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1974 to 2004 Background History of Janakaraliya
Janakaraliya - Theatere Of the People
Janakaraliya Theatere Of the People

Sequential background to Janakaraliya – 1974 to 2004

Parakrama Niriella was having an aspiration as well as an ambition about ‘a Janakaraliya’ (a theatre of the people) as far back as 1976. 27 long years have been spent to accomplish that aspiration. That ambition became a reality in 2003. Janakaraliya (Theatre Of The People) is the culmination of Parakrama’s theatre arts application for social change and progression.

Initial experience of performance space

Parakrama enrolled for the ‘Ranga Shilpa Shalika’ conducted at the Lionel Wendt theatre premises, Colombo in 1974 to study drama and theatre under the direction of veteran dramatist Dhamma Jagoda. Accomplished scholars in drama and theatre such as Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra, Gamini Hattottuwegama, Dr. Sucharitha Gamlath, Dr. Sunanda Mahendra and Bandula Jayawardena conducted lectures in Shilpa Shalika. Out of these teaching staff Dhamma Jagoda pursuing drama styles of Stannis Lavesky and Gamini Hattotuwegama an enthusiast of Bertolt Brecht were his favourite teachers. In 1974, on completion of the first part of the drama and theatre course Gamini Hattottuwegma started a street drama group with some of the students from that batch. Parakrama Niriella became the organizer of the street drama group.

This young drama group produced three dramas initially titled ‘Raja Dekma’ (King’s audience), ‘Bosath Dekma’ (Bodhisattha audience) and ‘Minisekuta Ellila Marenna Berida?’ (Can’t a man die by hanging?). The dramas were performed in the outdoor (open) stage opposite the Central College, Anuradhapura on Poson Poya Day, 1974. But the true inception of Sri Lankan Street Drama happened next day when the group performed their drama amids of a massive crowed waiting to board the Colombo bound train. A large number of people waiting for the train enjoyed the performance while the drama group enjoyed the ability to perform in a ‘free space’.

Since then those three dramas were performed in any free space such as ‘waysides’. ‘threshing floors’, ‘temple compounds’, ‘factories’ or any outdoor space where performances could be carried over freely. Parakrama marvelled performing of same drama series in different performing spaces. He got realized that ‘Performing Space’ is not only the ‘Established Procenium Stage’ as got reveiled through the demonstrated performances of the street drama group.

The accepted norm in the society at that time was that ‘quality dramas are performed in proscenium theatres’. As such the scholarly society treated street dramas as cheap version of dramas. Street dramatists were accused of bringing down the quality parameters of theatre arts. Due to non-application of creative approaches that could have been used and lacking finesse and dramatic features in these street dramas were the reasons for these accusations. Some critics in print media called it as emitting steam by a middle class clique on the pretext of taking the drama to the masses. Due to creative lapses in street dramas these accusations could not be discharged easily.

Applying theatre arts for social liberation in the decade of 70’s

During 1970’s, the decade in which street drama group was started in Sri Lanka, theatre arts was used a tool in liberal struggles across the third world countries. These street drama groups detached from the mainstream theatre and engaged in drama performances in open spaces depicting the values of liberation to the masses while traveling and performing throughout the countries. They had a clear socio-political vision and a vibrant objective on achieving liberation. Sri Lankan street drama, yet in its infancy, did not have a clear political vision. The main objective of Sri Lankan street drama group was to take theatre arts to the masses who cannot afford to enjoy drama at proscenium theatres. Street dramatists were forced to adhere into these principles and they were banned from taking part in dramas staged in proscenium theatres. But Parakrama raised a basic argument against that policy.

Do we have to reject traditional proscenium theatre completely when it has been enriched by rich, quality and aesthetic developments in the world theatre arts circles for centuries? If we do not apply these rich aesthetic qualities of proscenium theatre in the open spaces or the alternative theatre isn’t it discrimination for the majority viewers of alternative theatre? Aren’t the middle class who come to proscenium theatre a decisive force in social development just like the majority who cannot afford the proscenium theatre? Also shouldn’t we endeavour to create a rich, quality aesthetic theatre arts styles common to open spaces (alternative theatre) as well as the proscenium theatre for attracting and entertaining drama fans of all statuses? Then we will do justice to the majority community or the masses. Based on these rationales Parakrama created his first drama ‘Sekkara’ (Oil Press). It contained rich qualities and features of proscenium theatre. The drama was created applying traditional folk drama styles ‘Sokari’ and ‘Kolam’ completed with dancing and singing. The drama depicted distorted political history of the country and exploitation of rural communities by politicians. It could be performed in proscenium theatres as well as in open rural performance spaces watchable from all four directions. There was a need of minimum amount payable for the 5 member orchestra and actors and actresses. Although it was expected that trade unions and other civil organizations may show an interest to perform the drama for working class communities and in rural areas it never materialized. They preferred to sponsor dramas in proscenium theatre in order to strengthen their funds. As such 'Sekkuwa' was attracted to the traditional proscenium theatre swiftly. The drama bagged most of the major awards at the State Drama Festival, 1976.

