Saturday, November 9, 2013

All you need is one actor willing to work his butt off and you have theatre Naseeruddin Shah

All you need is one actor willing to work his butt off and you have theatre
Naseeruddin Shah

As Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley group celebrates its 30th anniversary, he recounts his life’s journey to find a home in theatre
FOR ME, like cinematheatre was a love born in a climate of opposition. My father, an officer in the Provincial Civil Services, was a stern and austere man who never had a car or fridge in the house. He wanted me to be a doctor and strive for conventional respectability. My need to act was anathema for him and I was always thought of as the doomed one: the boy who would amount to no good. It certainly looked like that for many years, but I couldn’t set aside my burning desire to act and be famous. This created extreme friction in the house — anger, condemnation, humiliation — but my impulse held good. It was like being possessed. I left home fairly early and it would be many years before my father and I would speak. He lived to see my first film, Nishant and liked it. But before we were entirely reconciled he died and that remains a big vacuum in my life. When he died, I brought home an old pair of his shoes, standard Bata Naughty Boy shoes that must now be at least 50 years old. I use those shoes sometimes in my plays and wonder quietly whether he is watching from somewhere.

My love for theatre was first seeded at St Joseph’s, my boarding school in Nainital. The school used to do a number of plays, operas really, that I considered immeasurably grand. By school standards, they were, in fact, quite sensational. I suffered untold misery in that school because I was a terrible student, always ostracised, and never given a chance to act on stage. But the plays mesmerised me. We were also exposed to great movies there. So my real education — the influences that shaped who I would become — basically lay in these plays and movies, these interludes when I could enter the skin of whoever I wanted to be. We also had an annual production staged by Geoffrey Kendall’s Shakespeareana. I consider Mr Kendall the greatest actor and man I have ever seen. He remains a guiding light for me. As I wrote in an earlier piece for TEHELKA, the spirit he brought to theatre inspired an almost religious awe. He always said, “I am not an actor or director, I am a missionary, and my mission is to spread Shakespeare.” There was an aspect of Mr Kendall’s productions that always intrigued me. The plays our school put up had elaborate cardboard sets – forests and rivers and faux drawing rooms. But the Kendalls never used any sets. They had plain black backdrops and appeared on stage with the simplest props: a chair, a hat. It was years – decades – before I understood why they did this, but when I did understand, I was delighted that my aesthetic journey had brought me independently to the same conclusion as old Mr Kendall.

After school, under duress, I went to college at Aligarh Muslim University. Here again, I was rescued from despair by a couple of teachers I am eternally grateful to. They introduced me to absurd theatre. Beckett. Chekhov. Shaw. There was, in particular, Zahida Zaidi, who not only made me read Waiting for Godot and Chairs and all these abstract plays I could make neither head nor tail of, but insisted I perform them. Staging Chairs in Aligarh can only be ranked as an act of supreme bravery or supreme folly. My attempt probably fell somewhere in between.

After Aligarh, there was the National School of Drama (NSD) and the magnificent Mr Alkazi with his lavish productions. I was totally blown away by the sheer spectacle. Ten people with mashaals climbing a rampart on stage, crowds moving in waves from one part of the stage to another. Not all of Mr Alkazi’s ideas were terribly original, but he brought sophistication and meticulous detail to the idea oftheatre production in India: there was attention to detail in every department, from the shoes and rings a character wore to the colour of leaves on a backdrop.

