Saturday Magazine

Gajaman Puvatha:
Synthesis of literature and spectacle
by Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa

Sanskrit aestheticians have said that aesthetic relish (Rasa) called Srngara (love/ ardour/ passion) is two-fold. Sambhoa Srngara (love in union) and Vipralambha Srngara (love in separation). In classical Sinhalese literature we come across instances of both. Gajaman Nona, who lived in late 18th and early 19th centuries in southern Sri Lanka, and who is our most famous female poet, is better known as a writer of verses of the first type. In our folklore what finds prominence are her amorous adventures and verses of an erotic type. But if one goes deeper into her personal history, as Dayananda Gunawardana has done, one will notice that hers was a poignant tale and that the poems associated with her excude more the sentiments of pathos and Vipralambha Srngara.

Dayananda Gunawardena’s Gajaman Puwatha, first in the genre of "docudrama", which he introduced to the Sinhala stage (to be followed by his own Madhura Javanika and Ananda Javanika) was first staged on 14th October 1975 at the Lionel Wendt. Almost 31 years later on the 12th and 13th this year it came out as a new production at the Lumbini Theatre, due to a dedicated effort by Dayananda’s family and the original cast, prominent among them Rathmali Gunasekera and Nissanka Diddeniya.

The Sinhala national theatre which emerged with Sarachchandra’s Maname in 1956 saw its heyday in the decades that followed. Apart from those who followed the traditional theatrical forms, like Gunasena Galappaththi and Dayananda Gunawardena, other theatre artists too, like Henry Jayasena and Sugathapala De Silva, came in creating original plays which any society could be proud of. But towards the end of the century we find a gradual decline. There are less and less original productions and we often depend on translations for good theatrical performances. It needs to be added, however, that the few surviving artistes from of the golden age, like Somalatha Subasinghe and Jayalath Monoratna have been bringing out new plays. Furthermore, many young new playwrights are emerging and there is no dearth of acting talent. The Sinhala stage is not dead, and, in spite of television, there is still tremendous enthusiasm about it as was evidenced by the full house when Gajaman Pavata was staged this month. But for those of the older generation of Rasikas a sense of nostalgia still remains.

To come back to Dayananda Gunawardana and his Gajaman Puwatha, many today are perhaps not aware of the massive effort that he put to research the life and times of this foremost figure among our woman poets. Five months after the play went on boards, Dayananda published the text of the play with copious footnotes explaining the significant parts thereof. Actually, an academic can not help but be fascinated by the information contained in those footnotes (one parallel I can recall are the copious footnotes in Paul E. Pieris’ Sinhale and the Patriots where the footnotes attract one’s attention as much as the main text.)

Dayananda’s mastery over the subject is impressive and we find him deftly synthesizing and array of information form a variety of sources, printed as well as in manuscript form, ranging from the 19th century up to the 1970’s . His academic training in the university has served him well, and, more than anything else, the hand of the artist is obvious in the manner he has moulded the two main protagonists, Gajaman Nona and Elapatha Mudali. It shows a deep respect for the lot of the artist, caught up in circumstances beyond her/his control, and, in particular the uphill task of survival for a woman, a woman artist at that, in a male dominated society. This sympathetic portrayal of Gajaman Nona, with a deep understanding of her predicament has to be noted in particular. For, Dayananda saves her form the kind of "reputation" she has had in our folklore and makes us to look at her with sympathy and understanding for the trials and tribulations she had to undergo, in a time of trouble for the whole nation.

With regard to the story, the life of Gajaman Nona as the theme of a play could easily have failed, lacking as it is of dramatic events, like, for example, in Maname, Sinhabahu, and, Dayananda’s own Nari Bena. The playwright has, on the one hand, to maintain the authenticity to of the story, which requires the inclusion of the poems created by the main protagonist Gajaman Nona in the play. Dayananda manages to do that, while sustaining the interest of the audience. Indeed, he goes beyond that, even including a long poem by Elaphatha, which in fact is the first poetic text to be brought on stage. But master of his art that he is, Dayananda keeps the audience enthralled by spectacle, which is very apt, for the poem is a lively description of a reservoir, the Denipitiye Weva, its flowering plants, wind blown foliage in the vincity and a variety of water denizens sporting in it. Dayananda here enlivens the stage with the spectacle of a choral dance, which breaks the monotony of a verse recital. With the last two stanzas in the poem we find the dramatic entry of the monk Elapatha Dhammaratana, the creator of this beautiful set of verses.

The audience is treated next to the animated banter between Gajaman Nona and her detractors, sometimes, tense and sometimes bordering on obscenity. These episodes are interspersed with the Viprarnlambha Srngra recitation of Gajaman and Elapatha, a man and woman destined never to be together. It is these episodes of pathos that remain settled in the rasika mind. The importunate appeals of Elapatha, who apparently has disrobed because of his infatuation with the lady poet, will continue to echo in the rasika mind:

"Katha numba langa ninda nolabune pavakinda"?

