DRAMA AND THEATRE ARTS AMONG THE TAMILS OF SRI LANKA
The terms ‘Drama’ and ‘Theatre’ are synonyms not only for the common man, but for many a learned too. Though the masters of theatre try hard to differentiate one from the other, they try to remain inseparable – one is impossible without the other. In spite of the fact that the two are inseparable, just for the purpose of understanding, we could say, “that which is performed is Drama, and how it is performed the Theatre”. i.e., theatre employs its elements in an intergrated manner to create drama. Hence drama is the creation- the end product of theatre. There fore, to understand the drama of a people we should know their theatre- the performance in action; the process of creation. Shall we conclude by saying “Drama is Theatre in action”.
The People and location
The Tamils of Sri Lanka are a minority group. The Northern and Eastern part of the island is their traditional homeland, and a considerable number of Tamils live in the hilly central province. Besides this a considerable number of Tamils live in Colombo, the capital of the country and other parts of the island.
The ethnic conflict and war has forced many a Tamil to move away from their traditional places of residence, and find shelter in safer parts of the island and abroad.
The displacement of families within the country, and migration of a large amount of people to the western countries had, and continue to have a great impact on the art and literature of the Sri Lankan Tamils- both in content and form.
Though a few historians try to maintain the Tamils of Sri Lanka are a migrant ethnic group, the fact remains that, except the Tamil population of the plantations of the central province, they are an indigenous group. If we try to disprove this, then the whole population of Sri Lanka, including Sinhalese people, could be identified as migrants, and hence aliens to the soil.
The Tamil population consists of peoples following the faiths of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. The content of the Sri Lankan Tamil community – except the Muslims – is structured by cast system. Religion and cast sit heavily on the thought process of the people.
The gigantic proximity of India casts its shadow on this tiny island, and hence every facet of the life of its people has come under its strong influence – Language, Religion, Culture and Politics- from ancient times to ever after.
Though the whole Sri Lanka nation has strong ties with its immediate neighbour India, the bounds of the Tamils of both the countries are much stronger – Tamil as a language binds them firmly.
The struggles to live and the lives and culture of the Tamils of Sri Lanka could be understood clearly, only under the above mentioned locale and perspective. It is the geographical atmosphere that sets the climatical atmosphere, and the vegetation includes the people of that locally too.
THE ZONES OF THEATRE
Theatre styles or performance modes or dramatic genres cannot be separated and put into watertight compartments. They mix and mingle at different levels and embrace certain elements from the other genres. Since they are the outcome, the by-product, of the history of a people, they remain the milestone of a continuous process, and hence a close lineage.
But, for the purpose of study we could identify them as different modes, styles, forms or genres. The Indian theatre is mainly divided into following zones or spheres:
1. The Ritual
2. The Classical
3. The Folk / Popular
4. The Devotional
5. The Modern.
The orders or sequence of the above division may vary; and the number too might not remain rigid; but the essence remains the same in every form of division.
For our purpose of study here, we might divide the performance traditions of the Tamils of Sri Lanka into the following segments:
a. The ritual theatre
b. The traditional or festival theatre
c. The modern theatre
d. Contemporary theatre
In the history of Tamil drama- both in Tamil Nadu (India) and among the Tamils of Sri Lanka- unfortunately we have not come across a period which could be termed classical. There fore that segment is avoided here.
The folk/ popular theatre is here mentioned as Traditional/ Festival theatre. ‘Traditional theatre’ is the popular term used here for folk theatre, by theatre personalities and theatre historians.
The term ‘Devotional theatre’ is avoided because ritual, traditional and even some of modern and contemporary dramas contain devotional aspects in their forms and contents. A devotional theatre as such did not arise here or in Tamil Nadu, as that of ‘Ram Leela’ and ‘Rus Leela’, which became popular in North India as a result of the popularity of the ‘Sitha- Rama’ and ‘Radha- Krishna’ cults.
Since rituals, ritual related theatre activities and traditional/ folk theatre play an important part in identifying the uniqueness and the special identity of a people, here we would deal with those theatre in some detail.
Another important feature of Sri Lankan Tamil Theatre is its regional bias. This is not a unique feature of the Tamil Theatre. It is an aspect common to all the people living in different regions. A people bound by religion or language but living in different regions cultivate certain special features which confirm the identity of that particular people of the region.
When we go into the details of drama and theatre activities among the Tamils of Sri Lanka, we will concentrate our study on the following regions where the Tamil people is concentrated:
1. Batticoloa, which is in the Eastern part of Sri Lanka;
2. Mannar, Vanni and Jaffna, which come under the Northern region;
3. The hilly regions of the central part of Sri Lanka, which is called ‘The up country’.
A. RITUAL THEATRE
Drama was conceived in the womb of religious myth, and theatre in its ritual. Hence many a theatre historian accepts the fact that drama and theatre was born and bread in the ritual activities of the ‘faiths’ of the ancient man. Every theatre of the ancient people clearly shows its ritual origins. Hence there is theatre in ritual and ritual in theatre.
The different regions of the Sri Lanka n Tamils have rituals, which embody many elements of theatre. Most of these rituals are seasonal, and at present they are performed by socially underprivileged people. Modern money and education has alienated many form their original self and neighbourhood and has forced them to adopt new ways of life; and the new life leads them towards sophisticated thought and behaviour.
There fore much of the ancient rituals reflect the original or indigenous thought and action of the people, flickers only in the remote villages of the land.
Rituals with dramatic elements:
sandy beaches, paddy fields, meadows, small forests and tiny hills beautify the landscape of this coastal region. This region has its own cast structure and means of livelihood. Agriculture, fishing, cottage industries, cattle breeding and forest based activities are the main sources of income of the people. Naturally there is close link between the professions and the rituals and folk dramas of the people.
The various cults, rituals and Gods help to prove that the natives of Batticoloa are an ancient community with very primitive forms of worship.
Prof. S. Maunaguru in his extensive work, “Traditional plays of Batticoloa”, points out the following rituals with dramatic elements:
1) ‘Kumara Theiva’ Ritual: (Theiva= God)
This ritual is performed by ‘Veddas’ (ancient hunting tribe). They do hunting, cattle breeding and other odd jobs. Though they speak in Tamil; during the rituals they speak and sing in a peculiar dialect, which they call ‘Vedda basai’-Vedda language. The ritual is performed for seven days. ‘Kappuhan’, the priest performs the ritual. There will be two or three priests and one of them starts dancing vigorously in a state of trance. He is called the ‘Kattadi’. Many a God enter into the ‘Kattadis’ in a state of trance. Many a devil, which brings sickness and sorrow upon the people, enter into an ecstatic dance. The final day ritual is very dramatic, and it is full of dance and mime. Collecting honey from beehives is enacted with full vigour and splendour another enactment deals with elephant hunting. Dance, costume, mime, singing, dialogue and audience participation reveal vital dramatic elements in this ritual.
2) Rituals related to ‘Little Tradition Worship’
The following rituals with the splendour of mime, dancing and singing are related to the little tradition of worship; and they are rich with other dramatic elements too:
a. Narasinga Vairavar sacrificial dance.
b. Vathanamar dance.
c. Kaaththavarayan dance.
e. Ritual dances performed to appease the following:
Demi- Gods: Maari Amman, Kaali Amman, Gangathevi, Vairavar, Neelasothayan, Praththi, Sangilik Kali, and Muththuk Kilzavi.
In the above rituals ecstatic dance and singing are rampant. In a liminal state of trance the respective Gods ‘enter into the person, and that person reaches beyond his normal self and utters and performs certain elevated words and actions.
These annual rituals are closely tied up to the life of the village folk, and confirm the social solidarity of that simple folk.
Mimesis, the fundamental element of drama, is found in these rituals in the persons who enter into a state of trance and in whom the Gods ‘enter’; and in the priests we witness the early signs off a play director. Furthermore, musical instruments, chanting and songs from a variety of folk literary traditions mingle together and portray many a dramatic elements.
3. Good Gods chasing away evil devils:
These rituals are performed in order to cure certain diseases supposed to be caused by evil devils. These mainly occur in ‘Kali’ Temples. The priests, the person who personify ‘Kali’, enter into the Goddesses sprit in a trance and the diseased persons are the main participants in the ritual.
There is interesting dialogue, crisis, climax, mime, impersonation, music dance and spectacle. Hence it is a good ritual as well as an entertainment to the village folk.
4. Domestic Rituals
Gods and Goddesses like ‘Kali’, Mari’, ‘Paichchi’, and ‘Vairavar’ are the kept in houses and worshiped. These rituals are performed in houses when a member of the house gets seriously ill or the house hold encounters untold misery and sorrow.
