Trojan Kanthavo:
the artist’s tryst with destiny


by Panduka Karunanayake

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s last play, Trojan Kanthavo, a Sinhala adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women, took to the stage again recently, to both celebrate its 15th-year anniversary and raise much-needed funds for his art centre, Trikone.

Bandaranayake is one of the last in the list of great old-timers of the Sri Lankan performing arts. He achieved great heights in not one, but two art forms: theatre and cinema. He has made five in each – and each of these has won the best play or best film award, along with the best director award. That is not a feat likely to be repeated, and is probably unprecedented, anywhere in the world – even for one art form, let alone two. He was one of Sri Lankan film critics’ ten best directors of the first fifty years of Sinhala cinema.

But Bandaranayake is not merely an enormously talented artist; he is also a citizen with a social conscience. To him, his talent would mean nothing if it didn’t safeguard, enrich and ennoble his society. He never feared controversy nor shied away from taboo. His dramas and movies broke open hushed-up topics and made us look at them from all sides, or shook us up from slumber to take hard looks at looming, disastrous trends in the darkness and the underneath of our society. They glued us to our seats and enthralled us from beginning to end, but also agitated our minds and woke them up.

With his first two dramas, Eka Adhipathi and Makarakshaya, he became the darling of our audiences, as they identified themselves with the disdain with which he treated the rising political authoritarianism in society. His fearlessness impressed his audiences, when he dealt with taboo issues in his first two films, Hansa Vilak and Thunveni Yamaya. With the third film, Suddilage Kathawa, his sensitive sketch of the oppressed, exploited woman silenced our patriarchic, male-dominated audiences. The next two dramas, Dhawala Bheeshana and Yakshayagamanaya, were eerily prescient – in Cassandra-like fashion, they warned us of impending dooms that we did not heed.

As he raised the bar higher and higher with each new venture, we were ready and hungry for more and more forthrightness, bravery and expressivity. And with his last play, Trojan Kanthavo, we got more than we had bargained for. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, the unrepentant pacifist, finally stretched his loving audience to its limits of tolerance and pushed it over the cliff: it was too much even for them.

His criticism of war, related through the eyes of those who suffer most from it – the women of the defeated city – had, in itself, nothing disputable about it. But a society that was itself in the midst of a war that ‘has to be won at all cost’ had no time for such facts. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ were entrenched too deeply. Bandaranayake became one of ‘them.’

The plight of the pacifist is not new. Even in liberal-minded England, Bertrand Russell lost his job at Cambridge and was imprisoned, for his public opposition to England’s role in World War I. But today, England honours him for his stand and its correctness.

It is fifteen years later now. The war has ended, and we are now in a position to look at things more dispassionately. Many of us who were critical of Trojan Kanthavo then, now see why Bandaranayake criticized war with a heavy heart.

To us, there is nothing to separate the Greeks from the Trojans at war. In the war’s aftermath, the victors lose anything resembling victory, as Poseidon and Athena hatch their secret divine pact – the rest of the story is merely the worldly justification for the coming wrath of the gods. It is a justification we are only too happy to accept, as we see the plight of the women, who must now pay for the defeat with the little that they have left after all that they have lost. As there is nothing to separate Greeks from Trojans, there would be nothing to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ Would a Greek or Trojan watching a play in their language have the same difficulty in telling ‘us’ from ‘them,’ as we had in telling them apart? Must women, who have paid the price for thousands of years, pay it for thousands more?

If these questions are uncomfortable to us now, it was simply unacceptable to ask them then. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake paid for this unacceptability. But like all great artists, all he had to do to be proven right was stand his ground and wait till enough water had flowed under the bridge. Will we, who appreciated the greatness of his art so much until then, have it in us to appreciate its universality and timelessness as well now?

After the play I spoke to him and asked whether he is planning a new play now. His answer made me so upset that I decided to write this article. He said he had already readied five plays – not just one – and that they are waiting to be produced. The problem is that each needs a budget of about 1.5 million rupees to bring it to the stage.

Can we not find Rs. 7.5 million for five plays by one of the nation’s all-time great playwrights? What do we enrich ourselves with for that money, if we impoverish ourselves of these plays? Do we wait until he grows too old to do them, to find this money?

Money for independent, good art in the vernacular is not plenty. Its sustenance is relegated to what can be fished out of the poor man’s pocket, from time to time, as he flocks to the village school hall to watch a traveling bandwagon of artists. It is a difficult challenge. But a nation’s inability to realize five more plays by one of its last living great playwrights is, in comparison, a national tragedy.

A great artist’s tryst with destiny hangs in the balance. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake is too good an artist, for any country, to be kept waiting for 15 years.

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