If the ’70s and ’80s had to be summed up in a single sentence, one could say it was among the most turbulent decades in Sri Lankan history. The two Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrections in the south, the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in many parts of the island, the rise of the LTTE in the north and the emergence of an open economy in the late ’70s created a climate of chaos, uncertainty and fear that affected people across the country.
By mid-1973, under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the government created a powerful agency of press control, the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC), bringing under its purview the publishers of 60% of all newspapers. With the creation of the SLPC, the Lake House legislation and the reserve emergency powers held by the government, the access to information became very limited.
The succeeding J.R. Jayewardene government started with an open approach, but soon began to threaten and exercise greater control over the media. For instance, censorship of the press continued to be used at key political moments, such as during the 1982 referendum that extended the life of Parliament by six years.
Very soon, any type of news was satirically referred to as pacha puvat (“bogus bulletins”) and it was afforded limited credibility. According to some studies, it was during those years that modern Sri Lankan theatre grew to be recognised as a reliable source of information.
The Paradox Of Censorship
A 1994 report by Article 19, a British rights group that promotes free speech, titled An Agenda for Change: The Right to Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka describes the wide range of methods used to impose censorship: “Many obstacles to freedom of expression existed in law: emergency regulations, for example, were used by governments to shut down newspapers, seal printing presses, imprison political opponents without charge or trial, and even enabled security forces to destroy evidence of possible extrajudicial executions.” Informal methods included threats and attacks upon journalists, other media workers and writers for expressing views or publishing material that the authorities preferred to repress.
Not only the government, but armed opposition groups also attempted to silence their critics, fostering a culture of fear. In the north, the LTTE sought to suppress all voices of dissent or criticism, and only pro-LTTE newspapers were published in Jaffna. Besides killing thousands of Sinhalese and Muslims, the LTTE also imprisoned and murdered many Tamil civilians suspected of opposing them.
In the south, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Sinhalese Marxist armed opposition group, began assassinating members of the ruling United National Party (UNP) and members of other parties — including the likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga — who supported the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord after it was signed in 1987. During the 1987-89 insurgency in the south, the media became a target of the JVP, who called for a boycott of state-owned media and killed some senior media personnel, as well as people selling government-owned newspapers.
Modern theatre filled the gap left by the loss of credibility of other forms of media. Theatre also avoided censorship in different ways, according to former Princeton University Professor Ranjini Obeyesekere:
- The actors’ ability to camouflage the text of a play with the slightest gesture or movement undeniably helped to circumvent the censorship machine.
- Thanks to a space for questioning things and the tradition of scepticism professed by Buddhism, most Sinhala plays avoided censorship.
- The majority of playwrights engaged in serious theatre and subtle/challenging works difficult to censor, as for the most part they were not didactic political pieces or ideological treatises.
Surprisingly, even when theatres were overtly against the government, plays received state funds, and politicians were also part of the audience. Sinhala folk traditions play an important role in explaining this paradox.
Prof. Obeyesekere presents a continuum between traditional folk dramas (like Sokari and Kolam), ritual performances (like the ritual of the Sanni demons) and the modern Sri Lankan theatre, which are all linked by a strong satirical impulse. She draws a comparison between exorcist rituals and modern theatre: just as in Sinhala rituals that undermined the power of demons, so did the modern Sinhala theatre of the 1980s subvert the power of the ruling elite. This continuity explains why a government that suppressed all other forms of dissent gave a special “licence” to the theatre. Prof. Obeyesekere also points out that unlike newspapers, television and radio, theatrical space not only more closely resembled the sacred space of traditional ritual, but it was also an enclosed space, with clearly defined boundaries — thus easier to control.
Conversely, with a less formally defined performance space and a more dynamic nature, street theatre was viewed as more inciting and so subject to censorship. Introduced in the ’70s, street theatre delivered the truth of the nation and attracted people from every social background, unlike conventional theatre.
