Ediriweera Sarachchandra Essay Checker

Ranjini Obeyesekere

Born at the cusp of the 20th century, at a moment when the cross influences of colonialism, nationalism, and Buddhist revivalism had a powerful impact on the psyche of Sri Lankan intellectuals, — generative as well as conflictual — the life and work of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, represents a transformation of these forces into works of path breaking scholarship and brilliant creativity. His erudition was legendary, and his influence on generations of students as well as the public has made him a household word in the country.

Pic from Island

I will present a few vignettes to try to capture the intellectual range of his erudition, his sensitivity to the cultural and social demands of his time and his innate creativity that enabled him to fuse the many influences and exposures of his life into magnificent literary and dramatic works.

Born to a Christian mother and a Buddhist father, and named Eustace Reginald de Silva, he transformed himself, his name, and his world, to become Ediriweera Sarachchandra —  perhaps the foremost intellectual, scholar, teacher, and creative artist of 20th century Sri Lanka. 

His early childhood in a family of devout Christians had exposed him to the English language and western music – he is said to have played the organ in his village church.  This double exposure stimulated his intellectual interests which always remained unfettered, and also nurtured his sensitivity and love of music which quickly extended to eastern music and its musical instruments.  Much later, after his stay in Japan he was fascinated by the music of Noh performances.  Music is then a central element in his later achievements and as H.L.Seneviratne remarked, “It becomes a metaphor for his east-west personality.”[1]

As a young intellectual caught in the ferment of anti-colonial nationalism and Buddhist revivalism he fiercely rejected his early Christian cum western identity, studied Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhala, at the University of Ceylon, and with his sharp intellect and amazing memory became very proficient in those languages and their literature.  After graduation he chose to go to Shantiniketan, the Mecca for young Asian nationalist intellectuals, and spent two years there as a full time student of music. Tagore’s world with its openness to a range of influences, its fusion of native cultural, and artistic modes of expression in creative experiments in art, music, and performance, had a deep impact on the young Sarachchandra and strengthened his innate critical and creative instincts.

When he returned to Sri Lanka, aware now that a western academic training was indispensable to the scholarly enterprise he joined the University of London for graduate work. Again he combined his Pali and Sanskrit background with his interest in philosophy and psychology and wrote his PhD dissertation on ‘Buddhist Psychology and Perception.[2]

As a University teacher, Sarachchandra’s earliest contribution to the world of scholarship was in the sphere of literary criticism. The late 19th century and early 20th century had seen an enormous growth in Sinhala literary activity in Sri Lanka, fuelled by scholarly monks and lay intellectuals steeped in the theories and traditions of classical Sanskrit aesthetics and philosophy.  The anti- colonial mood of the time necessarily focused around a revival of the native language and literature.  It involved a looking back to the earlier classical heritage coming through Pali and Sanskrit and a rejection of English and western influences associated with colonialism.  Accordingly the school of classical critical theorists was readily embraced and flourished.  The success or failure of literary works was judged on how strictly the rules of poetics and prosody as laid down by the Sanskrit aestheticians was applied.

The late 19th century had also seen the growth and spread of printing, which in turn produced an avid reading public.  A spate of journals, newspapers and critical works surfaced to serve this public.  Journals sprang up overnight to express or support a particular point of view in a currently raging critical controversy.

Sarachchandra’s earliest foray into this public melee of critical controversy and scholarship was with his book Modern Sinhala Fiction (1943) in which he assessed the work of some contemporary Sinhala novelists from a totally different perspective than the current schools of classical theory.  Prof. Malalasekera, in his preface to the book, while praising Sarchchandra’s special equipment for this task because of his university training, his travels abroad, his wide reading and his bilingual background, yet has this to add. “The charge can be made against Sarachchandra, with some justification, that he has based his judgement on standards that are unduly high.  ….   Viewed from that standpoint his verdicts may appear unnecessarily severe” Then with great diplomacy he goes on to say, “No one has yet evolved a complete definition of what constitutes good literature.  In the last resort the reader is the final judge.”[3]These remarks convey some idea of the tricky position of a critic attempting to evaluate works of contemporaries in a small literary community in a small country like Sri Lanka where many of them were personal acquaintances if not friends!!