After NSD came FTII, the Film Institute in Pune, and theatre and I parted ways for about five years. Then, one day, Benjamin Gilani and I were sitting around on the sets of Junoon when he said, “I want to do a play with you, let’s try one.” Ben had studied at St Stephen’s and had been a big cat in its snobby Shakespeare Society, before going to the Film Institute dreaming of being a star. We had hit it off from the moment we met. We had similar tastes but were radically different in nature – which is probably why we are still friends decades later. That day, Ben suggested we try Waiting for Godot. I almost fell out of my chair. “Not that!” I protested, “I can’t understand a word of it.” But Ben insisted and so we launched into it. Tom Alter, Ben, Professor Taneja, our teacher from FTII, and I.
We spent a year reading it, performing it, just falling around. We watched a couple of performances for inspiration. Watching a good one in Gujarati really boosted our confidence. Godot in Gujarati: such things were possible. So, exactly 30 years ago, on July 29, 1979, we performed our first show of Godot. It was an unmitigated disaster. Wisely, we left it alone for six months, then returned to it. In those days, Om Puri had a group called Majma. We asked him to sponsor us and finally, after a year, we were invited to perform at Sophia College, Bombay. Two shows in front of 2,000 students. The reaction was amazing. For the first time, we felt we were on to a good thing. We had spent barely Rs 1,000 on our production: some hats, dirty rags, tattered shoes, a skeletal tree. What we earned was pure profit. And so out of that suspension of meaning — Godot — and christened by Ben, our group Motley was born. Over the years, Professor Taneja and Tom moved on, and Ratna [Pathak Shah], Ben, Akarsh Khurana and I came to be the core of the group.

We used to rehearse on the top of empty double decker buses or on local trains

TODAY MOTLEY productions staged abroad for NRI audiences — in Dubai, Muscat, Bonn, London, Amsterdam — sometimes earn $15,000 per show, and while none of us can still make a living from theatre, occasionally, we can afford generous cheques for the cast. But when we started out 30 years ago, NCPA had a little theatre that seated 50 and only patronised plays in Hindi. Apart from that, there was a tiny auditorium rented out by Chhabil Das High School in Dadar. All experimental theatre in Bombay – in Marathi, Gujarati or Hindi — was born here. This is where Arvind and Sulabha Deshpande started Avishkar; and actors like Nana Patekar and Rohini Hatangadi started out with them. We performed to audiences of 10 or 12 here and had nowhere to rehearse. While I was with Om’s Majma, we used to rehearse on the top of double deckers when they were empty, or on local trains in the afternoons, when no one was there. On an exceptional day, someone might put in a Rs 100 note in the hat. Most days, though, there were the ones and fives and tenners.

Today, there is a line of young people a mile long who want to join Motley. I tell them all, go away and do your own thing. Both the hardship and the passion involved in ‘getting it done’ drives one to find one’s language.

At Motley, very early, we decided we would do plays with very small casts. Apart from the difficulty in paying them, there was the difficulty of keeping a cast together. Om had attempted a play with barely eight people and he could never do two successive shows with the same cast. Inevitably, someone was ill or on a shoot or detained by an aunt in trouble! Ben wanted to do Arms and the Man. It needed only six people, but we could not afford the frills of a realistic play: a lady’s boudoir, a gentleman’s library with a grand bookcase. We weren’t Broadway, where was the money to come from. So we stuck to our little plays until the Alkazi dream lurking in me erupted and I decided to do Julius Caesar in 1992, co-directed by Vikram Kapadia. Motley’s reputation had been growing slowly and we had a cast of 70 (Kay Kay Menon was one of the extras in the crowd). We spent a lot of money, bought beautiful togas, but no one came to see it and it wrecked us financially. I had thought every school teaches the play and we would get a committed student audience. But only a bunch of teachers came on the second day and they were outraged because we had changed the play. I had ambitiously tried to turn the soliloquies into conversations, while retaining Shakespeare’s words. I had also changed the end. Blasphemous, they shouted at me, this is blasphemous!

After the shock of Julius Caesar, we did a play called Dear Liar with two actors. It’s been 20 years and that’s still alive. Godothas been alive 30 years, Ismat Aapa ke Naam for 10. Slowly, we have arrived at our own language.

Many years earlier, I had already started to weary of making commercial Hindi cinema. I found the films I was doing murderously boring. So in 1981, I spent Rs 35,000 of my hard earned money on getting to Poland to work with Jerzy Grotowski, a great theatreactor, director and teacher. I had devoured his Towards a Poor Theatre then and still think it is the most profound book on theatre I have ever read. Meeting him turned out to be a little disappointing but it set me off on a crucial path of discovery.

