World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Sri Lanka

The theatre scene in Sri Lanka has been long in the making. As a country with roots in Theravada Buddhism, many believed that it was vital to tend toward solitary contemplation versus congregational practices or participation in community life. Thus, theatre arts were hard to come by until the 1950s when a serious scene began to develop. Local theatre has since become a melange of early folk ritual, dance drama, and Western theatre, creating a medium unlike any other.

The most recent hit out of the country is a new musical by Jehan Aloysius entitled ‘Rag’ which grapples with the divisive practice of ragging – a ritual seen by some as an equalizing activity, and by others as worse than bullying and hazing. Ragging is typically enforced by senior students on younger ones and includes forced consumption of alcohol, insects, and/or chemicals, physical exertion to the point of organ failure, and an assortment of humiliating activities meant to break the newcomers upon their arrival.

The show’s creator, director, composer and lead actor, Aloysius, has been developing the show for more than ten years, sparked by his own experiences with ragging at university. When Aloysius first received his university acceptance letter he was filled with dread and hid it from his mother. Four months later she found it, and off to school he went.

During his eventual ragging, he was spared some of the worst practices but he says that his classmates underwent processes worse than what he could have imagined. Some of these events have made their way into the show. While the show circles instances of rape, discrimination, shame and suicide, the writer’s efforts to reveal the darker side of university life ultimately provide for a cathartic experience.

Aloysius sought out a cast who had experienced ragging first-hand and after auditioning 250 people, he assembled his lead cast of 12. The story follows the creator’s character, Joseph, who starts a non-violent anti-ragging movement which runs into opposing forces who say it must be violently resisted. The result is an empowering musical that’s breaking boundaries abroad.

The show’s standing ovations and rapturous praise stand testament to the idea that creative expression continues to be one of the best mediums for processing struggle.
If something goes wrong, make art.

6 thoughts on “World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Sri Lanka

  1. Back in college I did a paper on Ceylon/Sri Lankan theatre. It was really a fascinating scene, and how it came out of the long civil war they had made it that much more amazing. Cool blog!

      • I actually dug up that old thing… A+ all the way… here’s the crux of the paper:

        “Anybody looking at this situation would assume that theater during this period must have been non-existent. The amazing part is that theater was not only continuing during this time, it was bigger and more successful than ever before! The government even subsidized an annual drama competition, and suggested that youths join theater troupes. In addition, the theater was left to critique and laugh at the current government and its officials. Why did they let this happen? Why was everything under complete control by the government, except the theater, and why was it allowed to be free from censorship? “As a colleague once remarked, ‘In South America, all it would take would be two policemen in that

        audience and the next day the play would be banned. What prevents that happening in Sri Lanka?” (Obeyesekere, p 64).
        The answer goes back many years. Sri Lankan society had always been politically minded. “As early as the 17th century this popular preoccupation with politics and people in power was commented on by an English seaman, Robert Knox…In it he remarks, with some surprise, that for entertainment, the Sinhalese engage in discussions about their rulers” (Obeyesekere, p 24). This political-mindedness continued in the ritual performances and folk dramas of the time: “In these performances there is a constant testing of authority, pushing it to its limits with laughter and ridicule. Deities, demons, and kings, and on occasion even Buddha himself are made fun of and laughed at” (Obeyesekere, p 24).
        The Buddhist culture on Sri Lanka taught people to be critical of everything around them, including their leaders. This political discussion and debate was a common occurrence throughout Sri Lanka until the ‘Time of Terror’. The stage was always considered a “permitted space”-that is a place where political and ideological ideas can be shown without reproach. Although every other form of political speech was censored and crushed in the 1980s, the stage was still allowed to be a permitted space.
        The plays performed during the ‘Time of Terror’ were very clever in their critiques of the powers that be, but they didn’t try to completely hide those criticisms either. Plays like Juriya and Naga Gurulá have plots that clearly mirror what was going on in Sri Lankan society at that time. Naga Gurulá even goes as far as to criticize the leaders of the Buddhist monk clergy, “who had taken no public stance on the violence unleashed in the society and were seen as silent supporters of the government. In accepting luxury mansions and Benz cars (totally contrary to the ascetic ideal associated with monks), they were seen as being effectively bought and silenced by the government” (Obeyesekere, p 58-59). Still, theaters in Sri Lanka were never closed and actors never had to flee the country, even though other types of artists had to. “The JVP, who puritanically punished ‘vices’ such as smoking and drinking with severe physical chastisement, and burnt printing presses, took no drastic action to stop plays, even those that were critical of their methods and policies as was the play Tala Mala Pipilá” (Obeyesekere,
        p 66).

      • Looks like I got most of my info back in the day from this book:

        -Obeyesekere, Ranjini, Sri Lankan theater in a time of terror. Sage Publications Inc, California, 1999.

        What an interesting culture!

      • “The stage was always considered a “permitted space”-that is a place where political and ideological ideas can be shown without reproach.” Wish this was true everywhere! I know a few countries that still struggle with the freedom of expression that theatre warrants. Thank you for sharing this Andy!

  2. Pingback: My Romanian Diary Day 14: Rain, sleep, insomnia, autobiographies, Amelie Nothomb and Niagara Falls « Lavinia Writing Corner

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