Sunday, August 28, 2005

Creative activity with children

Its one of a photo of the Creative Activity with the Children's Group of Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group in Dutch Bar.

The Art activity was facilitated by young contemporary artist of the Third Eye S.Nirmalavasan with the support of affiliates of the Third Eye.

Its an exercise to innovte creativity and collectivity among the children and importantly to connect them with their own environment without depending on charity.

Text and photo S.Jeyasankar

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Research through imperial eyes

Research through imperial eyes
By: S. Jeyasankar - Focus
Northeastern Monthly November 2004

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits, which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, and have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is men themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system” (Paulo Freire 1973: 58).

The system of education in Sri Lanka today is mostly theory-oriented, didactic and problematic on several issues, namely gender, ethnicity, caste etc. and education is treated as ‘knowledge and information packages’ not as a process of identification of problems, search for solutions, or invention of solutions.

Education today could be described as a tutorial-loaded and competitive examination-oriented system, conducted in class or lecture rooms that are matchbox-like wall-bound spaces, where the teacher or lecturer stands on an elevated space in a position to ‘give’ and the students are in a position to ‘take.’ In brief, the current education system is a monologue of the teacher and not a dialogue with the students.

“In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as process of inquiry” (Paulo Freire 1973:58). The relevance of the subjects and information imparted in most formal curricula is remote from the practical life of students and to the day to day life of Sri Lankans especially the Tamils. This type of exclusion and alienation from the environment will not allow the teacher and the student to imagine, to think or to create. To make a success of the current system of education we harness ourselves like racehorses. The image of racehorses is well suited to our students who are in schools or in the universities. Preparing for the exam is a penance. Like a saint, a student must shed off all his or her connections with the outside world where he or she is living.

The purpose of the current system of education is to produce service personnel because it is not an organic system. It was a system designed and imposed directly by the colonial powers when they were ruling this country, and later by neocolonial powers indirectly through ‘loan schemes’ and ‘aid programs’ aimed at a developing country.

In Sri Lanka, though we have considerable experience in running a ‘modern’ education system and despite a number of reforms to it, acute and unresolved problems remain in every sphere of life in the country. Dependency on aid and expertise from overseas should spur us on to reflect on the crises in the system.

Most of the people in power often boast of the country’s high literacy rate but they do not connect it with the problems in this country. What do they mean by “literate?” A person who can write his or her name on a piece of paper is literate, while someone who has skill and knowledge but without letters is illiterate!

The important questions are: what are we learning? And what is happening around us? This will lead to another question - why are we learning or what is education?

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Paulo Freire 1973:58).

History and our experience with education systems and reactions to education reform in Sri Lanka will reveal to what extent we are genuinely liberated from colonial and neocolonial hegemony. The statement, “we will produce nurses and develop tourism and let them send satellites” made by a top person from the Education Reform Program, guided by the World Bank, at a meeting of the community of the Eastern University, Batticaloa, is a typical example of current thinking in the country. We are totally under the control of western and now American cultural imperialism.

If we scrutinize the writings, statements and the speeches of the people in power at present, we can realize to what extent we are part of a liberated education system or in the process of creating an organic education system.

A person with only a basic degree from a university can function as an adviser to people with a long experience in their profession or field. “We will teach them” is the motto of their mission. This motto informs academic forums so pervasively that there is no space for the motto “We will learn from them” or “We will learn from them also!” We academics listen to them only when they answering our questions. This is the irony of the modern education system.

Academics in universities doing research are mostly influenced by conventional ‘scientific research methodologies’ without questioning their validity and applicability to particular situations; they practice it as a mere intellectual exercise. The amount of unproductive research work in university libraries and the unresolved problems of the outside world clearly reveal the relationship between creative and productive academic work and society at large.

“Disciplines are based around a framework for understanding the subject matter of the field. Students are trained in the standard way of thinking. If researchers work in a university setting, they are influenced by colleagues. If they want to publish scholarly papers, they have to get referees, who are usually established members of the field, most of whom expect research to follow the standard patterns.

“Referees and editors expect authors to be familiar with standard ideas and publications in the field, which requires a considerable investment of effort to comprehend. All this prevents outsiders from waltzing in to make a contribution to the discipline. To use another metaphor, disciplinary expectations operate like strong tariff barriers against moving very far from one’s own training and previous research output” ( Martin Brian 1998).

For the intellectuals in our society, methodology is an unchangeable and eternal thing! They are bound and determined by ‘international research standards’ and ‘requirements.’ Their ultimate aim is to publish a research article in an internationally refereed journal in an international language that is, presumably, in Standard English. It’s very rare to hear a voice about the usefulness of such research to society.

