CFP Gender and Justice in South Asia since 1757, Wolfson College, University of Oxford, 12-13 September 2013

Recent popular campaigns in South Asia designed to highlight and root out corruption at both the local and national level show that the subject of justice, fairness and equitable treatment, remain a pressing issue. South Asian womens social, cultural, religious and economic position has also repeatedly been identified since the eighteenth century as an area particularly deserving of attention. This has led to a thriving womens movement, as well as problematic colonial notions of eternally oppressed South Asian women that are still used as a symbol to justify a plethora of conservative viewpoints in the West.

This international and multidisciplinary conference will explore the manifold ways in which the ideas of gender and justice have been approached in South Asia and in the South Asian Diaspora since 1757. Its aim is to foster dialogue between scholars from different fields and to provide an historical dimension to contemporary issues and debates around the broad themes of gender, sexuality and justice. Papers which have a transnational and/or comparative focus between countries in South Asia and elsewhere in the world are particularly welcome.

Keynote Address:

Dr Joanna de Groot (University of York)

Provisionally confirmed speakers include:

*Professor Clare Anderson (University of Leicester) *Professor Uma Chakravarti (Miranda House) *Dr Esme Cleall (University of Sheffield)*Dr Stephen Legg (University of Nottingham) *Dr Andrea Major (University of Leeds) *Dr Anshu Malhotra (University of Delhi) * Professor Clare Midgley (Sheffield Hallam University) *Dr Kaveri Qureshi (University of Oxford) *Professor Janaki Nair (Jawaharlal Nehru University) *Professor Shirin Rai (University of Warwick)

It is envisaged that the conference will result in one or more publications.

Please send an abstract of no more than 500 words and a one-page CV to by 31 December 2012. Notification of acceptance will be given before 31 January 2013.

“Cinema in mainstream and minority contexts: From Samuthayam (1960) to Ponmani (1978) The Plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry” by Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin

We would like to warmly thanks Dr Vilasnee TAMPOE-HAUTIN, Senior Lecturer at université de La Réunion (France) and member of Centre des Recherches Littéraires et Historiques de l’Océan Indien (CRLHOI), to publish in our website her article intitled  “Cinema in mainstream and minority contexts: From Samuthayam (1960) to Ponmani (1978) The Plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil film industry”.

The author wishes to indicate that the titles, release years and the names of the directors of Tamil films produced in Sri Lanka still need to be verified. These inaccuracies may be explained by the very marginal character of the subject itself (so far the attention of researchers and specialists has been focused mainly on Sinhala cinema). But the ethnic war of over a quarter of a century also acted as a major deterrent to the gathering of accurate details which could form the basis of a discussion. This article is therefore based on personal research conducted during the war years, and offers a synthesis of existing studies and analyses, so far fragmented and dispersed in various periodicals or in the press. The main aim is to examine the question of the absence of a Sri Lankan Tamil film industry in the light of the eminent Tamil and Muslim contribution to the structuring of a Sinhala language cinema.


This paper focuses on the Sri Lankan Tamil-language film industry which developed in Sri Lanka during the early 1960s, and seeks to understand the reasons why its development was retarded. Such a discussion necessarily falls within the ambit of the general history of the film industry in Sri Lanka, and more particularly, the birth of a Sinhala-speaking cinema during the 1940s. Indeed, given the country’s polarized, if multicultural society, the absence of Tamil films in Sri Lanka may not come as a great surprise, but the subject becomes worthy of attention when one considers that Sri Lankan cinema pioneers were mainly non-Sinhala, and many were Tamil, or Tamil-speaking Muslims. Therefore, why the pioneers of cinema in Sri Lanka did not consider the possibility or the desirability of a local Tamil production of films is the central question this paper raises. In the wake of a twenty-six year struggle between extreme factions of ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils, it may also be pertinent to ponder the future of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, its resuscitation, and chances of existing as a fully-fledged art and industry, either as one of the standard-bearers of the Sri Lankan nation in its new-found unity, or emblematic of its Tamil minority.

The question of Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka must be also articulated in relation to the problematic of “ethnic” cinemas and “national” cinemas, and how cinemas evolve with the dynamics of mainstream and marginal cultures. The very term “indigenous Sri Lankan Tamil cinema” needs clarification, insofar as a cinema bears the stamp of a culture or language. But then again, be it Sinhala, French, British, Tamil or Korean cinemas, how far can one consider film in terms of a “nation” or a “race”? While the issue of the cinema as an expression of national identity, or as a showcase for culture has been the focus of much academic inquiry, the question still remains as to what criteria one must use when defining a film’s “nationality” or origin. The formal and narrative conventions that derive from a specific aesthetic history? The cultural contents and language of the dialogues? The mental landscapes of the film’s protagonists or those conjured up by the director? The ethnic origins of its producer or director, or its main actors? The country in which it was produced?  The studio in which it was shot? Generally speaking, linguistic and cultural criteria carry the most weight when identifying a film, and giving it an anchorage in a particular spatial, temporal or thematic context.

The case of W.M.S. Tampoe is arresting: as a young Ceylon Tamil director living between his native country and neighbouring South India, Tampoe made his early films in the Tamil language, using Indian and Ceylonese actors and Madras resources. They were never exhibited in Ceylon. It is difficult to place these films in specific categories given the cultural proximity that prevailed at the time of the 1940s between Ceylon and India. Both these territories were under British colonial rule, and there was no restriction of movement between them. However, W.M.S. Tampoe’s later filmography, made entirely in Sri Lanka, in the wake of the 1960s ban on shooting Sinhala films in Madras[1], have been classed as Sinhala-speaking or Tamil-speaking. This is because of the location, aesthetic conventions of the film and the language of its dialogues. No copy is unfortunately available of Tampoe’s successful Ven Sangu (1968), much cited as part of the Sri Lankan Tamil filmography.

PHOTO 1: W.M.S. Tampoe, one of the pioneers of Sinhala Cinema. He made films in Tamil, shot in South India, and after the government ban on shooting Sinhala films in India, Tampoe converted to Sinhala-language films shot in Ceylon

In the same vein, between 1947 and 1960, during what is now known as the formative phase of Sinhala cinema, films were produced where crew, cast, venues and resources cut across established national, ethnic, linguistic, religious and social markers and boundaries. The ambient patriotism of the late 1950s ran so high that, despite the quasi-absence of shooting facilities and savoir faire in post-independent Ceylon, these films, today belonging to the immortals of primitive Sri Lankan cinema, were rejected by Sinhala nationalists and purists who saw in them too many “foreign”characteristics, and an undesirable cultural mix.

And yet, as argued by specialists, South Asian culture is heterogeneous enough to account for almost anything.[2] Indeed, the narrative style and aesthetic conventions of early South Asian films derived from various sources, including both folk and classical dramas of India but also European theatrical formats. Incipient Indian and Sinhala cinemas also drew from the more “modern”, 19th century Parsi theatre which developed during the British Raj, with its distinctive nurthi style, integrating Hindu and Buddhist mythology, as well as elements from Western urban culture[3]. The epic form can equally be recognized, especially in the exceptionally long duration of Asian films. Such heterogeneity calls for caution when attempting draw lines between different types of cinema in order to create categories.

During our recent colonial past, in the 1930s, a little over a quarter of a century after cinema’s invention, the same dilemma arose with regard to the celebrated “Empire films”. A clear definition of which types of films could be included under the category “British Empire Films” evaded one and all. Shot in the colonies, or in Great Britain, with mixed crew and cast, produced by Anglo-American companies, exploring grand imperial themes, Empire Films, and other “British” films made during this period, which fell, -or were made to fall, – under this arbitrary category, provoked the ire of Indian producers[4]. In today’s world where frontiers and barriers, both physical and psychological are coming down, (while others are being erected, one must concede), hybridity is the catchword and, like many other consumer items which are the outcome of a diversity of collaborations, it is increasingly difficult to frame a film’s identity with any precision. While the prospect of finding answers to such conceptual problems is remote, perhaps to a large extent, seeking solutions is unadvisable, since it would signify the end, or at least the questioning, of many established traditions such as film festivals, awards and distinctions, whose very foundations are erected on such arbitrary criteria.

Cinema has also evolved with decolonization, as more and more newly-independent nations emerged, seeking to frame their “national” identities through the cinematic art. The status of “national” cinema is frequently granted to a cinema portraying and speaking the language of the cultural and/or political majority of any given country. As such, in Sri Lanka, considering the island’s ethnic and geographical population distribution, it is no surprise that “Tamil cinema” in Sri Lanka should remain in the shadows of “Sinhala cinema”, which is the cinema corresponding to the island’s majority. Further, the deep-seated majority/minority dichotomy and the diverse conflicts that ensue from these colonial demarcations have also acted as a brake on the development of a Tamil language cinema in Sri Lanka. As was to be expected, a cinema that could have catered for Sri Lanka’s minorities naturally did not receive any support from the Sinhalese. Unsurprisingly then, the local production of films in the Tamil language, of which the first ones were released from the 1960s onwards, has been as marginal as Sri Lankan Tamil culture and language. The wavering attitude of successive Sri Lankan government authorities until recently, and a lack of a coherent, determined policy with this regard seem to complete this gloomy tableau. The total number of Tamil films produced would progress at a snail’s pace, and be kept in check for many decades for reasons that this paper will attempt to illuminate.

Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, at present, may be viewed as still defining canons of its own, and quite predictably, seeking an identity in a context of marginalization, imposed by mainstream Sinhala culture and the overpowering South Indian Tamil model of reference. Sri Lankan Tamil cinema’s association with other forms of communication and representation, such as radio plays, has been frowned upon by commentators whereas one knows only too well that cinemas inevitably display some continuities with other forms of entertainment and, generally, those that preceded film. Nevertheless, as we shall see later, Sri Lankan indigenous Tamil cinema, despite its diminutive size, ranges from the art film to the popular commercial one. But with a number of low-budget mediocre films to its discredit, Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka has not inspired sustained creativity by filmmakers, nor drawn favourable comments from film specialists. Kavaloor Rajadurai, producer of Ponmani, a highly-rated Tamil-language film directed by a Sinhalese, has compared attempts to make a Tamil film in Sri Lanka to beating a dead serpent[5], while film specialist, Professor Wimal Dissanayake, describes the predicament suffered by Sri Lankan Tamil films as simply “depressing”.[6]

In the light of such a dismal context, and given the failure of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema to emerge as a worthy art and industry, it might be relevant here to cite one of the most striking features of Sri Lankan cinema, not to say its hallmark, and that is the predominant role played by non-Sinhala minorities in establishing cinema production and exploitation for the Sinhala majority in the island. In fact, the founding fathers of Sinhala cinema were South Indian, Indo-Ceylonese, indigenous Tamils or Muslims of Sri Lanka.[7] Most of these categories were bound together by a common language and culture, Tamil.

The question raised then is why, at least, the indigenous Tamil and Muslim pioneers of the Sri Lankan film industry displayed no particular interest towards a cinema speaking their mother tongue and reflecting their culture, whereas every possibility was available to them to achieve such a goal. Curiously, even the Muslim film producers of Sri Lanka, whose mother tongue is Tamil, and not Arabic, showed no obvious enthusiasm.[8] Cinema production in colonial Ceylon entered infancy when these founding fathers collaborated with South India to encourage the birth of a “local” cinema by producing what were termed during the 1960s as  “carbon copies” of Indian films in Sinhala.[9] Even stranger is the fact that a Sinhalese, Henry Weerawansa, produced the first Tamil film in Sri Lanka and the most highly acclaimed of Sri Lanka’s Tamil filmmography, Ponmani, was signed by another Sinhala academic, Dharmasena Pathiraja. D. Pathiraja pursued a glowing career during the 1980s and 1990s in quality Sinhala cinema, but did not recommence the experience of bringing to the screen the culture of the “other”. Screen idol Gamini Fonseka’s Sinhala film Sarungale was another “first” in so far as its overriding topic was Sinhala-Tamil ethnicity.

The other significant feature is that, contrary to Sinhala films which had inherited the flamboyant South Indian style during the 1950s, the Sri Lankan Tamil film inclined towards social realism, a choice all the more unusual as this was the genre prescribed by the Sinhala intelligentsia and “cultural patriots” for  “indigenous” Sinhala films. But would the choice of realism by Tamil filmmakers be imputable to a refusal, or a reluctance to compete with the scintillating South Indian screen extravaganzas? Indeed, Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, by refraining from making entertainers, and depicting reality, and often a harsh one, can be viewed as adopting the same stance as some of the regional cinemas of India, confronted with the overpowering Hindi entertainers.

As two major poles of commercial cinema rose in Bombay followed by Madras, cinemas expressed in India’s numerous regional languages struggled to survive in a context of domination by the all-pervading, Hindi and Tamil movies, made according to formula, complete with its song-and-dance spectacle, flippant dialogues and a totally forgettable screenplay. Indeed, Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka is arguably the marginalized and regional cinema of Sri Lanka, since, in the first instance, Tamil culture occupies a minority status in the island, and in the second instance, Sri Lankan Tamil cinema is a “regional” cinema since both the culture it displays and the audience it targets, have their roots in the island’s north and north-east regions, remote from the seat of political power. As such, the relative positions of Tamil cinema and Sinhala cinema can be transposed onto a “centre-periphery” schema, at demographical, geographical, linguistic and political levels. Prior to a survey of the achievements in Tamil-language cinematography, and in order to understand the lethargy that has characterized this part of Sri Lanka’s “national” film industry, it may be useful to recall a few facts relevant to the establishment of the film industry in Sri Lanka from the late 19th century to the 1960s, notably the work of the Tamil founders of Sinhala cinema.


Two distinct phases emerge in the history of Sri Lankan cinema: from 1900 until 1928, cinema was introduced and exploited by expatriate British ambulant “animators of the image” and local photographers, such as Warwick Majors and A.W. Andree. Ceylon’s position as one of the British colonies assisted not only in exposing it to European and American cinemas, but also enabled Indian businessman J. F. Madan to expand his nascent film empires by making the most of geographical and cultural proximity of this colonial domain[10]. Subsequent to his first visit to Ceylon in 1903, Madan set up an agency of his company in Colombo, Madan Film Enterprises, with the help of Ceylonese of Parsi extraction. He also used a popular venue in Colombo, the Public Hall, to exhibit what were then some of the first films imported to Ceylon[11]. Indo-Ceylonese merchant of Bombay origin, T.A.G. Noorbhai soon joined in as a rival, establishing a film company, London Bioscope. There was no production of films in colonial Ceylon until 1925, so far restricted to distribution and exhibition. T.A.G Noorbhai has been given the credit of making the first Ceylonese film of the silent era, Royal Adventure/ Rajakeeya Wickrama (1925), equally embodying Indian efforts in this early phase of the development of cinema production in Ceylon.

From the late 1920s until the mid 1960s, a second phase of cinema establishment emerges as South Indians, Tamil and Muslims of Sri Lanka – mostly speakers of the Tamil language – take over from the first generation exploiters. They displayed a keenness to ensure that the island’s majority community should be offered a cinema that highlighted their language and reflected their imaginary. It is this second phase that is of interest to our discussion, bearing in mind that none of the promoters of cinema, mostly non-Sinhala, of either period considered developing a Tamil–speaking cinema for the island’s minority groups. The mid-20th century witnessed cinema still in its formative years in terms of its development in Western countries and in India. Given Ceylon’s multi cultural society, with a Sinhala Buddhist majority and a Tamil minority that emerged out of 19th century colonial reconfigurations of the island’s ethnic, religious and linguistic identities[12], there was every chance that, if cinema there was ever to be, only a Sinhala-speaking film industry would emerge. This is all the truer as the 1930s saw the rise of Madras as yet another nerve centre of Indian cinema, in rivalry with Bombay and Calcutta. It would not be long before South Indian Tamil cinema became popular among Ceylonese audiences. While this no doubt encouraged local participation, the niche market that Tamil Nadu carved for itself in Ceylon from the 1930s onwards, would by the same dint, hinder the eventual growth of a local Tamil cinema. Indo-Ceylonese, Tamil or Muslim businessmen set up an infrastructure geared towards the exhibition, distribution and production of Sinhala films.