Indian Experience

An international Institute called Asian Cultural Forum on Development – ACFOD organized a workshop on community theatre in Raipoor, India. It was directed by veteran Indian dramatist Habib Thanvir. In 1977 Habib Thanvir came to Sri Lanka to select suitable theatre practicianers for the workshop from Sri Lanka. Habib travelled to Deniyaya with ‘Sekkuwa’ drama group in the same bus the artistes travelled for performing the drama. He appreciated the drama very much. Parakrama was also selected for the workshop along with 03 others. Asian artistes applying theatre arts for social change from India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Philippine, Japan and Kampuchea participated in the workshop. Parakrama describes his experiences at the workshop as follows;

‘I saw about 4000 people assembled in front of the open stage erected temporarily. There were no chairs to sit and watch. We too sat on a mat close to the stage and got ready to watch the drama. It was a remote village 60 kilometres away from the city of Raipoor in the District of Shattishgar in Central Province, India. It was a day in January 1978. Time was approximately 8.00 in the night. There was no curtain on the stage. Drama started. It was a beautiful drama enhanced with dancing, singing and dynamic performance. Although I didn’t understand the language I was captivated by the drama till the end. Since we were told about the storyline beforehand that would have helped. Voices of performers reached the thousands of drama watchers without any issue. A round speaker with approximately a foot in diameter hanging on the roof was doing the services of a microphone has also helped to supplant the sound. It was my first experience in usage that untraditional technique. 6 units of 500 Walt bulbs provided the lighting for the drama. After two days the same drama was performed for a big crowd with the help of Gas Lamps since there were no generators. Aesthetic values of the drama were not affected a bit by that method of illumination. The drama I watched that day was ‘Charandas Chor’ awarded as the best drama at the Edinburg International Drama Festival, England in 1982.'

During the period of workshops conducted under the leadership of Habib Thanvir I was fortunate to watch his drama trilogy ‘Agra Bazaar’, Mitti Ki Gardi’ and ‘Charandas Chor’. Of these ‘Mitti Ki Gard’ has been created based on Shudraka’s Sanskrit drama ‘Marichchakateeka’. ‘Agra Bazaar’ and ‘Charandas Chor’ were his autonomous creations. ‘Charandas Chor’ was based on a short story written by Vijayadan Detha emulating to a Rajasthan Folk Story. His drama group is known as ‘Naya Theatre’. Performers from folk dramas ‘Nacha’ and ‘Panthi’ from his hometown, the district of Shattighar’ performs in his dramas. They also perform as an orchestra. They are skilled and dancing, singing and recital.

All these dramas mentioned above are performed in both open spaces and proscenium theatres. Habib’s drama and theatre application and practices confirmed the answer sought by producing ‘Sekkuwa’ drama in 1976.

The dream about a tent theatre

Two members from ‘Black Tent’ drama group from Japan also participated in these sessions. ‘Black Tent’ is a drama group performing dramas in different places in their mobile tent. A documentary film of their activities was screened during the session. After seeing this documentary Parakrama thought that a similar programme could be implemented in Sri Lanka too. Rural theatre groups called ‘Teeter’ drama groups performed their dramas in temporary sheds erected with Cajon. We are familiar with circus tenets carried from place to place for circus displays. The concept of a mobile theatre came to Parakrama’s mind in this manner.

Returning to Sri Lanka after the session in India Parakrama started to explore ways and means to construct a mobile theatre that could be transported from place to place. The Chairman of Ceylon Christian Council, Father Kenneth Fernando (Later Bishop Kenneth Fernando), came forward to supply not only a tent with a stage but also a vehicle for transportation, stage lighting and sound equipment as well as payments to the performers and other ancillary expenses. But Parakrama abandoned the proposal as he didn’t like the idea of taking such a huge sum of money from a religious organization.