The priests and the person who gets into the trance of Goddess ‘Kali’ are invited to the house and they perform the ritual in an elaborate manner. This is as spectacular as the other devil chasing rituals that place in village temples. Here too there is dramatic dialogues, singing and dancing, mime and music. This ritual takes place in the presence of the neighbours and relatives of the household.
5.Rituals at the Mandoor Kanthaswami Temple:
Mandoor Kanthaswami temple is a popular and ancient temple in Batticoloa. The following rituals are performed annually in this temple:
a. The rituals of tying the ‘Thali’
’Thali’ is a sacred ornament, which binds a bridal couple in the bonds of marriage.
Here in this occasion it is the re-enactment of the marriage of Skantha and Valli. This ritual is performed following the marriage conventions and traditions of Batticoloa.
Two persons impersonate as Murugan and Valli. Murugan ties the sacred ‘Thali’ round the neck of Valli after observing elaborate formalities. Some of the villages impersonate as the brides party and formalities. Some of the villagers impersonate as the brides party and bride brooms party. The rituals end up with a feast.
This ritual reflects many aspects found in the Ram-Leela and Rus- Leela rituals of North India.
b. Rituals of hunting festival:
Hunting festival is a common ritual found in many of the old Hindu temples in Sri Lanka. Here in Batticoloa this is performed in memory of the by gone days in which these people were hunters.
After the preliminary ceremony the ‘Veda Velala’ priest takes the bow and arrow and begin to dance. At the end of the dance, he aims at the heap of cooked rice and sends the arrow into it. It is a symbolic re-enactment of the hunters done in earlier days.
c. Ritual in which maidens fall unconscious:
Maids in attendance of Lord Muruga become unconscious during the festival. They either fall unconscious or mime unconsciousness. This is a re-enactment of the belief that the ‘Kura’ maidens were once encharmed by the beauty of Lord Muruga. This reflects the ‘Yula’ literary tradition in Tamil.
d. Cunningly leaving Murugan at the Valiamman Temple
Following the water- cutting ceremony the devotees carry Lord Murugan into the temple of Valli and placing the idol there, they run away. They do so lest Muruga return to Goddess Theivanai.
e. Ritual in which the devotees beat those who carry the God:
While the devotees belonging to the ‘Vellala’ cast carry the idol of Lord Muruga, women of the ‘Mukkuva’ cast beat them with the soft skin of plantain trees. This is supposed to be a symbolic re- enactment of a historical incident.
6.Dramatic ritual of the Mahabaratha story:
This takes place in the Draupathy Amman Temple annual ritual. In this ritual ‘fire-walking’ is an important event. Demi Gods and Pandavas enter into the person of those who enter into a state of trance. In this state of mind they dance and enact some of the episodes of Mahabaratha.
People participate in the procession from one temple to the other. This indicates one of the earlier forms of theatre performance in which the entire village or villages transform into a playing area, and the whole population join in the fun, frolic and worship.
7.Ritual devoid of trance with dramatic elements:
These rituals takes place mainly in the Aryanised temple worship.
1. ‘Sooran Por’
2. ‘Poothap Por’
3. ‘ Kajamukasuran Por’
4. ‘Kamsan Por’
Are the main rituals performed here.
The above rituals have the following as their main aspects:
1.Some rituals reveal the life structure of the ancient people; here the priest and the ecstatic dancer are one and the same person. This is a common feature found in every ancient culture-namely, one and the same person being the priest and the performer (actor).
2. Some other rituals deal with illness and chasing away evil spirits. Here the priest and the performer are two different people. The priest directs the person who is in a state of trance. In some such rituals certain myths too are performed.
3. In certain other rituals the villagers participate in the activities of the rituals or the enactment of the myth.
4. In the Aryanised form of worship one witnesses the ritual transforming into a full-fledged dramatic performance- E.g. The enactment of Mahabaratha episodes.
This region lies in the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka. This Tamil area comes under the influence of both Jaffna and Batticoloa, but they hold many unique features in their social, religious and cultural life.
1. Rituals to alleviate diseases of evil sprits:
When someone in the family falls seriously ill a ritual is arranged by the household. The village priest makes offerings to the lineal God or Goddess of the family. The priest selects one who could reach a state of trance. When the priest chant ‘manthras’ the above said person begins to dance in a state of trance. There will be a ‘dramatic’ conversation between the priest and the person in trance. Thus the cause and source of the illness or misfortune is found, and further rituals are performed to alleviate the misfortune.
2. Ritual offering of ‘Karaiyal’
This ritual is closely related to ‘ Mari Amman’ cult. Families, which worship ‘Mari Amman’ as their lineal Goddess, organise this ritual collectively. The ritual starts at 7 pm on a Thursday and end at 10 am the following day. At the long rituals to Mari and Kaththavarayan, one person would impersonate Kaththavarayan; and seven young girls (who have not attained puberty) are made up as the mythological ‘seven maidens’, and the devotees worship and offer food to them. This would remain one of ram-leela and Rus-leela of North India.
Besides this there are other rituals to the cults of Veeravahu Thevar, Vanniththevar, Nayanmar and Bhairava. All such rituals reveal many dramatic elements.
3. “Kombu Vilaiyattu” / “Kombu Murippu”
This is closely related to the ‘Kannaki’ cult. This is performed to calm Kannaki’s wrath, which burnt Mathurai, and pleads for mercy and brings rainfall to the dry land.
The village divides itself into two groups – Southern section (‘Then Seri’-Kannaki’s group) and the Northern section (‘Veda Seri- Kovaln’s group). The two groups prepare two strong curved sticks. During the festival, the stick of the Southerners is tied to a short rope and that rope is tied to a tree. Then the stick of the Northerners is tied to a long rope, and that stick is interlocked with that of the Southerners. Men belonging to both groups pull the rope. One of these sticks will break in the encounter. The winning party would dance with joy and tease the other party.
According to the Batticoloa tradition- which is also followed in some areas of Trincomalee- prior to the ‘Kombu Murippu’ a coconut fight game (‘por thengai’) takes place. One group holds husked coconuts in their hands and breaks the ones rolled towards them by the opposing group, and it takes place vice versa. (This is a common game found among the village folk of Sri Lanka.)
The ‘Kombu Murippu’ festival takes place for a few days. Five varieties of ‘kombus’ are prepared, and only one type of ‘kombu’ is used on a single day.
Besides this game, there is plenty of songs, music, dancing, mime, ballads, ‘Vasanthan Kooththu’, chanting of ‘manthras’, devil dances, fancy dress fantasy and groups teasing one another with competitive songs.
This ritual cum festival is full of faith, fun, folic and drama. It intergrades the village folk and builds up intimacy and a sense of purpose. With processions, rituals, games, songs and ballads; events with crisis, conflict and resolution; and the whole village transforming itself in to a mass performance space, this ritual festival bears the seeds of the early form of drama and theatre.
This ritualistic festival is very popular in the Batticoloa district.
4. “Kumba Vilza”
This ritual cum festival takes place during the Navaraththiri (nine nights) festival dedicated to the Goddesses of valour, wealth and learning.
During the festival temporary sheds are put up as temples in different parts of the villages. Here the rituals and ‘Pooja’ takes place for nine days. On the tenth and final day an important procession takes place after the ‘pooja’. In this procession costumed ‘players’ participate along with the priest and the people. These costumed players impersonate different Gods and Goddesses and perform dances on the procession. There mimetic actions and dance movements brings out the peculiar traits and characteristics of the God/ Goddess they impersonate, and hence they are very dramatic. They portray the characteristics in accompaniment to the different songs, which depict each God/ Goddess and are sung to the beat of the most popular folk instrument called ‘Udukku’
C) Northern Sri Lanka
Jaffna, Vanni and Mannar come under this region. From the point of view of modernity of Jaffna stands first and Vanni in the last position. Mannar has come under the influence of Hinduism, Christianity (Catholic) and Islam. Unlike in other areas Jaffna’s folk ritual and folk theatre is considered to be resembling and reflecting only those who have not come under the influence of modernity.
1. Holy festival of hunting (‘Vettai Thiruvilza’)
This ritual takes place in some of the old temples in the North. Among them the one performed at the Ganesha Temple in Mullaithevu bears the special traits of a dramatic ritual. (The idol of) Lord Ganesha goes to a particular place with his retinue of costumed devotees, for hunting. On the way the costumed devotees dance and sing to the beat of the drums.
Another group of devotees dressed up as wild animals occasionally confronts the Gods party, from all directions. They too dance to the beat of a variety of drums. The enactment of hunting too is done to a rhythmic dance. Those who carry the idol of Ganesha also dance to the beat.
