Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Manik Sandarasagra: Personalities unplugged

"At one time he was a well-known stage and screen artist, and after that he was known for championing his cause for village culture. That again he experimented with various religions…"


By Chamila Jayaweera

Manik Sandrasagra and Top
Manik Sandrasagra relaxing with friend Topi in 1987
Manik Sandrasagra
Manik with friend Gamini Dissanayake at the opening of the 1989 Festival of Lanka
Manik Sandrasagra
Manik chatting it up with village woman somewhere in the Wanni
Manik Sandrasagra
Manik with staff at Living Heritage Reserve project in Koslanda
Manik with Dambana Vedda elder
Manik with Dambana Vedda elder Unapana Warige Heem Bandiya at Kataragama festival, July 2004

Manik Sandrasagra appears to be one of those many faceted personalities. At one time he was a well-known stage and screen artist, and after that he was known for championing his cause for ‘village culture'. Then again he experimented with various religions… a little bit of Islam, here a dab of Hinduism there, at which time he dressed likewise, even going to the extremes of shaving his head! Eccentric? Perhaps. But he says not.

Visiting him at his home in Colombo. I was pleasantly relieved to find that his daughter (18 years old) was extremely normal in comparison, and felt totally at ease with their pretty little Yorkshire Terriers running about the house. What I had actually expected was a sort of Pilgrim's Rest with pictures of deities all over.

To get one question cleared up fast, I asked Manik what his religion was in reality. "Food!" he replied patting his stomach. "I live in this little mud hut in a village a little distance away from Anuradhapura, and well, I farm rice for a living. Everything I eat there is homegrown. Except for sugar, salt and fish. Naturally survival comes first."

How if he were asked what religion he was born with? ‘Ah, then I'd say Roman Catholic, "he answered smiling, "and my parents were very conventional on top of all that."

Having established the fact that he had lived in the rural part of the country for the past nine years. I wanted to know what exactly the reason was for him to migrate there every so often, leaving his wife and his daughter here in Colombo? "I don't tell anybody how to live their lives." He said plainly enough. "And my wife really has a tough time with me, because she doesn't understand me… a lot of people don't want to be in the midst of all the frustration and turmoil in the city, with Prabhakaran and the IMF and the World Bank aiming missiles at us constantly." Pausing a while, he thought deeply. "You know. I have been a dreamer, and very few dreamers are ever fortunate. In my case, in the case of the cultural activities, I've been funned by business people, to do my projects, since they've been sensible enough tireless that it is profitable to fund people like myself," he laughed.

"Actually I think I have lived a magic life, "he said, adding that he couldn't put it all down in words, but then that silence indicated his wisdom.

"One reason for my happiness is, "he went on, "the fact that I'm away from civilization, and I have no idea of what is going on around me. Our country is being stripped, robbed and raped by the various political parties in it, and it's mainly the middle classes that are getting thrashed around. It is they who consume arrack and criticize everybody. See, the rice are happy being rice, and the very poor don't know otherwise!" he said putting forward his version of the say he saw things.

Fifty-year-old Manik first started his education in the Montessori of St. Bridget's Convent, and his Montessori mate then had been President Chandrika Kumaratunga herself. Did he really remember all that way back? "Oh yes. "He chuckled, "I remember all the little girls in my Montessori class!" And his daughter quipped that he was known to have a very good memoir indeed.

His next lineup of schools had included St. Joseph's College, Śrī Pali in Horana. St. Aloysius ‘College. "But after that I never went on to university, "he revealed, pointing out that according to his beliefs, it was better to have the practical knowledge rather than the theoretical stuff.

"I am a self taught man, "he said, "and my teacher has been the university of life."

Manik has also traveled quite a lot, and places like England and the States had great influences on his mind. "I was very much taken up with Woodstock, and the Flower Power movement, "he says.

And why had he quit the busy lifestyle of being a screenwriter? "Well," he mused "I made a couple of movies and teledramas, and then I discovered that my mind was being manipulated by all this, and what was the point in being involved in all this if I couldn't expose the system? So, I just packed up and left."

Did he still stick to his views that ganja or cannabis ought to be legalized in Sri Lanka?

"Look," he said, "I recently suffered from a heart attack, and you know what the medicine is that I've been prescribed by my rural doctors? Well, it's a form of cannabis."

Manik explained that the roots of village culture maybe represented by two local plants, the kitul palm and the ganja plant. "Both these were plants which were banned by the British. Why should we be dictated by the white man on how to live our lives and what we should use? I'm not saying that ganja ought to be smoked freely among people. All I say is that it has various medicinal qualities in its natural form without going into chemical extraction like in the poppy plant. This suppression, according to Manik, was one of the causes of increased heroin use.

He further explained that cannabis is more or less like dispirit and cures 60% of stomach-upsets. "There is also no physical addiction to it, only psychological addiction. In England they have started weaving fabrics out of marijuana plants," he said showing me a book all about this form, "So why are we denied the rights?"

According to Manik, whereas tobacco is a bigger narcotic than cannabis, this itself could be considered just a mild tranquilizer.

"And hey, "he laughed, "if people in Sri Lanka aren't getting high on ganja anyway, then it's on booze, or cigarettes or fame … you name it!"

Righto! Did he harbor any fears or phobias? "None at all. The truth motivates me. I walk around in the village without slippers amidst snakes, and yet I'm not afraid, because I'm staunch believer of time."

Describing the Government of any country as public enemy number one, Manik rebels against the mass media of yesteryear, which he claims were easily bought by liquor, trips abroad and other gifts. "I guess the generation nowadays in the business have more fixed ideals and values then the older ones!" He said with a wry smile.

But for such a strong critic of the social life in Colombo… rumors that Manik is a well-known face at the Lionel Wendt. Art Centre may come as a surprise!