A man begs you to listen to his story. But has forgotten why he’s telling it. A frail woman tries to talk. But no words come out. A prisoner in a concentration camp stages a play. With puppets made from leftover bread.
Indianostrum theatre’s haunting play, Land Of Ashes tells stories of war. But it steers clear of politics. After all, this is a play about people. “We created it in Kalakshetra in 2009,” says director Koumarane Valavane. “This was during the peak of the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was a huge political problem, but we were more interested in exploring the emotions of the people involved.” He adds, “We don’t talk politics. We don’t talk about who is responsible. For me, the idea is not to talk about what happened. It’s to find a way to handle the emotion.”
The play grew organically. From what the director describes as an “emotional reaction” to the war. “We were influenced by news, books, stories… We talked to people from Sri Lanka. Some of the lines are from testimonies, some are written by the actors. Some are inspired by mythology.” Mythology plays an important role in illustrating and amplifying the story. “I believe that mythology helps us understand the psychology of individuals. Even in war. In the Mahabharata , there’s a battlefield. Arjuna is forced to fight his cousins…” There’s one more interesting element. A mise en scène inspired by the poetry of 6th Century Tamil poet Karaikal Ammaiyar.
This is also a story about defiance. About staying strong. And fighting back. “How do you ‘resist’ in a situation like this,” asks Valavane. “I lived in France for 19 years, and when I was there, a director told me this true story from a German concentration camp. There was a woman there who entertained the children with plays using puppets made from bread.” He adds that you do not always have to “go on to the streets” to be empowered. There are other ways.
In the end, it’s your imagination that sets you free. “Keep in mind that light is always stronger than darkness… In this play action happens in the night. But people escape from that darkness. They come into the light to tell their stories.”
Land Of Ashes has been performed almost 40 times so far. Although the political situation that triggered it off has changed immensely, Valavane insists that this production is as relevant now as it was when it was created. “It is our reaction to a situation. Artistic work is always ‘out of context’. This story will be relevant in any war. After all, we are talking of victims. About civilians. And resistance.” Its power, he adds, comes from eliminating obvious emotion. “We almost removed all emotion from the characters. They’re in this limbo — a middle world between death and life.”
He concludes, “No political stance is taken and no political statement is made. The play is intended to be a homage to the victims and not a debate on right and wrong.”
Indianostrum Theatre began in Chennai in 2007. They now operate from an old French theatre in Puducherry. Land of Ashes will be staged at Kalakshetra on August 1 as part of Svanubhava, a three-day experience of Indian performing arts. Admission is free. Log onto www.svanubhava.blogspot.com or call, 99520 48901/ 99400 59969 for details.