This ritualistic festival clearly shows the positive signs of pure theatre.
2. ‘Annamar’ Temple dance:
Even now the ‘Annamar’ cult is prevalent in some in some villages in the North. This comes under the ‘little tradition’ or worship. Trance, dance, thought reading and hailing the Gods in a form of ballad drama are its special features. Exorcism is its basic aim. In some villages this has now become an annual festival and its exocistic function has lost its importance.
The priest in trance impersonates a particular God and goes into the temple and come out dressed like that God / Goddess. As such, the devotees come to know which God the priest has assumed-‘Annamar’, ‘Kali’, ‘Bhairava’ or ‘Veerabathra’. In the process of the ritual all the Gods come out of their respective abodes and dance in the foreground of the ‘Annamar Temple’.
Diagnosis and the remedy for the ailment is a dramatic activity in this ritual. The conversation takes place between the priest in trance and a relative of the diseased.
When all the ‘Gods’ join together and dance, songs in the tune of ‘Kaththavarayan Koothu’ melodies or ‘Mari Amman’ lullaby are sung.
At times a few among the devotees too gets into a state of trance and dance with others in trance or dances alone.
3. ‘Veerabathra dance’:
This too is an exorcist ritual. Thought reading and chasing away evil spirits is its purpose. The process of this ritual is almost akin to the ‘Annamar’ ritual, except that here, sometimes one or two devotees too would join the priest in the dance. Those who are under the influence of evil spirits would also dance in trance. They all dance to the beat of the drum called ‘Parai’.
There is also a long conversation between the priest and those who accompany him in the dance. This conversation is about the cause of the ailment and the ways of remedy. At times the ailing person too would, in a state of trance, argue with the priest. It will be interesting drama.
When every thing comes to a close, the priest in Godly trance would say that he is going to climb the hill, his abode. (The belief that good and bad spirits reside in the hills and trees is universal.) The devotees would beg of him to bless them. He would do so and fall flat on the ground. The assistants then sprinkle water on him and he returns to normal; and the ritual comes to an end.
Beyond its devotional aspects, this ritual is rich in its drama and theatre.
4. Magical drama: (‘Mahedi Koothu’)
Some consider this as ritual drama, sans religion and devotion. Some do not consider this as ritual drama because, though there is a competition between people belonging to two religions faiths, there is no direct religious inculcation or religious practice in it. They consider it as pure entertainment with fun and frolic, in which the people are spectators not participants.
Since this enactment is full of fun, comic mime, trickery, magic and migratory myth, yet has not attained the full stature of a theatrical drama, it may will be called a social ritual, answering to the call and cry of a changing society. The term ‘ Mahedi’ has many contextual meaning. Hiding things by magical trickery and finding out the hidden thing, is one meaning. In Malayalam it is known as ‘Modi’, meaning a magician hiding a thing and by trickery preventing another from taking it. Among the Batticoloa people it means fun, conflict, a musical instrument; and in Jaffna it means beating trickery by trickery, deceiving, and ones power of attracting others towards himself.
In fact, the ‘Mahedi Koothu’ is rich with events and acts which portray all the above meanings. Betting; accomplishing ones success in the bet with the help of magic and trick; hunters charming the snakes playing their musical instrument called ‘Mahudi’; fantasy brusque and obscenity are all found in this performance.
In Northern Sri Lanka this depicts a conflict between the Brahmins and Muslims, and Brahmins and Catholics. When and where the Brahmins perform they construct the story in such a way that they themselves win. When Muslims perform it they win. It is the same when the Catholics perform. Though this enactment is now extinct in the North, in yester years it was performed in a few parts of Jaffna and Mullaithevu. In Batticoloa too this is performed very rarely, if not at all. Recently the Fine Arts Department of the Eastern University, Batticoloa got it performed by its dwindling masters.
The one, which depicts the conflict between the Brahmins and Muslims, is enacted in three ways:
1. A performance with little story and much fun;
2. A ballad like enactment with more story and conflict;
3. This has a complete story, and it has the full form a ‘Koothu’. Further it has a variety of characters.
‘Mahedi’ is performed in a rectangular open space, they area of which would be 75 meters x 25 meters, with poles and long ropes which fence the playing area. The playing area should be set in an east-west direction. On the western end a shed is put up as a Hindu temple. Six sacred pots (‘Kumbas’) are placed around the flag post put up in front of the temple. The shed on the eastern end depicts the storehouse of the Muslims. A boat is placed beside this shed. Some gunny bags and other goods are placed inside the shed. On the rooftop a flag with the emblem of a crescent moon and star is hoisted, thus the scene is set up for the dramatic enactment.
For want of space, let us conclude by mentioning the important theatrical aspects found in the ‘Mahedi’ performance. There is stage setting which is artificially set up; there is also a variety of characters, costumes, a historical episode or myth, a conflict, crisis, dialogue, songs, dances, music and musical instruments, humour, fun and folic. Certain scenes abound with brusque and vulgar obscenity. Thus, like the ‘sockery’ (a ritualistic performance) of the Sinhala people, it bears the facets of a migratory myth and fertility cult. Social adjustment to suit changing situations is well focussed here in this enactment, and thus the social function of a performing art is well illustrated.
5. The Plough harnessing Festival : (‘A erpoottu vilza’)
Now this does not take place in any part of Sri Lanka. Such a festival is said to have taken place a few decades ago at Karainagar, a small island village in the Jaffna peninsula.
It is said to have been enacted in the vicinity of two temples, namely ‘Kannimar’ (Virgin Goddesses) temple and the other ‘Muthaliyar’ (the leader/ headman) temple. (Many an important personality being elevated to God ship is a common feature in the ‘little tradition’ and in pre-historic culture)
On the appointed day set for this festival, people gather at the temple and after the ‘pooja’ the priest gets into a trance and make dance like rhythmic movements. The singers start singing in praise of God. In a state of ecstasy the priest would say that he wants them to enact their history; and if they do so the earth would be bountiful and people happy. One of the singers would say that they have no knowledge of their history. Then the priest would point at few persons and say that he will let those few know their history and then can enact it. Thus saying he ‘climbs the hill’. This conversation reminds us of the story of the origin of drama narrated in the ‘Natyasastra’.
The actors mime the events as the chorus of singers narrates the history. The story has the elements of a migratory myth. In the process of performance they enact all the activities that take place in a paddy field. As such it reflects the fertility cult and the ‘Pallu Nadagam’ of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
After the enactment the priest hands over the paddy to the women and asks them to saw them in the field. Men and women go to the fields, plough the land and saw the seeds.
While the above activity takes place in the field, those in the temple continue their songs and mime. When the others return from the field the ceremony comes to a close with a final ‘pooja’.
6. ‘Seven Maidens’ festival: (‘Saptha Kanniyar Vilza’)
At the ‘Seven Maidens’ temple in the Mullaithevu district; ‘plough-harnessing’ festival was conducted long years ago.
Seven young girls are selected to impersonate the Seven Maidens. They are dressed like maidens and taken to the temple with song and music. After the ritual at the temple, songs pleading mother earth’s bounty are sung. The people dance to the tune of the songs and the beat of the drums.
The priest hands over the paddy seeds to the seven girls; and then the farmers go to the fields with the girls and do ploughing and sawing. The chorus of singers and musicians, and the people follow them from field to field singing.
This ritual too bears the elements of a fertility ritual. Further, the ‘Seven Maidens’ Myth’ is prevalent among the Singhala people too. They call it ‘Sath Pathini’ cult. This cult can be traced to the ‘Kannaki cult’ of the Tamil Literary work. ‘Silappathikaram’.
7. The Passions of Christ:
With the advent of Christianity new rituals and religious enactments become popular among the local people whom embrased the new faith.
The Passions of Christ became popular as mimetic rituals and theatrical drama. Hence it is very difficult to draw a clear line and identify one as ritual and the other as play.
These ritualistic enactments are found among the Catholics all over the island. In all the region men and women impersonate bibilical characters; and they are called ‘Arl pass’ in Tamil, meaning passion performed by persons. In addition to this type of performance the district of Mannar is very famous for yet another type called ‘Udakku pass’, meaning passion performed by puppets. Hence it is a puppet theatre. This theatre does not exist now because of the ethnic war. Earlier this was performed for nine days.
This puppet passion is performed inside a building constructed specially for this purpose. It has all the facilities to handle the puppets and to cover those who handle them. The stage is divided into three different levels; and it is complete with pits and trap doors.
The puppets are six to seven feet in height, and hence they are more than life size. They are made in such a way that their limbs such as hands, legs and head could move separately. About hundred and fifty puppets play in this performance.
