Kooththu, Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
Theatre has to connect the earth with the sky. That is why in Kooththu we stand in a position in which we go down to the earth and then come up. When you connect the earth to the sky that means finding yourself harmonizing with the universe, you need to know your rhythm—it is the Kooththus that give us our rhythm. Kooththu comes from jump— koodhi—it is the jump that we do in the performance but the jump has to be rhythmic . . . with a rhythm (Tarcissius 2000).
If we do dramas children will not go astray and their knowledge will grow. It is important to do such drama to increase the knowledge capacity, which will in turn help children achieve good rewards. The village will get revitalized. The Seelaamunai village was in a very bad state [after the war] (Parent from Seelamunai Village 2005).
Kooththu is a dance-drama form that is associated with the Tamil-speaking community across Sri Lanka, but is particularly strong in the eastern region that, because of its remote location, has historically been less influenced by colonialism and other external factors. It is performed as an allnight event and comprises sections of Hindu epics that are sung and danced in an open-air kaleri (circular raised sand stage) to large village audiences. However, what was a vibrant form has been seriously weakened by restrictions imposed by the violence that has had a devastating impact on this area. Since the 2002 ceasefire, the practice has been used to revitalize a sense of community in this chronically conflict-affected region. The primary objective of the ‘reformulation’ of Kooththu described here is to provide education and entertainment for villagers and spaces for them to come together and re-learn traditional performance practices from elders in the community. Kooththu is positioned as a form that, although weakened by the war, is used as a symbol of the strength of a local cultural practice in opposition to external or ‘global’ forms. It is also seen as a form of educational provision for young people from rural areas, especially for those who are understood to be failing within the narrow confines of a formal education system that still bears the mark of colonial educational practices. Reformulation is, therefore, an educational programme for young people in the village as well as a dynamic, sophisticated and flexible system of development that shares knowledge inside the community.
Sivagnanam Jeyasankar from Eastern University in Batticaloa, and the Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group from the same town, have worked with up to four different village Kooththu groups in
rural areas since the ceasefire. The main group, in the village of
Seelamunai, has had a Kooththu group for over 100 years, but the practice struggled to maintain itself with the war-imposed curfews and restrictions on movement. The Third Eye Group refers to its practice as ‘reformulation’, in which it supports a reinvigoration of the skills base of a local group at the same time as promoting an engagement with the issues inherent in the performed texts. In Seelamunai, this has included rewriting Kooththu scripts and traditional songs so that they better represent low-caste communities and permit the participation of women. The literacy skills developed in the process of rewriting scripts and songs and producing research articles based on reformulation, are complemented by a pedagogical approach that emphasizes dance, enjoyment, socializing, storytelling and working together. Discursive forms of practice are seen as important here but only in relation to the embodied and remembered knowledge already existing inside village society. This process and its impact is described by Jeyasankar:
Because of the war they did not perform for twenty years [and] in the last twenty years they performed only once, so this was the situation in Seelamunai . . . In Kooththu the atmosphere is connected to the whole community and people from other villages also come to that space so it’s a space for the whole community, all the people in an open space . . . The importance of traditional theatre is . . . the connection with the grassroots
people in a very big way and the things we share in that open space will disseminate to the other spaces also, to the homes and workplaces, so it’s very important and positive and very powerful thing . . . [We were] moving through the village and doing house to house visits, so from the beginning to the end it’s a process connecting so many things, connecting different individuals, communities, age groups, even though . . . there are hierarchies it is a very positive space, it connects different layers of people at different levels (2006).
Although the Third Eye group themselves describe their practice predominantly in terms of education and enjoyment, a complementary analysis might suggest that in a region that has suffered violence and disappearances and, since 2004, has been the site of a violent split in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the space for debate and creative expression that the reformulation process permits is crucial. The performance does not foreground the issue to be discussed but debates about caste and gender are instigated through the process of Third Eye’s engagement with the community and the performance of adapted scripts of traditional stories. In an area where space for open dialogue is contested and outspoken comments on public issues are dangerous, the performance provides an aesthetic space through which concerns, questions and issues can be explored safely. Batticaloa has a civil society considerably weakened by the war, by the wide-scale migration of the middle or intellectual class and the recent LTTE divisions. The space opened up during performances of Kooththu is perhaps a rare place of free debate and one done through the content and structure of the Hindu epics. Through an engagement with issues of gender and caste hierarchies, Third Eye uses Kooththu to debate the multiple divisions that affect this community and to discuss issues of identity outside the more familiar articulations of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim that have become fixed by the war. The utilization and development of a form of performance that has links to Tamil identity and pride offers an opportunity rather than a restriction. The participants ensure that they are associated with a Tamil form in an area of strongly and violently asserted nationalist politics, and thus they manage to open up spaces of debate and creativity from within a ‘place’ that is, culturally, relatively safe.
