consider it an honour to be invited to participate in and speak
at this event where
Mr. Henry Jayasena and Vijitha Yapa Publications
are releasing Mr. Jayasena’s latest book, The Play is the Thing.
It contains a series of articles originally published as a
weekly feature beginning in April 1989 in the respected national
English daily, The Island. Mr. Jayasena informs us that the
contents of the book are a record of his time in the theatre, of
allied activities and cultural events not excluding his
successes, failures, joys, sorrows and exasperations in the
course of what I would term an eventful and illustrious career.
I refer to this event we are participating in
today as a book release as I prefer ‘release’ to ‘launch’. It
is, however, not without hesitation that I even use ‘release’.
In one of the essays in The Play is the Thing, Henry Jayasena
refers to the Sinhala term for an event of this nature which is
‘dorata vaduma’ and he observes rightly that there are certain
Sinhala terms and expressions (‘pahan sangveda’ is another
example he cites in the book under comment) that do not
translate adequately or properly into English (or to any other
language perhaps for that matter) their evocative and essential
meanings being lost in translation.
I first met Mr. Jayasena in person a few months
after he started writing the articles contained in The Play is
the Thing to The Island newspaper. He and his wife Manel
together with my wife and I were dinner guests at the home of
Prof. and Mrs. Jay Erstling down Rajakeeya Mawatha opposite
Royal College. The good professor was a visiting American
Fulbright scholar then attached to the Faculty of Law at the
University of Colombo and I had just come on board as Executive
Director of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission for Mutual
Academic Exchange succeeding the venerable Bogoda Premaratne,
another distinguished son of Sri Lanka as is Henry Jayasena,
although the former’s forte is education and Buddhist philosophy
-- theatre of a different kind shall we say?
My first encounter with Henry Jayasena though
was very much earlier than the fag end of the 1980s. It was
actually way back in the late 1950s, as a wee schoolboy in
Kandana, that that ‘meeting’ took place. An uncle of mine used
to own a cinema hall -- Ranjani -- which was right next door to
the Post Master’s bungalow where my family and I then lived. It
is at this cinema hall that I watched my first ever film, a
South Indian one titled Chandralekha with M.K. Radha, if memory
serves, in the lead role. It was not long thereafter, as I
recollect, that I saw Sri 296 one of the stars of which was none
other than the author and noted dramatist we are with today. In
the essay titled Mesmerised by Rukmani Devi (pp.84-88 of The
Play is the Thing) the author tells us how he came to be a
member of the cast of this film.
I next encountered Henry Jayasena in another
film that I quite like -- G.D.L. Perera’s Dahasak Sithuvili. The
image of Henry Jayasena in this film as a distraught and
dejected lover crumpling several old love letters and casting
them to the waters flowing by remains in my mind’s eye despite
the passage of years. And, of course, there are his
unforgettable roles as Piyal in Gamperaliya and Azdak in
Hunuwataye Kathawa, his superb adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s
The Cacausian Chalk Circle. The hauntingly beautiful song from
Kuveni -- Andakaren Duratheethe-- which Henry Jayasena sings
with that other fabulous star of the Sinhala stage and screen
Wijeratne Warakagoda , has not only given me immense joy over
the years but serves also to soothe my frayed nerves nowadays.
It is to Pradeep Ratnayake on sitar and the songs from Henry
Jayasena’s plays (‘Sath Siyak’) that I frequently turn to for
solace from the maddening traffic on Colombo’s roads each day as
I drive to and back from work.
Before I get hopelessly lost in my
reminiscences, let me make a few other comments as is expected
of a speaker at a book release. I should like to focus on Henry
Jayasena the man now. Born in 1931, educated at the Gampaha
branch of Lorenz College and at Nalanda Vidyalaya, Colombo,
Henry Jayasena had some very interesting classmates. Among those
he mentions in The Play is the Thing are the former film star
Ravindra Rupasena, a heart-throb of the cinemagoers of the
1950s, Karunaratne Abeysekera, broadcaster and lyricist of
repute (both now among the dear departed) and Stanley Jayasinghe
the former Sri Lanka test cricketer, Leicestershire professional
and, on occasion, a delightfully aggressive cricket columnist.
