By Chenelle Fernando
Those who take a liking to the arts are aware that it could be utilised to reflect contemporary issues faced by the oppressed and even the public at large.
The British Council in collaboration with the Post Graduate Institute of English (PGIE) conducted an extensive research-based initiative which essentially strives to be beyond its purpose, whilst intertwining arts amidst chaos.
How and why – a background story
The uniqueness of the project distinguishes it from the mundane, as it is presented as a laudable initiative in striving toward reconciliation and cohesion.
British Council Director – Education and English Louise Cowcher asserts that the Government’s current objective of driving economic and social growth is what sparked conversation and the project’s initiation. Following this, a collaborative engagement between the British Council and government departments including other education providers will take place, termed “Transform”.
The engagement hopes to professionalise the provision of education that is in line with and meets international quality standards. “It’s an initiative that I think all partners can subscribe to. It is very much about how we collaborate together on the future interests of the country,” asserted Cowcher.
The Belfast Agreement marked its point of initiation, and the event was graced by a number of Sri Lankan delegates. The Peace and Beyond conference commemorated the signing of the Belfast Agreement, during which the project was proposed by PGIE.
Interestingly, The Theatre of Reconciliation: Potentials, Tensions, and Practices, a project culminated within Transform, was initiated by PGIE upon receiving a one-year grant by the British Council. Cowcher indicated: “For us, it brought together that commitment to support higher education from young talent and also our engagement with reconciliation and social integration. It’s the mix of social inclusion, social cohesion, education, and language.”
As Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) PGIE senior lecturer Dr. Sreemali Herath indicated, the process took place over a series of stages. It started with attending the Peace and Beyond conference at Belfast, then the discussion of research questions and focus between Queen’s University Belfast and the OUSL PGIE, data collection based on archival research and interviews, and finally, the cumulative symposium which was held at PGIE last Friday (5 July).
PGIE, whose immediate focus is on the training of teachers, engaged in this project for the purpose of understanding how teachers could act as active agents of change in a time of reconciliation. The findings are not representative of the entirety of Sri Lanka. Instead, the project focuses on the information more in depth; qualitative as opposed to quantitative.
Why the arts?
From its initial focus as a digital storytelling project, Dr. Herath explained that it turned towards a different path, where they were able to carry out a purely research-based project as opposed to intervention research. The theatrical and arts aspect was introduced by her core investigator.
The project opted to study Janakaraliya and the Stages Theatre Group as they both seemingly follow Augusto Boal’s work on Theatre of the Oppressed. Dr Herath said: “It’s devised theatre where they devise the issues. The script and members of the theatre groups are from around the country with different linguistic and social backgrounds. They come together to work out of passion”.
A quick glance at the troupes
The Stages Theatre Group – this group’s focus on reconciliation stems out of necessity rather than a specific mandate. It has enabled the group to address the silence of the past as well as examine current issues in introspection. “If we look at the kind of xenophobic rhetoric constantly in our vocabulary as Sri Lankans, it is quite clear that history is repeating itself,” stated Stages Theatre Group Producer Piumi Wijesundara. Apart from merely performing, the group attempts to present themselves as activists and be dynamic in the sociopolitical facet.
“Dear Children Sincerely…Seven Decades of Sri Lanka”, a production directed by Ruwanthie de Chickera, travels back over the seven decades of Sri Lankan history, highlighting seven singular events that drastically changed its history. The play is a result of research and conversations with senior citizens born in the 1930s conducted over a period of two-and-a-half years. It assimilates a trajectory of the sociopolitical twists and turns that took place in Sri Lanka from Independence to the end of the 30-year civil war.
Focusing on theatre archiving, Piumi indicated that it enables a country to reflect on its journey as a civilisation, stating: “Theatre and the arts inevitably form the fabric of a society as well.” Apart from this, the importance of knowledge sharing as an artist and theatre practitioner was brought to light. She said: “It is essential that you network and work with other theatre practitioners. Pull along young theatre artists as well as have productive give and take in terms of academia.”
The group has been successful in identifying younger generations’ lack of awareness of the significance of certain historical events such as Black July or the JVP insurrections that once shook the entire nation. Placing considerable emphasis on intervention and education, Piumi explained that lack of awareness is attributable to the culture created by the system of education itself. Considering the gamut of knowledge uncovered from the research itself, the production, as she explained, was presented as an educational experience for the artists as well.
Janakaraliya – Janakaraliya, which was registered in 2002 and officially formed in 2004, is a multi-ethnic group where members gradually learnt the languages spoken by each other. According to Parakrama Niriella, one of the founders of the group, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, all artists were seen to have flocked together for a common purpose despite differences in their ethnicities and areas of interest – this unfortunately ceased to exist by the 1980s. Janakaraliya was formed to bridge gaps through the revival of co-existence.
“Thiththa Kahata”, the play the project placed emphasis on, embodied the hardship and turmoil endured by the labour community of the tea plantations in Bogawantalawa. Niriella said: “These people were poor and were induced into being brought here. Sri Lanka is an island surrounded by the ocean, so there was no way they could escape.” The lack of rights, freedoms, and land, and the inadequacy of housing facilities together with low and inconsistent wages continue to strain these communities even in the current day and age. “These communities are oppressed as they live without any connection to or communication with Tamil-speaking communities in the East or in Jaffna,” incited Niriella.
Janakaraliya engages in a mobile theatre wherein they travel around the country to perform. Interestingly, unlike a generic theatrical setting, seating at their performances is placed in a manner in which the audience surrounds the performers. This has proven to be effective in striking a connection between the performers and audience members.
The group performs in various locations for numerous audiences and, as indicated by Niriella, the first few days of the performance are generally dull as many in the area are unaware of the performances. “Crowds tend to gather during the last days of the show, during which spectators become beguiled by the performances. This is mainly owed to the fact that the actors largely portray characters across the board, and act in all three languages, which leaves audience members almost in shock and heartfelt gratitude for the most part.
“When the Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht was performed in Jaffna to a Tamil script, it was felt by audience members so deeply that they themselves told us that it was so nice to see Sinhalese actors embodying such characters,” shared Niriella.
As indicated by Dr. Herath, this year-long longitudinal ethnographic study attempted to examine the manner in which these communities maintained sustenance. “They are very strong, although they come from various backgrounds. We look at how this model could be a pedagogical model.”
Some of its findings included the realities of theatre, where one can only make extensive plans but seeing them through was difficult. “Considering what is happening in the country, people don’t really care much about theatre, it was an eye-opener as to how much the artists were struggling,” said Dr. Herath.
The dilemma faced by artists in relation to the practice of either alternative or mainstream theatre posed as another finding, although both groups strongly pursue alternative theatre.
Construing and disseminating valuable insights pertaining to the path paved by the creative sector in policy discussions as well as its pedagogical implications remain fundamental to the project.
Photos: Saman Abesiriwardana, Pradeep Dambarage, Hemantha Arunasiri