Friday, October 7, 2016

‘Maathra 9’: Bringing out Perception

School shows are a dime a dozen these days. Some make it to the headlines, others don’t. A few, very few in fact, go beyond splashing colour in the news and make a name for themselves. By default therefore, older shows are more reputed and hence well known. Their more recent counterparts, on the other hand, are doomed for obscurity. Inevitable in one sense, tragic in another, some may say.

But why, we can legitimately ask. Is it to do only with age and reputation? Shouldn’t a concert (or any other show, for that matter) be assessed on the basis of merit and the message it brings out? Shouldn’t the criterion be effort, not age? And by that same token, can’t a new show be inferior to a veteran, whether in terms of audiences or critics? And can’t the opposite be true as well? The answers, I believe, are there for all to see.

What springs to mind when we think of the performing arts? Concerts, obviously. That’s the main if not the only way through which contemporary audiences get to see everything, aurally and visually. That’s also the only way through which schools display their talent, and through which they give out the meaning that’s central to whatever concert they organise. This is the story of a school and a concert, how it has held its own ground, and how it’s improved, gradually but eventually, over the years.

On Saturday, October 8 at the BMICH from 5.58 to 7.30 PM, the Kandyan Dancing troupe of Lyceum International School will present "Maathra 9". What it will unveil and what its central message is are questions to be answered later, but for now, here’s my verdict: it’s one of the most significant concerts of its kind organised by a school in Sri Lanka and, without a doubt, one of the most daunting. With an almost enviable blend of the local and the oriental, it will bring together our dance traditions with those of our cultural fraternity in the subcontinent.

No, it’s not just to do with the items in the show. It’s to do with the organisation as well. Lyceum has clearly gone out far in terms of its commitment to the performing arts. That shows in how it’s set about the items for this year. "Maathra 9" will feature performances by almost all its branches: from Nugegoda, Panadura, Wattala, Gampaha, Ratnapura, and Nuwara Eliya. That’s more than 500 students and more than eight teachers coordinating them. Not an easy task, particularly since they’ll meet for only about two or three days for rehearsals before the main performance.

During the last nine years or so, the organisers have done what they can to disseminate "Maathra 9" throughout the country, without keeping it in-house. While it draws a lot from its own coordinators and students, there’s little to no doubt that the show isn’t inbred and therefore, relates to the outside world. 

As for the items, they provoke comment on their own right. To name a few, there will be a re-enactment of the story of Gutthila and Musila (“Ranganaliyan”) along with a meditation on the art of clay pottery (“Sakaporuwa”) by Lyceum Panadura; a “Pol Katu” dance by Lyceum Gampaha; a retake on “Ravana” by Lyceum Wattala; and items on the historical import of the cane industry (“Wewal”), our mask culture (“Yakku”), and that timeless, classic fable “Ambalame Pina” by Lyceum Ratnapura. It won’t be about dancing only of course, and in keeping with the spirit of what came out in previous years there are items dedicated to pure sound as well: through the bera pada, the thammattama, and the flute, once instruments used for the service of the gods, now “secularised” for the benefit of lay audiences.

"Maathra" is “new”, which is to say that it’s more recent. That however doesn’t take away but adds to its significance, a point highlighted by how many leaps and bounds it’s gone through within the last decade.

There’s more.

I spoke with several officials and coordinators, on and off during rehearsals, to try and catch a glimpse of what’s in store. Not being a performer myself, I suppose I have my share of pitfalls when it comes to assessing events of this kind. I therefore spoke to Rajiv Ekanayake, Principal of Lyceum Ratnapura and the stage-manager for this year’s show and asked him some pertinent questions. He had the answers. I noted them down.

I began with what "Maathra 9" as a whole represents. “It’s about fusion, simply put. It interweaves the traditional and the contemporary. It brings together our three dance traditions: udarata, pahatharata, and Sabaragamuwa. It also brings in other traditions, for instance the Kathakali. Yes, I know fusion is a convenient cliché to use when describing events like this, but at the end of the day it congeals into what that term means: tradition moulded to suit modernity.”

According to Ekanayake, what will come out of "Maathra 9" is perception, that is the perception of the teachers and coordinators involved. Having actively participated in the show for the last three or four years, he predictably lends credence to what he says of it. And it’s not merely about its items or how they’re relayed but how students will get at what he calls “relative perfection” in the end. “There’s nothing called ‘perfect’ in this imperfect world of ours,” he smiles, “We have room for error and so do our students. On the other hand, I try to ensure that the final item is free from those crass, discernible mistakes which can get spotted by the audience at once.”

Ekanayake is the stage-manager. He’s not alone. The Kandyan Dancing Coordinators in every participating branch are involved, and not just for the performance. They will be there, synchronising the show in tandem with a preconceived script and trying to attain perfection (or in dancing parlance, “Moksha”) in every item. They will handle probably the toughest part of the show: bringing together more than 500 students while being mindful of their individual strengths and shortcomings. Not easy, you must admit.

One other name stands out in this regard: Rasika Kothalawala, Kandyan Dancing Coordinator at Lyceum Nugegoda and overall Coordinator for MAATHRA 9. He has a way of instilling what he expects in his students, a way of unearthing what they have and a way of polishing them all to near-perfection. He also possesses (and this is based on personal experience) an eye for talent (or the lack thereof) and an eye for those who stand out. I notice this in the way he directs his students, spotting out with ease those who are slow and those who are quick. In a medium as dependent on movement and sure-footedness as dancing, I suppose that’s a quality both needed and privileged.

All that of course congeals into one important factor: the overall thrust of the show. I believe Ekanayake put it best when he said that there’s no theme as such for "Maathra 9", to differentiate one year’s performances from the next. “With practice, you can do wonders. That’s what makes it what it has become and what it will remain as in future,” Ekanayake says by way of summing it all up. A stickler for perfection himself, he doubtless would know how each year brings on an improvement on what came out in the last, not only in terms of the movements, the music, or the performance itself, but in terms of how everything gets together to contribute meaningfully to our cultural firmament.

Children love to perform. They love to flaunt. They rarely pretend. Once you get them going, you can’t stop them. I have come to believe that at the end of the day, all cultures become rhythmic. They move to a certain beat and this beat, the children understand and take to. That is probably why "Maathra 9" will promise as much (if not more) as what it gave in the last nine years, and why everyone invited to and attending the final performance will look up, smile, and move on.