Thursday, June 26, 2008

DRUM OF A HERALD: Collection of Articles in English


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.

James Thompson

Centre for Applied Theatre Research

University of Manchester

Just Being Me

On the occacion of the release of books "Just being me" and Drums of Hearald"
Poet 'Kutty' Revathy is the reviewer of the book "Just being me"

"This is poetry very much in the mode of the West's "rap" poets and "spoken word" poets, very avante garde. She writes with the energy of the Twenty-First Century's hopefulness and savvy, and of youth's determination to build a just, generous and healing world. Her work will inspire readers everywhere."

Marilyn Krysl

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Playing with Parai Araivon (Herald) in Kooththu (Traditional Theatre) of the Tamils of Sri Lanka

From Tradition to Reformulation: A Journey through Participatory
Action Research.

Kooththu is the Traditional Theatre of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Parai Araivon (Herald) is one of the "interesting" characters in the Kooththu
performance. The arrival of the Parai Araivon on to the Kalari (round stage) kindles the spectators and gets them into laughter.

The role of Parai Araivon in Kooththu is to convey the official message (pirasitham) of the court. Basically, Parai Araivon is also a servant of the King and also the citizen of the Kingdom like the Kaddiyankkaran, a dignified character which narrates the arrival of the King to the Court.

But the portrayal of the Parai Araivon is different in treatment from all the other characters of the Kooththu. He is portrayed as a comic element in a negative manner. It's a reflection of caste oppression among the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

It also paved way for conflicts and clashes among the castes of Tamils in Sri Lanka Vies a vie Parior versus other castes who perform Kooththu which contains the element of the traditional portrayal of the Parai Araivon.

The exploration of the politics of traditional portrayal of Parai Araivon and the reformulation process and the character in Kooththu through Participatory Action Research is the on going theatre research activism of the Third Eye.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Story Untold

Painting of Kamala Vasuki

It’s a bright Sunday morning
A girl sits down to think
About the things she has faced
All through her life
She thinks of the battle and the scars
And about those who don’t seem to understand
Where she stands
She cries out for help
But they act deaf
She sheds her tears
And they shut their eyes
Everyday she thinks she can tell her feeling
But she just ends up bleeding
The scars are many
The helpers are few
The hurt is bad
That makes her sad
She expects a lot
But ends up getting shot
Every time she thinks she’s got what she wants
She seems so happy
That she goes back into being a baby
But It’s all short lived
When she realizes that it just stays for two minutes
She’s scared to open her mouth
Because she knows that they will shout
But who else has she got
Still, it makes no difference to them
And they don’t want to treat her like gem
If anything happens, they pull out her past
And that’s something that they all do so fast
Night falls and she goes to her bed weeping
Hoping to tell her story untold
That makes her feel so cold

Santhira Nimalan Tamilselvi

Friday, June 20, 2008


Hush now don’t say a word
Just close your eyes and see the world
The peace, the beauty that surrounds your mind
Is not what you’ll get to see on the outside
Serenity is a quality one must develop
The beauty of it lies underneath your cup
The cup of life is in your hands
Use it wise, use it while you can
Live your life to the fullest
Yes, I have heard that a million times before
But have you thought about the rest
Rest assured you will have places to go
I would love to see the world
The world I see when I shut my eyes
Hopes and dreams fade the minute I open my eyes
I am willing to press on till my last breath
I will not give up even if am in my death bed
Serenity, we will get there for sure
With our eyes open
We will make a secure future.
Santhira Nimalan Tamilselvi

