Power, Performance, and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka

When Time Won’t Tell

by Ahalya Satkunaratnam and Venuri Perera, Dance Studies Association, Wisconsin, USA, 2019 | Volume XXXIX

See the source imageOn October 26, 2018, there was a constitutional coup in Sri Lanka whent he Executive President, Maithripala Sirisena, attempted to appoint the former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as his Prime Minister,thus ousting the current Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe. Lessthan two weeks later, the Executive President attempted to dissolve parliament and call for elections. Citizens gathered every evening in Colombo, calling the coup unconstitutional. A choreographer ventured to be present at the gathering. With body and face fully covered, the
choreographer attempted to hide the identifications that are politically deployed to divide common people—class, ethnicity,1  and gender.2   Masking voice, hands, feet, and body, the choreographer alternated between three different masks that loosely represented the three men at the crux of the crisis, the President, Former President, and Prime Minister. Standing with two bunches of bananas and next to a sign from the larger protest that read “Horn for Democracy,” the choreographer held another sign that corrected the official name of the state, “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, to the moniker “Banana Republic of Sri Lanka.” “Banana Republic” did not simply imply the political instability of a country, of the exploitation of one country by other governments, or the stratification of classes, but linked personally to local rituals and stories involving the fruit.3  Over the course of the evening, the choreographer engaged in various conversations with those that approached, learning of financial difficulties, the feelings of hopelessness, and the exhaustion with the elite in power.
See the source imageAt the time of the coup in October 2018, gathering in protest seemed possible and relatively safe. Today, in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, protest in support of a minority community is suspected of ethnic apologism and perceived as a threat to a burgeoning and “necessary” nationalism that promises safety in the nation. Thus, time has strongly shaped experience—of movement, both in terms of political mobilization and in terms of arts and their meanings—in Sri Lanka. We—two choreographers and dancers, one based in Sri Lanka and one from the diaspora—convened to write this essay via WhatsApp  on April 19, 2019, three days before the Easter Sunday attacks. In the days and weeks following, there was a shut-down of social media, an established curfew, and violent retaliations against the Muslim community, displacing several families. Time has strongly shaped what we share today, by limiting our connections and changing our focus. Time—the duration of politicians’ reigns, the
encounters with spectacular violence—influences dance and dancers, shapes choreography and its staging, and affects the movement ofartists within and beyond borders of the nation. The discussion that follows explores what are seen as unpredictable cycles  in Sri Lanka through performance. They are unpredictable as they are shaped by a moment in a future unknown, but as cycles, these moments return us to a familiar. As Sharika Thiranagama states in response to the Easter Sunday attacks, “We have been here before” (2019).
Returning to the protest to the potential coup in October 2018, the desire of the choreographer to make their identity absent is significant to our discussion of nation and performance in Sri Lanka. Ethnicity was central to the 26-year war (1983–2009) between the predominantly, ethnically Sinhala Government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil ethnic separatists, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Dance was made ethnic with the rising nationalism in Sri Lanka. As Bharatanatyam emerged in India and its popularity and potential (for upper caste and class women) circulated transnationally, it became a significant dance that crossed boundaries of ethnicity and religion (Satkunaratnam2013). In 1956, the popularity of the dance form among Sinhala women of economic and caste privilege encouraged the Sri Lankan state to create its own distinct and national form as a reflection of the
Sinhala Buddhist nation. Kandyan dance is a “recontextualisation”of the Buddhist ritual practice kohombakankariya (Reed 2009).  As nationalism strengthened into and with war, dance and ethnic identitywere intertwined, Tamil to Bharatanatyam; Sinhala to Kandyan.  Bharatanatyam became a form used not only to advance the Tamil nationalism of the LTTE, but also for inserting Tamilness outside the values of the LTTE, and for inserting meaningful and token inclusion under conditions of nationalist exclusion by the state (O’Shea 2016; Satkunaratnam 2013).
As ethnicity was tied to performance by the state in conjunction with war, it would remain so post-war. In fall 2009, just months after the end of the war, a commercial for the “Bring Back the Child” campaign presented a girl-child-soldier superimposed over an image of a Bharatanatyam dancer with the slogan: “She wants to be a dancer,
not a child soldier.” The campaign was on behalf of the Office of the President’s Programme of Rehabilitation. The dancer brought together two pervasive representations of Sri Lankan Tamil girlhood: soldier and the Bharatanatyam dancer. The government projected its image as one of “No Tolerance” of child recruitment. Ironically, to defeat the LTTE the government allied with former LTTE members known for recruiting children.

