The 2nd Edition of the Colombo International Theatre Festival (CITF), March 26 to April 5, 2013, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the British School.

Ajay Joshi[1]

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On getting an invitation to attend the 2nd edition of the Colombo International Theatre Festival (CITF), as an international observer and also lecturer at the University on theatres of India, I was excited. Not an excitement to attend a festival in a foreign land, which by and large would fall in step with any other, but to come close to a theatre which emerges from a country freshly nursing its wounds from a bloody war.

Sri Lanka has a long tradition of theatre, drawing from its folk traditions and also the successes at the commercial circuit, where plays are known to be performed for decades together. While at the festival, I didn’t witness any performances from the commercial circuit, but came away impressed by the theatres done in the rural setting, especially the Janakaraliya Mobile Theatre, ‘theatre of the people’, which is a big hit with the locals, and stands tall in its objectives of bridging a gap between the warring factions and addressing issues relevant to the traumatised society today. Fortunately one such performance by the artistes of Janakaraliya Mobile Theatre, staged at the festival, had me bold over.

The CITF is an attempt by writer, director, producer and publisher M. Safeer and his competent troupe of young volunteers of the Interactart, to use theatre as a kind of catharsis for the society and a vent to the suppressed angst and artistic cravings of the youth. The war had condemned and strangulated this expression, which the CITF attempts to streamline and, in the bargain, to draw the crowds back to the theatres they patronised. Along with this, Safeer also launched the first Black Box theatre in Sri Lanka in 2008, which is slowly but decisively finding its roots.

The second edition of the festival had presentations from Saudi Arabia (The Other World), Austria (Zheng He when the Dagon Ships Came), Azerbaijan (Contrabass), India (The Last Colour, by Dhyaas, Pune and Cafila and Knotted Ropes by the students of Flame School of Performing Arts, Pune) and Sri Lanka (Disaster Market).

Most performances held at the British School in Colombo failed to draw crowds by the drone, but media publicity, networking and personal interest did create engaging discussions and appreciation. Though the invited countries presented well with their highlights and pitfalls, it was the presentation by the Srilankans that held my attention. It was performed by the artistes of the Janakaraliya.

The Janakaraliya Mobile Theatre was started in 1975, a brainchild of Parakrama Niriella and is the first ever and only mobile theatre in Sri Lanka, which believes that “Where Drama is performed, there springs a Rangabhoomi (Performing Space). Their aim is to bridge the divide that exists between the nations polarised communities, by coming together as a multi-ethnic troupe.

This mobile theatre structure has been designed such that its assembly, lighting and sound installation, as well dissembling and transportation can be easily done by the artistes. The makeshift tent has a capacity to house 800 adults and 500 children. It is constructed on the New Arena Concept, with the audience on all four sides, or a ‘thrust’ stage, performing in varied spaces like the mobile theatre, proscenium or open-air spaces. Since 2003 the Janakaraliya has been carrying the travelling drama through the country and providing theatrical expression to the common man and the future generations. During theatre art excursions, Parakrama and his colleagues train multi-ethnic groups of performing artists and produce drama in both Sinhalese and Tamil. This attempts at overcoming racial barriers, promote brotherhood and expose the ‘Falsehood of War’.

Their production Disaster Market was a hit from the word go. It amply proved that language is never a problem when the actors are competent enough to tell their stories, using theatric tools effectively. Encapsulating the germ of the play, director Parakrama Niriella says, “In this globalised society where art and culture, human thoughts, the sorrows and humanity including all impermanent things are sold, who is the lunatic who will not sell disaster? It has to be like that. It has to be like that where everything has an extraordinary value in the social context.”

A tragic moment in “Disaster Market” © Janakraliya Mobile Theatre
A tragic moment in “Disaster Market” © Janakraliya Mobile Theatre

With this thought in mind, the play opens a Pandora’s Box, spilling out frame after frame of events which spell this dilemma. With no protagonist in an actor in place, it is this thought that takes centre stage, and dons the shoes of one. Covering a vast plethora of events which directly or indirectly spell disaster, the director manoeuvres his actors, to take on different characters. Jilted love-affairs, arson and looting, kidnapping, murder, glitz and glamour and its undertones, natural calamities and the resultant disasters, both physical and emotional, are captured in quick changing frames of scenes. Each scene grimly related and marketed as Disasters, plague the society and ironically portray the times we live in. However, there is so much happening on stage and at such a fast pace, that at one end it is laudable how effectively the artists display their sense of timing, coordination and energy level, but at the other end unsettles the vigilant viewer, who is trying to keep pace with the unfolding drama.

