Singing and Dancing about War and Peace

BY Malavika Karlekar| IN Media Practice | 01/01/1900
By conveying the message of war and disability a unique play tries to educate the media to change its ways of reporting on war, peace, and the "normal body".

Malavika Karlekar

There are many ways of telling and re-telling stories of brutalisation and displacement in a world ripped apart by war and ethnic strife. The question of how much blood and gore should be shown by the media continues to be hotly debated - the central issue being what can convey the message of hatred and violence best to an audience without transgressing established parameters of communication ethics.  

In Sri Lanka, ethnic violence has dominated print and visual reportage for well over two decades, yet, as the directors of the Colombo-based Butterflies Theatre Company said recently, the plight of the internally displaced people (IDPs) has been sorely neglected.  The theatre group is part of a well known charitable organisation, the Sunera Foundation. Their play Flowers Will Always Bloom tries to influence the dominant discourse through a simple story line, though with a difference: it is enacted by victims of the war as well mentally and physically challenged young people.  It is theatre as media, stretching the possibilities of what conventional media can convey.

Staged in New Delhi on April 7 as part of the National School of Drama¿s National Theatre Festival, Flowers Will Always Bloom essentially `sees¿ through the eyes of the wise man played by R.D.R.D. Rajapakse who is also blind. Here the blind man witnesses what others do not see or perhaps do not wish to see. Another character, Roshani, who lives in a multi-religious community, has lost both her sons in a bomb attack. The young boys had strayed away one day and got injured in the blast only to be adopted later by a grateful, childless Tamil woman. Roshani fearing their death and feeling the absence of her sons threatens to kill herself when the blind man counsels her: She has a beautiful voice, he says and can bring much happiness to those in darkness and misery.  So Roshani  performs a ritual burial for her sons and carries on with her life.

In the meantime, the brothers who have lost their legs and power of speech are brought up by their Tamil mother in a refugee camp. Lieutenant Col H.D.G. Tillekeratne, who as a soldier in the Sri Lankan army had actually had his legs blown off in action, plays one of the boys. As the young boys grow up the violence around them intensifies. Coincidentally, one day, Roshani comes to sing nearby and the blind man asks the Tamil mother to take her adopted sons to the performance. As she sings a childhood lullaby, her sons recognize Roshani¿s voice and burst into speech. But there is no happy end in sight even as the mother is miraculously united with her sons. A bomb blast rents through the stage and the cast breaks into a final, exhortatory song.

Not surprisingly, Flowers Will Always Bloom ended to a standing ovation. An overwhelmed Delhi audience responded strongly to the plays sensitive rendering of that basic human emotion--- survival at all costs. The cast of over forty young men and women - four of them in wheelchairs that doubled up as huts, vehicles and other stage props - danced and sang with unique synergy.

Given the varying levels of ability of the cast, the crowd scenes as well as those of camp life were amazingly well synchronised. As a confident young woman with Downs¿ Syndrome danced with two of the country¿s leading women dancers, the play melded notions of ability/disability, war/peace in a skilful juxtaposition of inclusion and harmony. Somewhat reminiscent of the street theatre and jatra modes, Flowers Will Always Bloom has brought home the message of war and disability to audiences not only in Sri Lanka as well as in London and Brisbane.
Through powerful scenes in the refugee camp, the play conveyed the tensions and inter-personal dynamics prevalent in these spaces: the official solutions to displacement are often demeaning and hierarchical. While bringing into focus these issues, the cast spoke of the human commitment to overcome the ravages of war and displacement as well as those of disability. 

Sunethra Bandaranaike, clearly the spirit behind the Sunera Foundation said that one of the aims of the group was to create a positive attitude towards disability. She pointed out, that of Sri Lankan`s total population of 18 million, almost 1.3 million was disabled - either due to war or due to natural causes.  ?We say, you¿ve got the wrong ideas about disabled persons. Let¿s give them inputs they need and at the very least they will be better integrated in their homes - and not regarded as an embarrassment to their families.? 

Of course, she hardly needed to add that a play like Flowers Will Always Bloom did much more than provide these young people familial and social acceptability. It gave them space, energy and joie de vivre to reach out to a new level of participation and experience. She briefly outlined how the whole effort was possible. Through workshops advertised by press releases as well as by word of mouth, 15 experts from different parts of the country trained young people in theatre and body movements. Most participants came from under privileged backgrounds and though a few were talented enough to make it to the stage performance level, as a result of the play many more were able to achieve a level of self-confidence and belief in their bodies which they had so far regarded as burdensome and deformed.
While the immediate aim was of course therapy and involvement of participants, through this activity, the Sunera Foundation also hoped to energise and educate conventional media to hold  informed discussions on disability. Occasionally, added Bandaranaike, ?a journalist - usually a woman - would write a pulling-at-your heartstrings kind of a story but by and large there was a deafening silence around the issue.?  And as for portrayals of war and the peace process, she said, once again the national media conveyed ?mixed vibrations? to the people.

While traditionally peace had not found much space in the forefront of major newspapers, this stance had somewhat changed with the coming of the present government.  The fact that Flowers Will Always Bloom received very favourable reviews in the national media led Bandaranaike to conclude that perhaps the Sunera Foundation would be able to make a dent in conventional modes of reporting on war, peace, disability and the ?normal body¿?.

Malavika Karlekar is at the Centre for Women¿s Development Studies, New Delhi  contact:

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