When silent films embraced sound somewhere in the 1920s, there were howls of protest. Those who’d imagined the cinema as being visual-only were stupefied. Some predicted doom. Others thought that by introducing something not meant for films, the industry would regress. In a manner of speaking, that is what happened. Having being titillated by this new discovery, directors and actors sacrificed what was considered to be the base of cinema, the image. Several years and decades later, sound and visual did get together. But at what cost?
“Contemporary theatre has viewers. Ritual performances have ‘experiencers’. I use that term to differentiate it from the ocular-centric or sight-oriented thrust of conventional plays. There’s more to ritual performances than that. The thrust as such there involves not just sight, but pretty much every other sense, including the mind”
There’s a lesson here. Experimenting with art, as history has shown in other ways, doesn’t always bode too well. No one would have imagined that photographs could move, never mind talk. The same can be said of photographs being more realistic than paintings and plays being more ‘live’ than books. Art-forms have their roots, but they also have their identities. Take these out and you are left with barren landscape. Nothing more.
Indika Ferdinando is a theatre practitioner. Pigeonholing him as a playwright won’t do, hence. He is experimenting, yes, and that in a way which threatens to question and liberate theatre as we know it today. Whether or not his efforts yield fruit is something only time can tell.
For now, this is what counts. He knows what he’s doing. More importantly, what he’s doing offers edification for those who are yet to understand the boundaries of theatre, beyond the audio-visual constraints it’s inherited.
By way of introduction he lays out his CV. With four plays to his name and a scholarship at Monash University’s Centre for Theatre and Performance, as well as a lecturing stint at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo, he is endowed with an ability to question and doubt. In theatre and pretty much every other art-medium, that’s a ‘needed’ and a ‘given’, should anyone want to stay away from conforming to the ‘accepted’.
The Sinhalese theatre is by default ritualistic. Contemporary theatre, on the other hand, plays with visuals and sounds. Indika’s research thesis, “Transposing Tools and Techniques of Sinhalese Ritual Performance into Theatre Practice”, or as he likes to put it, “identifying what constitutes the holistic sensorial experience in Sinhalese ritual and exploring ways of applying it into contemporary theatre practice”, is all about bringing the two together.
Indika elaborates. “Contemporary theatre has viewers. Ritual performances have ‘experiencers’. I use that term to differentiate it from the ocular-centric or sight-oriented thrust of conventional plays. There’s more to ritual performances than that. The thrust as such there involves not just sight, but pretty much every other sense, including the mind.”
Dialogue-based plays highlight sound and image. In rituals however, what’s privileged is the performer and his interaction with the audience. In the gammaduwa, for instance, which according to Indika, amounts to a series of acrobatics and pyrotechnics, there is both imagery and tactility, playing on different senses at the same time. He uses a term to sum this up: “cross-modal perception”.
As an example, he points at the yak beraya (a type of drum), which produces both sound and sensation. “It doesn’t just affect hearing, it penetrates mind as well.” And in all this, what gets reflected is instinct, or more specifically, “the need for violence embedded in human instinct.” He throws another term to explain the point: ‘kinaesthetic empathy’ or the empathy the experience feels for the performer as he arouses instinct.
Then he offers the catch. “I’m taking in all this in my next play, The Irresistible Rise of Signno.”
Signno isn’t really a ritual performance. It’s a cross between the traditional and the contemporary, which tries to infuse the one into the other. As Indika himself would agree though, tagging the fusion-label into it does little justice. “More than anything, I want the audience to feel what they’re watching,” he says candidly, adding that while he and his team have picked on a date for the ‘play’ (October 10 and 11), they’re yet to select a venue, particularly in light of the weather predicted for that month.
Indika admits he has no preferences when it comes to the stage. “You have to accommodate every form and method. At the same time though, you must not dilute identity. You must be mindful when handling each theatre practice and reinforcing what’s unique to and differentiates it.”
As a way of demonstrating his love for what he’s doing, he recounts an anecdote from his schooldays at St Aloysius’ in Ratnapura. He had seen a play, one in which both female and male characters were played by boys. This was in Year Six, around the 1980s. The 1978 Constitution was still ‘new’ and untainted, but being a passionate follower of politics he had remembered something J R Jayewardene had said: that the Executive Presidency could do everything except turn a man into a woman.
“Watching the play,” Indika recounts, laughing, “I was convinced that the theatre could do what even the president couldn’t! Needless to say, I was impressed.”
Reflecting on the theatre in Sri Lanka, he draws a clear line between English and Sinhala plays. With regard to the latter, he laments a virtual lack of reading among up-and-coming playwrights, hardly compensated for by their sense of daring. “They love to experiment, and I admit they are eager to search for new paths. But without reading up and avoiding self-induced pitfalls and politics in the theatre, how can you improve?” Apt.
Indika is opposed to academia and for good reason. Art without artifice needs honesty and outlook, entertaining little to no illusion about the superiority of one art-form over every other. “What Sinhala theatre needs is serious research, not gloss,” he confesses. What he disagrees with however is the notion that research should be predicated by academia.
“Ediriweera Sarachchandra was an academic. So was Sugathapala de Silva, his biggest rival. The man who brought them together, who infused stylisation into realism, wasn’t. But we remember and applaud Henry Jayasena and his Janelaya today, as much as we celebrate the other two and their work.”
Art-forms contain roots and identities. Differentiating one from the other and using this as a trump to champion it serves little purpose. Indika Ferdinando offers comment: “There’s poetry in theatre and theatre in cinema. But cinema is not theatre. Nor is poetry. How do we differentiate? How do we sift? That is my question, one that may never be answered. In the meantime, we can only experiment. It works sometimes and fails as well. We can’t help that. So we can only go ahead, research, and in the end, if what we wanted comes out through our effort, we can only be happy.”
In art rules exist to be subverted. They chisel rebellion and birth rebels. Indika isn’t a rebel, true, and one can’t imagine he will ever be one. But in what he’s learnt and taught so far, there’s a straying away from conformity and a thirst to gift to others what he’s discovered. Tough task, yes. Impossible? Of course not.