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Henry Jayasena – ‘A gifted and decent human being….’

(A note incorporating comments made at an event to mark the recent release of Mr. Jayasena’s reminiscences of and observations on the Sri Lankan stage and screen titled ‘The Play is the Thing.’)

I 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 Caucasian Chalk Circle. The hauntingly beautiful song from KuveniAndakaren 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 performance sites…

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 the blossoms of culture bloom again in the four corners of our country.

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 cheers!

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