It was in this context of fervent intellectual debate that Sarachchandra together with Martin Wickremasinghe, made a bold bid to introduce critical concepts and theories from the western world into the Sinhala writing of the time.  By mid century, there was already a growing recognition among some critics, like Munidasa Kumaranatunge, of the need for developing evaluative criteria that could escape the rigid bounds set by the Sanskrit aestheticians, and  create a space for new writing.  Like many of his contemporaries Sarachchandra was influenced by the New Critical schools of England and America and the modern literature that was flourishing in the West.  His seminal contribution came however with the brilliant tour de force by which he took concepts now current among the New Critics in the west and reinterpreted them in terms of the concepts used by Sanskrit aestheticians –an area he knew well. To mention just a few, the idea of rasa he related to the concept of aesthetic pleasure derived from a work of art. The concept of dhavani, the secondary or suggested meaning of a word was not different he claimed from the western critical concept of ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings in a work. The concept of aucitya or the appropriateness of words or images in a poem could be related to the western critical concept of organic unity in a work of poetry, and so on. By doing this he cut the ground under the feet of his classical critics. What better justification for the use of modern western critical criteria for evaluating literary works than the fact of their endorsement in the work of the ancient and venerated Sanskrit theorists![4]

In his Principles of Literary Criticism, Abercrombie states that the realm of literature was occupied by the activities of three distinct powers: the power to create, the power to enjoy, and the power to criticize.  A good critic may not necessarily be a good creative writer and vice versa.  Nor did everyone have the ability to experience and appreciate the full power ( rasa ) of a creative work. One had to be a rasika to do so.  This was something that Sarachchandra endorsed and consistently maintained to the end of his life.  Yet ironically Sarachchandra himself epitomized the unusual combination or fusion of these very powers.  He was a brilliant creative artist, passionate in his enjoyment and appreciation of good art and literature, a perceptive and extremely sensitive critic who did in fact create an audience of rasikas to appreciate modern literature.   Like F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards, the theoreticians of the then popular school of New Criticism, Sarachchandra’s influence as a critic is closely related, like theirs, to his role as a University teacher.  It enabled him to play a pivotal role in the creation, direction, and diffusion of modern western oriented evaluative criticism. Through his influence on successive generations of students he was able to give a new direction to modern Sinhala writing and so make a major contribution to Sinhala literature.

Pandit Amaradeva, in a talk he gave in 2002, recalled how Sarachchandra would quote classical poetry while driving his car or seated in a corner of a wayside restaurant. Once in order to convey the kind of subtle musical effect he needed for the love scene for his play Pabavati that he was then working on, Amaradeva says Sarathchandra suddenly quoted a verse from the 13th century poem the Kavsilumina and passionately expounded on it.

Kataka bota mihivita                               A young woman was drinking liquor

Heta kiyabu mihi siduvara                      when a siduvara flower from her hair fell (into her cup)

Duralannasin pimbiyē                             as if to remove it away the king blew

Muva mī gate naravarā                            and took the nectar from her mouth.

.   .   .   .

Tota nosimiye                                           Dear One I was unaware

Kiyaga topa tuda vakī tan                          show me the place where your lip touched

Viyata iti nirindu si                                    when the king said this, forgetting her anger

Piyakal mӓsi piyā pevū                               smiling, the lovely woman fed him nectar.

This 13th century classical Sinhala can hardly be understood by most of us today, but Sarachchandra’s fine poetic sensibility could bring out the nuances underlying the verse.

Pandit Ameradeva relates how Sarachchandra described that drinking scene and expounded on the minimalist lines with which the poet describes the kiss, and then went into a long discourse on the poet’s descriptive power, his language and usage.[5] It was this sensitivity to language, literature and music and his uncanny ability to communicate it to others, that galvanized and inspired successive generations both in the classroom and outside.

