Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Third Eye celebrates the 75th birthday of Kulanthai M. Shunmuhalingam-November 16!

Shanmugalingam: Jaffna’s applied dramatist
I am really pleased to have been asked to write this short article on the playwright K.M. Shanmugalingam. He is a man who is well known to the Sri Lankan Tamil theatre community but he is less familiar to audiences in the wider Sri Lanka and certainly comparatively unknown here in the UK. His contribution to theatre spans more than 30 years covering a tumultuous period of Sri Lankan history. He is famed for a range of plays not least the seminal Mann Sumantha Meniyar (Sons of the Soil). This play first staged in February 1985 is a pivotal moment in the development of Sri Lankan Tamil theatre and many of the Tamil theatre practitioners I have met in the last 7 years were either directly involved in this production or remember it as a profound inspiration. However, it is not my place to offer analysis of these plays, as there are many far more qualified than myself. I want instead to mention three encounters I have had with Shanmugalingam to give my perspective, as a British theatre practitioner and academic, on the nature of his contribution to Sri Lanka culture and theatre.
These three encounters have happened at very different times. One was in January 2000 in Jaffna when the situation was very tense and the LTTE were soon to make their push through Elephant pass. The second was in the ceasefire period during a workshop at the University of Jaffna Theatre Studies Department and the third is part of ongoing discussions about the notion of applied theatre and its relevance to the theatre community in Jaffna.
The meeting in January 2000 was the first time I met Shanmugalingam and we talked with some other theatre colleagues in his house in Jaffna. We sat in the dark with a kerosene lamp allowing me to pick him out just in front of me. His tales of his involvement in Jaffna theatre and his eloquent advocacy of the importance of the practice of theatre in historically difficult times made for fascinating listening. I was introduced to a man whose understanding of theatre was closely tied to his sense of his role as an artist in this community. This was not a singular and closed vision but one that was adaptive to the possibilities and constraints of different time periods. His full length plays acutely tied to the moment such as Mann Sumantha Meniyar were complemented by his commitment to children’s theatre as a place were theatre could flourish within the obvious confines of the conflict. His understanding of the relationship between theatre and its context was my lasting impression of this meeting and it was most clearly demonstrated in his aside at one point of the discussion. He commented that his wife, who was present at the conversation, would love them to go to live outside Jaffna with their children abroad, but he felt he could not leave. It is not for me to praise those that stay or condemn people who choose to move from Jaffna, as these are of course difficult personal decisions, but there was a sense that Shanmugalingam was expressing his need to stay connected to a place. This was where his art arose from – and it would be impossible for him to be separated from it. He seemed to emphasise an important lesson for those studying artists such as Shanmugalingam as well as other playwrights. Their work is only understandable when it is seen to be embedded in a moment – and its significance can only be revealed by an analysis of the place and time in which it emerged. Shanmugalingam proved this but also lived it in his desire to stay rooted to his home in Jaffna. In the dark of his house, at a difficult moment in Jaffna history, this conviction and commitment demonstrated how his art and his life were indissoluble.
My second point is linked to this example and comes from a workshop that I was running for Jaffna university Drama students in 2002. Here the emphasis is on links between language, culture and education and how the playwright can intricately tie these three concerns together. I was speaking to the University students and Shanmugalingam was translating for me. One student asked a question in Tamil that contained a commonly used English word. Shanmugalingam’s translation into English reversed the process and he gave me the question in English but with the English word rendered in Tamil. The students laughed and his point was made. In a gentle way he illustrated the influence of English on the Tamil language and how it was possible to gently resist the excesses of that process. This was not done in a didactic, aggressive or arrogant way, but with a humorous act of language play that revealed to the original student questioner what she had done. Again this simple act revealed to me something of the nature of Shanmugalingam the playwright. A profound attention to the importance of words, and a particular commitment to the Tamil language, was exercised through a play with words that entertained as it taught. This small incident seemed to indicate both his commitment to language and to education – and having subsequently seen performances of his plays in schools, I have witnessed this example magnified in his cultural and educational programmes for children. Again this exemplifies what theatre does best – it develops a profound respect for one’s culture, language and the dilemmas facing one’s community through a medium that teaches through play rather than the stick. Shanmugalingam did not flinch as his made his reverse translation and pretended innocence to what he had done even though the students laughed. His small word play, a tiny moment of theatre, illustrated how serious theatre can be.
My final point links both Shanmugalingam’s commitment to remaining in Jaffna and his interest in education. It concerns his misgivings with the notion of applied theatre as it became used within and outside the theatre communities in the north of Sri Lanka. I am not a neutral observer here as I have been involved in a number of applied theatre training programmes across Sri Lanka but particularly in the North and East of the island. There are two points of practice in applied theatre to which Shanmugalingam has rightly drawn attention and criticism. The first is the idea that after a short training programme anyone can run a theatre project. The second is that theatre can be involved in all areas of life addressing issues and improving social problems directly. Shanmugalingam has pioneered theatre training in Jaffna for many years and knows the difficulty he has faced in both maintaining the integrity of his programmes and also support for them. He is therefore rightly critical of the idea that people with limited training can instantly become theatre practitioners. I agree with this point and what his position has taught me is that while theatre must remain an inclusive art form we must remember the theatre in applied theatre. In the UK we have become very good at teaching about the contexts in which theatre can be practised, but at times we have lost sight of the theatre skills necessary to make this happen. The experience of working with theatre colleagues in Jaffna is that the skills of the theatre makers are paramount if the work is to be properly applied. While I still believe many people have the capacity to be involved in theatre projects, Shanmugalingam has taught me that we must not forget the artistry that gives these projects their strength in the first place. Attention to the social issue should not mean that the art is marginalised. Shanmugalingam’s sense of close connection to the context in which he lives demonstrates that his theatre emerges from that context rather than becomes overwhelmed by it.
This leads us to the second concern about the term applied theatre. When social policy networks or NGO’s are desperate for solutions to complex problems, it is easy for them to see theatre as a relatively inexpensive option. Applied theatre was in danger of being that catch all practice that could cure social ills and Shanmugalingam has perhaps rightly criticised the danger of becoming over reliant on these sources of funding. This criticism is all the more pertinent in light of rapid increases of money (such as after the tsunami) or alternatively in light of potential rapid decreases. The problems encountered when theatre artists too singularly following the money is now becoming more widespread in the applied theatre community internationally. Once again Shanmugalingam’s commitment to creating an educational theatre that responds and emerges from its context without being dominated by it could be a powerful vision for applied theatre than ensures both the theatre and the application remained balanced. If applied theatre at its best reminds us that countless people can be actively involved in their communities, Shanmugalingam reminds us that it is the theatre in applied theatre that provides the means and the inspiration for that involvement.
Shanmugalingam continues to inspire countless young theatre makers in Jaffna and beyond. He is a vital figure in Sri Lankan theatre whose work is deeply connected to his place, whose practice has a profound relationship to education and cultural awareness and whose contribution to debates in the arts continues to demonstrate the importance of theatre. He has been phenomenally welcoming to me whilst never being afraid to question and provoke. His challenge has always been done with, what we would call in English, a twinkle in his eye: a sense of mischievous play that underscores the deeply serious conviction he has for the important contribution that theatre can make to society.

