Theatre and Peacebuilding: The analysis of the role of the play Payanihal in peacebuilding

By Yifan Zhang, JNL61004, MA International Public and political Communication, Univeristy of Sheffield.

Introduction

Theatre is a politically and civilly relevant form of art especially in peacebuilding. It is known to be able to impact audiences and generate positive change through its performative element (Premaratna, 2018). This blog post focuses on the example of the Sri Lankan Jana Karaliya theatre group which was created in the context of a protracted civil conflict. After Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, the country’s minorities, particularly the Tamils, were increasingly exposed to severe racial discrimination and ostracism (Deane, 2021). The Sinhalese majority restricted the rights of Tamils by enacting discriminatory laws (Shastri, 1999). These policies led to the formation of the The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976 under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, who hoped to establish a Tamil homeland of their own in eastern and northern Sri Lanka (Deane, 2016). In 1983, the LTTE attacked the Sinhalese army and killed 13 soldiers, which prompted reprisals against the Tamils by Sinhalese in neighbouring cities and eventually erupted into a civil war. In February 2002, the LTTE and the government signed a cease-fire agreement, but both sides have repeatedly violated it since then (Premaratna and Bleiker, 2010). In January 2008, the Sri Lankan government officially withdrew from the truce, and the Sri Lankan military has since been trying to eradicate the LTTE. In May 2009, the government claimed that it had defeated the rebels and liberated the country (Gunaratna, 2012). Although the LTTE was defeated in 2009, the ethnic divisions are far from resolved and these could easily lead to a new war and make peaceful reconstruction difficult. This post will explore its initiative to show how theatre plays can help with post-civil war peacebuilding.

The early days

Jana Karaliya was initiated in 2002 in the process of reaching a ceasefire agreement, and in the work that followed envisaged and achieved daily peace at the people’s level (Premaratna, 2019). Parakrama Niriella is the founder of Janakaraliya Mobile Theatre. Since 2003, he has been working for Jana Karaliya Theatre and travelling multi-ethnic drama groups around the country (Jana Karaliya, 2017).

Coexistence and cooperation

Jana Karaliya do not only focus on theatre and cultural transmission, but also have the important aim of building an inclusive and pluralistic society. As a bilingual, multi-ethnic, mobile theatre company, they believe that a stable society requires solidarity and acceptance of all ethnic, religious diversity and other differences (Jana Karaliya, 2017). In this theatre company, Tamil and Sinhala speakers work together to create and perform works of art with a common goal in mind, which made them a model and a brand of ethnic cooperation (De Mel, 2021). It also reflects their philosophy of peacebuilding: coexistence and cooperation (Premaratna, 2019). One of the plays that exemplifies this philosophy is Payanihal.

Introducing Payanihal

Payanihal is a play produced by Jana Karaliya to help encourage reconciliation between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities under the program activity of Language-Culture and Social Cohesion. It is a joint production performed by Tamil and Sinhalese actors. The play is directed by Selvaraj and Ronika, one of whom is a Tamil and the other a Sinhalese. This is a good demonstration of Jana Karaliya’ s vision of the peaceful coexistence of the two ethnicities (Jana Karaliya, 2017). The play has been performed extensively within the Sri Lankan community to enable Sinhalese and Tamils to feel the importance of peace and cooperation, and its dissemination in the international arena has enabled more people to witness and monitor the process of peaceful reconstruction in Sri Lanka. In the meantime, it is a demonstration of Sri Lanka’s aspirations for peace. The play shows a celebration of peace and cooperation with a critical view of conflicts and discrimination, and Jana Karaliya conveys these values to the audience, while also inviting them to critique their own ideas and attitudes (Premaratna and Bleiker, 2010).

Peace and the common good in Payanihal

The quest for peace and the emphasis on the common good are the main messages conveyed in Jana Karaliya’ s plays. The following analysis is based on the example of Payanihal. The word ‘Payanihal’ means passengers in English. It tells the story of a maimed man and a blind man who could have helped each other to reach their destination together, but mutual suspicion result in resentment and eventually, the maimed man kills the blind man who is carrying him on his back. The two main characters in the play represent the two warring sides of the civil war. The maimed man kills the blind man refers to the end of the civil war in 2009 when the LTTE leader was killed by the government (Gunaratna, 2012). The tragic ending is supposed to be a criticism of conflict. At the beginning of the play, the two travellers have been cooperating due to their own shortcomings, the blind man carries the maimed man on his back and the maimed man shows the blind man the way. This time they are able to keep moving towards a common destination which shows they are both committed to being future-facing. Both of them understood the benefits of cooperation and the preference for peace is over war. The play repeatedly emphasises the place that the two people want to arrive at together. So reaching that beautiful place can be seen as a common good. The common good is described using the following poetic words: ‘beautiful’, ‘full of red flowers’, ‘a white palace’ and ‘a beautiful princess’. The two passengers shared a common goal of escaping the misery of the past and going to that enchanting place to start a new life. On a deeper level, it represented that the two sides in the civil war shared a common goal. Sri Lanka had just moved from colonial rule to independence in 1948 and had the potential to flourish in the newly liberated South Asian country, which is the common good for both sides, if the nation could unite and work together (DeVotta, 2004). The emphasis on the ‘common good’ in the play is conducive to the development of a shared vision of the common good for people.

