Re - Narrating a tragic romance and rehabilitating a Playboy Monarch


By Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa

King Sr Viraparakrama Narendrasinghe (1707 - 1739) , the last Sri Lankan ruler of Sinhala ethnicity is generally portrayed in our history as a person addicted to wine, women and song.Naturally his career is contrasted with his father King Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687 - 1707) marked by piety and service in the cause of Buddhism and even with that of his grandfather, Rajasinghe II (1635 - 1687) great warrior who brooked no nonsence with the Portuguese and the Dutch who controlled a good part of the littoral. Narendrasinghe, because of his playful ways was referred to by the people as Sellam Nirindu, the playful monarch.A fascinating story connected with Narendrasinghe' reign concerns an illicit affair between his Chief Queen Sumitra and Chief Minister Pedro de Gascoyn. This love story found in Kandyan folk legends has them named Premila and Daskon. What is further fascinating about this story is that it is embellished with a number of verses, attributed to the lovers. These verses preserved in folk memory are said to be tender exchanges between them. I quote below two such verses said to be the final exchange, uttered when Daskon (Gascoyn) was taken to the place of execution on royal orders:

The Queen:

Sakman karana maluvedi Baendi haada

Sitsantosin dun muva mii biiaaada

Ikman gaman himiyeni ada yanavada

Daskon mage namata jiivita denavaada

( Love blossomed forth when we met during the [leisurely] pleasure walk and you were able to drink the nectar of my lips offered with pleasure. But beloved! today you are hurrying [to your death] Oh Daskon, are you giving away your life for my sake?)


Daskon :

Visas kamalaava rasa pahasa novindamaa

Dasis duni porana aesa dutu pamanatamaa

Vese numbe anayuru pahasa lat memaa

Mahis ekak giye nam numbe namata kimaa

( In olden times [the Great King Ravana] sacrificed his ten heads being merely enthralled by the sight of beautiful Sita, having had no opportunity to savour the delight of her touch. [But] here am I, who had enjoyed the ambrosia of your body, and what if this one head of mine is taken way [for that's sake]?)

Dramatic Moment

The opening scene of Manoratne's play makes very appropriate use of this legendary exchange of tender sentiments between the two lovers at the final tragic denoument of their love tryst. (I should add here that Manoratne has been able to include all the beautiful verses attributed to these lovers in appropriate places in the text of the play and that itself is an educative as well as aesthetically satisfying experience for the serious playgoer. ) To come back to the play, Gascoyn walks up to the dangediya (executioner's block) and places his head there and the executioner raises his sword. At this point the proceedings are suddenly stopped by the intervention of two people, the Poet and the Historian. The Poet, who performs the role of the Narrator (pothe guru ) in the play shouts, "Stop it! Stop it! We cant allow our poet Daskon to be killed off according to the whims and fancies of this and that person!"

Now here we note Manoratne's mastery over dramatic technique. He has his own way of structuring his play in the mode of the Epic Theatre formula promulgated by Erwin Piscator and put into fascinating practice by Bertolt Brecht. (As an aside I would like to add that there is an extremely interesting explanation of the Epic Theatre mode by Ariyawansa Ranaweera in the Programme book which was distributed to the audience on Dec 12 at Bishop College Auditorium when I saw the play).

To come back to the performance, when the Poet utters those words the other man with him, whom we come to know is the Historian, interjects and objects to The unhistorical ideas which the poet so boldly brings out. The gist of the Historian's objections is that there is no man called "Daskom" in history books and there are no verses attributed to him in reliable sources. Manoratne here brings in the dialectic between fact and fiction, reason and imagination, fantasy and reality, to unravel in flashback the tragic love affair between the Queen and the Minister. The dialectic is presented by means of the two "stock characters", the Poet and the Historian. It is an ingenious device by the playwright, who has to perform a balancing act, to unravel an old story, which most probably has a kernel of truth although not recorded in the well established sources of history such as the Mahavamsa. The symbolic presentation of the two characters on stage too is noteworthy, the Poet wearing the national dress while the Historian appears in the full European costume. Needless to day one is closer to our hearts.

