Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Performance in place of War, an extract
Kooththu, Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
Theatre has to connect the earth with the sky. That is why in Kooththu we stand in a position in which we go down to the earth and then come up. When you connect the earth to the sky that means finding yourself harmonizing with the universe, you need to know your rhythm—it is the Kooththus that give us our rhythm. Kooththu comes from jump— koodhi—it is the jump that we do in the performance but the jump has to be rhythmic . . . with a rhythm (Tarcissius 2000).If we do dramas children will not go astray and their knowledge will grow. It is important to do such drama to increase the knowledge capacity, which will in turn help children achieve good rewards. The village will get revitalized. The Seelaamunai village was in a very bad state [after the war]

Kooththu is a dance-drama form that is associated with the Tamil-speaking community across Sri Lanka, but is particularly strong in the eastern region that, because of its remote location, has historically been less influenced by colonialism and other external factors. It is performed as an allnight event and comprises sections of Hindu epics that are sung and danced in an open-air kaleri (circular raised sand stage) to large village audiences. However, what was a vibrant form has been seriously weakened by restrictions imposed by the violence that has had a devastating impact on this area. Since the 2002 ceasefire, the practice has been used to revitalize a sense of community in this chronically conflict-affected region.

The primary objective of the ‘reformulation’ of Kooththu described here is to provide education and entertainment for villagers and spaces for them to come together and re-learn traditional performance practices from elders in the community. Kooththu is positioned as a form that, although weakened by the war, is used as a symbol of the strength of a local cultural practice in opposition to external or ‘global’ forms. It is also seen as a form of educational provision for young people from rural areas, especially for those who are understood to be failing within the narrow confines of a formal education system that still bears the mark of colonial educational practices. Reformulation is, therefore, an educational programme for young people in the village as well as a dynamic, sophisticated and flexible system of development that shares knowledge inside the community.

Sivagnanam Jeyasankar from Eastern University in Batticaloa, and the Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group from the same town, have worked with up to four different village Kooththu groups inrural areas since the ceasefire. The main group, in the village ofSeelamunai, has had a Kooththu group for over 100 years, but the practice struggled to maintain itself with the war-imposed curfews and restrictions on movement. The Third Eye Group refers to its practice as ‘reformulation’, in which it supports a reinvigoration of the skills base of a local group at the same time as promoting an engagement with the issues inherent in the performed texts. In Seelamunai, this has included rewriting Kooththu scripts and traditional songs so that they better represent low-caste communities and permit the participation of women. The literacy skills developed in the process of rewriting scripts and songs and producing research articles based on reformulation, are complemented by a pedagogical approach that emphasizes dance, enjoyment, socializing, storytelling and working together. Discursive forms of practice are seen as important here but only in relation to the embodied and remembered knowledge already existing inside village society.

This process and its impact is described by Jeyasankar:
Because of the war they did not perform for twenty years [and] in the last twenty years they performed only once, so this was the situation in Seelamunai . . . In Kooththu the atmosphere is connected to the whole community and people from other villages also come to that space so it’s a space for the whole community, all the people in an open space . . . The importance of traditional theatre is . . . the connection with the grassrootspeople in a very big way and the things we share in that open space will disseminate to the other spaces also, to the homes and workplaces, so it’s very important and positive and very powerful thing . . . [We were] moving through the village and doing house to house visits, so from the beginning to the end it’s a process connecting so many things, connecting different individuals, communities, age groups, even though . . . there are hierarchies it is a very positive space, it connects different layers of people at different levels (2006).

Although the Third Eye group themselves describe their practice predominantly in terms of education and enjoyment, a complementary analysis might suggest that in a region that has suffered violence and disappearances and, since 2004, has been the site of a violent split in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the space for debate and creative expression that the reformulation process permits is crucial. The performance does not foreground the issue to be discussed but debates about caste and gender are instigated through the process of Third Eye’s engagement with the community and the performance of adapted scripts of traditional stories.

In an area where space for open dialogue is contested and outspoken comments on public issues are dangerous, the performance provides an aesthetic space through which concerns, questions and issues can be explored safely. Batticaloa has a civil society considerably weakened by the war, by the wide-scale migration of the middle or intellectual class and the recent LTTE divisions. The space opened up during performances of Kooththu is perhaps a rare place of free debate and one done through the content and structure of the Hindu epics. Through an engagement with issues of gender and caste hierarchies, Third Eye uses Kooththu to debate the multiple divisions that affect this community and to discuss issues of identity outside the more familiar articulations of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim that have become fixed by the war. The utilization and development of a form of performance that has links to Tamil identity and pride offers an opportunity rather than a restriction. The participants ensure that they are associated with a Tamil form in an area of strongly and violently asserted nationalist politics, and thus they manage to open up spaces of debate and creativity from within a ‘place’ that is, culturally, relatively safe.