With dastangoi I finally feel I have found my home. I intend to do this for the rest of my life

Grotowski had extreme contempt for Broadway. Theatre can never match cinema’s illusion, so why was it competing to be the same? He asked three big questions: Is what theatre could do being done better than cinema? The answer was no. Then what was it thattheatre used to do before the advent of cinema? And third, where had theatre sprung from? Theatre, he said, began with man’s need to communicate, not to dazzle. And in order to communicate, you don’t need huge castles disappearing on stage and helicopters and gondolas. The essential magic of theatre was to stimulate the imagination. Our poverty of resources should be our strength, not our weakness, he argued. If you remove everything extraneous – sets, lights, props, costumes – all you need is one actor in a black suit willing to work his butt off, and you have theatre. When you have two people who meet and talk, you have theatre. In his later life, Grotowski extended this argument so far, he began to dispense even with dialogue. He went on a different trip, searching for the primal state and sound. Theatre became synonymous with life – to a point where you couldn’t get a straight answer from him to any question, like what time of day it was.

BUT THESE THINGS gradually distilled themselves in my head and Grotowski led me to understand what Mr Kendall had been doing all those years earlier. He had never had anything extraneous on set and yet it had been the most magical theatre I had ever seen. And so we embarked on the mode of storytelling that we have been doing ever since, where the word and the person speaking the word is all, and the form is completely austere. Motley productions never have any props for mere decoration. Our attempt is to create illusion in the audience’s mind. These are the aesthetics that have shaped our series of Ismat Chugtai, Manto and Mohan Rakesh stories, and, recently, the dastangoi.

With dastangoi, I finally feel I have found my home. Artistically, there is nothing more challenging and I intend to do this for the rest of my life. The last dastango, one of the greatest actors ever, died in penury selling paan. Mahmood Farooqui’s pioneering work in reviving this great art, which had withered away with the assault of cinema, is a gift I cannot thank him enough for. My encounter with dastangoi finally leached away the pleasure I had in the Alkazi kind of theatre. I do not dream of doing it anymore, I no longer enjoy even watching it.

My only dream now is to make Motley outlive me. Unfortunately, it has become solely associated with me, but I now want to do productions in which I am not on stage. I want people to associate Motley with quality productions, not Naseeruddin Shah. My children are going to be around 50 years after I am gone. I have to create a climate for them.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 6 Issue 31, Dated August 8, 2009)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dr.Thiru Kandiah

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 (All day)
Encounter of the Week

So Pera era was an accident?

