By Hasaka Ratnamalala
In December, 2004 I was preparing for my first visit in 8 years, to my motherland. Among the gifts, I was planning to carry with me was a complete CD set of Bob Dylan’s songs, with a one song I knew very much, in previous chapter of my life. “How many Roads must a man walk by…. before we can call him a man …” this Bob Dylan’s song which, “Sir” or we called him “Hata” (when he was not around), used as the theme song of our “Way side street theatre group”, with Sinhala and Tamil translations. I bought that CD to give it to “Sir” as a gift. I knew he would be very happy if he could own Bob Dylan’s complete works CD. But unfortunately “Tsunami” not only destroyed my gift to “sir” but also blocked finding and meeting him during my trip.
The form of art Gamini Hattotuwegama introduced to Sri Lankans was mostly used as a propaganda tool in other parts of the world. But he hates the idea of using “art to carry a message”. He would say “If you want to give a message don’t use drama! why don’t you write a letter instead?” He always used to state that we need to take the art of drama to the people in the rural villages, to those people who never had the chance to see a drama in their life time. He stood by his principles and his “golayas” (students) followed him. Thus we had many memories of having street theater shows not only by the side of the streets, but also by the paddy fields, tea estates, temples, factories, schools, universities etc.
Then my memories goes to the peak time of JVP-UNP terrorism period (1987- 1988). We were holding street dramas in every corner of the country allowing Sri Lankans to think on the situation we are in (despite the threats from JVP and UNP). During that time he was so worried about getting used to such a large amount of dead bodies, in day-today basis. He thought we will soon become a group of people who would not recognize the value of the human life if this trend continues.
During that period in one hand JVP and its organs wanted our group to be a part of their propaganda unit and on the other hand they wanted to hunt our senior members of the group in order to make easy access to Hata. But at the end JVP lost their bid to take control of our group. (But I don’t know about the situation today as I left the group in 1991) In that battle, Hata was more tolerable to JVP side, while almost all senior members of the group were against it. As Hata was a very sensitive person any one could easily persuade him. Sensitivity was not only his only weakness, but also was his gift; to feel the heart beat of Sri Lankans.
Hata always listens to his “golayas” and shape up his creation with their criticism. At the end spontaneous talent of the “golayas” interpreted “Hata’s” idea in to a creation. This “spontaneous” talent developed within the structure of democracy in the group; which allows “golayas” to express their views openly even against Hata him self. Hata also used this freedom to criticize his “golayas”. I remember once, he was yelling at one of the new members of the group “Amarunam... Gihilla reela enna” (if it is so hard, why don’t you go to toilet), because of the new guy kept using an imitated deep voice rather than his own during the practice.
He always told his “golayas” to use their own voice when acting; and ask them to develop it to a level which every one in the audience could hear it (not shouting). In this manner, Hata’s street theater workshops have gifted several talented actors, actresses and even directors to the Sri Lankan theatre scene. Deepani akka (Deepani Silva) is one such example. According to my understanding, one of his best creations was “Hamlet” (1989); which he did with a group of students at the English department of University of Peradeniya. Even though I was not a part of that production, I managed to organize a show at Sri Jayewardenepura University.
I sensed that we would never be able to experience such a fantastic production of Hamlet in our life time. Therefore I used the slogan “only once in our life time….” in our poster campaign for Hamlet. I also managed to build a “Wala” (circle) stage using desks and chairs in the middle of Bandaranayaka hall and had a very successful Hamlet show, at Jayewardenepura University. I hope those who were in that audience would agree with me that we had an unforgettable experience in that night.
Among the other things his openness affected us like an infectious disease. It shaped our personal lives; which made us openly criticize, anything which is not right; rather than keeping it to ourselves. Of cause some times, it lands us into troubles. But sometimes I feel that we have become that small child, who Hata used in his creation “Perahera” (the Parade) who shouted the truth “Ikeeiyyya… Rajjuruwo heluwen” (king is naked) while elders were glorifying the unseen garment that the king pretend to be wearing. I think most group members are still suffering from that disease.
Dear “sir” you have led us so far in this road to become a better man (woman), but still we have a long way to go. This is just an intersection where we take a little break. Before we continue the rest of our journey may I say, “Good night sweet prince!” it’s been a pleasure to follow you.