The performance is organised by a group of people under the leadership of the parish priest. About 300 people participate in this work. The performance takes place during the Lent period.
Strict traditions and procedures are observed in its execution. Traditionally the puppet of St. Peter is made first; and the master craftsman is honoured and the rest of the work begins after this.
Nine persons are selected to read the passages describing the events; and the enactment takes place as the story is read in front of the audience. The readers too really act out what they read- they do the necessary gestures, movements and the required facial experiences.
Following the crucification, the body of the Christ is taken in a procession through the length and breath of the village with all solemnity and sorrow. They sing in a sad mood through out the procession. Finally the body is taken to the temple and the necessary rituals take place.
On the third day, resurrection of Christ is enacted. The statue of Christ is taken around the village.
This performance has all the elements of drama and theatre and the ingredients of a solemn ritual. The believers of this faith participate in this ritual cum theatre with full f faith and devotion.
It is very unfortunate that such a unique ritual could not be performed after 1983. The ethnic war has ‘crucified’ this ritual art. With the dawn of peace, rays of hope rise in the minds of everyone; and they pray for the ‘resurrection’ of this holy event.
D) The Up Country (Central hilly region)
The Tamils of this region migrated from South India (they were bought here by the Britishers as a labour force to work in their plantations.); and have since become permanent settlers of this area. They continue to maintain their special identity even among the Tamils of Sri Lanka, through their dialect, rituals, performance and social behaviour.
It is very difficult to identify their theatre sans ritual. The three main dramatic performances of this people, namely ‘Arjunan Thapasu’ (The penance of Arjuna), ‘Ponnar Sankar’ and ‘Kaman Koothu’, still maintain their close relationship with ritual. Many a ritual is observed in their production process. Yet they are their theatre and hence we need not consider them as pure rituals or dramatic rituals.
Even among these people, at times, the above said performances assume ritual or devotional characteristics in some places and theatrical characteristics in the other areas.
As a community with a long tradition these people have many domestic, social and religions rituals with dramatic elements. The remnants of tribal cult is very apparent here, they worship and perform rituals for
1) Their dead
2) Demi Gods belonging to the little tradition and
3) The main Gods of the later Hindu tradition.
Sacrificial rites play an important part in many of the rituals.
There are a host of Demi-Gods among these people. Their gods and Demi-Gods would easily come up to a total of fifty. Among with the traditional Demi-Gods, new ones too have sprung up. The reason for the advent of these new Gods is their new vocation- the new work they were forced to do in the new atmosphere, namely the plantations. This new phenomenon once again proves the historical fact that worship and Gods are related to the life and the livelihood of the people.
New group rituals related to plantation industries;
Science and technology brings about fast physical changes inhuman life. But human thoughts, beliefs, prejudices and philosophies do not change quickly. They always linger and lag behind. This, naturally slow mental change in the people of the plantation regions, is the cause for the rise of new Demi- Gods in their midst.
The new crop cultivation in the estates and the related plantation industries brought about new forms of work and factory employment. Those who hitherto observed rituals related to the paddy fields, plough, seeds and cattle, now brought in new rituals related to their new modes of employment. These too are annual, seasonal or occasional rituals. Some are performed exclusively by men and the others by women or both. In almost all the rituals animal sacrifice is a common feature.
1) The wheel God (Rotha Muni) cult.;
‘Rotha’ means wheel or roller. The men who work in the tea factories perform this ritual in order to safeguard themselves from the accidents that could occur when they work with machinery. Hence the wheel/ roller, which is made the symbol of machinery has become a Demi- God an instance of fear transcending into faith. Only men are involved in this ritual; and sacrifice of animals takes place. This sacrificial act embodies an important element of drama, namely impersonation and the basic concept of high tragedy- i.e., bearing upon himself all the pangs and pains, for the well being of the collective self.
2) The plant nursery God cult (‘Thavaranai Muni’)
This is performed for two reasons-
1) The growth of the plants
2) To safeguard themselves from all dangers that could occur during work. Men perform this and there is sacrifice.
3) Crop God cult: (‘Kauvathu Muni’):
The tea plants are occasionally cropped so that new buds and leaves should shoot up in plenty. The ritual is performed before the commencement of this work. This too is performed by men, and sacrifice takes place.
4) Cable God cult: (‘Kambi Muni’)
In the early days of the commencement of the plantations, when the necessary roads were not built within the estates, the plucked tealeaves were transported to the factory mainly by cable lines. Men perform this to prevent any possible accidents; and there was sacrifice here too.
5) Tender shoot God or level God ritual; (‘Kolunthu Sami’ or ‘Mattathu Sami’)
The cropped tea plants put out plenty of tender shoots. These shoots must be cut to a level. This makes tea plucking easy. This light cropping is done by women. The women commence their work with a ritual. The women perform the ritual, but men too participate in the feast. This is an annual ritual, and there is no animal sacrifice here.
We many observe the fact that the Sri Lankan Tamil people have a ritualistic tradition, and this tradition contained the seminal elements of drama and theatre, -improvisation and impersonation, speech and spectacle, peagant and procession, trance and ecstasy, chant and music, song and dance, trickery and magic, mime and mimesis, faith and fiction, farce and comedy, burlesque and bawdy, passion and purity, myth and make-believe, play and ballad, fantasy and truth, solidarity and social collectivity. At the same time these genetic elements helped to maintain the originality and regionality of this nations folk / traditional drama.
B. THE TRADITIONAL THEATRE
The traditional theatre of the Sri Lankan Tamils is more akin to the traditional theatres of the East. Many of them have close links to the rituals of the respective countries. The Sri Lankan Tamil theatre is no exception to this.
Some of theatres here are performances than theatre, some are more ritual than theatre; and yet many others have long ago become pure theatre and entertainment. Yet for lack of space we would discuss them all under the same title- the traditional theatre.
1.Traditional theatre in the Eastern region
1) Non- ritualistic performance tradition:
The following performances are not temple based. They are non-ritualistic, devoid of people’s participation and are fully entertainment based.
a) ‘Parai’ drum play/ dance: (‘Parai mela koothu’)
‘Parai’ is a variety of drum. People belonging to the ‘Paraya’ community perform this. The younger generation consider this performance as a symbol of their servitude.
The ‘Parai’ drum is the main instrument here. The big ‘Parai’ is called the ‘King drum’. The big drum and the small drum remind us of the ‘Sangam’ period of Tamil literature.
This is the performance of drumbeats and dance. Hence this is not drama but dance.
The beats of the drums of this performance can be found in the other traditional ‘Koothus’.
There is a drum beat for each cast; but today there are beats only for the high cast ‘Mukkuvar’ and ‘Vellalar’.
One new-year day and other special occasions the performers assemble in the court-yard of an important personality of the village and perform this ‘Koothu’.
There they sing in praise of different Gods and dance to the rhythm of the drums.
Though there is no costume as such for this performance, they wear a turban, a long white cloth around the waist and anklets/ ankle bells. Dance is the main concept of this art.
b) Magical drama (‘Mahudi Koothu’)
Since some aspects of this drama are said in the section ‘ Ritual theatre’, here we shall only deal with its special features unique to Batticoloa.
In the North is called ‘Mahedi’ and here in the East it is known as ‘Mahudi’. There are more similarities and considerable variations in the manner and content of this performance in the North and in the East.
In Batticoloa this is still performed in some places. This is performed on the day following the New Year. Here too three types of ‘Mahudies’ are performed.
1) The migrant Malayalees win the people of Batticoloa in the competition.
2) Besides the normal magic and tricks, a hunter and his wife, a white man (westerner) and his wife go to witness the performance.
3) Along with magic and tricks, there is a fixed story line with mythological characters, Demi-Gods, the hunter and huntress, and Brahmins. This type has a dramatic script.
‘Mahudi’ is normally performed during the daytime. While performance is an improvised one. The performance area for each type of ‘Mahudi’ is arranged in a different manner.
The third type of ‘Mahudi’ has risen to the stature of a ‘Koothu’ performance in its manner and form. Thus the three types clearly show the process of development of this particular variety of theatre.
c) ‘Vasanthan Koothu’
‘Spring dance’ is a very poor reference to ‘Vasanthan Koothu’. The learned differ in their interpretation. Some feel ‘Vasanthan’ is spring; and some others say it refers happiness and joy. Since this is performed during the April New year season, it is a season of beauty bounty, and joy for the people of Batticoloa. Here most of the performances take place during this season. Hence we may say that ‘Vasnathan’ means a joyful mood.
