Mining collective history

Published on 13 February, 2016 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink

A Sri Lankan play delves into the common, conflicted past of two very different nations at the 18th edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav

War footing A still from the play Dear Children, Sincerely. Photo: S Thyagarajan Ruwanthie de Chickera. Photo: S Thyagarajan Ruwanthie de Chickera. Photo: S Thyagarajan

Conflict doesn’t know race or region. The nature of war is such that it spares no one. Cities burn, people die, and that is how the pages of history are made. Countries miles away from each other share a common suffering; people with diverse skin colour identify with each other’s pain, for every nation has endured a similar pattern of war, and therefore, everyone’s history is collective.

Taking a slice of this shared history to build the foundation of a theatre project titled Dear Children, Sincerely…, the Stages Theatre Group from Sri Lanka aspired to bring to light the stories and experiences that transpired years ago, but are relevant today. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of this history’s witnesses — the elders of the society — at the 18th edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama in New Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, and Kerala respectively.

Under the guidance of director Ruwanthie de Chickera, a cast of 15 Asian and African artistes travelled to perform in India, and brought two diverse nations — Rwanda and Sri Lanka — together for an international collaboration of three performances, unveiling three different perspectives of the past.

While the first story, Seven Decades Deep compared the enormous Hutu-Tutsi community conflict in Rwanda with the Tamil-Sinhala crisis in Sri Lanka, and drew uncanny similarities between the exile of the Tutsi families to the ‘Sinhala Only’ movement in Lanka, the second story, Marriage, Sex and Loveintroduced comic relief by recalling the traditions when it was forbidden for a bride to be seen by a groom before they got married and when dowry was measured in cows. The last performance, Upside-down Land returned to remind of the horror of the bloody insurrections and sustained communal riots that scarred both countries for life.

Dear Children, Sincerely… made its debut at the Ubumumtu Arts Festival in Kigali, Rwanda, in July 2015; the project later travelled to Colombo for its second show in January 2016. In India, the team performed to a full-house in Jammu’s Abhinav theatre earlier this month, before travelling to Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium and Thiruvananthapuram’s Tagore Theatre.

The project, which is based on conversations with senior citizens, mostly public figures and a few ordinary people, delves into their memories, experiences, and reflections in order to create a bank of stories. These are then taken to young people through storytelling and live performances.

“Research into Dear Children, Sincerely… started in April 2015, when we began talking to people born in the 1930s in Sri Lanka. This remarkable generation, born in colonial times and now eight decades old, essentially grew up in parallel lines to their country. The idea of bringing Rwanda into the picture happened naturally. I had a friend there and we spoke about the common histories of both countries. Every scene has been created from a conversation with an elderly person. The idea is to create a number of short performance pieces that will focus on one aspect of history, one opinion, one story,” explains Chickera.

Commenting on the comparison of the theatre scene in India and Sri Lanka she says, “There’s a huge amount of infrastructure in India; the industry is massive and very powerful. India is what Sri Lanka can aspire to be in terms of support, training and infrastructure. Sri Lanka has very good talent, but the industry is very weak. Plenty of young people take to theatre, but they burn out soon because the industry cannot sustain them; there’s not enough money to pay the actors for their training. It’s a very vibrant and young industry, but unfortunately the actors don’t mature, many of them fade out.” And is her country too facing the brunt of intolerance and censorship? “The theatre space has always been under the radar. It continues to be. The previous regime was beginning to crack down on journalists and influencing the artists, but the present system is different. Censorship was very high. It’s no more like that. People are pretty outspoken,” she says.

In a very short span of time, Dear Children, Sincerely… has managed to impress the ARIADNE theatre makers — a group of female theatre directors working in countries of conflict and post-conflict — and through ARIADNE, the project is now being adapted in Ireland, Palestine, Rwanda, Burundi, Serbia, the UK, the DRC, and Belgium. With nine countries on board, the project is all set to go global.

Their stories are real events, witnessed by real people, and real comments that manage to etch the past forever in the chapters of today. The past, as they say, is never truly behind us; no matter how hard one tries to forget, it claws its way back. And perhaps that is imperative to remember.


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