S. Nayagam had declared his wish to offer his Sinhalese friends a cinema speaking their mother tongue, while another Tamil director and producer of the 1960s, Rabindra Coomarasamy Tampoe made exclusively Sinhala films working solely in the entertainer mode and was a good example of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ lack of concern for developing a cinema portraying their language and culture.[13] The popularity enjoyed by R. Tampoe’s Sinhala films at the box office also points to a fundamental reason why most filmmakers, whether Tamil or Sinhalese, opted to make films for the island’s demographic majority: they guaranteed audiences, and hence, an income.[14] But this did not prevent a few isolated attempts at non-commercial ventures, such as a cross-cultural film festival: when Tampoe organized a festival of Sinhala films in 1978 in Jaffna, a Tamil enclave, it made no waves in either the press or among officialdom, bringing to the fore the traditional wariness displayed during that period towards applauding any efforts at ethnic harmony.


Photo 2: The first Sinhala film festival organized in Jaffna by Robin Tampoe, chief guest was Mr D.B. Wijeyatunga, Minister of Posts. At the Shanghi Cinema, Jaffna 25th August 1978.


In the course of both phases of cinema, working in concert or in rivalry, the pioneers of Ceylon’s primitive cinema directed their energies to creating and reinforcing cinema infrastructure (distribution circuits, cinema halls) receiving foreign and Indian films and later, producing Sinhala films. In fact, the relationship between cinema consumers and producers is vital, since it has an impact on cinematic content. As suggested by S. Kakar, popular cinema is a “collective fantasy containing unconscious material and the hidden wishes of a vast number of people”.[15] Those Ceylonese who embarked on cinema before the 1960s, cast their choice on popular, Sinhala cinema, despite being outside this particular community, because of the high audience numbers for such films, demonstrating S. Kakar’s theory of dependence of filmmakers on healthy financial returns. This signified that they had to “ fill their moving images with the elements that viewers consciously and unconsciously seek from entertainment”.[16] It is highly probable that the non-Sinhalese film professionals entertained different “unconscious” desires and needs from their audiences (such as developing a cinema in their own language and culture), but they nonetheless sought strategies to market their products, making all the compromises necessary for box office gains. While the identification of audience tastes and needs would draw the largest number of viewers, film theorists also argue that offering a different cinema would in turn cultivate and re-orient audience tastes and create other, new needs, a principle upheld by a new generation of film directors of the mid-1960s, spearheaded by Sri Lankan film director Lester James Peries.[17]

Nevertheless, strategies deployed by local private companies on the strength of their monopoly of the film business during this mid-1960s, caused a deep rift both at ideological and ethnic levels.[18] By the early 1960s though, these film companies were accused of “perverting the tastes of the Ceylonese public”, and of being the pawns of in the hands of Western countries and India who exercised undue economic pressure and cultural imperialism on what was then Ceylon.[19] While the Royal Film Commission, appointed by the island’s Governor-General, Sir William Gopallawa, to inquire into the state of the film industry in 1965[20] had thrown new light on what was termed as a “tripoly”, the three companies retorted that the Sinhala intelligentsia, the State and the upper echelons of the film-going public were only concerned with cinema as a form of personal expression, insisting that the cinema was also an industry dependent on financial returns.

Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why Tamil language films were not a priority for anyone and the trend was towards the production of a wide gamut of Sinhala films and the importation of foreign films of considerable variety and quality. The polemical debates that mark the 1960s, spurred no doubt by the approach of 20 years of Sinhala cinema (1947-1967), indicated that Sinhala cinema was evolving and reaching a certain maturity. This was evidenced by the particular focus, not to say obsession with making only,“quality” Sinhala films  and the preoccupation of the Sinhala literati to educate the people in cinema and maintain “high” standards among audiences. It attested to the existence of a lively cinema industry, with critical sustenance provided by a body of discerning Sinhala film journalists and writers. Cinema production in Sinhalese was encouraged by a tradition of awards and distinctions, such as Deepashika Awards inaugurated by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, receiving plaudits by an enlightened public. All this prefigured what would later be termed as the “Golden Age of Sinhala cinema”, when creativity reached a peak.


 Photo 3 :Prime Minister the Hon. SWRD Bandaranaike at the inauguration of the first Deepashika Film Festival/Awards in 1957, with Sinhala actresses. On the left is seen Sirisena Wimalaweera, SInhala playwright and a pioneer in SInhala cinema. (Photo courtesy D. Wimalaweera and V. Tampoe-Hautin)


 Given this substantial participation of non-Sinhalese in a fast expanding Sinhala film industry, why was a fully-fledged Tamil cinema never part of the ambitions of the Tamil pioneers of Sri Lankan cinema? A brief survey of indigenous Tamil cinematic achievements in Sri Lanka shows that in 1987, forty years after the release of the first Sinhala film, the number of productions in Tamil had only reached some 30 films, many of which were mediocre. Tamil films were also inspired by plays or dramas acted over the radio, such literary creativity in the area of writing, dancing and theatre being consequent to the cultural renewal of the 1960s and 1970s.



Curiously, the honour of attempting the very first Tamil film in Sri Lanka goes to an ethnic Sinhalese, Henry Weerawansa who released Samuthayam/Society in 1960. But prior to this, B.A.W Jayamanne’s Sinhala film Evasive Denial/Sengavuna Pilithura (1951) had benefitted from Tamil sub-titles and a new title Kusumalatha. In fact, as film critics have argued, Samuthayam (1960), which revisits the life of up-country Tamils had only managed to inaugurate a period of average creativity with an obsession with dramatizing the way of living of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking people. Pasa Nila/ Affectionate Moon, a 16mm colour film which again attempts to recapture the life of young Tamil youths in Jaffna, was described as both “superficial and unconvincing”.[21] The Tamil director, Joe Devanand, later became a successful director of Sinhala films. Likewise, the film Kadamayin Ellai/A Limit to Duty was qualified as a « photographed stage play with a miscellany of antics and buffoonery, and a hotchpotch of outmoded dialogue derived from theatre».[22]

Notwithstanding, the mid–sixties saw the release of a number of Tamil-speaking films, including Thottakari/Estate Woman, which is presented as the first feature film 35 mm film to depict the life of a Tamil estate worker[23]. Taxi Driver (1966), directed by Chandikuti Somasekaran, on the contrary, constitutes one of the first Sri Lankan Tamil films of an acceptable standard. Critics have praised its photography and the cast of actors who had well-established reputations as stage actors and as radio announcers. Nirmala (1968) by A. Aumanayagam and Kuththu Vilakka/The Traditional Oil Lamp (1973) once more investigate the lives of ordinary people from Jaffna, a topic destined to become the ground of predilection of Tamil-language filmmakers. No doubt a reflection of the difficulties endured by the Tamil community, most of these films avoid entertainment, (though some melodramas have been made), and are inclined to stay away from the formula that characterizes Sinhala films. Thus, Puthiya Katru/New Winds and Nan Ungal Thosan/I am your friend again turn to the life of Tamil indentured labourers working on tea plantations for their topics.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few films succeeded in drawing audiences with other themes, such as Ven Sangu/ The White Conch (1968) by W. M. S. Tampoe, Puthya Kathru/New Winds, Aval Dvu Jeeva Nadhi/She is a lively stream and Kaththirupaen Unakaha/I’ll Wait for you. Others like Manjal Kunkuman, Ven Sangu, Meenava Penne/ The Fisher woman and Kutthu Vilakku, indicated that Tamil speaking cinema was consolidating its bases, though ethnic and social tensions would in fact undermine this newly acquired self-confidence. Nevertheless, a few beacons of quality do punctuate this five-decade period with the late 1970s standing out. Amongst these “jewels in the crown”, are two films, released the same year: Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ponmani (1978) and Puthiya Katru (1978) by V. P. Ganeshan. Two years previously, S. V. Chanran made Kaththirupaen Unakaha. Vaadai Katru/Monsoon winds (1974) and Ponmani (1978) are works of quality which also concentrate on the Jaffna peninsula[24], and today rank among the best in this category of films. Director of Vaadai Katru/Monsoon winds, medical doctor, Indra Kumar received the Presidential Award for the Best Tamil Film in 1978.[25]

Likewise, Thyagarajah Arjuna, Sri Lankan Tamil producer and director, has signed a number of Sinhala and Tamil films, including Vanathaye Dawasak, also winner of nine presidential awards.[26]  Arjuna, who has been living between India and Sri Lanka since the 1980s, moreover directed Kaliyuga Kalaya, a Sinhala film, which was later dubbed into Tamil. T. Arjuna’s other production classed as a Sri Lankan Tamil film is Vasanthathil Oru Vanavil. With roles interpreted by celebrities of Tamil Nadu and of Sri Lankan origin, the film takes a compelling and graphic look at a worker who died on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and is reincarnated in Tamil Nadu.[27] With its screenplay straddling time and space, Arjuna’s film stirred some interest at the time of its release due to the subject treated.[28] Yet the film cogently demonstrated the possibilities of collaboration that existed between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.

As highlighted by some commentators, these occasional cinematographic works of art have not been sufficient to encourage a worthy critical discourse focussing on Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka.


Indeed, it took Dharmasena Pathiraja, former director of the Government Film Unit, to offer the country one of its first and finest Tamil films, Ponmani (1978). The film does not seek to probe into any ethnic issues but approaches the question of caste and exogamous relations. It dramatizes the reactions of parents belonging to the Jaffna high caste whose daughter runs away with a boy of a lower caste. As an academic appointed to Jaffna University, Pathiraja made the most of his professional situation and his exposure to life in Jaffna to shoot this film, while reputed short story writer and critic, Kavaloor Rajadurai, and M. W. Rajasingham, both Sri Lankan Tamils, provided the necessary financial and screenplay backing. The Ponmani cast was drawn from Jaffna residents, hailing from the teaching profession and the Jaffna bourgeoisie. A number of actresses were qualified as « progressive », including the wife of the Vice-Chancellor of the Unversity of Jaffna, Mme Sarvamangalam, and a colleague, Chitraleka Mounaguru.[29] The film revived much interest among the local intellectuals who had followed the trajectory of the development of European cinema, hoping that Ponmani would open the way to similar productions in Tamil. Ponmani today ranks among the classics of Sri Lankan cinema and its director recognized for having ventured beyond the traditional boundaries. There is no doubt that Pathiraja put his talents to the service of cinema, worked across cultural lines and produced a remarkable film.



 Any reflection on the state of Tamil-language cinema in Sri Lanka must refer back to the status of the Sri Lankan Tamils themselves, more particularly, the various sections of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community which participated in cinema construction: they range from Hindus to members of the Tamil Christian minority, some Catholic, others Protestant or Methodist, hailing from the traditional Jaffna bourgeoisie. Most of them have family and professional attachments both in the Sinhala-dominated southwest of the island and in India. Whatever the gamut of religions and social categories that characterize these Tamil cinema pioneers, one common feature they exhibited was their membership to Sri Lanka’s celebrated heterogeneous, anglicized bourgeoisie. Excluded by the traditional Sinhalese, not fully integrated into Indian culture, many took refuge in Western culture.

PHOTO 4 At the premier of Suvineetha Lalani : from left to right – R.C. Tampoe, the Hon. Maithripala Senanayake, Minister of Culture, and representatives of Ceylon Theatres Ltd. (Photo courtesy Mrs Rita Tampoe)


Under such circumstances, the feeling was inevitable amongst these Jaffnese that their culture and language, albeit worthy, was not one to be promoted on the screen. With the knowledge that Sinhala culture was, as all cultures go, a hybrid phenomenon, the Tamil pioneers chose to give cinematic reality to the literature, dance, art, poetry, theatre, philosophy and religion of what had emerged during the 1950s as mainstream Sinhala culture. The mid-20th century had also witnessed a cultural and religious revival, termed “the second Buddhist renaissance”, which had successfully re-iterated the hegemony of the Sinhala people. While the minority communities dominated the areas of trade and commerce, there was no desire amongst them to impose their own culture on the majority, especially in the light of overpowering South India in the shadow of which they had for so long existed, and which had become their model of reference.

In this regard, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Muslims to a lesser extent, have always occupied an intermediary position between the sub-continent and their island home. Traditional links between South Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils have been predictably difficult to determine. It is true that Sri Lankan Tamils are closer to Indians than are Sri Lankans of Sinhala Buddhist origin, but this does not mean that the allegiance of the former group lies north of the Palk Straits. They historically identify with the Sri Lankan territory.[30] The ethnic war is ample testimony to their attachment to Sri Lankan soil, which they consider their homeland. But they have also maintained socio- cultural links with the Indians of Tamil Nadu and developed a nomadic way of life since the onset of the ethnic war. However, the Sinhalese make a difference between Sri Lankan Tamil compatriots whom they call “Jaffna people” and the other minorities hailing from recent late 19th century or early 20th century migration, and who also now live permanently on the Sri Lankan territory. Despite this distinction, the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils have been paradoxically more complex than with the Indo-Sri Lankans, perhaps due to the very cultural, psychological and physical proximity that dates back to more than 2500 years.

It has also been argued that minority communities benefitted from a more favourable treatment during colonization, which alienated them from the majority (though some historians refute this theory). The British reserved places of high rank in their administration for selected groups based on ethnic distinctions, confirming the idea, without going as far as making an absolute rule of it, that British policy inclined towards reigning through division, a strategy seen during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries as ensuring social and political equilibrium.[31] A small number of Tamils managed to gain some recognition and a status within colonial society, reaping considerable economic and social benefits, that is, as far as discriminatory, imperial politics would allow them. In Jaffna, the Tamil bourgeoisie entered the judiciary, and the administrative services of the colonial regime, though they were barred from high-profile posts and key areas of political importance. Others succeeded in the liberal professions and in business, including cinema… One of the sectors where their contribution was noteworthy was Sinhala cinema, the Indo Tamil contribution becoming even a significant characteristic of Sinhala cinema.[32]

The drive exhibited by minority communities to “succeed” economically in mainstream society, (such a dynamism frequently working against them), was yet another factor that spurred their social ascension during colonial times.[33] However, the flair for business of the new Tamil entrepreneurs of Sinhala cinema would from the 1950s, rouse the opposition of conservative Sinhala forces, and more interestingly, give rise to the question of “indigenization”, by which it was meant “signalization”.[34] Whereas the new cinema producers of Tamil origin, especially the pioneer, Sir Abraham Gardiner, were proud of having wrested the industry from the hands of “a few privileged visitors”, and forging a “local and national” Ceylonese industry, their success would be ill-considered by the Sinhala majority who refused to view this as a true victory.[35] One observes therefore that the terms “local” and “national” had varying definitions according to whose point of view it was. By 1961, the government had decided to put a ban on the shooting of Sinhala films in South India, later extended to the prohibition of subtitling of foreign films in Sinhala.


PHOTO 5 : The banning of shooting Sinhala films in South India, and the dubbing of foreign films into Sinhala



For the Sinhalese, a “national” or indigenous cinema was synonymous with Sinhala-speaking cinema. Nationalizing and indigenizing the industry signified transferring all branches of cinema to the ethnic Sinhalese.[36] In the eyes of the latter, cultural autonomy and the independence of the Sri Lankan cinema could only be attained through a complete takeover by Sinhalese of the industry, backed by the State. Sinhala nationalists demanded a more authentic “indigenous” cinema, the question remained as to who would provide the capital for such films. The call for “indigenous Sinhala cinema” or jatiya sinamawa was paradoxically heeded by the Tamil entrepreneurs of cinema, displaying at the time all the aloofness of the anglized, capitalist classes, less inclined to ethno-nationalisms, and more given to serving the needs of the political majority. While the financiers of indigenous Sinhala cinema hailed from non-Sinhala English educated class, a new generation of film directors picked up the gauntlet of making films that portrayed authentic Sinhala culture. Lester James Peries is the most renowned of Sinhala film directors, groomed in the art of cinema in Europe. Other nationalist directors had received training within the precincts of another institution with a colonial resonance: the government film unit. The only exception was Sirisena Wimalaweera whose patriotic cinema would earn him an accolade or two in creativity.

