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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.