Saturday, May 28, 2016

Indika Ferdinando's mission

Indika Ferdinando holds a scholarship at the Centre for Theatre and Performance at Monash University.  He also lectures at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo. Yes, he is an academic, but that really isn’t all that he is. Going by all that he’s done so far, what he’s learnt abroad has given him an impetus to experiment here. He is, as he likes to call himself, a “theatre practitioner”, someone who wants to twist and turn the syntax of the theatre as a way of paying tribute to those he admires. The main focus of his experiment, which he discussed with me some time back, is to apply the traditional ritualistic experience of Sinhalese theatre to contemporary theatre. In other words, to bring about a fusion between the two.

Around the time when the Workshop Players were staging “Les Miserables”, Indika was staging what was promised to be a “fruition” of his experiment, in the form of “The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno”. As Indika explained to me, the traditional boundaries of Sinhala theatre could be overcome if they could converge with modern theatre. “Signno” opened to rave reviews on this count, but owing perhaps to the allure of “Les Miserables”, it didn’t quite open to the audience that Indika (would have) wanted.

He likes to put out academic jargon in cogent, simple terms. “Signno” was in part his thesis for Monash, fittingly titled “Transposing the 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”, all about bringing the two together. Big words, no doubt (I admit that I was taken aback by them), but when Indika began elaborating on them, they were made easier to relate to.

Indika’s main preoccupation with the stage is how traditional theatre revolves around ritual and dance and contemporary theatre revolves around dialogues and music. He argues that while the latter’s audience can be called “viewers”, the former’s audience is largely a bunch of “experiencers”. He differentiates between the two because, according to him, ritual theatre goes beyond the image-oriented thrust of modern theatre and is essentially reducible, at the end of the day, to an assortment of sight, sound, movement, and even taste. He brought an example up to illustrate this: the “gammaduwa”, a low country ritual dance, which according to Indika amounts to a series of acrobatics and pyrotechnics (fire figures in significantly in our rituals).

From what Indika said, this much can be gathered. Contemporary theatre is preoccupied with keeping a distance between audience and performer, but with our rituals and theatre, there’s no such distance. If at all, in a ritual what’s privileged is the audience, and because of this there’s a sustained interaction between the performer and the “experiencer” (borrowing Indika’s term). Again, he brings up an example, this time a traditional musical instrument, the “yak beraya”, and explains that it doesn’t just affect its listener’s hearing, but penetrates his or her mind as well. That arouses the viewer’s empathy for the performance, and Indika sums this up with another jargon-term from his trade: “kinaesthetic empathy.”

All these are words and theories, admittedly, but one can sense Indika’s intense dedication to them. It’s a sign of his love for his trade that he doesn’t inflate what he says or what he’s doing. In any case, “Signno”, which opened at the Asoka Vidyalaya Gymnasium last September, was a play to remember (despite its three-hour duration).

I missed the opportunity of watching “Les Miserables”, and admittedly “Signno” was, despite its bilingual dialogues (teetering between Sinhala, English, and “Singlish”) worlds away from the Workshop Players’ adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic. True to his theory, Indika purposely refrained from having his play staged in a comfy, air-conditioned, Colombo 7 venue. On the contrary, it was staged at a rather open and hot (not to mention sweaty) place, in keeping with the ritualistic, traditional ambiance of its story. I will not explain that story, because Indika hopes to stage it again and it’s best that you see it for yourself when he does. Yes, that’s because it was a roaring success and deserves to be seen again, with its enviable blend of masks, dances, drums, acrobatics, and dialogues (which include some very scatological innuendos).

Indika admittedly has no preferences when it comes to the stage. “You have to accommodate every form and method. You must however 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 recounted an anecdote from his schooldays at St Aloysius’ College in Ratnapura. He had seen a play, one in which both female and male characters were played by boys. This was in Year Six, during the 1980s. The 1978 Constitution was still “new” and untainted, but being a passionate follower of politics he had remembered something J. R. Jayawardene had said: that the Executive Presidency could do everything except turn a man into a woman.

“Watching the play,” Indika went on, laughing, “and seeing the boys playing the female characters, 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 lamented a 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 in the theatre, how can you improve?”

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 confessed. What he disagrees with however is the notion that research should always mean academia.

“Ediriweera Sarachchandra was an academic, who believed in stylised theatre. Sugathapala de Silva, his biggest rival in his time and someone who believed in the power of dialogues, was also an academic. The man who brought what the two stood for together, who infused stylisation into dialogue-driven plays, was not. But we remember and applaud Henry Jayasena and his play ‘Janelaya’ today, as much as we celebrate the other two and their work.”

When it comes to defining his version of the theatre, the last word should naturally be his: “There’s poetry in theatre and theatre in cinema. But theatre is not the cinema. Nor is it 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.”

Written for: Night Owls, May 26 2016