Saturday, July 03, 2010

Interview with Prof.S.Maunaguru

Responses to Nation interview questions

29th March 2010

1. What special significance do you perceive about the new-year in the post war context?

I don’t see any special significance in the post war context new year, but as usual people from both communities are celebrating the new-year on their own. This year some people are interested to have common celebrations for the New Year – that is one significant change. This process has been drawn into the political changes taking place now. However I think these common activities should be done at the grass root level otherwise its only an annual ritual.

  1. History has given these two communities who hail from the same roots ‘one more chance to reunite in the post war context’ your comments.

The history of this land is that there were many kingdoms and communities living – not only two. There was war between kings and not between communities. For example in Dutugemunu’s army there were Tamil soldiers and in Elara’s army there were Sinhala soldiers. In those days Sinhalese, Tamils and other communities were coexisting without war. British were the ones who brought all the communities as one nation state. Therefore I think there was already unity among the communities and there is no special need to ‘reunite’ now. However, all people should feel like they are equal citizens and Sri Lankan. Even though I am happy to hear you mention that the Sinhala and Tamil communities come from the same roots, in our recent history the practical experiences has been very different especially during the war. Therefore, there should be many things done to build trust and confidence to achieve this.

  1. As a scholar engaged in lot of cultural work bridging two cultures what are your comments about the significance of the new year?

As an artist I have engaged in a lot of cultural work over the past 30 years bridging not only two cultures but many cultures in Sri Lanka. In the new year celebrations there are a lot of commonalities between Tamils and Sinhalese. One is, the new year is on the same day, the celebration activities are similar, for example, beating drums, preparing sweat

meats, swings, breaking pot game, preparing kiribath and pongal. Among the Tamils now a lot of these traditions are not practiced. Also there is a lot of similarities among the cultures as well – so far there isn’t much work done recognizing the diversity and plurality of our cultures in Sri Lanka. If we recognize that these cultural activities are common among the Sinhalese and Tamils that’s also one way to create unity among these two communities. As I said earlier this needs to be done at the grass root level. We only see these practices in the television.

  1. How can we truly live the spirit of the new year without being restricted to one day?

By creating an environment where all communities, especially minorities feel like they are Sri Lankan. Historically there have been individuals who have tried to create this harmonious spirit among different communities.

I would like to share some things that I have done in my individual capacity as well.

In 1994, it was a crutial time in Sri Lanka's history in terms of the brutal ethnic war. I was teaching in Eastern University. Batticaloa, and in that time there was widespread anti-Sinhala feeling among the youth.

I started to teach about the work of Prof. Ediriweera Sarachandra. For the Theatre student I introduced Maname and Sinhabahu to the Tamil students. At that time I had a good relationship with Sarachandra and I was able to take 50 Tamil students to meet with Sarachandra. This was the first time Tamil students had gone to meet a Sinhala icon in theatre. They spent the day with him and ate together with him. Even though they couldn't speak Sinhala they were able to communicate their feelings in other ways. They were touching him and conveying so many things to

him. It was a very emotional encounter for everyone. Sarachandra told me ' now I can die Maunaguru, because the Tamil younger generation can understand me and know me and what I have tried to do.'

In 2002, I invited Dharmasiri Bandaranaike to come as the chief guest for the international theatre festival organised by the department of fine arts of the Eastern University of Batticaloa.At that time I was the Head of the Department Fine Arts,Eastern University His friends had advice him not to come to Batticaloa at that time. He came for two days,stayed with me and interacted with the students and lecturers and took classes for the students. His key note address was a very important statement on the importance of social harmony and diversity.

In 2004 with support of my wife Sitra and my students,I helped Dharmasiri Bandaranayake to stage his version of the play Trojan Women in Batticaloa. It was an uncertain time and many friends advised us not to bring a Sinhala play to Batticaloa. However both Dharmasiri and I were very keen to do this. During the performance the hall was totally crowded. Even though people couldn't understand Sinhala, people really appreciated the content and the production. During this visit there were suggestions to provide military protection to the Sinhala theatre troup. However both Dharmasiri and I agreed to keep the play and the performance within the civilian population. It was worrying times but we felt that doing this was a very important symbolic gesture to make. Dharmasiri Bandaranaike also screened his films in the Batticaloa Shanti Theatre. People in Batticaloa got an opportunity to learn about the ordinary Sinhala life and challenges.

Dharmasiri also took my play Ravanesan to the Sinhala audience in Colombo. The Sinhala community was provided an opportunity to learn about the different culture, dance and theatre traditions existing in the East of Sri Lanka.

We also jointly organised a workshop for Sinhala artistes in Colombo, on Koothu dance traditions from the East of Sri Lanka. At the final performance of the workshop I was talking about my early theatre experiences at the University of Peradeniya in 60s. I mentioned about the productions of Prof. Sarachandra and Prof. Vithiyananthan in the 1960s. I mentioned that I played a Ravana in Ravanesan produced by Prof.Vithiyananthan and a wonderful actor called Mark Anthony played the Sinhaya role in Sinhabahu produced by Prpf.Sarachandra.

I was praising the marvellous acting of Mark Anthony and suddenly I heard a voice from the audience saying ' I am here'. He was living in London but had come to see the final performance of the workshop.

It was a significant moment when old artists from two theatre traditions met after 40 years.

He performed some sections from Sinhabahu and I performed some sections from Ravanesan. It was a very thrilling experience for the audience – they came to know about two Sri Lankan traditions – not as Sinhala tradition and Tamil tradition. I hoped that this moment would be a milestone for the future generations to work together.

In 2009, I took 50 theatre students from the Eastern University to meet the Jana Karaliya group of Parakrama Niriella in Colombo. They had arranged for us to visit all the famous theatres in Colombo such as Tower Hall, John de Silva, El Phinston and the Jana Kala Kendraya etc.. It was very exciting for the theatre students to see the old traditional halls. Jana Karaliya had also arranged traditional artists to come and perform, kolam, sokari, Thovil, and our students performed the traditional forms of dance from the East. We had a very interesting discussion about folk dance and traditional dance, and how there were so many commonalities among these dance forms. We discussed how these traditional dance forms were part of the soil of Sri Lanka and not as Sinhala and Tamil culture.

They had arranged a translator for us to talk with the Sinhala students. I said we dont want a translator. I asked my students to go and speak to the Sinhala students who were practicing Kandyan dance at the Jana Kala Kendraya. First they were reluctant saying we dont know the language. I said they also don’t know Tamil but you are all artists and are theatre people. You can communicate with each other. After one hour I could see that the students had become friends with each other. It was very important for me to see this and they exchanged their mobile numbers also!

In 2010 January, I took Ravanesan to be performed in Lionalwendt Theatre, Colombo again. Ravanesan is based on the Vadamodi dance traditions of the East. After the performance, Chitrasena's daughter Upekha came to talk with me. She was very interested in our performance and wanted to work together with us. We discussed about how we need to show all these dance and theatre traditions as Sri Lankan art.

What I am trying to say is, there have been a lot of things that have been done over the years to bring about unity among our communities, by individuals and groups

. Hope is human nature therefore we all have to try in our own way to make this spirit.

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