Sarachchandra was not merely a good teacher, scholar and critic he was also a novelist and a writer. Here is a vignette from his early writings about his travels in India. In an essay titled asampurna carika satahanak [Notes of an Uncompleted Journey] he writes: “It is a great misfortune to form your impressions of India in the trying heat of summer. . … Quite unknowingly I fell into the trap of the Indian summer.  While writhing and sweating in the heat and wondering whether this saṃsāra would never end I still remember the reply my wife got from an Indian gentleman who happened to get into our compartment near Calcutta. ‘Is there no place that you can get away from this heat?’ she asked.  His words had the inevitability of the teachings of the Indian saints.  ‘No madam there is no place in the whole of India where you can escape the summer.’  Sarachchandra adds, “There is nothing you can do under circumstances such as these but resign yourself to your fate.  You have merely to sit cross-legged on your seat, close your eyes and forgetting the flesh endeavor to merge yourself in the Absolute.  And it is not surprising that under conditions such as these there grew those philosophies and practices which are peculiar to Indian civilization.  I mean the doctrines of karma, nirvāṇa and dyāna.[6]

There is a typically Sarachchandra irony that plays over the whole scene described. The intellectual leap he makes from the cross-legged equanimity of his fellow traveler to the philosophies of the subcontinent, engendered probably by this very heat, are characteristic of the man!

If literary criticism and the introduction of modern forms of critical thinking were Sarachcandra’s major achievements as a teacher and a scholar, it was in the field of drama, the explosive new direction he gave to the Sinhala theatre with his experimental works such as Maname and Sinhabahu, that were the high point of his creative career.

Courtesy ww.kapruka.com

I remember vividly the first night performance of Maname in 1956.  As the curtain rose and the rich chant of the Pothegura (narrator) filled the auditorium, I sat spellbound at what seemed to me a theatrical miracle.  Sarachchandra’s total transformation of ideas and theatrical aspects that he had taken from the traditional rituals and folk plays, into a sophisticated modern drama; the bare stage emblazoned with colorful costumes, the sheer poetry of his verse enhanced by his creative use of music and dance, left me and the audience stunned.  Here was something new, exciting, and different from anything seen in the Sinhala theatre so far, breaking away from the western influenced fourth wall proscenium dramas and opening new directions for the Sinhala theatre.  As I walked out dazed and excited I remember meeting Regi Siriwardene, at the time the leading critic for the English newspapers, and he was equally transfixed. We talked briefly, at a loss for words to express our excitement.

That was the first night performance.  Since then it has played to generations of audiences, and hundreds of performances.  Although the stylized dance drama that he introduced has now become standard fare in the theatre and even somewhat passe, yet the sheer poetry of Sarachchandra’s  language and music still enthrall his audiences.

Years later when teaching at the Peradeniya University, I remember attending again a performance of Maname.  It was at the open air theatre — grass tiered seating under towering Taboobia trees that shed their delicate pink blossoms on a packed audience of students, teachers, monks, government bureaucrats, workers, and villagers from the surrounding area. Then, in the scene where the lovers walk in the forest and the now familiar song ‘prēmeyen maṇa ranjita vey’ was being sung, a student voice spontaneously joined in, and instantly the entire audience burst into the song.  It was an unforgettable magical moment.

If Maname was his first experimental drama, then his next play Sinhabahu with its rich dramatic text, the powerfully, complex tragic characters he created around the popular yet simple folk legend, their singing of his poignant poetry was I think the high point in his dramatic career.   Sarachchandra remained a dramatist to the end of his life and continued to write poetic drama yet none has remained as popular or as powerful as Sinhabahu.

I will quote some lines from Lakshmi de Silva’s translation of the dramatic encounter between the lion and his son Sinhabahu:[7] No translation can capture the full poetic power of the original – but it is the best we can do.

[The raging lion comes on stage dancing to drum music and singing.]


I will besiege the universe

Unsphere the earth – around the world

Turn and return to seek –to seek.