Another noteworthy cricketing personality who was both a close
friend and theatre collaborator of Mr. Jayasena’s is the former
cricket umpire, Fitzroy de Mel.
His first notable job, Mr. Jayasena informs us,
was as Assistant Teacher of English at the Dehipe Primary School
in Padiyapellela in the Nuwara Eliya district in 1950. Here it
is where he wrote and directed his first play -- Janaki -- by
lamplight (pp. 143 -- 146 give the reader the relevant details)!
This school in Dehipe is that which guided Jayalath Manorathne,
the well - known theatre personality of today, during his
formative years. Manorathne was certainly too young to either
act in or otherwise benefit from Janaki. However, it is not
impossible that something of Henry Jayasena’s inspiration that
lingered in the class rooms of that school may have rubbed off
on the young Manorathne years later!
Henry Jayasena left Dehipe Primary School a few
months after joining it on getting through the General Clerical
Service Examination to join the Public Works Department (PWD) of
Sri Lanka. His longest stint in a regular job was in this now
defunct PWD. These were also years when he was at his creative
best during which he wrote, translated, adapted and directed his
well known plays Janelaya (1962), Thavath Udesenak (1964),
Manaranjana Wedawarjana (1965), Ahas Malilga (1966), Hunuwataye
Kathawa (1967), Apata Puthey Magak Nethey (1968), Diriya Mawa
(1972), Makara (1973) and Sarana Siyoth Se Puthini Habha Yana
(1975). In the last few years prior to retirement from his non-
creative work, Mr. Jayasena served the National Youth Services
Council (Arts and Sports Division) and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini
Corporation (Programmes Division), respectively, as Deputy
Director – General.
The Play is the Thing is peopled by virtually
all those connected with the literary scene from around the
mid-20th century to - date -- personalities with whom those of
my generation and before are familiar and several of whom,
happily, are with us in the audience today as we felicitate
Henry Jayasena once more. The author makes special mention of
Martin Wickremasinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Chitrasena and
Vajira, Amaradeva, Senator Reggie Perera, Lester James and
Sumithra Peiris, Bandula Jayawardhana, A.J. and Trilicia
Gunawardena, K.K. (Karen) Breckenridge, Ajith Samaranayake, Bill
MacAlpine, Lionel Fernando and Somalatha Subasinghe, Iranganie
and Winston Serasinghe, Somabandhu and Ravibandhu among others.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself re-reading Henry
Jayasena’s essays in this book. The highlights among them for me
are those that deal with ‘the house that Henry built’ (pp. 41 -
42), ‘The great Ananda Rajakaruna’ (pp.112 - 114), J.R.
Jayewardene and Pieter Keuneman (pp.107 - 109) and his
recollections of and encomia to Ediriweera Sarachchandra and to
Peradeniya’s world of arts. Please permit me to dwell on these
essays as they are well worth dwelling upon.
A Tale of Woe and Water (pp.41- 45) is the essay
which tells us of the adventures of house - building. It was in
March 1976 that the Jayasena family moved into an abode of their
own in Nugegoda. The sadness of the bulldozing of the eleven
acres of coconut land adjoining the Jayasena residence is
mitigated by the entertainment unwittingly provided by Sirisena
who lives with his wife and three children on this coconut land.
Each time Sirisena came home merry after several arracks, he
would hug one of the many coconut trees in the vicinity (perhaps
he was protecting the tree from the bulldozers!) and refuse to
budge for love or money despite his wife’s flavoured language
admonishing him to let go of the tree! In his essay on Ananda
Rajakaruna (pp.111 – 115), Henry Jayasena refers to Rajakaruna’s
anger at the hypocrisy of our pseudo-nationalist politicians who
denied our rural youth the opportunity to learn English while
ensuring their off-spring were enabled to do so not only at home
but overseas as well!
The essay An Illustrious Visitor (pp. 107 - 110)
details the separate visits of Messrs. J.R.Jayewardene and
Pieter Keuneman to Lorenz College, Gampaha. The young Henry
Jayasena was the reciter of the ‘Verses of Welcome’ for Mr.