“Social activists often express great frustration and annoyance with academics who are in such a good position to help a cause, but do so little. A tenured academic has job security, a good salary, flexible working hours and a great deal of control over areas to research, not to mention, in many cases, specialist knowledge and considerable skills in writing and speaking. Such a person could be a tremendous asset to a hard-pressed activist group dependent on volunteers and without the capacity to carry out in-depth investigations. While quite a few academics sympathize with environmental, peace, feminist, antiracist, and other social movements, very few become heavily involved. Hence the frustration” ( Martin Brian 1998).

In my considered view the faith in ‘scientific research methodologies’ is merely a barrier to look into matters around us in depth and to evolve solutions. This is due to the university system, the education system and research methodologies that are practiced by us being constructs of the colonial establishments; they are not organic forms or structures designed by the people who live and struggle for the betterment of their day-to-day life in their own spaces.

Colonial construction of the education system and neocolonial impositions and influences on educational reforms have led to the alienation of the people, especially the intellectual community, from their own environment. If we study the syllabuses of schools, teachers training colleges, colleges of education and the universities, we could verify the truth of this statement.

In the various aspects of research, intellectuals treat the local environment and local people merely as resource bases but not as problem-solving spaces or spaces for change. These resource bases are not the beneficiaries of conventional research or academic work and in most instances are not even aware of the final product of the research.

This is due to researchers being usually unwilling to take back the final outcome of their work to the people who are subjects of the research, or the final product is in a language that cannot be easily communicated to ordinary people. The language, the size and format of books, journals or academic papers, footnotes, references, academic jargon, quotations etc. are tedious and sometimes overwhelming for the ordinary reader to understand the work.

For example the academic work on kooththu performances in Sri Lanka has a history of at least 50 years but the people who have been performing the dance for generations have very limited knowledge of it. Any person who works or at least speaks to kooththu artistes will acknowledge the truth of this reality.

Why is the relationship between academic work and the performers or practitioners so weak? It is because if the relationship between them was strong the authority of the academics to make pronouncements on kooththu would diminish to a position equal or inferior to that of the performers. They must share their authority with the performers. How could an ‘educated’ person share authority with the ‘uneducated’ one? How could a ‘literate’ individual share his authority with an ‘illiterate’ one? These are the politics of a colonial system of education. Segregating theory from practice is the consequence of introducing theories of the conquerors or the colonialists as ‘modern’ theories. The introduction and influence of colonial theories of imperialist conquerors, the segregation of theory from practice, treating theory with reverence and honoring research paper oriented academic works over all others will lead to a gradual death of practices of ordinary people and the vacuum filled by colonialist practices labeled as ‘modern.’

The other question is to what extent the academic works on kooththu genuinely represent or reflect the kooththu performances and the community that performs it. A person whose familiarity with kooththu is confined to merely reading about it faces strange and incomprehensible experiences at a kooththu performance set in a kooththu community theatre. It is like the depiction of traditional doctors as witches in colonial descriptions. The politics of this kind of depiction and description is obvious – it is another type of aggression or conquest.

Imperialism works by conquering or colonizing the land first and with help of the colonial establishment conquering or colonizing the mind. Conquering or colonizing the mind will pave the way for a long rule of the conqueror or the colonizer.

The regular arrival of experts from the outside world to solve domestic problems is a clear mark of our position in our own spaces. We were designed and are being designed by colonial and neocolonial powers as subjects and consumers. A clear proof of this argument is to look at contemporary development programs planned and implemented by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith identifies and critiques the intersections of imperialism, knowledge, and research. According to Tuhiwai Smith, dominant, mainstream, western cultures conceive of research as intellectual activities grounded in broader, popular and legal discourses that distort or silence other ways of knowing and being. One consequence of such research for indigenous peoples is what she calls “research through imperial eyes” – knowledge largely useless for native kinship communities and too often useful for further colonization.

In this background we have to raise questions regarding the purposes and functions of research: Why do we do research? Who benefits from it? Who uses the information we gather and what for?

Vadamody kooththu and reformulating Batticaloa’s community theatre

Vadamody kooththu and reformulating Batticaloa’s community theatre
Source: Northeastern Monthly - July 1, 2004
By: S. Jeyasankar

Kooththu is the traditional theatre of the Tamils of Sri Lanka and is currently practiced in different strata of the society. Though the war affected people much at the community level, which is the bastion of kooththu, the dance form survives with its traditions unharmed.

The modernization process has shifted the kooththu to be used for different social functions. At one level, kooththu is being used as a showpiece in cultural festivals (luckily it is not extended to shopping complexes and five star hotels and tourist resorts as in Sinhala culture). War in the northeast had functioned as a barrier for the commodification of cultures and cultural artifacts.

