‘Kaerakena Keliya’ and transitional justice

Kaerakena Keliya’, the Sinhala adaptation of ‘Travelling Circus’, a play first performed and produced by The Mind Adventures theatre company in 2009, went on stage last week. Directed by Tracy Holsinger, the play was a collaboration with the renowned Sinhala theatre group Janakaraliya and marked Holsinger’s entry into Sinhala theatre. Reviewing ‘Travelling Circus’ seven years ago, I had no hesitation calling it one of the best plays I had seen. Staging it at the time required conviction and courage in equal measure given context, when violence and victory were both fresh memories. The play openly contested victory, in the manner it was celebrated in the South at the time. It also flagged vital aspects of the enduring injustice, indignities, suffering and violence especially in the North of Sri Lanka, at the time these inconvenient truths were almost entirely forgotten in official speeches, celebrations, accounts and media.

Fast forward to 2016 and there is much that has changed, both around the play and the socio-political context in which Kaerakena Keliya was staged. In this third avatar of the play (the focus changed from the original when Mind Adventures toured India with the play in 2011) the translation into Sinhala critiques a country firmly post-war, yet still some distance away from post-conflict. The challenge now is around transitional justice mechanisms, unthinkable seven years ago. The thrust of the play accordingly is around reminding and re-enacting the conditions of (the final stage of the) war and what gave rise to it, to help engender conditions that prevent a return to violence. The play within the play flags for example horrible conditions in what is no longer a term or location many would recognise – an Internally Displaced Persons camp. Ethno-political identities and their role in often viciously defining the contours of conflict remain the play’s central focus. The characters are strong and finely drawn – in particular the cow and the boy who only speaks in numbers. The play makes no attempt to be didactic – those who know their history will recognise the significance of the numbers and years the boy mentions, especially in his final lines at the end of the production. Those who don’t won’t entirely lose the plot but it is hoped are suitably intrigued to read up on some of the years noted, to understand not just why they are mentioned in the play but the defining role events of that year had in our cartography of violence over decades.

Kaerakena Keliya offers multiple perspectives, not all equally valid or carefully thought out. It somewhat problematically points to an idyllic past where everyone was happy, and a country that over the tiniest of differences, slowly plunged into violent conflict. This is a simplistic and linear reading of history. The play shows, perhaps somewhat inelegantly, the formation of identity groups and violent ‘othering’. The violence and interplay of of caste and class however go entirely unquestioned – a surprising omission given Janakaraliya’s input into the production. The selection of the venue for Kaerakena Keliya was a strange one. The original was performed at Nuga Sevana, on the grounds of the Anglican Church in Colombo and under a sprawling tree, with snaking roots, gnarled roots and awning branches. A better setting and frame for the dramatic action of ‘Travelling Circus’ was hard to imagine. The Western Province Aesthetic Resort was a stark contrast to this. The atmospherics of Nuga Sevana, or indeed any open air venue, was entirely lost in the closed, more formal space. Audience just three rows from the front couldn’t see what was going on. There were no stage sets and the minimalist props, a hallmark of most Janakaraliya productions, looked quite desolate when framed by the traditional theatre setting. In trying to place the audience around the dramatic space, some of them were actually seated on stage, resulting in their own movement and responses jarring and intruding, not enhancing, the performative space. Given that media interviews by the Director promised to stage the play again at Nuga Sevana, there is perhaps a good reason for why the venue was changed. One hopes however that Kaerakena Keliya is never again performed indoors.

There is another point of serious concern. The director in a media interview published recently notes that the Sinhala script of Kaerakena Keliya, devised over months with Janakaraliya, will soon be translated into Tamil. Instead of going through, with a Tamil theatre group, the same arduous process as Holsinger did with Janakaraliya, the play as it is in, merely translated into Tamil, risks projecting what is predominantly a Southern gaze as the only valid critique. No matter how important this self-critical gaze is in the South, it has its limitations when performed elsewhere in the country. The visceral reality and complexity of violence and war, in all its permutations, fuses strict, theoretical demarcations between victim and perpetrator, suffering and the infliction of pain. The fluid dynamics around the perceptions of and participation in violence, in the most war ravaged regions, often contests, and escapes, a predominantly Sinhala or Southern gaze. No matter how well intentioned, the script of Kaerakena Keliya simply translated into Tamil risks the violence of contributing to misrepresentations, erasures and silences. Mirroring the engagement with Janakaraliya, a meaningful collaboration with Tamil thespians in developing the script, not just translating Sinhala to Tamil, is key. Glossing over this as somehow unimportant is to ironically re-enact in real life, systemic violence the play critiques through its script.

The play’s dénouement is important, or more accurately, the second and final dénouement. Kaerakena Keliya presents two endings, with the first deemed inadequate by the characters themselves. The final ending projects agency and asks the audience what they can do to ensure the non-return to cycles of violence. Quite brilliantly, the play essentially engages with the core tenets of transitional justice, without ever mentioning the term. The responses to the play – and I sincerely hope the director and Janakaraliya will encourage open discussion after each performance around the country – can ultimately feed into consultative mechanisms and structures, now active, to generate ideas from people far removed from Colombo-centric civil society’s projections, ideology and embrace, around reconciliation, reparations, institutional reform and truth commissions, plus the more controversial aspects around criminal prosecutions. The play offers no bias towards any of these pillars of transitional justice. Though focussing on the past, the Kaerakena Keliya does not dwell in it or seek to project into the future that which gave rise to violence over decades. The play’s identities are fluid, and the characters evolve. It is an invitation to pause, reflect and reform. For and in the South, the play is a vital tool in helping communities engage with the social and political transformation needed in order to meaningfully address the root causes of violent conflict. There will be no political solution to the Tamil national question, no new constitution, no accountability and no justice to those denied it the most without a sensitive, critical Southern constituency. The South holds the keys to either a more democratic, just, dignified future or the inevitable recurrence of bloody violence. Kaerakena Keliya is an invitation to choose which future we want.

We must do so wisely.

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