Revival of theater in Jaffna

5 Mar

And no, we don’t mean the cinema theater; that doesn’t need a revival

Theater in Jaffna as of now means only one thing; the cinema. Vijay’s new releases play to packed halls but thespians and playwrights suffer from lack of support.


Arichardra puranam in Vadamodi koothu

“There was a time, before the war, when plays were performed and enjoyed popular support here,” says Johnson Rajkumar, a drama and theater teacher and Deputy Director at CPArts Jaffna. “However now, people are more used to cinema than the theater. They have to be re-acclimatized to this art form, which is what we are trying to do.”
The CPArts, one of the flag-bearers of Art & Culture in Jaffna is seeking to do that by the regular staging of plays in the peninsula. One such effort was the recently concluded theater festival, staged free for the masses over the weekend of March 1-2.

Seven plays ranging in duration from 30 – 40 minutes were staged from 4.30-8.30 pm over the weekend which attracted a sizeable crowd to the venue at Kalathoothu Kalayaham.
”We asked support from the local papers to advertise to the people and some of them, though not all did oblige,” says Johnson. “However, we have discovered social media is effective in communicating to people. We asked the youths engaged with us to let their friends know through facebook and text messages. We managed to get the message out to a large number of people that way.”

The Arts don’t have much support in the peninsula, he bemoans. “For this venture, we had no sponsors. We just worked as volunteers in our free time. The media is not helpful in disseminating information or generating interest in the people. The practice of reviewing artistic performances is all but dead here. People including intellectuals come and see our work and voice their appreciation but there will be no reviews in the papers tomorrow. In the South of the country, the situation is enviably different. People and the media support their arts and constantly critique as well as motivate their artistes to do more. We have to build that system up in the North again. It disappeared during the war and hasn’t reappeared since.”

Johnson was the playwright as well as the director of most of the plays staged over the two days. Considering the depth, innovation and empathetic insight in displaying the local culture and its problems displayed by the productions, one could tell here was a very talented individual.
Most of the actors were young students of schools or the CPArts but while obviously not professional actors, they displayed a high level of talent and professionalism, which would not have been out of place at the Lionel Wendt, Colombo.
The plays addressed various problems in Sri Lankan Tamil Society today; unemployment of young educated people, female oppression and gender based violence, youth obsession with television at the cost of their studies… as well as traditional productions; Kuveni performed in Thenmodi Koothu, and Arichandra Puranam (The story of King Arichandra) in Vadamodi Koothu (koothus are traditional Tamil folk plays performed in an elaborate manner).
While Kuveni and Arichandra puranam would have evoked memories in an older generation and educated the younger generation in their folk arts, the other plays – innovative and modern in their presentation – challenged the audience about problems in their midst.

It didn’t always go down well. The production on female oppression and gender based violence for example was meant to evoke outrage in the audience against the oppressors and evoke sympathy for the protagonist, Malini – a talented young teacher. Being a play that faithfully reproduced cultural norms however (for the most part), it didn’t evoke the necessary emotion expected at all levels.
When the protagonist is berated by her husband for coming home on the pillion of her principal’s motorcycle for example (because she had worked late and missed the last bus), and when her mother in law joins in by castigating the ‘loose nature of young women these days’), there were catcalls and whistles of appreciation from the young male audience.

A scene from Malini

A scene from Malini

Johnson, the playwright was horrified. He too had witnessed female oppression all his life which he had empathetically portrayed in the play but had apparently not expected this reaction from fellow males. “When I initially screened this production for a few friends, they were unequivocally supportive of Malini, the protagonist. I couldn’t believe that reaction from the audience. It was very upsetting. This shows that we seriously need to re-evaluate our values in the society today,” he said on being queried on what he thought of the audience’s reaction.


The role of the ‘modern’ woman in Jaffna; she has to do all the housework as well as be employed

Another male audience member who had been abroad and returned, thought it showcased a problem with the younger generation. “In my generation, we were not this crass. It was the younger fellows who were behaving so disgracefully and voicing their appreciation at all the wrong moments.”

Not really. The older generation was not vocal but at the end of the next production – a rather simplistic play for children by children, one older audience member sniffed to the other, “See, now that’s a nice story, simply told.” These were two elderly men who had been muttering throughout the previous production of Malini’s story. The portrayal of her as a talented young woman who was being oppressed by her culture did not sit well with them either.
While Johnson himself was upset by this reaction, one could say he is a successful dramatist. He evocatively showcased some real problems within society that needs to be addressed – not surprisingly, a few of the cultural bastians of that society had their feathers ruffled. That can only be a good thing. More worrying were the younger generation of males, who seemed a bit clueless that what they were seeing – something they were used to seeing in society on a regular basis; the female sex being castigated constantly to be demure and quiet – was nothing to be proud of.


The Tamil poetic icon Bharathiyar made an appearance too – to condemn the state of women in Jaffna society

The other play that addressed a societal problem in the North – youth unemployment, was far more successful in garnering audience appreciation – although it too told them some uncomfortable truths about themselves. Unlike in Malini, Johnson used smooth humour to deliver the pill however, so it was swallowed without much murmur and a lot of laughter.
The extreme competitiveness of students and their families to pass examinations, the unrealistic expectations students had that a degree should offer them an office job, and the false sense of status they had about working with their hands – the deep prejudice ingrained in them by society against blue collar jobs, were all brilliantly portrayed. Thus a farmer’s son might be an agriculture graduate or a fisherman’s son a graduate in Fisheries but they are outraged by their parents’ tentative suggestions to earn money in the traditional family way while waiting for the government to give them a job (aka sitting at home unemployed at the parents’ expense) – a very real problem in Northern Society today. The solution offered by the play was to get over societal prejudices and get involved in the primary production jobs available. For an audience weary with its unemployment problem, this apparently wasn’t too hard to swallow. They were appreciative.

The two day festival which CPArts hopes to carry forward on a regular basis was free of charge to the audience. Jaffna society is only now relearning after the long hiatus of war, to attend plays and stay out late (late being 8,30 pm in the night). It was nice to see a number of women on bicycles and motorcycles making their way back home after the festival. Just a few years ago, this was not possible. The Jaffna Music Festival held immediately after war’s end in 2009 for example, had more audience members from other parts of the country than within Jaffna. Lack of exposure to such events as well as unavailability of private transport, even for those interested was a huge problem, but now just a few years later, buses and three-wheelers operate late into the night and street lights are widely available for those going home on cycles.
As Johnson earnestly told the audience, in the South of the country, plays are widely attended by the locals who support the artists by paying to see their performances. There are talented artistes in Jaffna too. The society will soon hopefully revive enough to take part in such entertainment as well as pay to help their artistes prosper.


2 Responses to “Revival of theater in Jaffna”

  1. Meg March 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    Wonderful! And great pics too, Thuls!

  2. Drama Sri Lanka March 10, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Glad to read about the revival of theatre in Jaffna and the good work being conducted by organisations such as the Centre for Performing Arts. Thank you for an interesting and informative read!

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