In another level, kooththu is being modified to fit it into a new context or framework, which is conditioned and constructed by modern political and artistic concepts like modernization, national identity and cultural identity etc.

In the background of the post-colonial concept of hybridization, the blending of the traditional and the modern elements to counter the colonial hegemony in the cultural and in the political spheres is regarded as a political act in national politics.

But the politics of hybridization has been criticized as an appropriation of the pre-colonial space to fit into the colonial space. Colonialism is not a “POST” or “PAST”, it’s continuous process in different ways in different times. At present it’s in the name of globalization of the market forces.

The concept of post-colonialism was replaced by the concepts of decolonization and reformulation. Instead of creating a hybridized world of ‘Thirisanku,’ re-inventing the pre-colonial space and reformulating it into a people-oriented space to counter the globalization process of the market forces are the politics of decolonization and reformulation.

The decolonization and the reformulation processes also have a global aspect. It is the globalization of integrated forces, which experienced colonialism and experience neo-colonialism that is the globalization of the market forces.

The inventions of modern technologies are the electrifying forces of imperialism and neo-imperialism. Industrialization paved the way for imperialism and information technologies paved the way for neo-imperialism. These two conquering ideologies have differences in a single aspect that is geography. Imperialism has geographical demarcation but not neo-imperialism. The protests against the globalization of the market forces in the countries, which function as the womb of the globalization of the market forces, are the clear evidences of the difference. Because of this difference the concept of decolonization has been surpassed by the concept of reformulation.

The modern concepts of development and technology are machine oriented and those who control the machines will rule the world. Invention of technologies shifted the power from the people to a group of people who control or who own the machine. And the concept of development was constructed according to that rule. Profit-making is the ultimate motto of this trend. People and the environment become the resources of this modern technology-oriented development process.

The popularization and implementation of new forms of development programs under the banners of “Development with a Human Face” and “Sustainable Development” are the proof of its limitations and disadvantages.

Re-inventing the people-centered functionalism from machine-centered industrialization and computerization is the politics of reformulation. Redefining or reinventing the concepts of development and technology is the pre-requisite for this process. It is basically liberating the human beings from machines and re-connects them with Nature.

Fundamentally human beings are also elements of nature but not the element of nature, with the power of modern technology to control nature or the whole universe for its own benefits. But modern man with his electrifying powers created the world for a few and gave destructions to the rest, even to the pest.

The concept of reformulation is a process to unbind the man from mechanization and make him a human being to live in a world of equality where differences are being celebrated. This will be achieved through different ways and means in different levels.

The process of kooththu could function as one of the means to formulate a people- oriented activity in the creation of a world of equality where the differences are celebrated.

Kooththu is not only the art of the individual artist in the modern sense, but also reflects processes within a community. The basic process in kooththu is learning by doing it collectively, and the primary source for the performance is in collective memory. These aspects make the kooththu process primarily a practice-oriented one.

Modernization and commercialisation of kooththu alienates the people who own it and have been practicing it for generations. Traditionally kooththu was considered crude, unsophisticated, primitive and the art of the illiterate and drunks. This was because those who were involved in the kooththu process in the community were not educated in colonial institutions nor did they consume imported spirits.

The politics and aesthetics of modernization played a vital role in the construction of kooththu in modern times. This construction made the ‘educated’ to think of kooththu as medai kooththu (kooththu on the proscenium arch stage). kooththu was dislocated from its original space and appropriated to a new space introduced by the colonial powers. A community-oriented performance art was reduced to performance-oriented art for an audience in a colonial building and made to appear modern.

In the initial stage of my career in theatre, I perceived kooththu as a modern art form. Theatre education at the advanced level and at the university, as well as knowledge and experience of modern kooththu gave me that perception. But my relationship with the kooththu community and the kooththu performances in traditional spaces made me think differently.

My story will reveal this clearly.

My interest and engagement in modern drama led to my contact with kooththu. The writings on the modernization of kooththu, the debate on the formation of a national theatre and incorporating elements of kooththu into modern drama are popular topics in modern Tamil theatre studies. My experience in modern Tamil theatre and the influence of the debate to which I was a contributor constructed my perception.

But the view of Sinnathamby Master alias Peking Sinnathamby was different. He believed that kooththu did not only involve dances and music set for performance, but that it was integrally connected to the performers and the community too. The dialogue with Sinnathamby Master opened up another door in my search.

I learnt the dances songs and techniques of Vadamody kooththu in detail from Professor S. Mounaguru and my relationship with the Vaddukoddai performers began under the guidance of Sinnathamby Master. This relationship spread gradually towards the kooththu performers in the north, east, up-country and now it extends towards southern Sri Lanka as well.