The movement and association made possible as a result of the ceasefire meant that pressures from globalization became newly significant for the region. This included changes in agricultural practices, availability of branded products, public discussions about opportunities to develop tourism and increased access to Western and Asian media. Third Eye’s ‘reformulation’ process is situated explicitly as a response to these ‘encroachments’ that it views with suspicion. Its work is based on a determination, in opposition to these advances, to validate and develop local knowledge and it therefore promotes cultural events that celebrate traditional rituals, customs and practices. In addition, it creates opportunities for debate about how to protect the variety of cultural forms that exist within this community.
From the Greeks and Shakespeare to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, war has often been a major theme of dramatic performances. However, many of the most extraordinary theater projects in recent years not only have been about war but also have originated in actual conflict zones themselves.
Performance in Place of War is concerned with these initiatives, including theater in refugee camps, in war-ravaged villages, in towns under curfew, and in cities under occupation. It looks at theater and performances that often occur quite literally as bombs are falling, as well as during times of ceasefire and in the aftermath of hostilities.

Performance in Place of War draws on extensive original material and includes interviews with artists, short play extracts, and photographs from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, and others. The authors combine critical commentary, overviews of the conflicts and first-hand accounts in order to consider such questions as: Why in times of disruption have people turned to performance? And what aesthetic, ethical, and political choices are made in these different contexts Performance in Place of War is a fascinating perspective on the role of theatre in unpredictable, war-torn times.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Reformulating Kooththu theatre for Eezham Tamils [TamilNet, Tuesday, 12 April 2011,] Contemporary humans alienated from their own environment by an education system are isolated even within their families by the electronic media. Reformulating the Kooththu theatre of Eezham Tamils is not to show it to somebody else or to carry it to somewhere else, but to effectively make the owners of the form of art to gather and enjoy it for themselves in the open air. The reformulation aims at reinstating the Kooththu theatre as a social institution, by giving importance to its inherent features such as participation, social function and memory; by bringing in traditional values to contemporary discourse and by providing space for the grassroot performers to perform in their own environment, says S. Jeyasankar of the Eastern University, Batticaloa, in his new book in Tamil on “Reformulating Kooththu: New Dimensions of the Kooththu of Eezham.”

The variety of names in Tamil heritage for dance and theatre, coming from Dravidian etymology alone, is quite amazing. Note the following terms cited in Dravidian Etymological Dictionary:
Akavu (DED 10), Aaddam (DED 347), Aalu (DED 386), Iyangku (DED 469), Ka’li, Ka’lippu (DED 1374), Kazhai (DED 1370), Kummi (DED 1756); Koppi (DED 2108), Kuravai (DED 2108), Kunippu (DED 1863), Kooththu (DED 1890), Kontha’lam (DED 2099), Koalam (DED 2240), Chaakkai (DED 2432), Chinthu (DED 2530), Thazhu (DED 3116), Thaa’ndavam (DED 3158), Thu’l’lal (DED 3364), Thoongku (DED 3539), Nadam, Naddam, Nadam-aaddam (DED 3582), Navil (DED 3616), No’ndi (DED 3786), Ve’ri (DED 5511) etc.

They come from simple roots such as Adi (feet), Aal (move), Akavu (dance like a peacock), Iyangku (function), Ka’li (ecstasy), Kazhai (stilts), Kummu/ Koppu (clap), Kural (voice), Kuni (bend), Kuthi (jump), Konthu (mask), Koal (stick), Thaazh (cymbals), Thaa’ndu (leap, hop), Thu’l’lu (jump, spring, frisk), Thoongku (sway), Nada (walk, happen, perform), Navil (say), No’ndu (limp, use of stilts), Ve’ri (frenzy) etc.

Kooththu today means a folk theatre in which a particular style of dance is coupled with drama and storytelling. Kooththu, in its styles and themes associated with the heritage of Eezham Tamils, still survives in the villages of the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. Some villages are specialised in its performance.

Jeyasankar is not merely an academic, but a performer of Kooththu himself. His academic researches belong to a new genre of participatory nature, aimed at not bringing the form of art as a museum piece performed by elite artists to urban viewers, but reviving, reformulating and re-invigorating the theatre among its owners, for their benefit. In the last more than one decade he successfully did it in some of the villages in Batticaloa.

The present book in Tamil is a collection of eight articles on his views and experiments on the Kooththu of Eezham Tamils, dealing with topics on native modernism, reformulation and new dimensions of Kooththu, children’s Kooththu theatre, Kooththu as a national theatre of Eezham Tamils, the challenges faced, postmodernism and Eezham Tamil theatre, Information Age and the theatre of Eezham Tamils, and Kooththu in the diaspora.

Professor I.Muththaiya of the Department of Folklore, Madurai Kamarajar University, has written a forward to the book, which was published last week in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

The book is enlightening in grasping the fact that rather than from approaches of colonial mindset – whether internal or external - revival or reformulation of any art has to come from the people concerned if it is going to be of any meaning to them and of any meaning to the form of art itself.