His teaching and research work have been mainly in the field of English Studies, both language and literature. His work in language/linguistics extends across several specialized areas in the field, ranging from the theoretical and the structural to the “applied” (including sociolinguistics and language education). The so-called new Englishes (especially Lankan English) and English in language planning (both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere) have been among his key areas of interest.
“During the past 10 or 20 years in Sri Lanka I have seen the whole notion ‘intellectual’ being devalued in two ways. Anybody who has a couple of letters after his or her name is called an intellectual provided they support the powers that be. Leaving aside such matters of local political expediency, there is the impact of the return during the past three decades or so of the global capitalist enterprise and market forces as deciding factors in the way the nation acts,” Former Professor of English at Peradeniya University, Dr.Thiru Kandiah recalled a relevant incident.
At a discussion attended by business people and higher educationists some ten years ago, a businessman complained that the problem with our universities was that they were concerned with producing intellectuals.
“Incredible, but true. I can think of no country other than Sri Lanka in which anyone could have got away with such a statement. What he was arguing was that the function of universities was simply to service the global market, whereas it had earlier been assumed all along that a major function of education had been to help people to learn to think, so that they could function effectively in any capacity anywhere, including any kind of market. And the worst thing is that though various university staff members, including vice chancellors, were present at the discussion, no one at all protested against the comment.”
Dr. Kandiah’s concerns had always been very different, which motivated him, particularly after he came to occupy the Chair of English at Peradeniya to work towards a major reconceptualization of English Studies that might meet the actual needs of his students and his country, a kind of reconceptualisation of these studies that our post-colonial realities seemed to make imperative. One aspect of that reconceptalization was to try to work towards a more or less equal balance between literature study and language study in a field that was dominated considerably by literary study as such, maintaining the highest intellectual standards in both, without losing sight of the practical ends that these studies might be expected to serve in society – for instance, in teaching English.
He has also engaged, if limitedly, with the Tamil and Sinhala languages and, also, with drama in those languages. He played a key role in establishing the Translation Programme of Peradeniya University around 2002.
Former Professor of English at Peradeniya University, Dr Thiru Kandiah. Picture by Saman Sri Wedage
Q : Peradeniya flourished with its rich literary traditions during the past era. Why do you think it demised?
A: That is a very dangerous question to ask a member of the so-called “Peradeniya generation”. It was a spectacular period and the danger is that one might be tempted to indulge in the glories of the past.
Actually, that period was the result of a kind of lucky accident. A whole conjunction of different factors at that historical moment in time put Peradeniya in a position to deliver a great output. After 450 years of colonial rule Sri Lanka was awakening to itself, searching itself out in all kind of fields.
And just at that moment, Peradeniya University was opened, and a large number of the most creative and best minds in the country who happened to be in leadership positions in a whole wide range of disciplines of study were sent there.
This concentration of extraordinary talent all in one place at just the time when the country as a whole was emerging into its own and searching out its own voice and meanings, could not but have issued in the glorious way it did. All the more so because that place was conceived of by its first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings, as a very special place dedicated whole-heartedly to learning.
You talk of a demise but I see it simply as a change. Even as all of this was going on, the country was in the process of other major changes. For instance, society was democratizing, as more and more people were being brought into mainstream processes; knowledge, activities and so on were spreading amazingly and involving more and more people - a process in which, incidentally, members of the Peradeniya generation played an important role. The forces of what was known as globalization were increasingly coming into operation.
The well-attested negative, fascistic dimension of nationalism, which had expressed itself positively in the whole awakening process, began to surface virulently, to issue eventually in the destructive ethnic war. All of these changes had to impact in some way or other on the situation, among other things dissolving that “concentration” of talent I spoke about, the concentration that allowed the outburst of activity to take place in the first place.
If you want to see this change as a “demise”, then it is something that occurred right across the whole country.
Q: Who were the greats in the English department that you have worked with and are there people whom you still admire working at the universities at present?
A: The greats of the English department for me are those associated with the establishment of the discipline of the English studies in Sri Lanka. They are Lyn Ludowyk, Hector Passe and Doric d’Souza. The sad thing is that even the names of these people are not known to a lot of especially the younger people in the world of English studies today.
When you lose a sense of your antecedents, you lose a sense of who you are.
So that I can talk about what I want to, let me artificially in a sense divide the people involved in the development of English studies in Sri Lanka into four hypothetical generations. The first generation comprises Ludowyk, Passe and d’Souza. The second generation is made up of the products of the first generation, all three of them including Ludowyk.
This includes a host of names, in various significant positions in various fields – people like A J Canakaratne, Mervyn de Silva, Chitra Fernando, Yasmine Gooneratne, Godfrey Gunatilleke, Ashley Halpe, Gamini Haththotuwegama, C R and Pauline Hensman, Gananath and Ranjini Obeysekara, Regi Siriwardena, Batty Weerakoon, among numerous others, including people like myself.
The third generation is made up of those who were not taught by Ludowyk but were taught by other members of both the first and second generation. Some of them are senior enough to have already retired.