Those who would trap me I will rend

Crush, tear, with red these claws shall reek

As I lap up their dripping blood,

Shatter their ear drums with my sound

as loud my sky hurled roars resound.


Look is it another man

Destined to die, facing in me

Retribution for past misdeeds?

Why must they come in quest of death?

I cannot understand their ire.

I merely come to seek my wife.

Whom have I wronged? These men bereft me

Of kith and kin, now seek my life.

Ripped crushed and mangled they shall die

In fragments rent their limbs shall lie.


Then the lion recognizes it is his son who has come. The chorus now takes over:

That dread lion wild with pain

Of love in severance,

Saw his son’s face like the moon

Over the dark trees rising

And his mind like white night-bloom flowered

In its radiance.

The arrow sped and fell

But by the power of love

Grazed neither fell nor flesh.


Love of a son goes deep

Piercing skin, flesh and nerve

Seeking the very bone,

Cleaving deep to the marrow

It gives incessant sorrow.


Why does my son shoot at me? Does he not know,

Or fail to recognize me? Was it wrath  /Or was it fear that made him bend his bow?

I have wondered long seeking your mother, you and your sister.  I would know if they are happy.  I will not harm you. Do not fear me.  Lay aside your bow and arrow.  Come to me.


How can I when my father calls to me

With tender words, kill him relentlessly?.

My mother spoke truth: bitter suffering

Of love-loss has caused his cruelties.

A dreaded king of beasts, and yet to us

He never spoke except with tenderness.


I cannot let hot pity melt my mind.

I must fulfill the duty that is mine.

This time its aim this arrow shall not miss,

Shot as he comes to greet me with a kiss.

(He shoots)

Of course the audience knows that the first two arrows did not touch the lion because of the  overpowering love and compassion that suffused his being.  But when angered by the second arrow he decides to teach his son a lesson, the third arrow strikes home and he is killed.

Courtesy of Colombo Telegraph

As a critic Sarachchandra has always remained a controversial figure in spite of his increasing impact on generations of writers and poets. The Peradeniya school of modern criticism of which he was a central figure, though it spread fast from the universities to the schools, has remained controversial.  Not so with his dramas.  There he stands a colossus and has remained so, even though other modes and other styles and experiments have followed in the theatre.

In the late sixties and seventies as young faculty at the University of Peradeniya, living at Mahakande, he was our neighbor and we became close friends. Soon he became a frequent evening visitor at our home.  Those evening gatherings were memorable. Sitting over drinks or a pot luck dinner we would talk into the night on any and every topic that currently absorbed us. Often other friends dropped in, Alex Gunasekera, H. L. Seneviratne,  Ian VandenDriesen, Bandula Jayawardene, to mention a few. The conversation would range from concepts in Buddhist or European philosophy, or modern Sociology, to recent literary criticism, music, drama, folk ritual performances — in short anything that any of us happened to be engaged in.  Sarath as we called him was at his scintillating best – ready with a quote of a Pali stanza, or a Sanskrit sloka or a piece of classical Sinhala poetry to make a point or clinch an argument.  He was equally quick with his jokes and word play. The nicknames he coined for his friends and himself were legendary for their punning and perceptiveness.  I shall not attempt a translation.  But typical of Sarath he not only had fun names for others but he gave himself one too — “Harak Andare” (court jester of cattle)!  His sharp wit and light hearted jokes enlivened the evenings, as the conversations ranged over a gamut of social political and literary concerns. I realize now that the seeds of my own intellectual stimulation came from those evening conversations and my earliest work on Sinhala Literary Criticism germinated there.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra was a renaissance man. His brilliant, wide ranging intellect, could compare, absorb and integrate the multifaceted influences he was exposed to and transform them into powerful works of critical scholarship, fiction, biography, poignant poetry and magnificent dramas.   It was done effortlessly, with ironic wit and often a slight note of self deprecation that endeared him to his friends and subtly destabilized his critics.  His boyish laughter was always directed at all forms of intellectual or ideological pomposity. Over his long life he touched the minds and lives of many, but to the very end he was a man on whom years of fame and popularity sat lightly.

