Seagull Books

Performance in Place of War – excerpts

One of the casualties of living in conflict zones is the space to have fun, to play, to enjoy being in the company of others and laughing together. If you have been deprived of play by curfews, by car bombs, by soldiers in tanks outside your house or by a code of silence and caution, the energy released in the most basic forms of drama workshops is enormous (Moriarty 2005a)

In her work in Mozambique, Nordstrom notes how people’s worlds had been completely destroyed by attacks on individuals, families, communities, villages and towns. However, she also shows that this unmasking constantly met with the possibility of recreation:

The solution, Mozambicans taught me, lies, in part, with the imagination. When people look over a land that should resonate with meaning and life but that stares blankly back with incomprehensible images of barren fields, broken communities, tortured bodies, and shattered realities, they are left with the choice of accepting a deadened world or creating a liveable one. It is imagination—creativity—that bridges the abyss, if not to reconstruct the past, to make the present liveable (1977: 190).

Nordstrom presents creativity and the imagination as a means of beginning a process of rebuilding and recovery after the utter devastation of war: ‘it is in creativity, in the fashioning of self and world, that people find their most potent weapon against war’ (ibid.: 4). This optimistic account ofthe potntial of creativity for survival and recovery borrows from the work of Scarry, whose studies on torture and war also link experiences of destruction to making and remaking the world. For Scarry, experiences of pain destroy our ability to understand the world beyond the limits of our own bodies:

It is the intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world, a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body swelling to fill the entire universe (1985: 35).

According to Scarry, experiences of pain shatter language: while experiencing intense pain, our ability to symbolise and make sense is limited, if not destroyed and, as a consequence, our ability to relate to each other is also damaged. However, Scarry also explores the reversal of this process whereby acts of imagination and creativity make it possible to remake the world. The human action of ‘making’ facilitates processes of recovery after conflict’s absolute reduction of language and meaning, starting with the processes of ‘mental imaging’, ‘making up’ and ‘making real’ (ibid.: 22). The imagination is the first stage of creating or recreating an external world that has a life beyond the body and generating material and social connections that reinforce protection and resilience of individuals and communities.


Kooththu, Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Theatre has to connect the earth with the sky. That is why in Kooththu we stand in a position in which we go down to the earth and then come up. When you connect the earth to the sky that means finding yourself harmonizing with the universe, you need to know your rhythm—it is the Kooththus that give us our rhythm. Kooththu comes from jump— koodhi—it is the jump that we do in the performance but the jump has to be rhythmic . . . with a rhythm (Tarcissius 2000).
If we do dramas children will not go astray and their knowledge will grow. It is important to do such drama to increase the knowledge capacity, which will in turn help children achieve good rewards. The village will get revitalized. The Seelaamunai village was in a very bad state [after the war]

(Parent from Seelamunai Village 2005).

Kooththu is a dance-drama form that is associated with the Tamil-speaking community across Sri Lanka, but is particularly strong in the eastern region that, because of its remote location, has historically been less influenced by colonialism and other external factors. It is performed as an allnight event and comprises sections of Hindu epics that are sung and danced in an open-air kaleri (circular raised sand stage) to large village audiences. However, what was a vibrant form has been seriously weakened by restrictions imposed by the violence that has had a devastating impact on this area. Since the 2002 ceasefire, the practice has been used to revitalize a sense of community in this chronically conflict-affected region. The primary objective of the ‘reformulation’ of Kooththu described here is to provide education and entertainment for villagers and spaces for them to come together and re-learn traditional performance practices from elders in the community. Kooththu is positioned as a form that, although weakened by the war, is used as a symbol of the strength of a local cultural practice in opposition to external or ‘global’ forms. It is also seen as a form of educational provision for young people from rural areas, especially for those who are understood to be failing within the narrow confines of a formal education system that still bears the mark of colonial educational practices. Reformulation is, therefore, an educational programme for young people in the village as well as a dynamic, sophisticated and flexible system of development that shares knowledge inside the community.

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

Sivagnanam Jeyasankar from Eastern University in Batticaloa, and the Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group from the same town, have worked with up to four different village Kooththu groups in rural areas since the ceasefire. The main group, in the village of Seelamunai, has had a Kooththu group for over 100 years, but the practice struggled to maintain itself with the war-imposed curfews and restrictions on movement. The Third Eye Group refers to its practice as ‘reformulation’, in which it supports a reinvigoration of the skills base of a local group at the same time as promoting an engagement with the issues inherent in the performed texts. In Seelamunai, this has included rewriting Kooththu scripts and traditional songs so that they better represent low-caste communities and permit the participation of women. The literacy skills developed in the process of rewriting scripts and songs and producing research articles based on reformulation, are complemented by a pedagogical approach that emphasizes dance, enjoyment, socializing, storytelling and working together. Discursive forms of practice are seen as important here but only in relation to the embodied and remembered knowledge already existing inside village society. This process and its impact is described by Jeyasankar:

Because of the war they did not perform for twenty years [and] in the last twenty years they performed only once, so this was the situation in Seelamunai . . . In Kooththu the atmosphere is connected to the whole community and people from other villages also come to that space so it’s a space for the whole community, all the people in an open space . . . The importance of traditional theatre is . . . the connection with the grassroots people in a very big way and the things we share in that open space will disseminate to the other spaces also, to the homes and workplaces, so it’s very important and positive and very powerful thing . . . [We were] moving through the village and doing house to house visits, so from the beginning to the end it’s a process connecting so many things, connecting different individuals, communities, age groups, even though . . . there are hierarchies it is a very positive space, it connects different layers of people at different levels (2006).

Although the Third Eye group themselves describe their practice predominantly in terms of education and enjoyment, a complementary analysis might suggest that in a region that has suffered violence and disappearances and, since 2004, has been the site of a violent split in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the space for debate and creative expression that the reformulation process permits is crucial. The performance does not foreground the issue to be discussed but debates about caste and gender are instigated through the process of Third Eye’s engagement with the community and the performance of adapted scripts
of traditional stories. In an area where space for open dialogue is contested and outspoken comments on public issues are dangerous, the performance provides an aesthetic space through which concerns, questions and issues can be explored safely. Batticaloa has a civil society considerably weakened by the war, by the wide-scale migration of the middle or intellectual class and the recent LTTE divisions. The space opened up during performances of Kooththu is perhaps a rare place of free debate and one done through the content and structure of the Hindu epics. Through an engagement with issues of gender and caste hierarchies, Third Eye uses Kooththu to debate the multiple divisions that affect this community and to discuss issues of identity outside the more familiar articulations of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim that have become fixed by the war. The utilization and development of a form of performance that has links to Tamil identity and pride offers an opportunity rather than a restriction. The participants ensure that they are associated with a Tamil form in an area of strongly and violently asserted nationalist politics, and thus they manage to open up spaces of debate and creativity from within a ‘place’ that is, culturally, relatively safe.

The movement and association made possible as a result of the ceasefire meant that pressures from globalization became newly significant for the region. This included changes in agricultural practices, availability of branded products, public discussions about opportunities to develop tourism and increased access to Western and Asian media. Third Eye’s ‘reformulation’ process is situated explicitly as a response to these ‘encroachments’ that it views with suspicion. Its work is based on a determination, in opposition to these advances, to validate and develop local knowledge and it therefore promotes cultural events that celebrate traditional rituals, customs and practices. In addition, it creates opportunities for debate about how to protect the variety of cultural forms that exist within this community.












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