James Thompson
University of Manchester
September, 2006

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Parasuraman:the silent fighter against disintergration!!!

Parasuraman: the silent fighter against disintergration!!!

Parasuraman of Kaluthavali, Maddakkalappu (Batticaloa), Sri Lanka is the living artist and exponent in Paraimelam (Percussion instrument) and in Paraimela Kooththu (dance while playing the percussion instrument).

Paraimelam and Paraimela Kooththu are intertwined with the life of Thamils. Parai is one of the ancient arts of Thamils. But the oppressive natures of the caste orientation pave the way for its tragic extinction!

The people who owns the art wants to throw it away as a shame on them but people who value the power of the art of Parai and Paraimela Kooththu fights for its survival.

Parasuraman is not only an exponent in his art but also an ardent fighter of his art for its survival between the oppression of the caste domination and the resistance against the caste oppression.

People who are talking of Culture, Cultural Identity, National Culture and National Identity always mentioning about Parai as the ancient art of the Thamils but very little attention was paid to its connection with the caste and oppression.

But the forces who commercialize the life of the people transform the art connected with community life into commodity in tourists’ spots.

The irony is the people who cannot overcome the casteism, introduces Electronic Parai in Temples!

This is the politics of alienation from community participation.

The life and fight of Parasuraman with the art of Parai


Friday, November 24, 2006

Kulanthi M. Shunmuhalingam is 75 on 16th November 2006.
Long Live Kulanthai!!!

Kulanthai M. Shunmuhalingam (Part One)

Kulanthai M. Shunmuhalingam, the doyen of Modern Thamil Theatre of Sri Lanka had transformed the Sri Lankan Modern Thamil Theatre from artist orient to participant orient. The veteran playwright creates different genres of plays for theatres demanded by the contemporary situation of the Thamils of Sri Lanka.

He innovated and established the Educational Theatre with the participation of the generations of Thamil Theatre practitioners. The special feature of the Educational Theatre is the participation of students and teachers with the facilitation of Theatre practitioners who are mostly teachers themselves.

The Educational Theatre plays the role of alternative education system where the children can discover themselves and transform themselves in order to create instead of reproduce as in the conventional exam oriented Education System.

The Educational Theatre celebrates the different talents of all the students instead of celebrating few Memory Makers.

Kulanthai M.Shunmuhalingam popularly known as Shunner among Thamils and as Shun among the others has initiated a method for the Educational Theatre Practice where students select issues related to them directly and indirectly and discuss on them to create a storyline. Based on this storyline Shun write the initial draft of the play and put forward for dialogue. Through dialogues and improvisations the performance script will be developed.

The participatory aspect which is being practiced in the genre of Educational Theatre had contributed to the establishment of Community based Theatre Traditions among the Thamils of Sri Lanka. The origins of organic forms of Community Theatres are rooted in the Educational Theatre Tradition of the Thamils of Sri Lanka.

Shunner has popularized the Modern Theatre of the Thamils of Sri Lanka and it’s the very special feature of him also. His art of play writing make this to happen and he is the power house of the play scripts for the Modern Theatre of the Thamils of Sri Lanka. Other than his original works he is translating plays of the world through English for performances.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

AJ. The man that I’ve known.
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.They will rest from their labour for their deeds will follow them.
Revelation chapter 14;13

A quick glimpse of the man that I have known in AJ –for it can only be a glimpse- his depth cannot be fathomed and described as it really should be. When we at the ELTC decided to express our deep sorrow over the demise of our dear friend ,guru and an honorable human, the verse that came to my mind was D.H.Lawrence’s What is he ?

‘What is he? A man of course!

But what does he do?

He lives and is a man’.

This is a comprehensive description of the man I have known .My perspective and my acquaintance with the man assure me that this is how AJ saw ‘man’. From the early encounters with this AJ has driven home the fact that man is and he lives – not a ‘tagged’ mortal. To be precise AJ treated all alike from the top rank to the bottom line, as each and everyone were a ‘man’ in his sight.

