Some thoughts on ‘Close to the Bone’

Close to the Bone’, billed as a theatrical collaboration between Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke and Isuru Kumarasinghe, was part of Colomboscope 2016 and held at the Presidential Suite, Cinnamon Lakeside. Almost exactly three years ago, Welandawe-Prematilleke directed ‘Paraya’, also an immersive theatre experience held as part of that year’s Colomboscope, albeit in a markedly different, much more dilapidated yet far more expansive venue. ‘Paraya’ was compelling. As with ‘Close to the Bone’, there was an element of technology involved – a blog called ‘The National Happiness Authority’, created for and anchored to the production, provided details of the world in which the production was set. It’s still there online, providing a glimpse into what was a well-researched, immersive production critiquing a country post-war, censorship, militarisation and at the time, a serious democratic deficit. As Gehan Gunatilleke in his review of the production noted,

“The triumph of ‘Paraya’ was its ability to immerse us in the milieu and expose us for our complicity. The natural reaction to the production—exalting it in the abstract as a brilliant political critique—may in fact betray us further… The story of ‘Paraya’ does not end when the lights go out and the apprehensive applause begins. It continues today with our every act of blind compliance.”

Clearly, a hard act to follow. ‘Close to the Bone’ continues Welandawe-Prematilleke’s interest in immersive theatre, which in a country only ever interested in theatre at the Wendt, cannot be commended highly enough. In its thematic underpinnings and plot, the production also mirrored issues highlighted in ‘Better Than Ever Before’ staged at the British Council in July, also written and performed by Welandawe-Prematilleke. My interest in going to see ‘Close to the Bone’ was in part to see how for Welandawe-Prematilleke, what is clearly an enduring interest in interrogating class, choice and urban development manifested itself in a new work. ‘Better than Ever Before’ was an utter fiasco. Would this production be any better?

Intent matters. Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke’s choice of subject, style of theatre, location and characters suggest they wanted us – all of a certain class, social background and privilege – to be more conscious of ourselves, our choices, and the attendant, thinly veiled yet very real violence we architect, countenance and go on to justify, at the end of each production. The production sought to unsettle and reveal not just by was done and said overtly, but also by insights into what each character was thinking at a given point of time, independent of what they were doing, or saying openly. This was done through technology, and the issue here is that what was so central to the experience of the play, was so ill-thought through.

First, the good. The syncing of internal thoughts with what the characters said out aloud was sheer brilliance, when it worked. The production’s Facebook page gives an insight into how this was achieved, and deserves recognition as something that was really inspired and if I am not wrong, done for the first time in Sri Lanka. Having access to the thoughts of characters added depth and texture, and while the production could be enjoyed without this added input, having it meant a deeper, more granular understanding of why a character did or said something. The ambient sounds and music also added to atmosphere, creating tension or setting up a scene even as the actors rushed from place to place. But what was a great idea in the main, simply failed too many times. The technical challenges were not insurmountable. The placement of routers was inappropriate. Bridge routers could have been used to boost the signal to the periphery, where the signal simply didn’t extend to. The model of routers used and the Wi-Fi standard they were based on simply could not cope with the number of users in the location. What all this resulted in was an experience that placed many of us at a disadvantage on multiple levels – having to fiddle around with our phones in the middle of the production, having to deal with sudden and recurrent signal loss, the sudden switching of sound streams, corrupted audio and sometimes a loss of synchronisation between live action and internal monologue. Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke are not required to know advanced wireless networking. But between them, they certainly have ready access to a wider community who would have freely helped with knowledge and equipment to make the technology far more resilient to the demands of the production. However, the inability or unwillingness of the directors and producers to ensure that overall, technology matched the demands of plot, pace and place, unfavourably impacted the experience of the play, which was a real pity.

A central reason why the technology failed so badly brings me to the second most frustrating aspect of the production – the numbers in the audience. The Presidential Suite at Cinnamon Lakeside was clearly never designed with an immersive theatrical production in mind. Given the layout and architecture of the space, it is unfathomable why Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke decided to accommodate, for each production, forty people as audience, plus production crew and the four actors, bringing in total those in a rather confined space closer to fifty. The technology failed and the very essence of immersive theatre failed because there were too many people. Characters often quickly disappeared into a sea of bodies. They couldn’t be followed. They couldn’t be observed. The concentration of people overwhelmed the routers. Following a character out of the suite and back in resulted in the complete loss of signal. Action in certain spaces could only accommodate at most four or five, and there were often three or four times that number all attempting to get a good vantage point, before giving up and by extension, losing out on key moments. Immersive theatre requires intimacy, and if exploration is explicitly billed as part of what the audience is actively encouraged to do, the numbers each night killed it. It is also unclear if Kumarasinghe, Welandawe-Prematilleke and the others in the play took the journey as an audience member, to understand how we would see, follow and interact with the performance. In locating key moments in places where, given numbers, no one really had clear access to, much of the play was lost – a case in point being the moment Kusal (the character played by Welandawe-Prematilleke) hid a bloodied garment under a bed, which a friend just a few feet away and from just a slightly different perspective completely missed. I bent down and examined the garment soon after Kusal left the room in a rush and everyone rushed after him. More should have got that chance, after seeing what I did. The production note averred that “if you do not move, you will not see the play”. While true, the fact was that even if you wanted to move, you often could not. This was not a failure of space or location – it was a failure of design and imagination. Perhaps Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke wanted to make as much money as possible to cover production costs, or they just didn’t think about how the excessive numbers would impact the production. Either way, as immersive theatre goes, ‘Close to the Bone’ failed spectacularly.

There were other ill-thought out aspects. In ‘Paraya’, the characters the audience could choose to follow were present from the start. In ‘Close to the Bone’, forty people had on screen four choices, but at the start of the production and for a good few minutes into it, only two characters in front of them. As a loose analogy, there is in computing a phrase called the ‘tyranny of the default’, to explain why when presented with a pre-selected option on-screen, most users will never choose another. When all of the audience were at first only presented with two characters – Kusal or Tania (played by Thanuja Jayawardene) – very few opted to switch to Yasodha (Subha Wijesiriwardene) or Sanchia (Tehani Chitty), after they appeared. What this also meant was that those tuned into Kusal or Tania’s audio streams experienced the worst network glitches. Furthermore, on each night’s second cycle, most who followed either Kusal would have opted to follow Tania, and vice-versa, instead of switching to perhaps equally if not more interesting narratives contained in the characters of Yasodha and Sanchia. It is impossible to fathom whether the production’s structural bias towards two characters out of four was deliberate or inadvertent, but it did, for me, negatively impact the experience of the play.

And here we get into plot. The production had a clear focus on class and high-rise living, but mediated through lines which often risked caricature. Unlike the degree of research which had gone into ‘Paraya’, there was little understanding around the complex, varied and mutable politics and optics of post-war urban development in Colombo. The dialogue was often painfully contrived especially when characters expressed opinions related to choice, lifestyle, location or privilege, intended to reflect insecurities of urban, middle-class society. The plot builds up tension towards a violent denouement, but as was experienced, frustrating to engage with given how much of it was lost or partially encountered because of mercurial technology and over-crowding. It was hard to determine with any certainty the intent of Welandawe-Prematilleke or Kumarasinghe. What may have for them and the actors been a clear critique that was well communicated, for the audience was opaque, scattered and distant. All four characters were clearly interesting in their own way, with their personal histories inextricably entwined through blood ties, lust, love, friendship, shared insecurities or some heady combination of all this. It was no small feat to think of four interweaving stories all coming to a climax in the course of a single evening. And yet, so much of texture present perhaps in the script was largely lost to an audience struggling with technology and often only on the margins of what was being acted out, outside the dining room, living room and balcony.

