Sunday, May 27, 2012

“Traditional Religious Practices and Challenges they face in Contemporary Society”

“Traditional Religious Practices and Challenges they face in Contemporary Society”

“Traditional Religious Practices and Challenges they face in Contemporary Society”

Dept. Of Fine Arts, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Eastern University Sri Lanka: Discussion Workshop with Traditional Religious Leaders, Batticaloa District 8 May 2012 I was invited to this forum as an outsider. Someone who would say she is committed to social justice is engaged as a member of the international community to work in the field of human rights and a newcomer to Sri Lanka who has a lot to learn about this complex and diverse society. While this was not a forum about human rights as such, its aims and objectives are clearly aligned with an agenda that is about social justice, community empowerment and protection of values and ways of life that have important meaning to those who live them. As a result I believe there are some important observations to be made for and by a human rights teacher, researcher and practitioner. What follows are my thoughts: not well-organised or systematic, quite probably littered with errors and misinterpretations and certainly not thoroughly reasoned – for which I hope you will forgive me – rather my reflections as I sat and listened.

As I sit in this workshop I am struck by the contrast between the soulless, mindless (and pointless!) rendition of formal human rights education that I have sadly seen in many different parts of the world – in the form of university classes or ‘human rights’, ‘development’ or ‘empowerment’ trainings – and the energy, engagement and dialogue in this room!

In many human rights trainings there is a bland recitation of international legal principles or notions of ‘development’ and ‘empowerment’ that are delivered as devoid of all context, completely abstract with no real understanding or engagement. This gathering was different. Through the skilful mediation of Dr Sivagnanam Jeyasankar, what emerged was a rich, complex discussion of the challenges, the opportunities, the advantages and the limitations contained within practices that have survived and been nourished within communities for centuries if not longer.

Key to the success of this workshop, to my mind, was the fact that it was a forum that genuinely allowed people – in this case traditional priests – to tell their stories, in their own way and identify for themselves what were the most pressing concerns they had. As a result, there was a real engagement in the workshop: participants paid attention, sat forward in their chairs, eager to respond to others’ comments and to share their thoughts. This was such a marked contrast to an event I went to last year in Sierra Leone which was also designed to engage with religious and community leaders (in that case on the issue of women’s rights). In that case the leaders sat there blankly as they were lectured on the content of CEDAW and other international principles and during the break-out discussion sessions they numbly parroted what they knew they were supposed to say, while actually making clear in their comments to each other that none of their more conservative views had been challenged in the slightest.

Most of the other human rights workshops or lessons I have attended have been conducted in English - my native language - and yet I have often found it very hard to concentrate and not get bored. In this case the whole session was conducted in Tamil and while much of the gist was relayed to me in whispers by the very articulate and professional Ms S.Niruthani, I was not able to understand everything that was discussed. Yet amazingly I was absolutely spellbound for the entire 3 hours! Even where it was impossible to get details, the passion and emotion conveyed transcended language barriers and I felt completely a part of the workshop: my life interconnected to these people who come from an apparently different universe. What this makes me think is how misguided we have been in many of our attempts to identify the universality of human rights. It is not in the articulation of abstract universal legal norms in the form of international conventions or declarations. It is in the common bond of human experience and the genuine desire to communicate our joys and our sorrows, oursources of pride and anxiety.

It is also an interesting illustration of GayatriSpivak’s (2004) point regarding education. In an essay critiquing existing human rights practice, Spivak specifically calls for the dismantling of the legacies of a colonial education in favour of a form of education, which really engages with those who have always been assumed to know nothing: treating them as also capable of producing knowledge and certainly equal partners in the education process. Only then, Spivak argues, can human rights deliver on its promise of equality and freedom and not simply reproduce a power relation in which there will always be some who are wronged (the poor, weak, voiceless) and others who must save them (the elite).Similarly Partha Chatterjee (2011) explains: ‘Within a context that is defined as educational, there is an authorized relationship between one who “knows better,” and one who doesn’t quite know enough’. As he points out, this neat relationship becomes much more complicated when there is an attempt to engage outside of the university; especially with populations who have for too long been subjugated and who the educator is apparently committed to empowering. It is truly admirable and courageous of Dr S.Jeyasankar to be embarking on precisely this task and doing it in such a sensitive and thoughtful way.