Painting of Kamala Vasuki

A collection of poems by Santhira Nimalan Tamilselvi will be published with the cover painting of Kamala Vasuki soon.
It will be a publication of THIRDEYE English Forum.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

to aj

to aj
aj, does it seem strange,
that i would write this to you,
about you, how you could survive
the gun man’s revenge and die
in a hospital bed, rest in peace
in mortality.
one sudden moment, i see you at my side,
on the long stone corridor of the arts
faculty, off to a wedding i was
uninvited to; and you bring back
a piece of the pie, the wedding cake,
a peace offering for the lost years, for
old times’ sake, the curfew hours, the
soft muffled tones, circling
our literary talk on those
lamp lit nights on the porch.
the stillness of those heady days of long laughing nights
and full throated cry of the nation’s longing,
when jaffna woke up from its slumber
into a murderous rampage of kith and kin,
friend and foe. the tear stricken face;
the umbilical cord, ripped, comes
apart, bloody, in our hands;
you sat on the side lines
a trickster figure almost, like in a painting,
tiny and smiling, suggesting silence.
i am writing
only of death these bomb-filled days,
of the dying and our undoing, and it
seems fitting
that i should write about
you, aj, for laughing at murder in its face.
there is nothing natural about death, or even
sunshine, alcohol and old age. there is nothing
natural about the quiet in the leaves on the
mango trees, the still night broken
by the dog barking in endless fear; there is
nothing natural about natural death,
frightening us with normality
that cannot be, dropped
into the nothingness,
the severance of our waking days.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008



DATE: 7th and 8th June 2008
TIME: 9.00 a.m. to 5 p.m.



Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A look at the shifting usages of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka today : from a theatrical perspective

A look at the shifting usages of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka today : from a theatrical perspective

Sivagnanam Jeyasankar

Jeyasankar was born and grew up in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and graduated in Drama and Theatre Arts from the University of Jaffna where he was a temporary assistant lecturer in these subjects for two years. He later taught at Eastern University, in Batticaloa. As a “person and a theatre person” as he describes himself, he is, through the educational workshops he conducts all over the country, and in India, in continual contact with the various groups who suffer from displacement as a result of the fighting in Sri Lanka; and he brings a highly tuned ear and informed understanding to the way the Tamil language is shifting all the time and adapting itself in its everyday usages to disruptive conditions that, amongst many other effects, throw together people from different regions and different dialect groups who might otherwise never have come into contact.

This paper that represents a journey through the landscape of displacement and diaspora, with especial reference throughout to usage and variations in current spoken Tamil in Sri Lanka. Jeyasankar shared with the members of the conference his passionately held belief in theatre as an instrument for social change, vividly described the uprooted and uncertain life of the war torn country, and made mention of administrative policies with regard to language as well as to developments in education.

The basic question in this regard is, are we going to celebrate the differences in languages, or are we willing to opt for a standard language that would relieve us of the burden of hierarchical varieties? Or shall we just leave it to market forces to restructure everything?

From Jaffna to Batticaloa is only 500 km. but in this time of war it takes three or four days and nights to cover the distance, most of the time under the surveillance of koalmoody:

‘koalmoody’, informers from the air, as helicopters are popularly called in the “liberated areas” occupied by the militants. If the cry of ‘keli’ - heli goes up among Tamils, then everyone will know there is an alert. Bomper-bomber or sahadai - a converted cargo plane, is used to drop locally made peepa kundu - barrel bombs,and in emergency, to throw human waste. Sahadai is a big, slow moving wooden vehicle used to carry gods and godesses in Hindu temples, and the converted cargo plane is like a ‘sahadai’ in the sky, not because of its contents but because of its size and mobility.

It is relevant to mention a joke about a bomber and bombing at this juncture. One person says to another, "'Eay- hey- look there, it’s bomping". The other one replies, " It’s not bomping, "b" is silent”. The first one corrects himself "oh, its oomping” -to suck , although most derogatory this word is, perhaps regrettably, frequently used.

Military boarders, check posts and check points have to be crossed so often that chekin is a popular term for "checking" among Tamils in Sri Lanka. There are sooniya pirathesangal- no-man's lands, areas with warning boards saying kannivedi kavanam, “beware of landmines”. People say ulavaalikal kavanam-beware of spys and I or eye for intelligence is also very commonly used. During the practice of parading suspects in front of mundams- persons already arrested, or informers used by the security forces to identify 'terrorists ' The mundams cover their heads with sacks or cloths to hide their identity and are called Mundam which means body without head, commonly used to denote people doing unintelligent things. In domestic life mundam is often used by a husband to his wife and is frequently to servants too. This already oppressive word now gains tremendous flavour; it terrifies people, even in their dreams. mundam varuthu- mundam is coming; mundam/mundankal kidakkutha- there are bodies without heads over there, is an oft heard remark these days.