And finally, a word about acting. All four actors are well-seasoned and familiar with the kind of theatre they engaged in, which helped. Welandawe-Prematilleke, after a string of dreadful productions and performances at the British Council, was back to form and rendered Kusal very well – a man often with no (audible) conscience, vacillating from self-pity and loathing to braggadocio and false courage – as a friend observed, like a chained elephant straining to break free. Jayawardene, as Tania, admirably played Kusal’s wife – a woman clearly rather unhinged and (willing?) hostage to her circumstances, but holding it together for the sake of appearances. Both Chitty’s and Wijesiriwardene’s characters added texture to a play clearly centred around Kusal and Tania. Either through choice of casting or through interpretation, Wijesiriwardene’s character – as I experienced it – often approximated what the actor is and sounds like in real life, and was as a result far less engaging that Chitty, who played out her role, and an interesting past with Kusal, with just the right tension. However, this observation is more to do with the nature of immersive theatre, where one can never fully appreciate all the characters equally in just one evening. Some who followed Yasodha said they encountered a complex, layered character that was well drawn out, which makes me regret I didn’t go for more than one night of the production.

From a production by Welandawe-Prematilleke, much is always expected, for which he has only himself to blame. Sadly, ‘Close to the Bone’ failed as a complete theatre experience. A few elements that worked occasionally, and actors who were good enough, do not a memorable theatre experience make. My significant disappointment with this production is that with a bit more effort Welandawe-Prematilleke’s idea, which was clearly a great one, could have survived into a production that was good, if not great itself. This didn’t happen, and it is our loss as much as it is his. Gunatilleke’s take on ‘Paraya’ was that the play sucked us in, and even as we complimented it, what we were really doing was to acknowledge our complicity in what it critiqued. ‘Close to the Bone’ inspired discussions around motivation, location and history, but overwhelmingly in the context of confusion and frustration around what was missed, could have been done better, failed, was unseen or unheard. Texture, acting, plot and the politics of place even were largely lost, save for a few who were out of sheer luck, at the right time, at the right place, and with a functional audio stream. But are brief glimpses of brilliance and insight enough to rescue a production? Is good acting enough to overcome technological failure? Is a director’s original vision enough to excuse poor execution? Does the shallowness of characters reveal a lack of research, or that character’s own lack of depth? Do we forgive failures of planning by way of supporting experimental theatre, or do we call it out, noting that theatre, especially when ticketed, has a responsibility to an audience to deliver the best possible performance? ‘Close to the Bone’ wanted to critique and help reflect. It largely failed. But the questions it raised, perhaps not just the ones it intended to, resonate. Perhaps that is why it will be remembered – as what could have been, and should have been, instead of what was.

‘Paraya’ was a template of what we should and need to see more of. We now have a  production that Welandawe-Prematilleke must not return to, and can learn much from. Perhaps not a bad thing to have these markers so early on in the life of a young director, of whom much is still expected in the future.

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First published on Groundviews.

A review of ‘The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lankan & The Last Days of the Tamil Tigers’

This review was originally written for and published on Groundviews.

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I was elated to take delivery of my copy of The Cage by Gordon Weiss yesterday. Having pre-ordered it off Amazon UK, I fully expected it to be held up by Customs officials in Sri Lanka, given the incendiary issues the book is anchored to and its author, an erstwhile employee of the United Nations (UN) in Sri Lanka. As a friend quipped, they probably thought it had something to do with the Dehiwela Zoo. This may be true for now, but it is highly unlikely, in a country that has repeatedly even blocked issues of The Economist with articles perceived to be against the incumbent government, that this tome will be freely sold in bookstores.

The publication and release of The Cage comes soon after the hugely controversial and deeply distressing report by the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts, which found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both the LTTE and government armed forces in the final months and weeks of the war. Just today, no more than 24 hours after I first picked up this book, Kumaran Pathmanathan (alias KP), the former head of the LTTE’s arms procurement department, said in the media that the UN and West were prepared to send in a ship to rescue LTTE leaders towards the fag end of the war[1].  As I sit down to write this, the sonic booms of Kfir jets over Colombo, once a familiar sound, herald preparations for the second anniversary of the end of war. Last year, the President proclaimed that the armed forces did not kill a single civilian and that they “carried a gun in one hand and a copy of the human rights charter in the other”. It is a powerful fiction – simply told and sadly, simply believed. A few days hence, this compelling fiction will drive the proceedings of an international seminar, organised by the armed forces, aimed to share the government’s unique ‘mojo’ of defeating terrorism with the rest of the world[2].

The Cage is a page-turner. Gordon’s prose is lucid and compelling. This is not a book you can easily put down once picked up. There are around 60 pages of notes and background reference material – Weiss has clearly done his homework. The book is anchored to the final few weeks of war, but holds lessons more broadly applicable, and covers issues as diverse as geo-politics and international relations to international humanitarian law and its application in the Sri Lankan context. Weiss is also clearly well versed in the art of communication – for example, demonstrating a rare insight into how to humanise a large tragedy, he compares throughout the book the size of the sand spit where the war ended and tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in to the size of New York’s Central Park, London or Hampstead Heath. This is powerful writing, because it communicates far more effectively the cramped landmass than any figure in square kilometres or miles can.

As I read the book cover to cover in a matter of hours, it reminded me so much of another book – David Blacker’s A Cause Untrue, first published around 2005. As I noted in a review of A Cause Untrue,

“the strength of Blacker’s writing is that it is hugely believable. We know we are reading a work of fiction, but the familiar names, places, incidents – all serve to sharpen the illusion of reality. Intense, thrilling and intoxicating – the Schumacher pace of this book fuels the careening progress of its plot. The thrill, primarily, is in reading the fictional accounts of familiar actors– the Government of Sri Lanka, the Special Forces of the Army, the LTTE etc.”

Weiss does not intend his book to be perceived or judged as fiction. It invariably will be by many. The comparison between Blacker and Weiss is perhaps unfair, but with certain merits. Both books deal with Sri Lanka’s 30-year-old war that ended decisively in May 2009. Both portray, albeit very differently, the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE), which at its zenith was one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world. Blacker’s fiction renders operatives of the Sri Lankan armed forces like Fleming’s Bond – as suave, raffish international operators. In contrast, many accounts of the armed forces in The Cage are ferociously barbaric, visceral. Just as much as I observed that Blacker’s work intersperses the real with the fictional, many sections of government, the armed forces and even the UN in Sri Lanka and New York will see Weiss as a talented but tainted author of a book that isn’t pegged to any evidence on the ground.

Sadly, some of the irresponsibly written and edited content in The Cage will support this response. Weiss notes that his first introduction to Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who is featured extensively in the book – was just after the suicide attack against him in December 2006[3], stating that it was a Mercedes that saved his life. It was in fact an armour plated BMW 7 Series that saved Gotabaya’s life and ironically, one that the former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge imported to Sri Lanka[4]. On page 6, Weiss notes that on the day Prabakaran’s death was announced through the media, “there was little of the air of celebration one might have expected at the end of such an epoch”. I do not know which part of the country Weiss was at this time but it was one big, riotous party in and around Colombo on the 18th of May[5] and extending for the most part of a week. On page 145, Weiss asserts that Sri Lanka’s current Foreign Minister, G.L. Peiris, was in May 2010 the Attorney General. He never was – Weiss confuses Mohan Peiris with G.L.  Peiris. There are other revealing ambiguities, over for example the portrayal of the Sri Lankan armed forces. On Page 180, quoting an article that appeared in the Hindustan Times by Suthirto Patranobis, Weiss avers that an ‘unnamed Indian doctor’ said the true death toll had been ‘brushed under the carpet’. Weiss could have researched this better. The Indian doctor does in fact have a name – he was Dr. Tathagata Bose, and before the Hindustan Times report, the first we heard of his observations treating those coming out of the war zone was on Groundviews, where he said “If an infant could not be protected, imagine the plight of older children and adults. The so-called ‘Sri Lankan Solution’ being touted as the panacea for dealing with terrorism worldwide needs a thorough relook.”[6] Page 186 is nearly entirely devoted to high praise of Sri Lankan doctors working in the front-lines during the end of war in horrific conditions and the kindness of front-line soldiers. As Weiss avers,

“During the course of research for this book, dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care.”

