Parakrama Niriella
Artistic Director, Janakaraliya Cultural Foundation

It is imperative that the material development of a country be linked with cultural development. Such cultural development should pave the way to develop an integral citizen with knowledge, skills, and positive attitudes enabling him or her to appreciate and honor others’ traditions and beliefs. If not, material development and the connected technology will create an inhumane and disoriented person bent on disruption. A rejuvenated man from contemporary cultural decadence will be created through proper educational methods, righteous religious philosophy, true mass media application, and appropriate arts and cultural practices and applications. Janakaraliya drama and theater arts program primarily supports the development of a proper education system and application of arts and cultural practices.

Instead of developing an education system that recognizes different cultural and religious traditions of different communities in our country and promote inclusiveness among them, the contemporary education system in Sri Lanka tends to stimulate division and conflict among different communities. Many schools (both state and private) are divided as follows:

  • by ethnicity, as Sinhala, Tamil, and English schools
  • by religion as Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim schools
  • by gender as male and female schools
  • by attendance as popular schools and none-popular schools
  • by geography as urban and rural schools
  • by economic status as rich and poor schools

Individuals entering society after being educated from these schools are naturally influenced with divisional mindsets, and some of them become targets for rabble-rousers and for conflicts among different societal segments. No programs develop or create cohesive relationships, even among schools situated in the same educational zone or in the same city. Although there are opportunities to participate in inter-district and inter-provincial sports meets. These opportunities, however, are used for increasing competitive mentality for victory at the expense of others, not for creating positive and cohesive relationships among students.

Even at the university level, the education system does not provide enough opportunities for students to learn and appreciate cultural traditions of other communities. For example, there are few provisions for Sinhala students to learn the Tamil language and for Tamil students to learn the Sinhala language. As such the present education system prevents students from learning about each other’s cultural and artistic traditions or about each other’s concerns or joys.

Using Folk Arts on Education for Social Cohesion

We proposed a school program called Theatre for Social Cohesion to help address the situation in the school system. The Ministry of Education accepted the program proposal, and a pilot program was conducted in the Bandarawela Educational Zone in Uva Province and funded by the German Technical Cooperation (GIZ). One-day workshops were held in two Sinhala schools, two Tamil schools, and one Muslim school within the zone, and all together fifty students were selected for further training (ten students from each school). Thereafter, a three-day residential workshop was held for teachers to train them how to use drama and theater as tools for teaching and social cohesion. They were advised to conduct short surveys with the selected students about traditional folk arts of other communities. They were also required to study and train students in two or three folk songs and dances with the aim of performing them at the next workshop.

Ten teachers and fifty students participated in the next five-day residential workshop, so students could get to know each other and develop relationships through theater exercises and games and to develop storylines for dramas. Three mixed teams were created representing all five schools, and they created storylines based folk drama traditions. Janakaraliya advised the students to develop dramatic characteristics that furthered the given objectives.

During the third five-day residential workshop, the three best dramas were selected commenced with the completion of dramas. Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim students performed the dramas in their local dialects with their traditional music and songs. A distinct characteristic of these three dramas was that they were created with three different structures and were infused with mixture of folk drama and musical traditions of every ethnicity.

All three dramas were performed at the five schools the students represented. The audiences were made up of the multi-cultural students and their parents. A performance by Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim students in the same space was a rare event and had a positive impression on the audiences. During the dialogue sessions after the performances the audience shared the view that the social integrity and inclusiveness could be developed through the education system. These collective creations infused a mixture of folk traditions of three communities and instilled love and affection in the audiences.

Subsequently, four similar programs were implemented Matale, Polonnaruwa, NuwaraEliya, and Ampara. The Ministry of Education pledged to continue the project.

A Modern Drama with Folk Traditions and Dealing with the Past

Selvaraj Leelawathy in the Tamil Caucasian Chalk Circle © Janakaraliya Cultural Foundationcustom

In general, dramatists study traditional dramas and folk arts to enrich established mainstream theater. After that, folk artists are forgotten, and no steps are taken to protect or preserve traditional arts or artists, who are subjected to decline due to influences of contemporary society. Under this situation, Janakaraliya uses folk traditions and artists to serve a wider audience and cater to the development of folk art and artist. Janakaraliya chose Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle for this purpose. This drama was translated into Tamil by veteran dramatist Dr. Kulandei M. Shanmugalingam from Jaffna of northern Sri Lanka.