His academic excellence could not be contained in a mere special degree with a class. It is told that he missed a class as he invariably missed classes at lecture hall. He preferred a game of cards, to sitting through the boredom of a lecture. He has proved to the world that academic excellence is not attained through confirmed degrees, but through the academic pursuits of the individual. None could dare challenge the academic that AJ was though a ‘non- conformist’.

Despite the wealth of knowledge that was part of the man, his intellectual modesty elevated the image that he well deserved. There have been occasions when my sheer laziness prompted me to ask AJ for any clarification instead of checking up a dictionary. The older and the wiser of the two of us would walk up to the cupboard where the dictionary was and refer up the word for me, putting me to shame- one could not but be sure that AJ knew the word well already. One could easily trigger off a conversation on any topic with AJ- from politics to pizza –his contribution would be of immense value. In spite of the genius in the man he lived a humble, simple life so that anyone as simple as a babe could claim to have had acquaintance with the man.

My family had the great opportunity of hosting AJ for three months during the 1987 war. He was part of the family and there was not a single moment when we felt that there was an outsider at home. Our children loved him and he was an asset as he always was especially in looking after the children during our absence.

I have had the privilege of studying under AJ. I can never claim to be a bright student particularly in literature, but AJ encouraged me so much that it would be a surprise to find through the comments that he made on my assignments, that I myself had been capable of such writing. Such was the personality of the man who saw far beyond the writer.

His sense of humour is unbeatable. Some flippant comment would slip out of his tongue at the most appropriate moment ,in the most appropriate manner. He was broadly human enough to accept any practical jokes played on him. A classic example is the appearance of a big earthen pot set on a ‘thiruhani’ one fine morning, as a warning for the man not to mess around with his cigarette ashes at the ELTC. The better part of the whole episode is that the man accepted it as an ashtray without the slightest inhibition! No elderly spinster would have missed the matrimonial column at the ELTC for AJ. His simple ‘Go to hell’ would set us back on our seats.

My fear for AJ’s old age had always been that his strong conviction of remaining a bachelor life long would end up in misery and loneliness. God had been good even in this context to AJ. People who dearly loved him did look after him till the end and was always a much wanted person wherever he was. Now when I think back, I would gladly admit that the stubborn AJ who never wanted to get married had been wise in his unshakable decision. There could never have been a true replica of the man that AJ was. A unique creature!

The last time I called him was on his seventy second b’day-26.08.2006-when he told me clearly that he would not live to see another year. His only request was to pray for him which I had been doing for years.I know God answers prayers. His pure heart that enabled him to see God ,I am sure has taken him to be in His presence forever.

As I come to the end of this very inadequate appreciation, the stark naked truth dawns on me –the haunting memories of AJ can never fade away- for my immediate instinct was to show this to AJ for his invaluable comments!



Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Vasan: Young Painter Activist.

Vasan, Susiman Nirmalavasan, is an outstanding young painter from Maddakkalappu (Batticaloa); Eastern Sri Lanka exhibits his talents with innovative ideas and imagination not only with colors and lines but also with materials strange to the art of painting. He is a different kind of artist who can make journeys with his medium of art from Galleries to the shadows of trees in the villages as Artist A. Mark and his tribe.

Vasan is always inventing ways and means to express different and strange experiences of the oppressed. That leads him create paintings beyond two dimensional. His paintings are sculpturesque and performative.

Vasan is mostly engaging in to bringing out creative expressions of children through the medium of painting. He is energetic painter activist.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Celeberating the Power of Creativity

Creating environmentally friendly products from the materials discarded and making it as a source of self-supporting practice is being initiated by the Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group among the affiliates and friends and is being popularized among people in need and with the will to create.

Life, creative pleasure and economy are inter-connected and inter-related.

Third Eye is working on to bridging gap between life, creative pleasure and economy among the people.

It’s also a beautiful tool of liberation from depending on relief and charity.

Third Eye is creating, exhibiting and selling works by the people for the people.

It’s a spark among thousands and thousands of sparks all over the world to brighten the life of the people and by the people.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

A. Sabaratnam Master on A.J


“Large streams from little fountains flow,
Tall oaks from little acorns grow.”
- David Everett