Further on in the book, Weiss gives examples of soldiers who tried their utmost to distinguish between LTTE combatants and civilians in incredibly confusing and stressful ground conditions, gave up their own rations to feed those who were dying of hunger in the internment camps established by the government just after the war and other incredible stories of compassion and mercy towards injured Tamil civilians – mothers, children, infants and men – in the hellish last weeks and days of war. This ostensibly echoes what for example Brigadier Prasanna de Silva from the 55th Division says in the film directed by Guy Guneratne The Truth That Wasn’t There[7]. However, Weiss also then unequivocally asserts that “this does not mean that soldiers did not directly kill thousands of civilians in the heat of combat” and notes that “… Survivors testify that advancing soldiers lobbed grenades methodically into bunkers that often held civilians.” Gordon’s attempt to portray the armed forces through a wide-angled lens of complex emotional, psychosomatic and combat responses to war is commendable, and indeed, more rounded than what most other writers, including those in civil society, have penned to date. It is sadly a leitmotif left abandoned in the book. Weiss offers no larger analysis of this tragic fragmentation between spontaneous compassion and calculated mass scale atrocity, and its affects on the civilians caught in direct or cross-fire.

Sections of The Cage therefore will be flagged as authentic by government, most other passages, violently derided as conspiratorial fiction. Unsurprisingly, given the reaction to the UN Secretary General’s report, the sections the government will be most upset by and why this book will never be openly sold in Sri Lanka will be those dealing with ground conditions in the Vanni from around January to May 2009 in particular, plus the content on page 225, dealing with the assassination of the LTTE’s leadership even after the conditions and path of surrender had been worked out with those in government.

The vociferous support of the UN Secretary General’s report by many sections of the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora is pegged to its repeated and deep consternation over instances where government armed forces actively targeted civilians. What the UN report also makes explicitly clear and Weiss in The Cage repeatedly underscores are the unimaginably barbaric actions of the LTTE “to fire artillery into their own people” based on “the terrible calculation that with enough dead Tamils, a toll would eventually be reached that would lead to international outrage and intervention.” Here’s the rub – with their leadership decimated, there’s no one in the LTTE to hold accountable.

Not so with the armed forces.

Chapter Five (Convoy 11) is a damning indictment of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Weiss quotes at length eye witness testimony and the experiences of two military men – retired colonel Harun Khan from Bangladesh and the UN’s security chief Chris Du Toit from South Africa, also a retired colonel. The chapter is based on their experience of accompanying the 11th WFP food convoy into the Vanni. It is a mind-numbingly harrowing account of violence that supports what the UN Panel of Experts says are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Weiss takes pains to emphasise that the appalling details are based on reports by two men who each had significant experience in active combat. Throughout the chapter it is made very clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces were driven by the single-minded pursuit of decimating the LTTE. As Weiss notes regarding the establishment of the so-called No Fire Zones (NFZs), “The decision to unilaterally declare an NFZ in that particular location, hard up against an unpredictable and eroding front line had little to do with protecting civilian lives and everything to do with their removal as an obstacle to unrestrained firepower” and goes to say that “… it was reckless and dangerous strategy that had everything to do with political expediency and little to do with the duty of care owed by the government to civilians. It also said much about how the Sri Lankan leadership valued the lives of the ‘Tiger’ civilian population”. The Sri Lankan armed forces, in sum had towards the end of war become a mirror image of the terrorist group they were fighting against. Pages 116 – 120 are, simply put, difficult to digest even after reading the macabre details published in the UN’s own report and others from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Weiss speaks of photographic evidence of the carnage taken by Col. Khan, but there is none to be found in the book itself. Dismembered babies may have been too gruesome to include in the tome, but are photographic evidence of the deliberate targeting of civilians. Weiss does not say who has these photos, but we can assume, amongst others, the UN does. The Cage goes on to deal with what is now, sadly, the well-known shelling of the PTK hospital guided by what Weiss claims “to be the result of a frantic SLA push to seize the town before Sri Lanka’s annual independence celebrations on 4 February”. On page 133 Weiss calls out the mentality of the government and the armed forces towards the end of the war, which believed “that the failure of civilians to make the perilous crossing of the front lines in effect amounted to complicity with the tactics of the Tamil Tigers.”

The Cage then, though in form different to the UN Panel’s report, supports the same significant concerns over war crimes committed by the armed forces and the LTTE. There is however one other development that arises from this book’s publication when juxtaposed with the official version of the UN Panel’s report, released late April. The justifiable caution over and confidentiality of sources in the UN Panel’s report is ruined by the revelations in The Cage, attributed by Weiss to specific individuals.  Pages 23 to 24 of the UN Panel’s report, in particular sections 83 – 89, also deals with Convoy 11’s experience. No names of the sources however are given. After reading The Cage, it is a matter of simple extrapolation that the sources were in fact Col. Khan and Col. Du Toit. It is unclear how the UN itself will respond. Weiss makes it clear that those accounts that are attributed to individuals was done with explicit permission. The situation reports they would have submitted to WFP and other UN agencies would obviously have informed the Panel’s report. What Weiss has unwittingly done here is to add fuel to the government’s propaganda machine and its most vicious, voluble proponents. It also runs counter to the author’s own assertion (page xxix) that he has done his best “… to interpret and use publicly available information, and has not drawn on confidential correspondence or internal reports, discussions…”. I pride myself on being rather well informed about what is in the public domain dealing with the end of war, but cannot once recall or find any record of what Du Toit or Kahn refer to in The Cage outside of the book, or published anywhere before it.

Annoyingly, The Cage also features the off-handish inclusion of disturbing allegations. On Page 211, Weiss passingly mentions the use of phosphorus shells exploding amongst civilians. This is in fact an extremely serious allegation, and though it has also been reiterated in Tamil media in Sri Lanka, it is one that the government and the armed forces have vehemently denied[8].

That said, The Cage is much more than the narration of carnage so violent, that it defies easy comprehension. Weiss’s book is an attempt to contextualise this violence in the history and ethno-politics of Sri Lanka, and here he succeeds better than most. Weiss calls himself ‘an informed observer’ early on in the book. At the beginning he asks several questions – and vital ones at that – on whether the Sri Lankan government had any alternative to what they ended up doing to end the war. This book is a scathing critique of what the author sees, and those like Louse Arbour also agree as the UN’s “complicity with evil”, but no more so than the report by the UN Secretary General himself. Some soul-searching has been promised, but it is clear that it will take time and will involve problematic investigations into the culpability of highly placed officials in the Secretary General’s cabinet, the resident representative of the UN in Sri Lanka at the time and heads of other UN agencies. The strongest condemnation however is directed at the armed forces and government. Weiss on page 145 (and again on page 197) offers an alternative denouement to the war, though noting that it is now impossible to determine how the government would have reacted to a UN system more proactive in its condemnation of civilian deaths. The alternative proposed by Weiss is interesting reading, but utterly divorced from the (Sinhalese) mentality and sheer hatred of the LTTE that drove government and the armed forces, who having whiffed the decisive end to the war through the decimation of the group’s leadership, weren’t interested in anything or anyone that stood in their way.

Tellingly, the resulting gory and for example the unearthly conditions of Menik Farm remain, at best, of peripheral interest to the majority in Sri Lanka. They are issues and people out of sight, out of mind. The Cage will have about as much impact in Sri Lanka as banning issues of The Economist. Dozens of copies of the book will invariably make its way into Sri Lanka. Much like my own copy, they will be passed on from hand to hand to inform a few concerned about war crimes allegations and are in favour of robust, independent investigations into such allegations. Internationally, The Cage will guarantee it’s author a slot in the literary festivals circuit (sans the Galle Literary Festival) for the next year at least, coupled with media interviews, reviews such as this and op-eds to plug the book – all of which will keep the spotlight on Sri Lanka’s tryst with war crimes. Will this result in any demonstrable change in Sri Lanka? I think not.

