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A Writer with a Nonconventional Practice

by Gayan Abeykoon
November 10, 2023 1:04 am 0 comment

Title: Balance Bar Eke Brush Eka Burul
Author: Malaka Devapriya
Genre: Radio Drama
Publisher: Vapa Publishers

Sri Lanka lacksany sort of comprehensively researched documentation recording the historical evolution of the ‘Radio Drama’. Back when I was a schoolboy in the 1950’s, my family didn’t own a radio. It was a close friend who convinced me to listen to a detective drama called ‘’Heroic Deeds of Saajan Perera’ broadcast on the ‘Radio Rangamadala’programme. Every evening I would sneak into a neighbor’s house where I’d be allowed to listen to their radio and soon, I was hooked. It was not an episodic series. Every week, on different days, stand-alone dramas written by different playwrights would be broadcast. If my memory serves me right, the ‘Radio Rangamadala’ changed its name to ‘Guwan Widuli Rangamadala’towards the end of 1960’s. It is likely that this change corresponded with the changing of ‘Department of Broadcasting’ to ‘Broadcasting Corporation’.

Sugathapala de Silva joining the broadcasting corporation as a radio drama producer can be seen as a clear indicator of the progress made by the radio playby that time. A dramatist known for his trailblazing work on theproscenium stage, his influence was carried over to the medium of radio. The radio drama he wrote ‘Wallata Giya Gahaniya’ broadcast on Naatya Rangamadalaand the conversation that it sparked, remains fresh in my memory. The cast comprised of Karunarathna Aamarasinghe, Sumana Jayatilleke and Ranjith Dharmakeerthi while Ranjith Edirisinghe was responsible for sound Mixing. The script of this playwas markedly different to the conventional form that had been followed until then and won the playwright a lot of praise. A collection of his radio plays, including this one, came out in print form, only during the last stages of his life when Sugath had taken ill. Therefore, this publication did not carry any systemic overview of the history of radiodrama.

Radio Drama Archive

Professor Sunanda Mahendra had also published a book containing seven radio plays created in the 1970s. In it, he reveals how the radio plays broadcast over the BBC Service had hugely influenced these productions. Radiodrama as an art form,had an awakening during this decade which led to individual playwrights publishing their work in print.However, a book that looked at the evolution of radiodrama over the years in any comprehensive way, never materialized. The absence of a radio drama archive in Sri Lanka or any initiative for conservation of radio dramas, is yet another lack that cannot be ignored.

Radio Drama, which gained popularity during a certain era, later fell victim to commercial spirations due to this very popularity. As a result, the lengthy serial drama form came to be, with episodes broadcast on daily or weekly basis. I think the trend of crowds gathering to listen to this style of drama began with ‘Muwanpalassa’. When Television was introduced to the country, this era faced a significant challenge. The State broadcasting service, which played a pioneering role in building a culture of radio listenership, struggled not only to maintain its stature but even to survive, amidst the many private radio channels that mushroomed across the airways.

This phenomenon affected the development of radio drama as well. The quality of radio drama declined and the loyal listenership it had built up dispersed. In his forward to the book ofWobbly Bush in the Balance Barby Malaka Dewapriya writes how this fate was not common to the rest of the world. He explains how, in more developed nations, the advancements in electronic media technology went hand in hand with advancements in media culture which in turn further secured and strengthened its’ use and practice. His detailed study shows signs of an anthropological investigation that goes above and beyond the mere writings of a radio playwright.

The radio plays contained in this publication are not your traditional radio dramas. The central theme that is recurrent in traditional radio dramas in Sri Lanka has been the institution of family. The many facets of family – such as affection, compassion, love of children, marriage, parental protection, love between husband and wife and the challenges of leading a moral life despite the hardships life throws at you – were often used to evoke an emotional response that drew the entire family to these stories. Malaka’s radio dramasturnthis traditional form on its head.

Against Societal Conventions

While retaining aspects of human stories, he chooses to emphasize the contradictions within them, bringing out characters, human behavior or situations that go against societal conventions or give rise to dilemmas. Through his writings – that draw on expressionism and sarcasm – he strives to confront us with the real society and patterns of human behaviorexperienced within social, political, and religious institutions that we inhabit in our daily lives. Instead offeel-good stories that warm the listeners’ heart, bring a tear to their eye, or transport them to a dream world, Malaka’s dramas confront the listener with the bitter reality that s/he is a part of. This endeavor by Malaka may be viewed by most as a self-defeating exercise. And it may not be surprising that when measured against traditional standards, characters and incidents in his plays are pronounced by some to be ‘unreal’ or ‘impossible’.

But how many of us are able to discern the bizarre characters and incidents that are actively present in this dilapidated social, political and religious structure and yet remain shrouded (or are kept hidden) under a cloak of moral ideology? How many of us would speak out and dare to say that – even when we do see them, we are forced to turn a blind eye – by the moral tradition that governs us?

This collection of radio dramas reveals a creator who instead of remaining silent, chooses to engage in a practice that goes against traditional norms, in order to speak out about the tragedy of a society cursed with island mentality and slave mentality; a society that in the absence of rule of law and moral compass,is drowning amidst broken down and distorted social, political and religious institutions.

Lucian Bulathsinhala

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