At the same time I wonder how do those of us considered ‘educated’ (academics, intellectuals, professionals) ‘unlearn’ the restrictive thinking practices developed through formal education whilst maintaining a critical perspective? Sitting here I can feel how challenging it is to suspend my own belief system and genuinely engage with the beliefs of the speakers. And yet their worldview is equally valid and their beliefs are wholeheartedly felt, lived and real. Surely this is a key issue for those of us working in the field of human rights when so often the ‘traditional’ is set up as a barrier to the realisation of (secular, modern, enlightened) rights. How to engage in an egalitarian, genuine but critically reflexive manner? It requires both respect for others’ opinions and values but at the same time does not mean a blind endorsement of anything that is different in the name of ‘cultural tolerance’. As Uma Narayan (1998) has pointed out, this cultural relativist position is often itself a form of racial superiority (‘we wouldn’t do that, but they don’t know any better’). It also allows certain forms of oppression to escape examination. For example, much of the discussion today has focused on men speaking about rituals relating to what women should and should not do! Thus critical engagement, disagreement and debate remain crucial for someone committed to a feminist agenda. Yet at the same time this must be done in a way that resists the imposition of a fixed frame of analysis or the quick condemnation of cultural practices as ‘backward’, ‘barbaric’ and therefore necessitating total rejection.

For this reason I find Dr T.Gadampanathan’s contribution to the discussion extremely useful. He asks: how to combine the benefits of rituals with those of education and development (and I would add here, human rights)? And how to create a space where different people with different perspectives can come together and talk, debate the advantages and disadvantages of particular ritual practices? (Of course something that is rendered even more difficult in a heavily militarised site). After all, it surely should not be about the maintenance of a ritual for its sake alone. Rather it is about identifying how and why this ritual developed, the contribution it makes to the lives of people and the value it can add to the lived experience of people now.

This leads to my other major observation: this is subaltern studies come alive!! A radical, politically motivated body of scholarship that emerged in the early 1980s, subaltern studies was the attempt by a few Indian historians at first, then others, to capture the experience of those who had traditionally been ‘left out of history’, deprived of any voice. In particular, subaltern studies scholars saw the term ‘subaltern’ as a means of moving beyond Western Marxist theory that concentrated on industrial working classes (the ‘proletariat’). As the subaltern studies scholars pointed out, in the context of colonial and postcolonial South Asia there was in fact a pressing need to identify and speak about the peasants, lower castes and tribal peoples who did not fit neatly into the Western model but who together formed the majority of South Asian society. As such they dedicated extensive work to trying to identify how this disadvantaged majority were excluded as well as how they developed their own strategies for resistance.

Having read subaltern studies literature in the comfort of an Australian urban university, I have to admit it all seemed very abstract to me. Who were these ‘subaltern classes’ who were constantly deprived of voice and yet nonetheless found ways of exercising agency and resisting the domination they experienced in almost every aspect of their lives? And how were their experiences, their demands and their ways of viewing the world different to mine or indeed the poor, underprivileged in Australia? What did it mean to recognise and validate subalterns as positive human agents and autonomous historical subjects (Spivak 1985)?

And suddenly in this room I understand. Here they are: ordinary village people so often forgotten in ‘big conversations’ of economics and politics, struggling to maintain their sense of life, identity and their survival. I do not mean to romanticise and indeed, there were important sites of tension in terms of age, gender, education and other that pointed to hierarchies of power and processes of domination within. But here is a group of people who have survived (and bear the trauma of) 30 years of war, a devastating tsunami, chronic under-development (and let’s bracket the concerns here about what ‘development’ would mean) and continue to face both internal and external forces of exploitation, domination and oppression while struggling to find a way to live as they wish.

 On the one hand they talk about the forced sanskritisation of their religious practices. While traditionally indigenous practices had been blended with Hinduism to form a set of beliefs and rituals that served the community within which they existed, the imposition of Brahminical order threatens both the egalitarian processes by which priests are trained and the very existence of certain rituals deemed inappropriate by the official religious orthodoxy. Meanwhile there is of course the pressure of the Sinhalese state, which having annihilated the LTTE has done little to address the grievances which fuelled so many years of armed conflict and instead has embarked on the frightening path of reinforcing a form of Buddhist nationalism that will continue to exclude large portions of the population.

