Conversationalist in Sarachchandra | Sunday Observer

Conversationalist in Sarachchandra

15 August, 2021

No doubt, he is the most seminal intellectual, literary figure and dramatist Sri Lanka has ever produced. He is Veditantrige Ediriweera Ranjtha Sarachchandra. On this August 16, twenty five years lapse that he passed away. When we talk about him it is very difficult to find an aspect of him that we didn’t touch as all of his artistic and academic endeavours were discussed deeply and in many ways. However, there is one feature of him that we yet to touch upon, but should discuss seriously. It is his importance as a conversationalist.

The general phenomenon for an artist is that every artist is an introverted character. With Dr. Sarachchandra, it’s incorrect. He is both extrovert and introvert. If we ask from one of his friends or students about this, he or she invariably would say that he was a very friendly character with loving to talk. The following is an excerpt from a commemoration lecture on Sarachchandra by Professor Ranjini Obesekara:

“We were young lecturers at Peradeniya and living at Mahakande. Sarachchandra also happened to live there in a house down the road. By then we were good friends. Invariably, of an evening around five or six we would hear the ‘tok tok’ sound of Sarath’s getta’s coming down the road to our house. He had returned from his spell in Japan and Japanese clogs were his evening footwear and the signature of his arrival!”

His style

Then she describes the nature of his conversations:

“Those evenings were memorable. Sitting 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 Gunasekara, H.L. Seneviratne, Ian Vandendriesen, Bandula Jayawardene, Kitsiri Malalgoda or a group of student friends. The conversation would range from concepts in Buddhist or European philosophy or modern sociology to recent literary works whether from Europe, England or Sri Lanka, politics, criticism, music, drama, ritual, anything that any of us happened to be engaged in or that happened to come up.

Sarath was a scintillating conversationalist, erudite, well read, and could quote from English, Pali or Sanskrit literature at the drop of a hat – and always did to make his point. His sharp wit and light hearted jokes enlivened the evenings. I realise now that the seed of my own intellectual stimulation came from those evening conversations and my earliest work on Sinhala literary criticism germinated there.”

D.B. Dhanapala, a pioneering journalist in Sri Lanka, also mentions about Sarachchandra’s conversational habit:

“I had known Sarathchandra for a long time. We had often tired the Sun with talking and ragging each other which often extended to the small hours of morning.” (Among Those Present, Page 208)

Good friend

Of course, Sarachchandra was an introverted character, but why did he seek for an extroverted life too? Before answering this question we should ask why does an artiste or a writer need an introversion. In fact, the stormy life of outside world annoys a sensitive person such as writer or an artist.

It irritates him, hurts him. But if he can live in an imaginary world constructed by himself, he can face – ignore – those outside ‘terrorism’ or get rid of all the agonies from outside word. But with Sarachchandra, he needed the outside company as far as the inner intimacy too when life goes on. This is why he was in search of friends.

Sarachchandra had many friends, not just in the university and Sri Lanka, but outside the university and around the world too. For instance he was a good friend of Kamala Das, a renowned poetess in India. When Kamala Das visited Sri Lanka she stayed at Sarachchandra’s place. And he had friends in Japan too. When he was in Japan, he boarded with a Japanese family. The relationship of it was so much intense that finally he could write two novels in Sinhala based on that which were Malagiya Atto and Malavunge Avurududa – English version of them is Foam Upon the Stream authored by Sarachchandra.

Wherever Sarachchandra went, one of his friends, mostly student friends came with him. When he was the ambassador in France, P.B. Galahitiyawa, a student at Peradeniya University, accompanied with his family. And when Sarachchandra faced his family problems he also went to his friends’ places – First to Tissa Kariyawasam’s room at the University, then to Anura Fonseka’s boarding house in Nugegoda.

The most important thing of this association was the benefits the both parties enjoyed. D.B. Dhanapala points out this fact as follows:

“Sarathchandra sang songs with his students during off hours, staged plays, wrote books, talked long into the night, taking them into his confidence and shaping their enthusiasms to the pattern of cultured gentlemen.

“In these academic adventures of a delightful Don, Sarathchandra had produced a large number of plays from ‘Pabavati’ to ‘Maname’” (Among Those Present, Page 210)

Sarachchandra, indeed, hadn’t any idea of producing a drama named Maname when he first met Charles Silva Gunasinghe Gurunnanse, the composer of Maname tunes. Sarachchandra heard some attractive songs nearby while he was going on somewhere in a town.

It was a puppet show in which the songs were sung by Charles Silva Gurunnanse. Sarachchandra fetched him to his home – lecturer’s quarters at the University – not to produce a drama, but to enjoy his songs. However, the path breaking event of Maname making took place because of Sarachchandra’s innate extroverted behaviour.