If anything, The Cage is more than a disturbing scrutiny of the final phase of war.  Weiss also flags in some detail a corrupt, dysfunctional judiciary and the erosion of democratic governance, even before the 18th Amendment. In highlighting the murder of the fifteen aid workers in 2006, Weiss underscores what Amnesty International has also clearly flagged – no commission of inquiry or process of investigation into killings that have involved the State has brought the perpetrators to book. The Cage looks the significant role China played in the guarding Sri Lanka against UN condemnation and sanctions both in Geneva and at the Security Council in New York as well as supplying the armed forces with weapons. The author places Sri Lanka centre and forward in the new ‘Beijing Consensus’, and sees China’s complicity with the war’s end as the building block of deep and lasting economic partnerships over the coming years. The considered position of an informed observer gives Weiss a unique vantage to see how the systemic decay within Sri Lanka, coupled with the shift of geo-political advantage to the East in international fora played into the carnage in the Vanni.

For me, it was a single sentence in The Cage that captured the tragedy of war’s end, and how it has so violently defined our country. It wasn’t anything to do with the effects of shelling and shooting point blank children, lactating mothers or the elderly. It wasn’t about the entrails that adorned burning landscapes after the shelling ended. It wasn’t in fact anything to do with the violence rent by arms. Page 185 deals with how even in sheer destitution and despair, civilians in makeshift camps sandwiched between the armed forces and LTTE tried to make the most of their perilous condition. Weiss notes that ,

“There was a shortage of material for everything, and people were compelled to use their colourful, expensive wedding saris, which usually handed down from mother to daughter.”

For most Sri Lankans and especially for Tamils, this is an image extremely resonant and more than a little saddening. This tragic loss of dignity and identity to just survive through the night are not wounds that heal easily. This loss of what it means to be human is not regained by the year on year growth of GDP or the increasing influx of tourists. During the war, the government perceived all Tamils as LTTE, even in Colombo[9]. After the war, nothing – nothing at all – of what the government has done meaningfully addresses legitimate grievances that gave rise to the heinous entity that was the LTTE. From the violence of the 18th Amendment to that of government ministers in Jaffna[10], the treatment of those interned in Menik Farm, the wasteful and outrageously insensitive celebrations over the second term of the President[11], the millions of dollars the government spend son bids for the Commonwealth Games and entities like Bell Pottinger to whitewash its name[12] and yet can’t spend on those uplifting the livelihoods of those most affected by war, including families of armed forces personnel killed or MIA – these and so much more of what the Rajapaksa regime does suggests we are all hostage in a cage much larger than what Weiss flags in his book, and arguably harder to fight against and escape from. The necessary opiate to keep inconvenient questions and truths away from public scrutiny remains a language of hate and harm – viciously denying, decrying, defiling and denouncing anyone, in Sri Lanka or outside, who questions the President’s assertion, parroted by his brothers, government and unprincipled schmucks in the UNP that no war crimes were committed by our armed forces.

In January 2010, the discerning Sri Lankan voter faced a horrible choice in selecting a viable post-war President. Equally egotistical and megalomaniacal, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka represented the girders of this larger cage. One won, the other lost more than expected, but indirectly or directly, they are both responsible for allegations of war crimes and crimes of mass atrocity against our own people. These are allegations that will certainly not result in any quick regime change, but are as unlikely to ever fade away. They will keep coming back, again and again and again. Until and unless there is a meaningful process of truth-seeking and truth-telling, we risk losing out on the verdant democratic potential of our country post-war and a descent into what Weiss ominously notes in the final sentence of The Cage as a “tyranny where myth-making, identity whitewashing and political opportunism have defeated justice and individual dignity.”

The Cage is published by Bodley Head, Random House and available at the time of writing on Amazon UK.


[2] Seminar on defeating terrorism: Sharing Sri Lanka’s experience, http://groundviews.org/2011/05/16/seminar-on-defeating-terrorism-sharing-sri-lankas-experience/

[3] Defence Secy escapes LTTE assassination bid, http://www.dailynews.lk/2006/12/02/sec01.asp

[5] The celebrations in Colombo after Prabhakaran’s demise, http://groundviews.org/2009/05/19/the-celebrations-in-colombo-after-prabhakarans-demise/

[7] In 2009 three young filmmakers crossed the frontlines in the wake of civil war in Sri Lanka. In doing so they became the first independent journalists to visit the final battlegrounds. See https://www.facebook.com/tttwt

[8] On 20 September 2010, the Tamil newspaper Sudar Oli quoting the testimony given by N. Sundermurthi to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also noted the use of phosphorous bombs. As noted by Sundermurthi, “The LTTE even attacked airplanes that were sent to attack the safe zones. When they counter-attacked, the Army used banned phosphorus and cluster bombs against the LTTE. There were many casualties on account of this. Around 400 – 600 died daily, and around 1,000 were injured. It was a grim situation. After this, amidst incredible hardship, we arrived in areas controlled by the Army.” See http://groundviews.org/2010/09/24/did-the-sri-lankan-army-use-cluster-bombs-and-phosphorus-bombs-against-civilians/ for a translation by Groundviews of this disturbing Tamil news report.

Thoughts on ‘Dancing for the Gods’ by the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation

“I strive to preserve the pure traditional styles, and to evolve new national dance forms based on the Kandyan technique, so that in the fullness of time a truly national ballet may emerge out of our humble efforts.” – Chitrasena

I recently asked the illustrious Bijayini Satpathy, Director of the Odissi Gurukul at Nrityagram how she negotiated the contest between tradition and modernity in her interpretation of Odissi dance – the oldest surviving dance form of India, but only revived less than a century ago. It is in fact a broader question concerning the arts – the perennial contest, not always civil or progressive, between what is acceptable to the old guard and creative reinterpretation, between the fight to retain the ‘essential’ and countervailing tendencies of artistes to attempt answers to and be shaped by the zeitgeist. The best artistes reside – with varying degrees of success and comfort – on the knife-edge of this contest, courting controversy by redefining their art and at the same time, demonstrating fidelity to form and tradition that undergirds a deft expression. Bijayini’s answer to my question was that innovation in form and expression occurs in two ways – through choreography and the expansion of what she called the vocabulary of dance.

‘Dancing for the Gods’, the recent production of the Chitrasena and Vajira Kalayathanaya staged at the Lionel Wendt reminded us that this contest is alive in Sri Lanka as well, and fully embraces both aspects Bijayini flags. Justifiably, reviews in the mainstream media have captured the nature of this performance in superlatives. The totality of the production placed both the dance form and the dance academy on a pedestal well above the theatrical dross usually staged at the Wendt. One of a few to have seen the performance during rehearsals, the final production was not so much new as it was refreshing, to see again through new sinew and light the same Promethean drive that animated Vajira and Chitrasena to reinvent dance.

And it is here that this production marks a break for the Kalayathanaya as well. As a small child, I was first told of Vajira’s and Chitrasena’s prowess (and the off-stage antics of greats like Amaradeva and Punchi Gura) by my grand-mother and mother, part of their dance ensemble decades ago. These received memories were anchored to strict tradition and rigour. Only much later was I to learn, as I read more into the history of dance championed by both Vajira and Chitrasena, that the forms they co-created were in fact reinterpretations of local ritual and dance traditions, interestingly accentuated through western influences. Though Chitrasena is often primarily identified with this creativity, Vajira too played a vital role. As Chitrasena himself noted in an interview,

“Vajira arrived at a distinctive landmark in her career with the production of Gini Hora in 1968. The conception and execution of this ballet were entirely hers. It was very modern in concept, no doubt influenced by the contemporary Western ballet. Her bold departure in the almost futuristic dance movements, the imaginative and sometimes startling use of lights combined to make it an electrifying experience.”