With this background, I began to involve myself very actively in the debates and work connected with the modernization of kooththu. It taught me two things: elements of kooththu are suitable for incorporation into modern drama (Tamil and English) for easy communication; sustainability of kooththu is only possible with changes in the community that had been performing it for generations.

The reformulation of kooththu becomes complete and whole through changes in the thinking of the community that practices and preserves the art. In my belief, the ideological and social change in the community that preserves and performs the art is very necessary in the reformulation process of kooththu.

Therefore, the duty of the theatre people does not end with the introduction of kooththu with its shortened version suited for urban elite audiences, or by bringing in new interpretations and new spaces. Their duty extends beyond these limits.

What is required at present is to struggle with traditional ideology, grapple with new situations and to make efforts to understand whether traditional theatre has the capacity to carry forward changes. It is also to think about the possibilities of expressing the present experience fully and in a practical manner in order to ensure this process continues. This process does not relate only to theatre but also involves the whole community against the background of contemporary global trends.

The ways to confront such situations also differ. We have to integrate closely with the community that performs kooththu, relate to the performers with friendship, share ideas and objectives with them and extend respect to each other as equal partners. This is vital to move forward towards the next phase in this effort.

These processes take place in the traditional kooththu environment and gradually expand to other areas. These experiences will provide a hitherto unknown dimension to the new or ‘modern’ drama too. They will enable us to firmly root ourselves in the past and aim at the future by bringing together our contemporary experiences and developing the concept of localization.

Up to now, whenever kooththu served as a source of research, kooththu performers were used only as providers of information – as informants. Further, the output of the research did not reach the performers. Dialogue with performers of kooththu will serve remedy this shortcoming.

Views of the community of kooththu performers – especially the annaaviar and others associated with the staging of performances – were not taken into account in the debate on the modernization of kooththu. The academic work available in the past 50 years on kooththu and the modification of kooththu serves to underscore my argument.

The authority of academic institutions such as universities, which are functioning as colonial agencies, has played an important role in formulating systems of modern knowledge, especially through commissioning and sustaining research. Research is a ‘scientific academic exercise’ that is usually conducted by specially trained people in an academic institution. The knowledge manufactured is authorized due to the scientific component in the research exercises. This is the basis for manufacturing modern knowledge.

Designing systems, methodologies, formulas etc. and imposing them on other territories through power derived from imperial rule and making those rules ‘standard and international’ is the politics of the imperialism.

The colonial system of knowledge treats traditional knowledge systems as ‘unscientific’ and claims that only through modern research methodologies could traditional knowledge systems be appropriated and authorized as knowledge.

As I mentioned earlier, the authority of modern academic institutions and research methodology reduces people who possess traditional or pre-colonial knowledge into mere informants. Further, modern knowledge serves to dislocate people from their sources of traditional knowledge and forces them to perceive such knowledge as unscientific and the product of uneducated or illiterate peoples.

It is the same story with the modernization and research on kooththu. Because of this, kooththu earned the epithet naaddu kooththu (country theatre) from the intellectual community.

Deconstruction of modern knowledge and my relationship with kooththu performers and their community made me search for new ways and means to study and understand this art form. It led me to select this area of study for my MA despite being aware of the impediments of doing so within a conventional university system. It was important for me to work in the selected area of study while it was equally important to work within an authorized academic structure and institution.

I thought this would provide me with first hand experience of how individual intellectuals the intellectual community and the institutions and community ‘outside’ would react to the project. This was the other side of the coin of my work. It would help to initiate the reformulation process at another level of the community.

With this in mind I started to think about making the performers as partners for my research. My reading on educational and community theatres and the writings by Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal and the application of their techniques of theatre and close acquaintance with kooththu performers and the community, gave me the confidence and opportunity to take forward participatory theatre action research.

I felt strongly that conventional research methodologies were not suitable for this kind of work and searched for alternative methodologies. The internet search opened up a new path with information of the Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s ‘Indigenous research methodologies’ and through an Australian scholar, Ian Hugues’s website on ‘Participatory action research” and other approaches and theories. However, they all united in decolonising and democratising modern knowledge and research methodologies to dismantle the authority of neo-imperialism.

In this background, the Tharmapuththiran kooththu (Son of tharmam) was reformulated into Simmaasana por (War for the throne) with the participation of the community of kooththu performers at Seelamunai, Batticaloa. The transformation of the traditional prologue reveals the character of the reformulation process.