Dance and song are its mode of expression. It has no story. Dancing to the rhythm of songs is ‘Vasnathan’; and the rhythm is maintained by hitting two sticks one against the other. The songs are sung in a variety of tunes (numbering thirty two) and this variety is its great asset. The tune of each song is identified by the ‘tharu’ or ‘sotkattu’, which means a structure of words- these are meaningless words composed to bring out the tunes.
Eight to twelve persons dance hitting the sticks to the beat of the songs. Only six people dance in the ‘Vasanthan’, which sings the praise of Rama and Krishna.
‘Vasanthan’ deals with the variety of subjects- glorifying God, praising individuals, comic and fun, and songs related to work. These songs originated just about two hundred years age; and many a song is modern.
The performative structure of ‘Vasanthan’ is similar to that of the ‘Vada modi’ and ‘Ten modi’ ‘koothus’ of Batticoloa. The ‘Annaviyar’ (The master artist / teacher) inaugurates the enactment with his singing and dancing. Then the ‘Kattiyakaran’ comes and announces the arrival of ‘Vasantha Rajan’ (The King of ‘Vasantha’). Following this the ‘Vasantha Rajan’ enters and finally his children. The ‘Vasanthan’ dance proper commences only after the above routine.
Mostly children under the age of fifteen perform ‘Vasanthan’. This is supposed to be a training ground for them before they start performing in full-fledged traditional plays.
2) Full-grown traditional theatre- ‘Vada modi’ and ‘Ten modi’
Time, timelines and tireless dedication of the artists and audience has raised many a folk theatre to the zenith of classicism- ‘Kathakali’ of Kerala and ‘Noh’ of Japan are just two fitting examples. A few Sri Lankan folk / traditional theatres are fully qualified to enter into the realm of classicism, and yet remain richly folk.
It is true that the folk tradition should remain within the boundaries of folk culture. In Art, ‘what is right is beautiful’. Folk remaining folk and the classical remaining classical are their beauty. But the story of classicism slowly emerging from the folk is the story, which the history of art all over the world relates.
At the same time, certain folk traditions assume the stature of classicism and yet remain folk in their spirit and content- here again ‘Kathakali’ and ‘Noh’ remain the best examples.
Two such modes of best traditional theatres could be found in the folk tradition of Batticoloa- one is the ‘Vada modi koothu’ and the other ‘Then modi koothu’. Though a third form called ‘Vilasam’ is said to have existed today it is not found to be performed.
‘Vada modi’ and ‘then modi’ deserve separate discussion, but space forces us to bring them both under a single perspective. These two are the main genres of the Batticoloa traditional theatre. They are full-fledged drama. They have almost come out of the cult based rituals and have become pure entertainment forms. They can be considered pure Tamil drama, if we do not grudge their content which is derived from the Aryanised epics ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabaratha’. Yet for the last so many years they have ventured into many other subject matter beyond the great epics of India.
The subject matter of these ‘Koothus’ is derived from the following – Epic stories, puranic stories, stories from the Tamil literary tradition (prose and poetry), historical episodes, Christian stories, fictional stories.
The medium of these two forms is dance and son. The mode of dancing and singing differentiate them. Further, the ‘Vada modi’ plays relate the story of the epics and ‘Then modi’ largely deals with the fictional stories of South India- but there are exceptions to this rule in both the forms.
There is yet another concept which considers ‘Vada modi’ an alien form and the ‘Then modi’ indigenous. Since both the forms were strong and powerful, they survived independently; at the same time there was a mutual give and take. Comparatively ‘Vada modi’ received much more from ‘Then modi’ than what it gave to the latter. Since both were rich in their traditions they maintained their individuality.
In the traditional theatres conventions regulate the process of play making and performance. Every play begins and ends in a set manner. The plot and structure too is controlled by conventions.
Every performance starts with and ‘kāppu viruththam’-hymn chanted invoking the blessings and guidance of Almighty. After this the ‘Kattiya Kāran’ enters- He way be compared to the ‘Sūthrathār’ of the classical Sanskrit play. He is the conductor of the play in performance and the link between the players and the audience.
“Thesa visaranai” is another important convention. i.e. soon after the king enters the playing area he makes inquiries about the state of the country- regular rain, no fear from thieves, safety of women are the touchstones of good governance. Following this “Theatre maidens” of the court perform a piece of dance to entertain the king and his court. This dance has no place in the ‘Then modi’ plays.
Every play ends in a happy or serene note. Tragedy has no place in the concept of the East; tragedy is Western in its content and form.
Another important element of the ‘Koothu’ is the performers called the ‘Sabaiyor’. They may be considered as the ‘Chorns’ of the back-singers and musicians. They stand in the middle of the round performance stage. In the normal sense ‘Sabaiyor’ means the audience. Here it denotes the persons who conduct the play in performance. They remind us of the chorus in the classical Greek tragedies and comedies. Like the Greek chorus the ‘Sabaiyor’ has many a function.
1. Introduce the characters
2. Explain the story links
3. Emphasise the moral in the play
4. Converse with characters
5. Explain the theme
6. Help the audience to understand the characters clearly
7. Start the play
8. Conclude the play
9. Sing the final player song
10. Sing in chorus-repeating the lines sung by the characters
11. Perform the functions of a prompter
12. Sing in proxy for the actors
13. Sing interludes
Dance and song are the main elements; and these genres communicate with the audience perfectly. Every rhythm and pattern, every movement and gesture, every tone and tune of melody communicates clearly with the audience. Hence dance and music/ song helps to maintain the rhythm, speed, tempo, mood and the meaning of the context. ‘Thenn modi’ dances are more intricate than that of the ‘Vada modi’ dances.
‘Vada modi’ and ‘Thenn modi’ abound with rich dance forms and patterns. The rhythmic vibrance of every dance structure is contained in a sound oriented phonetic structure called “Thalakkattu”. “Thalakkattu” embodies in meaningless ‘words’/ sound notes the rhythmic structure of a particular dance rendering. The various “Thalakkattus” enhance the rhythm, mood, motion and emotions of the different dance renderings.
The multiple dances and ‘Thalakkattus’ convey the physical, psychological and social characteristics of the dramatic personae- whether male or female. There are separate “Thalakkattus” for birds and animas and for particular happenings too- e.g., hunting, waging war, going in a chariot, riding a horse etc.
There are separate “Thalakkattus” for ‘Vada modi’ and ‘Thenn modi’. Similarly there are variety of dances and dance patterns. The dance patterns are formulated in such a way as to entertain the audience who gather round the circular performing space called ‘Vattakkalari’. Here the curved line dominate the straight line. Zigzag movements, single round, double rounds composing an eight, squares, stars, multiple rounds and the patterns that would arise out of the permutation and combination of all the movements, join together to entertain the audience versatile in their folk tradition.
Like wise the songs are composed in a variety of tunes and metres. They are constructed in such a way as to depict the character; and to emphasise the mod, atmosphere and tempo of the content.
There is only little difference in the costumers of these two forms. Since the ‘Thenn modi’ is full of intricate dances, the headgear, costumes and hand properties of this genre is lighter in weight than that of the ‘Vada modi’. In certain respects these costumes resemble those of the ‘Kathakali’ of Kerala and ‘Therukkothu’ of Tamil Nadu.
Just like the traditional Chinese and Japanese plays, and the ‘Desi’ traditions of India, colour plays an important part in revealing the characteristics of a character. White, blue, red, black, mixture of black and white portray the unique characteristics of each character; and from the major colour in the make-up of a character the audience could easily identify it. Stereotyped characteristic is a common feature of the traditional plays all over the world. This aspect helps the audience to identify the characters, and get identified with them.
As far as these two major forms of theatre are concerned it takes almost five to eight months for a play to become a performance. Generally the process of production falls into the following order.
1) The village assembles and the ‘Annaviyar’ (the teacher/ the guru/ the director cum the performer) selects the play to be performed.
2) Informing the village/ villages about the performance of the play.
3) Character selection.
4) Daily practice.
5) Ceremonial wearing of the ancle bells.
6) Weekly practice.
7) Preview- without costumes.
8) First performance.
9) House to house performance of an episode or two.
10) Second performance.
1) ‘Vasanthan Koothu’
This is performed in the month of May-the season of harvesting and festivals-in a round stage. There are many similarities between the ‘Vasanthan koothus’ performed in Batticoloa and Trincomalee. Here this is now performed in the picture frame stage as well; and on many a festival occation other than the ‘Kannaki’ worship.
There are eighteen different ‘Vasanthans’. As usual the ‘Vasanthan Koothu’ performance starts with the enactment of ‘Pillaiyar Vasantha’ (Pillaiyar-Lord Ganesha).