Once this is established and the horror of its aftermath sinks in, next steps in the market, which decorates this revulsion to make it a marketable commodity. Advertisements, television, cinema, fashion shows, grapple to capture the unleashed terror and pathos, to climb the ladder of market ratings. This tug of war scales greater heights of madness, which at its pinnacle seems pointless. In the frenzy of showcasing the repercussion of such gruesome calamities, they loose their sensitivity to the cause, and run it as any other programme on ‘television’. Talk shows, culinary experts tickling your palate with delicacies, advertisements, share space between commercial breaks, with visuals of mourning relatives, orphaned children, mutilated bodies, war torn locales, with no sign of apathy for the distressed. The resultant potpourri of visuals blurs emotions and the tragedies and makes ‘disaster marketable’. In trying to handle this topic, the director has touched a raw nerve, giving it a universal hue and not restricting it merely as a local phenomenon. It appeals, as it applies to similar situation, across the world.

There was a danger of such a topic getting handled in a clichéd manner. A straight narrative with matter of fact pointers could have easily carried off the point. But the director chose to skirt the obvious, and instead give a power- packed performance. He is known to develop the character through what the actor brings to the scene. This gives his actors ample space to be creative and innovative and then proceed to improvise and refine specific acts. And this is what I noticed here.

While on the face of it he has used comedy as a balm to cover a thin veil over his concerns, the undertone of the tragic doesn’t go unnoticed. For those who follow the language, they were in splits and for the others, a smile to watch the histrionics on stage, did not leave their faces.

The play opens to a damsel in despair waiting for a letter from her lover. It arrives by a post, and what follows is a riot. Many sequences follow in quick succession, moving from this romantic musing to scenes of kidnapping, rioting, murder, looting and disaster. None of these depictions are patchy but gracefully flow one into the other. By simple readjustments of space and property, the live musicians at times detached, at other times a part of the play as characters, entire locales are created. The actors deftly don a cap, wrap a scarf, change intonation of their voice, or then add a gig to their step, to conjure up characters by the dozen. And this to me was the brilliance of the performers. They appeared to be in complete control, carving perfect characters distinguished by voice, body movements, facial expressions, interaction between themselves, use of space and time sequences‒creating and changing faster than the eye could follow. Doubtless it is their training at the mobile theatre to perform in open spaces, that they had well-tuned and melodious voices‒ loud and clear, and their characters well defined and sharp, probably enabling good viewing even from a distance.

With well defined circularly painted faces, the breathtaking raw energy of the actors set the stage on fire. They flitted from one character to the other with ease, undertaking their roles with élan. The costumes were apt and the colours creating a vibrant tapestry in this sordid tale. The musicians tuned well with the theme, accompanied by the robust yet melodious singing by the actors. Such was the setting and powerful performances that this play could be staged in any space without the crutch of technology, which made it alluring. The director minces no corners to make his angst felt. He has bravely showcased this issue, which jars you from complacency and gives you sleepless nights. The play ends on a high note, with an appeal for action. However the tragic scenes were overtly melodramatic and could have done well with some editing. But for this minimalistic lacuna, this was one performance that brought freshness to the festival, shaking you to the realities of life.

The grand finale of “Disaster Market” © Janakraliya Mobile Theatre
The grand finale of “Disaster Market” © Janakraliya Mobile Theatre

On a concluding note mention needs to be made of the involvement of the various universities in the theatre movement in Sri Lanka. Though I didn’t see any of their productions, it was endearing to see the efforts the Drama departments put in to train the students in this art. They then join hands with the local theatres or the mobile theatres and lend support to this movement. This confluence of academics and practice generates a breed, which practices what it preaches, which is important especially to a country where theatre has the potential to bring in reform.


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[1] Ajay Joshi has been practicing dentistry for the past 23 years in his clinic in Pune, Maharashtra (India). He has a Master Diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication and his PhD thesis addressed “The Role and Contribution of theatre criticism toward Marathi Theatre.” He has written on culture, especially theatre, for The Indian Express for the past eight years, translated plays and organized several workshops on theatre, such as the recent course on the History of Marathi theatre, at Marathwada University, Aurangabad. Recently—May 2010—he organized a three-day theatre festival of Budhan Theatre (a theatre of protest of the nomadic tribes), from Charranagar, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in Pune.

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Disaster Market: the Srilankan Experience