Traditional Prologue
Oh, Elephant- faced god,
Your protection we implore
To sing the story of Bharatha,
The fearful war of destruction
How it was wagered and fought
How it was lost and won
With the grace of God
By the princes five thus:
Sahuni, the King’s counselor,
Deceitful, treacherous and full of vice,
Invited the princes five
To play a game of dice
Defeating them by sleight of hand
And disrobing the damsel in public
Banished them to jungle life
For two and ten long years
Incognito and in disguise

Reformulated prologue
A story depicting Pandavas as the sons of dharma
And demeaning Gauravas as sons of adharma.
A story dharma and adharma told for many, many years
But one of unjust war fought for rule over others.
Those that are great failed to extirpate enmity in the hearts of youth
Boasting the valour of the five and portraying the others as knaves.
The nobles and the great ones, why did they remain speechless
When the damsel stood helpless crying for justice.
Kannan the embodiment of good, born to destroy destroyers
How many ruses he resorted to in the name of dharma?
It was people who became dice, people who died in the war
Fought brutally and vainly in the name of dharma.
We the players have come before you to sing the story
New-created raising several thought-provoking questions.
Protection to human beings, protection to all living things
Protection to live on this earth in happiness, affluence and peace.

When the process began, I was concentrating only on the performance. But as the process went on, I became conscious that kooththu in practice was evolving into a place of meeting of the community, a place to relax, a place to recreate, a place to remember and recall, a place for playing games and learning, a place for dialogue and a place for sleep.

Kooththu is a process that integrates many disciplines that are put forward in modern knowledge as separate entities. It is an annual event connected with the seasonal order of nature, and the livelihood of people; it is connected with the ritual ceremony of the gods and goddesses of the community.

During the three to four months it took to be put the performance together, I was able to observe and realize that the practices in the kooththu process were part of an organic community theatre of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

The reformulation of kooththu and changes in the community are intertwined dialectical processes. Changes in people’s lives influence change in kooththu and changes in kooththu change people. The handling of the issues such as caste, gender and other oppressive socio-cultural values is evidence for this statement. The reformulated performance at Seelamunai in Batticaloa, the innovative performances of individuals and the community of Seelamunai are evidence of the process.

Kooththu: more than merely a mirror unto nature

Cover story
Kooththu: more than merely a mirror unto nature
Source: Northeastern Monthly
By: J. S. Tissainayagam

“Usually, neither the players nor the audience understand why something is happening when kooththu performances are staged. If you ask a spectator why such-and-such a thing was going on, he would say, ‘ask the annaviyar;’ the annaviyar, stuck for an explanation, would maintain dogmatically, ‘that was how things are traditionally done,’” said S. Sivanayagam.

A more enterprising annavyiar would however interpret the text in an entirely subjective manner leading to further confusion due to multiple, and sometimes absurd, explanations put forward. “The basic point is: if the annaviyar finds it difficult to make sense of the script, how the audience can be expected to do so,” said Sivanayagam.

Sivanayagam is an edttu annaviyar, or a script writer-director, from Seelamunai, an eastern village traditionally renowned for kooththu. He is among those who are passionately involved in efforts to reformulate kooththu to make it more relevant to contemporary times and avoid situations where the director blindly appeals to tradition as his guide for structuring a kooththu performance in a certain way.

Sivanyagam says however that it was not only ignorance that dictates the rigidity of the script; it is also the power relationships theatrical performances such as kooththu sought to reinforce through captive audiences. He says that though the annaviyar might understand what was taking place, he was powerless to do anything about it because there were strong social sanctions against changing the script. All the annaviyar could do was to change the rhythms or the beat of the music, but not the lines, making even an independent-minded annaviyar think twice before tinkering with the script.

Kooththu, is community theatre, not folk art. “Folk theatre is, ritually, intimately linked with the environment from which it springs. Kooththu is different. Its origins are in seasonal rituals in temples. I believe koothtus deliberately used the Ramayana and Mahabaratha for the project of Sanskritising Tamil society,” said S. Jeyasankar, a theatre activist and lecturer in drama and theatre, at the Eastern University, Batticaloa.

Jeysankar says that traditional kooththu, which might have had folk origins, was quietly displaced when the poets (pulavar) used the kooththu form but foisted on it stories from the Sanskrit epics.

Though projecting a value system and worldview of the upper castes, kooththu was degraded as uncivilised by that section of society that considered itself as refined and economically affluent. Therefore kooththu became identified as an entertainment of the lower orders and associated with drunkenness and general disorderly behaviour.

“The traditional kooththu reflected Brahminic values and referred to women and the lower castes in derogatory terms,” said T. Gowriswaran, a final year student in fine arts at the Eastern University and a kooththu artiste.

Such portrayal of women, promoting caste differences and using obscenities in the script, when played before contemporary audiences that were changing from the experiences of war, exposure to the media, and general education, led to disenchantment with the content of kooththu performances.