The second and third generations were all along being joined by those who had pursued their English Studies outside of Peradeniya, sometimes even outside of Sri Lanka, but who are very definitely members of the world of English Studies. All of the young people who are now part of the field, many of them students of the second and third generations, may be considered to make up the fourth generation.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, a sense of the presence of the first generation (in terms of their ideas, their inspiration and their revolutionary spirit) has been lost.
The first generation, the pioneers, had in a sense to work under the most difficult conditions, because they were doing their work when the British empire was still very much around.
Modern knowledge had begun to filter from across the world to Sri Lanka (which of course had it own traditions of study in various fields), and, like those who had to transfer the modern knowledge that constituted physics, mathematics, economics, archaeology, sociology, whatever, these pioneers had to take the established tradition of in their field of study and give it to our students.
The danger with all of these traditions of study is that, emanating from centres outtside of Sri Lanka, they would quite naturally embody the forms of thinking, perrspectives, understanding, even ideologies and values that were not those of our own context but of the centres, the imperial centres, from which they came.
In a real sense, given that there were no traditions of study in these particular modern fields in our context, there was no alternative but to open ourselves to that danger. And in fact the pioneers in Englsh Studies have indeed been criticized (mainly by those from the second and third generations who were aspiring to take over the leadership in the field) for transferring knowledge paradigms of the West, and, more, for doing this in ways that favoured the so-called anglophile elite class.
But this is to miss a great deal of how really the first generation carried out a task that was in fact in any case being carried out in every sphere everywhere across the modernising world, not just in Sri Lanka for that matter.
For one thing, they carried out their task of transmitting the knowledge involved without in any way diluting standards - the students were given the best that was available.
But that was not all – the spirit in which they did it was, considering the times in which they did it, quite revolutionary. In his Ludowyk lecture, G K Hatthotuwegama, while conceding that the syllbuses Ludowyk introduced were in fact close to the traditions they came out of, points out how he helped direct significant attention to radical writing and thinking that lay outside those syllabuses and the English canon.
A lot of this happened through his work in the theatre, where, for instance, he brought Shudraka’s ‘Little Clay Cart’ from India and presented it to us as he helped create a modern theatre tradition for the country. His history of Ceylon places Sri Lanka at the centre, his book on Shakespeare acknowledges his debt to his Sri Lankan students, and he worked in certain areas in collaboration with people like Sarachchandra and the Ven.Walpola Rahula. And a lot of this during the period of empire, His perspectives were very much, then, those that emerged innovatively from out of his own specific context.
Passe’s work in Sri Lankan English is very radical, ahead of its times. Starting his research in the early 1940’s, he too worked at the height of the empire, during which there was only one way of talking English and one way of using it. His 1948 PhD dissertation, while using the now superceded linguistic models of his times, remains one of the most rigorous and thorough studies of the phonology of a new English.
He demonstrated that there exists a version of English that he termed ‘Ceylon English’, an alternative systematic form of English which we had developed. He paved the way for the current claims that there is a valid linguistic entity called Lankan English which is linguistically the equal of any variety.
He also wrote ‘The Use and Abuse of English’, which has been used by critics to say that he actually, snobbishly in fact, rejects the English usage of Sri Lankans, calling them “errors”. What the critics ignore is that when you are making a case for a new variety of English you also have to remain a responsible academic, scholar and educationist. You cannot say anything goes linguistically - there are such things as errors. To deny that in the study of any language is to be irresponsible. Of course some of what he called errors are not longer considered as errors today, but that is how languages have always tended to change.
Some things that are regarded as errors on the basis of the rules that prevail at the time become acceptable usage over time, others are rejected and remain errors. Prepositions went haywire when American English was developing. Some of them were considered errors and pushed out while others others began to get established as acceptable, reflecting regular rule-governed usage.
D’Souza was in charge of a historic event, the introduction of English language teaching classes in universities. The first cohort of Sinhala and Tamil medium students entered university in 1960. In 1951 the UNP Government had made a decision to change the medium of instruction in secondary schools from English to Sinhala and Tamil.
This began to implemented in 1953 by a stepped process that saw the first cohort of Swabasha students entering university in 1960. This was a momentous challenge for the authorities.
Peradeniya University anticipated this and sent d’Souza to America to check out the resources to start off the project.
On his return he took over the task of carrying out this historic change of bringing English proficiency classes into the university, though the initial course was run by the American expert that he had handpicked for helping in the task.
D’Souza’s thinking was completely innovative. He struggled to devise ways of teaching English that were suited to our conditions and our times. He formulated some five or six years ahead of the rest of the global world of English language teaching, what is today called English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Specific Purposes (ESP), though as a man singularly free of jargon he had no use for such terms.
He also contributed to theorising something that was very unfashionable at the time, as it once again has begun to be in the global ELT world, namely a bilingual methodology. He created new materials for teaching the English language using Sinhala and Tamil in a rigorously controlled way.
