theatre of war

A Ramayana told through Ravana’s eyes captures the pain of Sri Lanka’s war-affected women

In the new iteration of S Maunaguru’s iconic play ‘Ravanesan’, Mandodari’s anti-war cries get amplified.

In India, Rama may be the ideal hero, the god-king who rescued his beloved from the clutches of a demon emperor, but in Sri Lanka, it is his antagonist, Ravana, who is loved and mourned as a tragic, misunderstood hero. A hero whose fatal flaw perhaps was his hubris.

Few people know the story of Ravana as intimately as Professor S Maunaguru. An authority on Sri Lankan Tamil theatre and a preeminent artiste, Maunaguru continues to study and revise the character in his plays. He was all of 22 when, as an undergraduate, he first wrote a now-iconic play titled Ravanesan, produced and staged by his mentor Professor S Vithiyananthan at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. Maunaguru even essayed the eponymous role of Ravana in that production, back in 1965.

Now a retired academic and veteran artiste of 73, Maunaguru has a gentle professorial look about him, with his thick mop of grey hair and a genial air. He has rewritten and restaged his play several times over the past half century, most recently in November 2016, during a countrywide festival to bring reconciliation between the North and South of Sri Lanka.

A still from Ravanesan. Courtesy: Professor S Maunaguru
A still from Ravanesan. Courtesy: Professor S Maunaguru

These past 50 years have not been easy. There was a time, Maunaguru reminisces, when theatre artistes couldn’t portray contemporary life without getting death threats. All artistes suffered the same restrictions, but for the artistes in the North and East, the peril was more pronounced. Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the secessionist group fighting for a separate Tamil state, was open to criticism – and to reflect the omnipresent violent reality of war in the arts, one had to be willing to risk one’s life. “Many of my colleagues and friends left the country and urged me to do the same, but I preferred to stay on in Sri Lanka, even with its constraints,” Maunaguru said. “My consuming passion was theatre and the different art forms of Sri Lanka and I couldn’t contemplate a life without it.”

Born in a hamlet in Batticaloa, in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, Maunaguru was among the first batch of students in his village to ever attend school. “I was born into a rich indigenous village culture, which had remained largely free of western influences at the time of my birth,” he said. “I grew up to the sound of traditional instruments such as the udukku, savanika and Silambu at temple festivals and village square performances. That was my first exposure to art and music. That indigenous culture remains deeply ingrained within me.”

Decades later, to get around the unwritten curbs that precluded a modern artist from depicting contemporary situations, Maunaguru turned to “exclusively researching indigenous art and producing only mythical/historical productions”.

Courtesy: S Maunaguru
Courtesy: S Maunaguru

As the professor evolved as an academic and artiste, he gained new insights about his hero, which he infused into his character in the script.

“I heavily reedited Ravanesan for a year 2000 production,” he said. “With insight as an older man, I tried to portray Ravana as a more human character. Rather than the usual arrogant portrayal, I depicted him as someone who brashly entered war, realised it was a mistake but was too proud to back out. The next thing I knew, I was getting angry calls based on some interesting and innovative interpretations of my meanings in the play. I had a lot of trouble defending myself against inferences in the contemporary context, which I still don’t want to talk about.”

Maunaguru might have chosen to stick to ancient, mythical lore rather than focus on contemporary stories – but, like any good artist, he was always able to connect with the audience. To a people caught in a civil war, his enactment of an ancient, mythical conflict held many parallels they could relate to.

Maunaguru at a workshop with his students. Courtesy: S Maunaguru
Maunaguru at a workshop with his students. Courtesy: S Maunaguru

Women’s perspective

In Sri Lanka, both during the civil war and thereafter, women have been affected in myriad ways, yet their perspectives, pain and fears find little expression in either the media or the arts. From the rule of Ravana to the times of Prabhakaran and Rajapakse, the general narrative remains that of men, their triumphs and losses.

“Whether it was Draupadi in the Mahabharatha, Helen in the Iliad, or Sita in the Ramayana, men simply used the women as props to raise the tale of their own valour,” said Maunaguru.

What happens though, when the male storyteller has a feminist wife? We don’t know about Valmiki, Homer and Kamban, but in the case of Maunaguru, he had to rewrite his script. Chitralega Maunaguru, an academic and a feminist leader in Sri Lanka, did not let her husband get away with giving a bit part to Ravana’s wife Mandodari in Ravanesan.

“The original Mandodari I wrote was a cry-baby, but Chitra was scornful of my interpretation,” remembered Maunaguru. “Even as the war unravelled in Sri Lanka, she was travelling the country, listening to and documenting women’s stories. She let me know what women would have had to say in Mandodari’s place, and I rewrote my script accordingly.”

Courtesy: S Maunaguru
Courtesy: S Maunaguru

As a result, the current interpretation of Ravanesan gives space to the war cries of Ravana but also to the anti-war cries of his wife – in it, Mandodari relays the grief of women who have had their agency hijacked by men and yet have paid the steepest price for the war. It depicts not only the folly of Ravana, the tragic anti-hero too proud to back out of a war which he knows will devastate his people, but also Mandodari, the tragic feminist icon who knows all too well the repercussions of war, and seeks to counsel her husband that the concept of honour can take many forms. Like many women, Mandodari knows that there is no cowardice in backpedalling or extending an olive branch.

With the revision, we don’t have men alone telling the story of war from their vantage viewpoint. The women are being given their due space too. As a culture evolves, so do the voices of its legends. “The story of Mandodari and Ravana continue to live on in the minds of their people, but as living legends I told Maunaguru that they have to evolve with the times,” said Chitralega, when asked about her input to her husband’s famous play.

And thus this tale as old as time, reverberated with its audience in both North and South Sri Lanka where it was staged last year. The thespian has done his job once again in getting his audience to connect with his story. And this time, we could put a name to the woman behind his success.

Courtesy: S Maunaguru
Courtesy: S Maunaguru
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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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