Realising that blind repetition of the lines in a script and watching performances portraying archaic values were leading to audience disenchantment, a movement began to gather momentum that tried to look anew at performances, scripts and the impact of social experience on kooththu.

The way forward therefore was not conserving the traditional kooththu, but reformulating it in a way that it reflected the concerns, aspirations and suffering of contemporary audiences, and thereby engaging their attention.

“Kooththu is community theatre. Therefore it is intimately linked to society. I realised that any meaningful research for reformulating kooththu had to be community based and participatory,” says Jeyasankar, pivot of the movement for reformulation.

“Therefore if kooththu was to be reformulated, there had to be extensive participation in the process by the community. There had to be a symbiotic relationship between research in drama done through an academic institution like a university and the practitioners of the art,” Jeyasankar continues.

As in many parts of Sri Lanka, in fact in the subcontinent, traditional arts and craft are associated with geographical locations and social formations within them. Kooththu is no different. In Batticaloa among the villages celebrated for kooththu performances are Seelamunai and Kannankudah. And it is to Seelamunai that our focus now turns.

“In the past, there were people who came to Seelamunai saying they were doing research on kooththu, but they never consulted the annaviyar. And neither the village nor the community benefited from the research,” said Sivanayagam.

But with the objective of reformulation capturing the imagination of artistes and audiences, a series of discussions began in Seelamunai that not only involved those traditionally connected with koothtu such as performers and/or the annaviyar, but also the general public and the researchers. The idea was to find out what lay behind formulating an art form to be performed in a particular way.

Among the debates that figured during these discussions was a reappraisal of the Sanskrit epic Mahabaratha, which is the source of well-known kooththu performances such as Tharmapuththiran. Among the questions asked was on stereotyping the Pandavas as noble and the Kurus as evil, while others brought up the question of the moral depravity of Yudhistra for losing Drupathi for a wager.

These questions led the way to deepen the discussions. “Yudhistra gambling away Drupathi was a wonderful opportunity to begin a discussion on gender,” said Gowriswaran.

“It is only when you get involved in such projects you realise the depth of knowledge possessed by people who are not conventionally well-educated,” said Jeyasankar.The reformulation and its product – a script incorporating amendments the community wanted – brought into the process strong female participation in the performances. Traditionally, men played the role of women on the pretext that they (women) did not have energy to dance throughout the night. However, the actual reason was ritual un-cleanliness associated with menstruation since the kooththu was performed in the precincts of the temple. But this has begun to change and the reformulation movement used women and girls as much as possible to increase participation.

At the end of the reformulation exercise, Tharmapuththiran kooththu, based on the Mahabaratha, was transformed by the collective wisdom from the discussions at Seelamunai and renamed Simmasana por (Battle for the throne). This kooththu is known as the ‘fount of Vadamodi kooththu’ (thai kooththu) because it encompasses all aspects of a kooththu performance.

A significant aspect of the kooththu debate was the appropriate venue of its performance. In the 1950s, important kooththu performances were played before urban audiences, when it was for the first time trans-located from its traditional roots in the village to the metropolis. It was a time of cultural revival, which saw the birth of Sinhala national theatre, alongside which kooththu was performed as Tamil traditional theatre.

During the reformulation however, the appropriateness of performing kooththu on the proscenium arch stage, where it is now usually performed, was raised. To some critics the fullest theatrical experience of a kooththu performance could be got only in the vattakalari, or theatre-in-the-round on which kooththu was, and is, traditionally performed in villages like Seelamuniai and others in the northeast.

“Kooththu performances reflect the motion of the earth revolving of itself and at the same time rotating around the sun. This concept is brought out best when staged in the vattakalari,” said Gowriswaran.

He says when kooththu is staged in the conventional proscenium arch theatre there is a feeling of confinement and restriction, both for audiences and performers, which is not there in the vattakalari, which is usually set up in the village square. “In a conventional performance the interaction is only between the performers and the group of theatre goers who have come to see the play. In the vattakalari you involve the whole community,” Gowriswaran said.

Kooththu artistes are also concerned that the proscenium arch stage ignores the centrality of the annaviyar to the performance. As the director or stage manager in a conventional western play is away from the footlights, kooththu performances in a proscenium arch theatre attempts to ‘hide’ the annaviyar.

“In a traditional performance the annaviyar is absolutely central. He monitors the performance all the time. If the footwork of the dancer goes awry for some reason, the annaviyar can do a subtle change of the beat to accommodate it. Or if the performer misses a line the annaviyar can prompt him unobtrusively,” Gowriswaran said.But kooththu artistes emphasise this does not mean they devalue the performances of kooththu on the proscenium arch stage. They say such theatre has come to stay and undermining it is not their project.