Poetry and History

Playwright Manoratne, it is obvious, has done a great deal of homework in writing this play.The scholar in him does not permit him to ignore the facts of history. At the same time however, the creative artist and the Rasika in him entice him to be fascinated by the richness of this love story as depicted in Kandyan folklore. It is the interplay between these two, the poetic imagination restrained by historical verification that propels forward the narration on stage. The dialectic interplay between thse two forces, as Manoratne himself has acknowledged, was introduced to Sinhala theatre by Dayananda Gunawardena in his Gajaman Puvata (1977) and Madhura Javanika (1983) and Ananda Javanika. What is unique and aesthetically fascinating about Manoratne's Sellam Nirindu is the way he dramatizes the interplay between poetic imagination and historical fact. The two "stock characters" the Poet and the Historian perform a crucial function in keeping the audience intellectually alert while savouring the aesthetics of the spectacle. I use the word spectacle deliberately, because it is well known that great dramatists such as Shakespeare utilized the device of spectacular presentation and even in our own Nadagama tradition as revived by Sarachchandra, the chorus performs a somewhat similar function. Furthermore, Dayanada Gunawardena's Gajaman Puvata, Madhura Javanika and Ananda Javanika were replete with spectacular scenes. Manoratne in Sellam Nirindu has a more obvious use of spectacle, the ballet like episodes such as the scene of execution, the bathing dance and the first entry of Queen Sumitra, are pure spectacle. Here he is assisted by the presence of very appropriate and colourful costuming (by Suvineeta Perera), lyrical music (by Janaka Fonseka) and striking dance movements (by Ravibandhu Vidyapati).

Reading between lines in the historical record we begin to realize that Narendrasinghe and Gascoyn were friends from childhood. Gascoyn was the son of a Frenchman taken prisoner by Kandyan soldiers during the previous king's reign, who was later released and appointed As Pantiye Muhandiram, the Chief Keeper of the King's Horses, obviously because of his talents in handling those animals. He married a Portuguese woman, which again speaks of the tolerance with which these foreigners were treated in Kandy at the time, and their progeny was Pedro de Gascoyn alias Daskon, the hero of our story. The playwright introduces these facts in the dialogues by Pedro as well as by others.

Court Intrigues

Growing up together, Narendrasinghe and Daskon became playmates and there developed a strong bond of friendship between the two. Manoratne the dramatist chooses to lay much emphasis on this possibility, if not fact. The court in which they grew up. however, was a den of intrigue. This is brought out vividly in historical incidents. To recount them briefly:We know from history about the conspiracies during the reign of Rajasinghe II. Although not much about such activities is heard during the time of pious Wimaladharmasuriya, things become very bad during Narendrasinghe's reign. There were many reasons for the discontent of the ministers. One was his lack of interest in the Buddha Sasana, which they would have felt strongly in comparison with the work of the former king. Secondly, Narendrasinghe appeared to be a frivolous character in contrast with the two former kings, the warlike, Rajasinghe and the pious Wimaladharmasuriya. Thirdly, Narendrasivghe made the mistake of being "too friendly" towards the Catholic priests who had in fcct been allowed to build a church in Kandy itself. The most heinous of all "crimes" committed by Narendrasinghe was the special treatment, even to the detriment of traditional aristocracy, to his South Indian relatives, the kith and kin of the Chief Queen brought down from Madhura. The last straw, as it were was the Narendrasinghe's appointment of a South Indian as the Maha Gabada Nilame, the Chief of the King's Stores. A violent rebellion took place and it is on record that it was suppressed with great violence . The Kandyan royalty learnt a bitter lesson. As historian Lorna Devaraja, tells us never again, even when a Nayakkar sat on the throne of Kandy, was a high position given to a foreigner. Let us now get back to our main story.

As for the strong bond of friendship between Narendrasinghe and Gaskoyn? The playwright recounts two instances when Gascoyn saved Narendrasinghe's life where the conspirators nearly succeeded in doing away with him. The impact of these incidents further strengthened the friendship between the two. How then did a treacherous liaison take place between Gascoyn and the Queen? The playwright has a credible explanation. There was a simmering opposition to the Nayakkars in court circles as the ministers whose families for generations had been in royal service, felt strongly against the new relatives of the king who seemed to form a power block sitting between them and the king. Also, Gascoyn, a half French and half Portuguese had become the closest confidante of the king, even thwarting their attempts to do away with him. Both the Queen and Gascoyn would have been very sensitive to the hidden animosity of the court circles and felt insecure, each in her or his own way. As the playwright suggests this common experience would have brought them together. The closeness of the bond would have eventually blossomed into a romance, particularly on the insistence of the queen, who felt neglected due to the other diversions of Narendrasinghe.