At the same time, the intervention of international governmental and non-governmental organisations – ostensibly to help ‘preserve’ traditional practices – has, in the words of Dr S.Jeyasankar assisted with the ‘museumification’ of cultures that were not only alive (albeit threatened) but meaningful to the lives of the people who practiced them. This ossification of cultural practices fits nicely into the model of what John and Jean Comaroff(2009) have called ‘Ethnicity Inc’– the commodification of culture. But it also does something more sinister for those of us committed to social justice, human rights and progressive politics. It essentialises a culture to the point that there are those who speak of preserving ‘authenticity’ and as a result are able to dominate in matters of interpretation. This tends to reinforce existing structures of power (to the disadvantage of those traditionally excluded or marginalised) and to obstruct natural developments within the culture that both make it viable and alive and also that allow those living within it to develop it to meet their contemporary needs.

‘Preservation’ is clearly the wrong word here – as Dr S.Jeyasankar seems to be acutely aware. It stultifies, makes fixed and rigid when instead it should be a question of maintaining ongoing, living practices that give meaning to peoples’ lives and provide valuable sites of empowerment, community and service to others. And of course, at the same time also allow us to keep an eye on how these traditions have also historically excluded and therefore need to continue to evolve to engage with new progressive ideas and ideals that those within the community may raise.

One thing is for sure: in an atmosphere where these traditions are themselves under threat progressive revision and rearticulation is rendered if not impossible, at least hugely difficult. This reminds me somewhat obscurely of the book by ElahehRostami-Povey (2007) on Afghan women in which she points out that those women living in the apparently repressive regime of Iran have in fact been able to engage more productively with shifting restrictions and conservative values and to gain greater freedom than those who have migrated to a West gripped by Islamophobia. There they are too often trying to defend themselves, their families and their identity as Afghan/Muslim women against attack and criticism.

What this suggests to me is that the role of the human rights activist must be to help secure and protect a place within which communities and individuals are able to work through their disagreements and renegotiate their practices, cultures and beliefs in ways that remain meaningful and relevant to them, allow them to engage with new ideas and change as all cultures do without being forced to adopt a model imposed from outside. These are issues I look forward to debating further as how to achieve this remains far from certain to me. But all in all, I am leaving this workshop feeling inspired and hopeful that this is the start of a very important conversation about tradition, culture, community and rights.

Dr. Kiran Grewal
School of Social and Political Sciences
University of Sydney

Colour, Song And Drama

Colour, Song And Drama

  • Helping Women Recover From The War
By Maryam Azwer

Artwork on peace by women from different ethnicities and Women in the North and East turn to art to express themselves as the North and East still recover from the conflict, women have been recognized among the worst affected. They suffer in silence beneath a heavy blanket of post-war trauma, of failing livelihoods and a multitude of social problems. At a time like this, Batticaloa based rights activist and artist, Vasuki Jeyasankar, has discovered that two things can sometimes help these women express feelings they have bottled up for such a long time: Art and theatre.

The wife of S. Jeyasankar, a well-known Tamil theatre personality, Vasuki has herself been involved in the arts ever since she took to painting at a very young age. Art and theatre are not alien concepts to the people of the North and the East, who even engaged in such activities during the conflict, interweaving it with their own cultural and social ideals. Keeping this in mind, Vasuki uses drawing, painting, singing, dancing and acting as a means of therapy, and in addressing issues faced by conflict affected women.

“Perhaps it’s not the same for all women, but some of them do find it easy to express themselves this way, to address issues they otherwise wouldn’t talk about – they bring out their expressions on paper, or on a wall, through colours. They have their own explanations for what they do, and go through their own journeys. For some it’s a form of self-counselling, at other times these women use art and drama as a collective voice. Sometimes, we even get women from all ethnicities, and collectively do paintings on peace,” she said.

Vasuki explained how, at first, she felt uncomfortable asking these women to engage in these activities. “I’m not a counsellor or a psychologist myself, I’m just an artist, so sometimes we would have a psychologist to assist us in these programmes. I know what these women have been through, and at the beginning, when I told them to do these things [painting and acting], I didn’t know how they would take it.

