"Theatre of the People" ensemble popularly known by its Sinhala name "Janakaraliya" is over 14 years old now. The whole idea of this travelling theatre ensemble was conceptualised by the Artistic/Chief Executive Director and award winning veteran dramatist, film and teledrama director Parakrama Niriella and equally respected and reputed, award winning actor/performer, late H.A. Perera. Official birth of Janakaraliya is on record as 27th March 2002; the World Drama Day.
Janakaraliya has many important and positive deviations from traditional drama, all encompassed in it. First, Janakaraliya geared itself in establishing a professional fulltime drama group. As a collective, Janakaraliya was determined to use drama as a cultural tool in creating ethnic and religious harmony. Towards that Janakaraliya achieved the difficult task of establishing a bi lingual group of artistes. It also carried with it a mega challenge of rooting stage plays as a powerful entertainment in a depleted market within a small restrictive audience.
Theatre or drama on stage in Sri Lanka cannot be discussed and critiqued, ignoring the fact that this is a country that was being increasingly polarised during the first 30 years after independence in 1948 February and made to wage a racial war against its own citizenry during the next 30 plus years.
In such a de-humanising society, literature, art and drama was on a serious decline over the past 03 decades or so. Many negative factors worked towards this fast decline. The escalating war in the North-East left the Tamil speaking society isolated and outside serious cultural experiences. In the Sinhala society, most importantly, the neo liberal market economy created over worked "consumers" with no attention and emphasis given to art, culture and literature as part of modern, intellectual recreation in social life.
Thus over the past decades Sri Lanka experienced a decline in cultural infrastructure. Film theatres outside Western Province gradually closing up, absence of theatre halls for stage drama, importance of libraries slowly dropped out and the collective society gradually and fast became culturally "atomised". This decline kept new generations away from entering the field of stage drama. They saw more attraction instead in light and "easy to produce"teledrama that took over TV channels. They were promoted and marketed as "family" entertainment backed by commercial sponsorships. These became readymade recreation for the isolated and tired consumer within his or her home. Therefore the market for stage drama declined while production cost gradually increased. The effect was manifold. Less and less dramatists ventured into production of stage plays. Others who could demand a fair package for their skills and experience, moved into commercial advertising and teledrama. Lack of productions reduced the possibility of attracting new and young talent on to the stage. All of it in turn left a void in good productions on serious themes and plots with new techniques and experimenting almost absent in stage plays. The void in production of serious stage drama also was encroached by light and meaningless commercial drama with celebrities picked from TV shows. They were marketed purely on "punch lines" included in dialogues with crazy titles given. For most TV celebrities, the stage often is a training ground only.
Where few adventurous young drama producers arrogantly took to new productions, they were only able to find space in Colombo and a few major cities outside Western Province. The cost of a ticket for stage plays and also the depleted commuter transport, especially in the evenings to the night, denied rural life a chance to enjoy stage drama. Thus drama was almost forgotten in the larger rural society and very much among new generations as well. Emergence of Janakaraiya It was in such adverse and negative context, the Janakaraliya mobile theatre was conceptualized. A simple description of "Janakaraliya"would be, it is a bi lingual collective of youth trained in all skills necessary for drama pr oduction, who move from one location to another with their collapsible tent hall, performing plays to audiences who otherwise have no access to such recreation.During their long stays in rural locations, Janakaraliya introduces drama to school children and train teachers to use drama as a teaching tool.
In a more deeper discourse, "Janakaraliya" is an experimental process in applied theatre with stage plays taken out of their traditional proscenium stage into an arena platform and placed within a circle of audience. It thus creates a closer interactive experience for the audience. This novel experience for rural society has ignited a new interest in drama. This is evident in the Janakaraliya team that is almost all rural from both Sinhala and Tamil areas, including the plantation sector. An energetic collective of bi lingual youth has been enrolled and well trained in every aspect of drama production over the years to be fulltime professional performing artistes. Within them, Janakaraliya now has award winning young artistes as directors, script writers, translators, lead actors and actresses, makeup artistes and stage lighting experts as well. Beside drama, they now manage their own routine administrative work too. Janakaraliya, we say is a remarkable achievement in a society that had been living outside serious cultural life with less and less interest in stage plays.
As a bi lingual performing group, the Janakaraliya mobile theatre ensemble has very successfully ventured into both Sinhala and Tamil adaptations with quality all round. Janakaraliya has thus performed from Jaffna to Matara and from Batticoloa to Mannar and in Colombo too, covering almost every administrative district. Its ability to adapt very debatable plays in both Sinhala and Tamil gives Janakaraliya the advantage of creating a much needed discourse in society on ethnic and religious harmony and equality as humans in a shared world.
The importance of this ethno religious co-habitation in performing arts that Janakaraliya is projecting to society comes with a socio cultural background that in post independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka was totally absent. In the whole 68 years after independence, there was no effort made either by the State or by creative and performing artistes to co-habit in cultural activities. Sinhala reader was denied translations of Tamil literature and so was the Tamil reader, denied Sinhala literature. That was true in every other sphere in art and culture. This also led to "national" cultural events turning into "Sinhala" events and festivities. The media too projected all Sinhala art culture as "national" art and culture. Tamil often left out of national status.
It is in such a "Sinhalised" cultural arena that "Janakaraliya" treks about as a cultural loner stressing the importance of ethno religious co-habitation. In a cultural life dominated by Sinhala art and culture, Janakaraliya was therefore a new experience. A new phenomenon.
It was that for the social and culturally devastated Tamil society. The Tamil adaptation of the popular Bertolt Brecht play "Caucasian Chalk Circle" performed as "Wenkatti Wattam" for the first time in Jaffna, gave the war affected people the opportunity to understand themselves in a broader context of exploitation in a brutal war. The latest Sinhala production of another Brechtian play "Round heads and Pointed heads" is a very significant contribution to the discourse on "reconciliation". It brings home the message that ethnic divisions on historical geographical roots would only serve the harsh ruler and not the oppressed and marginalised people.
Janakaraliya is thus an aesthetic process that provokes intellectual discourse not only on ethnic and religious plurality in a shared society, but is also a process that provokes experimenting with drama as an interactive collective tool in a society to lift aesthetic satisfaction into an intellectual experience. A life that can dialogue on dignity of life as a necessary co-lateral in modern living. A process that Janakaraliya is proud of as the first and only bi lingual collective of professional fulltime performing artistes, in post independent history of Sri Lanka.
The HIVOS institute of the Netherlands extended their support to us in establishing the first ever multi ethnic drama troupe in Sri Lanka.USAID came forward to help us in this hour of need.USAID provided us the fully completed Mobile Theatre and kitchen utensils needed.