Ranjini Obeyesekere

Kandy, May 2014.











[1] H.L.Seneviratne in an email communication with me. May 10th 2014.

[2] Buddhist Psychology and Perception, University of Colombo press, 1958.


[3] G.P. Malalasekera in the foreward toModern Sinhala Fiction, p.x, 1943.

[4] For a fuller discussion of the Sanskrit terms and their transformation by Sarachchandra  see R. Obeyesekere, Sinhala Writing and the New Critics, Colombo 1974, p38-53


[5] Pandit Amaradeva in his talk, “Pleasurable experiences I had when I was creating the music for several of Sarachchandra’s plays.”  Ediriweera Sarachchandra memorial oration, June 14, 2003, p.19 ,20.


[6] Essay titled “Notes on an Uncompleted Journey”  in Kesari republished as Through Shanthiniketan Eyes, 201.p.55


[7] Sinhabahu; Ediriweera Sarachchandra, translated by Lakshmi de Silva, Colombo 2002 p.38 and 39

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Filed under cultural transmission, education, heritage, Indian religions, Indian traditions, life stories, literary achievements, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people

By Ernest Macintyre –

Ernest Macintyre

It was an encounter of a man assessing the world he was growing up in. His native soil had been artificially separated from its Indian cultural estate by European poachers. Sarachchandra was imaginative, more than enough, to identify what was real, and so derive the best from his recently resident foreign separators, while recovering the distanced connections with India.

The cultural life of the Sinhalese, and to a lesser extent, of the Tamils of Lanka, in literature, drama, music and dance had declined due to a number of economic, environmental and socio-political factors including European colonisation and the resulting attenuation of relations with the subcontinent. Why, to a lesser extent, in the case of the Tamils may be understood from a statement by H.L. Seneviratne. When the Sinhalese and Tamils began to revive their  cultures, it “  placed the Sinhala ethnic group in the position of having to look inwards for inspiration, to the only indigenous culture it possessed, the folk culture, whereas the Tamils could look up to a larger and more complex, religion-based artistic tradition beyond the shores of Sri Lanka.”(1)

The higher Indian culture in Lanka during the long pre-European period of occupation would have been confined to Sinhala royal court society and its extensions. All this was no more. Only the authentic folk culture remained. It is clear from the way he deployed his energies, that of all the arts, Sarachchandra identified a drama that used as conveyance, dance, music, and poetic chant and song as having the greatest potential for a broad based national cultural revival. The existing form of this was the folk Nadagama which had its origins in South India and which had evolved to be authentically Sinhala by the early twentieth century.Unlike in the case of the Sinhalese, even during the European occupations, the Lankan Tamils had a cultural highway of contemporary language to the arts and life of another part of the world, South India. From here the Koothu folk drama had come to Jaffna and Batticoloa and had been used by the Catholic Church for their religious plays. The Church then took it to their Ceylon west coast Sinhala communities, and the Sinhala Nadagama came into being. This Nadagama was only the promising foundation on which Sarachchandra set out to “rebuild a culture which, while being rooted in a tradition, is yet progressive and adapted to survival in the modern world.” (2) To achieve this Sarachchandra standing confidently on his own soil looked at  the world, the world of Europe, classical, medieval and modern, the world of India, companion from ancient times, and the world of Japan which had established a unique cultural identity including its own variation of  Buddhism.

Maname princess

If the English language and literature, his Ceylon inheritance, gave Sarachchandra his way to European civilization, his mastery of Pali and Sanskrit confirmed his Indian sub- continental affinities, which he later broadened to encompass Asia in general, with special focus on the culture of Japan. While he was on a mission to revive Sinhala culture, but with an openness to the world, he had contemporaries on the same mission without access to the modern world. This was the exclusively Sinhala- educated sector, about whose insularity Sarachchandra revealed regret, at the same time rejoicing in their passion for Sinhala language and literature. He identified that very largely, culture was rooted in language, and that the Sinhala language had survived the colonial period. “Although the Sinhalese lost almost everything in the demoralization that set in from repeated foreign conquests, they had at least their language to go back to. And going back to the language is almost going back to the roots of the culture.” (3).