Here, over four decades ago, is a cogent example of the combination of choreography with the expansion of dance form contributing to an elevated production. It is precisely this spirit that resonates so vividly in the dance of Thajithanjani (Thaji). She is, simply put, the future of this dance company. This is not just because she is a very good dancer. It is also because she is young, and brings to stage a raw sensuality now largely missing from the older generation of dancers. This is necessary and inevitable. If the Chitrasena and Vajira Kalayathanaya wants to evolve beyond the reputations of its founders, Thaji is the keystone. In and through her is ritual pegged to history straining creatively with a vitality driven by youth, resulting in performances such as those in ‘Dancing for the Gods’ that are as technically precise as they are refreshingly ingenious.

This was evident in the performance of Kuveni, played by Upeka. The enactment of Kuveni’s inner turmoil was symbolic, for it is Thaji who animates Upeka’s feelings, an age difference of nearly forty years erased, nay complemented in a performance that so perfectly balanced what is already undeniably good about the Foundation with what will be great. And in this greatness also lies the rub. The Kalayathanaya’s fetish of family must not shy away from seeking and nurturing of talent beyond it. If Vajira and Chitrasena respectively embodied, in their heyday, the epitome of male and female form in dance, their dance company today is bereft of a male lead who is Thaji’s equal. This lacuna will deeply affect the nature of future productions.

Mitigating this to the extent possible will Heshma – Thaji’s first cousin. ‘Dancing for the Gods’ was Heshma’s vision. It is a compelling one – modern, invigorating, anchored to ritual and yet no hostage to it. Herself an accomplished dancer, the ability to bring to life a production through light, sound and staging that Heshma is gifted with has invariably elevated recent performances of the Kalayathanaya. She also realises that choreography on par with the best is vital to capture and retain the interest of contemporary audiences, who will appreciate technical precision and professionalism, but not necessarily connect with or know the rich history of the Kalayathanaya.

In Chitrasena, Art and Politics, an essay I wrote a few years ago I noted that,

“Chitrasena’s art probes our milieu and explores the most tenacious issues we are faced with in our construction of nation and State. We seek escape in his dance, but are acutely aware that through his art, the concerns he addresses are those with which we grapple with every day. There is no easy resolution in his performances to the issues he confronts.”

Upeka’s and Thaji’s performance of Kuveni in ‘Dancing for the Gods’ reminded me of these lines again. Here, the Kalayathanaya is able to define the essentially political through aesthetics that one can enjoy even though it portrays, if we care to look closely enough, an enduring anguish over the divide between promises made and delivered. Kuveni’s curse is very much alive in polity and society in Sri Lanka today, and also why the Kalayathanaya needs to engage more with the contemporary. This does not mean productions more overtly political or partisan, but the continuation and indeed, sustenance of revival and revision central to both Vajira’s and Chitrasena’s notion of dance – which run counter to dominant narratives today that seek to purge all ‘foreign’ influences from our cultures and performance spaces. This facile censoriousness, championed by the incumbents in power, also has a pernicious bent, suggesting that it is only some (fictional) ‘purity’ of yore, invariably seen through a Sinhala Buddhist lens, to which all art and cultural practices must also unquestioningly yield. It is, quite simply, inimical to that which Chitrasena and Vajira devoted their lives to.

Mana sankalanayak’ is an expression in Sinhala that captures well the Kalayathanaya’s contributions and approach to dance over the years – an amalgam of, inter alia, ancient ritual, western ballet, mime and Kandyan dance to the musical score of drummers no less varied or accomplished. After a dance recital in 1970, the French newspaper Dernieres Nouvelles d’Alsace noted that,

“Two hours of astounding geometry described in space by the bodies of the dancers – geometry of an infinite grace, of an extraordinary force, of an overwhelming charm, and of a harmony as subtle as it is perfect.”

Thaji and Heshma, both individually and together, represent a new chapter of this sublime dance company.

Much then is expected from them.

A review of The Travelling Circus

The late review is at an advantage, in that it is informed by the published critiques of others and subsequent responses online and in print. In this respect, watching Tracy Holsinger’s The Travelling Circus on the last day of its run was to juxtapose the live performance against reviews that dismissed the production as highfalutin nonsense and others that praised it as compelling theatre.

Tracy’s attempt at devised theatre is without, to my knowledge, precedent in Sri Lankan English drama. With roots in commedia dell’arte, devised theatre is a difficult form, which even seasoned actors balk at since it involves co-creation and improvisation instead of the comparatively more straightforward interpretation, direction and delivery of a script. This dramatic inflorescence requires a high degree of skill and discipline from both director and actor alike. The Travelling Circus, in this respect, was a technical tour de force and, by far, the best production of Tracy’s theatre group Mind Adventures to date. I would rank it amongst the best productions, in any theatrical tradition, I have seen in the past thirteen years. Yet, Tracy’s treatment and selection of subject matter will make this production her most controversial to date, tellingly unappealing to a public more comfortable with a theatre of insouciance based on mindless scripts providing entertainment and escape.

Here there is no escaping the visceral reality of war and its human consequences, even though the action on stage was comically burlesque and satirical. It was a natural fit with advocacy and rare journalism highlighting the plight of those displaced by war in Sri Lanka, through a form and expression essentially political. Concerned with the exploration of psychosocial trauma, violence and human displacement on account of war, the production eschewed easy denouement. The twin denouement to the play, one more hopeful than the other, reminded us that truth is multifaceted, a leitmotif of a production deeply subversive, forcing us to reflect and on occasion, even as we laughed, be ashamed of ourselves.

Other reviews, revealingly by a younger audience demographic and online, have celebrated Tracy’s adroit use of the devised theatre genre to weave a captivating lyricism into the performance. From baila to original rap, brilliant verbal riffs to solos by actors cum singers, The Travelling Circus reflected a diversity of musical form refreshingly original and skilfully combined into the script. One particularly tender moment is when the character of a girl in an IDP camp, after two attempts at song with the word ‘home’ in them shot down by the unscrupulous Camp Warden (marvellously played by Subha Wijesiriwardene), launches into a rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” worthy of Dietrich. This particular moment is also one example of rapid changes in tone and pace throughout this production, effortlessly switching from the irreverent and funny to the sublime and reflective.

It’s easy to see why this production would appeal to a younger, web-savvy generation generally apathetic to the complex politics of human displacement and war. It was to see on stage the familiar and loved idiom of mash-ups they create and participate in online – at one level a production that was fun and which they could identify with, defying the generational perception of theatre as stodgy, alien, highfalutin or just plain uncool.

The ‘Travelling Circus of Refugees’, a motley band of fantastic characters that entertained to interrogate, featured actors well-known and emergent. For example, Gihan de Chickera’s signature cadence from Last Bus Eke Kathawa was present in this production as well, and used to good effect. Tehani Chitty as a rather animated cow, and Ruvin de Silva as a boy, clearly traumatised, who spoke through numbers stood out in a cast extremely accomplished in their acting. The absorbing nature ofThe Travelling Circus is also a reflection of their courage, for this is a production that will be invariably interpreted by those closed off to any perspective other than their own as theatre condoning the violence of the “Other”. The resulting diatribes will attempt to name and shame the production and its actors as those blind to, in particular, the causes for and conduct of war – jus in bello and jus ad bellum. Yet it is precisely here that, to coin a phrase, these critics will lose the plot. Tracy’s play is about a deep humanism that transcends violent factionalism, self-serving definitions of peace, pyrrhic victories and petty justifications for violence. One does not find, thankfully, an ideal or idealised peace in this production. One denouement to the play, after all, has three characters leaving their IDP camp only to be blown up by mines, which in fact is a real challenge impeding resettlement. On the other hand, through devices on stage such as the question tree that sprouts vital questions on war and peace and the purposefully wicked landmine choreography and lyrics, Tracy’s play unflinchingly illuminates the sheer inhumanity in war, where the banality of evil erases borders dividing aggressors and victims. Given the pathetic post-war mainstream media coverage of the lives of IDPs, this production is informed by and critiques ground realities not many in Colombo will be comfortable with, or able to face. The pro-war, Sinhala nationalist lobby will be the most incensed, and understandably so, for this is the same lobby which normalised the internment of a quarter of a million Tamils in squalid conditions for months after the official end of war. If anything, the politics that undergird The Travelling Circus is a mirror of ourselves, and how most of us justified, perhaps out of fatigue and a desperation for its end, levels of hate, racism, violence, killing, abduction and corruption during war that severely eroded an essential ingredient of democracy – a shared humanity. Post-war, the boy who speaks in numbers tells us in his inimitable way, hope of reconciliation and peace can only be engendered through remembering our past. These are not ideas that have great traction in polity and society today.