Those who knew him considered him a tall oak but he was such an embodiment of self- effacement that he considered himself a reed. At the same time, when reeds pretend to be oaks, his anger would be expressed in his reddened cheeks - the only sign of displeasure in the little sage’s face. I had one or two occasions when I witnessed, A.J’s cheeks reddening. His voice would be a little raised and coarse. That’s all! No other _expression of hate or anger in his bright eyes. What a wonderful man, who has eschewed hatred!
I had heard about this short Agastya- like English teacher from my friends at St. Patrick’s College, but I never met him. I read his translations of contemporary Tamil short stories in the Colombo news papers. That was a time when the English- educated elite looked down upon vernacular writers. Here is a man who had himself delved deep into the ocean of world literature but had the time and temperament to devote some time for selecting the best in Tamil writing and presenting it to world readers. It was, perhaps, after his English translation, that these writings were made available in East European languages. I had occasions to wonder whether these writers were elevated to world class for their political persuasion. No, A.J.’s wide and deep reading embedded in the solid ground of discrimination would not permit that. He is an expert in choosing the grain from the mass of chaff. He will not care to present unworthy literarary products, because they are “ours”. Linguistic and political chauvinism was not his nature. He might have had political convictions, but they would not mar his literary conviction. This thought developed into as certained conviction as I began to move close to him.
My first personal observations of the man began during his participation in the public meetings held in the University of Jaffna. Then, we, who had not entered the portals of a university, were happy to join the literate crowd of participants and enjoy the vigorous intellectual activities of a devoted group. The young university had a set of intellectuals who were active in acquiring knowledge and disseminating it to thirsty knowledge seekers. They invited the best of their co-travelers from the South and added a new impetus to our cultural life. Reggie Siriwardene was one of the frequent speakers who adorned the stage. And, A.J. would be there to attend any type of meeting, as his tastes were varied. His meaningful participation would add much lustre during the question time. When the audience was reluctant to ask questions from the intellectual giants, A.J. would rise after a brief silence after giving room for others. His questions would be pertinent, often reflecting what is in the minds of the listeners. The speakers would be happy that a point they failed to clarify was taken up for further elucidation.
Once a local young Ph.D. holder was giving a talk on the problems faced by the Jaffna English students in the secondary classes regarding pronunciation. She was summarizing her experiences in the field. There were no questions as linguistics was a new field and questioners were reluctant to tread on unfamiliar ground. From the back, a pair of glittering eyes showed up above the turning heads and put forth a pertinent question : “Madam, the declared aim of teaching English has been presented as ‘English as a library language’. The government educationists think that the students should use English for reading technical books. Then, why should we bother about correct pronunciation ?” The speaker had not thought of the fundamental aim of emphasizing correct pronunciation. She was at a loss to reply. The Professor who presided had to explain with an apt personal anecdote. “ Last week, some of our medicos had a chat about a case. The most brilliant among them was from a rural background with a poor English pronunciation. He said, “We reat this case this way”. The poor young man couldn’t pronounce ‘tr’ correctly as many of the Jaffna students. All laughed… We still have a majority of students who pronounce English fairly well. They will laugh at a person who makes a mistake. This is found in our society. So, it is better to guide the students to acquire a tolerably good pronunciation”.
In the early eighties, while I was President of the Kayts Literary Circle, I had arranged some discussions on the famous western men of literature, for the sake of Advanced Level students. One of the founders of the Circle insisted that what I write for the literary novices should reach a wider circle and forced me to send them to “Mallikai”, a Tamil monthly journal. One late evening I went to the office and gave the article to a compositor and hurried out saying that I should not miss the last bus to Kayts. There was no name and address in the script, and it was published under the pseudonym, ‘Kavalnagaron’ ( Kaytian). Later I heard that A.J., who was helping Dominic Jeeva, coined this name for me.
When I was on the Board of Management of “Saturday Review”, I had occasions to move closely with A.J. and viewed him as a devoted editor. The Editor was invariably away in Colombo and A.J. had to bear the burden of editing the controversial weekly during its most difficult days during the I.P.K.F. episode. While others enjoyed many privileges, cars, autos and the rest, A.J. would only get the help of the office-boy to take him upto his residence in Nallur, on that boy’s way home.
“Every inch a gentleman” is not a good enough _expression to describe him. I witnessed it once – perhaps the best occasion to measure his nobility. There was a minor skirmish between the Chairman and a member of the Board over a trifle. Both would not give in. On the road, I met A.J.. He said, “Let them do anything. We, as workers, should not take sides. Our concern is that the paper should come out regularly”. He was really towering as an oak among the reeds.
His deep devotion to literature was immeasurable. He regularly read the ‘Times Literary Supplement’, page by page; Not even reviews outside his field would be overlooked ! A remote topic on Indian philosophy, if discussed in a new book reviewed, would not miss his keen eyes. I was often by him reminded of a book, I missed. He knew what my tastes were.
“Biting the tip of grass leaves ……..”, is a common idiom about the so-called Tamil literati of today. He never called himself a scholar of contemporary Tamil, but he was again an oak among acorns. Once, during the mass exodus from Jaffna, a reader had left with him a long novel of ‘Pirapanchan’, to be returned to the Public Library. I obtained and read it from A to Z as it dealt with the Tamil social life of Pondicherry during the Seven Years’ War. I returned it to him. I noticed him keeping it on his table after returning from exodus in 1996. He said he would return it after reading it. Reading and discrimination was part of his inner nature.
As a friend said, he was a real Siddha. His achievements (siddhies) were Himalayan, but he strode like Agastya, in his small physical stature ignorant of his greatness. He is immortal among mortals. May his memory live for ever in the world of letters.


**A.Sabaratnam is an active but silent intellectual and activist. Another rare kind of living personality of our community.

Photos:Kanchanai R.R.Srinivasan of Thirunelveli, South India.