Of the exclusively Sinhala- educated, like Piyadasa Sirisena, he said, “…the attitudes of this entirely Sinhala educated middle class, whether it be in respect of literature and the arts, or in matters relating to life, have been …the natural result of a lack of acquaintance with the development of thought in the modern world.”(4)

Yet this statement by Sarachchandra is a well thought out prologue, not a closed off dismissal, for he goes on to acknowledge the debt to these people and pays his respects to them for being the passionate carers of Sinhala.“It was this class that preserved anything at all of the native tradition, and it is necessary to find a footing in some sort of tradition to take a step forward. …….” (5)

Most of Sarachchandra’s  specialization had languages functioning as complex kinds of conduits, the vehicle and the substance being conveyed inseparable in dynamic inter- related performance. Greek and Latin he learnt at school. English was not only learnt, it was part of the colonial environment he grew up in. There may not be an explicit acknowledgement of his entry to world culture through English, only statements, generally, such as about the class that Piyadasa Sirisena represented quoted above. “This lack of explicit acknowledgement is perhaps rooted in his imbibing these as part of his socialization, from early childhood to mature scholar, which made these his own, thereby making any acknowledgement uncalled for, says H.L. Seneviratne “(6)

Sarachchandra family

After schooling in English medium Christian institutions, Richmond College, Galle, St. Aloysius College, Galle, St. John’s College, Panadura, St. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, he matriculated with English, Latin and Greek. His Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936 was with Sanskrit ,Pali and Sinhala, after which he studied Indian Philosophy and Indian music at Santiniketan. Following this he did a Master’s in Western Philosophy at London University.In 1949 Sarachchandra earned his Ph.D. from London University with the thesis, “The Buddhist Psychology of Perception”, about which Professor K.N.O. Dharmadasa very relevantly observes, “He then returned to the Buddhist tradition, but with a Western outlook.” (7)

If his understanding and imbibing of Western culture was a part of his Ceylonese inheritance it seems equally true that his rootedness in Sinhala and Eastern culture was also a result of the same culture, except as a rebellion against it.

At that time in history, it would have been rare to have had a son who developed a world view, at an early age, that identified  indigenous culture as the rooted position for assessing the new big world introduced by the British. It was a reaction against what was seen as an easy upper middle class one-way Western track enticingly suggested by British colonization. Sarachchandra, when he was about twenty five was at the cross influences of colonialism, nationalism and Buddhist revivalism. He grew up as a Christian, in a family of devout Christians two of whom were priests. As a boy he played the organ at the local church. His father, a Buddhist, was converted to Christianity at marriage, one would imagine under the duress. His name was Eustace Reginold de Silva, and all other members of the family and clan had similar western names.

Then, under the influence of Indian cultural nationalism of the time, he relinquished his western name and renamed himself after the legendary Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadyay). His stay in Shantiniketan re-emphasized the cultural nationalism within him, and the opportunity to experience Shantiniketan life under Tagore would have been particularly inspiring.

Maname and the princess

Thus, his entry into and development in Western culture together with his simultaneous firming of roots in  Sinhala and Eastern culture, resulting from rebellion  probably incited by oppressive Christianising within  his family, provided the creative tensions from the pulls of East and West, to produce what was unique in Sarachchandra.He stands out separately as an intellectual, scholar and creative artist who, regardless of colonizing circumstances recognized in Western culture, some substances which could “manure” his Sinhala roots with no distortions of identity. These were carefully and discriminatingly infused to produce his contribution to the revival of post- Ceylon Sinhala culture.