Nevertheless, not before the crucial 1980s period would cinema and State develop a vital link. This came with the establishment of the National Film Corporation in 1972, pending which, the strong nationalist sentiments of Sinhala pride that swept over the country during the mid 1950s represented a powerful source of inspiration for cinema, spurred by the victory by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike over the two successive mandates of rule by a pro-Western government headed by D.S and Dudley Senanayake.[37] It is hardly a coincidence then that during this very period, Lester James Peries should offer local audiences a Sinhala film which made a remarkable break from the melodramatic tradition: the award-winning Rekawa (1956). Shot in the realist mode, devoid of the customary song-and-dance number, (though a few songs were included in it, and which incidentally drew criticism from some film commentators at Cannes), this film brought the attention of international cinema communities to Sinhala  films and paved the way for an alternative grammar of cinema.

The commercial dynamism displayed by the Tamils and Muslims of Ceylon in the domain of cinema also threw the spotlight on the presumed economic backwardness of the Sinhalese – a question that had already arisen during the latter part of the 19th century, long before cinema had developed as a local art.[38] While the early 20th century witnessed the denunciation of the mercantilism of Ceylon’s minority communities, similar issues were raised by Sinhala patriots and critics within the cinema industry during the 1950s. The 1965 report bears testimony to a crisis of unusual severity that struck the cinema industry, monopolized by three non-Sinhala film companies. While dominating the sector, the fears of the Tamil community at a wider level were not totally unfounded, confirmed by the successive waves of unrest between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, in 1958 and again in 1983. There was no question, under these circumstances, that a cinema waving the banner of Tamil culture and language should be proposed.

In fact, one might argue that the state of the Tamil cinema industry is clearly the outcome of choices made by the early cinema professionals and others active in the field. It reflects also the socio-political status of the majority of the indigenous Tamils of Sri Lanka. A parallel may be drawn between the marginalisation of the lower social classes of Tamils of Sri Lanka and the destiny of the Sri Lankan Tamil film: caught between Sinhala chauvinism and South Indian cultural domination. Seen from this angle, the development of Sinhala cinema by the well-to-do Tamils may be viewed as an attempt to integrate into a society suffering from a severe malaise: a dichotomous majority-minority divide that was tearing apart the nation. As members of the anglicized, urban-dwelling upper middle class, these non-Sinhala pioneers may also have hoped to attenuate criticism levelled against them by the increasingly vocal rural majority of non-anglophones, in view of their appurtenance to a wealthy cosmopolitan class. They were putting their privileged social and economic situations at the service of rural Buddhist Sinhala culture. R.C. Tampoe illustrates this attempt to conquer the Sinhalese population by offering them a certain type of cinema. He married a Sinhalese, elected domicile in the south of the island, took lessons in Sinhala in order to better communicate with his crew. While westernizing his name from Rabindra Commarasamy to Robin, adopting Western clothing and lifestyle (also true of most of the other Tamil businessmen of cinema), Tampoe catered to the rural Sinhalese need for escapist fare and gained in popularity. Notwithstanding, his detractors were stridently vocal about his “commercial Tamil-influenced Sinhala films”.

Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka is deficient for yet other reasons, including the linguistic factor. The Tamil spoken by the Sri Lankan Tamils has never enjoyed the same status or reputation as the Tamil of India. The social marginalization of the Tamil minority obviously has repercussions on the status of its language, considered as a dialect or a peripheral variation of the “standard” form of Tamil, which is the one spoken in South India. And yet, from a point of view of linguistics, both are qualified as Tamil since they are mutually comprehensible. The variety of Tamil spoken in the Jaffna peninsula, – a geographical, cultural and social enclave, has presumably preserved certain archaisms, and along with it, a certain “purity”, protected from the evolutions which affected the South Indian variant from which it derived. To this, one must also add the phonetic lexical variations.[39]

Other problems the Sri Lankan Tamil film industry has been beset with may also be attributed to demography; an irregular distribution pattern, with a low population of Tamils concentrated around the Jaffna peninsula and the eastern coasts of the island, affected by great poverty, in sum, living in the rural backwaters of the country. The climatic and geographical rigours of North and North East Sri Lanka could not but force the inhabitants to invest more in agriculture and fisheries rather than in poetry and art, and even less in the more costly exercise of making a film. Thus the output of artistic productivity is comparable to the island’s northern landscape: arid and marginal.

A small category of Tamils resident in Colombo and Jaffna entered the liberal professons and trade and prospered. But the majority were busy ensuring their economic survival and social recognition in an environment that had become increasingly perilous…at  least until 2009. The incessant conflicts culminating in the ethnic war of 1983-2009, led to a massive exile of Tamils seeking new pastures in Norway, Canada and the UK, further depleting an already sparse population. The large-scale migrations in the wake of the civil war reduced quite substantially Tamil participation in the film sector. Thus, many art directors and producers found themselves out of a job and out of the country.[40] Those who stayed behind, such as K. Gunaratnam and R. Tampoe, though not directors of Tamil language films, lost the greater part of their property or were victims of assassinations, which may or may not have been connected to ethnicity. R. Tampoe’s Regal cinema in Jaffna was razed to the ground as it was caught in a crossfire between the army and Tamil rebels who took refuge in the building.


 PHOTO 6 a & b : the Regal Cinema gutted by fire in 1985, caught in a cross-fire between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil separatists.

The result of political turmoil was that many reduced, or outright abandoned, their activities in the cinema industry, for lack of funds, government support and public. For those who remained, films, especially Tamil films, were no doubt the last item on their agenda. The precarious nature of the Tamil position, accompanied by political tension and social violence, did not encourage any further minority participation in cinema, or in the other arts for that matter, either to promote the culture of the Sinhala majority, or their own.

Another impediment in the development of a Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka was the quasi absence of Tamil-speaking audiences. As Wimal Dissanayake argues, only about 20% of the 17 million people living in the island speak Tamil. Sri Lankan Tamil films hardly represented an attractive product for any Sri Lankan spectators, not even the Tamils themselves. Hence producers hesitated to embark on Tamil productions due to their non-viability. Before the creation of the National Film Corporation, the three private companies, Ceylon Theatres, Cinemas Ltd and Ceylon Entertainements, had taken into consideration the ethno-demographic patterns of the Sri Lankan population in their policy of film distribution, although a certain priority had been accorded to Indo-Tamil and Hindi films. From 1972, the National Film Corporation, placed in charge of controlling these circuits, modified this configuration and created specific circuits for the distribution of Sinhala films “of quality”.

For the distribution of Tamil films produced in India or locally, a parallel circuit was created, comprising halls in regions inhabited by Tamil speaking inhabitants, but which, also coincided with a sparse population. The halls, of a smaller size, labelled as “second or third category were in bad conditions and so the frequentation was not high”.[41] The marginalization of Tamil films was indeed based on a certain ethnodemographic and economic logic, as well as on the competition posed by South Indian films with whom local films had to share the cinema halls. Thus the National Film Corporation greeted Ponmani with no obvious enthusiasm, and the film was simply confined to a circuit reserved for Tamil cinema. The distributers, for their part, also motivated by economic considerations, were hardly more cooperative.[42]

Further, from 1983, the year that marked the beginning of the civil war, – until 1987, all the cinema halls of the north and the east, (some 120 in all), located in areas subjected to terrorism, were seriously damaged. Some thirty halls were destroyed by bomb attacks; others simply went bankrupt. But irony would have it that until 1985, collections from cinemas in the Jaffna peninsula were not only substantial, but, as it has been argued, even contributed to sustaining a part of the Sinhala cinema industry.[43] Such revenues could be explained by the number of daily shows programmed in cinema halls in Jaffna, which was higher than the rest of the island – five showings a day compared to three or four in Colombo. Despite rising insecurity, Jaffna presented itself as a flourishing market for films of all genres. The cinema was one of the rare, not to say the only source of entertainment in Jaffna.  Among the lovers of cinema were members of the English-speaking Tamil bourgeoisie. In 1987, Anton Wickramasinghe, chairman of the NFC, decided to reopen some of the 90 cinema halls. It was planned that Tamil films produced before the war would be part of these first screenings. Films were to be shown not only in the affected areas with a Tamil majority but also those with a population of Sinhalese. The acquisition by the State in 1988 of rights of Tamil films for a sum of 8 million rupees was a step towards attempting to restore inter-racial harmony and an overt attempt to revive an interest in the cinema industry in war-devastated areas.[44] This policy was however slowed down by periods of war and truces.

Apart from the question of circuits, South Indian films that arrived on the Sri Lankan market benefited from a better reception because they were technically and aesthetically superior products. Cinema owners would rush to remove from their screens Tamil films of Sri Lankan origin judging them to be evident “flops”, seeking South Indian Tamil films or even American or Sinhala films. The latter were much more attractive as they generated more collections. It would seem then that the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka and the other category of Tamil speakers, i.e the IndoCeylonese, preferred to see South Indian films.[45] If the high and artistic and technical of South Indian Tamil films have worked against the possibility of developing a serious Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka, it is also subsequent to the rise of Madras as the third centre of gravity of Indian cinema during the mid 20th century, after Bombay and Calcutta. South Indian Tamil films have dominated Sri Lankan screens and become a well-liked source of entertainment in Sri Lanka, even amongst Sinhala population. Even today, they reap the benefits of a reputation established since the 1930s. Chinthamani by Y. Rao (1937) is the classic example of South Indian Tamil triumph on the screen.[46] This was followed by S. S. Vasan’s Chandralekha, released in 1948, the first Tamil film to get national distribution. Made on a massive financial budget, which would have cost $28 million today, this extravaganza was aptly described by its director as “a pageant for our peasants.” The first Tamil film to be a complete success for one whole year in Ceylon was Velaikari (1949) by A. S. A. Samy. It confirmed  the conquest by the Tamil film of even Sinhala speaking audiences.

The second quarter of the 20th century witnessed rapid urbanization and modernization leading to changes in the entertainment needs of the population, reinforced by the increase in the working population that frequented the cinema in foreign languages. This came in addition to Sinhala drama, which tried to recover its former glory. In 1939, the Tamil film, Nandakumar was released at the Elphinstone and the Tower Theatre presented Savitri, while around Colombo, other theatres also showed Tamil films.[47] Between 1960 and 1975, the films of Shivaji Ganeshan and M. G. R, occupying opposing roles in Dravidian nationalist politics, in and out of screen, were box office successes in Ceylon, drawing non-Tamil speaking Sinhala viewers. However, another category of workers, notably the port workers, spoke both Sinhala and Tamil and represented an important part of the population of cinema-goers.[48] Tamil film-goers were thus provided regularly with spectacular fare made in Tamil Nadu, such a tradition giving rise to a synonymy between “Tamil cinema” and “South Indian melodrama and fantasy”. Tamil-speaking viewers were, and possibly still are, unable to associate Tamil film culture with realism, a format which recurs in the marginalized “regional” cinemas of Tamil Nadu, expressed in Kannada, Telugu, Malayam etc. 

During the 1950s this  evolution in the taste of the Ceylonese public for « local » and foreign films, would gradually be perceived by local film entrepreneurs as auguring well for the future of this « modern » form of entertainment. A locally produced Tamil cinema then barely held any chance of consolidating its position, especially when one considers that Madras has maintained the highest production rate of any film centre in India, due to its position as home not only to the Tamil but also the Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada film industries. But it has likewise been said that even without the regional support of audiences from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala, Madras would outpace Bombay (in 1980, more Tamil, Malayalm and Telugu films were made than Hindi films)[49]. This lends credence to the rejection of their culture by the indigenous Tamils of Sri Lanka, a point raised by K. Rajadurai, according to whom Tamils of Sri Lanka have been « conditioned to identify the best of Tamil cultural products as capable of originating only from the motherland of Tamil Nadu », something admitted even by the ethnic Sinhalese. While South Indian films are no doubt of a higher standard, the rejection of their own « local » brand of Tamil culture by Sri Lankan Tamils may be viewed as a denial of their Sri Lankan homeland, tainted by Sinhala nationalism and ethno-centrism. The admiration displayed towards mother India could be part of their deep subconscious yearning to belong across the Palk Straits.

Further, the absence of worthy forms of assessment for Tamil films (festivals, awards, distinctions) has fostered apathy, and the decline of artistic levels, and by the same dint, reinforced the position of South Indian films.[50] Thus the Sri Lankan Tamil film Kadamayin Ellai/A Limit to Destiny, described as mediocre, consisted of an assembling of dialects coming from Jaffna and India, rendered in a comic style, bordering on the farce, the entire film resembling a play, from which it was in reality inspired.

If the Tamils of Sri Lanka have refrained from making artistic statements through the filmic mode, then the universal power of attraction of the South Indian film has led to the co-production of a number of outstanding Indo Sri Tankan films. Endowed with dialogues in Tamil and a cast composed of Sri Lankan and Indian stars, Pilot Premanath (1978) and Guru et Nanguram/Anchor were made with the participation of giants of the Indian Tamil screen. As such, it is difficult to include them in the list of Sri Lankan Tamil films. Pilot Premnath directed by Joe Dev Anand, starred Shivaji Ganeshan and Sinhala actress Malini Fonseka. Nevertheless, scenes shot in Sri Lanka and the presence of Sri Lankan actors were not enough for India to recognize these films as Sri Lankan.[51] On the other hand, three other films made during the 1970s were dubbed into Tamil, including the successful Hara Lakshaya/Yar Aval. Further, during the late 1990, Indian producer V. P. Ganeshan, made Nadu Potra Vazha with a female cast comprising Sinhala actresses, Swarna Mallawarachchi and Geeta Kumarasinghe. Such collaborations have also given rise to discontent, if one is to go by press reports, that « coproductions unduly favoured Tamil Nadu filmmakers », a complaint to which the NFC answered favourably by promising rectification.[52]

Coming as a reaction to the cultural imperialism of South India were the staunch defenders of Sri Lankan Tamil culture. By laying emphasis on the development of an indigenous Tamil literature and poetry, as distinct, and elevated from audiovisual creations, the Tamil literati inadvertently hindered the growth of a Tamil-speaking local cinema industry.  Their exhortations were founded on the premise that local Tamil cinema and theatre, considered as levers of Tamil identity, – prevented literary creativity. Hence, Tamil intellectuals and cinema critics joined up with Sinhala nationalists to condemn the commercialism of South Indian cinema and its influence on indigenous Tamil culture.[53] While the defence of Sri Lankan Tamil literature was an extension of the protectionist and purist policy brandished by the intelligentsia of a marginalized community, it posed a further obstacle for the development of a Tamil cinema in Sri Lanka.

The absence of a Tamil cinema and literature in Sri Lanka is also linked to the mass emigration of Tamils since the ethnic conflict, so the two modes of expression remain discreet and undeveloped among the Tamils, suffering a lack a national cohesion. In addition, the artistic production by Tamils has always been arrested by the dynamism of Sinhala creators, desirous of preserving and strengthening their culture. It is significant that Sinhalese writers developed a literature in English, and a Sinhala cinema concentrates on its own literature and a myriad other related subjects, including the civil war. Sinhala films have taken the defence of « indigenous » culture, and of late, there has been a proliferation of award winning films focussing on the conflict. Since 2000, a number of young Sinhala filmmakers have presented a sophisticated cinematography focussing on the futility of the armed conflict and the importance of inter ethnic harmony. But they have also drawn the attention of the international cinema community on the atrocities of war, and provoked the discontentment of the Sri Lankan state whose preoccupation at the time was how the nation was perceived overseas.[54] Tamils, on the other hand hardly publish in the island, nor do they make Tamil films, at least at the moment of writing. No doubt this attests to dilemmas and inhibitions of expressing themselves on a tragic situation made of uncertainty and marginalization. Therefore, prose, poetry, critical works in Sinhala largely dominate the scene over those in Tamil.[55] Whatever creativity there is, it exists in the shadow of South India, and subjected to pressure from the majority Sinhala culture.