Usually their first reaction is ‘we don’t do these things… only our children draw… it has been fifteen years since I used paints…’ but after some time they gradually get used to it. Some women even show a keen interest in it. Even older women like to sing and dance. They feel comfortable doing things in groups. I think they just need the space and opportunity,” she said. She described one exercise she had done with war affected women in the Vanni. “These women were provided with different paints, colours, and other materials, and we asked them to start with one experience, where they wanted to express their anger. They could do anything, as long as they used what we had given them – they could even break the brush or tear the paper. After that, they would relax for a while and take a look at their situation, and think about the things that made them happy now. We made them come up with colours or images which made them come alive at that time. Basically, it was about starting with something negative and moving to something positive,” explained Vasuki.

The experience even produced positive results, she said: “All of them said that it helped them touch a part of their mind which they were afraid to touch before.”

Vasuki says she works mostly in the East, although she also works with groups in Mannar, Jaffna and the Vanni from time to time.
“This kind of thing can never be done in a big way,” she said, explaining that they conducted small workshops, or got women together whenever they could, on an informal level.

Conducting such programmes on a formal or professional level was not practical, she said, partly due to lack of resources, and partly due to the women’s unwillingness to participate.
“We keep it small, because these women also have responsibilities and can’t always come for these things. Finding resources and space is also a problem – we require some confidential, private space, and the colours and paints are an expense.

Sometimes we make do with whatever materials we have – even pieces of old cloth that we cut and paste,” said Vasuki.

When asked how effective she thinks this is, her response was, “Sometimes it’s confusing, because I don’t know if it’s the actual solution they seek. As an activist I sometimes feel very nervous.

Some of these women can be very expressive, very open. At the same time, when I see them communicating, and coming out with their feelings, it gives me a feeling of satisfaction.” At other times, Vasuki said, even those watching had much to learn from these women. “I always experience a mix of feelings. Watching these women express themselves on stage, and speak of everything they have gone through, sometimes it is the audience who are left in tears,” she said.

Courtesy: The Sunday Leader 27.05.2012

Saturday, May 12, 2012


The play "The Flightless Butterflies" written and produced in English and Tamil in year 2000 and its in printing now in memory of  Late Mr. Kathiravetpillai Visvalingam. 

The book will be released on 2nd June 2012 in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka.

It was a collective creative process facilitated by S.Jeyasankar and the scripts in English and Tamil were written down by Mr. S.M. Felix and V.Gowripalan respectively in year 2000.

The play was directed by S.Jeyasankar with the participation of Undergraduates represents all the Faculties of the Eastern University Sri Lanka, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.

Too much reality and too little dreams
 By Nllika de Silva

“The Flightless Butterfly” by the Eastern University, finally let the audience in on the evening’s entertainment. The wide –eyed innocence and idealism of Ambi the protagonist was more like what the battered Sri Lankan society of today would reach out for. But realities being realities, society beats down his inquiring mind demanding the stereotypical youth of today.

        The fact is that Ambi with echoes of the protagonist of ‘Vikurthi’ finally loses touch with reality, in this case not only due to the ambition of his parents but even more so due to their caring and over protectiveness. And doors are slammed even on caring hands that reach out to pull Ambi to safety.

       The use of music and stylized dance took the play to the realms of dreamland and the butterflies that go on pilgrimage each year guided the audience as they did Ambi to a different plane, one his contemporaries would never understand.

Daily News:  September -2000

Creative drama at the universities
 By Ruana Rajepakse

         By the common consent of all, including the other students, The Eastern University’s production of “The Flightless Butterfly” stole the evening. Here was a production that was not only very relevant in its theme but brilliantly presented with nature’s beauty and an ancient legend being used to highlight the realities of contemporary life in the Eastern Province.

        As in Somalatha Subasinghe’s “Vikurthi”, the protagonist – this time a boy, “Ambi” – cannot reconcile his own dreams with the demands of the competitive world around him. His parents, both over-ambitious and over-protective, are upset when he fails to get good grades, while his schoolmates taunt him when he asks ‘Silly’questions about the droves of butterflies going to pilgrimage to the sacred mountain. Later when Ambi reaches marriageable age, his mother rejects a proposal because, in her view; the girl would not make a good daughter-in-law.

