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 Drama review  

Daasa Mallige Bungalawa :

Impressive performances

Part 2

One of the significant aspects that lends to the understanding of the inner being of Daasa as well as a cultural and psychological premise to gauge the positions in which the characters are to be found, is in the arrival of the idol of God Ganesh or ‘Ganapathy’. Lechchami, a Hindu woman is shown to be extremely religious. However, rituals seem nonsensical to Daasa. He makes some changes to his daily routine to please Lechchami. For instance, he joins her in religious rituals. He thinks that she should consider it a great sacrifice.

His behaviour shows that there is a need to develop a personal bond with every woman he brings home to be his housekeeper-cum-companion.

Yet it is within very strict demarcations of disallowing the woman to become the custodian of the house. What is interesting to note is that despite the fact that he casts Lechchami out of the house, the image of Lord Ganesh and the altar of worship continue to exist. But he thinks that religion is utterly useless.

The late Prime Minister of India Indira Ghandi, in an interview with a foreign magazine said, “Indians are not a god-fearing people, they are a god-loving people.” The different gods in the Hindu pantheon allow devotees to chose any god they prefer depending on their character traits.

But to Daasa, it all seems juvenile yet tolerable. His understanding of religion does not involve any ideological underpinnings since he seems nothing wrong with his best friend Bawa taking part in making the offerings to God Ganesh when Lechchami strongly opposes it saying that Bawa is a Muslim and he is disqualified from having a hand in the ritual.

Adaptation

Based on the fact that the play is an adaptation of an Indian play I was wondering whether the original also has a protagonist whose attitude towards the religious devotions of the ‘first female’ is just as irreligious or was it developed more on the lines as a scenario depicting a Sinhala man thinking snidely of the religious devotions of a Tamil Hindu woman.

There is enough evidence in dialogues that Daasa views Lechchami’s level of religiousness as a trait related to her community since he says the woman before her was also constantly engaged in acts of professing devotion which included worshipping a shirt owned by her husband who cast her out.

A senseless devotion as stated by Daasa which renders women such as Lechchami a puzzle to him. The manner in which Daasa comments about the image of God Ganesh also renders him an unapologetically irreverent man.

That ‘premise’ of the triangular connection between Daasa, Lechchami and Ganapathy is one that allows ‘space’ for much theorisation about the role religion plays in human relations in Daasa’s abode.


Scenes from the play

The nature of the characters are such that they are brought to life to evoke emotions of either empathy or resentment or both. One may say that Lechchami may not attract censure from anyone, I found her acting for self survival.

Some characters display attributes that are deplorable. For instance, Indrapala’s pathetic slavishness to the woman who berates him, or Bawa’s sneaky opportunism to satisfy his lust with Champika, can be cited.

Politics of laughter

The celebrated postmodern novelist Milan Kundera in his quasi-biographical novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting speaks of the politics of laughter and the manifold significances a laugh can have in relation to the ‘laugher’ as well as the people who perceive the laughter.

Laughter becomes a reason for gruesome beatings to happen in the drama. And how laughter is an objective of many a theatregoer in Sri Lanka is a topic that must be looked at in the context of this drama. Lechchami’s friendship with an ant with whom she is discovered conversing attracts Daasa’s intrigue, bemusement and amusement.

The laughter that he hears coming out of her when talking to the ant begins to kindle in him a desire to hear that element of ‘femininity’ recurring in his presence.

He shows a desire for it yet when denied it ‘on call’, is persistent of his demand. When meted with lack of complicity by Lechchami the result is severe manhandling and brutal power play to depict that he doesn’t tolerate defiance of his commands, especially if they are connected to some sensitive aspect within him.

Lechchami’s cries that erupt are a deftly delivered blend of laughter and wails that blur the lines between tears of laughter and those of pain. There is irony that is ripe to befuddle the viewer as to whether she is crying out in jest and humouring Daasa and defeating his dominance attempted over her sought a belt she is being lashed with, or whether she is giving cries of laughter that is self mockery at her own pitiful plight and the existence that is absurd to her? Or is it clear cut cries of pain?

The answer is perhaps, that it is the flux of these different emotions within Lechchami finding form as an oral expression. On this aspect Ravini Anuradha who played Lechchami must be saluted for her prowess as an actress.

Gestures

There was laughter that erupted from the audience at the threatening gestures made by Daasa to Lechchami when the former was truculently demanding the latter to laugh.

Yes, it is absurd to think that someone would make a request like that and then keep insisting on it.

The demeanour of Daasa as created by Jayantha Muthuthantri at that moment may make him seem moronic and possibly be seen as an object to laugh at, but what I experienced to my dismay was that the inability of many viewers that night to catch on to the significance of those threatening gestures that were precursors to the violence done on Lechchami.

Once the belting got underway the laughter died among the viewers, but it also showed a dimmed sensitivity as to how Daasa’s words, the gesture and tone could not be seen as the ‘promise of violence’ unless his orders are obeyed.

That was no laughing matter. At the point when there was that confusion created through the variance of tone of the cries by Lechchami to confuse the viewer as to whether she was crying in pain or laughing sardonically, laughs cropped up from here and there in the audience.

And I was rather disturbed about what those audience reactions indicated about the people who watch theatre.

Perhaps there is a preconception among most theatregoers in Sri Lanka that theatre is about a performance purely for enjoyment and that enjoyment involves junctures that evoke laughter. I wondered whether it is the influence of sitcoms that may attune a viewer to be cued for laughter the very moment something seems a bit absurd and amusing.

Merciless

When commenting on how theatre connects with society and what role and relevance it has to the community at large as a medium of art that reflects realities in society as a live performance, I believe what I experienced offers much food for thought. And what may be reasonably deduced as to possible reflections of society may be disturbing.

At the point where Lechchami is given her most severe belting, where she is down on the ground and Daasa’s hand moves in merciless velocity the stillness in the audience was intense. The crack of the belt against the wooden boards was like a gag put on the audience.

And as the whipping intensified I actually heard the voice of a small child ask (presumably a parent) in Sinhala, whether the beating was for real? The action was theatricalised so compellingly that it was almost powerful to make a child wonder if there was actual physical harm being done.

For instance, domestic violence may touch a disturbing chord in small children. The ineptness of some viewers to grasp the nuanced gesture of impending violence, which was taken for a ‘laughing matter’ of a comedic nature, would create the wrong impression in children who are of course there with elders and taking in the experience of watching a drama as something of a ‘collective experience’.

What connections between the action on stage and the corresponding audience reactions that occur may lend to how children make meaning of their experience.

And another feature of the drama, which renders this production as unfit for children is the coarsely foul language spoken in some parts of dialogue.

My sole aim is to offer some food for thought as to the likely susceptibilities of juvenile audiences when a story that contains sensitive elements are shown on stage.

Daasa Mallige Bungalawa is a powerful piece of theatre. The impactful performance that came alive on the boards on July 23 at the Lionel Wendt Theatre must be applauded for the strength of talent shown by a cast composed mainly of relatively lesser known faces in the domain of drama and theatre.

A drama such as this will evoke in the average theatregoer a conscientious afterthought by consciously grasping the deeper significances of what are finely nuanced to reach deep into our collective conscience as people.

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