If the austere character of the Jaffna peninsula excluded perspectives of founding a cinema proper to the Tamil community, the 1980s witnessed a flowering of Tamil literature produced outside Sri Lanka. The literary and journalistic dynamism coming from hundreds of thousands of expatriate Tamils living in the States, in Canada, in Norway, Malaysia, Singapore or Australia, is in strong contrast to the literary production of those who have stayed back in Sri Lanka.[56] Fruit of the war, born through the Internet, and propagated through the same channel, this nomadic literature was first and foremost militant, coming from the large Tamil diaspora of Sri Lankan origin.[57]  Spread over five continents, these writers come from a variegated background, ranging from university academics to fishermen on Scandinavian trawlers, their writings bringing up the idea of a separate State. The end of the ethnic war in 2009 has seen a reversal of the situation, where members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora are returning home. As concerns cinema, the mere fact of screening South Indian films in the cinemas of Toronto or London must surely have been a way of asserting their identity and seeking an ethnic, if not national, cohesion.[58]


Even if many have considered that Indian influence over Sinhala cinema was ineluctable, there was palpable discontent during the 1960s, that Sinhala cinema and the Sri Lankan film industry should be rendered hostage to outside influences, at both the aesthetic and economic levels. The fact that minority communities exploiting cinema had given priority to the Sinhala culture did little or nothing to appease the hostilities between the two ethnic groups. Irony would have it that it was the very monopoly of cinema by non-Sinhala minorities of Sri Lanka that would strengthen the desire amongst the Sinhalese to structure a “indigenous” cinema: a call that would be heeded by both the State,….and the indigenous Muslims and Tamils. While money, energy and creativity were thrown into sowing the seeds of indigenous Sinhala cinema during the mid-1960s, and reaping benefits at international forums, Tamil language cinema was destined to a cheerless fate. In the final analysis, even the Tamils of Sri Lanka themselves had turned their backs on a cinema of their own.

In 2012, with the “healing” process on, social peace, political stability and economic prosperity are on the agenda of goals to be achieved. What chances do Tamil-language films have then of becoming one of Sri Lanka’s cinemas in the new millennium? But then again, prior to contemplating the future prospects of Tamil cinema, one might ponder the destiny of the celluloid world in general, made vulnerable by alternative modes and formats of entertainment. Indeed how far is cinema in general, as a form of personal expression and an industry, able to survive in an environment now conquered by digital technology, brought right into the living room of even the most humble abode? If the reasons and factors discussed so far can no longer be viewed as relevant or ominous, one might indeed pose here the problem of the immense popularity of television, whose ubiquity in Sri Lanka can be accounted for, in part by twenty-six years of political instability and social insecurity engendered by incessant bomb scares and curfews. For 26 years, Sri Lankans stayed away from cinema halls, as they did from public places, for fear of terrorist attacks. Tamil language cinema then might well have to adjust to changing times, and convert to the small screen, if it is to survive in the vast space offered of digital technology and television. More importantly, Tamil-language cinema will have to devise new strategies if it is to survive in a society that continues to be energized, as demographics and history would have it, by an ethnicity based on a mainstream-minority rationale.



Samuthayam/Society i1960, Henry Weerawansa,

Evasive Denial/Sengavuna Pilithura (1951) retitled Kusumalatha. B.A.W Jayamanne,

Pasa Nila 16mm, Joe Devanand,

Thottakari/Estate Woman  (?)

Taxi Driver (1966), Chandikuti Somasekaran.

Nirmala (1968), A. Aumanayagam

Kuththu Vilakka/The Traditional Oil Lamp (1973)

Mankal Kunkuman (?)

Meenava Penne  (?)

Vaadai Katru/Monsoon winds (1974)

Ponmani (1978)

Puthiya Katru/New Winds  (?)

 Nan Ungal Thosan/I am your friend  (?)

Ven Sangu (1968) by W. M. S. Tampoe

Aval Dvu Jeeva Nadh,/ She is a Lively stream

Kaththirupaen Unakan/I’ll Wait For You

Nadu Potra Vazha, V.P. Ganeshan  (?)

Co productions

Pilot Premanath (1978)

Guru  (?)

Nanguram/Anchor (?)

Hara Lakshaya/400 000 Roupies /Yar Aval (?)



CRUSZ, R., and RATNAVIBHUSHANA, A.,, « Calm beneath the Storm » in Being and Becoming: The cinemas of Asia, eds. Aruna Vasudev, Latika Padgaongar, Rashmi Doraiswamy, pp. 392-417, New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002

CHERAN  R., The Sixth Genre: Memory, History and the Tamil Diaspora Imagination, ICES, Colombo 2008

DELILKHAN, Quintus, « Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner, 1899-1960 », 50th Anniversary 1928-1978, Ceylon Theatres Ltd., (Golden Jubilee Celebrations) Colombo : 1978

DE SILVA, K.M.  History of Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2006.

DICKEY S, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Cambridge, 1987.

DISSANAYAKE, W., and RATNAVIBHUSHANA, A., Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, Boralesgamuwa, Sri Lanka: Asian Film Centre, 2000.

DISSANAYAKE, W.,  « The Early Phase of Sri Lankan Cinema », Asian Cinema, ed. CONRICH I., and GILLET N., Vol 19, n°2, Fall/Winter, Philadelphia: Asian Cinema Studies Society, 2008

HANSEN, K.,, « Parsi Theatre and the City: Locations, patrons, audiences », in The Cities of Everyday Life »,  Sarai Reader 2002.

JAIKUMAR, P., Cinema At the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

JAIKUMAR, P., « More than Morality », The Indian Cinematograph Committee Interviews (1927)

JAYAWARDENE, K., Nobodies to Somebodies : The rise of the colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, New Delhi : LeftWord, 2001

JAYAWARDENE, K., Ethnic and Class Conflict in Sri Lanka, the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness, 1883-1983, Sanjiva Books, Colombo, 2003.

MENDIS, M. R., Genesis of Sinhala Cinema, Godage Books, 2005, p. 25.

MEYER, E. Sri Lanka, entre particularismes et mondialisation, La Documentation Française, Paris 2001.

MEYER, E., Sri Lanka, Biography of an Island, between Local and Global, (trans K. Segond-Baldwinà, Viator, 2003

RAJADURAI, K., « The Context of Tamil film Production in Sri Lanka », in Framework N° 37, Colombo, 1989

RAJADURAI, K., « Towards a Sri Lankan National Cinema », Cinesith n°02, Asian Film Centre Publications, 12-14 Colombo, 2002

RAJASINGHAM-SENANAYAKE, D., “Identity on the Borderline: Modernity, New Ethnicities, and the Unmaking of Multiculturalism in Sri Lanka, dans N. de Silva (éd.) The Hybrid Island: Culture crossings and the invention of identity in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2003

REPORT of the Commission of Inquiry into the Film Industry in Ceylon », Sessional Papers II, 1965, Colombo: Government Publications Bureau, 1965

SIVAKUMARAN, K. S., « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », in Framework N° 37, p.44-47, Colombo, 1989

THYAGARAJAH, A.,  « Shaping the Future of the Motion Picture in Sri Lanka », Report presented to the Govt., Colombo, 2004

TAMPOE-HAUTIN, V.,  Last of the Big Ones, Tower Hall Foundation Institute, Colombo 2008

WICKRAMASINGHE, N., Ethnic Politics in Colonial Sri Lanka (1927-1947), New Delhi: Vikas, 1995



1939: Ceylon Observer, 8 January 1939: « Mr Abraham Gardiner Never Despairs » by J.W.A.

1940: Ceylon Observer, 7 April 1940: « Mr Gardiner Goes to Hollywood »

1948: Ceylon Theatres Ltd., « Looking Back: Twenty Years of Ceylon Theatres Ltd., (1928-1948),  Colombo : 1948.

1950: Ceylon Observer, 19 September 1950: « Death of Mrs C. A. Gardiner

1956: Ceylon Observer 25 October 1956: «Captains of Industry – (7) Sir Chittampalam Gardiner : An ‘Elder Statesman’ in Business »

1961 : Lester Peries, « The Sinhala Film…a Reply. 14 years, but still nothing good or artistic », Ceylon Observer, 30 March 1961.

1961: Ceylon Observer, 24 May 1961 : « 14 decide future of our film industry : measures to improve Sinhala productions »

1961: Ceylon Observer, 3 June 1961: « Sinhala Films Must be Made here »

1961: Ceylon Daily News, 21 June 1961: « Film Censors lay down principles, no belittling of national culture »

1966: « Unrestricted importation has perverted taste: Senator Somaratne », Ceylon Daily News, 26 April 1966

1966: Ceylon Daily News, 16 May 1966: « Serious Inaccuracies », K. Gunaratnam

1987: « Tamil Cinema in Lanka needs more backing », The Island, 7 February 1987.

1987: « The Revival of Tamil films in the North and East: a boon to the local industry », Island, 27 August 1987.

2005 Daily News 29 September 2005, 75e anniversary Ceylon Theatres Ltd.

[1] « Sinhala Films Must be Made here », Ceylon Observer, 3 June1961.

[2] S. Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Cambridge, 1987, p. 47

[3] For more on the subject, see K. Hansen’s illuminating work on Parsi Theatre: « Parsi Theatre and the City: Locations, patrons, audiences », in  « Sarai Reader 2002: The Cities of Everyday Life », 2000.

[4] P. Jaikumar offers a thorough analysis of the question in Cinema At the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.

[5] K. Rajadurai, « The Context of Tamil Film Production in Sri Lanka », Framework N° 37, Colombo, 1989, p. 36.

[6] W. Dissanayake, A Ratnavibhushana (ed), Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, Boralesgamuwa:  Asian Film Centre, 2000, p.92.

[7] Evidently, here “founding fathers” and “pioneers” signify financiers and not directors, though a number of prominent Tamil directors did leave their mark on the Sinhala cinematography of Sri Lanka.

[8] Nevertheless, we know that the Muslims of Sri Lanka have had to manoeuvre between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, showing their allegiances to either group, according to the vagaries of politics. The other category of Sri Lankans of Tamil culture are the Indo-Sri Lankans recruited to work on coffee and tea plantations from the mid-19th century. They constitute a category of speakers of Tamil. Although their economic situation precluded their participation in the business of cinema, they do represent an audience market for Tamil films.

[9] K. Rajadurai, art.cit., p. 34.

[10] For more, see R.Crusz and A. Ratnavibhushana, « Calm beneath the Storm » in Being and Becoming: The cinemas of Asia, (eds). Aruna Vasudev, Latika Padgaongar, Rashmi Doraiswamy, pp. 392-417, New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002.

[11] « 75th anniversary of Ceylon Theatres Ltd », Daily News of 29 September 2005.

[12] For more on racial typologies, see D. Rajasingham-Senanayake, “Identity on the Borderline: Modernity, New Ethnicities, and the Unmaking of Multiculturalism in Sri Lanka », in (ed.) N. de Silva, The Hybrid Island : Culture crossings and the invention of identity in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association,  2003, p. 53-55.

[13]With the exception of one film, Sudo Sudu (1964), adapted from Enoch Arden’s epic poem.

[14] V.Tampoe-Hautin, Last of the Big Ones, Colombo: Tower Hall Foundation Institute, 2008, p. 76.

[15] S. Kakar (p. 12, 1981), cited in S. Dickey, op.cit., 1992, p. 56.

[16] Idem, p 56.

[17] Lester Peries, « The Sinhala Film…a Reply. 14 years, but still nothing good or artistic », Ceylon Observer, 30 March 1961.

[18] The first Sri Lankan film company, Ceylon Theatres Ltd. was established by Sir Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner in 1928. This was followed, during the mid-1940s by two other companies, K. Gunaratnam’s Cinemas Ltd and Jabir Cader’s Ceylon Entertainments Ltd.

[19] « Unrestricted importation has perverted taste: Senator Somaratne », Ceylon Daily News, 20 May 1966: « […] giving the impression that the importers of films in Ceylon have not taken an interest in the development of the local film industry », Ceylon Daily News, 26 April 1966. This drew an immediate riposte from K. Gunaratnam, Managing Director, Cinemas Ltd : « Serious Inaccuracies », Ceylon Daily News, 16 May 1966. The debate was all the more heated as Senator Somaratne was also a film producer.

[20] « Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Film Industry in Ceylon », Sessional Papers II, 1965,Colombo:Government Publications Bureau, 1965. National Archives.

[21] W. Dissanayake, A Ratnavibhushana (eds), Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, Boralesgamuwa: Asian Film Centre, 2000, p.92.

[22] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », in Framework N° 37, 44-47, Colombo, 1989, p. 45.

[23] W. Dissanayake et A. Ratnavibhushana, op.cit., p. 92.

[24] « Tamil Cinema in Lanka needs more backing », The Island, 7 February 1987.

[25] « The Revival of Tamil films in the North and East: a boon to the local industry », Island, 27 August 1987.

[26] The President’s Award is one of the many types of prestigious distinctions that exist in Sri Lankan cinema.

[27] Thyagarajah Arjuna,  « Shaping the Future of the Motion Picture in Sri Lanka », Report presented to the Govt., Colombo, 2004, p. 36.

[28] The film starred Pratham Pothan, Charan Hassan, D. Ganeshan, Vijay and Radhika.

[29] K. Rajadurai, art.cit.,  p.13-14.

[30] For more on ethno-linguistic and religious distributions/appurtenances, see E. Meyer, Sri Lanka, entre particularismes et mondialisation, La Documentation Française, Paris 2001 and E. Meyer, Sri Lanka, Biography of an Island, between Local and Global, (trans K. Segond-Baldwinà, Viator, 2003

[31]N.Wickramasinghe illuminates differently the question of divide and rule in Ethnic Politics in Colonial Sri Lanka (1927-1947), New Delhi: Vikas, 1995.

[32] Numerous are the studies that exist on the subject of the island’s ethnic dichotomies, these include works by K.M de Silva, Nira Wickramasinghe, K. Jayawardena in English and E. Meyer in French.

[33]For more on the subject, see K. Jayawardena, Nobodies to Somebodies: The rise of the colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, New Delhi: LeftWord, 2001.

[34] R. Crusz and J. Uyangoda in Framework 37,op.cit., 1986.

[35] See Sir A. Gardiner’s own vision of « localization » of the cinema industry: 8 January 1939: « Mr Abraham Gardiner Never Despairs » by J.W.A. Other reports in the press of 1948 appeared upon the 20 years anniversary of Ceylon Theatres Ltd: « Looking Back: Twenty Years of Ceylon Theatres Ltd., (1928-1948),  Colombo : 1948 ; Ceylon Theatres Ltd, « 50th Anniversary 1928-1978 », Colombo : 1978. Ceylon Observer.

[36] « 14 decide future of our film industry: measures to improve Sinhala productions », Ceylon Observer, 24 May 1961: « Film Censors lay down principles, no belittling of national culture », Ceylon Daily News, 21 June 1961.

[37] D. S .Senanayake, independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister would be followed by his son Dudley, cumulating a decade of rule.

[38]See research conducted on the question through pamphlets and colonial press correspondances in late 19th-early 20th century Ceylon by K. Jayawardena, Ethnic and Class Conflict in Sri Lanka, the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness, 1883-1983, Sanjiva Books, Colombo, 2003.

[39] K. M. de Silva, History of Ceylon, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2006, p. 483.

[40] In July 1983, 13 soldiers were killed, an incident which many see as the beginning of the 26 year ethnic conflict.

[41]  K. Rajadurai op. cit, p. 14.

[42] W. Dissanayake and A. Ratnavibhushana, op cit., p. 94.