Ambi, in the meantime dreams of a beautiful princess of legend and, he a hallucinatory moment starts climbing onto the bound of the tank, believing he will meet his beloved there. This being the real world however, he is promptly arrested under police on suspicion of trying to poison the water tank. However, the play avoided becoming polemical and, while Ambi’s arrest by Sinhala speaking soldiers is carried out with inevitable roughness, the next scene shows State Counsel in Court moving for the release of the young man back to his parents on the grounds of his mental unfitness.

      The final scene show a completely disoriented Ambi at the Kovil, still chasing butterflies and dreaming of his princess, with the head priest and worshippers turning their backs on him.

      The drama was professionally presented, with on-stage music, and a well-trained group of actors. Like the Sabaragamuwa team, all the actors remained on stage throughout, Using slight but effective costume changes to convey the different characters.

The Island :September – 2000

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Performance in place of War, an extract

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] (Parent from Seelamunai Village 2005).
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.

Children rehearsing Kooththu, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, 2004. Photograph courtesy James Thompson.

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 in
rural areas since the ceasefire. The main group, in the village of
Seelamunai, 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 grassroots
people 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.

December 20, 2010

Seeing Beyond the Stage with Third Eye Theatre

Seeing Beyond the Stage with Third Eye Theatre
By Angela Britto
Communications Assistant

Third Eye Theatre is an interdisciplinary community arts organization based in the town
of Batticaloa in Sri Lanka. Headed by Sivagnanam Jeyasankar, a performer and an academic at
the Eastern University in Sri Lanka, the company produces modern and traditional theatre. It
works with members of the surrounding villages (particularly with youth) and uses the arts to
develop local cultural resources. It calls itself a “local knowledge and skills activist group,”
gesturing to its commitment to an artistic practice that is not confined to a stage.

Though Third Eye works primarily in drama and the performing arts, members of its
collective are also actively involved in the visual and literary arts. Its members regularly hold
exhibitions and workshops in the community, and it publishes a regular anthology of writing
from local authors in its newsletter and several smaller zines. The interdisciplinary nature of
their work allows them to partner with other arts groups and aid organizations in the area to
create an aesthetic space where social issues can be discussed in a variety of ways. For
example, they regularly conduct theatre‐based workshops with university classes and in afterschool
programs with children and youth, on issues of gender‐based violence, anti‐oppression
practices, and the consequences of globalization for local cultural histories and resources.

One key aspect of this work is the preservation of traditional koothu theatre, which is a
form of folk performance that has continued in eastern Sri Lanka in the Tamil‐speaking
community. Koothu organically incorporates song, instrumental music, dance, and poetry into
the text and script of the performance. Koothu performances are an all‐night event, performed
on an open‐air circular and raised sand platform (kaleri). Third Eye uses this form to present
retellings and reformulations of Hindu epic narratives. These reworkings are done to better
represent low‐caste communities and women in the performances, maintaining its focus on
social equality and justice.

Koothu as a traditional folk art form is slowly disappearing. It has not been
conventionally defined as a “classical” form and so lacks the structures of support that other
modes have received in the country through the educational system, arts institutions, and
funding opportunities. Instrumentation, techniques, and choreography are the specialized
knowledge of a few community elders (annaviars). Third Eye works with these individuals to
workshop these skills with the youth of the community through after‐school programs and
educational initiatives of local NGOs, ensuring that this knowledge is passed on. This helps the
communities to value their own cultural, social, and physical environments. In addition, they
train teachers to incorporate local arts practices into their curriculum and educational
techniques. These alternative education practices emphasize literacy through rewriting scripts
and songs, complemented by the socializing, storytelling, and dance aspects of the art form.

I had an opportunity to meet the members of Third Eye Theatre when I visited Sri Lanka
in November 2010. They function in the most trying of conditions, working with communities
who have suffered decades of war, natural disaster, disappearances, and impoverishment. They
spoke about rehearsals and workshops being disrupted by shelling, village curfews, and
flooding. And yet their commitment to their artistic activism was unwavering and I was struck
by their genuine desire to preserve local performing arts traditions and promote knowledgesharing
within their communities.

