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In awe of Sidewalk Broadway

Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama
Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama

Extracts from the Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama Memorial Lecture delivered by Nihal Rajapakse at OPA Auditorium on the invitation of Richmond 60-70 Group.

Wikipedia describes Dr. Gamini Haththotuwegama in the following manner.

“He was a Sri Lankan playwright, director, actor, critic and educator. He is widely known as the father of modern street theatre. He is among the most influential directors of post independent Sri Lanka.”

Therefore it is quite obvious that it was with considerable trepidation that I accepted the invitation because I am neither an academic nor a playwright nor anyone who has anything do with “DramSoc” viz drama and theatre and much less an orator! The only oratory I’ve ever practised was in 1970 when I was appointed as Senior Lecturer of the Staff Training School of my former employer, People’s Bank. That too was for a period of less than one year. As lecturing was not my forte, I asked for a transfer which was granted.

G.K. was about four years my senior in school and therefore I do not consider myself as one of his ‘mango’ friends. However, we have one thing in common. He was a student at Richmond for 13 years (from 1942 to 1954) whilst I was a student there for 12 years (from 1947 to 1958.) Therefore, both of us are full blooded products of that famous institution called Richmond College. Further, among my peers in the banking sector, I was often categorized as a “rebel without a cause.” The only difference between G.K. and myself is that G.K. is “a rebel with a cause!” For those in the audience who do not know me, I am a Chartered Banker having spent almost my entire working life in the banking industry.

Charismatic personality

As many of you know, banking and drama do not go together. The only time in my living memory that drama and banking got mixed up were the recent drama over the Treasury Bond issue involving the Central Bank of Sri Lanka which in my view was much more than just a drama! Coming back to the life and times of this charismatic personality called G.K. de Silva or simply as G.K. as he was popularly known in school, it was in or about 1960, while attached to the tutorial staff at Richmond after his graduation, that he decided to shed the last vestiges of colonialism from him and decided to revert to his ancestral name, Haththotuwegama.

Hereinafter, with due respect to him and for purposes of simplification, I shall refer to him simply as G.K. as he was better known to us in school. I shall concentrate mostly on his school life because these are the areas I have a first-hand knowledge of him.

Had G.K. been alive, he would have been 79-years-old today. I am not going to dwell at length about his family background except to add a few anecdotes. This area was already been covered by the Chief Guest in her lecture. G.K’s initials stand for Gamini Kalyanadharsha. His family comprised of eight children- two boys and six girls. G.K. was the third. According to his own confession, he was by far the most mischievous of the children so much so that during school holidays, his father used to carter him away from home and place him under the care of his relations in Akuressa or Matara so that the parents could give due care to his other seven siblings.

His father used to bring him back home only after school holidays are over. Singing was the passion of the entire family. Even without a radio, the family used to sing regularly so much so that those neighbours who had radios, used to switch them off and listen to the music emanating from the Haththotuwegama household! I knew both boys; his younger brother Srinivasa or “Jeffrey” as he was popularly known, was a contemporary of mine and a brilliant science student who entered the University in 1959 and qualified as an engineer.

He has been domiciled in New Zealand for quite some time. I have never met him since leaving school. To me, the most inspirational member of the Haththotuwegama family is G.K’s elder sister, Iranganie.

She had a profound influence on my education. Out of the four subjects I studied for the University Entrance and H.S.C. Examinations of 1958, she tutored me in three of them, viz; Ceylon History, European History and Government. She had throughout been a very dedicated teacher. Her tutoring was of such high quality that I was quite confident that I’ll gain admission to the University without much difficulty. Therefore, in 1958 after sitting for this examination for the very first time, I left school and was preparing to enter the University. However, when the results were announced lo and behold! I had failed in one subject thereby failing to gain admission to the University but passed the H.S.C. Examination.

However, less than six months later in May/June 1959, when I sat for the G.C.E. (Adv. Level) Examination of the University of London, which is equivalent to University Intermediate level, I passed in all three subjects and became eligible to proceed with the Degree course of study. All I used for this examination was the study material provided by Miss Haththotuwegama at Richmond which speaks volumes about the quality of her teaching skills. I shall make use of this opportunity to pay my homage to her for the immense contribution she has made to my life although it is more than half a century late!

Great teachers

Coming back to the subject under discussions, like his father and uncles, G.K. had almost his entire education at Richmond from 1942 up to the time he entered the University of Peradeniya in 1955. During this time, his first love, outside his family, of course, was Richmond.

