer and a playwright, he had a vision matured in every aspect, embodied in an absorbing presentation of an experience in life about ordinary people and their contemporary problems; which one could glean from his productions both on the stage and on television. I think, this, he acquired from his extensive exploration of the subject through whatever means he could lay his hand on, with a true sense of commitment even at the expense of his personal well-being. Never had he been an imitator, nor did he show a liking for anything highbrow? instead he attempted on something new and different, yet sustaining the interest of the audience and improving their taste. He never threw a challenge at the viewers with puzzles or pseudo philosophy that made them vulnerable instead of a rich experience they could enjoy.

Personal touch adds colour to life but we learn mostly the public life of someone unless we can get to read his autobiography, a rare possibility. Dhamma Jagoda, I remember, was the youngest teenager among us when a large batch of apprentice hands was recruited for training as Survey Draughtsmen in 1958. Since then we had become friends. Our education? as well the training? was in the English medium; yet we were drawn into the cultural renaissance of our -forgotten heritage, brought about by the historic political upheaval of 1956 with overflowing enthusiasm for the Sinhala literature, drama, film etc. But Dhamma, however, except for his left political ideas that coincided with ours? had different interests like physical culture? he read the Time magazine for foreign affairs? English dailies for news on test cricket and his other preference was English films. The department was a beehive of cultural activities for our recreation. Our colleague, Egalahewa wrote a playlet, Kekille Rajjuruwo for Hector Rupasinghe to produce on behalf of our Literary Association. In search of someone for the character of king’s guard? the choice fell on Dhamma, ideal with his robust physique. Although reluctant to consent at first he dominated the show, which, later, was selected for the Arts Council Drama Competition.

This was his major breakthrough, which caught the attention of popular play producers like G. D. L. Perera and later? Henry Jayasena to have him invited to play in their dramas. His was a memorable performance in Gunasena Galappaththi’s Mudu Puththu and Sarachchandra’s Maname.

He turned over a new leaf with his interest stirred for pursuing drama activities, which eventually encouraged him to realize his buried potential. Thereafter, with a voracious and undiscriminating appetite for knowledge, he was hell bent on going into depths of his newly acquired profession. Having largely experienced in various techniques in acting (I remember those days his reading Stanislavsky with relish) his interest shifted to producing and directing when he attempted on his first play Vesmuhunu, which turned out to be a terrific success at the Government Drama Festival competing with a host of senior drama producers, winning the award for the best play and several other awards. This was a landmark in his life devoted to the field of drama. Though an adaptation of the American writer Tennessee Williams’ play "A Streetcar Named Desire " the play rightly fitted into our soil for the scriptwriter had eliminated in the original what was alien to our culture and tailored it to our cultural and social dimensions not undermining its fascinating insight into life of a class of people considered lower and inferior.

It is the story of an aristocratic woman, a spinster who comes from her upcountry estate bungalow to visit her married sister living in squalor in an urban slum dwelling, comfortably adapted to the rugged ways of her sturdy husband. Unable to adapt herself to the subculture of the setting, which her sister enjoys, she involves herself in a conflict mentally and physically with the family. She is finally sent for psychiatric treatment.

This family dispute? apart from being a moving experience with acting, characters and situations united into the main theme, transcends its surface meaning to the eternal clash between the two social classes. Critical recognition he gained thus, worked out to be the gateway for him to the society of leading personalities in the drama field from whom he drew inspiration for further improvement. Meanwhile, it was a gesture of encouragement for this promising talent that the British Council awarded him a scholarship to England where he successfully completed a course of training in drama at the Royal College of Dramatic Arts in London. The Actors Studio in New York gave him a further training in method acting under Lee Strasberg, a leading exponent of the subject. On his return to his mother country he was determined to impart all that he learnt from his tour to those drama aspirants, deprived of such opportunity; and likewise, he opened Ranga Shilpa Shalika the products of which are significant today in their contributions to the fields of Sinhala theatre and tele-drama.