Friday, May 04, 2012

‘Kalimann Vandi’ and history of Sri Lankan modern Tamil theatre


‘Kalimann Vandi’ and history of Sri Lankan modern Tamil theatre

by Sivagnanam Jeyasankar

A Response to the leaflet issued before the beginning of the performance of Kalimann Vandi the Tamil language stage production of “Mettikaraththaya” and to the performance itself

The “Tamil language production of Mettikaraththaya” refers to Mirhchakadikam, a Sanskrit play written in B.C. 300-400 by Chudraka. It was produced in Tamil as ‘Kaliman Vandi’ translation of the Sinhala version of Mettikaraththaya at the Swami Vipulanda Institute of Aesthetics Studies, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.

The production was a joint venture of the Drama and Theatre Department of Swami Vipulanda Institute of Aesthetics Studies and Janakaraliya Theatre Group. The program was funded by the India-Sri Lanka Foundation and HIVOS Netherlands. The play was directed by veteran Sinhala Drama and Film director Parakrama Niriella and its Executive Director was the veteran Tamil Drama director and theatre scholar Prof. S. Mounaguru.

It was said that the purpose of the production is to educate and enhance the theatre knowledge and skills of the students of the Drama Department of the Swami Vipulanda Institute of Aesthetics Studies.

The students who performed in the play did their justice to their capacity. But the question remains: to what extent does the play represent the performance tradition of Sanskrit Theatre or an innovative theatre of the modern world? The play simply looks like a failed commodified South Indian Tamil Film. The dance and music sequences of the play added to this impression.

The important issue to be discussed at this juncture is the theme of the play. It is not just an ethical one but a serious conceptual issue in the present world, where gender sensitivity and feminist perspectives are part of the ideas and ideologies of our society. Shouldn’t this be included in the educational process of Drama and Theatre?

Charudhatha, the hero of the play, is willingly sent off by his wife to the “genuine” concubine. She also accepts the concubine as the real partner of her husband, because she accepts that Charudhatha will be blissful only in Vasanthasena’s presence.

Who constructed the thought pattern of Charudhatha’s wife? How is the theme of the play relevant not only to the Educational purposes of the particular students’ community but also to the audience in common? Is it reasonable to educate people about the technicalities of a play without dealing with its theme and concepts?
Are we going to celebrate the “true love” of Charudhatha and the “genuine” concubine Vasanthasena, and the sacrifice of Charudhatha’s wife? Or do we want to initiate a dialogue on the victimization of women and their exploitation by men in Art and in Society? Aren’t these issues connected with the educational process in Higher Education Institutions like Swami Vipulanda Institute of Aesthetic Studies?

Most cases of domestic violence and violence against women are related to the theme of the play ‘Kaliman Vandi’ (Mettikaraththaya). What would have happened if Charudhatha’s wife reacted to the suggestion negatively and said NO?

Anyone can find out the answer by analyzing cases of domestic violence and violence against woman in their surroundings or in the records of nearby woman’s organizations or the woman’s desks in island-wide police stations.

Theatre training or theatre education is not mere transmission of the knowledge and skills of theatre Arts. It has to be connected with the transformation of perspectives in the mindset of pupils or people in society. Ironically, the play has failed to deliver this transformation, which was expected from these well- experienced directors, especially in the contemporary context of activists’ struggles against increased violence and discrimination against women in our society.

Three questions have to be answered in this regard. Why did both the veterans choose the play‘Kaliman Vandi’ (Mettikaraththaya) to be produced in a post-war period? Why did the funders support a theme questionable in the current world, where many programs on gender sensitivity and empowerment of women are taking place with the support of governmental and non-governmental sectors? What is the position of an academic institution when its curriculum is unsuited to issues important in the contemporary world?

The original play has the originality of combining political and love intrigue, which together give a significant value to the play. But Chudraka the playwright has claimed that Mirhchakadikam has no precise parallel to the above-mentioned combination. ‘Kaliman Vandi’ (Mettikaraththaya) has left out the political, and highlighted the love between Charudhatha and Vasanthasena.

It is important to mention that in the history of modern Tamil Theatre there are no prior examples of a play like ‘Kaliman Vandi’ (Mettikaraththaya) that was chosen and produced before an audience. This is one of the positive aspects of the Modern Tamil Theatre of Sri Lanka.

In brief, ‘Kaliman Vandi’ (Mettikaraththaya) did not do justice to the original Sanskrit play, to the modern Tamil Theatre of Sri Lanka, or to the art of translating literature.