Street troupes posed a more significant threat, and the state had a weaker grip over their plays. Performances were overtly ideological, and their satire more direct, therefore more easily categorised as subversive political activity. In addition, without a stage, the closer physical proximity between actors and audience made it easier to involve and inform people.
The Formation Of A National Theatre
After Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, politics had a significant impact on theatre. It started with the identification of a ‘national theatre’, since Sri Lanka is multiethnic and multicultural. The national theatre was then called ‘desheeya’, by the Sinhalese, and ‘thesiya’ by the Tamils, which both mean ‘nationwide’.
The Tamil scholar and playwright S. Vithiananthan created his own works in Batticaloa by using different styles of theatre. He was inspired by the work of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, one of Sri Lanka’s truly legendary Sinhala playwrights, and worked hard to develop Tamil theatre concurrently with Sinhala theatre. Prior to the ethnic problems, theatre was a space where Sinhalese and Tamils complimented each other through plays. In particular, they complimented each other in terms of the morals discussed and the themes presented about the nation to the nation.
With the advent of discriminatory laws towards the Tamil minority, the idea of the ‘national’ was identified so much more in terms of Sinhala theatre that the flourishing of Tamil plays became secondary, as asserted by Professor Kanchuka Dharmasiri in her article From Narratives of National Origin to Bloodied Streets: Contemporary Sinhala and Tamil Theatre in Sri Lanka. The 1956 Sinhala Only Act fueled the identification of Sinhala theatre as the national theatre of Sri Lanka, and together with the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, Tamil plays became almost non-existent in Colombo, confining their development to the north-eastern parts of the island.
Thahanam Adaviya (The Forbidden Area)
Audiences in Sri Lanka had to wait until 1996 to see the ethnic problem seriously depicted on stage. Scholar Michael Fernando in Theatre in Politics and Politics in Theatre: Sri Lankan Experience since Independence, writes:
“[…] they have avoided this piece of social drama due to a lack of clear vision. There seemed to be an ambiguity regarding the point of view from which this problem should be portrayed before a Sinhala audience.”
The Sinhala-Tamil dramatist, professor and lawyer Visakesa Chandrasekaram was the producer of Thahanam Adaviya (The Forbidden Area, 1996), the first play to really address the Sri Lankan civil war. Prof. Chandrasekaram told Roar Media about his intent to portray on stage the constant state surveillance as well as attacks by the LTTE at the time.
“One day I was on a bus towards John de Silva theatre, and a woman was standing, wearing a salwaar kameez, her belly was unusually big. Everyone was looking at her suspiciously because she looked Tamil due to her dress code. It embarrassed her very much; the energy in the air was suspicious. Then I got down, and a big blast occurred, about a kilometre away from the theatre. A suicide bomber blasted herself when the army tried to examine her.”
He talked about his goal: “I wanted to pass the constant shock of the war and share it with the Sinhalese people. It did work, especially with the play’s final scene, when Urmila, the suicide bomber, walks towards the chief minister to assassinate him. In every theatre, I made Urmila walk through the audience. In this way, when she did so, it really affected them to face a suicide bomber. That was the ultimate shock.”
Prof. Chandrasekaram explained how Thahanam Adaviya was ultimately very much an anti-LTTE play, but not necessarily friendly to a Sinhalese-dominated government either. “Because they saw the critical points towards the LTTE, the Sinhalese audience tolerated the other part of the play. This was a trick I used to survive and circumvent censorship. However, some claimed the play to be against the government, and some Tamils said it was anti-Tamil.”
Theatre has represented every single high and low of the nation through the years until today, teaching that it is perfectly normal to be critical of one’s own society. It acted as a safe space for people to express their fear, anguish and despair in the teeth of crisis. People tended to believe actors and playwrights, and plays became a comforting space. Most importantly, at a time when political turmoil could easily spill over into the personal space, it was theatre that offered the chance to silently and anonymously watch and hear issues often censored in everyday life.