His series of articles for the Observer still remain a classic in the field of ELT pedagogy in Sri Lanka, and contains some of the best and most perceptive accounts available of aspects of English teaching in the country. It was also he who, much earlier, had introduced a course on the nature and develoment of the English language into the syallabus for the Special English degree, thus breaking the monopoly that literature had in the syllabus.
I once described d’Souza in a paper I wrote as “that brilliant mind who did not write too much but who in his teaching and his discussions and the writing he did do was moving towards solutions well before scholars in other parts of the world, working under far more advantageous conditions, had even begun to see the problems.” I believe that captures what d’Souza represented and reminds us why we cannot afford to forget him – as indeed we cannot afford to forget any of the greats for what they have given us.
As for the second part of your question, I have a lot of admiration for all of those involved at any level in the task of developing and maintaining English studies in the country, even those with whom I might profoundly disagree. In the circumstances prevailing at present, this is a very forbidding task and they are doing a heroic job. I hope you will pardon me if I decline to name names, since I want to avoid the possible danger of my personal opinions influencing how people, including my former colleagues, are seen.
Q:English departments in universities seem to be concerned more about personal issues than improving their teaching methodologies for the benefit of students. Comment.
A: This is a “landmine” question. If I walk into it as formulated, I shall blow myself up or at the least maim myself permanently. So let me shift the focus in answering it to what I think we actually need to pay attention to.
In any case, if it is true that, as you claim, the English departments are full of personal politicking, that surely must be because any institution would reflect the general morality of the country. The country as a whole has for quite some time now been losing its ethical sense, its capacity to distinguish between what is true and what is false, right and wrong. If that is so why do you want any particular institution to be different?
Let me call attention to another problem I see with your question as formulated. Your question focuses on methodologies and I think that that reflects a dangerous concession to the kind of thinking that is being promoted across the global world of education under the name of globalization. Universities have been drawn into the stranglehold of multinational corporations and other agents of our hegemonic and unequal global order, particularly after the second World War. That world order is a result of the historical changes that had occurred in the world during the preceding five or six centuries, which saw the spread of empire and capitalism riding on each other. One of the results of this was that the whole world got reconstituted as a unity outside of which no country could set itself. However it was an unequal unity, with post-colonial countries such as our occupying the lower rungs.
A very important part of the way in which the (now transnationalized) dominant forces of that contradictory unity control the world is epistemological. One of the basic ploys that they have used is making sure that the focus shifts from thinking to methods.
T S Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” We might add to that, “Where is even the information we have lost in ‘skills, techniques, procedures, methods’ and so on? Thinking has moved out of the window. But, thinking is a kind of responsibility we cannot evade.
Antonio Gramsci talks of the ordinary intellectual, who at best transmits available knowledge, and of the organic intellectual, the intellectual who transforms and creates new models of thought.
A major aim of any university department anywhere in the world should be to create conditions for the emergence of organic intellectual thinking.
In our post-colonial contexts, this means striving to create new models and paradigms of thought meaningful to our own context, local and global, which involves transformatively bringing together the resources of knowledge that we already have got from our own indigenous knowledge bases and our own environment with the best thinking from across the world, even if it happens to come from the dominant centres.
That will help us reverse the one way directionality of the flow of ideas that empire had established, making us dependent on its dominant forces for our thinking. The classic imperial pattern - we had the raw material, they gave us the methodology and did the thinking, we applied it all here, they took it back and created sophisticated new goods and then sent them back to us to buy and uncritically consume. This borrowing and the associated dependency syndrome still continue in the intellectual fields, with fashioable post modernism and post structuralism, for instance, contributing to the process by not allowing us to find our own meanings and modes of thought, a firm basis on which we might stand as we resist attempts to take over our minds and work out our own positions – that is supposed to be “essentialism”.
Once we have begun to work out our own understanding of the basic challenges of knowledge in our context then the methods begin to define themselves.
When I held the Chair at Peradeniya these things defined my vision. The English department had been quite content with courses dominated by literature, though in Peradeniya, as in several other universities, an attempt had begun to be made to prevent the British literary canon from presiding over it all.
The problem with language study, all across the Lankan world of English studies in fact, was that it was conceived of largely in terms of elementary problems of language proficiency, not in terms of fundamental university-level thinking about the object of study, namely language, so that there was an intellectual and epistemological imbalance between the study of literature and the study of language.
The attempt to develop this kind of university level thinking would bring large benefits, involving among other things, the creation of our own multiply-sourced traditions of linguistic thinking.
But equally, it would allow us to work our way purposively towards effective practical action on this nationally very important problem of English language proficiency.
And this practical action would then be based on an intelligent, informed and sophisticated understanding of all of the complexities of the problems of proficiency within the historically determined realities of our context, the realities that have made it such a challenging practical task.
- See more at:

