Confronting traditionalism on its own turf | Sunday Observer

Confronting traditionalism on its own turf

25 December, 2016

On the evening of December 4, Dennis Perera brought to life a performance of his ritualistically dramatic work titled Gotaimbara Kolama at the ‘Ape Gama’ premises in Battaramulla. The performance is called an experimental play and clearly does not comply with established genres of drama and theatre. The open-air outdoor show was presented as a November Production and Co-Produced by The Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust. The cast consisted of Amila Sandaruwan, Danushka Dias, Nilanka Dahanayake, Nino Jayakody, Dilum Buddhika, Pradeep Ramawickrama, Pramod Edirisinghe, Sankha Jayalath, Shalitha Dilshan Dissanayaka and Chaminda Dissanayeka. The show was well attended and well received by the audience that evening who witnessed a performance which in certain ways unfolded a ritual of cynical humour aimed at creating social-political critique.

The principal narrative structure basis adopted for this work of performance, which combines aspects of folk drama narrative and occultist ritualism, are visible as being of traditional Sri Lankan folk culture. To my observations Perera has fused elements from two folk traditions, which are – Kolam (a form of folk drama characterised by players wearing masks that designate their roles and characters in the performance) and Thovil (traditional rituals performed in villages and rural Sri Lanka as exorcisms) to create a performance that can be called in one way a dramatised ritual that narrates a storyline aimed at projecting a socio-political critique.

While this work does pulsate with the voice of social and political critique through dramatised performance I personally hesitate to accede that Gotaimbara Kolama qualifies as a work of theatre. This performance is certainly not one that is devised for the proscenium nor does it seem like one made for the amphitheatre or for that matter one that conforms to any of the established ‘stages’ on which theatre unfolds. It doesn’t appear to be within the design of street theatre either since Gotaimbara Kolama in that sense is far too elaborately designed and ‘stationary’ to fit that form. That being said one may dub it a modern performance deriving its ‘garb, parlance and motion’ from traditions of yore and seeking claims of parenting a new approach to dramatised storytelling.

The show begins with an introduction by a ‘master of ceremonies’ cum narrator who is part of the dramatic ensemble as well. Gotaimbara Kolama as a performance is said to invoke blessings upon Sri Lanka which has been wracked by corruption and turmoil which has resulted in continuous underdevelopment.

The ‘act’ that is offered with all the trimming of an elaborate traditional folk ritual is the fictional story of King Gotaimbara who faces a national crisis when the women in the land began disobeying their men and rebel against the established order.

There is a strong flame of feminist politics that come out through this work while the larger vein of ideological thrust within the dramatic dialogic discourse constructed through the performance builds on denouncing localism in favour of socio-cultural liberalism. The scheme of criticism in this work fights purist notions of indigenous culture and tends to posit the rural and traditional as regressive and parochial.

Through the cynicism one does see an extremity being courted in this work at times, which is to portray any rightwing thesis of national culture as falsehood or at best unintelligible abstract expressions. This perspective is best stated at the juncture King Gotaimbara is left with a vocabulary of but five words to cobble verbal communication when he declares that only words which are inherently local should be used for speech. Thus sieving out what is of ‘foreign origin’ leaves the ‘purist’ with limitations that disallow development.

In the tradition of the kolam folk plays Perera has resorted to the nonsensical to build humour and entertainment while also delivering critical perspective.

Another extremity that one finds within this work is how the notion of the ‘local beauty’ or ‘village beauty’ is ridiculed as a lice infested yokel. In this instance perhaps the politics of the work states a claim of favouring cosmopolitanism over localism. The larger scheme of politics in which this work finds its ground can be seen as the vociferous battle of internationalism against traditionalism that lends to nationalist ideology.

When looking at the overall politics of this work as to how its form and content has been devised, it appears as an endeavour where traditional form has been adopted for the purpose of denouncing tradition which may be deemed an efficient craft of political craftiness within the sphere of art that seeks to critique the system. The text, storyline, costumes, performance method and setup all indicate an elaborate effort to achieve an artistic performance that seeks to reject notions of traditionalism while entertaining the audience through traditional form.