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DateLine Sunday, 19 August 2007

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His dream, my nightmare

laughs Malini Weeramuni:

Only Malini Weeramuni is at home when I walk into the cool interior of the "Mole Hill" on Kotta Road Borella on a Tuesday morning. "Namel has gone for a radio show" she tells me, greeting me with her warm smile and open arms.

It's not often that I get hugged and kissed like this when I am on an assignment. But this is nothing new at the Punchi Theatre; the moment you walk in, you become "family".

Looking just as young or even perhaps younger than Seelawathi Nanda in 'Rata Giya Attho' (remember how she takes a miris gala to London?) Malini Weeramuni is eager to talk about the up coming Nurthi Gee Night scheduled for next Saturday (25th, August 2007) at the Punchi Theatre.


Malini and Namel Weeramuni (File Photo) , The Punchi Theatre ,Pic by Vipula Amarasinghe

"We are very grateful to the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation for agreeing to perform for us at the Punchi Theatre".

I jot this down assiduously, eagerly waiting for an opportunity of asking her to talk about her life with her "knight in shining armour" Namel for, seeing them together it becomes obvious that here is a couple who is in perfect harmony with each other, a couple who has found their own music-a music which had lasted forty-five years.

So, how did Namel and Malini meet? Shattering my great expectations of hearing about a Jane-Eyre like encounter (he fell from his horse at her feet) she dismisses my question with a flick of her hand and a real conversation-stopper "We are cousins". Oh! Cousins, but obviously cousins who are tailor made for each other. Malini becomes dreamy as she recalls her first Christmas with Namel in London.

"There was snow all around us on that day. The small room we were living in, had only a paraffin heater to keep the cold away. I prepared a meal of rice, dhal, chicken curry and potatoes for dinner.

Namel who had been working the whole day, pumping petrol, for these were the early seventies when everything had to be manually operated, came home at about ten thirty in the night grinning from ear to ear. This being Christmas day all his customers had tipped him lavishly. Most of them had wished him a Merry Christmas and asked him to keep the change.

After a bath, and after dinner when he gave all the money he had earned that day, to me I went to the kitchen, found an old biscuit tin and placed the pounds in it, muttering to myself "this is for our dream".

She then laughs and rephrases the sentence "His dream and my nightmare", for maintaining the Punchi Theatre with the increasing costs of electricity etc. is no easy task.

The collection thus begun, was transformed, upon their return to Sri Lanka, into a special theatre with its doors always open to artistes veterans and amateurs alike, to stage their shows for a smaller audience instead of paying tremendous amounts for big theatre halls.

But filling that old biscuit tin had not been easy. Namel, after completing his apprentice work at a solicitor's office during the day time worked at a petrol station from five to ten in the night.

As his income was not enough to meet all their daily expenses Malini too had found work, as a clerk in a hospital at Lancaster Gate during the day time and as a cashier at the Mat Market in Notinghill Gate from six in the evening to nine in the night.

"We had to save money to buy the tickets for our three children who were being looked after by my mother and sister back in Sri Lanka. By the time we brought them to London we could afford a bigger room" reminisces Malini.

She remembers how a friend called David Scott had complimented her one day by saying "Even if you go to a deserted island you will always find something to cook for Namel." Things had begun to pick up when Namel became a solicitor.

"He did very well" says Malini in a voice brimming with pride. "He formed a company of his own and had three offices employing forty five people". Yet, they gave all this up to return, home, to their motherland. "We remember trying to find a place to rehearse The Lame and the Blind on one of our holidays here. All the rehearsal halls were so expensive. Namel lost his temper and said 'let's build at least a Maduwa of our own so that we will have a place to rehearse and stage our dramas.'

Today, the 'maduwa' is an oasis for every kind of artiste willing enough to plunge into the financially profitless yet spiritually rewarding world of creativity.

The most recent contribution made by the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre is the introduction of the concept of Dinner Theatre to Sri Lankan art lovers.

Having already conducted four events in this series with the aim of introducing the artistes of the 50s and the 60s to the younger generations the Punchi Theatre is now preparing for the fifth show titled 'Nurthi Gee Night.'

These shows are unique because at the end of the performance the audience has the opportunity of not only mingling and chatting with the artistes but also of having dinner with them as well. "Namel and I are happy to keep the torches burning for the artistes of the past who deserve to be brought back into the limelight.

But it is with immense difficulties that we find the money to cover the expenses for these events. I use every rupee I earn from acting in teledramas on the Punchi Theatre and it is not as if I am paid 60 or 70 thousand rupees." Malini stops talking.

The sound of the traffic outside increases. I move my eyes onto my note book. It is hard to take in the tears glistening in Malini's eyes. Minutes pass before I look up again. But now, she is smiling.

"We are happy that we returned to Sri Lanka" she assures me and says she wishes to send this message to all those Sri Lankans who have sought greener pastures in foreign places. "Do not turn your back on the country where you learnt your ABC (ayanu ayanu ugath rata). Its never too late to return home and do something worthwhile for your country. Leave those bottles of Scotch and come back!"

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****

Nurthi Gee Night

An evening of legendary music:

Who among us has not heard the song, Danno Budunge; sung at weddings, on family outings and paduru parties? You may not know all the words but you are bound to know the line that follows the first two words.

If you are cracking your brains trying to remember, your hard disc needs a replacement. But you are forgiven if you are someone of my generation (born in the 70s or after) if you say you do not know that the song is from a drama called Siri Sangabo.

"Danno Budunge belongs to the Nurthi Gee tradition which is the predecessor of modern music, explains Douglas Siriwardene, Director General of the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation. Nurthi Gee night at the Punchi Theatre on 25th August 2007, he says, will feature songs almost hundred years old but which continue to be popular among the old and the young alike.

In order to educate the younger generation, brief descriptions of the songs will be given at the beginning of each performance providing an educational as well as an entertainment filled evening.Catch you there on Saturday (25th August 2007) at the Punchi Theatre at 6.45 p.m. to watch a brilliant performance of Nurthi Gee and to share a Kottu afterwards, mingling with the stars.

For more information contact Malini Weeramuni on 2672121/0773170117

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