In much of Asia colonial rule weakened
the traditional arts. Ruling classes and educated urbanites often favored
Western ways. Old forms of drama, music, and dance withered, and powerful
cultural moorings were lost. In Sri Lanka this process occurred over four
centuries. By the 1950s only the villages kept the old traditions alive.
VEDITANTIRIGE EDIRIWIRA SARACHCHANDRA rediscovered them there.
SARACHCHANDRA first encountered the rich cultural life of Sri Lanka's
villages as a youth, moving from place to place with his father, a
postmaster. Later he was inspired by India's independence movement and by
the works of Rabindranath Tagore, India's great writer and poet. He
qualified in Sanskrit, Pali, and Sinhalese at the University of Ceylon, and
in Western philosophy at the University of London. In 1949 he received his
doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy.
Theater has been his lifelong passion. As a young professor at the
University of Ceylon, SARACHCHANDRA produced Sinhalese adaptations of Anton
Chekov, Oscar Wilde, and Moliere. But Western plays, he decided, "never got
to the roots of our people." He searched the villages for dramatic forms
His 1953 book, The Sinhalese Folk Play, led to a fellowship to study the
dramatic arts elsewhere in Asia and the United States. Witnessing the
vitality of Noh and Kabuki theater in Japan, he yearned to resurrect
classical Sinhalese drama for modern audiences.
In his 1956 play Maname, based on a well-known Buddhist myth, characters
sing and speak rhythmic prose. A narrator and chorus comment on the story.
Drums, cymbals, songs, and dances are used throughout. There is no set.
Maname's sensational reception established SARACHCHANDRA's "stylized play"
as a popular genre. A stunning revival of Sinhalese theater followed and
Sinhalese dance and music were given new life.
SARACHCHANDRA continued experimenting. His 1961 masterpiece, Sinhabahu
retells the Sinhalese origin myth. Pemato Jayati Soko, of 1969, is an opera
set to North Indian-style music. Altogether he has written more than
twenty-four plays. Maname alone has been performed some three thousand
Renowned as Sri Lanka's premier playwright, SARACHCHANDRA is also a prolific
literary critic who has set new standards for Sinhalese writing. His own
novels and short stories offer trenchant commentary on contemporary life. On
social and political issues he speaks his mind fearlessly and often. From
1974 to 1977 he was Sri Lanka's ambassador to France. This experience
prompted his English-language novel, With the Begging Bowl, depicting the
plight of money-poor Third World diplomats.
Formally retired from the university, today seventy-three-year-old
SARACHCHANDRA is director of the Sarvodaya Research Institute. A commission
of scholars under his leadership is now investigating the deterioration of
Sri Lanka's social fabric since independence.
SARACHCHANDRA believes that his society's most fundamental values remain
endangered. The norms of today's marketplace, he points out, are
incompatible with Buddhist teachings and work against the survival of once
Yet a healthy nation must live harmoniously with its past. SARACHCHANDRA,
therefore, writes plays in form and content that transcend the present
and speak to the permanent experience of his people.
In electing VEDITANTIRIGE EDIRIWIRA SARACHCHANDRA to receive the 1988 Ramon
Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts,
the Board of Trustees recognizes his creating modern theater from
traditional Sinhalese folk dramas and awakening Sri Lankans to their rich
cultural and spiritual heritage.