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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.