Sri Lankan Modern Tamil Theatre has a history of its own, and it is created by theatre practitioners and social activists with their own commitment and contribution and with the support of theatre and social enthusiasts.

Modern Tamil Theatre in Sri Lanka has responded to situations throughout its history for the last sixty years by innovative and inherited theories and practices of theatre. It is as important to note how traditional theatre responded in times of trouble and turbulence as the modern theatre of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Modern Tamil Theatre extended its wings beyond its proscenium theatre stage and travelled through all the nooks and corners in varied theatrical forms in order to engage people on issues including ethnicity, caste, class, gender and environment, from the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties.

The Educational Theatre of modern Tamil Theatre is an organic form of theatrical innovation in the nineteen eighties, and reached its fullest expression in the nineteen nineties. This has to be discussed in detail for its further development and expansion, and the dissemination of information is also required to make it known to the world outside Modern Tamil Theatre.

Because scholars, researchers and theatre trainers from outside emerge into the scene of Tamil Theatre and pose as being on a mission to initiate and civilize Tamil Theatre and its practitioners and theoreticians, scholars and researchers portray Tamil Theatre as a non entity in Sri Lankan Theatre. Anthologies on Sri Lankan Theatre will reveal this fact very clearly.

It is unknown to scholars and researchers not only from outside but also to the insiders how Traditional Theatres responded and represented reality in times of war, displacement and natural disasters. The essence of the Community Theatre aspect of Traditional Theatre has had the elements of community integration and participation, and it played a vital role where Modern Theatre practitioners did not have the chance to react and respond in times of restrictions.

But the undertakers of the traditional theatres are serious in their mission to preserve the “extinct” art traditions and heritages in funded institutions, and transform community art into a commodity art.
It is interesting to note that modern scholarship has branded the “folk traditions” as “low traditions” and treated the “classical traditions” as “high traditions”.

It has celebrated the aesthetic values and heroic characteristics of the classical arts without questioning the relevance of their themes and issues to the current context, but without hesitation has branded “low traditions” and the values of those traditions as specimens for the museum and the crude practices of the uneducated and uncivilized.

The play ‘Kaliman Vandi’ is the Tamil version of Mettikaraththaya and the leaflet issued before the performance aptly represents the above-mentioned modern thought production.

Traditional Theatres are the innovations of the past by our ancestors and they have introduced innovations from time to time. Practices in Traditional Theatres are deeply connected with the present. Practicing traditional performances is not an act of digging up buried corpses and conducting processions in madness.
It is not the practice of the uneducated or unscientific minds as mentioned by the civilized and the educated. It is an urgent need to re-educate the misinformed in order to understand the traditional and modern in a new spectrum different from the colonial one.

The leaflet of the play reflects the above-mentioned misunderstandings when it says the “Tamil-language production of Mettikaraththaya represents Sanskrit Theatre.” The leaflet takes an intriguing wrong step on the aspect of language. “Theatre needs no spoken language and it evolutes sans spoken language several decades ago” says the leaflet, and in fact this is reflected in the performance as well.

The spoken language of the play has not reached a minimum acceptable standard. The translation of Kaliman Vandi (Little Clay Cart) from Mettikaraththaya also contributed to this debacle.
It is the same story with the Tamil Plays produced by Janakaraliya Theatre Group. A perfect example is the Tamil version of ‘Sekkuwa’. It is a Sinhala play badly dubbed in Tamil. The performance of the Tamil version of ‘Sekkuwa’ is yet another example that substantiates my argument.

The leaflet includes a notable statement in it that needs further discussion in detail. It mentions that there is no need for differences in Theatre in the name of language, ethnicity and region. It further states that Janakaraliya Theatre Group will stand firm on this matter against all odds and opposition.

The theatrical viability of the above-mentioned statement is questionable, and its political implications are problematic. The statement strongly aspires to eradicate differences but does not bother about discrimination. The text and sub-text of the leaflet resembles the missions of Multinational Corporations.

Flying saucer like interventions will bring diversions and distortions to practice which instead needs support from consistent practitioners of the art. This program is simply an example, but there are various flying saucers overhead and underneath the feet.

Stakeholders of a program like this must think twice before producing such backward plays, and be mindful that conscious people are aware that these kinds of missions, even though appearing to bridge the ethnic divide, resonate patriarchy and provoke violence against women.