(Dear damsel, is it due to a past sin that I could not have the chance to sleep near you? )

The dialogues of Elapatha and Gajaman Nona are preserved in our folk literature, and any literary work or play which tries to portray her life has to bring them in for the sake of authenticity. It is to the credit of Dayananda that he has been able to bring them on stage without losing audience interest. When Gajaman and Elapatha lodged in their separate corners, recite their songs of separation, there is a marked contrast in the contents of the two sets of verses. While Elapatha’s verses are full of passion and erotic sentiment Gajaman’s replies remain solemn and ceremonious. (I translate)

Elapatha With beautiful face and comely breasts

My Nona always shining in her graceful figure

Estranged from you my grief incomparable

Unable to bear it any more my heart is bursting

To which Gajaman replies:

Composer of meaningful words, freeing the mind of dullness

With whom Saraswathi dwells with contented heart,

Graceful sire, with a mind full of affection

Please do not grieve because of the failure on my part

For Dayannada, the playwright, the dispassion of Gajaman Nona has a philosophical foundation. Responding to Elapatha’s advances, GaJaman Nona states that, it was their separation from each other that helped them to compose poetry. To which Elapatha says: "I do not know why I became a poet to undergo suffering like this". And GaJaman’s reply is: "It is our lot to suffer. It is because of our suffering that works of art come forth from us." (This would remind us of Shelly’s "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of the saddest thought.") Dayananda has accomplished a difficult feat which is the depiction of Vipralambha Srngara on stage. As a rasika what I enjoy most in this play is the manner in which he has done it with a finesse which only a master of his art could muster.

A sombre play, however, has to have its comic relief and Dayananda very aptly intersperses the heavy episodes with light ones. Act four is full of misfortune for GaJaman Nona, first there are the moments of importunate and persistent supplications of Elapatha, then the gossip and vilifications of society, and finally the death of her father. To break the monotony of those sombre scenes comes the lively Act five with the colourful figure of Ranchagoda Lamaya, a poetess emerging from common folk quite unlike GaJaman Nona with her upper-class background and erudition. While Gajdman had learnt her art from the most eminent scholars of the day like Rev. Karatota Dhammararna, Ranchagoda has only, innate talent and has had no schooling whatsoever. She boasts about the fact that she is ignorant of the abstruse art of prosodic composition. But she is a wonderful entertainer and has a good heart.

Act 5 is a scene in the Matara marketplace where the men and women dressed in colourful costumes are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the peoples’ poetess Ranchagoda. With her dramatic entry the whole scene becomes animated and she recites the well known folk poems attributed to her with gusto, the people in the market joining in chorus. In her lively banter with her audience she has a dig at Gajaman Nona who she says is a "Walawwa Poetess" (i.e high society) artist unlike she who is a "Gamay goday" (village i.e.earthly and rustic) one. The gaiety of the situation in enhanced with the entry of an old Dutch soldier, who himself wants to recite a poem about GaJaman Nona, so much had her reputation travelled. This being the tail end of the Dutch rule, some men in the market place take the upper hand and try to prevent him, subjecting him to ridicule. But Ranchagoda Lamaya, the peoples’ poet interrupts them to say: "A poet is a poet whether he is a Hollander or anyone else. We have to respect a poet". So the Hollander is allowed to sing:

Vetiya benda hondata pita dena istaadu

Atiya wadana hema kala mina nistaddu

Sitiya katak Gajaman nam kuppiidu

Duniya madaradata hitagen bostaadu

I have quoted the Sinhala verse, embellished as it is with the Portuguese patois which was in common parlance in the costal areas during the period 16th to 19th century, because no translations can bring out the ribaldry contained in the original. Dayananda tells us in a footnote that this is a verse said to have been presented to Rev. Karatota Dhammarama (Gajaman Nona’s teacher) by a Dutch soldier. In any case its meaning goes something like this:

Trying up her hair knot in neat fashion

Arousing desire always though of no avail

There was a vulgar woman named Gajaman

Who gave blows to Cupid while standing.

Following this scene comes the news of the expulsion of the Dutch and the taking over of the maritime regions by the British. We are now treated to a grand scene in which John D’Oyly, the all powerful Resident Officer of the British government at Matara, is being felicitated by a traditional Prasasti (song of praise) composed by Gajaman Nona and sung by her emissaries. Next follow the episodes of her meeting D’Oyly in person and her being presented with a village grant (Nindagama) which becomes Nonagama of today.

The last scene depicts the old age and demise of Gajaman, Nona. During this time, her paramour- in-absentia- Elapatha, now dead, appears as an apparition, still singing of his unrequited love. And Gajaman Nona, true to her vocation, composes her last poem, something Elapatha himself has inspired. It is a description of the imposing presence of a large Nuga tree, which indicating the impermanence of things, had come up where once stood the Denipitiye Weva so beautifully described many years ago by Elapatha Dhammaratana Thero.

An appreciation of Dayananda Gunawardana’s play Gajaman Puvatha is not complete without a reference to its music, by the veteran maestro Rohana Beddage. In fact the success of the play depends partly on the ability of Beddage to select the correct melody along with the dance movement for each recitation and dance episode. Note for example the differing melodies used for the Denipitiye Weva episode and the Denipitiye Nuga Ruka episode. The first is a moment of gaiety while the second is a moment of sadness. Also, note how the courtly and elegant poems of Elapatha and Gajaman Nona contrast with the ribald verses of Ranchagoda Lamaya. We see that Beddage is not merely reproducing the tradition. He creates anew, but with his feet firmly rooted in tradition.

Those who have seen the 1975 production would note with nostalgia the fact that almost the entire original cast is there in the new production; Rathmalie Gunasekara, Nissanka Diddeniya, Jayalath Monoratne, Neil Alles, Chandra Kaluarachchi and Chandrsoma Binduhewa who, thirty one year later, still do manage to retain the glow of the original production.


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