By Thulasi Muttulingam
Victors it is said, write history. India might have its version(s) of the Ramayana but over in Sri Lanka, Ravana remains a tragic and misunderstood hero. A hero to this day loved and mourned by his people.
His tale continues to be enacted and re-enacted via drama and theatre in the Serendib isle. One of the foremost artistes of the isle to keep on studying and revising Ravana’s character and story as he gains new insights on them, is Professor S. Maunaguru – an authority on Sri Lankan Tamil drama and theatre.
Professor Maunaguru was a youth of 22 when he first wrote a now iconic play in Sri Lanka called Ravanesan, produced and staged by his mentor Professor S. Vithiyananthan. He also acted the main character of Ravana in the play, staged at the University of Peradeniya back in 1965. Now a retired academic and veteran artiste of 73, Professor Maunaguru has rewritten and re-staged his play many times over, most recently in November 2016 during a countrywide reconciliation festival between the war-torn North and South of Sri Lanka.
There was a time in Sri Lanka’s recent history he reminisces, when theatre artistes could not portray contemporary life without threat to their lives. Southern artistes faced the same kind of restriction but for their fellow artistes in the North and East, the threat was double. Neither the Sri Lankan Government nor the LTTE were open to criticism, and contemporary life being full of war and chaos caused by both, could not be well-reflected in the arts unless one was willing to risk one’s life.
“Many of my colleagues and friends left the country and urged me to do the same but I preferred to stay on in Sri Lanka, even with its constraints rather than be free in exile. My consuming passion was theatre and the different art forms of Sri Lanka and I couldn’t contemplate a life without it. Since times had changed to such an extent that I could not be a modern artist depicting contemporary situations, I turned to exclusively researching indigenous art and producing only mythical/historical productions. Which as in the case of Ravanesan could still land me in trouble,” he says.
He explains how that came to be. As he evolved as an academic and artiste, the professor gained new insights about his main hero, which he infused into his character’s interpretation in the script.
“I heavily re-edited Ravanesan for a year 2000 production; with insight as an older man, I tried to portray Ravana as a more human character. Rather than the usual arrogant portrayal, I depicted him as someone who brashly entered war, realised it was a mistake but was too proud to back out. The next thing I knew, I was getting angry calls based on some interesting and innovative interpretations of my meaning in the play. I had a lot of trouble defending myself against inferences in the contemporary context which I still don’t want to talk about.”
He might have chosen to stick to ancient, mythical lore rather than focus on contemporary stories – but a good artist will always elicit feelings of connectivity in the audience. To an audience undergoing a contemporary war, the enactment of an ancient mythical war upheld many parallels they could relate to. Which in turn led to inferences that he had obliquely critiqued a contemporary character who was very powerful at the time.
In the meantime, the Professor was also critiqued for not bringing in a perspective that was much needed, yet often side-lined. In Sri Lanka both during war and post-war, the women have been terribly affected in a myriad ways; yet their perspectives, their fears and pain, do not find much scope for expression in mainstream media or the arts. From the time of Ravanan to the times of Prabhakaran and Rajapaksa, the tale remains mainly that of men and their triumphs and losses.
“Whether it was the story of Draupadi in the Mahabharatha, Helen in the Iliad or Sita in the Ramayana, men simply used the women as props to raise the tale of their own valour,” explains Professor Maunaguru.
What happens though when one of these male storytellers has a feminist wife? We don’t know about Valmiki, Homer and Kamban but in the case of Professor Maunaguru, he had to re-write his script. Professor Chitralega Maunaguru, an academic and feminist leader in Sri Lanka did not let her husband get away with giving a bit part to Mandodari, Ravana’s wife.
“The original Mandodari I wrote was a cry-baby but Chitra was scornful of my interpretation. Even as the war unravelled in Sri Lanka, she was traveling the country listening to and documenting women’s stories. She let me know what women would have had to say in Mandodari’s place, and I re-wrote my script accordingly,” says Professor Maunaguru.
Thus in his new version, in tandem with the war-cries of Ravana are the anti-war cries of his wife, who relays firsthand the grief of women who have had their agency hijacked by men, yet pay the steepest price in the repercussions of war.
Many a war-affected person in Sri Lanka, especially its women across all ethnicities, tend to identify first hand with Mandodari’s rage and anguish in this play. It depicts not only Ravana the tragic anti-hero too proud to back out of a war that he knows will devastate his family and citizens, but also his wife, the tragic feminist icon who knows all too well the repercussions of war, and seeks to counsel her husband that the concept of honour can take many forms. She like many women knows that there is no cowardice in backtracking or extending olive branches instead of thumping one’s chest and raising battle cries; battle cries of the men that would end with the wails of their widows and children.
And so with the revision of this iconic play in Sri Lanka, we don’t have the men alone telling the story of war from their vantage viewpoint. The women are being given their due space too. As a culture evolves, so do the voices of its legends. “The story of Mandodari and Ravana continue to live on in the minds of their people, but as living legends I told Maunaguru that they have to evolve with the times,” says Chitralega, when asked about her input to her husband’s famous play.
And thus this tale as old as time, reverberated with its audience in both North and South Sri Lanka where it was staged recently. The thespian has done his job once again in getting his audience to connect to his story. And this time we can put a name to the woman behind his success.