“All we are saying is that performances in the vattakalari should go side by side with those on the proscenium arch stage. It is just that the performances in the vattakalari are a different experience and will take kooththu to a new stage in its development as community theatre,” said Gowriswaran.

“Performances in the proscenium arch theatre and at the vattakalai could learn from each other: they could complement each other,” says James Thompson, director, Centre for Applied Drama Research, University of Manchester.

Though controversial and potentially dangerous, contemporary politics found its way both into the discussions during the reformulation, as well as in the casual conversations about the performances. Tharmapuththiran or Simmasana por, based on the epic Mahabaratha, which is set against background of the contest of two royal houses for supremacy – the Kurus and the Pandavas – set the stage.

Tharmapuththiran or Simmasana por is about power and sovereignty, which is what the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, is all about. It also demonstrates the futility of war because of the suffering it brings about. But its greatest contemporary relevance perhaps is astute manipulation by Krishna, who is essentially an outsider to the conflict between the Kurus and the Pandavas, to fulfil his own agenda.

The performers and audiences give positive accounts of how the revival of kooththu through the reformulation project has impacted on their daily lives. For one, its revival has given greater exposure to kooththu artistes and accorded honour due to a skilled performer.

“In the old days, though there were many people who performed the kooththu some found social recognition because of their skills in performance. So much so they came to be known as penn pillai Sinniah or mirthangam Sellathurai,” said T. Muththulingam, an edttu annaviyar.

Both Muthulingam’s father and grandfather were well-known kooththu artistes in their time. His father Sinniah, became known as penn pillai Sinniah because of skill in taking women’s roles or penn kooththu, in the performances. “Penn kooththu is the real test for an artiste and if you are famous for playing such roles you have to be really very skilled,” said Muthulingam.

Kooththu, its admirers say, is an education by itself. For one, the performer has to be absolutely physically fit. But this is not all. Kooththu is a good way of banishing stage fright among the young and due to having to commit large chunks of material to memory, a sound way of activating the mind.

The discussion and community involvement in the reformulation exercise infused the desire for community participation in other aspects of existence as well. “I remember during our kooththu discussions someone asked, ‘If you can discuss kooththu why can’t we discuss our economic problems?’” said Gowriswaran.

Kooththu’s immense contribution in relieving mental anxiety, especially in a population as in the east that was caught up in cycles of violence is also acknowledged. Not only could watching a performance be a cathartic experience for troubled souls, but also the collective, participatory effort allows the community to share the individual’s trauma, anxiety and loss.

“Watching and participating in theatre and ritual helps in restoring mental well-being,” says Thompson, who is a participant, observer and commentator on the reformulation of kooththu going on in Seelamunai.

To the artistes, the academics and annaviyars the sustainability of the reformulated art form is very important. Fortunately, a group of young people seem to be interested. “Like in the case of cinema, continuous exposure has kindled in them an interest. As in any craft, one or two of them who were helping around, but have now begun taking on minor roles,” said Sivanayagam.

Another test of sustainability is whether performable scripts are generated from the community. Here again the response appears positive. “We performed Simmasana Por. We are now in reformulating a new one – Avimanju Illakanan vathai,” said Sivanyagam. “Kooththu is a participatory exercise and touches the life of the entire community. I am hopeful its multifarious aspects will help the development of the community in Seelamunai and other adjacent villages to live a community-oriented spirit,” said Jeyasankar.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Unidentified Homeless People

Unidentified Homeless People

People were talking about us
When we were displaced
Because of War
And to a certain extent
We were relieved

People were talking about us
When we were displaced
Because of Tsunami
And to a certain extent
We were relieved

Nobody is talking about us
When we are being displaced
Not because of War or Tsunami
But because of rehabilitators
And we weren’t relieved

We lost our houses
Without differences
Or discriminations
To the power of war

We lost our houses
Without differences
Or discriminations
To the power of water

When our owners of the houses
Have decided to shift
From their storied mansions
To their miniatures
We lost our rented houses
To the power of dollars and pounds

We are the displaced
And homeless people
No one will call us refugees

We are the displaced
And homeless people
No one will call us displaced
Or internally displaced

We are the displaced
And homeless people
No one will call us street people
Or people in the street

We are the unidentified
Homeless people
Or people without homes


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Why are they manufacturing this and that?

Why are they manufacturing buses?

To treat you as a citizen
And make you to travel easily.

Why are they manufacturing trains?

To treat you as a citizen
And make you travel easily too.

Why are they manufacturing cars?

To treat you as a citizen
And make you to travel comfortably.

Why are they manufacturing water cannons?

To treat you as a mob
And stops you democratically

Why are they manufacturing battle tanks?

To treat you as an enemy
And blast you into pieces


Has Civilisation Died?