Nuga Sevana, on the grounds of the Anglican Church in Colombo, served as an ideal venue for this production. The gnarled branches of the nuga tree and, on the day I went, the rain and mud added an atmosphere impossible to recreate indoors. My first experience of theatre at this venue was over a year ago, and the drawbacks evident at the time – ambient noise, poor sound, bad light and an audience at the mercy of the weather – were addressed through discreet sound amplification that worked well, excellent stage lighting and a marquee that all added greatly to the play’s premise as an impromptu circus act.

Tracy Holsinger is not infallible as a director. Her bathetic production of Sharman Macdonald’s After Juliet earlier this year forced a hurried exit from the venue. Yet, the juvenile After Juliet was unbearable because the expectation of theatre going into any of Tracy’s productions is high – very high. She is one of our most gifted and technically proficient directors, with her worst better than what many others consider their best. The Travelling Circus will not be her most viewed, profitable or liked production. It is commendable and memorable precisely because of this. Tracy’s disdain for the “safe” theatre that is commercially viable is refreshing, and also why we must be particularly thankful for the courageous sponsors of this production, whomust continue to support the theatre of Mind Adventures and others inspired by or like it. As I noted when I interviewed her on public television earlier this year, Tracy’s theatre is deeply political, anchored to her appreciation that there is, in her own words, a “culture of fear, corruption and mockery of law and order that has been forced upon us by the very people who are supposed to protect morals and principles”. This degree of commitment to and love for professionalism in theatre is rare, especially given that it is not a profession one can pursue as a full time career in our country and because the economics of production and profitability often trump theatrical innovation, form and content.

The second, more hopeful dénouement to the play had the boy who spoke in numbers deliver a rousing speech, completely through numbers. These numbers were significant dates and years in our bloody history, to which discerning members of the audience pegged their own memories, prejudices and perspectives. Thus, to the end, Tracy’s play offered no easy solution, no panacea. And even when The Travelling Circus made us laugh, it quickly compelled us ask why we did so, and at what. To the very end, it sprouted through dramatic device and riveting performance vital questions we needed to ask about our status quo, society, politics, prejudices, history and our avowed humanity.

This is theatre at its best.

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For an interview with Tracy Holsinger, click on The Travelling Circus: A different take on IDPs in Sri Lanka

For a longer interview with Tracy speaking on theatre and the arts in Sri Lanka, click on In conversation with Tracy Holsinger

A review of Kumbi Kathawa

“The story of the ballet is simple, but carries a very timely message. It shows how an enemy should not discourage and weaken you, and how a common enemy like a natural disaster makes everyone dependent on each other. And finally it highlights the fact that you can even bring yourself to help your worst enemy, which reflects the ideology of all our main religions.”

Excerpt from Programme Notes of Kumbi Kathawa

It is a familiar lament amongst those who appreciate good theatre that there isn’t much of it around in Colombo. The commercial extravagance of productions with their celebrity casts often smears the stage with a debased theatre of worth only to the mercenary audience of corporate sponsorship. Kumbi Kathawa was different and how! It began with a sombre reminder, familiar to those of us who know the travails of the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation, that funds for the production of the play were incredibly hard to come by. This essential perversity of theatre sponsorship – in abundance for the mundane and ordinary at best and a paucity for the sublime – is not unique to Colombo, though one does notice that the phenomenon seems to be getting worse. It is inspiring then to see a quality of performance uncompromised by financial austerity and perhaps even tempered by such dire circumstances to be what it is. Kumbi Kathawa was not without its blemishes, but indubitably one of the best productions I have seen. This is especially significant considering that the ballet featured actors who ranged from 9 to over 35.

It was the costumes that largely riveted the attention of the audience. Photos quite simply don’t do them justice. I had the opportunity to see them up close when I sat through a rehearsal for the ballet a few weeks before it went on stage. They are incredibly detailed and imaginative, with designs inspired by the insects as well as African tribes. And if costumes were form, the content was in the movement of the characters on stage. The first we see of the ants was their brisk entry on to the stage – their movement incredibly detailed and performed to perfection, making it seem as if ants had really invaded the stage. Being a ballet, movement is everything and in Kumbi Kathawa we saw a huge range of insects ranging from ants, fire flies and grasshoppers to lady bugs and butterflies and others delight us with unique and impeccable movements rooted in traditional dance and inspired by the natural movements of the insect world. It was a blend on dance that was highly disciplined and though a visual treat, obviously challenged the performer to adhere to a regime of steps and movement that, considering the tender age of some of those on stage, bordered on the incredible. And yet, they carried it off with aplomb – from their faces to their fingertips. The genius behind the artistic direction, costume, puppet and set design as well as the music selection, arrangement and editing was Mahesh. Mahesh’s talents extend to the computer, which is where I first saw the set design for the ballet and also how Mahesh’s vision for the costumes germinated from line drawings to 3D animations. The man is a walking design studio in the guise of a dancer.

There is a tendency to associate productions with children and for children as technically and qualitatively inferior to productions with professional actors and adults. Kumbi Kathawa comprehensively debunked such an association and in fact, was of a standard far higher than or effortlessly equals the best theatre in Colombo. This to me speaks volumes of the training at the Foundation. When I was there, the rehearsals began with some minutes of meditation that transformed chattering, sprightly children into models of serenity and concentration. It is this singular dedication to dance that is the Foundation’s signature cadence on stage. A fact that may have gone unnoticed was the presence of two Chilean dancers – Catalina and Lucia – who presence at the Foundation is a marker of its enduring international appeal and recognition as a temple of and for dance. It is also a marker of how ballet transcends language and cultural distinctions – it is its own language and as the excerpt from the programme note indicates, is able to tell a meaningful story without a single verbal utterance.

Thaji brought to life a hugely satisfying rendition of a mosquito and was also the solo dancer in a short performance before Kumbi Kathawa titled rebirth that amptly demonstrated the talents of a girl with dance in her DNA. I find myself in full agreement with “Java Jones”, a critic who having seen the ballet, wrote this of her:

Thaji played the villainous mosquito and did it to perfection. Her total absorption of the music made her timing impeccable and this, combined with her fluid grace, her flawless lines and her malevolent expression, elicited the Yang aspect of the story in no uncertain terms. Having watched Thaji develop over the years, it was always obvious that she would be the heir apparent to her predecessors – Vajira, Grande Dame of Sri Lankan Dance (her grandmother), and Upeka, successor to Vajira (Thaji’s aunt and teacher). This has now come to pass, as Thaji has surely come of age – and from now on, can only get better over the years to come, which, to us dance-aficionados, is something to really look forward to.

The primary annoyance on the night of my performance was sound – which was scratchy and far too loud, with the result that the video played at the beginning was exceedingly difficult to follow. Lighting was also terribly off on some occasions, bathing in bright lights what should have been action and characters, such as fireflies, best suited for an ambient light that would have highlighted far better their movement and costumes.

