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Nari Bena samaga Jasaya saha Lenchina:

Life lessons about honour and duty

The late Dayananda Gunawardena is a dramatist who has contributed much to the stage drama and theatre culture of modern Sri Lanka by giving folklore a theatre form with performance stylistics that reflect much of the traditional Sinhala elements of 'folk drama'.

This was much in evidence in the production of Nari Bena samaga Jasaya saha Lenchina written by the late Dayananda Gunawardena, which went on boards at the Lionel Wendt auditorium last month. This production was a performance of a duo of plays that have as their base, Sinhala folklore and the element of song, to characterise story content and narrative form.

Musicals aren't new to traditional Sinhala drama. But one of the striking elements that can be seen through these two works by Gunawardena is dialogue along with song, dance and rhythmic movement that portray regular actions, giving life to a picture that is very much outside the mould of the 'theatre of realism', popularised by the works of the likes of Anton Chekov and Henrik Ibsen, while being endowed with a dose of socio-political critique that is nevertheless visible and projected entertainingly. Nari Bena as many Sri Lankans may know is based on the old folktale of how a villager was compelled to give his daughter in marriage to a fox. Jasaya saha Lenchina is a traditional folk drama that depicts the socio-political milieu of traditional Sinhala society during monarchical and feudal rule through a domestic spat between a washerman and his wife in the context of being called to perform traditional duties of State. This drama unlike Nari Bena has a chorus of singers to narrate parts of the story along with the actors who carry the story forward through both dialogue and song.

The manner in which social hierarchy and the faithfulness to performing one's duty in traditional society comes out most strongly in a scene where the resolution to the dispute is 'embraced' to ensure the successful completion of assigned duties. The feuding between the husband and wife stops when they realise they will fail in their duties to the king if they don't stop their bickering and set about the task given to them. The story thus shows how much reverence was given to ones 'rajakariya' (duty owed to the liege/master/employer), which gains priority above their own personal issues.

Between Nari Bena and Jasaya saha Lenchina the play more attuned to contemporary entertainment from a point of storyline and plot, is the former. What is at the core of this play's story is a facet of how the traditional Sinhala villager displayed the mettle of his character. The severity and seriousness of an utterance, the honour of keeping one's word, given even in jest, is shown as a feature that epitomises the sense of integrity of the traditional villager. What constitutes as 'honour' and a clear conscience from traditionalist outlooks in rural Sri Lanka is brought out in this play emphatically. And interestingly, it is the need for adherence to tradition that finally provides a 'salvation clause' for the daughter given away in marriage to the fox.

The 'dowry' in the form of the household guard dog -'Dadoriya' is what ensures the bride is returned to her parents and relinquished from marriage by the fox. The usefulness of the 'dowry clause' thus proves effective in a rather crafty way.

What is important to note about these kinds of stage plays is that they offer an experience of theatre with glimpses of traditional colloquy and dialect as well as social structures, giving the viewer an idea of what 'folk drama' is meant to offer its audience from a point of a cultural experience as well as entertainment within the framework of proscenium theatre.

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