Tamils mostly live in the north and in the east-northeastern provinces of Sri Lanka: malaiyaha makal ,upcountry Tamils in the central province, melaha makkal , Colombo Tamils in the western province, and a dense population of Tamil speaking Muslims in the east, in the north, and all over Sri Lanka. These are the people who are responsible for the spread of the Tamil language to every corner of Sri Lanka.

The Burgher community, particularly in the eastern province, and the Memon/Malay communities in the western province are the most minor among the minorities. Another interesting feature is that modern Sri Lankan politics, based on those of ancient Ceylon, divide the Veddha people into Sinhala Veddhas and Tamil Veddahas.

The name Sri Lanka itself has to do with the politics of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka: the constitutional change of 1972 brought not only a new face to the country but a new name to it too. Even the labels of popular Ceylon tea were reprinted to read Srilankan tea. But in Tamil, Ilangai remains unchanged. All official documents are in English in Sri Lanka and if something is in Tamil it's Ilangai: this may be a minor practice in our daily life but the politics hidden in it are not minor.

There are a variety of dialects among Sri Lankan Tamils. The dialects of the Northeastern province differ from one another according to region, such as Jaffna, Kilinochi, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya in the north, and Batticaloa, Trincomalle and Ampara in the east.

Colombo and Negombo in the western province, Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya in the central province, Baddulle in the Uva province and Puttlam in the northwestern province, are comparatively densely populated with Tamils and experience the inter- and intra-regional differences of Tamil dialacts.

A few glimpses of words and meanings should be enough to portray the differences, and the hierarchical nature, of dialects among the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The varieties in tone, style and body language in communication is beyond the capacity of the written texts to record.

Pachchathanniyil paniyaram suduthal- toasting sweets in water, is a saying popular among the Tamils of Jaffna, but when it was used in a theatre workshop Batticaloa in the east, the usage made the participants uneasy. It was a terrible shock to the director to find that paniyaram is used in the villages of the area to denote the sexual organ of women.

Tamils in the north ridicule easterners for using the word kiruhi/kiruhu - turn around or to turn, and, in the same way, easterners ridicule northerners for using penththu to mean later, when for easterners it means, to ease; they also laugh at avai and uvai –they, as popularly used by Jaffna Tamils.

The popular usage of avai, ivai and uvai among Jaffna Tamils, to express different hierarchial and distancing nuances of the word, they, exposes the exclusive nature of Jaffna society; these same words are used by people of other regions to humiliate Jaffna people.

The words nee, neer and neengal – you, in different shades of meaning are in frequent use among Jaffna Tamils, but the word neer is adroitly used to maintain a middle path in communication between informal and formal.

Tamil soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPFK) made a positive impression on Sri Lankan Tamils, but their casual use of the word nee – you, made people so addressed uneasy and irritated because it is used for inferiors, whether of lower caste or in lower grade positions. The familiar Hindi expression challo challo, which was frequently used by the IPKF soldiers when hitting or chasing people, was in popular use during that period among Tamils, both in earnest and jokingly.

The variety of the upcountry Tamils is another unique feature we have to look into. Upcountry Tamils who were brought to Ceylon by the East Indian Company as cheap labour on the tea estates, have about three hundred years of history in Sri Lanka. Their dialect is regarded as the language of servants; not only were they enslaved by the East Indian Company but they were also used as low paid servants by high caste Tamils of Jaffna.

In popular drama, their dialect is used for servants and comic characters, eg: aamanka iya, varenka iya -with slavish body language. But at the same time creative writers are using that dialect in works published in Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka, where South Indian Tamils reigned over the editorial policies of the print media during the 1950s and 60s.

The political emergence of the minorities-within-minorities has liberated them to a certain extent. A particular achievement of the Tamils of Indian origin is the establishment of the name "upcountry Tamils" instead of their traditional label, thoaddakaaddaar- those who work on the tea estates.