[43] After 1983 a number of cinemas in Jaffna closed: the Windsor (today known as the Lido), the Raj, built by S.T.R Thiagarajar located opposite the Windsor), the Haran, in close proximity to where R. C. Tampoe’s Regal once stood, the Shanthi (one of the « youngest cinema halls in Jaffna, renamed Nathan). There’s also a small auditorium within the precincts of the Jaffna Town Hall, the Rio, and was part of the Rio of Colombo. In all, the Jaffna peninsula has more than a dozen cinemas, including the Rajah, Rani, Wellington, Sridhar and Manohar.

[44] « The revival of Tamil films in the North and East : a boon to the local industry », The Island 24 August 1987.

[45] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », in Framework 37, op cit, pp. 44-45.

[46]Y. Rao’s Chinthamani (1937) and its success among the ethnic Sinhalese is an example of the unversial attraction of the entertainer, but also testifies to the common cultural heritage that binds India and Ceylon: the film focusses on Bilwamangal,  an erudite poet and a follower of Krishna and his love for a courtisan Chinthamani. His passion leads him to abandon his spouse and take refuge in prayer and devotion to Krishna.

[47] M. R. Mendis, Genesis of Sinhala Cinema, (trans S. Wijesuriya), Godage Books, 2005, p. 25.

[48] T. Abeyesekera, interview of 18th August 2008, Colombo.

[49] S. Dickey, op.cit.

[50] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Tamil cinema in Lanka needs more backing », Island Saturday Magazine, 7 February 1987.

[51] K. S. Sivakumaran, « Sri Lankan Tamil Films », op cit., p. 45.

[52] « The Revival of Tamil films in the North and East », Island, 27th August 1987.

[53] K. Rajadurai, “Towards a Sri Lankan National Cinema”, Cinesith 2, op. cit., p. 12.

[54] Three remarkable films were released between 2000 and 2003: Saroja, Punchi Suranganavi  by Somaratne Balasuriya and Asoka Handagama’s Me Mage Sandai. The main focus is the ethnic war (1983 – 2009). They inaugurated a new period of Sinhala films on international standards.

[55]K. M. de Silva, op.cit., p. 483.

[56] In fact, Tamil emigration to Malaya began at the beginning of the 20th century. R. Cheran citing Ramasamy (1988) points out that the Tamil population in Malaysia was around 7000 in 1911 and 25,000 in 1957. This emigration enabled the development of Jaffna, as emigrants sent funds home. Sir Gardiner, cinema magnate and iconic businessman of Sri Lanka, spent his childhood in Malaysia, his parents having temporarily emigrated to that colony for economic reasons: «Captains of Industry – (7) Sir Chittampalam Gardiner : An ‘Elder Statesman’ in Business » Ceylon Observer 25 October 1956.

[57] R. Cheran, The Sixth Genre: Memory, History and the Tamil Diaspora Imagination, p.22 Cheran’s study illuminates this Tamil diaspora, and the development of a transterritorial Tamil imaginary anchored through the internet and the birth of a literature of commemoration and resistance.

[58] R. Cheran, idem, p. 3.

Conference Feminist Preconference on ‘Location’, Madison, Wisconsin, 11 October 2012


8.30 am: Opening Remarks: Srimati Basu and Indrani Chatterjee

I. The Body as Site, Object and Subject :

Kumkum Roy, “Bodies in Texts, Bodies in Classrooms”

Daud Ali, “The State and Gender Formation in Early India”

Lucinda Ramberg, “Dalit Futures: Emancipation, Citizenship, and Sexual

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz, “The Politics of Gender, Location, and

Identity in a Nepali Goddess Tradition”

Discussant-chair: Anjali Arondekar

II. Dislocation and Violence

Poulomi Saha, “(Ins)Urgent Archive: Historicizing Revolutionary

Catherine Warner, “Sex, Revenge and State Lines: Punishing Adultery as
Boundary Making in 19th century Nepal”

Inderpal Grewal, “Outsourcing Patriarchy: National Anxieties and Media
in the case of ‘Honor Killings’ in India”

Discussant-chair: Sukanya Banerjee

III. Gender, Time and Action

Rochisha Narayan, “Producing Mughals in Colonial Banaras”

Uditi Sen, “Rescuing Women or Constructing Selves: ‘Lady Social
Workers’ and Women’s Rehabilitation in Post-partition India”

Wendy Singer, “Seeing Themselves as Others See Them: Mayawati,
Jayalalithaa and Crafting Images of a Woman Politician”

Poulami Roychowdhury, “Migrating Feminists: Mediation and the Politics
of Scale in Contemporary Rights Practice”

Discussant-chair: Rina Williams

IV. Enclosures and Beyond

Nethra Samarawickrema, “The Screen and the Fort: Muslim Women’s
Postcolonial Adaptations of Space”

Janaki Abraham, “Mapping Locality: Gender, Space and the Production
of Neighborhood Cultures in Towns in India”

Hafsa Kanjwal, “Placing Kashmir: Gender, Social Status and Mobility
in a Kashmiri Woman’s Autobiography”

Naisargi Dave, “Death and Family: Queer Archives of the Space Between”

Discussant-chair: Kamran Ali

V. Government by Abstraction

Geeta Patel-Weston and Elida K. U. Jacobsen, “Space, Place and Number:
The Politics of Location and the Case of the U.I.D.”

Jyoti Puri, “Sexuality, Space, State”

Debarati Sen and Sarasij Majumder, “Saving Land for Son’s Futures:
Locating Gendered Politics of Value in Anti-Neoliberalism”

Shubhra Gururani, “‘Out of Place, Out of Sorts’: Multiple Dislocations
in India’s Urban Peripheries”

Discussant-chair: Mrinalini Sinha

5.15 – 5.30 pm: Concluding Remarks

The Preconference has been made possible by the assistance of the South Asian Studies Council at Yale University, the South Asian Studies Center at Stanford University, the South Asian Studies Center at University of Pennsylvania, the South Asian Studies Center, University of California at Berkeley and South Asian Studies Program at Brandeis University .

Venue: Wisconsin Ballroom, Madison Concourse Hotel.

source: H-Asia

“In the shadow of the men’s T20 game” by Andy Richardson (



Forget about high-speed convoys led by police outriders.

Sri Lanka’s women’s cricket players arrive for their practice sessions two to a moped. Sponsored cars are not an optional extra. Unlike their male counterparts, they can move around pretty much unnoticed.

We catch up with them in the country’s capital Colombo. They run through fielding drills in one small corner of a pitch. The rest of the outfield has been taken over by corporate hospitality tents for the men’s World Twenty20. It pretty much sums up the task facing women’s cricket. A constant battle for space and attention surrounded by a seemingly all powerful men’s game.

The issue is even more pronounced in Asia’s cricketing countries. While the best male cricketers enjoy superstar status, the women’s game is all but ignored.

The captain of the Sri Lanka team talks impressively about the responsibility her players have to change the situation. Shashikala Siriwardena is not interested in hard luck stories. She tells me that if her team play well then attitudes can be changed and investment will follow.

Big efforts are being made at an organisational level. For the third time the women’s and men’s T20 World Cups are to be hosted in the same country at the same time. It provides a big stage for this all too often overlooked game.

The finals of the men’s and women’s tournament will held back-to-back in Colombo’s main stadium. But the Sri Lanka players are still frustrated that the group stages are not being broadcast on live television.

Privately they worry they could be knocked out of the event before the cameras turn up for the semi-finals.

I also talk to Vanessa de Silva, one of the pioneers of the women’s game in Asia.

She was captain of the Sri Lanka side back in 1998 when they played their first ever Test match. De Silva tells me cultural as well as sporting barriers still face girls wanting to play sport in Sri Lanka but that attitudes are changing.

A major step forward has been the awarding of full-time contracts to the country’s best players for the last three years. Like the current captain, she is also insistent that it is within the players’ powers to really push the game on.

“Times have changed,” she says.

“We are getting some media attention, but it is up to us to make things turn around. We need to finish this tournament in the top two, or top four, to show people here we really can play.”

The favourites to win this edition of the World Twenty20 will be England.

The team has long been given good financial backing and girls’ cricket is now the fastest growing participation sport in the country. But their success is far from guaranteed.

At the last T20 World Cup the side were dumped out in the group stages. The top spots in the newly released T20 player rankings reflect the game’s traditional powerbase. They are dominated by English and Australian names.

There is also a lot of talk about the West Indies team and their powerful batting line-up. But the Asian teams have a lot of ground to make up. As the players themselves are only too aware, the next step in their fight for recognition globally and within their own borders is a strong performance at this event.


CFP Rangoli online magazine

Submissions are now being taken for the fourth issue of Rangoli, our online magazine.. We are looking for poems, short stories, book reviews, photography, interesting articles and pieces of creative art. We are particularly keen to recieve submissions related to South Asian Literature and art forms. Also, we invite your ideas for interviews Be part of this great magazine which believes in promoting literature and encourages the cause of the written word! For more details and to discuss any queries write to Sneha Subramanian Kanta, Assistant Editor, Rangoli

We do not pay for the submissions recieved and believe in spreading literature across boundaries. You would have an opportunity to be read widely and be a part of a growing literary community.

About Rangoli : Rangoli is Kala Kahanis much coveted online magazine and operates from the United Kingdom. Kala Kahani meaning the story of art is now in its 10th year of providing a forum for specifically South Asian art forms, to promote, develop and cultivate an appreciation of literature, theatre, dance, music and the visual arts.

To know more, visit

To view the previous two issues of this journal, visit

Sneha Subramanian Kanta
Assistant Editor
Visit the website at

CFP Gender, Imperialism & Global Exchanges, special issue of Gender and History – 26:3

From antiquity through the twentieth century, imperial expansions were accompanied by transregional and global exchanges of goods, ideas, people, natural resources, practices and styles. As free and unfree labour travelled across spaces, so too did a variety of commodities and natural resources. We seek proposals that explore the gendered impact of such exchanges on the metropole and/or the colonies, and how these dynamics were shaped by either gendered desires, gendered relations, or gendered ideologies. In particular, we wish to problematise the very notion of exchange through a critical examination of labour flows and goods and the extraction of resources.

How, for example, can a gendered analysis of a particular political economy shed light on uneven or exploitative global practices? How did imperial coercions of labour involve sexualised and gendered treatments of working bodies? We also welcome essays that focus on interchange, reciprocity, or resistance, on collaborative and coalition-building, as well as extractive, exchanges. We perceive empires broadly: as sociopolitical entities, as territories in flux, as formal regimes, as ideological and cultural hegemonies, as religious domains, as trans-regional trade networks, as multinational corporations.

Overall, we seek manuscripts that consider the gendered dimensions of sexual, bodily, social, material, political, cultural and intellectual dynamics of empire from a wide range of temporal and geographic settings. In addition to work on the Americas, Western Europe and South Asia, we are especially keen to receive proposals about other parts of the globe, including Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We strongly encourage submissions that focus on the pre-modern period. We invite submissions from scholars in disciplines other than history whose work engages historical methodologies and analyses. Given our intention to produce a volume that is at once analytically rigorous and pedagogically useful, we are interested in articles that offer conceptual or theoretical discussion in addition to empirically-grounded case studies. We encourage potential contributors to submit work that falls under one or more of the following rubrics: labour and bodies; ideas, politics and cultures; goods and commodities; practices and styles. For sample questions, please consult the extended version of this call for abstracts on the Gender & History website at

source: H-Asia


SRI LANKA FESTIVAL (Kulturhistorisk museum Universitetet i Oslo)

Lørdag 29. september kl. 1300 kan du oppleve stor dansekunst i Historisk museum. Tamilsk mestermøte i sang og dans ved Vasuky Jayapalan, med besøk fra Tamil Nadu i samarbeid med Oslo kulturskole, Rikskonsertene og Barnek


Kl. 1315: Forestilling: ” The Jeweled Anklet – Silappathikaram”.

Festivalen fortsetter på Barnekunstmuseet, søndag 30. september.

Book Review: Peterson Indira and Soneji Devesh (eds.)’s “Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India” Reviewed by Archana Venkatesan

We republish here a review of Peterson Indira and Soneji Devesh (eds.)’s “Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India” that was written by Archana Venkatesan and which appeared on H-Asia (April, 2011).

Arts in South India

The edited volume Performing Pasts by Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Davesh Soneji concerns the place of the performing arts in the history of modern South India. It takes as its central argument that the invention and classicizing of the performing arts (specifically music and dance) was forged in the nexus of colonialism, nationalism, and regionalism and that an examination of the elite metropolitan discourses surrounding the performing arts reveals something significant about the workings of modernity in South Asia in general and South India in particular. Performing Pasts has a two-fold aim: to explore the interface between modernity and the performing arts in South India (p. 1), and in doing so, to fill the lacuna regarding a cultural and social history of South Indian music and dance. The ten essays in this volume engage with the complex manner in which issues both local (regionalism, language politics, caste) and national (gender, Victorian morality) were refracted in the remaking and reinvention of South Indian music and dance. While these essays center primarily on the elite, metropolitan discourses that emerged between the nineteenth until the mid-twentieth centuries from cultural hubs like Tanjavur and Madras, they successfully demonstrate the hybridity of traditions, performers, and pedagogical practices. Furthermore, the interpretive perspectives–textual, anthropological, historical–amply demonstrate the very hybridity that the authors seek to highlight. They enable the essays to “connect with each other in fruitful ways, and to illuminate issues related to the performing arts as ‘cultural performance’ in its multiple dimensions” (p. 4).

The volume’s comprehensive introduction jointly authored by Peterson and Soneji does more than just offer summaries of the articles or their methodological orientations. Rather, this introductory essay provides richly textured historical background and traverses the essays’ most significant arguments about the development of the performing arts in India. The brief stories of music and dance cultures are recounted against the backdrop of nationalist, Orientalist, and colonial impulses, and elegantly articulate how issues of identity, linguistic and caste politics, female sexuality, and the emergence of new centers of cultural, economic and political power, came together in the efforts to classicize, standardize, and sacralize South Indian music and dance. For instance, the nationalist project of Karnatak music was one which brought together Tamil and Telugu Brahmins of the new middle class, Orientalist scholars, and Theosophists. The impulses of the Dravidian movement and the push towards formulating a Tamil music, embodied in the Tamil Isai Sangam, occurred simultaneously. However, as the volume’s editors point out, the invention of Karnatak music was not solely a Brahmin project, patronized as it was (and continues to be) by the non-Brahmin elite. Similarly, music composition in Tamil was taken up Brahmins, non-Brahmins, Christians, and Muslims alike, while each claimed for themselves a distinctly Tamil identity. Claims such as the ones above are borne out by a number of essays in the volume, but two widely different ones suffice to make the point. Zoe Sherinian explores Tamil Protestant indigenization of thekirttanai form to resist the very elite structures of power that produced it. Matthew Allen Harp’s article examines the work of the Madras Music Academy in standardizing and textualizing music, particularly in its desire to articulate the structures of ragas and talas scientifically.

While literature on the history of music in India from the nineteenth century is just emerging, there is a huge amount of wide-ranging scholarship on the interventions and experiments with dance in the same period. Many of the articles in this volume build on this already existent scholarship–indeed many of the contributors have been instrumental in forging this body of research work–but do so in new and interesting ways. The essays on dance, specifically, Bharatanatyam, in this volume therefore do not simply rehearse the old arguments about the de-eroticizing of dance and the gradual erosion of ritual, economic, and performance rights of thedevadasi. Instead, the essays by Hari Krishnan, Janet O’Shea, Peterson, and Soneji offer us something new. Krishnan traces the textualization of dance repertoire and practice, exemplified by the innovations introduced by the Tanjavur Quartet (nineteenth century) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, identifying said impulse as a response to the potential loss of the repertoire by hereditary performers on account of the pressures of social reform. By taking up contemporary dance and choreographic practice in Chennai and Sri Lanka, particularly as it pertains to Tamil identity, O’Shea’s essay tackles the very manner in which dance is employed to reimagine a specific past for a specific (if global) community. Similarly, both Peterson’s essay and Soneji’s article concentrate on the central role of nostalgia and memory in constructing the past. While Peterson takes up the famous serialized Tamil novel Tillana Mohanambal (1956-57) by Kalaimani Kothamangalam Subbu to argue that the novel’s nostalgic celebration of the hereditary performance traditions of the temple-city of Tiruvarur offers an version of these traditions that stands in opposition to the elite or regionalist, Soneji plumbs his rich ethnographic work with the devadasis of coastal Andhra to demonstrate the key place of memory and performance in maintaining their identity. He takes us behind their closed-door private performances, undertaken solely for their pleasure, and in doing so allows the voices of these women to embody the very arguments that Kalaimani seeks to make in Tillana Mohanambal. This penultimate essay brings a number of the volume’s themes together and acts as a fitting and thought-provoking conclusion.