The years following the war brought fruitful connections across lands that were previously inaccessible. We ourselves met through the 2013 symposium, “War and Peace: Visual Narratives of Sri Lanka” that brought together contemporary artists across the country. It wasa moment of heated discussions of the privileges and disadvantages

produced in war. It illuminated that although the war was over, healing—whatever that meant in terms of recourse and belonging—were longer and harder conversations and processes. There, a range of visual and performing artists, many trained in “traditions” of local aesthetic forms, were creatively commenting on the militarism of the state and the militarism of the everyday during the 26-year war.7
Reconciliation is usually connected with the “exposure of truth” (Ntsebeza as quoted in Cole 2007, 184–86). It was revealed that the Sri Lankan Government knew of and perhaps colluded to hide the attacks on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019 (Gettleman, Mashal and Bastians 2019, Francis 2019). As ISIS claimed responsibility, the attacks amplified a persistent Islamophobia. Five years ago, Venuri Perera, a contemporary dancer trained in Kandyan dance and co-author of this work, choreographed Kesel Maduwa, a commentary on the rise of the right-wing during the post-war period. The piece was a response to a violent speech by Buddhist monks, which led to attacks and hate speech against the Muslim minority community that started taking place in 2014 (Hisano 2017). In an interview with Atsuko Hisano for the Japan Foundation, Perera says 
In Sri Lanka, monks are of a high social position and even the police cannot interfere with them. Being a Buddhist and also Sinhalese, I was so ashamed and angry about these incidents. I was commissioned to do the opening piece for “Colomboscope”festival, with the theme “Making History” in 2014, I used thisopportunity to create this work. In this piece, I look at religious and racial extremism as fringe insanity creeping into the core of society that needs to be exorcised with this “ritual” (Hisano 2017)
Kesel Maduwaperforms a satirical ritual that removes discrimination.  The works of protest call into question the absurdity and persistence of nationalism and the violence in its outcome that is stoked by religion. 
Time often holds a promise in war, it clasps the chance  of change,while the repetition of events holds patience and knowledge and through time, may break the cycle:
“We have been here before” (Thiranagama 2019).
“Hope has been murdered, yet there’s no reason to despair” (a headline of the Sri Lanka Brief soon after the constitutional crisisin October 2018)
The Easter Sunday attacks may entangle the country deeper in the mechanisms of the twenty-plus year American- and NATO-led Global War on Terror while securing the return of former hardline-nationalist officials to office. Amid threats to the safety of Muslims in the country, Muslim ministers of the government abandoned their seats. The choice in time holds the promise  of safety for their communities (Bastians andMashal 2019). The choreographer at the opening of our discussion now mobilizes for the safety of people internally displaced through the threat of retaliatory violence.
War, riots, and targeted attacks on particular ethnic communities can be viewed as occurring between those “who lived in the same local words” where neighbors and neighborhoods were transformed through violence in its mundane and momentous forms (Das and Kleinman 2000, 1). In considering lived, and “same local worlds,” we wish to emphasize strongly how the government of Sri Lanka throughout the war and until now, in the post-war era, has constructed climates of ethnic difference. Ethnicity as a homogeneous and given category can disguise how difference is also created and reiied through the government’s intervention on behalf of the safety of some communities and its suspicion and abandonment of others. The government of Sri Lanka throughout the duration of the war and in the post-war era constructed climates of ethnic difference and would seek to do so through performance.8   Time shapes collaboration and staging, it shapes the time for dance, and the dance.