During his early days at Richmond, he came under the benign influence of great teachers like Major Adhihetty, a strict disciplinarian, who always insisted students to have a short cropped hairstyle and walk with chest forward. Then there is that much-respected Principal, E.R. de Silva who will walk into a class without any notice and deliver a short lecture, be it English, Sinhala, Maths or Science.

Towards the latter part of his student days at Richmond G.K. came under the tutorage of Clara Nanayakkara, Daphne Dissanayake (whose daughter incidentally is a leading Cardiologist and mine as well, named Naomali Amarasena), Then there was that debonair trio of Messrs. J.H. Ariaratnam, Walter May and, Shelton Abeysuriya all of them straight from the university. G.K’s tutors at HSC level was probably Thampoe, Daphne Dissanayake, J H Ariaratnam, Walter May and that fiery S.K. Goonawardene (brother of the LSSP ideologue, Cholmondeley Goonawardene of Kalutara).

There is no doubt that G.K.’s love for music was largely influenced by iconic figures like Shelton Wirasinha and Ivor de Silva. In my view, his leaning towards the left and his anti-colonial beliefs coupled with his critical and inquiring mind may have been greatly nurtured by some of these teachers in his Upper School at Richmond. This also would have paved the way for the development of his creative thinking abilities which blossomed in him after he joined the University. By his very nature, until his death in 2009, he remained a non-conformist and a maverick. To what extent Richmond contributed to such a development is a matter for debate.

I have to mention another important facet of the life of G.K. There is no doubt in my mind that he remained an avowed anti-imperialist and anti-colonial throughout his life but was NOT anti- West. Let me elucidate this point. Firstly, G.K. remained faithful to his original dress code which was shirt and trouser throughout. He never changed his attire to Ariya Sinhala or Kapati Suit worn by politicians.

Secondly, the inspiration for most of his works originated from Western Literature. For example from Greek mythology, (Agamemnon), Checkov and Dostoyevsky of Russia, Brecht of Germany and above all, Shakespeare of England and even Tennessee Williams of the U.S. Thirdly, in one of his interviews, he articulated that the J.V.P. Insurrection of 1971 failed because they neglected and/or failed to enlist the support of the English educated middle-class elite towards their cause. Take the people who were charged with the Insurrection. They were all Sinhala educated youth. On this score, history was on G.K’s side.

Major upheavals in world history

Take the major upheavals in world history. The French Revolution of 1789 was successful because its inspiration and leadership came from the intellectual community from persons like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Robespierre. It was Montesquieu who propounded the doctrine of separation of powers which later remained the bedrock of the U.S. Constitution. Then came Rousseau’s famous publication, “Social Contract,” which hit France like a time bomb and gave the much-needed impetus for the Revolution. This book starts with the famous words, Everyman is born free but is everywhere in chains.” Then look at the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was led by intellectuals like Lenin and Trotsky.

Even the more recent Cuban Revolution of 1957 was also led by intellectuals like Dr. Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara. Therefore there is considerable truth in G.K’s assertion that the JVP Insurrection of 1971 failed due to their failure to entice the English educated middle class for their movement. After all, he was a Lecturer in English in both Universities of Kelaniya and Peradeniya. He was thinking probably in English. Therefore, G.K. somewhere in his heart has had some soft corner for the English educated middle class of the country and certainly not anti-West in his outlook. That is my candid opinion. I leave it entirely to the audience to decide whether or not G.K. was anti-West.

G.K. got involved in most of the extracurricular activities in school, viz; the Debating Team, School Choir and Theatre, the Cheering Squad etc. In sports he never went beyond the Cheering Squad and as an announcer in sports meets but remained a keen cricket enthusiast.

During his young days, he used to walk up to the house of our mutual friend, Ananda Jayasinghe who is here with us today, to listen to the cricket commentaries of Christopher Martin Jenkins in the Ashes series.

Further, when he joined Kelaniya University as a Lecturer, he not only introduced cricket to the University but even became their cricket coach! He was in the S.S.C. Prep Form when he was selected for the College Debating Team along with youngster Stanley Wickremaratne. As a junior, I remember having seen “Merchant of Venice,” which was produced and directed by Ariaratnam and Tampoe. In this play, he gave a stellar performance as Shylock. He was also the Editor of the School Magazine for three years. Following his brilliant academic career, he was made a Prefect in or about 1953.

To be continued


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