Friday, November 10, 2006

In Memoriam: A. J. Canagaratna A day in the intellectual life of Jaffna

By: Suresh Canagarajah

Source: Northeastern Monthly - November 2006

It was AJ who had first spotted this brief article titled ‘Life in the postmodern world’ in an old issue of the American journal Dialogue during one of his weekly visits to the university library. After reading it, he passed it on to me, and recommended it as an article that attempts to define the movement in relatively simple terms. He also requested that before we return the journal to the library we should get our stenographer to type out the article in full so that we can pass it around among our colleagues. (Typing was necessitated because we didn’t have xeroxing facilities – or even electricity – in Jaffna at that time.)
After explicating the connections between pre-modernism, modernism, and postmodernism, and illustrating the different manifestations of postmodernism in fields like philosophy, literature, architecture and the social sciences, the article concludes with an explanation on the popularity of this movement in the late capitalist period.
When I cycled the next evening after classes at the university to AJ’s house to return the journal and have one of our usual chats over tea (a popular form of relaxation in war-torn Jaffna), Sankar was already there. Sankar was a final year student in theater at the University of Jaffna, who read voraciously, keen about developments in a variety of other disciplines. Krishna, who worked as an assistant in the local public library, with whom AJ shared a house at that time, had already returned home. His wife Soma, a lecturer in history at UJ (University of Jaffna), walked in with mugs of tea for us. But she was too busy feeding her twin infants to join us in the conversation – although she was listening to what was going on and would interject at critical points.
Soon our talk turned to the article. Krishna had skimmed through this when AJ had brought it home. Sankar had become sufficiently interested in the article that he asked AJ to lend the journal to him that night. He began browsing through it as we talked. Each of us possessed different forms of background information, but none complete enough to come to terms with this new-fangled thinking. Krishna had seen modernist and postmodern art while living and working in France for a couple of years. I had read some theoretical writing on the movement while I was completing my doctorate in the US. But as the philosophical discourse had reached an advanced stage during my stay in the west, I hadn’t mastered it adequately to be able to explain things coherently to my colleagues (or to myself). Sankar had read some South Indian books in Tamil which offered their own jargon-ridden interpretations of the movement. AJ, though widely read in many intellectual movements, always bemoaned the lack of current publications in Jaffna to confidently interpret articles like this. Therefore, we had to pool together our resources and information to make sense of the article.
While AJ, Krishna, and I mentioned the different aspects of the article that had attracted our attention, Sankar read aloud some statements that he found puzzling. “In the postmodernist sensibility, the search for unity has apparently been abandoned altogether. Instead, we have textuality, a cultivation of surfaces endlessly referring to, ricocheting from, reverberating onto other surfaces.”
Krishna gave some interesting examples from his visits to museums in France, where collages made of jostling disparate images challenged the viewer into sense-making. Sankar went on: “The implied subject is fragmented, unstable, even decomposed; it is finally nothing more than a crosshatch of discourses. . . . Dance can be built on Beach Boys songs; circus can include cabaret jokes; avant-garde music can include radio gospel.” The ease with which the writer was referring to western popular culture irritated the others. I had to then explain the references to Beach Boys and the gospel music tradition from my limited acquaintance with them.
But AJ quickly steered the conversation to the feeling of entrapment of the western intelligentsia. Their failure to achieve social change, their own vested interests in the system, and the general apathy of the people had made them find radicalism and meaning in the textualized world of things. Sankar related at this point a Tamil article he had read, which described postmodernism as a cultural reflection of the social degeneration of the west. The failure of the workers’ ‘revolution,’ the bourgeoisification of the working class, and the welfare cushioning in capitalist states which muffled the disillusion of the exploited, were all blamed for the tendency to play with images/surfaces and enjoy the shreds of the post-capitalist social fabric. We thus constructed a different schema for the interpretation of the article – one that diverged from that of the writer.
At this point there was a noise of machine gun fire far away which made AJ sit up and ask us to stop talking. As the noise came closer, it was clear that it was one of those nightly helicopter patrols to enforce the government’s six o’clock curfew from the air. AJ rushed into the makeshift underground bunker outside the house and motioned everyone to follow. As we all went inside the bunker (including Soma and the four children) I was fascinated by the carving on the mud walls inside. There was a small niche where they had placed clay figurines of Hindu deities. Krishna pointed out that the bunker was a good place for meditation. While staying inside the bunker, his son had dug a small hole in the mud wall and used the clay to sculpt the figure of a God.
