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Point for a theatrical device

A glimpse at Rajitha Dissanayake’s early years
Ira yata 1991
Ira yata 1991

Earlier this year in January, veteran Sinhala playwright Rajitha Dissanayake marked his 25th year of staging productions at the Lionel Wendt. However the story of how this much loved and highly popular Sinhala playwright and director started off in the sphere of drama to become the celebrated figure that he is today, goes back much farther; back to his days as an undergrad in Colombo varsity and even farther back, to his days as a schoolboy at St. Mary’s College, Chilaw.

I met up recently with Rajitha to delve into what he could share with the readers of Daily News on the topic of what events in his life shaped the Rajitha Dissanayake we know of today. Trying to glimpse the roots of what influenced him to become a theatre practitioner, I asked him if he can recall his earliest memory of going to the theatre. “It was at the Tower Hall,” began Rajitha indicating he could retrace his steps back to that memory. “It was from 1978 to 1979. I was either seven or eight years old.” Thus he began narrating to me how he was taken to the Tower Hall Theatre in Maradana, Colombo by his parents to watch a series of stage dramas that belong to the olden genre of ‘Nurthi’ plays, and that the ones were Samudra Devi and Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe.

Rajitha Disanayaka

“Sugathapala Silva’s ‘Thattu Geval’ was another stage play that I watched in my young days, as well as Somalatha Subasinghe’s ‘Vikurthi’. But once I was in my teenage years, especially during O/L days, I started going to watch stage plays on my own.” He told me how a kind neighbour who bought tickets to plays staged in Chilaw, to support of those who would arrange shows, would give him the tickets she purchased knowing that he enjoyed theatre. Thus the thoughtfulness of a good-hearted neighbour had also contributed to Rajitha’s regular exposure to Sinhala theatre.

Soon his exposure to theatre included works such as a Sinhala version of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros by Kapila Kumara Kalinga, the play ‘Avi’ by Prasanna Vithanage which is a Sinhala translation of one of Bernard Shaw’s plays. “After watching Douglas Siriwardena’s ‘Hitler’ I got the idea that it should be staged in Chilaw and so with a group of my friends we organised a show in our hometown. It was in the Sudasuna Hall in Chilaw.” Supporting organisers of stage plays in Chilaw soon became part of Rajitha’s volunteerism in his hometown.

It was in 1988 that this future celebrated theatre practitioner got his first taste of ‘entering the stage’ so to say. “There was a gentleman named Felician Perera who was reputed in our hometown as a playwright. You could say he was known provincially,” said Rajitha who explained that it was a script from this gentleman that allowed Rajitha to submit his first entry into a drama competition. “It was the Samastha Lanka Pasal Natya Ulela or the All-Island School Drama Festival of 1988. I entered the play ‘Ping Gona’. I acted in it as well. And we won 3rd place.” Following this stepping stone was a spate of notable endeavours. Rajitha then wrote his very first play named ‘Thawath Thundenek’ ” (which could be said in English as ‘Another Trio’) and entered it to the stage drama competition organised by the Halawatha Padavi Cultural Committee. The widely known popular musician Nalin Perera of ‘Marians’ fame had directed the music in that production.

The play had won 1st place in the competition’s ‘Schools category’. The following year Rajitha wrote a play named ‘Senakeli Hamarai’ (which could be said in English as ‘Carnivals are over’) and won 1st place in the same competition, however this time in the ‘Open Category’ competing in a wider arena.

In 1990 however, Rajitha’s winning streak suffered a setback. “I entered the State Youth Drama Festival my play ‘Yamahal Shikaraya’, which failed to get selected to the final round. Sugathapala Silva who was heading the judging panel that year decided it wasn’t suitable for the final round. The same thing happened to my entry the following year in 1991. The play was titled ‘Ira Handa Yata’. Sugathapal Silva who was heading that year’s judging panel decided it wasn’t suitable to be in the final round.” However not being discouraged by the judges’ decisions, Rajitha was convinced his plays would get good audience reception. “Yamahal Shikaraya was staged in Chilaw as a public performance. Then after that some friends organised it in the Negambo Town Hall, as well as the Dankotuwa Town Hall, and we got some very good responses from theatregoers.

When university life began for Rajitha in 1992, his talents and enthusiasm for drama found the limelight once more. He staged a play called Nihanda Andura (Silent Darkness) in the New Arts Theatre (NAT) and it received very positive responses from those who watched it. “One of the persons spoke to me after the performance, in front of the NAT was Liyanage Amarakeerthi, who was then in his third year in university. He asked me to be part of his production ‘Bashmanthara’. ‘Amare’ thereafter became a good friend of mine. Similarly, lifelong friends whom I made during my university days through the love for theatre include Prabath Jayasinghe who is now a professor in Management, and also Karu Paranavithana.”

For a mere moment I was dumbstruck, but quickly recovering my senses I answered that I am an actor in the play. And so Prof. G.L smiled and continued in his direction.”

Rajitha’s play ‘Lokaayatha’ which was staged in 1993 was christened by Dhamma Dissanayake the renowned academic, political activist and public intellectual. ‘Dhamma was an assistant lecturer at the time. He suggested the title and I adopted it.” The play had been staged in the NAT and received responses in the form of debates and arguments. 

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