Aggravation of Sri Lankan Communal Crisis

During this period the socio political environment of Sri Lanka was whirling towards a disastrous path. When J R Jayewardene came to power in 1977 the country was directed towards an open economy. As a result of the communal attack against the Tamil community during the same years Tamil Youth started to organize rebellious units against the government and the majority community. In 1978 all progressive civil organizations, trade unions and political organizations established a movement titled ‘Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality – MIRJE) to protect minority communities. Parakrama became a member of the Executive committee of the organization from the inception. He broke away from the street theatre group and established a drama group titled ‘Open Arts Circle’. The objective of the ‘Circle’ was to create quality and aesthetic dramas that could be performed in either proscenium theatres or open spaces suitable for drama performance. Approximately 15 members of the group created 4 dramas and performed them in different parts of the country for different communities. (It was Open Arts Circle that produced Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo Galilee in 1983)

First attempt to establish a multi ethnic drama group

Parakrama’s Endeavour to recruit Tamil youth for the ‘Open Arts Circle’ and develop it as a multi-ethnic drama group failed. The main reason for this was the government’s action against the Tamil community with the collaboration of some sections of the Sinhala community. During this period Tamil youth preferred to organize against the injustices to their community rather than getting organized with Sinhala people. The corrupt development council election and burning down the Jaffna Library in 1980 and the cruel attack against the Tamil community in July 1983 transformed the country into a war zone. During the general election in 1981 45000 government employees were sacked from their jobs subjugating the society as a whole further.

Arrival of Television

During this period Parakrama’s drama teacher Dhamma Jagoda was working as the person in charge of the drama section of the State Drama Corporation, Rupavahini. At his teacher’s request Parakrama joined the drama section of SL Rupavahini Corporation. His tele-dramas (tele-films) became very popular. His series tele-drama ‘La Hiru Dahasak’ and his single episode (90 minutes) tele-drama were adjudged as best directions at the first ever television awards presentations’ Vijaya Television Awards’ in 1884. His creation ‘Yasorawaya’ tele-drama was adjudged the most popular tele-drama in 1986 as well as the tele-drama for ‘excellence in contribution’ in the same year. Another 90 minutes single episode tele-drama created by Parakrama titled ‘Kadaima’ (the boundary) won special jury award at the ‘Golden Chest’ international television awards ceremony, ‘Transtel’ award at the ‘Free Futura International Television Awards Berlin, Germany and Best direction awards as the Wijaya Television Awards and Unda Television Awards, Sri Lanka. One especial feature of his television productions was using Sinhala and Tamil artistes in them with the view to promote and develop communal and social integration. He worked as a drama producer at the State Television Corporation (Rupavahini) for 6 years. Due to increased political interference and establishment of an administration authority surpassing creativity he opted to resign from the Corporation in 1988 and work as an independent artiste. In 1993 with three of his friends a private television production institution was launched under the title ‘The Video Team (Pvt) Ltd – TVT.

Experience in three different art mediums

His contribution for the Cinema, Television and Theatre Arts is the especial feature of Parakrama’s creative and artistic life. In 1980 he produced his first short feature film titled ‘Palaveniya Saha Anthimaya’ (the first and the last) and won the best award for short films at the OCIC film awards. His first feature film ‘Siri Medura’ (Mansion) was adjudicated the best film at the ‘Sarasavi’ Film Awards in 1987. He produced his second feature film ‘Ayoma’ in 1992. His real love was theatre arts. In 1979 Parakrama produced a drama titled ‘Vinishchaya’ (Judgment) translating Albeya Kamoo’s Just Assassin. In 1983 Parakrama produced Bertolt Brecht’s ‘GalileoGalilee’ in Sinhala and in 1989 he produced the translated version of Fredrish Dureinmatte’s ‘The Visit of the Old Lady’ under the title ‘Uththmavi’. In 1998 Parakrama produced Dario Foe’s ‘Accidental Death’ with his travel friend H. A. Perera under the title ‘Warenthu’.