Krishna said that he had seen such carvings in other bunkers too – perhaps everyone found that doing such work kept them preoccupied and creative while nerve-wracking bombardment was going on outside. This led us to talk about the functional nature of art under these circumstances, which differed from the attitude towards art as an apathetic play of ‘surfaces’ or ironies. Although we didn’t refer to anything specific in the article, we were all aware of the implications of this discussion to its message. Perhaps Sankar was reading the statements around the end of the article in front of him at that very moment: “there is a deliberate self-consciousness, a skating on the edge, dividing irony from dismay or endorsement . . . the quality of deliberateness and the sense of exhaustion in the postmodern are what set it apart.”
As we emerged from the bunker, sensing that the strafing had ended, AJ half-ironically pondered what prospects there were for changes in the militarized nature of our social environment by the scholarly activity of deconstructing news reports and state proclamations. There was no consolation we could draw from the splintered reality and shredded social fabric as the post-modernists could do. They wouldn’t help us withstand brute force inflicted on us by a military regime.
Sankar was gradually coming to the end of the article, and read with some sarcasm: “post-modernism rejects historical continuity and takes up residence somewhere beyond it because history was ruptured: by the bomb fueled vision of a possible material end of history, by Vietnam, by drugs, by youth revolts, by women’s and gay rights movements.” We all realised at this time that it was getting dark and we should be getting home if we didn’t want another confrontation with the soon-to-return helicopter. People were already gathering outside their huts in the narrow alley to inquire about the casualties from the helicopter strafing and to seek the location of the attack.
For all of us this was just another ‘communal reading’ where the meaning of a text is negotiated collectively through talk. Such encounters are everyday social activities in Jaffna. What is interesting is the manner in which talk embeds, reconstructs, and resists the written word. The text gets situated in a clear social context, as we wrestle with linguistic signs and produce meanings that were perhaps unanticipated by the original writer. In this collective and collaborative reading we pool together our resources insightfully to interpret the text. Through personal experiences and stories we construct a suitable schema for our reading. The resulting interpretation has a clear local relevance and oppositional implication. This approach generates a more critical reading as it adopts a skeptical attitude towards the writer and the text. Though we start with the intention of arriving at a straightforward definition of postmodernism, we end up adopting a critical orientation that is loaded with value judgments. It is through such processes that we generate insights that are motivated by our social context even as we engage with books and thinking from the West.
As I cycled back home I thought to myself that I should note down the points we had discussed and write a paper on that subject, developing a third world view of post-modernism. But I gave up that thought when I realised the practical obstacles in getting the project accomplished in Jaffna. I realised, however, that what passed through my mind is the typical attitude of western scholars after an interaction of such a nature. They would have their eyes set on producing a paper out of an enlightening conversation. I had naturally been influenced by this attitude during my graduate studies in the west.
As for AJ and the other participants in the conversation, writing a paper was far from their minds. For them, it was a rich moment of discovering new things in interaction with others and in engagement with the text. The collective experience of passing the evening together in talk was what mattered. The talk did make each of us richer in thought and feeling. But that was it. We didn’t do anything with those insights to record them, pass them to others, spread these insights through publications, or gain credit for ourselves by claiming ownership over those ideas in the intellectual marketplace. Perhaps, if we chanced to have another encounter on such a topic in another gathering, we may share some of the insights we had produced earlier and build on it unconsciously. But such interactions were rare – we had many other topics to discuss in other gatherings, and we had many other insights to share in those conversation events. As I reached home, I bemoaned the waste of intellectual resources in this momentary, fluid, random sharing of ideas – even though it had something romantic, radical, and enriching about it.
What would the impact be if AJ and other local thinkers put their thoughts on paper, published them widely for others to read and received greater recognition in the world of ideas? But, perhaps, this attitude is again colored by my America-centred postgraduate educational experience that measures the worth of people and ideas by the books one has published rather than the collective sharing of opinions and the changes at the grassroots level. Though publications may emerge overwhelmingly from the West, and western scholars may take credit for every new thought or fashionable intellectual movement, critical thinking is alive and well in Jaffna – thanks to perceptive intellectuals like AJ!
(This is an adaptation from Geopolitics of Academic Writing, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2002. The identities of the characters, other than myself and AJ, are disguised.)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

