On ‘true’ National Anthems

Way back in the late eighties, a group of students silenced politically on account of holding views that were at odds with those of the ‘Action Committee’ of the University of Peradeniya, ventured into theatre. The intention was probably not one of finding a different platform to express themselves, but that invariably happened.

The late Gamini Haththotuwegama, known variously as GK, Haththa and Hatha, widely accepted as ‘The Father of Street Theatre in Sri Lanka,’ who was at the time a visiting lecturer attached to the English Department of the Faculty of Arts, organised a ‘drama workshop.’ Haththa casted the  ‘outcasts’ into various roles over the course of several months.

‘Sarasavi Kurutu Gee’ or ‘Campus Graffiti’ was episodic. It was a collage of skits that commented on the condition of ‘studentship’ of those tense times which the students themselves didn’t really know would quickly move into a theatre of abduction, proxy arrests, torture and mass slaughter (there’s no other word for what happened in 1988-89).

This was pre-bheeshanaya, but the ominous clouds hovering over the entire island did not spare the universities either. So they ‘played’ the conditions of not just studentship but citizenship. At least one of the players, a student from the Medical Faculty named Atapattu, would be ‘disappeared’ not too long afterwards. Most of the boys had to endure untold hardships just to survive.

Typical of Haththa’s productions, ‘Sarasavi Kurutu Gee’ was full of political commentary, but laced with humour, song, clever turn of phrase and theatrical innovation, throwing light on what was as well as what was likely to be. All of these were evident in one particular piece or episode.

There were three chairs on stage. Three players were stretched out on their stomachs behind the chairs, their heads protruding through them. The audience therefore could see just their faces. They were supposed to be television presenters of news. So they ‘read’ the news. At one point another player walked on to the stage, which was by the way the Sarachchandra ‘Wala’ or the Open Air Theatre. He recited a few lines from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth.’

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

If I remember correctly, it was just the first four lines or maybe just the first two. Sinhala and Tamil versions were also recited. Then there was silence.

Then one of the presenters blurted out, ‘ගැහුවා නේද වැරදි ඇන්තම් එක! ගහන්නයි කිව්වේ හරි ඇන්තම් එක! (Essentially, ‘That was the wrong anthem, now you’d better sing the correct anthem!)’ And so the all the players, huddled at that point on one side of the stage, broke into song.

Jana Gana Mana Adhinaayak Jaya Hey,
Bhaarat Bhaagya Vidhaataa
Panjaab Sindhu Gujarat Maraatha,
Draavid Utkal Banga
……Sri Lanka….

Vindhya Himaachal Yamuna Ganga…..Kadinam Mahaweli Ganga

‘Sri Lanka’ as just another state of India, following the Indian invasion a year before. The Mahaweli not just another ‘Indian’ river but an ‘accelerated’ one; the reference being to the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project of the then government.

Funny. Political. Creative. Nicely executed as well — the full audience appreciated.

And today, with all the noise about the national anthem, it’s alleged butchery and its alleged meaninglessness, I wonder which country’s national anthem would we sing (with a few twists) if ‘Sarasavi Kurutu’ Gee was played again with adjustments for time, personality and event. The Indian, Chinese or the American?

Come to think of it, we could have played with the lyrics of the Sri Lankan national anthem too (the tune after all is the same as ‘Olu pipila vila lela denava,’ and there’s nothing sacrosanct about music, lyrics and even nation and nationality).

People have a right to criticise. People have a right to ridicule. People have a right to scoff, innovate and critique. They will hurt feelings and they will in focus, target and brashness reveal who they are, where their loyalties lie and which flags they would love to have flying over land and citizenry.

Meanwhile, there’s a country that bears the full weight of leaders’ sins, citizen-complicity and machinations of enemies, within and without.

This is not a time to sing the national anthem, I feel, unless one feels it is useful to whip up courage and resolve. This is the time to do what is necessary to make it possible to sing all the songs that resonate nation and citizen, history and heritage, vision and moment, in whatever language we like.

The players went to their hostels after the show. The time for song and laughter came to a halt. They scattered to places of refuge not too long afterwards. Blood was shed. No one talked of flag and anthem. A nation survived.


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