People from other regions call Jaffna people, yarlpaani, yarlppaanam being the Tamil version of Jaffna. Paani-syrup, and panagkoddai- palmyra seed, denote narrow mindedness or the ‘frog in the well’ mentality, whereas panai - the palmyra tree, emerged as the symbol of resistance in the war and is an important symbol in art and literary works about the war.

Attempts, such as those already mentioned, to establish superiority over others, go on even within a region. In Batticaloa, the people from Ealuvan Karai –where the sun rises, call people of Paduvaan Karai-where the sun sets, kaaddaankal-foresters. In Jaffna, the people of the islands are called theevar - inferior to others. All the groupings within communities have their own terms for expressing their own superiority and the inferiority of others. Education, the media, and migration itself, are helping to direct the younger generation away from this kind of labeling which is part of a tradition which education is making attempts at ameliorating.

In order that the Sinhala language be prevented from swamping Sri Lanka, where all government initiatives have Sinhala names, e.g. grama sevaka -legal administrative heads of villages, there has to be resistance. The reflection of that resistance in language may be seen in, for instance, the way the very popular terms laksala and salusala – a type of controlled price store, are ridiculed by moderate Tamil politicians who call them malasala,

War, part and parcel of the daily life for the Sri Lankan Tamils, brings new terms and terminologies, many of them politically loaded, and these are nowadays used casually in ordinary conversation. Kompumuri, for example, is a traditional ritualized game of the Tamils of eastern Sri Lankan communities, full of secret rituals and techniques: the community is divided into two zones, vada seri- north zone and then seri- south zone, and both zones prepare for the ritual game in secret ways for many days. Keeping the secrets during this period is so important that there will be fights between married partners over it but somehow the secrets will be kept. Even husband and wife are divided and fight each other during this period. The word recce, from reconnaissance, is used for finding out the other side’s secrets; even very old people use this word which was originally used in military circles for secret missions.

Significantly, the concepts of thiyahi –martyr - and thurohi – traitor, are also familiar to all. Firing, round-up, chekin-checking, pistol, claymore, shell, multibarrel, gunpoint, convoy, inquiry, kidnap, pass, landmine, blast: these are some of the terms *taken from English, in everyday use by Sri Lankan Tamils.

So much vocabulary coined from the horrors of war has not nudged out the variations that are appearing in all spoken languages connected with modern systems and technology. Terms such as sisu uthana, pathuma vimana, vanitha vasana-fortunate ladies, and ithuru mithuru, kantha ran ginum-gold quest of women: these names of banks’s savings and loans schemes, give evidence of the influence of Sinhala on Tamil in Sri Lanka.

Continuous displacement has meant that many people live for long periods as refugees in welfare centers where different communities are all mixed together. New life patterns and unfamiliar activities bring new usages onto the scene. The words “queue” and “relief” are very widely used as Tamil words, for the lives of the people are lived with reference to these two words. Sandai – war, idampeyarvu – displacement, and nivaranam- relief, are three Tamil words, intertwined, not only as terms, but as living experiences too. The development of the term, enjeeoh –NGO, is then logical, both in word and fact. The words pathivu – registration and identi – identity card, have become part of the body and soul of the Tamils of Sri Lanka; someone without pathivu and identi is equal to a dead person. Identi eaduthiya?, Identi enga*,identi konduvanthiya?, pathivuv vaichatha? or pathinchatha/ pathinchacha? Pathivu and identi are very directly connected with the life and death of Sri Lankan Tamils, since these are the two basic things they need for their safety and relief.

"Identi enke?", identi edu, identi iruka, ID edu: the authoritative, sinhalesed, demands of security personnel have become familiar over more than three decades. Then there is tax, vati in Tamil, the subject of many humorous oral stories. Vaddi-interest, another term much used amongst Tamils over a long period has now become civilized to "interest", "interest in Tamil rate", "interest free". And then, amongst all these developments, there is that of the internet by which Tamils may connect with each other in their mother tongue.