We knew
The live is screaming
Between birth and death

And death
We heard
It’s a decision of time

But now
We experience it
As a play of children
With real guns

The children
Always in a hurry
And quick enough
To finish off the duty
Of time

But it’s unbearable
To lose you
Even to time


Arts: Alli - story of a woman resisting the destructive power of menBy: Jenny HughesSource: Northeastern Monthly - November 2006
The Story of Alli: the counter-argument / resistance. Response to a ‘reformulated’ ‘kooththu’ performance by the Seelamunai ‘kooththu’ group (Batticaloa), 12 July 2006.
On 12 July 2006 the latest stage in the Seelamunai community’s ongoing Reformulation of ‘Kooththu’ project, a performance of The story of Alli: counter-argument / resistance, was performed in the temple at Seelamunai. The reformulation project has involved a five year programme to rejuvenate the ‘kooththu’ tradition in Seelamunai and other villages surrounding Batticaloa that coincided with increased freedom afforded by the ceasefire in 2002. I attended the performance in my capacity as a researcher for In Place of War; a theatre practice and research project based at the University of Manchester (UK).
The Story of Alli was performed on the ‘kalari’ stage in the temple of Seelamunai. People came from the village of Seelamunai and the surrounding area to watch the ‘kooththu’ performance before participating in a ritual in the temple (the performance took place during ritual season).
The performance was based on the story of Alli from the Mahabharata, which tells of a renowned, ferocious and intelligent woman who leads a kingdom with female ambassadors and governors – without the help of men. During the performance Arjuna falls in love with Alli and Krishna helps Arjuna trick Alli into marrying Arjuna. When she realises this she is furious and declares war on the Pandava kingdom. She is eventually captured by the Pandavas and Arjuna’s wives are summoned to try and reconcile her to being Arjuna’s wife. She discovers through them that she is carrying the baby of Arjuna. In the traditional story this is when Alli submits to the will of Arjuna – in order to ensure that her child is not disgraced she becomes Arjuna’s wife. In the reformulated ‘kooththu,’ Alli continues to argue with Arjuna’s wives. She refuses to marry Arjuna and states that she will raise the child by herself in her own kingdom. She does not submit and says she will resist Arjuna until she is liberated.
The Seelamunai performance was a dynamic and engaging portrayal of the story. It included powerful performances by the young women from the village of Seelamunai, including by a young woman who played Krishna. As such, the performance was radical in form as well as narrative – this was the first time in the memory of Seelamunai that a woman had played a male part in the ‘kooththu’ (previously the reformulation project encouraged women to perform, but until this point they had only played female parts).
The theme of the performance – women resisting the power of men – has obvious relevance to the contemporary situation not just in Batticaloa but internationally. In fact, the story of the battle between the sexes, or women’s resistance to violence is a common motif in dramas about antiwar struggles. I am thinking especially here of Euripides’ plays such as The Trojan Women and Iphigenia at Aulis and Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s groundbreaking production of The Trojan Women in 1999 was performed in Batticaloa, Vavuniya, Killinochi and Colombo as well as other areas of Sri Lanka. Lysistrata tells the story of women withdrawing sexual favours from men until they sign a peace agreement.
In 2003 two activists in New York started the Lysistrata Project, using the internet to contact numerous groups and encourage them to stage a play-reading of Lysistrata in protest against the US and UK forces’ invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003. 59 countries hosted 1029 readings of Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ war comedy in what was called “a theatrical act of dissent.” The women of Seelamunai therefore took forward the important theme of women resisting the destructive power of men in prevalent historical and contemporary drama across cultures.
The Lysistrata Project signalled something new in antiwar performance – the use of local, small-scale performances that are linked to global networks of communication to support a movement for liberation and change. The reformulation project similarly looks locally or ‘inward’ – to identify the issues in the community and to develop the skills and capacities of the community – and ‘outward’ to the aspects in the world of concern. The ‘outward’ focus of the ‘kooththu’ group includes hosting theatre practitioners and scholars such as Professor James Thompson (University of Manchester, UK) who has offered training in theatre of the oppressed methodologies. This dual focus is important to helping the community adapt and survive in a contemporary context and is central to the reformulation concept.
Reformulation is more than an educational programme for young people in the village – it is a complex, dynamic, sophisticated and flexible system of development that develops and shares knowledge inside the community in a programme of practice and activity. Through participating in a process of discussion, creativity and performance, the participants learn about themselves, the community – and also challenge the community (and themselves) to develop new ideas, skills and capacities. The ‘vibrations’ that are created by the energy of discussion, rehearsal and performance have the impact of generating new ideas about the world and changing attitudes and behaviour. In the words of the ‘annaviar’ (director / dramaturge), “this is a very beautiful change that has come through ‘kooththu’” – directly referring to the increase in confidence of the participating young people, but indirectly to the sense of renewal and refreshment brought to the community by the whole process.
One of these beautiful changes has been to develop a questioning attitude in interpretations of the old scripts and texts (and values). The group has drawn on the ‘annaviar’s’ skill in recognising the significance of different interpretations of the story – and are more equipped to question the discriminatory ideas, assumptions and narrow perspectives in narratives of the ancient texts. This questioning is an extraordinarily useful ‘transferable skill’ in today’s postcolonial world, where information is presented in highly mediated and manipulated guises (to support the case for war against Iraq, to use a Western example). The reformulation project has involved asking more complex questions about representation, rather than accepting unquestioningly the views / ethics written into modern and pre-modern forms of the epics.
As such, it is the connection to the changing imperatives of a globalised world that strikes me as most useful and most surprising about the reformulation programme. The revival of a traditional practice has involved linking of tradition with fulfilling the needs of young people surviving in a rapidly changing, and increasingly risky, contemporary environment. As the ‘annaviar’ says, what can be learned through the ‘kooththu’ is more important than a university degree: the annaviar, “can produce any song at any time whilst a university student has to check his books before giving an answer.” It is such flexibility, ability to be creative, to respond fluidly and from a position of ‘living’ and flexible knowledge that is so useful today.
Hence this reformulation is part of the widespread participatory and anti-globalisation movement which has also used improvisation, creativity and performance to increase skills and capacity, and as a means of engaging in global power struggles. Importantly then, reformulation is not a movement from one fixed tradition to creating another fixed tradition. It is about refreshing a tradition: moving from a permanent or fixed state to a position, form and content that is active, dynamic, flexible and open to ongoing change. This happens whilst remaining inherently linked to the underlying principles, ethic and structure that are part of the tradition – which for ‘kooththu’ includes participation of the community in discussion, activity, reviving social networks and gatherings, enjoyment and relaxation, (as well learning a disciplined and complex art form).
In my discussions with the performers a few days after the performance I was asked about forms of traditional theatre in villages in England. I found this question extraordinarily difficult to answer – village communities were the front line in the destruction of rural England wreaked by the Industrial Revolution and cultural forms that survived are less living traditions like the reformulated ‘kooththu’ of Seelamunai, and more remnants of the past, preserved for their heritage value.
The closest similarity I could think of was the famous annual Bradford Mela which celebrates the food, dance and music of Northern Indian communities in this old industrial town, but also includes puppetry performances from traditional pre-Victorian Britain for children attending the festival. In addition, the growing organic farming and fair trade shopping movement in England – reviving the farming of traditional species of food in England and creating new markets to trade them, along with organically produced and fair trade goods from across the world. Like reformulation, these phenomena are a combination of learning anew, linking local and global, building from the remnants of memory as well as responding to the new realities in the world in a way that is dedicated to helping the local survive and prosper.
‘Kooththu’ is claimed as the ‘national theatre’ of the Tamil people – but the reformulation processes of Seelamunai shows it to be far more than this. ‘Kooththu’ is part of the community’s struggle for self sufficiency in a rapidly changing world which presents more risks than the previous realities the community has faced. It contains a social process and an ethic – to bring the community into a discursive and creative space, which respects and revives its capacity whilst not forgetting the imperative to survive changing realities.
‘Kooththu’ means ‘to leap’. Questioning the appearance, construction and interpretation of things is essential in a postcolonial world, and in a time of international war especially, theatre might contribute to the kind of ‘intelligence’ that we all need to embrace new realities. It is a means of asking the kind of questions that will hopefully provide for a prosperous, healthy and happy Seelamunai in generations to come, and some kind of inspiration for the international anti-globalisation movement. The Story of Alli places women as a key and important part of this struggle, and reminds us of the need to include all ethnicities, genders and ages in this movement.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Reestablishment of the forgotten fact
Interpretations by A.J. Canagaratna

