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
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The best preparation for business school from Harvard Business School

Get ready for your MBA, wherever you are going.

Getting accepted to a top-tier B-school seems like an achievement, which it is, but it’s only the beginning. The real grind comes after, once the program has begun. The very aspects that make an MBA education so valuable – high caliber classmates, a variety of business subjects, highly skilled and demanding professors, massive amounts of learning – also make it challenging. Additionally, the pace of learning can seem daunting. A preparatory course that teaches the fundamentals of business can alleviate the pressure and set students up for success. It can also help students make the most of their time at B-school, learning from all stimuli rather than struggling to catch up with the basics.

CORe (Credential of Readiness), a program offered by HBX, the online learning platform of Harvard Business School (HBS), does exactly this. CORe offers a comprehensive portfolio of essential preparatory courses in Accounting, Analytics, and Economics – grounded in real world problem solving and delivered via a highly-engaging online platform, to make business school aspirants ‘MBA-ready’.

Is it for you? 

Entrants to MBA programs come from diverse educational backgrounds and work experience. The difference between what an engineer, doctor, lawyer, commerce graduate, humanities graduate or chartered accountant studies is huge. Yet, in B-school, they are taught in one class and compete on the same turf. The CORe program is for students / professionals who may have never learned, or don’t feel at home with, business fundamentals. It is also valuable for people who have studied business but perhaps need a refresher before stepping back into a classroom environment.

Designed as a primer, CORe integrates the essential aspects of business thinking into three courses – ‘Business Analytics’, ‘Economics for Managers’ and ‘Financial Accounting’. These are the three classes that Harvard Business School faculty determined were essential to success in an MBA program and in the business world. Business Analytics, for example, trains students in quantitative methods used to analyze data. This is especially useful for students from humanities courses or professional courses that had limited application of mathematics, statistics and quantitative concepts. Delving into areas such as describing and summarizing data, sampling and estimation, hypothesis testing and regression, it initiates students into the MBA mode of applying mathematical and statistical principles to understanding and solving real life business situations.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

Economics is the foundation of several business aspects such as customer demand, supplier cost, pricing, market dynamics, and competition. Through the Economics for Managers course, students learn to not only understand economic principles, but also use economics as a way of thinking and decision-making, in the context of business. Prof. Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX says, “We want to have you see and appreciate where and how companies get it right, where they use economic logic in powerful ways, and where they can sometimes fall into decision-making traps. This is a course that we, at HBS, want every one of our students to master before they enter our MBA program.”

The third course, Financial Accounting, is designed for students who do not have a business or accounting background. It teaches financial accounting, the backbone of all businesses, from the ground up. Students need a strong understanding of financial statements even for subjects such as Operations Management and Strategy. Since the course is taught through the case-based method with real business scenarios rather than plain theory, it can be a real eye-opener. Says Amita Metkari, Mechanical Engineer, looking to pursue an MBA, “The CORe platform is riveting. Cogent design and presentation of the platform has helped me get over my bias of subjects like accounting being dull, so much so that reading articles online about a company’s cash flow statements or analyzing a balance sheet has become my happiness fix.”

The HBS teaching method using a powerful virtual learning platform  

HBX blends the tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of technology to offer immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive virtual learning platform. What makes it fun and effective is that the platform and the courses are designed for real-world problem-solving, active learning, and social learning.

Real-world business scenarios are posed to students to solve, and they learn the theory inductively. Students have real profiles and get to know their classmates, as the platform enables peer-to-peer networking and collaborative learning. Frequent reflections and interactive activities necessitate attentiveness and encourage knowledge sharing and active discussion between students. While HBX courses are self-paced; participants are required to meet weekly deadlines. This helps keep the cohort, a class of typically 300 students, on track and supports the social elements of the learning experience.

Play

CORe is offered throughout the year with durations ranging from 8 to 17 weeks. Each program length teaches the same content, but allows students to choose the time intensity that suits them. Applicants can also choose cohorts that provide the credit option of CORe, which will earn them eight undergraduate credits from Harvard Extension School or Harvard Summer School. Upon successful completion of the program, including passing an in-person final exam, students receive a Credential of Readiness from HBX and Harvard Business School. Students may also receive an official-grade transcript, and are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty, and experience the HBS campus near Cambridge. Applicants to Harvard Business School can include CORe course credential in the application, but this will be considered in the larger context of a holistic selection process.

Interested candidates submit a free, 10-15-minute application by the deadlines noted on the HBX website. For more information and frequently asked questions, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.