As the editors Soneji and Peterson mention in their substantial introduction, the ten essays are divided thematically into four major sections. The first section of three essays, Lakshmi Subramanian, Krishnan, and Harp, reflects on the problematic issue of canons and canonization. As such, these three essays take up the process of textualization and standardization, with two of the essays specifically focused on music and the work of the Music Academy (Subramanian and Harp) that was founded in Chennai in 1928. The second section, “The Local and Global: Regional and National Pasts,” consists of two essays by Avanti Meduri and O’Shea. Meduri takes up the crucial work of Rukmini Arundale as “dance-historian” whose influential re-imagining of the stage as a visual representation of the triangular, symbiotic relationship between god, guru, and temple, enabled her to simultaneously historicize and spiritualize Bharatanatyam. Not coincidentally, her re-imaginings of stage and of dance took place at the same time as the scientific standardization projects undertaken by the members of the Madras Music Academy. By focusing on Chennai and Sri Lanka, and Bharatanatyam’s key role in expressing different pasts in India and in Sri Lanka, O’Shea explicates the local and global appeal of Bharatanatyam, and in particular its fluid and chimerical character. The three essays of Saskia Kersenboom, Amanda Weidman, and Peterson constitute the third section, entitled “Views from Within: Self Conscious Reflections on Tradition.” While Peterson’s essay’s centerpiece is a Tamil novel, Weidman examines the interventions of new technologies, particularly the phonograph and radio broadcasts, in reshaping musical pedagogical practices, and notions of the authentic transmission of repertoire from teacher to disciple. Kersenboom applies the emic Tamil categories of grammar and form to an analysis of the seminal Bhairavi varnam “Mohamana” to argue for the flexible, ever-changing nature of marabu (tradition). In particular, she argues that the text, particularly one such as “Mohamana,” constantly changes as it finds form and expression through embodied practice. The final section, “Identity, Community and Resistance: Imagining Alternatives to Tradition,” offers two essays by Soneji and Zoe Sherinian that take up the central place of performance in forging caste/gender identities, and as a means of articulating resistance to the dominant elite narratives.

One of Performing Pasts’ great strength is that it draws the reader’s attention both to important commonalities and divergences within South Asia and particularly with the traditions that concern the volume’s authors. Thus, for instance, we are drawn to attend to the difference in the interventions in the cultural spheres of literature and the visual arts and the performing arts. Whereas the former was directed more towards innovation and novelty, the thrust of the discourse surrounding the performing arts had to do with its antiquity and classicism (p. 5). Even so, the authors and the accompanying essays amply demonstrate that the reinvention of the performing arts in South India beginning in the nineteenth century was marked by adaptations and borrowing from Western practices and the introduction of all kinds of innovations. As Krishnan argues in his essay, these might take the shape of the move to standardize and textualize embodied practices as early as the late eighteenth century. In still other cases, it occurs under the influence of new instruments such as the violin or new technologies such as radio and phonograph (Weidman). Peterson and Soneji have organized the essays along four specific themes, but since these essays are so rich and textured, they lend themselves to being read with and against each other. For example, reading the essays on Bharatanatyam (or Karnatak music) together offers a nuanced portrait of the difficult and oftentimes painful history of Bharatanatyam, India’s iconic dance form. Similarly, one could read these essays with particular attention to sites of production, which are as varied as institutions like the Music Academy, cities such as Chennai, or erstwhile cultural centers such as Tanjavur, Tiruvarur, and coastal Andhra Pradesh. This last would be a particularly fruitful way of reading the essays in this volume, as one of its central arguments concerns the production and consumption of performance in multiple venues in multiple contexts–in temple, in courts, and in salons, suggesting a multiplicity and cosmopolitanism that was erased by nationalist discourses that located music and dance in the temple, thereby ensuring their persistent identification with the sacred.

Although the book title marks its territory as South India, the majority of the essays focus on Tamil Nadu and elite Hindu culture. Nonetheless the themes, theoretical approaches, work with multiple language sources (Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit, for example), and arguments about the manner in which texts and performance cultures travel (for instance from Tanjavur to coastal Andhra, or from Chennai to Sri Lanka), open up new avenues for consideration. Rather than an assemblage of essays representing various linguistic traditions of South India, the book is attentive to the significance of place (performance practices in Tanjavur may not be shared in Pudukkotai, although repertoires clearly traveled) and of the polyglot, cosmopolitan quality of various cultural centers such as Tanjavur, coastal Andhra Pradesh, or Chennai. For its ability to inspire discussion and further investigation, this thoroughly researched and cleanly edited volume is ideal for use in courses on Indian social and cultural history at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and is a welcome and important addition to the slow-growing resources on the important place of the performing arts in the Indian nationalist project.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at:


Indira Peterson, Devesh Soneji, eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi + 356 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-569084-2.


Citation: Archana Venkatesan. Review of Peterson, Indira; Soneji, Devesh, eds., Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. April, 2011.


Le “Off” du Festival de Cannes à Paris et en région parisienne – Venez découvrir INI AVAN, la prochaine sortie d’Héliotrope Films, en avant-première

Après CANNES et TORONTO, avant sa sortie en salle le 6 février 2013,
le nouveau film de Asoka HANDAGAMA (This is my Moon, Flying with one Wing) sera projeté en avant-première, en partenariat avec l’ACID <>

A Parisle dimanche 30 septembre à 21h, au cinéma Le Nouveau Latina <>
A Malakoffle jeudi 27 septembre à 20h30, au cinéma Marcel Pagnol <>
A Tremblayle jeudi 4 octobre à 20h30, au cinéma Jacques Tati <>

L’histoire : A la fin d’une guerre qui a ravagé le Sri Lanka pendant plus de 25 ans, un ex combattant retourne chez lui. Il retrouve la femme qu’il a aimée, et tente de revenir à une existence « normale ».

Un film rare, lyrique et bouleversant (Revue de presse sur le site d’Héliotrope Films<> )

Portable : 06 30 07 23 09 – Mail: <>  

Book Review: Patrick Grant’s “Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka” Reviewed by David Buck

We republish here a review of Patrick Grant’s “Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka” that was written by David Buck and which appeared on H-Genocide (May, 2011).

Use of Buddhism for Ethnic Conflict

In Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Patrick Grant examines the impact of three Sinhala Buddhist writers on the Buddhist reform movement during the independence and postcolonial periods in Sri Lankan history. Grant’s focus is on what happens when religion, in this case Buddhism, is used not for its liberating vision, but to reaffirm prejudices and further conflicts. While there have been numerous similar conflicts throughout the late twentieth century, Grant hopes to make the lesser-known political conflict in Sri Lanka accessible to Western readers and succeeds admirably in doing so. Grant examines how religious traditions have been mobilized in ethnonationalistic conflict, using the role played by Buddhism in the Sri Lankan conflict as an example. In an effort to explain this conflict, Grant proposes the concept of “regressive inversion,” which is “what happens when a universally liberating religious vision is re-deployed to supercharge the passions associated with loyalty to a group” (p. x). During a moment of “regressive inversion,” he explains, there is a return to an exclusionary identity (something that the religion is supposed to transcend) simultaneous with an inversion of those religious values that rely on the idea of transcendence.

Although Grant is dealing with topics unfamiliar to nonspecialists, he makes the concepts easily understandable. To help with this, Grant divides his book into two parts. Part 1 provides a framework for understanding Buddhism in relation to both his concept of regressive inversion and Sri Lankan history. Part 2 focuses on the conflict in Sri Lanka through the lens of three Sri Lankan Buddhists who were active during the period surrounding independence from Britain in 1948. Overall, Grant sets out to emphasize the role that language plays in this conflict. He does note that other factors are also important, but it is language that holds a special place in his explanation.

Part 1, “Reading Buddhism,” consists of two chapters that focus on how Buddhism and regressive inversion interact and how the Buddha dealt with the apparent contradiction between his liberating vision and the Vedic hierarchical tradition. In chapter 1, “Vedic Tradition and the Buddha: How to Say the Unsayable,” Grant begins with an account of the main teachings of Theravada Buddhism with special attention to the Pali Canon, a collection of Pali language texts considered to be the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. To set up his discussion, he uses what Thomas M. Greene terms the “disjunctive view” of language to mean language that frees people and the “conjunctive view” to mean language that engages people. Grant argues that the Buddha in the Pali Canon negotiated the middle space between these two uses of language “with great skill,” and the dialogical example Grant “provides in doing so remains basic to the meaning and practice of compassion, the heart of his message” (p. 6). While the Buddha was able to walk this line, Grant is concerned with the fact that others fail to grasp the need to find a balance in the relationship between disjunctive and conjunctive language.

Grant focuses on the Pali Canon and how the Buddha deals with the relationship between a transcendent universalism and its cultural antecedents in chapter 2, “Buddhism: The Art of the Detached Agonist.” He starts by providing an overview of the life and teachings of Gotama Buddha. Readers can easily follow Grant’s discussion of the central teachings; he provides a solid basis for those who are not familiar with them. He follows this overview with an explanation of how the discourses deal with the use and abuse of language. He describes how the Buddha employs a variety of strategies to deal with interlocutors. Grant concludes this part of the book by asserting that “the Discourses especially insist on how central such a dialogue [one committed to the middle way] is to the promulgation of an authentic and vital Buddhism” (p. 42). Furthermore, he puts forth the idea that it is the failing to understand this that has led to “regressive inversion,” which is the focus of the rest of the book.

In part 2, “Reading Sri Lanka,” Grant examines how this Buddhist framework informed, or failed to inform, modern thinkers in Sri Lanka. He focuses the writings of three key figures in Sri Lankan nationalism–Anagarika Dharmapala, Walpola Rahula, and J. R. Jayewardene–who addressed Buddhism and politics in the years surrounding Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain. These three pushed for a revival of their vision of pure Buddhism, which Grant argues supports the concept of regressive inversion. He illustrates how these figures made connections between Buddhism and politics.

Before he begins his examination of the writers, Grant starts by giving an assessment of Sri Lanka’s historic Buddhist chronicle tradition in chapter 3, “Sri Lanka: Buddhist Self Representation and the Genesis of the Modern Conflict.” He starts by explaining the Mahavamsa, “Great Genealogy,” from the sixth century, which provides the connection between the monarchs and Buddhism. Grant argues that this historic tie influences the revivalists’ idea that the pure Buddhism, along with the return of the Sinhalas, will help Sri Lankan nationalism. Following this discussion of religious ideology, Grant provides a brief survey of major events in Sri Lanka from the 1600s until the late 1900s. He uses this to set up the backdrop for how “undiscerned prejudice can override principle despite good intentions” (p. 65).

In chapter 4, “Anagarika Dharmapala: Buddhism, Science, and the Crisis of Historical Imagination,” Grant discusses how Dharmapala began to the make the links between the Buddhist revival and the Sri Lankan nationalist movement. In this chapter, Grant’s main point is to provide evidence that Dharmapala’s reliance on science caused a misestimation of the “powerful exclusionist element in his own thinking, which in fact prevented him from promoting the tolerance, compassion, and universalism which he admired” (p. 67). Grant provides an overview of Dharmapala’s early life and his path to becoming a reformer. In the end, Grant argues that Dharmapala exhibits regressive inversion because he used science as a vehicle to recreate an exclusivism that was in fact the antithesis of Buddhist teachings.

In chapter 5, “Alpola Rahula and Gamini Salgado: Buddhism, Dialogue, and the Political Imaginary,” Grant examines how Rahula’s writings were seemingly incongruent–a scholarly understanding of Buddhism and nonviolence and an espousal of militant nationalism. Once again, Grant provides an overview of the life of the writer he is examining to help explain the effort at reform later in life. Rahula arrived at the argument that the principle of relativity worked well with theMahavamsa, based on little regard he had for traditional Buddhist practices. Grant uses Gamini Salgado’s The True Paradise (1997), a Sri Lankan author’s stories about childhood, as a counterexample to Rahula’s The Heritage of the Bhikkhu (2003). Salgodo focused on daily life and Buddhism’s place within it. By contrast, Rahula concentrated on the issue of colonialism and subverted his own scholarly understanding of Buddhism.

In chapter 6, “J. R. Jaywardene: Playing with Fire,” Grant explores how as prime minister, Jaywardene’s policies helped to further the violence and disorder he had sought to end. Grant argues that it was Jaywardene’s promotion of Sinhala Buddhist cultural nationalism that led to conflict. After reviewing Jaywardene’s rise to power, Grant explains how he hoped to use Buddhism, the Mahavamsa, and the development and restoration of Buddhist artifacts and buildings to end the ethnic conflict. In the end, Grant sees Jaywardene’s failure as tied to his promotion of regressive inversion.

With this book Grant wants to show “how seductive is the process whereby the liberating vision of a great religion is re-deployed to confirm prejudices that the religion itself expressly offers to transcend” (p. 115). Overall, Grant does a solid job of making this point in a manner that is accessible to most readers. However, Grant’s concept of regressive inversion could have been more clearly developed and integrated into the work more fully. At the outset, the reader is led to believe that the concept will play a vital role in the book. However, it is largely absent from part 2. At the end of each chapter, Grant makes passing reference to regressive inversion, but it would have been helpful if it had been more closely woven into the analysis throughout the book.

Overall, the book is a solid introduction to Buddhism and its relationship with the conflict in Sri Lanka during the twentieth century. This work will be especially beneficial to scholars looking at the intersection of religion and politics in times of crisis. It also will be a useful text in courses in religion, history, sociology, and conflict. Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka provides a useful lens that could be used to examine similar conflicts around the globe.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at:

Patrick Grant. Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. xiv + 146 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-9353-3.

Citation: David Buck. Review of Grant, Patrick, Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. H-Genocide, H-Net Reviews. May, 2011.


Book Review: Richard H. Davis’ “Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early World History” Reviewed by Devika Rangachari

We republish here a review of Richard H. Davis’ “Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early World History” that was written by Devika Rangachari  and which appeared on H-Asia (July, 2011).

A Perspective on Globalization

Through his “booklet,” Global India circa 100 CE, Richard H. Davis seeks to challenge one of the most persistent stereotypes about South Asian civilizations, and India in particular: that they have been static throughout the centuries unlike the dynamic West. Stressing that depictions of India as a world apart are historically misleading, the text situates India in a larger world context and examines some of the ways in which the subcontinent was engaged with other parts of the world in this one period in its history. Using a variety of sources ranging from literary texts and archaeological evidence, to art history and numismatics, Davis argues that India was a complex civilization, at the time involved in varied types of exchanges of ideas, goods, and people with the surrounding world. Adopting Nayan Chanda’s identification of the four primary agents of globalizing developments, Davis focuses on traders, missionaries, warriors, and adventurers, and examines the processes of interaction and exchange between India and the rest of the world through them. The text, therefore, is divided into individual chapters exploring these four types of globalizing agents, followed by a concluding summary of the responses of Indian “localists.”

In his discussion on traders, Davis addresses the manner in which they linked the Indian subcontinent into a “world system” of commerce ranging from Rome to China, with India as a pivotal node on both land and sea routes (p. 61). Focusing, for instance, on the significant trade links between south India and Rome in the early centuries CE, he points out that this was only one stage in a larger network of long-distance sea-based trade routes that traversed India in classical times. The international sea trade system in which India was a crucial player brought together the portion of western Europe that was under Roman control, the Mediterranean basin, Egypt and the Red Sea, the southern coast of Asia, coastal southeast Asia, and south China. The resulting cultural exchange had profound effects on the subcontinent.