Any survey of Tamil dialects in Sri Lanka must give prominence to Tamil speaking Muslims, whose role in the development of Tamil in its written and spoken forms has been extremely influential. In Tamil, they are respectfully referred to as Muslim but the term sony will be used when the expression is of hostility; the Muslims of course have their own terms for res ponding to this.

Another group worthy of attention for different reasons is the Burghers, who are living among Tamils, particularly in Batticola, and who are willing to maintain their identity but not really their language, Portukis. The elite amongst them prefer English but the ordinary people speak Tamil. Tamils are disparaging about Burghers, calling them 'Paranki'; once again, the Burghers have their own ways of disparaging Tamils.

It is very much to be regretted that most people in Tamil Nadu, where large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils are living as refugees, are still unaware that there are Tamils living in Sri Lanka; so the first questions are, neengal Sri Lankava/Ceylona? and nalla thamil pesariyale?- are you Sri Lankan? and, you speak good Tamil! The Tamils of Tamil Nadu identify Sri Lankan Tamils with Keralites, neengal keralava?.

Under these circumstances, miscommunication is rampant. Take for example, the usage of kathaiththal and pesuthal for, to speak, by Sri Lankan and South Indian Tamils respectively. Another miscommunication arose in a theatre workshop at Madurai, Tamil Nadu when the participants were asked, irunka -to sit, and didn't, even when the request was repeated . Irunka means sit for Sri Lankan Tamils but for Tamils in Tamil Nadu it means, wait. For the participants to have sat , the term should have been ukkarunka. In Sri Lanka nillunka means, wait, nillunka vaaran- wait, I will come.

Manmade and natural disasters play havoc with the lives of Tamils in Sri Lanka, uproot them and scatter them to mix with strangers from other regions, speaking Tamil certainly, but often in very unfamiliar ways. People’s thought processes are affected by these experiences and, over time, there will be deterioration of local culture and local skills will be forgotten. The vital question is: how are we going to liberate ourselves from alienation and avoid disintegration?

Good theatre dialogue requires a clear understanding of the ground realities of all the varieties of poin of view, so concentrating on the language usage of people of different states and from different castes and classes is essential in understanding all these realities.

At this point a dialogue from a school play by Kulanthai M. Shanmukalingam, from the mid 80s comes to mind. A female character, a refugee from 1983 riots in Colombo, is talking about the sufferings of refugees at the hands of thugs and of how Perera Uncle saved them.

She says: 'kaadaiyariddai irinthu Perera Uncle than engalai kapatinavar' -Perera Uncle is the person who saved us from thugs

Another character exclaims: 'Perera enda Sinkalavanallo' - Perera is a Sinhalease isn’t he?

There is always a burst of laughter as a reaction to this dialogue which has an inter-related, two-pronged meaning: it refers to the innocence of the character and to the awareness of the audience that all Sinhalese are not Kaadaiyar-thugs. The play cleverly liberates the audience from stereotypes, which are mostly used as comic and negative elements, and instead deals with actual conflict.

Modern Tamil theatre is being employed in Srilanka as alternative education and therefore concerns itself with the condition of education today and with ways of improving it and of releasing students from constrictive and wasteful systems.

The role of the theatre, in this context, is to stimulate people to connect themselves in a positive way and to create multi-dimensional societies. Theatre must engage itself as an alternative to the media and to conventional education, and in Sri Lanka it must do that in a war torn land amongst people who are in a state of disassociation.

Language will always be a primary tool in theatre work, whether the language being used reflects that of the actual period depicted or not. Today, moves are being made towards a more faithful representation of spoken language in literature and drama. Those who work in theatre are necessarily alert to the way language is used; every tour of the native land is a journey through language and expression…

Monday, June 02, 2008



The festival chariot shines
In its majestic grandeur
Reaching out high
Into the blue sky
The bulls below, yoked to the chariot
Are thoroughly exhausted,
Panting, foaming at their mouths.
The chariot moves because the bulls pull.
But the decorative wooden horses
On the prominent top row
Remain in their proud galloping poses.
Most of the people have lost sight of
The exhausted old beasts below.