These shortfalls are of minor consequence however and I am told were not present or addressed on proceeding nights. What was enduring and immensely fulfilling was an hour of theatre that was like a good Pinot Noir – rich, full bodied and tasteful – a rich interplay of costume, lighting, choreography and music that surely only the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation could have so effortlessly managed to produce. One can only hope that Kumbi Kathawa facilitated the local and international visibility and through it, the funding the Foundation so desperately needs to secure and strengthen Vajira’s and Chitrasena’s tradition of dance in Sri Lanka.

Also read:
In conversation with the Chitrasena – Vajira Dance Foundation on theatre in Sri Lanka
A brief glimpse of “Kumbi Kathawa” (Ant Story)
Chitrasena, Art and Politics

A brief glimpse of “Kumbi Kathawa” (Ant Story)

“We give you something that is very traditional and something that at the same time is not. This is discipline. You can’t do this without thinking”

Chitrasena, quoted in Bandula Jawayawardhana’s essay “The Meaning of Chitrasena” published in Nŗtya Pūjā: A Tribute to Chitrasena 50 years in the dance

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To witness first and then attempt to write about a production by the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya is a humbling and daunting experience. It is humbling because the writer soon realises the inadequacy of verbal and written expression to capture the exhilaration of dance performed with a vigour and technical precision not often found with such effortless abundance elsewhere. It is daunting because one attempts to capture a movement so mellifluous, rhythmic and disciplined that the rigidity of words necessarily alienates the writer from the performer and the performance. It is with these thoughts in my mind that I pen this short review on my experience with a preview of Kumbi Kathawa, the Kalayanthanaya’s latest production slated to go on the boards at the Bishops College Auditorium from 7 – 9 September 2007.

Kumbi Kathawa is an original production inspired by a Russian children’s story and is a new ballet conceived by Anjalika, the daughter of Vajira and Chitrasena, who also directs the production with Mahesh, a hugely talented graphic and performance artiste responsible for the costume design and stage sets. I was told the production was in development for many years and aims to bring out through an insect story the varied qualities of human nature, from the good and sublime to the bad and ugly.

I made my first entrance into the Kalayathanaya, located adjacent to Apollo Hospital on Baseline Road, with stories recounted by my grandmother and mother on their experiences with Chitrasena, Vajira – his wife, the young Amaradeva, Punchi Gura and the rest of the troupe playing through my mind. Their affection towards the troupe and dance was obvious and it was clear to me, listening to them, that what Vajira and Chitrasena had inspired in the theatre and arts in Sri Lanka was exceptional. The present day Kalayathanaya itself is nothing more than an expansive stage, adorned by two portraits of Chitrasena. There is a small office and two or three rooms that serve as changing areas, storage and space for set-design. The back wall is of an earthen shade, against which a stunning black and white, larger than life photo of Chitrasena seemed an ill fit, yet from the perspective of a dancer was perhaps a source of inspiration during performance. There is a simplicity and economy of architecture and decor as well as a certain air of stoicism, perhaps the result of a perennial struggle for funds to maintain the institution.

I walked in and for a few minutes watched and listened to dozens of dancers gathered in groups, talking animatedly in their colourful costumes about school, their latest crushes, toys and games and the drudgery of exams. Then the rehearsals began, with a few minutes of meditation. From the perspective of an outsider, it was thrilling to see 10 year olds who only moments ago were at play transform into calm, collected performers getting into character. It is an impression that stayed with me throughout – I have never seen, or thought I would see, such a disciplined cast of children and teenagers. Their approach to dance and performance was one of absolute dedication and discipline. Mistakes were made, corrected, steps were fine tuned, movements were re-engineered to seamlessly flow from one to another and expressions honed – all with a seriousness and single-minded pursuit of perfection that I still can scarce believe exists at such a young age.

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Kumbi Kathawa features, in addition to ants a smorgasbord of insects including butterflies, ladybirds, grasshoppers, fireflies and a mosquito. All their costumes are extremely detailed and beautifully made. Standing up close to the performers, I was able to see the meticulous attention to detail in the costumes and to fully appreciate the effort that had gone into designing and sewing them to fit each cast member. At moments the stage was a fusion of colour – a full blown riot of bright orange, luminous blue, green, red, yellow each entwined with the other creating the illusion of a painter’s palette brought alive on stage. The movements of the insects on stage are a delight to see and to the trained eye, an exquisite interpolation of traditional dance steps and movements with those inspired by the movements of insects. The resulting action is at times fast and furious – as in the scene where the insects are battling for their life against a flood – and at times deliberate and measured, yet never laborious or inelegant.

The cast itself is an interesting mix of age, culture and ethnicity. Two Chilean dancers, students of dance at the Kalayathanaya, delight us with their rendition of grasshoppers and importantly remind us of the Kalayathanaya’s abiding international reputation and appeal. With the language of instruction and the lingua franca of the production being Sinhala, it was interesting to see the many varied English accents I heard earlier in the day respond and converse in Sinhalese during rehearsals – an interesting study on the interplay of culture and language within the Kalayathanaya’s unique history and dance lexicon ripe for an anthropologist’s own argot. There is also the significant variance in age – the youngest, who when asked stated with great confidence that she was exactly 9+, to those over 30. Age however is no determinant of competency – all those on stage are hugely talented performers. Though technique and training is more visibly evident in the older dancers, the younger display a remarkable aptitude to meld the traditional footsteps and techniques with the movements of the insect they play – no mean feat. But if all the dancers are equally talented, Thaji – who plays the mosquito – is primus inter pares. I first saw her perform at the Chitrasena Memorial Production in 2006. Seeing her again reminded me of the Indian Shantala Shivalingappa, one of the most beautiful and greatest living exponents of Kuchipudi, who I had the great fortune to see on stage in India. Thaji’s movement epitomises the lasting legacy of Vajira, that of combining the lasya, an effortless grace and presence on stage with the strength, precision and vigour of movement of the tandava. Indeed, Thaji’s sublime rendition of a mosquito is to stage what Ralph Gleason (the co-founder of Rolling Stone) once said of Frank Sinatra’s music – an artiste able to take something banal and ordinary and make it live and breathe and communicate emotion.

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Chitrasena’s acute grasp of choreography finds, as expected, ample expression in Kumbi Kathawa – “The choreographer must have a profound knowledge of his medium of expression together with a sound understanding of music, lighting, decor and costume, for it is what he conceives and envisions as a whole that brings together the parts into a total experience of dance into Natya or dramatic element, Nritta or pure dance and Nrithya, sentiment and mood” (“Choreography and the Traditional Dance of Sri Lanka” in Nŗtya Pūjā: A Tribute to Chitrasena 50 years in the dance). Mahesh, a prodigy in digitally visualising set design and costumes and bringing them to life coupled with the choreography gene embedded into the DNA of Anjalika guarantee a production that not just brings insects to life on stage as never before but is a step closer in what Chitrasena once said was the “elusive goal of perfection” to which he dedicated all his work.

Speaking with Heshma, the daughter of Anjalika and Rukshana, a senior dancer of the Kalayathanaya after the run through of the production, what struck me and not for the first time was how difficult it was to promote and sustain good art and theatre in Sri Lanka. Chitrasena himself was no stranger to the lack of funding to support his work – he had to borrow 3,000 rupees from his servant to produce Karadiya in 1961. However, what is dispiriting and indeed bizarre today is that the abundance of sponsorship and funding for the mediocre and banal and on the other, a near complete lack of funding for productions that are original, innovative and what is more, rooted in and develop Sri Lanka’s own rich traditions of dance and theatre. That the Kalayathanaya had to withdraw money from fixed deposits to stage Kumbi Kathawa is a sombre and damning indictment of the state of theatre in Sri Lanka today.

At the end of the day, Kumbi Kathawa is largely a production by children, for children. I remember, as a child, seeing Srilal Kodikara’s Manasa Vila (The Lake of the Mind) rendered as an opera by Premesiri Khemadasa. I can’t remember in detail the plot or action, but what I do acutely remember is the lights, the colour, the music and how much I was enthralled by the spectacle and overall performance on stage. Children are deeply influenced by the arts and delight in good performance. There is something magical about good theatre, as Marsh Dodanwala delightfully reminded us recently. If you, like I, would like to see more of the same, buy a ticket for Kumbi Kathawa today.

