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Professor Maunaguru: Icon of Indigenous Tamil Culture

Pic by: Laksiri Rukman

By Thulasi Muttulingam

There was a time in the not too distant history of this country when Tamil culture and arts were appreciated and explored in depth; Post 1983 and the intensification of the war however, all that came to a grinding halt in many parts of the country. As Tamils dispersed both within the country and abroad, the last thing on their minds was the preservation and / or promotion of their arts.

One man however, an acclaimed Tamil artiste and academic, kept on striving to keep preserving and promoting Tamil Indigenous Arts wherever he found himself – be it Colombo, Jaffna or Batticaloa, even during the darkest hours of the Tamils.

His single minded devotion to his cause has made him an iconic face of Tamil Culture – both to the Tamils of Sri Lanka as well as those in Tamil Nadu. This is his story!

“I come from a very ordinary family from an indigenous village in Batticaloa. I was one of the first generations in my village to benefit from the free education given by the State. I passed the fifth standard scholarship examination, and had a state sponsored education throughout to which I owe my academic credentials,” explains Professor S. Maunaguru.

Born to a rich indigenous village culture which had still remained largely free of western influences in 1943, he 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,” he explains.

In fact, despite taking part in school plays earlier, his first motivation to be a serious performer came about due to his taking part in a village square Koothu (indigenous musical theater) performance, at the age of 17.

“Many people singled me out especially for appreciation and several hugged me in their exuberance at my performance. That sparked within me, my first interest in being a performer.”

At the same time as growing up in an untouched indigenous culture, he was also going through a very high standard of schooling, being taught and mentored by exceptional teachers who exposed him to several other worlds and views beyond his own. He had thus the best of both worlds; Shakespeare and the local Tamil culture.

When he moved to university however, he discovered he had being living in a time capsule of sorts. The more urbane parts of the country had thoroughly anglicized itself. When Professor Vidyanandan of his university started staging koothus in which the young Maunaguru took part, it was widely appreciated by the Tamils as ‘indigenous revival.’

It was the norm at the time to perform in English or at least ape western styles of productions in theatre. So much so that another giant of the Tamil literary circuit, Professor Sivathamby praised Vidyanandan for “rediscovering Sri Lankan Tamil Theater.”

The young Maunaguru, a protégé of Professor Vidyanandan’s took part in several of those koothus; by the third koothu, he had even become emboldened enough to contribute heavily towards the script. That script, Ravanesan, which he has rewritten and revised several times is considered a modern classic amongst the Tamils. In fact it is a text book for the Masters Degree in Tamil course at the Coimbatore University, India.

Maunaguru performed his first lead role as King Ravana, in Ravanesan, at the age of 22; he has performed this role several times over the decades, mostly recently as a 69 year old at the Jaffna Music Festival. The most path breaking aspect of Ravanesan, he explains was that it evolved Koothu into drama as well.

“Traditional koothu is a form of community social theatre which concentrated mostly on music and dance. Facial expressions are a modern trend of drama which we incorporated into it.

“Koothus are still performed in the Tamil areas of Jaffna, Batticaloa, Mullaitivu, Up Country, Kalmunai and Akaraipattu – they are traditionally long winded dusk to dawn productions.

“However, at a certain time in the sixties, effort had to be made to revive them. At that point in time, we had been heavily influenced by three forms of foreign theatre – Parsi Theatre, Victorian Theatre and Realist Theatre. With all this, the local Tamil village theatre almost disappeared. It had to be revived, along with traditional Sinhala productions. Professors Sarathchandra and Vidyanandan were contemporaries working in parallel – one to revive traditional Sinhala theatre and the other, traditional Tamil theatre.”

The promising young dramatist who was closely following these developments, meanwhile finished his Tamil degree and moved to Batticaloa as a teacher in 1965. While there, he wrote and directed a play criticizing caste oppression to be staged in Jaffna, in collaboration with Leftist parties who were fighting casteism in Jaffna at the time.

“I called it Sangaram (Destruction) and showcased the farmers and middle castes oppressing the lower castes. I received a lot of support for it from the scholars and artistes of Jaffna. It was called a path breaking innovation of Koothu theatre because it depicted contemporary social problems instead of historical stories.

“I restaged the koothu in Colombo’s Lumbini theatre in 1969. It drew widespread appreciation from both Sinhalese and Tamils and made for me a number of progressive minded friends.”

Soon after, he relocated to Colombo as a Tamil textbook writer, coinciding with an especially rich period in Art and Culture revival in the capital.