‘Vasanthan Koothu’ narrates many types of stories. Certain tunes of this ‘Koothu’ can be found in the ‘Thenn modi Koothu’ of Batticoloa.
2) Dragon dance: (‘Vethala Attam’):
Today this is a dead are here. This has never been performed anywhere else in Sri Lanka. ‘Thennamaravadi’ the particular region where this was performed in years, lives sans its native folk. The disfigurement and displacement caused by the civil war has erased the enactment of this theatre; and now it only resides in the minds of its remote people.
The players use very large masks; and they make themselves tall and large. Thus they become gigantic personalities. Both men and women get into tall corn-shaped skirts and dance to the beat of the ‘parai drum’. This takes place during ‘Kantha sasti’ festival- the six days dedicated to the worship of Lord Skantha.
3) Other popular traditional theatres:
Since Trincomalle is situated in between Batticoloa and the North it has acquired a uniqueness in its arts and culture. In the field of performing art, certain parts of this region perform the ‘Thenn modi’ and ‘Vada modi’ found in Batticoloa; and certain other areas perform the ‘Kovalan Koothu’ and ‘Kaththavarayan Koothu’ of the North.
C) Northern Sri Lanka:
There are many varieties of traditional theatres in the Northern part, and of them a few still exist. There are certain identical features and important differences among the various forms played within and without the Northern region. Theatre scholars list the following as the traditional theatre forms of the Northern region.
1) ‘Vada modi koothu’
2) ‘Then modi koothu’
3) ‘Thenn pangu’ or ‘Thenn mettu’
4) ‘Vada pangu’ or ‘Vada mettu’
5) ‘Vasakappa’ or ‘Vasappu’
6) ‘Kaththavarayan koothu’
7) ‘Kovalan koothu’
8) ‘Nondi nadagam’
9) ‘Pallu nadagam’
Today ‘Nondi nadagam’ and ‘Pallu nadagam’ are not performed in Sri Lanka. They remain in the memories of the past. Yet another performance genre known as the ‘Thinnai koothu’ too is now non-existent. It was performed in the houses of the rich upper class. ‘Thinnai’ is a piece of raised floor, which resemble a platform.
1) ‘Vada modi’ and ‘Thenn modi koothu’- Northern and Southern style play
Scholars maintain that the ‘Vada modi’ and ‘Thenn modi’ styles reached Batticoloa from Jaffna. Hence there are many similarities. It is believed that they developed into the present form in the 18th century. They are performed with both the Hindu and Christian content; and the form too varies. Certain plays are played in the ‘Vada modi’, ‘Thenn modi’ and ballad form. Both ‘Vada modi’ and ‘Thenn modi’ portray episodes, which express the emotions of valour, wrath, sorrow, humour, surprise and love. They are performed in a round raised plat-form. The musicians and chorus of singers stand in the middle.
But the two ways styles differ in their mode of presentation; and in their dance, music, costume and make-up. ‘Thenn modi’ is full of intricate dances set to slow rhythm. ‘Vada modi’ is less intricate and its rhythm is fast. The basic beat of ‘Thenn modi’ is “Theyaththahasanthaththumi” and “Thiththiththa” is fundamental beat of ‘Vada modi’. The costumes and hand properties are light in weight in ‘Thenn modi’ and comparatively heavy in ‘Vada modi’.
2) ‘Thenn pangu koothu’:
These are supposed to be the indigenous form of manner region. As in all the other ‘Koothu’ forms here too we find definite melodies in particular metres. It is this speciality that differentiates one form the other.
In this genre every character signs the entrance and exit song at each and every entrance and exit. At times a number of persons would play the role of a particular character; and in such occasions each actor would sing his entrance and exit song. Here we do not find any dance “Tharu” (a cluster of rhythm words) for every character. The sound tone of the song is consonantal; and is mainly based on the ‘Karnatic’ music style.
3) Vada pangu koothu’
This is also called ‘Yarlpana pangu’ (Jaffna mode). This name suggests that this form might have ‘migrated’ to Mannar from Jaffna. There are many similarities between the ‘Thenn modi koothus’ performed in the coastal areas of Jaffna and the ‘Vada pangu of Mannar.
The ‘Thodayam’ metre is unique to ‘Vada pangu’. ‘Thodayam’ relates the prayer, the subject matter of the performance, and substance of the story. ‘Thodayam’ reminds us of the “Thodaya mangalam” in ‘Barath Natya’. The melodies are composed with light sounds (vowel tones) we can see both Hindustan and Karnatic music in ‘Vada pangu’.
Here a character sings the entrance and exit song, only on its first entrance and final exit.
4) “Vāsāppu” (Vasahappa):
The district of Mannar has a speciality. A single ‘koothu’ is performed during more that one night, they are played for a maximum of four nights. Such plays when abridged for a one-night performance is called ‘Vasappu’ or ‘Vasahappa’. ‘Vasaha’ means prose/ sentence, and ‘pa’ means poetry/ song. Hence we find prose and poetry in this form. Yet songs take a pride of place, and they are composed either in the ‘Thenn pangu’ or ‘Vada pangu’ tunes.
Besides this there is yet another mode which is called ‘Vasana vasahappa’. This is a very abridged form that could be played within four of five hours. Here prose dialogues dominate poetry; and characters too are few. This may be called a narrative theatre.
The some story is composed in the ‘drama’ (koothu’) and ‘Vasahappa’ forms. The same person too writes both the modes.
The people of this area consider their plays as a ‘holy’ language- it is a language of communication with God, a sacred mode of expression. This is true with every folk tradition around the world.
5) ‘Kathaivalzi Koothu’
a) ‘Kaththavarayan Koothu’
This is a genre played in the Northern region. It is very popular among the village folk. This style comes under the mode called ‘Kathaivalzi koothu’. In the past when people had to walk along distances, especially on pilgrimage, they sang these ballad songs to keep them fresh and to maintain the tempo and rhythm of their brisk walk.
It is said that a few ‘Koothus’ were played in this style. Scholars say that ‘Kaththavarayan’ and ‘Kovalan koothus’ fall under this style. Today the former is popular in Jaffna; and both the forms are popular in Mullaithevu district.
Today ‘Kaththavarayan koothu’ is also called ‘Sinthu nadai koothu’. In this play form we do not find intricate dances. There is only a beautiful leaping/ bouncing walk set to a simple rhythm.
Though this is a full-fledged theatre with all the ingredients of a dramatic performance, even today this has not lost its devotional colour. Still many perform this to fulfil their vow.
b) ‘Kovalan koothu’:
The script for this ‘koothu’ is said to be written around 1760. This is performed in the round stage. Today this ‘koothu’ is performed only in Mullaithevu. It is rich in its music and dance, the mode of performance and structure of this play is unique in Mullaithevu. Its dance too differs from other styles. The goldsmith character is very popular because of its rich dance and acting.
This ‘koothu’ is also performed as an execution of a vow. Now it is a traditional theatre complete with all the nuances of the art. Almost all the folk song modes found in this region are included in this ‘koothu’. As in certain other ’koothu’ traditions here too the audience offer gifts to the actors while the performance is in progress; and the gift is announced to the audience.
6) ‘Isai Nadagam’:
‘Isai’ means music; but we cannot call it ‘Musical play’, because the Western concept of a musical play differs from this. Music plays the major role in this style. Music is the medium of communication. There is no dance movements in this play form.
This genre is the out come of the Indian aculturisation of the ‘Parsi’ theatre, and the South Indianisation of it through Karnatic music. This form was introduced into Sri Lanka by its Tamil Nadu artist and masters.
This theatre is only a little over hundred years old. From its age and some of its theatrical elements such as stage and sets it may not come under the caption ‘Traditional Theatre’. Yet it is included in this section because of its music, songs, subject matter, costumes and mode of acting.
Even today this form is popular among the village folk and even in the urban areas.
D) The up country: (central hilly regions)
The Tamils of Indian origin who reside in this region brought with them the culture and arts of Tamil Nadu. Among them, they performed the following ‘koothus’:
1) ‘Arjunan thapasu’
2) ‘Ponnar Sangar’ and
3) ‘Kaman koothu’
1) ‘Arjunan thapasu’:
This relates the heroic and other deeds of Arjuna, the most popular hero among the pandavas of Mahabaratha. This is more of a ritual than a ‘Koothu’. The Mahabaratha story is related up to Arjuna’s penance. From this point the episodes related to Arjuna is performed along with the ‘pooja’.
The preliminary arrangements start with many rituals. Those who relate the story and perform the ‘Koothu’ observe religious practices such as fasting. The ‘Koothu’ takes place on the fifteenth day in the temple milieu.