Conflict resolution through dialogue

The play shows the panic, anger and distrust of both sides after their miserable lives through the words and actions of the two actors. In the process, they express and narrate in a relatively calm manner. Exaggerated body language is used more in their arguments rather than outright curse words. In fact, in a country where prolonged conflict takes a huge toll and the health system is unable to cope, people’s lives are affected and the level of suffering increases (De Jong, et al., 2002). These will inevitably generate negative emotions. In Jana Karaliya’ s play, there is little direct display of conflict in the war, and the lines do not contain hateful, aggressive words; they believe these words do not have positive influences on peacebuilding (Premaratna and Bleiker, 2010). In Payanihal, there is no avoidance of negative emotions, but the expression of panic, anger and mistrust was restrained and subtle.  “The dignity of participants is protected and the expression of emotions does not hinder the participation of citizens in the pursuit of peace” (Pukallus, 2021, p. 147). And also in the dialogue between the two, the importance of listening was also emphasised. The blind man, representing the Tamils, has repeatedly expressed the pain in his body caused by carrying the maimed man for a long time. After hearing the blind, the maimed man massages for him rather than ignoring his views and feelings. The blind man also listens carefully and gives feedback when the maimed man expresses his fear that the blind man may leave him alone. With these conversations, they get to know each other better, and the reciprocity between them increases. This part conveys to the audience the idea that it is only by listening to each other and trying to understand each other’s views that we can gain respect when we express our own opinions.  However, during the civil war in Sri Lanka, instead of listening to each other, the two sides in the civil war kept on demonising each other (Premaratna and Bleiker, 2010). In the second half of the play, the mistrust between the two men was intensified and they stopped listening to each other ultimately leading to a tragic outcome. This is based on historical facts but still reflects a critical attitude of this behaviour and deepens the importance of communication and listening.

Jana Karaliya tries to make the country more inclusive by promoting social acceptance of ethnic differences and religious diversity through theatre. Actually, it is a very difficult process. The analysis of the play Payanihal shows how the director, the scriptwriter and the actors are able to recreate war in a different way to the audience through the form of play. Theatre has always played an important role as a means of peace-building. But the achievement of coexistence and cooperation still needs the practice of collective living between citizens and their ‘former enemies’. Jana Karaliya, as a builder of civil norms, brings a sense of hope to people with its inclusiveness in the play. It will continue to have a positive impact and show a good example to other countries around the world that are still struggling to rebuild peace after war.

Bibliography

De Jong, K. et al. (2002) ‘Psychological trauma of the civil war in Sri Lanka’, The Lancet, 359(9316), pp. 1517–1518.

De Mel, N. (2021) ‘Actants and Fault Lines: Janakaraliya and Theatre for Peace Building in Sri Lanka’, Theatre Research International, 46(1), pp. 39-52.

Deane, T. (2016) ‘Historical and Political Background to the Erosion of the Rule of Law and Human Rights During Sri Lanka’s Civil War and the Way Forward’, Small wars & insurgencies, 27(6), pp. 971–995.

Deane, T. (2021) ‘The Potential Role of Arts and Culture in the Reconciliation Process in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka’, Journal of Arts and Humanities, 10(6), pp. 13-30.

DeVotta, N. (2004) Blowback: linguistic nationalism, institutional decay, and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Gunaratna, R. (2012) ‘Post-Conflict Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: a time for reflection’, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 4(4), pp.2-7.

Jana Karaliya (2017) ‘Jana Karaliya Little Theatres’. Available at: http://www.janakaraliya.org/social_harmony.html (Accessed: 10 December 2021)

Premaratna, N. (2018) Theatre for peacebuilding: The role of arts in conflict transformation in South Asia. Palgrave Macmillan.

Premaratna, N. (2019) ‘Envision and Embody a People’s Peace Through Theater’, Peace Review, 31(3), pp. 424-431

Premaratna, N. and Bleiker, R. (2010) ‘Art and peacebuilding: How theatre transforms conflict in Sri Lanka’, in Richmond, O.P. (eds.)  Palgrave advances in peacebuilding. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 376-391.

Pukallus, S. (2022) Communication in peacebuilding: civil wars, civility and safe spaces. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shastri, A. (1999) ‘Estate Tamils, the Ceylon citizenship act of 1948 and Sri Lankan politics’, Contemporary South Asia, 8(1), pp. 65–86.

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