Value for listener

We can argue that the ideal profession for Sarachchandra was university lecturer because it gave him ample opportunity to associate outside world. If we trace back his earlier professions, we can find two jobs, both abandoned by him - first a Publishing Manager (Administrative section) in Lake House, then a teaching post at St. Peter’s College. The fascinating thing about his extroverted character is that the amount of value he gave to his companions. D.B. Dhanapala writes about this as below:

“The more he grew in stature as a scholar, as an author, as a Don, as a cultural Pope, the less he seemed feel his importance. He has given his friendship freely and easily to his students and as they associated with him they learned the greatness of simplicity and the pleasure of intellectual and cultural efforts.” (Among Those Present, Page 209)

Professor Somaratna Balasuriya also discusses about this. The next statement was caught from an interview that he has given to this writer:

“Sarachchandra needed some drink, while having a conversation. But he didn’t finish the drink quickly when he was taking liquor. He sipped it little by little. The reason was he enjoyed it. He wanted to have a pleasure with it, not to drink it. His conversations are also like that. He never disappointed the listener. Once when we were in a conversation, I told him ‘I don’t like your novel Malagiya Atto, because there are no social elements in it’. He just listened to me, and then said “Oh, you may be right. It is your reading.”

Man among the people

Some Sinhala writers such as Gunasena Withana who follows the Soviet propagandist literature, reiterates that writer should live among people. As for Sarachchandra, he lived amongst the people, but he never wrote for them – lay people. His fans should have high literary taste.

In this way, it is hard to reach a conclusion why he pursued people’s company. The late Professor Tissa Kariyawasam said that Sarachchandra drove his car from Peradeniya to Colombo whenever he had any radio program at Radio Ceylon. “But he often came with someone else who was his student friend mostly. I also came with him many times. While he was driving, naturally he engrossed in a conversation. The conversation was very much enjoyable. Because he was very witty about the things we conversed.”

When talking about his wittiness, it should be mentioned one incident. Once while Sarachchandra was engrossed in a conversation with friends, a student came to meet him and went away quickly. One member of the group asked him, “Kawuda a? Oba tumage golayekda? (Who was he? Was he your student?)” Sarachchandra said very quietly, “Man hitanne mage bala golayek! (I think he is not my best student!)”

Background for Peradeni School

We now frequently talk or aggressively argue about the Peradeni school of literature. Yet some members of Peradeni school denies the fact that there were such school of literature. For instance, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, a giant of Peradeni school in 1960s, said that “There wasn’t such school at all in University of Peradeniya. Yes, a literary discourse was there, but there wasn’t a unanimous agreement among the people.”

The late Professor Siri Gunasinghe also proved this fact: “If there was a school of literature called Peradeni, then the people in it had no similar opinions. I also haven’t an agreement with Sarachchandra in many literary issues.” But then, how was the Peradeni school originated?

We cannot deny the fact that there were agreements more than disagreements at the University, and that there were a large number of students, lecturers and other followers who gathered around Sarachchandra. In that sense, is it right to conclude that the Peradeni school of literature was born because of Sarachchandra’s literary endeavours? Specifically, because of his extroverted character?

Sarachchandra produced more than dozens of dramas at the University. He could never have achieved such a feat if he was engaged in them alone. He was helped by many to achieve this goal. In fact, all the tasks of his dramas including publicity campaign were done by his students. Once he produced a drama called Mahasara with minor staff of the University. How could he reach so many people, regardless of their position? It was because of his extroverted character; his conversational behaviour – It is worthwhile to collect his anecdotes at the setting of the dramas or outside of it, though it is too late.

His teaching method was also none other than an extension of his conversational style. He never took notes or any resource book when he went for a lecture at the university. And he never gave notes as well while lecturing. According to his students, his teaching method was conversational, so much conversational was that one can never said they were lectures. Yet, the important thing is the points he raise in them, are retained forever with students.

“When you participate in his lectures, you have not anything to write down. You just have to listen. But after the lecture you can have the idea about the points he raised. Because all the things he taught at the lecture hall retain with you,” said Anula de Silva, a veteran writer and the student of Sarachchandra in University of Peradeniya.

Spreading of his views

Once he participated in a debate with Professor K.N. Jayathilake, a renowned professor on Buddhist philosophy. The debate was at the university on reincarnation. Prof. Jayathilake came to it with heaps of books, and he gave a very long lecture quoting lots of passages from those books.

But Sarachchandra came to it without any book or note. He, casually stepping up to the stage, said: “I feel it is worthwhile to have another life to read those books!”

At the time we hadn’t another university other than Peradeniya. So if a lecturer had more students, it meant that his ideas spread widely through them. Therefore, Sarachchandra’s ideas – on literature and any other subject – spread all over the country more than any other university lecturer’s ideas.

But this created so many enemies around him, though the real reason behind it was his extroverted conversational behaviour which attracted people. Nevertheless, he definitely deserved to such recognition.

According to the late Professor Sucharitha Gamlath, “No significant new literary or dramatic work of Sri Lanka can be produced which rejects or bypasses or repudiates or ignores Sarachchandra’s achievement.” (Through Santiniketan Eyes)

In this way, it is noteworthy to look into Sarachchandra’s conversational character more seriously, because the reason behind all of his artistic endeavours is this unique quality.