Mourning Conflict: Embodied Performance in Ravanesan
Ravanesan, written and directed by Professor Maunaguru, was staged in Colombo on February 11th and 12th at the Lionel Wendt Theater as one of three events commemorating Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam’s birthday. Most of the performers were trained by the Drama Department at the Eastern University in Batticaloa,where they are faculty and students. My limited Tamil made me wonder how I would appreciate a classical performance in the Vadamodi Kuththu style. A plot synopsis was given to us in all three languages to facilitate this. The following observations are thus from the perspective of a non-Tamil speaker who thoroughly enjoyed the visual and performative aspects of the play, and was finally able to witness Maunaguru’s brilliance.
War and Mourning
The play inverts the dominant narrative of the Ramayana to make Ravana the protagonist. This shift, however, does not mean that Ravana is the hero of the play. We witness six rounds of battle between the forces of Ravana and Rama. Despite pleas against war by his wife Mandothari and their son Indrajith, Ravana refuses their advice and insists on battle. As we witness the cycles of fighting, injury, and loss, the tediousness of war impacts us. "Do people really continue to fight on and on, and kill each other in this way? Is it possible that humans can be this destructive?" we are forced to ask ourselves. As the play propels itself toward its tragic end, we are finally given a space to mourn and bear witness to loss.
In Sri Lanka’s postwar context, victorious, national, anti-terrorist discourses have given little space for communities to mourn our years of murders, disappearances, rapes and torture. Post-war elections and our political leaders’ rapacious desire for power have further provided little space for grief. This play forces us to come to terms with loss and suffering, using a form and medium that seems to transcend the linguistic barriers that normally divide communities. Perhaps a traditional stylized form of theater based on dance and song enables a certain mode of translation that prose cannot. We can also see that while normally dominant mythic narratives are used to prop up nationalist rhetoric and produce a continuum between mythic wars and present wars, mythic history can also critique the present.
Screening the Public Sphere
The place of the chorus in relation to mourning is also interesting. The members of the chorus carried screens in front of their bodies that were green on one side and white on the other. The colors switched when the mood and the intensity of the play shifted. This chorus was emblematic of an embattled public that voiced its opinion, but was also subservient to the whims and fancies of Ravana and the aristocracy. The final battle for me resonated strongly with the recently-concluded war in Sri Lanka. Ravana, having lost his brother Kumbakarna and son Indrajith to Rama’s forces, faced them for the final battle. Throughout the battle he seemed aware that he was likely to lose, and so fear and cunning motivate him to hide behind the public and the screens they hold up. Rama and his forces kill these human shields to win the war. We are reminded sharply of the mass killings of civilian populations by two armies in Eelam War IV. Both Rama’s forces and Ravana are shown for what they are. They are more interested in power and winning the war than protecting humans.
Embodied Violence: Gender and Performance
In the normally masculine theater of war, women are left out of debates and decision making. Often they are used as the excuses for warfare. Sita, the abducted woman, is used by Rama as his reason for war. Sita’s absence on stage marks her complete silence.
Interestingly, Mandothari, Ravana’s wife, is given a fair amount of stage time. She is the dominant voice of dissent, urging Ravana to avoid the bloodshed and the loss that will ensue in warfare. The play ends with her mourning over the body of Ravana, aggrieved but not destroyed in spirit. Mandothari is the only heroic figure in the play. She is left at the end of the play to imagine a possible future. She marks the gendered space of mourning and reminds us of women in movements like the Mothers Fronts, who have attempted to negotiate public space.
Her performance was so powerful and magnificent that it reminded me of the power of embodied practice as a system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge. At the end of the play Mandothari carries within her body the pain of loss and suffering, but also of hope because she is the one figure who remained critical of violence and war throughout the play.