R Murugaiyan
(Written circa 1970 in Tamil & translated by the author)


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Shaumuhalingam's Three Plays- Review

Shanmugalingam Three Plays, trans. S. Pathmanathan. Kumaran Book House
It is often said that there are three levels at which one can enjoy a piece of theatre. First, in performance, where an audience member experiences the full emotional and intellectual force of a piece as it is played out live in front of them. Second, by reading the script and appreciating the quality of the writing, but with little knowledge of how the piece is transformed once on stage. And finally, through review – whereby the quality of the script or production is relayed through the words of others.
Until now my appreciation of the work of Shanmugalingam had been in this third category. I can remember vividly in my first visit to Jaffna in 2000, how actors from Theatre Action Group explained, with infectious enthusiasm, how the first production of Man Sumantha Meniyar was received across the peninsula. They outlined the plot, the style of the production and the reaction of the audiences. Later that year I was given another detailed account by Sithamparanatham, encouraging me to find out more about the play – but of course leaving me frustrated that there were no available English translation. Similarly I can remember discussions with Sopa Pathmanathan as he explained why Entayum Tayum was his favourite play by Shanmugaligam. I could only guess as to the quality of the play and wished I could understand the written Tamil. Finally, in conversations with Shanmugalingam himself, I remember hearing the stories about the reception of the play Velvithee and, like all significant theatre, the very real debates it stimulated. At the time I imagined it as a modern day version of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ but had little way of testing my assumption.
This edition – beautifully translated by Sopa Pathmanathan – is thus a realisation of a strong desire for me to know Shanmugalingam’s plays at what I called above the second level of appreciation: at last I can read them. They now come alive for me as an English speaker – and their breadth and quality jumps from the page. What I have learned reading them for the first time is that each in its own way can be seen as embedded in an important historical moment in the history of Jaffna and Sri Lanka more broadly. The specifics of the conflict in the 1980s, the themes of migration and then the impact of sexual violence – each illustrate that Shanmugaligam was (and is) writing in a way that demonstrates his firm connection to his ‘soil’; in terms of history, culture and current pressing issues. In some ways the first two plays in the book speak to each other. The demand in Man Sumantha Meniyar for the people to resist the urge to flee is responded to in Entayum Tayum with the vision of those left behind once many have, in fact, left. Optimism, and perhaps idealism, becomes tempered by pragmatics as the elders of the community wait for their absent families to write. The poignancy of this latter piece speaks to an audience well beyond Sri Lanka and in many ways illustrates the importance of Shanmugalingam as a playwright speaking to audiences outside his particular geographical and historical context. The isolation of the elderly – and the international pressures on migration and communication – are intimately captured in this piece, and I believe mark it as an important work which should be performed by communities in many different contexts.
Velvithee repeats the themes in Man Sumantha Meniyar where the pressures of cultural practices meet the contingencies of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The women counsellor who works in the field of sexual violence, when victimised herself, is caught in the complex emotional and cultural demands that intellectually she has encouraged others to resist. This piece illustrates the dilemmas inherent in a community that is subject to external violence – cultural practices both sustain and protect, and also can prevent recovery. This is movingly revealed in this piece, where the lead role, Vasuhi, is, as I had anticipated, the modern day Nora, who is forced to confront the restrictions of her culture from a position of her deep respect for it practices. In Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ Nora leaves her husband Helmer at the end of the play – tantalisingly, and I think appropriately, Shanmugalingam, leaves the end of his powerful play open. We can only guess what the future for Vasuhi holds, and the playwright thus forces an audience to answer the question that the piece poses.
Of course the sense of enjoyment I have from reading these plays, is still only an appreciation at what I called the second level. For me to understand their texture and feel fully, I need to see them in production. The publication of this excellent edition now makes this all the more likely. I hope English speaking students take on the challenge this book presents and start to stage new productions – which I also hope I have the opportunity to see. The desire kindled by the infectious enthusiasm for Shanimgalingam’s work demonstrated by those young actors in Jaffna, will then be fully realised – and my appreciation will then come from a level one experience.
James Thompson
University of Manchester