The struggle to achieve the concept of a Mobile Theatre

While engaging in all these artistic activities he kept on working on the concept of a Mobile Theatre that stimulated in his mind since 1978. He studied about mobile theatre groups and companies maintaining mobile theatres in various countries. Experiences in three different art mediums and the knowledge acquired during decades of work as frontline artiste further nourished his concept. As a result he submitted his proposal for a multi ethnic drama group and a mobile theatre to reach the masses to the Government of Chandrika Bandaranaike in 1994. His strategy included construction of a mobile theatre that could be transported to different parts of the country, establishment of a well-trained multi ethnic youth drama group and maintaining the drama group as company. It was submitted to the National Youth Council but rejected citing budgetary issues. After that, in 1999 it was submitted to the Minister of Cultural Affairs late Lakshman Jayakody in the same year. Mr. Ariyawansa Ranaweera, a poet and a literary scholar was the secretary to the minister. He submitted the proposal to the treasury for approval of funds. An action committee comprising of 10 artistes were appointed to implement the programme. Construction of mobile theatre was entrusted to National Engineering Research and Development Centre of Sri Lanka (NERD).

An experiment in a circus tent

While travelling to Awissawella, Parakrma saw a tent assembled to perform circuses. He met the owners of the circus and asked whether they were willing to let them perform 02 short dramas during circus display. They happily agreed. Parakrama got hold of a drama and theatre students group from the drama school conducted by the National Youth Council. He went to the circus tent with the students and performed two short dramas created by them. The circus team has given publicity about the drama performances and they were able to perform the dramas successfully to a packed crowed. Two engineers from NERD, Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and some members of the action committee also participated in this experience. Illuminated by a large single bulb (lamp) the drama was performed quite successfully. The experiment encouraged the action committed with regard to implementing the project.

A change of Cabinet Ministers

Unfortunately during the stage of selecting artistes for the drama group Mr. Lakshman Jayakody was transferred to another ministry due a cabinet reshuffle and a person with minute knowledge on culture or drama, Monti Gopallawa was appointed as the Minister of Cultural Affairs. Before long he scrapped the whole project and bought a bus and two vehicles for the Ministry with the funds allocated for the project.

The dream is realized

The news about a mobile theatre that could be transported from place to place along with a mobile drama group spread through the arts circles like an epidemic. Some were jealous of the project and connoted it as spending millions of government money in vain on a private enterprise of Parakrama Niriella. Majority applauded and commended the proposed attractive project. A lecturer of University of Colombo, Anoli Perera mentioned about the project in her report to HIVOS (Humanist Institute for Development Corporation), Netherlands referring to artistes applying their work towards social changes. The report caught the eye of Minda Groenweld, the director of Asia Pacific region of HIVOS. She came to Sri Lanka and met Parakrama. After getting full details about the project she approved adequate funds for establishing a multi ethnic drama group, to produce 04 dramas and to perform the dramas.

Mobile Theatre is constructed

USAID institute provided funds to construct the mobile theatre Parakrama dreamed of. The responsibility to construct the mobile theatre was entrusted to the Central Engineering Consultation Bureau chaired by Eng. Nihal Rupasinghe. Architect Udula Bandera Ausadahami was entrusted with the duty of designing of mobile theatre. Engineer U. S. Karunarathna and Assistant Engineer Mahinda Jayakody constructed the mobile theatre according to the design. As expected the mobile theatre was assembled at Janakala Kendraya, Battaramulla and ‘Andaramal’ drama was performed in 22nd January, 2005 introducing the programme as ‘Janakaraliya’ to the country.

Multi Ethnic Theatre Group

Effective publicity was given through newspaper articles and advertisements in Sinhala and Tamil newspapers calling application for the multi ethnic drama group. In response to the advertisements and publicity 1483 applications were received from Sinhala youth while only 03 applications were received from Tamil youth. There was not a single application from the Muslim community. According to Muslim culture they do not come forward for acting in dramas. With the assistance of Tamil friends from Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Bogawantalawa workshops were arranged to select and recruit Tamil youth for the drama group. Due to decade long anomalies between Sinhala and Tamil communities’ tremendous efforts had to be made to recruit Tamil youth for the group. Finally with the Tamil friends the parents of the selected youth were met at their residences and explained about the project and its objectives to establish a multi ethnic drama group. Thus the first ever multi ethnic drama group in Sri Lanka was established on 29th July 2004.