Reviewed by K. S. Sivakumaran

When I read the recently published two books in Thamil by the veteran Lankan Thamil literary critic and translator, A.J. Canagaratna , the name of Susan Sontag, literary and film critic came to my mind. And one of her books is titled Interpretations. What AJC is doing in these books is while giving the essence of western writings as near translation, he also interprets for the uninitiated Thamil readers in his own approaches.
The two books under review are " Sengavalar Thalaivar Yesunathar" (a collection of essays - a Red Guard Leader Jesus) and Maththu (a reprint of collection of essays). Both books are published by Mithra Books in Chennai.
Like the late A.J. Gunawardena, A.J. Canagaratna also studied English at Peradeniya and had a stint at Lake House working for the then Ceylon Daily News, some 40 years ago. And I believe he was a contemporary of Wilfrid Jayasuriya, Haig Karunaratna and the like. Initially he was not at ease with his mother tongue, which is Thamil (although his name sounds that of a Sinhala, AJC hails from Jaffna). And he is one of the famous brothers(academic and business turned journalist) and a relative of another exiled Lankan poet and critic in English, Guy Amirthanayagam.
Though faulty in Thamil in the early stages, he is now highly proficient in that language. And he says that the "Sinhala Only Bill " made him study Thamil with a vengeance. So, this hastily made legislation remains one of the root causes of the malady this country had been experiencing for more than four decades, had also done something good as far as A. J. is concerned.
Canagaratna's contributions as a translator of Sri Lankan fiction in Thamil into English is very valuable. And apart from that those readers, especially those youngsters who know only Thamil are grateful to him for introducing western writers and subjects to them. After retiring from the English department of the University of Jaffna, A J presently works for a communication firm in the northern capital.
Take for instance, his first book in Thamil published 32 years ago - Maththu. Here is an opportunity to learn what this word means: a wooden stick with a hemispherical bottom to mash or with a bottom to mash or with a bottom having grooves to collect butter). In other words, the writer is making an attempt to give the essence of once-famous writings by western thinkers on a variety of subjects.
His style of writing then was slightly likened to academic prose. The essays concerned are:
The Concept of Countervailing Power by J. K. Galbraith, Silent Spring by Richard Carson, The Origin of Love and Hate by Ian Suttie, The Triumph of the English Language by Richard Foster Jones, The New Class by Milovan Djillas, The British Constitution by H.R.G. Greaves, Literature in America by Philip Rahv, Drugs/Doctors/Disease by Brian Inglis, Film: a Montage of Theories by R.D. MacGann, The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, and Kingship by A.M. Hocart. As readers would have noted, the subjects chosen cover psychology, language, environment, politics, literature, medicine, mythology, film, constitution, anthropology.
The other book is of recent origin and here the style is more flexible. It includes a long introduction by Thamilnadu Marxist critic S.V. Rajadurai.
The first essay itself is really the title of the book. It introduces the Russian poet of the last century Alexander Blok and his poem "The Twelve". Paanaiyum Chattiyum" (Pot and Pans) talks about an English film titled "The Family Life" and parodies the fallacies people have in labelling others as 'aberrated' and relates the quintessence of R.D. Laing.
The Rumanian Film Festival held in Jaffna in 1979 is his subject in the next piece and says that some of the then East European films he had seen in Jaffna and doubts the relationship between Art and Marxism. A Russian Miner Vlatislav Tithov's novel " A Challenge to Death" is a fine literary work contends AJ reading a Thamil translation of this work by P. Somasundaram. The next article introduces the left and right sides of the brain based on a book on Picasso by F.Gilo and C.Lake.
A review on "Godfather 1" appears next. Then there is humour as expressed by Arthur Koestler in his "Darkness at Noon". The next piece is on Journalism and literature and says journalism could be Literature as well. Literature is related to the theory of Evolution in yet another interesting piece. Eric Danickan's "Returning to the Stars" is then explored by A J.
The author in a short piece discusses four Lankan Thamil writers in the next article. The four anthologies he has chosen are: Nellai K. Peran's "Oru Paatathari Nesavukkup Poahiral" ( A Woman Graduate Goes For Weaving), A.Saanthan's "Orae Oorilare" ( In a Certain Place), A.Yesurasa's " Tholaivum Irruppum (Distance and Existance_ and L. Murugapoopathy's "Sumayin Pangalikal" (Partners in Burdens ). The next article throws some thoughts on Plaigiarism in Literature.
The classic film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'" is next seen through the eyes of A. J. who dismisses the film as not authentic as the novel on which it was adapted. David Craig who taught English at the University of Peradeniya in the 1970s edited a Penguin book titled "Marxists on Literature", remember? A.J. Canagaratna summarizes one of the articles by Craig in the next article. The next is a summary of Henry Moore' s on the Human form and sensitivity to form.
The other articles include one on Picasso, a translation of an article by Walter de La Mare, a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's letter to a young poet, a translation of an article by Raymond Williams on films published in "The Listener", translation of a few verse libre of Charles Baudilere translation of a Guy de Maupaussant's article on realistic artists, an adaptation of an article by Arthur Koestler, a translation of a conversation Gustav Yanuch had with Franz Kafka published in the "Encounter", a translation of an article by a Russian poet Robert Rostavezki, a wrap-up of an interview with Akira Kuruzova published in "Newsweek", reviews of Lanka-born A. Sivanandan's English novel -"When Memory Dies" (translated by M.Ponnambalam) Rohini Hensman's novel (translated by M.Ponnabalam), and finally an English article by A.J. himself on realism and magical realism (translated by Ponn. Ganesh).

Daily News
Friday22 march 2002

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Two great living Annaviars of Batticaloa, Sri Lanka!

Two great living Annaviars of Batticaloa, Sri Lanka!

Nahamani Poadyiar(R) and Paalaha Poadyiar (L) of Kannan Kudah, Batticaloa are specialists in both the Thenmody and Vadamody Kooththu, the traditional theatres of the Thamils of Sri Lanka.

Their knowledge and skill in the art of Kooththu is tremendous and they are also the living power houses of traditional knowledge and skill of the society.

The versatility of both of these Annaviars is familiar to the region and beyond as well.

But the educated elite of the higher education institutions brand the Kooththu Performers and the Annaviars as “uneducated” and “illiterates” in their academic works as colonizers branded the colonized as “barbarians”.

*Annaviar is the Master Artist of Kooththu.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006