While discussing missionaries, the next set of global agents, Davis focuses on Buddhism, its missionary agenda, and its pan-Asian reach with its universalizing message that took on new forms as it integrated itself with new cultural settings and interacted with other religious faiths. In this regard, the text provides a fascinating account of early Buddhist translators in China, like An Shih-kao who contributed immensely in turning Buddhism into a Chinese religion. These processes of encounter, comparison, and dialogue between Indian Buddhist ideas and practices and those in China would lead to innovations and developments both within Buddhism and beyond it, and to varied intellectual and cultural contacts between India and China in the early centuries CE. Davis notes that the entry of Buddhism into China was a step in the global mission that was set in motion by the Buddha and pursued by Buddhist missionaries and another way in which Indians were engaged in the “cultural world system” of this time. He confesses, however, that the complex and often conflict-ridden relations between the Buddhists in China and the Confucian and Taoist establishments over time, a “fascinating topic in the history of religions,” is beyond the scope of this booklet (p. 25).

In the section on warriors, Davis focuses on the Kushanas who began as nomads migrating from western China and established a large empire that integrated northern India with parts of Central Asia. The Kushanas were able to unite varied ethnic and cultural groups, exercise control over overland trade routes across Asia, and facilitate the spread of Buddhism in Asia. The very fact that a warrior tribe could establish an empire that played such a pivotal role in the global reach of India in the first two centuries CE is indicative of the fluid social and political geography of the time. Analyzing varied aspects of the political, social, and religious ideology of the Kushanas, Davis also compares Kanishka, the famous Kushana ruler, with Ashoka, the Mauryan ruler, in their attitude toward Buddhism, and notes that the attempt to portray the former as a “second Ashoka” is only partly viable (p. 40). While there is no evidence that Kanishka shared Ashoka’s fervent personal commitment to Buddhism, he did, however, emulate Ashoka’s model of patronizing Buddhist institutions as part of a cosmopolitan imperial strategy of rule.

The Kushanas also helped to promote the trade routes that we know as the Silk Road, which, according to Davis, offers an “excellent illustration” of exchanges between India and the world (p. 40). During the first two centuries CE, the Silk Road emerged as a major route for traders linking important centers of civilization, facilitated by the diplomatic policies of warrior rulers and extending a new mobility to missionaries of several religious communities. It enabled a significant exchange of goods and cultural products between the East and the West until maritime trade routes supplanted overland caravan trade around the eleventh century. In the first two centuries CE, the majority of trade moved through Kushana lands into India and then across the Indian Ocean to the Egyptian ports along the Red Sea.

In his last section that deals with adventurers as globalizing agents, Davis notes that while the early centuries CE witnessed intercontinental trading networks, pan-Asian religious missions, and the establishment of new kingdoms in India by warrior groups from outside the subcontinent, it was also a period of steady expansion of the Arya culture. Thus, the epic Ramayana, for instance, can be seen as an allegorical narrative of global engagement that reflected the expansionary “civilising mission” of a north Indian cultural and political order as it spread historically beyond its center in the Gangetic plain (p. 45). It offers insight into the issues of cultural contact and social incorporation faced at the time by those who called themselves Arya and those outside their social order.

Davis observes that the element of “otherness” in this story can be seen in Rama’s interactions with three categories of beings outside his homeland: the brahmana ascetics of the Dandaka forest, the demons/rakshasas with their organized sociopolitical system headquartered at Lanka, and the monkeys of Kishkindha (p. 49). Here, one can discern a connection between a fictional narrative and a real historical pattern. In the early centuries CE, several brahmanas did venture out beyond the areas of sedentary agriculture and settled kingdoms into relatively wild territory to establish centers for Vedic instruction. In a similar vein, the rakshasas and monkeys of the epic have been identified as certain historical ethnic/religious groups. Thus, as Davis points out, these two groups are not just objects of fantasy but also creatures in whose societies Rama intervenes. The epic, therefore, provides a fictional window for speculating on actual historical encounters as the Arya culture spreads.

The localist response, examined in the last section of Davis’s booklet, is, as he notes, a conservative one. While globalizing movements introduced not just trade commodities but also new people, ideas, and social linkages into Indian society, some localists perhaps perceived the social changes that threatened the status quo as dangers, even more so than the other perils of travel that are usually allegorized in story literature. Davis points out that many texts of this period view the Aryavarta as “a privileged zone of sacrificial purity,” distinct from the outside world inhabited by others. As contact with outsiders may lead to impurity, the brahmanas are advised to adopt a policy of “passive avoidance” (p. 60). The alternative is seen as a hideous free fall into a state of anarchy consequent upon a decline in social cohesion.

At this juncture, Davis makes an interesting comparison between the insular view of dharma propounded by the Dharmashastra authors, who advocate a similar policy of exclusion toward “atheists” (which includes the Buddhists and Jainas), and the more “outward-oriented perspective” of Valmiki’s Ramayana where the author argues for a concept of dharma that is universal (p. 60). This concept of a far-reaching dharma guides Rama’s actions and ultimately leads to the incorporation of the “others” into Rama’s dominion.

Global India circa 100 CE is eminently readable and bristles with poems, interesting anecdotes, quotes from varied texts, maps, and photographs. There are some minor errors. For example, “new forms as it was integrated itself in new cultural settings” (p. 61). Other editorial glitches include a misspelling of the word “Caspian” on map 3.2, which depicts the trade routes between the Mediterranean and China during the Kushana period (p. 43). Davis makes some unwitting errors as well such as his erroneous assumption that the historian Aloka Parasher is male (p. 46). Another oversight is in his alternately identifying Vibhishana of the Ramayana as Ravana’s brother and brother-in-law in the same paragraph (p. 51).

Global India circa 100 CE ends with the observation that the processes of interaction and exchange that took place in this one period in Indian history between India and other parts of the world have continued and taken new forms and directions. Briefly surveying India’s global interactions between the first two centuries CE and the establishment of the European colonial world system, Davis rightly concludes that at no time in the history of South Asia would Henry Kissinger’s ill-judged phrase “a world apart” ever apply (pp. 1, 62).

The text, therefore, despite minor glitches, provides an invaluable introduction to a key period in South Asian history. Its succinct yet crucial glimpses of certain aspects of early world history and comparative religions renders it useful to readers from a wide range of disciplines. As noted earlier, its narrative style is extremely accessible and thereby brings a great deal of lucidity to a fairly complex subject matter.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at:

Citation: Devika Rangachari. Review of Davis, Richard H., Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early World History. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2011.

Richard H. Davis. Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early World History. Key Issues in Asian Studies Series. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2009. Maps, illustrations. 90 pp. $10.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-924304-59-0.

New Website for Asian Politics and History Association

We are pleased to announce the new website for Asian Politics and History Association (APHA):

Asian Politics and History Association is a non-political, non-profit academic society organized by scholars of Asian studies. Established in 2011 in Hong Kong, APHA currently has members from Asian-Pacific, European and North American countries. APHA supports the Journal of Asian Politics & History, an academic journal published twice a year beginning in October 2012.

Visit the website at

call for papers: “Narrating Memory and History in South Asian Literature” (NeMLA, Boston, March 21-24, 2013)

44th Annual Convention, Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA)

March 21-24, 2013, Boston, Massachusetts

Host Institution: Tufts University

Title of Panel: “Narrating Memory and History in South Asian Literature”

Although Georg Lukcs and Edward Said discussed the interrelationship between literature and history, this connection has not been fully investigated in South Asian literatures. How do South Asian authors narrate the past? What are the socio-political factors that shape their narratives? What is the significance of ghosts, memorization, and amnesia in those narratives? What is the connection between history and nation building; religion and national memory; and inheritance and genealogy. 300-350 word abstracts:(

Areas: British and Anglophone; Transnational Literatures

Deadline: September 30, 2012

Please include with your abstract:

Name and Affiliation

Email address

Postal address

Telephone number

A/V requirements (if any; $10 handling fee with registration)

The 2013 NeMLA convention continues the Association’s tradition of sharing innovative scholarship in an engaging and generative location. The 44th annual event will be held in historic Boston, Massachusetts, a city known for its national and maritime history, academic facilities and collections, vibrant art, theatre, and food scenes, and blend of architecture. The Convention, located centrally near Boston Commons and the Theatre District at the Hyatt Regency, will include keynote and guest speakers, literary readings, film screenings, tours and workshops.

Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable.

Suha Kudsieh
College of Staten Island – CUNY

Visit the website at

Book Review: John Clifford Holt’s “Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture” Reviewed by Marybeth White

We republish here a review of John Clifford Holt’s “Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture” that was written by Marybeth White  and which appeared on H-Buddhism (November, 2011).

Lao Buddhism has been considered a blending of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animistic traditions. This synthesis has been predominantly understood and analyzed by Western scholars through the lens of Buddhism. Recently, historians Grant Evans and Martin Stuart-Fox have purported that the Lao government has utilized the dominant Buddhist tradition to instill propaganda and foster a rationalized form of Buddhism resulting in its subsuming the phi (spirits)John Clifford Holt in his new book on the Buddhist traditions of Laos questions this interpretation, conceding that this buddhacization process is occurring in Isan, an area that became part of Northeast Thailand when the French designated the Mekong River as the border between Thailand and Laos. But drawing on the previous work of Stanley Tambiah, one of Holt’s mentors, as well as others, such as Frank LeBar and Adrienne Suddard, he proposes that it is through the categories of the phi that “Lao Buddhism is understood in its uniquely Lao manner” (p. 45). He reports that the phi cults are alive and thriving because the hierarchy of the spirit world is connected to shared narratives of protection and the “powers of place” that have not been eradicated, in spite of previous efforts by the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) government (p. 164). Moreover, he argues that the very ontology of the spirit world is understood as distinct from that of this world or the six Buddhist realms. The crux of Holt’s argument is that in Laos it is through the lens of the spirit cults that the Triple Gem not only is considered a powerful protective element but also is a protective element. Holt suggests that most Lao have not intellectualized the dharma. Consequently an entity such as a stupa (or a monk) is not an object “of meditation” but rather “an active force” (p. 253). In this way the Lao Buddhist tradition is “inspirited,” by the phi resulting in a mutually informing and transforming relationship rather than a synthesis.

The book consists of five chapters. The first analyzes Lao Buddhism and culture through the “prisms of the indigenous ontology of the spirit cults” (p. 61). Holt grounds his use of the spirit cults as the basis of his analysis within Lao history. Chapter 2 continues a historical analysis of Lao religious and political life and the cultural impact of numerous other groups who have overtly or covertly been involved in governing Laos: the Thai, French, Japanese, Americans, and Vietnamese. The third chapter concludes the historical perspective of a postrevolutionary Laos and explains how the phi cults and Buddhist sangha (the Buddhist community) have been affected. The first three chapters draw heavily on the research of such scholars as Georges Coedes, Georges Condominas, Frank Reynolds, Marcello Zago, Charles Archaimbault, Pierre-Bernard Lafont, and Ing-Britt Trankell, in addition to the work of Arthur Dommen, Geoffrey Gunn, Martin Stuart-Fox, Grant Evans, Soren Ivarsson, and Vatthana Pholsena, who provide some analysis of religion in Laos. Moreover, because of cultural similarities, Holt has also included research from Northeast Thailand (Isan) and Chiang Mai by such scholars as Tambiah, Charles Keyes, Leedom Lefferts, and Justin McDaniel. Finally, Holt utilizes Patrice Ladwig’s research on Lao stupas to demonstrate that current understandings of Lao Buddhism exist through the lens of the spirit world.

Chapter 4 examines the field research data that Holt collected in his seven months in Laos between June 2006 and June 2007. The chapter provides new research and understandings into the effects of globalization and the UNESCO designation of Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site. Previous efforts by the LPDR government to eradicate spirit cults appear to be in a state of reversal as government published tourist literature takes an instrumentalist perspective that embraces the phi cults as “quintessentially Lao” in order to capitalize on its uniqueness with tourists (p. 235). Holt demonstrates how the tourist industry results in the commoditization of the monks. Thorough literary and historical overviews weave the contextual frame for Holt’s field research and interviews in Luang Prabang. His interviews with novices, aged ten to twenty, provide important documentation of the experiences of primarily rural youth who come to Luang Prabang to study Buddhism and perform traditional rituals for tourists. Holt’s final chapter analyzes how the phi cults remain prominent, through the “power of a place,” even though economic and political power structures have been significantly altered over the past thirty years.

Covered in the volume are the Lao Buddhist celebrations of Pi Mai (New Year) and Boun Phravet (the festival containing the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka) held in Luang Prabang. There are also appendixes containing additional information on the Lao rendition of the Ramayana and the Cult of Khwan (vital essence).

While this volume provides crucial research into the dialectical relationship between the world of the phi and Buddhism, there is one challenge with the manuscript. Chapter 4’s presentation of the field research and interviews from Luang Prabang sits uncomfortably within the rest of this well-written and documented text. It is not clear at the conclusion of the text what its purpose serves. Perhaps it is to literally ground Holt’s observations within the contours of Laos. But more likely it is what remains unspoken that the reader must actively unpack. At the conclusion of the book, Holt draws on examples from Tambiah and Kamala Tiyavanich to elucidate how the actions of a monk can be perceived from both Buddhist soteriological and pragmatic spirit cult perspectives. He notes that monks are thought to be embodiments of the dharma but also an active force of protection (“buddhacization” and “inspiriting” respectively). Is there a connection between Holt’s final thoughts and the “unmonk-like” behavior and commoditization of the novice monks who “perform” rituals for the tourists in Luang Prabang? Clarification is required to fully illuminate and locate Holt’s field research within the rest of the text.

There are other issues that weaken an otherwise fine text. The book is somewhat limited in its geographical focus, particularly in the latter half of the study. Expansion of Holt’s research to include the other two traditional centers of power within Laos, the Vientiane area in central Laos and the province of Champassak in the South, would have provided a more rounded study of the phi cults throughout the country of Laos, and allowed the opportunity to assess the “inspiriting” of Buddhism that Holt observes in the Luang Prabang area. Holt makes little mention of the large numbers of Lao Loum that live outside the national borders of Laos in Thailand, France, the United States, Canada, and Australia, as his focus is on the current state of Buddhism within Laos. However, with enormous amounts of funds being sent “home” to Laos from the diaspora communities living around the globe–communities that for the most part left Laos prior to government attempts to rationalize Buddhism–it does beg the question to what extent “ethnic Lao” from outside Laos have an impact on the religious culture and understandings within Laos, currently as well as in the future. Is this process of inspiriting one that carries on outside of Laos? The inclusion of a glossary of Pali and Lao terms would have been a good addition for those without training in these languages. Finally, while Holt does acknowledge the lack of standardized script and diacritics for the Lao language, it would have assisted the reader to have a single spelling of a specific term, designated in square brackets for quoted sources that utilize other spellings.

This text fills a gap in the literature concerning Lao Buddhism. Since the LPDR’s change of governance in 1975, few sources on Lao Buddhism have been published. Consequently, the arrival of this text is a welcomed addition to an area of scholarship that is under-researched. Holt’s area of expertise is Sinhalese Buddhism. His more recent publications include the coedited Constituting Communities: Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia (2003), to which he contributes an essay, and The Buddhist Vishnu (2004), both of which investigate the sociopolitical contexts of contemporary Sri Lanka that shape religious understanding and meaning. Holt approaches Buddhism within the context of Laos utilizing a comparative stance that draws on his knowledge of the Theravada lineage found in Sri Lanka and its relationship with a more anthropomorphized spirit world than he suggests is found in Laos.