The movement and association made possible as a result of the ceasefire meant that pressures from globalization became newly significant for the region. This included changes in agricultural practices, availability of branded products, public discussions about opportunities to develop tourism and increased access to Western and Asian media. Third Eye’s ‘reformulation’ process is situated explicitly as a response to these ‘encroachments’ that it views with suspicion. Its work is based on a determination, in opposition to these advances, to validate and develop local knowledge and it therefore promotes cultural events that celebrate traditional rituals, customs and practices. In addition, it creates opportunities for debate about how to protect the variety of cultural forms that exist within this community.
From the Greeks and Shakespeare to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, war has often been a major theme of dramatic performances. However, many of the most extraordinary theater projects in recent years not only have been about war but also have originated in actual conflict zones themselves.
Performance in Place of War is concerned with these initiatives, including theater in refugee camps, in war-ravaged villages, in towns under curfew, and in cities under occupation. It looks at theater and performances that often occur quite literally as bombs are falling, as well as during times of ceasefire and in the aftermath of hostilities.
Performance in Place of War draws on extensive original material and includes interviews with artists, short play extracts, and photographs from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, and others. The authors combine critical commentary, overviews of the conflicts and first-hand accounts in order to consider such questions as: Why in times of disruption have people turned to performance? And what aesthetic, ethical, and political choices are made in these different contexts Performance in Place of War is a fascinating perspective on the role of theatre in unpredictable, war-torn times.
For more information on Third Eye, please visit their blog.
Click here to get your own copy of the book.
There was some effort in this direction in that land, at that time. There was a widespread artist-craftsman’s movement; an attempt to de-specialize writing, even encourage creativity amongst the untutored. But this did not last long. The consumer society is an Island of Circe. It subdues and debases opposition, by offering various blandishments. The artist-craftsmen’s movement which wanted to add a new dimension to personal creativity, relapsed into producing funk art, mixing pastiche and parody. Art again became too artificial. Direct responses to things around were interfered with through media intrusions. Prosperity, poverty, war natural calamities, all, were packaged spectacles which, even if they sometimes managed to rouse the viewer’s conscience, did not touch their hearts. So they could be conditioned to watching a war on the TV screen as if it was a game of chess.
In the last thirty years many of the issues that this situation raises have been discussed from various angles and viewpoints, and from the main body of the literature of postmodernism. The postmodernist reaction is ingrained in the modernist attitude, one essential feature of which is the review of its antecedents. It is only natural that it, too, will be subjected to such review. Some of these go to the roots, some go round the details. But each one re-examines its ways and postulates. How real is reality? How rational? Can it have many readings or narratives? And if so, is it subject to a larger metanarrative? Is there a preordained seriality in human progress and, if there is, is it the same for all? To many, various developments on the cultural scene seemed to have undermined the presence of one. Then what fixes the standards? Another metanarrative or comprehensive field plan? Or do we accept a pluralistic approach and multiplicity of standards? Since our sense of reality comes through our sensory readings, are all our expressions language games, more taken up with their internal rules than external referrants? Are the pressures exerted by the present day industrial society inescapable? It is possible to devise a strategy to contain them or civilize them?
People of various persuasions have answers to these. Some have explanations more than answers. Some of these are touched with hope, others with despair. And much of the discussion is coloured by the tendency in the West to think in terms of impacable absolution.
But in this world of ours most things are relative. There is a reality of which we are all part, but our pictures of it are limited by our readings, and there are many such readings. So the scene cannot be the same for all. Reason is an essential part of our learning process, but instinct and intuition, too, have an equal place in it and a large part of our knowledge is the result of their spasmodic leaps, not labored ratiocination. Though we use reason later to check its validity. So one does not displace the other. All our expression are part transparent and part opaque; while they refer to things, they are also things by themselves. They carry a message or burden but in the final count they try to express the inexpressible through various devious signals. And this is where the excitement lies. No artist or his expression is entirely autonomous; they function in, and are read against, a given context. And these contexts may not be one and the same. But to effect a living connection between the expression and the response, and let them enrich each other, they need to have a kind of party in character and content.
Why is there no effort to bridge this chasm? To bring this public out of its passivity? Partly because art does not feature in the major priorities of modern life. Partly because it is not easy. As it will entail some drastic changes in the pattern of our lives to provide the room, and the freedom, for the public to engage in various creative activities that will enlarge and refine their sensibilities. Or in the words of some, to create the circumstances that will ensure conviviality.
Real creativity requires this to establish a speaking contact with ourselves and our environment. And release ourselves from those pressures inherent in the society we live in that make this difficult. And recognize our real needs – that will keep us more fully, wakefully human. And realize the creativity is inherent like a submerged seed in every normal person, irrespective of class or upbringing. Which, when the right wind blows on each with equal bounty will emerge and announce itself. Like those rows of Easter lilies in the month of March. When will this wind blow? When will we be uniformly susceptible to its call?