Dear All,

The Women’s Coalition for Disaster Management, Batticaloa has written a statement against the rape and murder of a woman in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka last week. Please circulate widely and raise this issue in different forums. WCDM is distributing a Tamil statement in Batticaloa on Friday (12.08.2005) morning. All organisations of the women coalition have taken the responsibility to distribute it.

Has Civilisation Died?

Stop Violence against Women

Last Wednesday, 3-8-2005, the body of a woman who was raped and murdered was found at the Batticaloa Methodist Central College Hall.

This brutal incident of gendered violence is part of the continuum of broader violence in our society today.

This incident raises many important questions beyond those of who perpetrated this violence and what the identity of the victim of this violation was.
Is there no protection for women in this 21st century, when it is claimed that humans have achieved large scale development and progress?

Is there no end to brutal acts like this, which violate women’s rights?
Why do these violent acts happen again and again?

Our society raises questions and takes action when injustices are carried out in the name of ethnicity and religion, but why is it silent when this violence happens against women?

Social and political violence and rights violations specifically against women are continuing. It is usually the case that when an incident takes place it will be given attention and publicity for a while – but this it will diminish over time, until another brutal incident takes place.

All individuals, groups and organizations working for the welfare of the society, for peace and for human rights, should condemn this incident. They should take action to stop these incidents from happening again.

All parties who are negotiating for peace should pay full attention to bringing justice to this incident. There should be a complete investigation and the perpetrators should be brought in front of the law. There is no peace without justice.

All people who want a society free from violence should make it clear to their children, families and neighbours that incidents like this are unacceptable. Such violence cannot be allowed to be quietly forgotten.

As individual women, and organisations working for women’s rights,
We strongly condemn this incident.

We also pay our respect to this sister who was buried anonymously
without any ritual, respect or tears.

Create a society where violence against women is not tolerated.


Women’s Coalition for Disaster Management, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.

Stop Violence Against Women

Stop Violence Against Women

Last Wednesday, 3-8-2005, the body of a woman who was raped and murdered was found at the Batticaloa Methodist Central College Hall.

This brutal incident of gendered violence is part of the continuum of broader violence in our society today.

This incident raises many important questions beyond those of who perpetrated this violence and what the identify of the victim of this violation was.

Is there no protection for women in this 21st century, when it is claimed that humans have achieved large scale development and progress?
Is there no end to brutal acts like this, which violate women’s rights?
Why do these violent acts happen again and again?
Our society raises questions and takes action when injustices are carried out in the name of ethnicity and religion, but why is it silent when this violence happens against women?
Social and political violence and rights violations specifically against women are continuing. It is usually the case that when an incident takes place it will be given attention and publicity for a while – but this it will diminish over time, until another brutal incident takes place.

All individuals, groups and organisations working for the welfare of the society, for peace and for human rights, should condemn this incident. They should take action to stop these incidents from happening again.

All parties who are negotiating for peace should pay full attention to bringing justice to this incident. There should be a complete investigation and the perpetrators should be brought in front of the law. There is no peace without justice.

All people who want a society free from violence, should make it clear to their children, families and neighbours that incidents like this are unacceptable. Such violence cannot be allowed to be quietly forgotten.

As individual women, and organisations working for women’s rights,

we strongly condemn this incident.

We also pay our respect to this sister who was buried anonymously

without any ritual, respect or tears.
Create a society where violence against women is not tolerated.


Monday, August 08, 2005

The Mobile People

The Mobile People

I’m not talking of people
Who are not talking among themselves
While walking in pair

I’m not talking of people
Who are not talking among themselves
While staying together

I’m thinking of the dangers
This engulfs the communities
In a different form of epidemic
May I call it an e. epidemic?

This will alienates the human species
Not only from the environment
But also from themselves too

But here
I’m talking of a different kind
A different kind of mobile people

As a Thamil in Sri Lanka
With a readily packed hand baggage
I had the experience of mobile life
Because of Army
Because of differently barking dogs
Because of unidentified gunmen
Because of rumors
Because of dreams
As a Thamil in Sri Lanka
With a readily packed hand baggage
I had the experience of mobile life

But this is entirely a different story
There are no differently barking dogs
Even though haunted by dreams and rumors
But this is entirely a different story

Like a darkness moves in the night
Without making signals of warning
Dogs are vanishing from the scenes

Oh! What a great tragedy!
The experienced mobile people
Are in turmoil now
Not because of the helplessness
In the hands of nature
But because of the restlessness
In the hands of neo invaders
Who came with their own prescriptions
And pills to relief us
And with differently designed
Dissection tool kit and microscope
And surely with pots of gold
In order to reconstruct us again
According to them in this neo global order