This book will be of particular interest for those studying Lao Buddhism, either within diaspora communities or Laos itself, as it will provide a current analysis of how Lao Buddhism is responding to the political and social environment of today’s LPDR government. Holt’s work will also be an informative piece for scholars who are researching lived religious traditions within a “secular” globalized world as it provides a case study demonstrating how the spirit-based tradition of Lao Buddhism is responding to Luang Prabang’s designation as a UNESCO heritage site and consequently its engagement with a vastly increased tourist market.

John Clifford Holt. Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009. 368 pp. $58.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3327-5.


“Jana Karaliya, le théâtre du peuple” par A. Simbasinghe (

Les émeutes de 1983 [1]. à Sri Lanka ont détruit beaucoup de théâtres dans les grandes et petites villes du pays, privant depuis le peuple de province du plaisir de cet art.

Le théâtre du peuple, actif depuis 2004, est un théâtre démontable qui se déplace de ville en village pour proposer à son public, distraction, éveil de la pensée critique, développement de l’art et de la créativité, mais aussi émancipation contre toutes les formes d’injustice.

Lorsque je me mis en tête d’aller à la rencontre de ce théâtre dont je connaissais très peu, j’étais à mille lieux d’en imaginer les multiples facettes. À ce moment là, le théâtre donnait des représentations à Badulla, une ville de Province de Sri Lanka, dans les montagnes.

Le théâtre était installé dans un grand terrain jouxtant une école. Un chapiteau gris clair était dressé en son sein. La queue pour les billets était déjà longue alors qu’on était à deux heures du prochain spectacle. Le tarif adulte proposé était de 50 roupies srilankais, soit à peu près l’équivalent d’un demi-kilo de riz samba [2], c’est-à-dire une somme assez modique.

Une actrice : « Je suis de Trincomalee [3]. Je jouais pour le théâtre de mon église. Un ami à moi qui faisait anciennement parti de Jana Karaliya, m’a conseillé d’y auditionner. Cela fait maintenant cinq ans que je fais partie de la troupe. »

Initié par un dramaturge à la retraite, Parakrama Nirielle, le projet de théâtre mobile est alors soutenu par un autre dramaturge et acteur, H.A. Perera. Et c’est ensemble qu’ils concevront le Jana Karaliya, le théâtre du peuple, un théâtre qui se déplace à la rencontre du peuple. Crée en 2003, le théâtre du peuple donne sa première représentation en 2004.

Un acteur : « Je suis de Nuwara Eliya [4]. J’ai participé à un atelier que le Jana Karaliya y avait organisé et j’ai été choisi pour faire partie de la troupe. Cela fait deux ans et demie que je fais partie de la troupe. »

On est en Juillet 2009. La guerre a pris fin le mois précédent, une guerre vieille de 26 ans. Le gouvernement ultranationaliste singhalais bouddhiste, ne prend pas la bonne voie pour réconcilier les peuples de Sri Lanka. Non seulement, il n’a pas hésité à bombarder des zones où la population en majorité tamoule, tenue en otage par les Tigres, ne pouvait s’enfuir, mais cette même population — près de 300 000 personnes — est actuellement retenue prisonnière dans des camps.

Le gouvernement sri lankais actuel n’est qu’un exemple du fruit pourri qu’est l’Etat et, plus particulièrement, l’état sri lankais. Depuis l’indépendance de Sri Lanka, les gouvernements qui se sont succédés n’ont cherché qu’à manipuler le peuple pour obtenir des victoires électorales et cela au prix de milliers de morts, de déplacés et d’exilés.

Le peuple doit reprendre sa destinée en main et se gérer lui-même : c’est le thème sous-jacent de la première pièce de théâtre à laquelle j’assiste ce soir là, Charandas.C’est la quatrième représentation de la journée, il est 19H00 et la pièce dure 2h30. Une cinquième représentation suivra. Le théâtre du peuple a un succès fou.

Un acteur : « Je suis de Puttalam [5]. Petit, j’ai fait du théâtre à l’école. Le Jana Karaliya est venu dans ma ville. J’ai participé à un Atelier. J’ai passé un entretien et j’ai été sélectionné. Cela fait un an que je fais partie de la troupe. J’ai 21 ans. »

Charandas est un voleur. Au début de la pièce, il est poursuivi par un policier ahuri. Ce dernier recherche celui qui a dérobé la statue en or du temple. Sauvé par un prêtre hindou pas très sérieux qui exerce sur ses disciples une autorité usurpée, Charandas jure de respecter trois vœux : ne jamais manger dans des plats en or, ne jamais monter sur l’éléphant de la procession et ne jamais épouser la reine.

Pendant toute la pièce, rythmée par le ballet des chefs qui flattent, trichent et abusent, le public rit.

Après quelques péripéties, Charandas devient ministre du roi bien malgré lui. Il édicte des mesures pour soulager le peuple de la misère et devient dès lors un voleur très populaire. C’est alors que le roi est empoisonné et ses conseillers veulent mettre Charandas sur le trône, afin de pouvoir conserver leurs postes. Ils tentent de le faire manger dans des plats en or. Premier refus. Ils essaient de le faire monter sur l’éléphant de la procession. Deuxième refus. Ne pouvant être fait roi, Charandas sera décapité le lendemain. Durant la nuit, la reine entre subrepticement dans son appartement et veut le séduire pour en faire son époux. Troisième refus. C’est décidé, il sera exécuté au plus vite !

Mais le peuple aime leur voleur et le sauve pour faire de lui leur nouveau roi. Ce à quoi le voleur rétorque : « A-t-on besoin d’un roi pour mener à bien les affaires du peuple ? ». « Non ! » répond le peuple qui suggère aussitôt : « Allons au parlement ! » . Et Charandas de le questionner : « A-t-on besoin d’un parlement pour discuter et prendre des décisions ? Cela ne peut-il se faire tous ensemble, assis sous un arbre ? ». Tout le monde acquiesce et lève le poing vers le ciel.

Fin de la pièce, déferlement d’applaudissements et de cris de félicitations dans le théâtre.

Un acteur : « Je suis de Ratmalana [6]. À l’école, j’ai étudié la musique, je n’ai pas connu le théâtre. Plus tard, j’ai obtenu un certificat en Hôtellerie. J’ai rempli le formulaire d’entrée au Jana Karaliya suite à une annonce dans le journal. Je fais partie de l’équipe qui gère les publications du théâtre et je gagne ainsi ma vie. J’ai passé jusqu’à présent cinq ans très satisfaisants au Jana Karaliya. J’ai 28 ans. »

On m’a expliqué que le chapiteau peut accueillir 800 adultes ou 900 enfants. La structure du théâtre est particulière : la scène est carrée, les sièges sont placés en face de chaque arête de la scène, particularité qui oblige une adaptation de la mise en scène et du jeu des acteurs mais qui libère aussi une nouvelle créativité.

La troupe du théâtre monte et démonte le chapiteau au gré des déplacements. D’ailleurs ici, tout est travail d’équipe et entraide mutuelle. Différentes unités s’occupent de la gestion de différents éléments de la vie du théâtre. Une équipe s’occupe de la publicité, une autre des finances, encore une autre de l’administration, et ainsi de suite…

Une ville est investie pendant un mois, puis le théâtre s’installe ailleurs. Parmi les villes déjà visitées, Colombo, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Mulaithivu, Killinochchi, Mannar, Puttalam, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampaara, Monaragala… La liste est longue et le succès toujours au rendez-vous.

Certains des acteurs jouent également dans les grands théâtres de Colombo ou dans des films. Beaucoup ont reçu des prix d’interprétation nationaux.

Un acteur : « Je viens de Ambilipitiya [7]. J’ai fait du théâtre à l’école et j’ai participé à de nombreux festivals de villages. J’avais déjà reçu des prix d’interprétation lorsque j’ai vu une annonce de Jana Karaliya dans le journal et j’ai passé l’audition. Cela fait cinq ans que suis dans la troupe. J’ai 31 ans. »

Le lendemain matin, j’assiste à la représentation de deux pièces de théâtre devant un public essentiellement singhalais, constitué d’enseignants de la région. Le discours d’introduction présente l’histoire du théâtre dans la culture tamoule.

La première pièce, critique acerbe du pouvoir, est une adaptation tout en humour desHabits neufs de l’empereur[d’Andersen]. La seconde illustre les difficultés des enfants vivant dans les petits villages. Aller à l’école quand on est pauvre, ce n’est pas facile surtout lorsque le père boit et frappe sa femme le soir. Ce n’est pas facile lorsque l’argent vient à manquer et que l’on ne mange pas toujours à sa faim. Les écoles manquent d’argent. Les politiques ne se préoccupent absolument pas de ce problème, les enseignants sont impuissants et les enfants en supportent les conséquences et souffrent …

Les deux pièces sont applaudies avec enthousiasme et un dialogue s’instaure avec le public. Beaucoup félicitent la démarche du théâtre. D’autres soulignent l’importance de la vie en harmonie avec les différentes communautés. Certains enseignants expriment leur frustration douloureuse face aux problèmes des enfants relatés par la seconde pièce de théâtre.

Une actrice : « Je suis de Veyangoda [8]. J’ai vu l’annonce de Jana Karaliya dans le journal. J’ai passé l’audition et j’ai été prise. Dans la région d’où je viens, il n y a pas de Tamouls. Je suis contente de pouvoir parler avec mes frères tamouls et leur apporter de la joie. En plus, en tant que femme, je me sens complètement en sécurité ici. Je participe à l’unité qui gère la publicité et je gagne ma vie ainsi. Cela fait cinq ans que je suis au Jana Karaliya. J’ai 27 ans. »

Après la représentation, je rencontre la troupe. Les acteurs et actrices viennent des quatre coins de Sri Lanka. Toutes les communautés du pays sont représentées. La recherche des comédien-nes s’est effectuée en ce sens. Leur langue maternelle est aussi bien le Singhalais que le Tamoul. De même, les croyances sont diverses, chrétienne, bouddhiste, hindouiste, musulmane, athée…

Cette particularité est importante. En effet, à Sri Lanka les clivages entre communautés ont été renforcés voir créées par les différents régimes, qu’il s’agisse de la période de la colonisation ou après l’indépendance. L’essence du peuple sri lankais est le multiple : multiples croyances et multiples cultures.

La démarche du théâtre du peuple va très loin. Les pièces de théâtre sont toutes données en deux versions, singhalaise et tamoule. Chacune des deux est interprétée par des comédien-nes tamoul-es et singhalais-es et chaque représentation est jouée, tour à tour, dans l’une des deux langues pour que les différents publics puissent jouir du spectacle.

Au tout début, les comédien-nes parlant des langues différentes avaient du mal à communiquer et à jouer ensemble. Mais très vite, une fois le travail de création commencé, les barrières des langues ont disparu et l’apprentissage de la langue de l’autre s’est fait naturellement.

Un acteur : « Je viens de Bohontalla [9] . Mes parents y travaillaient comme ouvriers dans une plantation de thé. Maintenant, ils ont une échoppe. J’ai pratiqué le théâtre tamoul à l’école. Je faisais des petits jobs lorsque j’ai vu une annonce de Jana Karaliya dans le journal. Un ami et moi avons été sélectionnés. Cela fait cinq ans que je fais partie de la troupe. J’ai 29 ans. »

Un entretien avec Parakrama Nirielle me fait découvrir d’autres aspects du théâtre. Le théâtre du peuple fonctionne en coordination avec les habitants de la ville où il s’installe. Des ateliers sont organisés avec les enfants pour développer leur créativité au théâtre. Ces ateliers ont lieu dans le chapiteau ou dans les écoles, en collaboration avec les enseignant-es. Ce qui permet de susciter la confiance en soi, de libérer la créativité et les aptitudes de chacun et chacune. C’est aussi un moyen de développer les connaissances, le sentiment de collectivité et de solidarité.

Le théâtre travaille également avec les dramaturges locaux, soit par la mise en scène de leurs pièces, soit en les encourageant à continuer.

Un acteur : « Je viens de Trincomalee  [10]. Une amie comédienne m’a parlé du Jana Karaliya. Je ne pensais pas pouvoir faire quelque chose d’aussi important en tant que Tamoul. J’ai plein d’amis Singhalais à présent. Le conflit actuel est du à une minorité en haut de la pyramide, c’est rageant. Ce projet est une chance. Cela fait quatre ans que je suis au Jana Karaliya. »

Le théâtre mobile ouvre aussi son espace pour l’expression d’autres formes d’art : la peinture, la photographie, le cinéma, la musique.

Un acteur : « Je viens de Kandy [11]. J’ai vu une annonce de Jana Karaliya dans le journal et j’ai passé une audition. Je faisais du théâtre déjà enfant. Ensuite, j’ai fait du théâtre de rue qui dénonçait les problèmes des femmes, de la drogue, de la pollution industrielle, de la surpêche… Maintenant, je fais partie de l’équipe qui gère les finances et de celle qui gère le montage et démontage du chapiteau. Le projet de Jana Karaliya est vraiment précieux. Cela entraîne les gens vers le théâtre et c’est un bon exemple de vie en communauté. »

Malgré sa popularité, l’existence du théâtre du peuple n’est pas totalement assurée : le prix très faible des billets d’entrée ne permet pas son autofinancement. Le théâtre est subventionné par HIVOS, FLICT et USAID [12], une dépendance qui pourrait être problématique. Cependant, le théâtre s’efforce d’augmenter son indépendance financière ces dernières années et peu à peu y parvient.

En attendant, nous ne pouvons que féliciter la réussite de ce projet qui, espérons-le, en initiera d’autres à Sri Lanka et ailleurs.

Plus d’informations sur le site web :

[1] Les émeutes de 1983 ont été orchestrées par le gouvernement sri lankais de l’époque dans un double but de terroriser le peuple tamoul et de discréditer le JVP, mouvement guévariste des jeunes, accusé à tort de ces méfaits. Plusieurs milliers de Sri Lankais Tamouls sont morts à la suite de pogroms ; leurs commerces et maisons ont également été brûlés, dont des salles de cinéma et des théâtres. Le grand exode des Sri Lankais Tamouls vers l’étranger a commencé cette année là, la guerre aussi

[2] Le riz samba est le riz le plus populaire à Sri Lanka : c’est un riz blanc produit localement. Moins bon que la reine des riz, le riz indien basmati, il est néanmoins très apprécié des SriLankais pour son rapport qualité/prix.

[3] Trincomalee est une ville sur la côte Nord-Est de l’île dans une région à majorité tamoule avec une grande minorité de Maures.

[4] Nuwara Eliya est la ville la plus haute de Sri Lanka. Elle est dans les montagnes de l’île. Son climat presque britannique a fait de cette ville le lieu de villégiature préférée des colons Brittaniques.

[5] Puttalam est une ville sur la côte Nord-Est de Sri Lanka. C’est une ville où la communauté maure y est prédominante.

[6] Ratmalana est une ville faisant partie de la grande banlieue de Colombo, capitale de SriLanka.

[7] Ambalapitiya est une petite ville dans les montagnes de Sri Lanka.

[8] Veyangoda est une petite ville au nord de Colombo, la capitale.

[9] Bohontalla est une ville près de Nuwara Eliya, la ville la plus haute de Sri Lanka. La région est connue pour ses plantations de thé. À l’époque du Raj britannique, une forte population tamoule d’Inde a été recrutée pour travailler dans les plantations dans des conditions déplorables. Il est déplorable que plusieurs centaines d’années plus tard, ces Sri Lankaistamouls des plantations sont encore traités de « Tamouls indiens ».

[10] Voir note 3.

[11] Kandy est la dernière capitale royale sri lankaise à tomber aux mains des colons. C’est la deuxième plus grande ville de Sri Lanka après Colombo la capitale et elle est située dans les montagnes.

[12] HIVOS (Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation) est un institut dont le financement principal provient du gouvernement hollandais.

FLICT (Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation) est un projet qui existe grâce à la coopération bilatérale entre Sri Lanka et l’Allemagne.

USAID (United States Agency for International Development) est une agence états-unienne financée principalement par le gouvernement états-unien.