It gives me great pleasure to introduce this collection of articles by S. Jeyasankar, who I would argue is one of the most important voices in a new generation of theatre scholars, practitioners and activists emerging from the Sri Lankan Tamil community. As is demonstrated here, his work crosses disciplinary borders to combine analysis of theatre, language and the position of women in what I would call examples of committed scholarship. In each article he articulates a passion for issues of justice, but from a position of equality with the communities in which he works. American activist and academic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick recently talked about how the appropriate relationship between academics and their communities should never be one of mastery: she urged that we should place ourselves besides them as we conduct our work. I would argue that it is this ethics of being beside, connected to but not claiming superiority over, that is impressively illustrated in this collection.
My association with Jeyasankar goes back several years as someone who has been privileged to visit him in Batticaloa and witness at first hand the community-based reformulation projects in that region. My presence in that area owes a lot to the quotation that he offers from Ranjini Obeyesekere’s book on ‘Sri Lankan’ theatre. I was originally invited to run participatory theatre courses for people working with youth affected by the conflict in Jaffna in 2000 by UNICEF. My preparation for that visit included reading Obeyesekere’s book which, while very informative on southern Sri Lankan responses to the situation of the 1980s, unfortunately conspired to imply that ‘because of the war’ Tamil theatre ‘was almost non-existent’. My experience in Jaffna, where I saw theatre by the Centre for Performing Arts, met members of the Theatre Action Group and was introduced to the playwright Shanmugalingam quite abruptly illustrated the degree to which this view was mistaken: because of the war and in spite of the war the theatre community in Jaffna was energetic and very much ‘existent’. These examples of theatre practice, discussed in detail in the articles here by Jeyasankar, showed that what exists is very much a product of who has the ability and power to distribute the knowledge about it. In many ways Jeyasankar’s collection is the necessary riposte to the view that theatre had not survived the war.
But this is not what took me to the east of Sri Lanka specifically. Jeyasankar’s strength in this edition is to make a perceptive critique of the inequality of how information is transferred and how knowledge becomes a tool for maintaining dependency on colonial forms of power. The very fact that UNICEF had invited me to run those workshops in Jaffna is very much part of the inequality and part of the global system of knowledge control that Jeyasankar is criticising. The international ‘expert’ is viewed as having knowledge to pass onto the ‘local’ in a form of education transmission that fails to recognise the knowledge that already exists within different communities. So my presence in Jaffna in 2000 in one sense demonstrated how wrong Obeyesekere was, but also how wrong UNICEF and I were in assuming that there was a knowledge deficit to be overcome. I was invited to teach participants about theatre with youth in an area that had one of the strongest and most sophisticated children’s theatre traditions in South Asia. There is an English expression ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ meaning taking something to a place where it already exists in abundance (taking mangoes to Jaffna, taking prawns to Batticaloa might be equivalents) and in my first visit to Jaffna I can be accused of being the proverbial coal. The experience in that setting indicated that my interest in Sri Lanka should be more about me as pupil not as teacher: there was a tradition of practice that I wanted to learn more about. And the news of Jeyasankar’s work, from Professor Sivathamby in Colombo, Professor Mounaguru from Eastern University and different colleagues in Jaffna, inspired me to go and learn – and eventually took me to Batticaloa where Jeyasankar and colleagues from the Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group generously demonstrated their practice and shared their experiences.
Jeyasankar’s writing in these articles covers a range of diverse topics and themes. He writes forcefully about discrimination against women, and how men escape the censorious rumour mongering that seeks to prevent women taking an active role in public life. The news that one woman committed suicide as a result of these attacks, indicates the seriousness of these insults and the hypocrisy of those that claim they are seeking to protect some version of honour. Jeyasankar rightly condemns this as part of the wider picture of violence against women. The commitment to the struggle against discrimination is also evident in other pieces in the collection – from the negative impact of a rigid form of education to the politics of translation. Each cleverly shows how what on the surface might appear to be benign activities have injustices and inequalities structured through them. Teaching is not a neutral form that might have political content – but the actual form is political. The way teaching, research and translation are conducted all have implications for who participates in what Obeyesekere called the ‘permitted space’ and widening the framework for who has that permission to participate is central to Jeyasankar’s analysis and practice.
The reformulation of kooththu is mentioned in different places across this edition. I believe that it is in this area especially that Jeyasankar has made a major contribution to the development of what he calls the ‘establishment of a community-based applied theatre tradition among the Tamils of Sri Lanka’ or elsewhere an ‘organic form of community theatre’. The impressive nature of this programme is that it is both rooted in a traditional form of practice, but does not reify that practice as fixed or pure. His is an engagement with a tradition seeking to understand it as subject to change and as a performance form that is focused on process and not solely on product. Kooththu is both strengthened and reinvigorated during reformulation and also it becomes an important means via which crucial issues within communities in eastern Sri Lanka are debated. In all this work, Jeyasankar does not position himself as a person from the university studying the practice of others – but he places himself beside communities struggling to create performances that are intimately connected and relevant to their lives. This edition is an excellent testimony to that practice and to that vision.
Centre for Applied Theatre Research
University of Manchester