Neelavanan: One of the Great Tamil Poet of Sri Lanka

Tuesday, October 22, 2013



In continuing their tradition of truly grassroots community empowerment, a group of activists, artists and intellectuals will this weekend host Madai: a festival dedicated to bringing together traditional artists from across the country to discuss and perform their arts in Trincomalee from 25-27 October 2013.

The aims of this festival are simple:

1. To act as a space for traditional performers to not only share their skill and expertise but also engage with each other: something which generally does not happen, even within a district, nevermind across the country;

2. To celebrate these traditional art forms and the artists who, despite very limited resources and support, find ways to sustain them;

3. To encourage the artists to reflect on and discuss their arts:
·         How are these arts impacted by societal developments, such as globalisation?
·         How do they (or can they) address issues of discrimination such as that based on caste and/or gender?
·         How and why do these artists continue to practice their arts? What value do they see in these practices – to themselves and society?
·         What are the challenges they face?

The aims may be simple but the philosophy of the festival organisers is radical.

While traditional performers have long been treated as ‘objects of study’, this programme is designed to make them active participants. Rather than the ‘experts’ being those who study, analyse, critique and write about these arts, this programme aims to shift the power back to those who are responsible for maintaining these practices: To treat them as people who also have knowledge.

In doing so, the organisers hope to gain a far richer understanding of why these artists do what they do and to discuss with them what they see to be the important sites for both continuation and change. After all, this is the value of - and conditions of survival for - any art: the meaning it gives to the lives of the people who perform, participate and observe it.

It is also only by discussing with those who operate within a culture or community that progressive change can be achieved. As we have increasingly learnt within the human rights world, the external imposition of norms will never achieve genuine social change, equality and justice if the community itself does not see the value in these principles. And at the same time, often the very sources for positive change already exist within the group: something that is overlooked when outside ‘experts’ see their role as simply one of ‘educating’ rather than engaging with the marginalised, discriminated or oppressed.

Thus, not only does this festival promise to offer a never-before-seen insight into a range of traditional art forms, it also presents a model for truly egalitarian political and social activism and research.

The performances will be captivating: it is a rare opportunity to see so many different – often quite marginal - art forms represented in the one place.

The discussions will no doubt be lengthy, complex and maybe even controversial. But they cannot fail to be interesting.

And best of all, this can provide the beginning of a long-term process of true empowerment. By bringing the community of artists together with intellectuals, activists and the general public, the organisers hope that it will provide a space for those who are so often rendered invisible by state and global forces to have their voices heard.

Dr Kiran Grewal
School of Social and Political Sciences
University of Sydney