Arjuna’s penance is the important aspect in this ‘koothu’. He performs this penance on the top of a tall post erected for this purpose.
Ritual oriented enactment with impersonation and singing is the main mode of this ‘koothu’.
2) ‘Ponnar Sangar’:
This unique ‘koothu’ has poetic beauty and an epic dimention. It is performed in the vicinity of the temple or in an open space. Those who impersonate characters take up their roles, after certain religious observations. This ‘koothu’ is enacted in sixteen acts; and it is enriched with tragical and satirical elements. Prose and poetry mingle in this form. The entire population of the area participate in this religio-social event.
3) ‘Kaman koothu’:
This is an important performance. It starts with fixing the ‘Kaman’ pole. The person who is well versed in all the aspects of this form is called the ‘Kamandi master’. The performers and those who wish to fulfil their vows observe fasting. A rich and elaborate ritual and ceremony is observed while fixing the ‘Kaman pole’. The ‘Koothu’ starts first in front of the ‘Kaman pole’; then it is performed in front of houses and shopping centres. Kaman, Rathi and Shiva are the important character of this ‘Koothu’.
There are two types of songs in this ‘koothu’- one is lamentation and the other ‘Lavani’ – a form of poetry. Mathan and Rathi should get in to a state of trance. When they fail to fall into trance the ‘Master’ would sing. Lamentations in a high pitch to a fast beat, till they get trance. Song and dance are its main elements. Art and devotion play equal part in it. Love, courage and pathos are its main emotions.
We could say that Sri Lankan traditional Tamil theatre has dance, song, epic content and religious flavour as its common feature. In that respect it shares the experiences of all the other traditional/ folk theatres of the East, if not the whole world.
C. MODERN THEATRE
This study looks at the modern theatre with a general perspective and avoids looking at it in a regional basis. The trend and development of modern theatre activities were common to all regions. Perhaps at times one region lead the thought and it spread to other regions.
In the West, it is said, modern period in drama emerges around 1875, when Ibsen started to write realistic plays. Certain others feel that it started with the advent of the well-made-play. Whatever it may be, the need for realism arose out of the bad effects of the industrial revolution. The negative aspects of the industrial revolution forced arts and literature to come out of their remote romantic ‘bliss’ and face the naked facts of the society positively.
Modern period in Sri Lanka started with the British rule- this is true with India and all the other colonies that come under Western rule. In Sri Lanka the plantation industries, English education, and the new administrative set up of the British brought about drastic changers in the social, economic and even political life of the people.
The English educated elite glanced at the arts and literature of England and the West. In the field of drama, at first they produced plays in English in their colleges and other educational institutions. This was followed by translations, adaptations and finally original plays in the Western mode. Shakespeare leads the queue and then followed Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, Singe and host of others.
Translations of Shakespeare in Tamil reached Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu; then translations by our people followed. Then they started writing our own plays.
Modernity in Sri Lanka Tamil drama could be divided into two parts/ sections:
1) Producing plays translated or originally written in Tamil by dramatists of Tamil Nadu.
2) Producing plays written by our own dramatists.
A third variety of dramatic productions were also popular among the village youths. They mounted on stage the films they enjoyed on the screen; it was really a travesty of the original medium.
Certain scholars feel that we should not ape the west at least in our arts and literature. But even those who advocate original and naturalistic thought unconsciously thread in the meadow of the west. But, as in many an excolonil nationality, here too there are certain dramatists and theatre artists who feel and work that the idiom of our drama and theatre should be rooted in the cultural and philosophical thought traditions of the society. Yet they are not apathetic to alien thoughts and forms. They feel that any foreign thought or form that could enrich our society should be presented to our audience in an aculturised form. At the same time true translations of plays of Western and other cultures continue to educate and enrich our society. Nationalism and internationalism walk abreast identifying and demarking their respective boundaries.
In Sri Lankan thought nationalism took a new dimension in the early fifties; and its repercussions has turned down much of the nations man and matter in to ashes. Nationalism by itself is positive, but when it transcends its limits and manifests itself into parochialism in a multi-ethnic Nation- the out come is disastrous. But every negative act will have at least a remote positive aspect. Nationalism forced the two nations in Sri Lanka, the Singhalese and the Tamils, to rediscover their roots.
Among the Sri Lankan Tamils the rediscovery of the traditional theatre led to many positive steps. The search for a national theatre of the Sri Lankan Tamils led to the harvest of many good theatre styles. At the same time the folk / traditional theatre, which was looked down as uncultured and unsophisticated by the English educated elite, gained recognition among the educated and the urban population. The masters of that art regained confidence and continued their theatre work with much enthusiasm. This work continues up to this day.
The knowledge of modern Western drama and theatre, and the interest and study of the native folk theatre led to the birth of new styles of modern theatre productions; and they were all eclectic in their form and structure. The idiom of the native folk theatre which was employed by many a modern theatre personality, helped the audience to easily understand the plays.
Brechtian alienation was not a new idea for the patrons of the traditional theatre of the East. Narration, alienation, episodic structure, song and dance found in the Brechtian theatre-indeed he borrowed these elements from the traditional Chinese and Japanese theatre- are found in the folk theatres of all the Eastern countries; and the folk theatre of the Sri Lankan Tamils is no exception to this.
The ethnic war and the fervour on the part of the Tamils to maintain their identity and Nationhood encouraged almost al the theatre workers to rediscover the idiom of their traditional theatres in their own productions. Hence, myths, folk songs, religious songs, singing and dancing, chorus of singers, actor dancers and singers, epics, nayrators, episodic structures and audience participation and a host of other native elements brought about a Sri Lankan Tamil theatre which is unique in its style, content and form; but, yet, shared many an aspect of the world theatre.
This theatre did not confine itself to the proscenium stage alone. It went to meet the people in their streets, junctions, markets, fields and palmyra and coconut grooves. The language of this theatre brought the audience closer to the performers.
In conclusion of this sub-style we may say that the modern theatre of the Sri Lankan Tamils brought forth,
1) Realistic plays in the Western mode, with prose dialogues in place of singing dialogues to which the Easterner was accustomed- but here too it was not a duplication of the Western realistic mode;
2) Cinematic theatre aping the screen;
3) Historical plays with high-flown language structure and romantic acting;
4) Dance dramas based on the ‘Barathanatyam’ dance style;
5) Non-realistic theatre based on the Brechtian style and the inculcation of the traditional theatre elements;
6) Modernised productions of the traditional plays-i.e. Limiting the whole night programme to a time span of two hours; and the theatre which was played in the round, to a picture frame stage;
7) Street theatre with a little mixture of the forum structure;
8) Children’s theatre which catered to the needs of the very young; and
9) School theatre, which met the needs of education as well as the social needs of the pupil.
The above work was carried out by the dramatic clubs and societies, community centres, schools, colleges and universities.
D. CONTEMPORARY THEATRE
The last phase of the modern theatre among the Tamils of Sri Lanka started with the commencement of the ‘civil war’ in this part of the land-the war was waged up to very recent times in the traditional homeland of the Tamils, i.e. the North and East of Sri Lanka. Today peace prevails here in a climate of uncertainty; and the dark clouds of war hanging heavily on the sky and threatens the atmosphere.
Hence, the contemporary theatre has not cast aside much of its vigour and sense of direction it got in the eighties with the emergence of the war for and against the rights of the minorities.
The theatre of minorities, i.e. the Tamils, war always for the rights of the minorities, whether through war or sans war.
N. G.O. culture prevails in the third world. As funding agencies, these organisations play a vital role in the reconstruction, reorganisation and re-formation of the battle-shattered land. These agencies know the strength of theatre as a medium of communication. They demand project reports from interested theatre workers and fund the production of plays on peace, amity, self-realisation and a host of other themes which they believe would hep the people. Indeed this has encouraged many to do theatre work, because they got money for their production and their survival.
The N. G. O. funded theatre programmes has given a base for the ‘theatre workers’ to step down from the proscenium stage and venture into new space and meet their target audiences in their own locale, such as refugee camps and remote places in far off hamlets. These spaces are new to many a modern theatre worker, because they were from the middle class and they were catering to the needs of the middle and the upper middle class audiences, in a more Westernised realistic and Non-realistic theatre styles. Of course the hamlets of the rural population were the breading and feeding ground of the folk theatre.
Hence, to many a contemporary theatre worker from the middle class the villages and the village folk were a new and exciting experience- especially those who were attracted by Grotosque, Richard Sechner, Augoto Boal and other like minded innovators and thinkers; and they wanted to put into practice with feavourish fervour that they have learnt from their new found ‘Gurus’. They consider their new masters as Saviours of the poor and the down trodden and the rights-rejected masses.