Tender Moments

The playwright depicts the mutual attraction of the lovers in skillfully devised dialogues which are interspersed with the verses found in Kandyan legends as well as in compositions attributed to "Daskon Adikarama." There is one episode in which Gascoyn is made to appear in a fully white robe. It is not clear whether he is really there in front of the Queen or whether he is there as a figment of the imagination of the love lorn lady. It is a clever device of the dramatist playing on the ambiguity of the scene, leaving the queen as well as the audience wandering whether it is real or imagined. There is a long exchange of verses, the man and the woman taking turns singing the beautiful verses attributed to them in the Sinhala literary tradition.

As we mentioned earlier King Narendrasinghe is depicted in history as well as national imagination as a wayward character. In the play Sellam Nirindu however, there is an extremely sensitive delineation of his personality. He no doubt had a weakness about female beauty, which the playwright does not want to hide. In the play he is caught by Gascoyn while watching in stealth women bathing in the river. At the same time we are made to see his playful nature, and even his long periods of absence from Kandy could be attributed to that. At the same time he was a good and devoted friend as the playwright insists in this drama. Another good quality brought out in the play is Narendrasinghe's broadmindedness in extending a helping hand to the Roman Catholics who were being victimized in the maritime areas by the Dutch. Historically, he was continuing a practice started by his grandfather, Rajasinghe II. Narendrasinghe is said to have gone a step further, inviting the Catholic priests to the palace and listening to what they were preaching. In fact it appears that he was intellectually curious about other faiths. In any case, what comes out in the play is the fact that the king who as a person had some very admirable qualities was at the same time a victim of circumstances.

King's Predicament

In the troubled circumstances in which the king was placed, with court intrigues, the simmering animosity to the "foreign" queen and her relatives and the intense enmity towards the "upstart" Prime Minister, the background had been prepared for a disaster. It was in fact Gascoyn himself who inadvertently causes it to happen. Hoping to do a good deed by his beloved lady, he places a secret birth mark to make more authentic the effigy prepared by the Bali Aeduro (Healing Ritualists) to cure the Queen of a malady. Gascoyn's rival Leuke informs the king about it and the secret of the love affair between Gascoyn and the Queen is out. According to Raja Niti ( Royal Statute) this was a heinous offence to be punished by death. In the play the king is made to lament the fact that this punishment had to be decreed on his beloved friend. He laments,

"Alas, The virtue of Friendship (mitra dharmaya) Why have I become so lonely and isolated?Although there are hundreds and thousands of people around me , the ministers, officials, the harem and citizens, what is this loneliness I am afflicted with, being deprived of your company Gascoyn?"

Here the playwright does not have to distort history in order to rehabilitate Narendrasinghe. Notwithstanding the fact that Raja Nitiya had to stand, there was the possibility of a royal pardon, and indeed this is what is recorded in the folk legend. The playwright makes use of that.

Tragic Ending

The last episode of the play is woven around the three characters, the Queen, who persuades Gascoyn to plead for his life, Gascoyn, who is in two minds as to what his future would be even if he is pardoned, and an interested third party, the minister Leuke who is eying the post of Maha Adikaram, once Gascoyn is no more. . It so happens that the messenger who carries Gascoyn's epistle to the king asking for pardon is waylaid by Leuke who seizes it and destroys it. Finally, Gascoyn faces the executioner not knowing why he was not pardoned.

Sellam Nirindu is in a way a docu-drama as Dayananda Gunawardena called his plays such as Gajaman Puvata, Madhura Javanika and Anada Javanika. At the same time here we find playwright Manoratne delving deep into the historical characters, particularly the character of the king. In his hands Narendrasinghe becomes a humane figure, very much unlike the caricature we find in traditional portrayals. Here we are reminded of how Sarachcandra saw the human predicament of Princess Maname, who was a much derided figure in our classical as well as folk tradition.

Sellam Nirindu is a fascinating achievement by a versatile dramatist who not only writes a play, but also produces it for stage and even acts a main role. Here he has been very ably assisted by the memorable performances of Madani Malvattage as the Queen and Nalin Pradeep Uduwela as Narendrasinghe. As well as by Sarath Karunaratne (the Poet) and Nimal Yatiwella (the Historian) .

The second part ‘Eye witness vs

forensic evidence and police interference’ will be published tomorrow.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...