The first phase acquainted traditional Tamil dramatists with identifying ancillary arts related to drama creation. We were fortunate to associate with traditional Tamil dramatists of northern Sri Lanka who live outside of southern Sri Lanka where majority Sinhalese live. First, the workshops were conducted in three locations. Traditional dramatists of the Therukuttu, Kattavarayan Kuttu, and Isaei styles and skilled traditional folk singers including Villupattu as well as youthful amateurs participated in these workshops.

Of the workshop participants, fifteen members from Jaffna performed in the drama, VenkattiVattam, along with fifteen Sinhala and Tamil performing artists from Janakaraliya. The dramatic setting involves war and conflict, with the story developing through a string of incidents connected a riot in a palace. The queen abandons her child in the riot, and a servant woman with motherly instincts carries the baby to safety. The queen later tries to reclaim custody of the child, but an unconventional judge hands custody over to the servant after recognizing her dedication and love for the abandoned child. In creating characters and situations, efforts were made to bring true-life experiences of the northern Tamil population to the stage; as such, the drama portrayed original characters rather than a translation.

Four months were spent production and a further two months to perform it. During this time all the participants and supporting staff lived under one roof, sharing bread and board engaged in training, rehearsals, and performance. It was a wonderful period of sharing traditions, life experiences, and joyfulness. Food provisions, production management, stage management, and costume making were done as a collective effort. The premiere was held on 22 July 2016 at the Weerasingham Hall, Jaffna. Infusing Sinhala and Tamil traditions enriched the drama and generated dynamism.

As the drama included some historically accurate portrayals of the Tamil experience during the war, Sinhala audiences better understood the hardships Tamil communities experienced. During post-performance dialogue, Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim audiences agreed that preventive measures should be enacted to avoid similar situations in the future.

The dramatic production paved the way to a novel tradition of infusing Tamil and Sinhala traditions and having multiple communities share the same space, a novelty appreciated by all the audience members. It was an exhilarating experience where Sinhala and Tamil performers shared the same performance space for the first time in decades.

Memory Work with Folk Arts

People step into the future remembering good and bad experiences as lessons learned. Good experiences should be used for a righteous future, and bad experiences should be used as reminders to prevent similar occurrences in future. But in a larger society, negligence, and pressures of prevailing state authorities can lead to repeated bad experiences. This is visible in Sri Lankan society today. Inclination of repeating communal conflicts is visible in both northern and southern Sri Lanka. Callous Sinhala Buddhist racism is raising its head in southern Sri Lankan society against Tamils and Muslims. They are not aware of trauma and hardships faced by the northern Tamil society during the war since these topics are not publicized in the media, which is biased to the Sinhala population. It would be better to develop dialogue among the Sinhala people in the south about the negative effects of war and conflict. Drama and theater arts could be used as powerful tools for this purpose.

The latest program proposed by Janakaraliya for this purpose is to create a series of dramas based on the war and postwar experiences of Tamil people and hold performances in the south for Sinhala audiences to raise awareness about the true situation about the northern Tamil population and help erase biases. In these dramas, traditional styles, folk dances, and songs will be used in place of the Tamil language while verbal exchanges will be in Sinhala to enhance understanding for the Sinhala audience.

Using Free Theater Spaces Resembles Folk Theater

For performances, Janakaraliya uses any space where people can assemble—proscenium theaters, open theaters, playgrounds, threshing floors, et cetera. As such Janakaraliya can address limitless audiences, regardless of class. A Janakaraliya custom is to associate and use traditional drama styles and folk arts as much as possible. Janakaraliya prefers the participation of folk drama artists rather than being influenced by traditional arts. These folk artists spontaneously inculcate their styles and methods in Janakaraliya dramas, which enhance the performances. Also Janakaraliya teaches positive techniques and qualities of mainstream dramas to enhance their creations. As a result, Janakaraliya can provide aesthetic and entertaining dramas for people of all levels of society.

The Mobile Theatre, the regular performance space of Janakaraliya, is constructed based on the performing spaces of folk dramas, where performances can be watched from all sides. As such, all Janakaraliya dramas are watchable at close quarters, providing closer relationships between the audiences and performers. Whenever drama festivals are conducted, opportunities are provided for the regional artists to perform their creations in the mobile theatre for larger gatherings. We launched into this process when creating the drama Sekkuwa (Oil Press) in 1976, before starting Janakaraliya. The drama associated traditional folk dramas Sokary and Kolam, portraying the distorted political system and the poor rural farmers who are subjected to exploitation by the political system. Enriched with traditional dances and songs, now it still performed by the Janakaraliya drama group. The drama Sekkuwa was the curtain raiser at the Bahuroopi International Theatre Festival conducted by Rangayana Drama and Theatre Arts Institute, Mysore, from 13 to 18 January 2017.