…and realize the creativity is inherent like a submerged seed in every normal person…
—— ————– ——
Adventures in Storyland
A winter camp for 5 to 7 year olds
15 to 19 December 2010, 10 a.m. to 12 noon
Five days of creativity for 5 to 7 year olds, using craft, games, music and singing to encourage fantasy, imagination and artistic expression
Imagine opening the window and watching a cow going up your staircase. Even better, imagine stepping into the kitchen and finding a cow feasting on your freshly fried hilsa pieces. Yes, hilsa. A fish-fry-loving cow. A fish-eating, bone licking, staircase-mounting, non-conformist, anti-establishment cow. A pet, belonging to Mahasweta Devi’s mother.
Or think of a procession of rickshaws stopping in front of your house, each one unloading a mountain of cauliflower at your doorstep. ‘Only 400 cauliflowers and 22 maunds of rice – will that be enough for the whole month?’ – Mahasweta’s poet-father wonders. He has just performed an important household duty – grocery shopping for two – since the rest of the family, including the mother, is away on a holiday.
These are the parents. Then there are children, all nine of them, especially boys. Oh, those boys! And the aunts. And the uncles. And the various pets. Meet Mahasweta Devi’s family and friends.
A fresh new face of Mahasweta is revealed here, so far unseen by adults, but quite familiar to the young readers of Bengali children’s magazines. They have known her for three decades as an enchanting storyteller. Mahasweta started writing for children from 1965, in Mouchak, a well-established children’s literary magazine that she herself had read in her younger days. From 1975, her stories began to appear in Sandesh.
It is interesting to note, however, that her writing for Sandesh began at the time when she was writing the stories for Agnigarbha (The Fire Within, 1978). Two distinctly opposing voices are heard during the same period. One is light and playful, litup with fun and fantasy to catch the imagination of children. Another, dark and unforgiving, with a cutting edge, making human violence visible to the unseeing adult world. This is the Mahasweta that the world has come to know. The activist who accuses, condemns and rips open the hypocrisy of the social system we live in. This Mahasweta has won the Jnanpith and Magsayay awards, and is the ‘mother of the Shavaras’. But the Mahasweta we meet in these pages is ‘Khuku’, the eldest of nine brothers and sisters in a closeknit family, reliving her childhood days.
‘For children, one should write with a great deal of love and respect’, Mahasweta once remarked in a conversation, ‘that is why those children’s books are usually the best which grown-ups cannot resist.’
Nabaneeta Dev Sen
Excerpt from Our Non-veg Cow:
Ma received the cow ceremonially and presented the younger chapnasi with new clothes. He went to the pond next door for a bath, washed the new dhoti and spread it out on the grass. At once Nyadosh chewed up half the dhoti, tore the rest to shreds, and then shoved the young chaprasi back into the pond as often as he tried to climb out.
Ma said, Alas! Poor thing, she’s behaving like that because she’s upset! Any child would feel terrible if her parents sent her off!
Father looked apprehensive. He said to his office gardener, What your mistress has just done will have far-reaching consequences.
But even Baba hadn’t anticipated just how far-reaching! It’s not possible to write a complete biography of Nyadosh. If Nyadosh herself had written one, it might have sufficed; but, although Nyadosh had eaten up the school textbooks for every single class (since we’re nine brothers and sisters, and I was the only one in college then, we had the textbooks for all the classes at home), she had never eaten a pen or ink. You can’t write if you dislike or are afraid of pen and ink. Nyadosh couldn’t write only because she hadn’t managed to eat a pen.
Anyway, soon enough Nyadosh got into the habit of entering the rooms whenever she pleased (it was a single-storeyed house) and chewing up school books. Baba used to say. This is the quickest way to study. Look! With what determination she’s eating up the books!
Indeed, in her zeal to learn it all quickly, Nyadosh used to swallow everything from grammar to English letter-writing guides. You realize, of course, that in this phase of Nyadosh’s life, it was impossible to make cowdung cakes from her dung! She liked Aneesh’s, Abu’s and Phalgu’s books, but she had a real passion for our youngest brother Tantu’s books. My second sister Mitul and fourth sister Buri were raving lunatics as kids. She was carefully selective about their books. My youngest sister Shari and third sister Konchi had both their books and their frocks chewed up by Nyadosh. But she never ate anything more than a singlet and a few neckties of Baba’s. She had strong opinions about the colour (what did she not have a strong opinion about!) and would eat anything in blue that caught her eye…
Our Non-veg Cow and Other Stories is part of the series: The Selected Works of Mahasweta Devi
A representational look at the complete Mahasweta—her novels, her short fiction, her children’s stories, her plays, her activist prose writings—the series is an attempt to introduce her impressive body of work to a readership beyond Bengal; it is also an overdue recognition of the importance of her contribution to the literary and cultural history of our country.