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[DRAMA Review] 

Sincerely appreciated

'Dear Children, Sincerely', a favourite at the International Theatre Festival in Trivandrum:

The 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, International Theatre Festival held in Trivandrum, Kerala from February 9-14 2016 became a paradise for theatre goers for a week to appreciate plays from different parts of the world. Participating in the Theatre Festival from Sri Lanka was the play 'Dear Children, Sincerely' presented by Stages Theatre Group, and directed by the famous playwright Ruwanthie de Chickera.

After three successful days of performance in Colombo end of March, Ruwanthie and team headed out to India to participate in Kashmir, New Delhi and Trivandrum. The play, a Sri Lanka- Rwanda collaboration became an instant favourite among the art loving people in Trivandrum.

Ruwanthie's team went on stage on the second day of the festival, which lasted a week. The most outstanding feature of the play was its international nature. The dramatist was able to juxtapose the history of two countries from two different continents, Asia and Africa, through the memories of a generation born in the 1930s. This is different from how we have known history, which is usually through the eyes of a historian. The play is a dramatic presentation of memories of thirty elders interviewed both in Sri Lanka and Rwanda, and their interpretation of incidents, conflicts and way of life. Presented in three parts, the play is a collection of personal journeys and, hence, a subjective elucidation of memoirs of a generation, which is in their 80s now.

Similar chord

Ruwanthie de Chickera

The audience is able to take a journey back through decades as the play unfolds; it is a journey that displays the richness of a generation; their pain, their regrets about what they did and did not do right; it is also about their innocence and simplicity that prevailed in a society that valued extended families and the related customs. By subtly portraying the nuances of seven decades, the play poignantly tries to connect with the new generation to convey a very strong message; that is to avoid the mistakes an older generation says, they did. This is the most important lesson one takes away from this play; it is a reminder not to repeat history. It is also a reminder to preserve what has been fought for and won, and not to re-ignite parochialism.

Rwanda and Sri Lanka strike a similar chord in recollecting memories of a bloodied past. The elders who were interviewed in two different times and space also convey similar pain and loss.

The play powerfully portrays how the colonial rulers sowed the seeds of ethnic divide among innocent Rwandans in 1930s by their divide and rule policy. Although the world silently watched the bloodied genocide in Rwandain the 1990s, it is still debated and researched on, in most post-conflict situations. Needless to mention, the audience watched the manipulations of the 'white man' with awe, as it struck a chord with their own colonial times, as recorded in history. The play was packed with subtle humour and symbolism, which enthralled the satire-loving Keralites. When the Sri Lankan independence was referred to as a 'gift' in comparison to the prolonged independence struggle that India went through, the applause became deafening. So was when the play employed humour in portraying, how, a 'Sinhala only' language policy excluded the Tamils over time and denied Tamil to enjoy equal status as an official language. By symbolically placing a bus with drivers who chanted the Sinhala only mantra, the play highlighted one of the most sensitive issues in Sri Lanka's protracted conflict; how language divided two ethnic communities and relegated one to be dominated by the other. One of the quotes by the elders alluded to the fact, how post-independent Sri Lanka could not continue what the British united, in terms of ethnic harmony.

Violent portrayal

The two youth insurrections in Sri Lanka were witnessed by the audience with utmost silence. The violent portrayal of the disillusionment of a young generation would resonate with any audience, especially Keralites. The burning issue of unemployment is not new to Keralites, where left wing student movements had always been strong and still remain an inevitable element during university days, although Keralahas not had bloodied insurrections like its island neighbour. The second part of the play provided immense opportunities for loud applause and hearty laughter. This part dealt with how the generation in the 1930s viewed love, marriage and sex. Marriage happened between two families and remained a strong social institution, where the parents decided and the young followed. Privacy was unheard of; but the institution never really collapsed due to the large support of the families involved and the society. Dowry was common; but it never bordered being a social evil.

The third part essentially summed up the blood bath both countries witnessed; how gradually, but surely a generation and the society it represented lost its human touch. Violent scenes of truth and haunted memories dominated this concluding section, which offered a rare visual treat to all art lovers.

Ruwanthi, whose writing has always remained socially significant, has once again displayed her acumen. As the saying in Sanskrit goes, Nadakantham Kavithwam, the craft of a dramatist is revealed at the end of a play. 'Dear Children, Sincerely', pays testimony to this.

Flaunting the flexibility

A play comes live through its actors and the ensemble. The unique international nature of actors made all the difference in the play. Art has no barriers; no language; only a common thread of artistry and the ability to evoke emotions. This was well spelt out in this play, loud and clear. The actors conquered the stage and the audience by flaunting the flexibility of their bodies and their measured, energetic movements. They became symbols of history, of a generation, whose value is often forgotten; whose memories are not well documented or archived. This play, now adopted in seven other countries, has attempted to fill this gap, which is to be applauded. Themise-en-scene well fitted the mood and message of the play.

During the question and answer session a few questions became relevant - why weren't the good developments during the seven decades find a place in the play? Why does Sri Lanka, being a Buddhist country witness so much of bloodshed and violence? "Memories are subjective, we remember what we choose to; and these are recollections of the elders interviewed; this is their memory and hence very subjective" answered Ruwanthie for the first question.

One of her team members tried to address the second question; "Buddhism is not understood in its true spirit by its followers, and that probably justifies." As a fellow spectator, I could feel this was discussed by people, while leaving the theatre, still relishing the outstanding performance of the evening .

My experience and feelings were unique that evening. Born and bred in Trivandrum, I am a naturalised citizen of Sri Lanka due to personal reasons. After living almost two decades in Colombo, witnessing massive socio-political changes and working in related fields, it was a rare opportunity to watch the dramatic representation of history of a country, of which I have intrinsically become a part.

- Anila S.K

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