Under the influence of British colonial domination, the continuity of the many thousands of years of cultural interactions between India and the Sinhalese was interrupted and distorted. “The distinction between Sinhalese art and Indian art certainly did not exist in the twenty centuries preceding independence, and such a long period of time cannot be discounted in considering a tradition” writes Sarachchandra (8). And “…the tendency for Ceylon to isolate itself from the cultural context of Greater India, which began with British times and continues today, may act as a hindrance.”(9) It is clear that the upper class English-educated, who received on their held out palms the platter of Independence, confused post-British political/legal sovereignty with cultural independence from India as well, especially  as this initial political leadership class, “ in every possible way tried not to identify themselves with the people of the country”, says Sarachchandra.(10) Ediriweera Sarachchandra was a leader amongst a group of men and women  who, like Thejawathie Gunawardane , Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Shantha and W.D. Amaradeva, to mention a few,   understood that for revival, cultural sustenance needed to be drawn from India.   There was evidence of the Indian connections in painting, sculpture and architecture, and in literature too, but not in dance, drama and music, which had been courtly and now no more. Sarachchandra’s artistic interests were in these areas, and he understood that for these, he had to resort to India.

There was an apparently important qualification though, about the sustenance from India. “Although the culture of the Sinhalese stems from that of India, Theravada Buddhism has given it a stamp of its own which makes it distinguishable from the Hindu culture of India” (11) This statement of Sarachchandra coupled with his belief that “The national culture could be restored only on the basis of Buddhism and the language of the country, namely Sinhala” (12) when viewed against his passion for the theatre arts presented him with a need for an imaginative approach. While he cherished the belief that Theravada in Lanka preserves the religion in its most authentic form he found that it had to adjust, imaginatively, to modernization of a Buddhist society. Particularly in the arts of dance, music and drama which were his personality interests, the strictures of Theravada came in his way. He recalls with a deep sigh that the Theravada texts cite with approval the example of a monk who lived for more than thirty years in a rock cave , but because he was engaged in meditation, did not notice the paintings on the wall.(13). So, I discern from his writings that, he was also slanted towards Zen Buddhism of Japan in which the contemplation of the beauty and harmony in nature, as well as the beauty and harmony created by man leads to a calming of the passions and to a stilling of the mind, which are necessary preparations for the realization of Nirvana, while serving the worldly needs of man as well. (14) Maname and Sinhabahu are art forms that engage the passions during their progressions and so are not within the Theravada frame. But in the fact that the overall sentiment the audience is left with at the end of these great plays is compassion and pity, one senses an accommodation of the Zen position with Theravada values.

These then were Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s encounters. The Tamil culture of Lanka was not an encounter for Sarachchandra. He refers to “the close connection that seems to have existed even from early times between the Sinhala folk culture and the folk culture of the Tamils.”(15). From his writings in The folk Drama of Ceylon one could say that for him the Lankan Tamil culture was another organ that developed in the complex origins of the same body; functioning inter relatedly for the whole system. So he was unselfconscious about his identifying the derivations of Nadagama music and dance (the roots of his theatre) from Tamil sources.

Out of Sarachchandra’s encounters came the scholar, the novelist, the literary critic, and most enduring, the dramatist.  Mention of his scholarly work in philosophy and psychology has been made earlier in this piece. Time, inevitably washes over scholarship depositing new material in waves of research. The one work of his scholarship that, I think, will remain unaltered, is “The Folk Drama of Ceylon” (1952, revised 1956) because the living, raw, folk material of his research is hardly found now. Even if otherwise, the long and patient observational research produces a design that emerges from the work, not constructed upon it. For scholars and imaginative readers, it is a work that does not confine itself to Ceylon, for as The Times of London Literary Supplement notes, “it is so wide in scope that it must surely interest all who wish to trace the development of dramatic forms “(16).

Saarchchandra was a novelist of note both in Sinhala and English, Malagiya Attho (The Dead,1959) being considered his best in Sinhala and Curfew and A Full Moon and With A Begging Bowl  in English.