Editors note: Tickets are priced at Rs. 400 (downstairs, open seating) and Rs. 150 (balcony). Those who purchase four downstairs tickets will receive an edditional ticket for free as a bonus. Special rates are also available for groups of over 20 people. Tickets are available at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya, 590 Elvitigala Mawatha, Colombo 5 (next to Apollo Hospital). Phone Inquiries: 0602150570

Please listen to a podcast with Heshma (grand-daughter of Chitrasena and Vajira and Rukshana, a senior dancer at the Kalayathanaya on VOR Radio here.

Thoughts on Chatroom, a play by Enda Walsh directed by Tracy Holsinger

Thoughts on Chatroom, a play by Enda Walsh directed by Tracy Holsinger

Chatroom, directed by Tracy Holsinger and produced by Mind Adventures Theatre Company, was a refreshing departure from banal productions that usually feature in Colombo. Dealing with suicide and online communication, the script by Enda Walsh, an Irish playwright, explores the understanding of and responses to depression, suicide and ultimately, human relationships of six teenagers brought together in Internet chat rooms.

The regrettable and never to be repeated, I hope, projection of commercial advertisements before the commencement of the play aside, Chatroom was, as is to be expected from Tracy Holsinger, excellent theatre and personally, a deeply fulfilling return to her directorial style after 3 Star K at the Wendt in 2003. Exploring for the past couple of years the representation of suicides in the mainstream print media in Sri Lanka, I found the play to be a very interesting take on the issue and our responses to it. Chatroom, as the moniker suggests, approaches suicides through the lens of Internet chat rooms – places where with relative ease, anyone with a PC and an Internet connection can engage with topics and issues as diverse and perverse as the human imagination. Chat rooms can be at once engaging and frightening, faceless yet full of character, distant yet palpably close and real, and often perceived to be, by those who frequent them regularly, a real connection to a world beyond the confines of one’s own occasionally claustrophobic life and relationships.

Escape through death is a leitmotif in the production. Jim, played by Brandon Ingram, actively seeks it. Laura, played by Tehani Chitty, found it and yet returned to (a) life. Emily, an essentially good / moral character played Subha Wijesiriwardene attempts to vitiate the influence of the wickedly engaging William, played by Arun Welandawe-Prematileke and Eva, played by Erasha Sugathapala on Jim. Emily is helped, to an extent, by Jack, played by Ruvin de Silva, who is caught between a desire to be accepted in the chat-room and his conscience, alerting him to the grim telos of participating in William’s cruel mind-games. As the Director’s note avers:

“The sense of freedom that comes from being faceless and nameless can be exhilarating, can make you more daring than in your everyday interactions with people.”

Morality in online communications & relationships is complex and fluid. Chat room patrons may never know, meet or see the face of their greatest detractors, or indeed, their closest friends. Coincidentally, a recent article in the New York Times explores the phenomenon of intolerance and hate speech online (flaming) through the emerging field of social neuroscience – looking into what goes on in our brains when negotiating largely anonymous, online communications and the relationships built thereupon. As the Daniel Goleman writes in Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior (NYT, 20th February 2007):

“Flaming can be induced in some people with alarming ease. Consider an experiment, reported in 2002 in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology, in which pairs of college students — strangers — were put in separate booths to get to know each other better by exchanging messages in a simulated online chat room. While coming and going into the lab, the students were well behaved. But the experimenter was stunned to see the messages many of the students sent. About 20 percent of the e-mail conversations immediately became outrageously lewd or simply rude.”

Chatroom explores these complex issues through a script that attempted to unravel the complex interplay of emotions, conviction and action through the words and ideas that are exchanged between six characters online. Regrettably however, in largely sticking to stereotypes, the production did not fully explore the ways in which online communications can subvert and change our perception of identity and belonging. The characters, for the most exceedingly self-centred, never really grew to appreciate the viewpoints of each other. Perhaps indicative of a dominant aspect of the medium of a chat room itself, it does not however, represent the chiaroscuro of emotions and rich textures of many relationships online. Each of the characters attempt to mirror a certain dimension, or character, of a typical chat room – William for instance with his twisted logic and opinionated self-indulgence, Laura with her quiet resolution and Jim, searching for belonging. Chat rooms however are more than the sum of each of these characters. Simplifying thus the range of human interaction online, we are never fully satiated as to whether Chatroom is a distillation of what transpires in chat rooms, or whether it is in fact, far removed from reality. Also unsatisfactory was the denouement. Jim’s pontifications on suicide towards the end of the play were tedious and contrived. It is almost as if the playwright, through Jim, wanted to proselytize life over death, and drill in the message that suicide is terrible and unnecessary. It may well be, but surely the audience can make up its own mind and it’s entirely possible for youth theatre to edify without resorting to such trappings of a script. Furthermore, that Jim and Laura find commonality in furry bunnies at the end of the production is heartwarming, but I’d much rather an ending that didn’t smack of Grimm’s fairy-tales. Better use of the advanced lighting at the British School Auditorium may have also brought on to stage, life passing by in front of a computer monitor by better indirect lighting to create ambient hues on the faces of the chat room participants, given what I’ve read in the papers about the state-of-the-art facilities available at the venue.

These remain minor annoyances in a production otherwise extremely fulfilling. The cast, for many of whom this was their first mainstream theatre production after school, delivered overall above average performances. Tehani and Arun, playing Laura and William respectively, clearly stood out for what were finely played performances of two characters, very different from each other, central to the leitmotifs and the action of the play. Tehani’s light touch in her sensitive portrayal of Laura, a complex character torn between her own traumatic personal experience and the desire to prevent another suicide, clearly had an edge over the other characters, save perhaps for William. Arun was brilliant in a sublime rendering of an opinionated young prick with scant regard for the trauma of others save for his own, twisted enjoyment. Brandon’s enactment of Jim, a depressed, lonely teenager with an obvious alcohol problem in need of counseling was adequate, but not entirely convincing. Ruvin, playing Jack, was again not entirely comfortable with his character, playing it with varying degrees of alacrity in the production I saw Friday night. Emily, played by Subha, I am told by her mother, was essentially herself in the play! But her character, perhaps the only “good” one in the play and the most uni-dimensional, was not one that I found particularly engaging, which is a pity since Subha’s talent far exceeds that which we saw in Chatroom. Played by Erasha, Eva, was acted out extremely convincingly even though next to Emily, I found Eva’s character to be the flattest and least developed of the lot.

Returning to the issue of commercial sponsorship, the history of theatre is such that it has always relied on rich benefactors or commercial sponsorship for the promotion of art, but when mercenary foundations are objectionably projected into the stage itself, it invariably colours our appreciation of the creation. Art and commercialism simply don’t mix, and to coalesce both is a dangerous trend where marketers & advertisers, with generally no aesthetic appreciation save that which is governed by a profit motive, can increasingly determine cultural production. The point is simply that financial support for a (good) production is can be better appreciated without having to project it in the faces of an audience. This of course is a larger discussion that I think serious directors such as Tracy should take up with a broader audience with a view to creating a foundation for artistes to produce their works that is not wholly reliant on the largesse of commercial enterprise.

I came into Chatroom expecting it to be a play aimed very much at a teenage audience, with necessarily, a light treatment of social concerns. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the contrary – that it was a transcendent dramatic exploration of some of the most pressing issues online and in the real world today. Tracy’s notes in the programme brochure tell us that it was not the intention of Chatroom to send us back home thinking that life is a piece of cake. Clearly, producing Chatroom would not have been a piece of cake either, but we are happy that it was so well baked and served. Having tasted it, we can only want more.

C u ltr Tracy

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