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1. Sri Lanka is split in terms of language between Tamil and Sinhala speakers, but these two languages are spoken across religion and ethnicity and yet are inscribed onto identity, subsequently framing the popular understandings of the ethnic conflict as one between Tamils and the Sinhala people (Thiranagama 2011, 12).  The largest community in terms of ethnicity is the Sinhala who speak Sinhala, of whom the majority are Theravada Buddhists,the minority of whom practice various dominations of ChristianityTamil speakers are composed of different ethnic groups. The Sri Lankan Tamils are the largest Tamil-speaking minority group and are central to the ethnic conflict. Sri Lankan Tamils are composed of Hindus and Christians and are classified by the categories of
language and ethnicity. The second-largest minority are Muslims.  Although Tamil-speaking, Muslims are identified by the categories of religion and ethnicity. The third-most significant Tamil-speaking
minority are the Malaiyaha Tamils, who are descendants of South Indian plantation labor brought by the British (Thiranagama 2011,13). Neil DeVotta (2000; 2004) and A. Jeyaratnam Wilson (2000) discuss how racial labels were assigned to language practices and Sinhala was accepted as a descendant of Sanskrit and Pali, thus Aryan, while the Tamil language was labeled as Dravidian.  These two authors explore how the British Empire contributed to differences between the Tamils and the Sinhala. But, as Thiranagama states, “The British did not ‘invent’ ethnicity in Sri Lanka.” However, the ways in which they made sense of the island’s social and religious heterogeneity was through “popular Victorian ideas of race, linking this to religion and language differences,” which became more “solid and ‘ethnic’” when they were linked to political structures (2011, 21).
2. We are choosing to keep the identity of the choreographer hidden in this paper as a demonstration of the alliance with their performance. Disclosing the choreographer’s identity would put them at risk during a time of increased surveillance (since the Easter Sunday attacks on April 21, 2019 when six bombs across the country deployed in a coordinated attack). The state has returned to an increased point of surveillance and over 300 people have been arrested in connection (Press Trust of India 2019). We are both choreographers of contemporary work rooted in strong dance traditions in Sri Lanka—Kandyan Dance and Bharatanatyam. We write this as commentators who had access to the choreographer’s process.
3. Bananas are a prevalent fruit in Sri Lanka and are also presented for religious rituals as part of gifts and donations.
4.  War, in its mundane and spectacular forms, reified ethnic difference, segregating people and geographies throughout the country,deploying a logic of bias based on populations and percentages as its own citizens fled violence and trauma, changing the rubrics of representation over the course of the war (See De Votta 2000,2004; Kanaaneh 2002; Wilson 2000).
5. Bharatanatyam’s association with the pre-colonial and as a social reform that benefited one’s community and country as a marker of tradition—although a newly formed one—created a universal aesthetic appreciated across communities in colonial South and South East Asia. The form attracted women of various backgrounds (Meduri 1996, O’Shea 2007).
6. The war was declared as over in May 2009 with the killing of the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It has been argued that both the LTTE and the Sri Lanka armed forces caused severe civilian causalities (Ethirajan 2009; “Sri Lanka Says” 2009)
7. The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal was formed in 2004 by Muralitharan, known as Colonel Karuna, who was the LTTE head of the Eastern Province for more than twenty years. Since the end of the war, Karuna served as a minister of Parliament (2008–15) in the Rajapaksa government. In 2017, he launched a new political party, the Tamil United Freedom Party (Press Trust of India 2017).
8. Discussing the local is not to undo or minimize the ways in which transnational circulations of security, aid, diplomacy, trade, and culture continue to unevenly shape the country (see Kadirgamar 2010; 2015)

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