The British introduced novel was new to Sinhala literature (Nava Katha) and Sarachchandra produced a new literary evaluation based on both the then current English literary criticism and Sanskrit poetics. (17)

About his plays, knowledge and appreciation are widespread. So, I will confine myself to what I think Sarachchandra did, in effect, for drama in Sri Lanka, which may not yet be correctly identified. Here was a country with no developed dramatic theatre, only rudimentary folk performances. When he conceived creating such developed drama using the folk forms as the ground soil on which he would transplant European, Indian and Japanese classical growths, his colleague, Professor of English, E.F.C.Ludowyk recommended instead a twentieth century start up from scratch, with contemporary prose drama. Sarachchandra gradually moved away from this idea. He decided, in effect, to ignore linear time, and create a classical verse, dance, song drama, which would then, in effect, be “timeless”, not marked as 1956 or 1961. In theatrical form it was classical and pre -prose. Sarachchandra later said that he was mistaken in thinking that Maname and Sinhabahu would provide the form for a national drama, and which partly vindicates Ludowyk’s position. Where Sarachchandra was right, though, in effect, was that great drama in the classical genre, would lead to new dramatists, yet to come, creating contemporary prose drama as great. He was well aware that Ibsen and Chekhov, the great masters of modern prose drama had behind them the impetus of the classical drama of Greece, and Shakespeare. They didn’t start from scratch.

2014, the year of the hundredth birth anniversary of Ediraweera Sarachchandra, fades. Will people still be writing in the hundred and fiftieth or two hundredth birth anniversary? My guess is that they will. I said so at a seventy fifth birthday celebration for professor Sarachchandra in Colombo in 1989. It happened to be a time when British educational authorities had done a survey of what young people knew of the public personalities of a hundred years before. The political leaders were unknown, even the great William Gladstone , Prime Minister in 1889. They were joyously familiar, though, with Wilde, Congreve, Sheridan, Milton and of course the much earlier Shakespeare. These once living bodies, particularly Shakespeare, had left their great souls behind for temporal enrichment. So it will be with all the ephemeral excitement of Presidential elections. It is probable that, long from now, no one will know of the political  leaders since 1948, while lights will still be going up on stages, as two young actors perform joyously , unknowing of what’s to come,  “ Prema Yen Mana Ranjitha We    Nanditha We” or a  lone actor sings his heart out, wrenchingly, with  “ Gal lena bindala, len dora harala”.


1. Home and the World, Essays in honour of Sarath Amunugama. Colombo: Siripa Publishers, 2010, H.L. Seneviratne’s Essay, Towards a National Art, p.74

2. Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon Collected Papers of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Ed. P.B. Galahitiyawa and K.N.O. Dharmadasa. Colombo: S.Godage and Bros, 1995. Essay, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.31

3. Ibid, p.30

4. Ibid, p. 29

5 Ibid, p.30

6. Personal communication from H.L. Seneviratne 11/9/2014

7. Collected Papers of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Ed. P.B. Galahitiyawa and K.N.O. Dharmadasa. Colombo: S.Godage and Bros, 1995. Introduction by Professor K.N.O. Dharmadasa, p.2

8. Ibid, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.34

9. Ibid, Traditional Values and The Modernization Of A Buddhist Society, p. 47

10. Ibid, The Traditional Culture of Ceylon And Its Present Position, p.8

11. Ibid, Essay, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.31

12. Ibid, Essay, Problems Connected with Cultural Revival in Ceylon, p.27

13. Ibid, Essay, Traditional Values and The Modernization of A Buddhist Society: The Case of Ceylon, p.45

14. Ibid, Essay, Traditional Values and The Modernization of A Buddhist Society: The Case of Ceylon, p.45

15. The Folk Drama of Ceylon, by Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Colombo: Department of Cultural Affairs, Ceylon 1966 p.92

16. The Folk Drama of Ceylon, by Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Colombo: Department of Cultural Affairs, Ceylon 1966, flyleaf cover

17. Sinhala Writers and The New Critics, by Ranjini Obeyesekere: Colombo M.D. Gunasena 1974, pp.39-53

*The writer grew into a playwright and director from the University Dramatic Society of Peradeniya University producing theatre work in Sri Lanka and Australia.

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