Legacy of a prodigious thespianDr Henry Jayasena is no stranger to these pages of Artscope. He penned the ‘Henry Jayasena Column’ when R S Karunaratne was editor of this supplement. He made his mark in local culture scene with his gifted flair on stage as a playwright, director as well as a performer. Born on July 6, Henry would have been 81 if he did not pass away in 2009. Two posthumous works of Jayasena: ‘Lazarus’ a translation by Vijitha Fernando (Foreword by Dr Lakshmi de Silva) and ‘Sudu Seeyage Kavi Sindu’, a collection of children’s poetry, were recently launched by his son Sudaraka Jayasena. Sudaraka recalled life and times of his father for ‘Encounter of the Week’.
* Dr Lakshmi de Silva on ‘Lazarus’It is lively in its vivid realistic rendering of time and place. The portrayal of a childhood of isolation and loss is terse, yet moving, while the delineation of sexual stirrings and relationships is not only frank and mature but has unusual perceptiveness, touching sometimes on the sad borderline between ludicrousness and loneliness with compassion and sensitivity, at others on sensuous vitality. Henry Jayasena has been unusually fortunate, where, all too often, a translator’s wry consolation is the reflection that half a loaf is better than nothing, Vijitha Fernando gives full value. The skill that won her the State Literary Award for Women Writing.
I do not think father gave it serious thought. I was only five. Unlike adult characters, the child characters have to change on stage over a few years. I was chosen to perform as the small child, I think, because he could not find anyone else.
I was the fifth actor. That was no big deal, as there were no dialogues involved. I was too small to understand anything he must have taught me.
Q: How was his influence on your adult life?
In the 1960s father did a lot of stage plays. They had a warm response. So he decided to stage his ‘Janelaya’, which was already staged a few years, once again. I took part in the play. I could learn a lot of things then. It’s interesting to see how he teaches certain things. He taught some lessons non-verbally.
There is a particular way of standing on stage. You have to learn how to say or pronounce certain things too. If you are a director, you must learn how to manage the cast. I used to observe my father handling all this with interest. I was in my twenties then.
Q: What’s his source of theatrical knowledge?
Unlike today, there had been no teachers at the time. When he was quite small, he had seen a play with Rukmani Devi in Negombo. The play was produced by Minerva group. The little child he was, he didn’t even know it’s a stage play. Some were singing, some dancing – all that had enthralled the little artiste in him.
He was 12 years, when this happened.
Q: Your father’s starting point was stage. He gradually entered cinema and television. Towards later stages, he started writing in English in addition to Sinhala. Which interested him most?
Stage, of course. Even when he had quit stage, he did not stop going to watch stage plays. Whenever there is a good play, he would want me to join him too.
Q: But why did he quit the stage?
That’s because he had more commitments in cinema and television.
Q: He was Deputy Director General of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation in its infant stages. It must have been a challenge for him.
Definitely it must have been a challenge. Luckily he had experience of visual medium behind him. He had already taken part on stage and in cinema. He had been on foreign trips too.
He pioneered in introducing Oshin to Rupavahini, because he had watched the teledrama in Japan. So Rupavahini bought the copyrights to show it in Sri Lanka. As everyone knows, it became quite popular. The Japanese representatives were impressed by the ratings, and they sent the second instalment free of charge.
Q: Had he ever persuaded you to follow his footsteps?
He had never done that. True, he took me to act. But he never asked me to follow arts. If you have to follow something, you got to have intuition for that. I feel my father didn’t see that intuition in me. So he didn’t persuade me to take up arts.
He never forced me into anything. He always advised me to become a good citizen. He also emphasized the need of a secure job. That must have persuaded me to take up a job at the Hatton National Bank. I got that offer following my ‘Golu Hadawatha’ performance. I performed the lead role and it won me fame.
Q: Like most artistes, you father too did not depend only on artiste’s income. He was a government employee. How did he manage to engage in various art activities amid government employment regulations?
The environment. As he gradually became popular or established in the field, his senior officials understood his worth. They too admired him.
They made things easier as much as possible for him. At the Highway Department, he was posted in record room. He had liberty to entertain his visitors. He had liberty to go on with his work. Later in life he received positions linked to his field of interest.
Stage plays1951: Janaki
1962: Janelaya and Kuveni
1964: Tavat Udesanak
1965: Manavarjana Vedavarjana
1966: Ahas Maliga
1967: Hunuvataye Kathava
1968: Apata Puthe Magak Nethe
1972: Diriya Mava saha Ege Daruwo
1975: Sarana Siyoth se Puthun Hamba Yana
1978: Siri Sangab
1983: Jayathu Lanka
Minisun Voo Daruvo
Nim Nethi katahavak I, II
Hithata Hithena Kavi sindu
Sudu Seeyakge Kavi Sindu
Play is the Thing
The Story of a Cancer Patient
I think he was a writer anyway. He had been already in the industry, as almost every play was scripted into a book. But true, he was more interested in writing books following theatre and teledrama. He penned many original works. They were mostly self-portrayals, as his health was failing.
It was not a sudden transformation. He already had some command of Pali, and had deciphered some obscure Pali stanzas for me and my children. He was not a fanatic, but occasionally would suggest going to temple.
He led a religious life, I knew. But the sickness came as a shock, and he was a little down. His religious life helped him a lot.
Q: Your mother was also into arts. How did you see your parents’ relationship as artistes?
Father did not take any decision without consulting mother first. They both had the habit of consulting each other before taking any decision. Not that they did not have any issues.
They had conflicts, but my parents were skilled enough to negotiate those conflicts.
Q: How was your father’s attitude towards young generation’s plays?
Wherever something deserves appreciation, father didn’t hesitate to do so. He watched most stage plays of young dramatists and used to go offstage and congratulate them. He pointed out the plus as well as minus points. He was happy with most young dramatists’ plays.
Q: Your father used English as his medium of expression mostly during his last years. He wrote originals in Sinhala and translated them into English too. Why did he choose ‘Lazarus’ to be an exception?
At first he wanted to translate his Sinhala book. But later he wanted either Vijitha Fernando or Dr Lakshmi de Silva to translate it. They were the translators he had faith in among English translators. Vijitha Fernando completed the project in one month, and father liked it very much. All this happened when father was on his last lap. Then he passed away, and the manuscript lay somewhere. I had completely forgotten it, until Dr de Silva rang me one day and reminded. It’s my fault, as I was occupied with other commitments. When I asked Sarasavi publishers to undertake the publication, they also reminded of another book by father called ‘Sudu Seeyage Kavi Sindu’. It was even printed, but had not come out of press. So we launched both books.