“The National Identity was being thought of deeply,” he says. “This was the time period in which Henry Jayasena, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Dhamma Jagoda, Sugathapala de Silva, Dayananda Gunawardena and Parakrama Niriella were extensively involved in refining as well as redefining Sinhala theatre.

“On parallel lines, we had the likes of Sundaralingam, Tarcisius, Balendra, Suhail Hameed and Kalaichelvan doing the same for Tamil theatre.

“It was a Golden Period of theatre productions in Colombo with Tamil and Sinhala plays being staged on the same platforms and drawing audiences of all three communities (Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim).

“Tamil plays of both indigenous as well as modern genres had reached an exceptional quality and standard when the 1983 riots put paid to it. All Tamil cultural activities in Colombo, including drama disappeared. Most of us relocated to Jaffna and so the cultural events that had been gaining ground in Colombo, took root in Jaffna. For a period we flourished again until the LTTE grew heavy handed and shut us up.”

However there was a window of several years before this happened; intellectualism had just begun to take root in Jaffna in the form of the Jaffna University. The professor remembers a time when he as a young lecturer, together with other ‘radicals’ of the University, deeply shocked the natives with their ideas on equal rights for women and the oppressed castes.

“Jaffna was a tight knit community with deeply held ‘cultural’ values and they had a hard time digesting the ‘new’ ideas we propagated. I produced a play called ‘Shakthi,’ which was inspired by my wife Chitra, a dedicated feminist. It depicted the Goddess Kali with her several hands, having ultimate power over the people. She divided herself into individual ordinary women who then became oppressed. After many trials and tribulations when the women figured out they had to organize themselves as one again, they became all powerful and defeated their oppressors.

“It was a very colourful and vibrant production in which I employed facets of Bharatha Natyam, Thenmodi and Vadamodi traditional dance forms, carnatic music as well as folk music. But it still could not be made palatable to many people. A number of men got up and left in the middle of the production; I was heavily criticized afterwards.

“This was a people, who when they attended an international photo exhibition feting women in 1979 were horrified by pictures of Vietnamese women holding guns. This was before the time of the LTTE female cadres and it was the first time any of them had seen women depicted as anything other than decorative objects.”

Nevertheless though there was a very rigid community on the one hand and increasing militancy on the other, he has nostalgic memories of those days because of the other intellectuals. He also notes that this constrained Jaffna also gave rise to feminist intellectuals such as Nirmala Nithiyananthan and her sister Rajani Thiranagama (assassinated for her contribution to the Broken Palmyrah), who produced feminist plays of their own.

“Professor Vidyanandan became the Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University in 1981. Professor Sivathamby became the Head of the Department of Fine Arts. They and others in the University gave me all the support I needed.

“Vidyanandan tasked me with teaching the children traditional koothu forms. He urged me to teach the people who had largely forgotten it that we had our own indigenous forms of dance and Bharatha Natyam (imported from India) was not the only form of Tamil dance. I taught some students at the Ramanathan Academy of Dance. Veeramani Iyer (well known classical exponent of Jaffna), also taught there and he heavily opposed it.

“He and other acclaimed classical music / dance exponents got together to demand, ‘Can feet that danced the Bharatha Natyam be made to dance the koothu too?’ The implication was that one was highly refined while the other was uncouth.

“They conveniently forgot that Bharatha Natyam was a courtesan dance of India which had been stylized and made socially acceptable only in the 1930s through the efforts of Rukmani Devi Arundale. I have nothing against that dance form but I opposed the myth making and the attempted burial of our own roots as not being good enough. Despite all the opposition, I coached the children and even brought them to a production in Colombo where audiences were appreciative and asked what this ‘new’ form of dance was.”

According to the Professor, the reason such indigenous forms have been suppressed in Jaffna though they have thrived in Batticaloa, was mainly due to caste politics.

“In Jaffna, only low castes still maintain these indigenous dances while in Batticaloa, all the castes do. So the higher castes of Jaffna strenuously opposed the showcasing of ‘low caste’ dances as indigenous Tamil dances.”

Nevertheless, his efforts bore fruit; many young people of all castes were inspired to learn the traditional dance forms from him. Today many of them are well known artistes / lecturers themselves continuing to propagate what he started.

He has written 30 books on varied topics but mainly on traditional Tamil dance and theatre forms, which he has spent a lifetime researching and cataloguing. Four of those books have won the Sahitya Mandal Award from India.