Irate communities under one roof

The multi ethnic drama group was housed at a rented large house in Hokandara about 15 kilometres from Colombo. In the upstairs 10 Sinhala and Tamil young women were lodged and downstairs 20 young men from Sinhala and Tamil communities were housed. Their training was very hard. Food and refreshments for the team were provided from HIOVOS funds while bedding, mosquito nets and kitchenware were supplied by USAID. They woke up at 06.00 in the morning and engaged in Yoga exercises and continued with theatre exercises. Daily training continued upto 05.00 in the evening. After a wash up to the dinner time they were engaged in acquiring aesthetic knowledge and arts appreciation programmes. Sinhala youth of the group did not know Tamil language while Tamil youth very poor in Sinhala. Since they had live under one roof and work together they were prompted to learn each other’s language for inter communication. In order to facilitate learning each other’s language theatre games had to be created. Out of the two Tamil group was learning Sinhala quicker than Sinhala group learning Tamil.

The multi ethnic drama group was housed at a rented large house in Hokandara about 15 kilometres from Colombo. In the upstairs 10 Sinhala and Tamil young women were lodged and downstairs 20 young men from Sinhala and Tamil communities were housed. Their training was very hard. Food and refreshments for the team were provided from HIOVOS funds while bedding, mosquito nets and kitchenware were supplied by USAID. They woke up at 06.00 in the morning and engaged in Yoga exercises and continued with theatre exercises. Daily training continued upto 05.00 in the evening. After a wash up to the dinner time they were engaged in acquiring aesthetic knowledge and arts appreciation programmes. Sinhala youth of the group did not know Tamil language while Tamil youth very poor in Sinhala. Since they had live under one roof and work together they were prompted to learn each other’s language for inter communication. In order to facilitate learning each other’s language theatre games had to be created. Out of the two Tamil group was learning Sinhala quicker than Sinhala group learning Tamil.

Creating the first drama

After 3 months full time residential training creating the first drama commenced. The story was about a dancing teacher appointed to a rural school without minimum facilities teaching dancing to school children without even a drum but using creative approaches. The drama was created without a script using improvising method. The group was entrusted with the task of developing incidents in the drama. Both Sinhala and Tamil versions had to be created at the same time. Sinhala dramatists should act in Tamil version while Tamil dramatists had to perform in Sinhala version. This method provided opportunities to learn each other’slanguages quickly. Dramas were created according to the traditions of each community. Sinhala drama was titled ‘Andaara Mal’ while the Tamil version was titled ‘Erikkalam Poo’.

Creation of 2nd Drama

The second drama created by the multi ethnic drama group was based on a script. It was written in Sinhala by Mangala Senanayake. All members of the group had to get together and translate the script into Tamil before starting the production. Finally the same story was created with infusion of Sinhala and Tamil dancing, music and singing traditions. The Sinhala title of the drama was ‘Seethambara Pata’ the Tamil title was ‘Mayapattade’.

The first journey

By first week of October 2004 the multi ethnic drama group has completed the above said two dramas ‘Andaramal’ and ‘Seethambara Pata’. Both dramas were created in Sinhala and Tamil language. The dramas had to be performed for Sinhala and Tamil audiences as an experiment. With the help of friends it was organized to perform the dramas in Vavuniya and Jaffna. This was a period of transitory peace. The A9 main road was heavily controlled by both armed forces and LTTE. On 30th November 2004 the drama group travelled by bus to Vavuniya and performed the Sinhala versions of the dramas to the students of Iratperiyakulam High School and Madukanda School and Tamil versions to the students of Hindu College successfully.

After the experience in Vavuniya the drama group performed the dramas in Active Theatre Movement and Kopai Teacher Training Centre in Jaffna. Some prominent Jaffna artistes including Dr. M Shanmugalingam came to watch the drama in these places. On their return to Colombo the Sinhala version was performed at Thanthirimale historical Buddhist temple and Vilachchiya Junior School. During all these performances of both Sinhala and Tamil versions the audiences were attracted to a common feature of Tamil artistes performing in Sinhala dramas and Sinhala artistes performing in Tamil dramas. The skilled usage of languages competent performance in acting and singing thrilled both Sinhala and Tamil audiences. As such Janakaraliya was immensely praised in Vavuniya, Jaffna and Thanthirimale.

Picture Galary

Janakaraliya has many important and positive deviations from traditional drama, all encompassed in it, include in Sekkuwa, Soru Awilla - Thein Kallan, Watoluwo saha Uloluwo, Wenkatti Wattanam, Charandas, Charandas Kallan, Chekku, Devlo Gamana - Devlo Payanam, Erukkalam Poo, Andaramal, Hunuwataya, Kora Saha Andhaaya, Kurudanum Nondiyanum, Makararaksha, Meti Karattaya Seethambarapata Mayapattadai. Here some gathered memorable moments among them.
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