Jayewardene and his recitation had so impressed the VIP visitor
that the latter was moved to hand over a gift to the lad for
exercising his vocal chords so admirably. ‘What I remember,’
recalls Mr. Jayasena, ‘as a touching gesture is that he(JRJ)
half rose from his armchair when he made the presentation -
something I remember often to emulate…’ The visit of Mr.
Keuneman the Communist Party stalwart has been a low-key event
in contrast to the elaborate one organised for the visit of the
State Council Member representing Kelaniya.
Henry Jayasena’s tribute to Prof. Sarachchandra
on his 75th birthday (Salutations, ‘Dr. Sahab’ (pp. 56 - 60) is
warm and reverential. Very few are aware of the fact that Henry
Jayasena played the role of the Prince in ‘Maname’ during a
period when Ben Sirimanne, the original Prince, was unavailable
and was thus one of the ‘Manamaniacs’-- the term Prof.
Sarachchandra used to describe the devotees of this landmark
piece of Sri Lankan Sinhala theatre. Henry Jayasena’s pet name
for Prof. Sarachchandra was ‘Dr. Sahab’, hence the title of this
essay under reference. In this and in the essay titled
Aristophanes in Sinhala (pp. 167 - 170), Henry Jayasena refers
to that magical spot -- the open air theatre -- at that magical
place called Peradeniya, the seat of learning by the banks of
the Mahaweli that is my alma mater, the University of Ceylon now
the University of Peradeniya.
The open-air amphitheatre in the very bowels of
the grounds, which was later to become one of our favourite
Henry Jayasena here refers to the Peradeniya of
the late 1950s. In my own time at Peradeniya in the 1970s, I had
the good fortune to be a part of the annual theatre festival
where the best of our national actors and actresses performed.
In the undergraduate slang of our day the open-air theatre was
known as the "wala" and performances there as ‘waley sellang’.
The delightful recollections of my participation as a rasika in
performances of Hunuwataye, Apata Puthey and Simon
Nawagaththegama’s Suba saha Yasa, three of my favourite Sinhala
plays, in addition to those of Sarachchandra’s on moonlit
Peradeniya nights I shall take with me to my grave. Hence it is
with extreme nostalgia and infinite sadness that I read the
concluding paragraphs of Henry Jayasena’s Salutations, ‘Dr.
Sahab’ written in 1989 which reads thus:
The other day, I happened to see a video picture
of the Cultural Collosus that you created for all of us in the
dips of the Peradeniya Campus -- the Open Air Stage and
auditorium …. My heart wept at the desolation, the ruin and the
neglect of that hallowed ground. Is the nation in such folly, to
let these things happen? I have a birthday wish for you, Sir.
May these halls of learning be full again. May
of culture bloom again in the four corners of
Above all, may sanity prevail among men, women
and children and among those who rule them (emphasis added).
Henry Jayasena is undoubtedly one of the great
Sri Lankans of our time. A caring family man, talented and
complete theatre personality, notable cinema actor, novelist,
poet, he is, above all, a thoroughly decent human being. He has
been through the mill and continues to endure those slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune. At the end of the day, he is
another vulnerable human being made the better and gentler for
the reversals he has been through to-date.
I consider myself truly blessed to count Henry
Jayasena among my friends. Thank you, dear friend, for all of
your insights and wisdom that you have shared with us over the
years through your delightful theatrical creations. In these
dismal times, in this contemporary avichara samaya we are
compelled to endure, the fond memories we are left with of the
stage performances of your sensitive meditations on the tragedy,
the comedy and the melodrama of this bitter-sweet thing we call
life on earth, will doubtless continue to serve to make our
existential burdens a great deal less heavy. We owe you a heavy
debt for this relief. I salute you and wish you good health,
peace of mind and heart, and contentment in all you do in the
days and years ahead. May you be spared any further indignities
that the evening of our lives and ill health not infrequently
force upon us. I look forward to our conversation at our next
meeting over a wee drop or two or three of the stuff that
10 December, 2007