In 1991, he returned to his native Batticaloa as a highly acclaimed academic with the potential and powers to do far more than he had been able to do in Jaffna.

“For six years I was the Dean of the Arts and Culture Faculty of the Eastern University and for 15 years, the HOD. I had a free hand to do as I wished and promptly set about doing it.

“I guided the Fine Arts students on what the Batticaloa culture was and how best to represent it. My idea was to represent it though folk arts and music but I made sure to include the traditions of the Christians and Muslims within it.”

One of the innovations that came of this was the formation of a ‘traditional’ band for the university, using only traditional folk instruments and attire, complete with headdresses and anklets. The idea was enthusiastically embraced by the students who liked the idea of a colourful procession with flag, banner and Huge Umbrella as in courtly processions of old.

“Only problem was, the students refused to take up certain instruments associated with lower castes and exorcism like the Parai and the Udukku. With no other way to convince them other than by example, we the lecturers took it up. I took up the Udukku, fellow lecturers Jayashankar and Balasukumar took up the Melam and the Parai, and we continued the procession.

“My staff members unhesitatingly gave me their support for which I am grateful; I couldn’t have broken that societal taboo without them. It was an extremely surprising and eye-opening experience for the students who then followed suit themselves.

“I had this band preside at cultural events which was not initially acceptable to everyone due to their deep rooted prejudices but the project overall was a success. The common people were thrilled; the band always makes an impression on visiting dignitaries; today it has grown to include many female students who pound away at even the Parai drums with gusto. We’ve broken both caste and gender barriers with it.”

In addition to this feat, he is proud of one more accomplishment during his time as the HOD of Fine Arts.

“I encouraged my students to research on the traditions of the so called ‘marginal’ people – their arts and culture which no-one had been interested in studying and codifying till then. 25 percent of the dissertations of students were done on these people – the Paraiyar, Vannar, Veddhas. Their theater anthropology and sociology have been documented for the first time academically. It will remain a rich source of resources as well as having served to educate the future intellectuals of the area on the marginalized people.”

Unfortunately for him though, while promoting the diverse forms of Tamil culture, he has also come under fire for ‘diversifying unity.’

“People ask me, ‘why do you portray the Tamils of different regions as having different traditions? Why especially do you portray the North and the East as having distinctly different cultures?’

“It’s because the Tamils of the North and the East do have distinctly different cultures. I don’t see anything wrong with it. A culture that has diversity and variety within it is a rich culture. Cultures with uniformity across them are poor cultures. The Tamil culture is a rich culture and I try my best to showcase it in all its diversity.

“The problem with being an artiste is that someone or other will always take issue with some portrayal or other. It is unnerving at the best of times but as in the case of the last few decades for Tamil intellectuals, it could be positively dangerous.

“I heavily re-edited Ravanesan for a Year 2000 production; 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, realized 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 meaning in the play. I had a lot of trouble defending myself against interpretations in the modern context that I had never intended.”

So how did he manage to continue in this atmosphere at a time when most intellectuals were killed or left the country because of the constraining atmosphere?

“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 rather than be free in exile. My consuming passion was theatre and the different art forms of Sri Lanka and I couldn’t contemplate a life without it. Since times had changed to such an extent that I could not be a modern artist depicting contemporary situations, I turned to exclusively researching indigenous art and producing only mythical / historical productions. Which as in the case of Ravanesan could still land me in trouble; but that was nothing more than par for the course. Over the years, I have learnt to put up with such flare ups!”

In 2009, he retired from the University, but it looks as if the most interesting aspect of his life is just starting. He and a few colleagues / students have got together to found a ‘Theater Lab.’ The idea he says is to ‘create’ instead of to ‘craft.’

“The English language has two distinct words to explain this; Art & Craft! Most of our artistes are actually only craftsmen. They learn skills passed down to them and replicate it the same way. Craft is good but Art is better. The Tamils of this country have not produced geniuses of the calibre of Sarathchandra, Chitrasena or Amaradeva yet. I want to have paved the way towards producing them at least by the next generation.”

And so, he and a group of fellow artistes of varying ages get together every Sunday at a house they have rented out, to meditate and do yoga before having brainstorming sessions, as well as impromptu singing and dancing sessions.

After years of dedicated research and propagation of his knowledge, the professor has hung up his academic cloak without regret. He sums it up best himself:

“I no more work with my brain; I work with my heart now.” Courtesy: Ceylon Today

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