Some such theatre workers-mark the phrase ‘theatre worker’; this phrase itself clearly focuses the purpose of these theatre personalities-i.e. They aim at educating the masses and help them to come out of the clutches of deprivation-resort to rituals. In the first instance they totally reject the Aristotelian bias of the theatre. They reject acting as mimesis or imitation of an action. They consider acting as real and not a false act.
They do not believe in the Brechtian ‘alienation’ either. There are no two groups as performers and audience. Though the two are there, they are all participants. The ‘performers’ bring out their real feelings and it is not the emotional feelings brought out by tragic heroes of the Greek tragedy i.e. it is not the imitated emotional feelings of the protagonist.
To rouse the feelings of the participants to reach the climax of emotional ecstasy and finally end up in ejaculated calm, the believers of this theory, resort to rituals. The ritual was the first theatre of man; and this ritual helped the ancient man to realise his true self through emotional participation. He discovered himself and found a way out of his problems and missaries. Hence, the theatre of the present believers of this theory, borrows many an element from religious rituals. The cathartic expression and experience in itself has a therapeutic content. Hence these theatre workers resort to drama therapy and venture to acquire some knowledge about therapy. Since these activities are yet in their early innovative stage, the outcome and results of these projects are yet to be assessed.
There is lot of debate going on regarding the props and cons of the above theatre activities. Every new adventure has to face criticism and rejection; but let us hope that the heresies of today might be the authodoxies of tomorrow.
Further, this theatre is totally rejected by certain connoisseurs. They do not consider this as theatre, they say only certain elements of theatre are employed by these people to communicate their social and political thoughts to the people; since this is no theatre we cannot except any sort of aesthetics in the work. But the above said theatre workers completely reject the view of these critics. They say, “aesthetics is structured by the society and time”; hence it differs from time to time and society to society. There cannot be a particular aesthetics for all times and all mankind. Artistic perfection and aesthetics must be thought of in the basis of, to whom and in which place. A thing, which is enjoyed by a particular clan of people would be completely rejected by another.
This controversy over artistic perfection and aesthetics would continue forever; because new modes and methods would find a place along with time and trend. But we all should be clear in one aspect: no particular style would appeal to all the people. Styles and modes of expression depend on the experience of the audience; and taste comes through experience. Non-can reject the adage, “taste differs.” Yet, they all must be tasty.
There is yet another controversy over’ words’ in theatre, that is, the place if language in theatrical productions. This issue is there since the later half of the ‘modern period’ in theatre. Some argue that language is the most sophisticated mode of expression of the cultured man; and hence dialogue is the most important element of theatre; action should complement dialogues/ words, and not dialog ness/ words the action.
But there is another school of thought, which propagates physical action. They feel that ‘body language’ is the language of the theatre; the spectator comes to the theatre to see the play and not listen to the play.
There is a third group which stands in the middle between the above diametrically opposed groups. They believe that both verbal language and body language play important parts in dramatic expression. The theatre artist has the freedom to use both; words would serve better in certain contexts and physical action other.
The above three schools of thought have brought forth three types of dramatic performances:
1) Plays with plenty of long dialogues, speeches and lesser movements and bodily action;
2) Performances which abound with dance, dance like movements, exaggerated gestures, mime and music;
3) Dramas which give considerable place to dialogues, movements, gestures, dance and music;
And these plays are more eclectic in style.
Eclecticism seems to be the general rule and mode of theatre all over the world; Sri Lankan Tamil theatre is no exception to this. Eclectic trend has started a couple of decades age in Western theatre; and in respect of eclecticism Sri Lankan Tamil. Theatre is in par with world theatre. But its eclectic mode is naturally unique, guided by its social and theatrical heritage. In that respect it is ‘national’ theatre.
Yet another thought has begun to provoke the minds of certain theatre personalities. Though this thought is in its germinal stage, it could be mentioned here to provoke loud thought and discussion. Though every drama/ theatrical production is envisaged in the context of the particular theatre space in which it is supposed to be performed to the audience, all drama can be performed in any space- this is the belief of certain theatre persons. For example a play prepared or written to be performed in a proscenium stage can be performed in a round theatre or in any other open space, and vice versa.
This thought does not arise from the fantastic imagination of a slumberor. It arises out of practical experience gained by certain play productions-e.g. A play meant for a picture frame stage, communicated very intimately with the audience when it was produced within a house in the midst of the audience. Yet certain other plays, which could be very successfully produced in a stage, were produced with much success in a very wide-open space.
Yet, we need not reject the age-old experience that the theatre space specifies the mode of acting and presentation of a play. But, beyond that we should not close the space of thought and limit our possibilities within the boundaries of communications. If it is true that space directs the mode of production, then any play can be produced successfully in any space. It would be a pity if pioneers of new thought and action reject the possibility of further thought or contrary conflicting thought. If ‘drama is the story of human conflict’ why cannot conflicting thoughts invigorate theatrical development?
Besides the above mentioned theatre action and thought, today we witness the continuation of former theatre activities. Folk theatre activities continue among the village folk; and the urban population too get a chance to witness their cultural roots; but to many an urban of even rural youngsters, these folk theatres are quite ‘alien’; they have no chance to witness them often. As a result of this they are unfamiliar to the aesthetics of the folk theatre. They are not accustomed to the idiom of the traditional plays. Hence they look at them with a chuckle in their cheek.
This again is a controversial matter. “What should we do with our folk/ traditional theatre? Are we to allow them to decay with the times? Are they anachronisms? Is it not enough if we keep them as museum pieces and get them performed occasionally to entertain foreign dignitaries and show them our national identity entertain foreign dignitaries and show them our national identity and glory? Or is it our duty to popularise them amongst our youths and younger generations; and ensure that they live as long as our nation lives? “Such questions ring hard in the hearts of many. Such thoughts are not unique to us alone.; all the third world people who have been under the clutches of foreign domination, now, after ‘independence’, feel that they must never allow their traditions to fade out with the times. This social psychology has risen to traumatic level in some individuals and groups. A balanced thought is the most needed thing in this matter. Tradition has a place in society; likewise, traditional plays too should find a place in every society. But what is its place in the present society? It cannot exist as an all-pervading art, as it was in bygone days. Though its place and prominence in today’s society should be high, it cannot be as popular as it was yesterday. It is no doubt the senior citizen of our society of arts, and hence its due place of honour and respect will and should be maintained.
With the ‘imposition’ of peace after the long drawn war, a climate of jubilance and joviality sprouts in the minds of some happy-go-lucky youngsters. They are in a favourish hurry to make up the lost years- the years of war. They believe that youth lost cannot be regained; and there fore they turn to fun, frolic, fantasy and fiction. In the field of theatre such minds turn to slapstick comedies, fears, brusque and bravado comics. Such theatre existed here in the ‘epoch’ of modern drama. Such theatre vanished with the emergence of the ‘civil war’; because the war situation warranted ‘serious’ thought regarding the inevitability of the war and its cause. But, such comic and farcical episodes and incidents unconsciously intruded into the theatre productions of some dramatists who propagated the need for the war and liberation. Such pieces of theatre could be witnessed today in Jaffna in productions that have come from Vanni, which was separated from Jaffna for the last seven years.
‘Formal’ theatre with modern concept continues its journey in the picture frame stages of this part of Sri Lanka. Though they are performed in the Western style picture frame stages the mode of presentation is not exactly realistic in the Western sense. They are more non-realistic, non-illusionistic, theatrical and eclectic. The heritage and traditions of the local theatre and the world are happily married in these productions, we may say that they would maintain the identity of the theatre of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
Like any other theatre of any peoples or nations the theatre of the Tamils of Sri Lanka has many unique factors, which help to maintain its identity. This people have a long history and tradition in this island. Their rituals, folk traditions, modern traditions and contemporary innovations have a long and linear line of progress with a cause and effect continuity.
No one can deny the fact that it has a strong folk tradition; the various regions have their own unique theatre. But they have many elements, which are common to all. Hence they exhibit ‘unity in diversity’, which is the core of Nationhood.
Even the modern and the contemporary theatre have to a considerable extent, worked to maintain the identity of this people. Opposing views, open debates and untiring efforts with direction and dedication are always the conductive climate for development and progress. Since this climate prevails satisfactorily in this region we can always hope for the better, rather than being prophets of doom.
Posted on March 29, 2012, in Articals and tagged Activetheatremovement, ATM, Jaffna, jaffna drama, Jaffna theatre, Kulanthai M. shanmugalingam, media, open space theatre festival, solo acting contest 2015, Srilankan tamil theatre, tamil darama. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.