Though by the late eighties I was doing a lot of educational work, the cultural programmes continued apace. One area in which we contributed in an innovative and creative way was in conducting a series of drama workshops that led to productions of texts produced by the workshop participants.
The catalyst for this was a young Englishman called Scott Richards, who was introduced to me by a friend who taught in one of the international schools, and had enjoyed some of the performances the Council put on. Scott worked over a few days with a group of youngsters who wrote and put on a hilarious set of skits called ‘What the papers don’t say’. I remember in particular a take-off of how the youngsters assumed the Private Medical College, a great bone of contention then amongst students, had been set up. Nishan Muthukrishna, the most culturally aware apart from Ravi John of the Josephians Richard had trained almost a decade earlier, was brilliant as an academic determined to get his child a prestigious degree in medicine.
That indeed was the problem with the Private Medical College, that would otherwise have been seen as a welcome innovation by those of us who believed in a system of private education complementary to the free education provided by the state. It had managed to ensure that the degree its students would obtain would be from Colombo University. I know that, when I pointed out this anomaly, Carlo Fonseka said that he had been in favour of this, since it would ensure that the course would be of a suitable level. But I suspect Carlo’s essential good nature was taken advantage of by those more single-minded than himself. It would surely have been easy to devise a scheme of quality assessment, essential if private education were to be encouraged. But Carlo was still in the old statist mindset, the Private Medical College was to be a one off exception, so it had to be brought in essence under state control, with state certification, rather than simply state assessment of the quality of the final product.
The performance Scott directed was so good, and so successful in terms of the reactions of the audience, that Rex Baker agreed to my suggestion that we get Scott down again. I think Rex was also quite pleased that the Council had the reputation of the only elite institution that could be critical of government policies and practices. This probably went down very well with David Gladstone, who was full of enthusiasm and a desire to innovate, being the first young man to have been appointed British High Commissioner, for a long time if not ever.
In 1987, following Richard’s brilliant production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Steve de la Zylwa had asked if he could do a play. This was most heartening, since previously what might be termed the senior drama establishment had looked slightly askance at what I was doing, seeing it perhaps as amateur stuff compared with their own professional productions. He chose to do ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, which was highly topical in those days of total government control of the media except for a few fringe outlets. Those were the days too when the newly formed STF, under JR’s son Ravi, was a law unto itself, having been trained I believe by the mercenary group called Keany-Meany Services, which the British government had helped to establish. It was used, while avoiding direct government involvement, to train the security forces of allies in specialized techniques of suppressing potentially dangerous dissent.
The performance was immensely funny, but very telling, with Peter d”Almeida as the disruptive journalist, and a splendid set of nasty policemen, with Dilan Perera particularly preposterous as the junior duffer. I was most delighted then when finally, a decade and more later, Dario Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and also when, in Jaipur a couple of years back, I saw a production by a company of youngsters from a scheduled tribe. This was a term the British had used to legally oppress groups they thought recalcitrant, and the government of independent India had allowed the process to continue, through the mixture of lethargy and cynicism that has led us too to persist with nasty and outdated British legislation, which to their credit the British themselves have modified.
Steve’s production was very well reviewed, though one perceptive article referred to it as a beautiful caged animal, implying that the government was content to allow such critiques in a non-threatening restricted space such as the Council Hall. Richard, in a different way, was also chafing at what he thought the limited reach and understanding of Colombo society, and had recently begun working with boys from a very different sort of background. He had met them through one of his more affluent Royal College protégés, but he soon found that this group had very different attitudes, and a combination of contempt and envy for their more privileged peers.
He had sent a couple of them for Scott’s first workshop, and added a few more to the much longer workshop for which we got Scott down specially within a few months. These boys completely dominated the next production, called ‘Twice Told Tales’, a set of political skits based on village folklore. Again one memory stands out, that of the most talented of the boys, Madura, acting a farmer whipping on a group of bulls, which one gradually realized represented the manner in which JR governed the country and the goons he used for his dirty work.
Madura was short and thin but, like Nalanda Ellawala, very sure of his own capacities and strengths. I had recently set up a scheme to involve youngsters in our work, by appointing Cultural Affairs Trainees for short periods. I was quite proud of them, and later claimed that ‘All my CATS were swans’, for many went on to distinguished careers, Neluka Silva now a Professor at Colombo, Madhubhashini Dissanayake who writes and translates and teaches and performs and also supports and complements her talented husband Pradeep Ratnayake, Prasanna Liyanage, now a successful architect who has helped to set up the Department of Design at Moratuwa University.
Richard had asked if Prasanna could be a CAT, and he proved adept and helpful, so I asked if Madura would like to follow. Richard came back after a couple of days and said that Madura had declined, on the grounds that this might lead to him being cut away from his roots. Prasanna, Richard interpreted Madura as saying, might like to become the Sri Lankan version of a yuppie, but Madura felt he needed to stay anchored in his own natural milieu.
I was reminded then of what my fellow student from the North of England who had been Secretary of the Junior Common Room at University College had said when I had started a series of sherry parties for the freshmen – subsidized by the Domestic Bursar, who was also Chaplain, and happy to encourage what he saw as my efforts too at pastoral care. Andy, the only person elected to office who was not on my slate, though we subsequently became great friends and he still sends me Christmas cards, was deeply suspicious of what he thought was my elite background, and my good relations with the College administration. ‘The lads feel,’ he said, ‘that you’re trying to turn them into something they’re not. They like their beer, they don’t know what all this will lead to.’
I think I reassured him that I had no evil intentions, and I still think what I did was helpful. But it struck me that different people have very different perspectives, and one needs to try to be sensitive to all of them.
Madura was obviously his own man and, though always polite and I think positive about what we did at the Council, he intended to keep his distance. In 1989 he was one of those taken in for questioning over JVP activities, released and then promptly abducted – perhaps on lines inculcated by Keany-Meany. He was never seen again.