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Midweek Review

Breaking the Cocoon: The Duality and Unity of a Dancer’s Body

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By Dr Saumya Liyanage

Dance is an elusive art form. It is elusive in the sense that any type of dance form uses the human body as its expressive tool, and the art and the artist are one and the same. Dance is in a way similar to the actor’s art because the dancer uses her body as the means of expression. The actor and the dancer share this common ground where their art and the artistic tool are nonetheless inseparable and tightly intertwined. In order to understand the meaning of dance, one may need to separate the dancer’s body from dance but as stated the inseparability of the dancer from dance poses ontological questions as to who the dancer is and what dance is. Therefore, marking a boundary between the body and the work of dance is always blurred.

It is difficult to explain why people dance and how dance is differentiated from non-dance. Celeste Snowber writes that whether we dance and move our bodies, or whether our bodies are static and still, we always dance. She further argues that ‘we are all dancing and as we are all living, whether it is walking or running, swimming or hopping, jumping or being still. There is a dance of blood and fluid circulating in our bodies, and the expressivity of gestures is a daily activity’ (Snowber cited in Leavy, 2018, p. 247). In this analysis, Snowber broadly defines and blurs the distinction between dance and non-dance challenging us to rethink the way we define dance in the contemporary context.

Yet, Sri Lankan dance scholarship is still practised and confined within a particular school of thought that favours dance as a refined, codified body of movement. The learning of dance needs assiduous practice and dedication under a specific training regimen. Moreover, the dancer’s body should be physically trained and aesthetically beautiful to be able to perform and bring meanings to spectators. Hence traditional dance training and performance is purely cultivated through guru-shishya parampara (Teacher-disciple model) where the repetition and execution of learnt scores are supremely important. Very little space is allowed for the novice to explore physical possibilities beyond the regimented body. However, I am not skeptical about the skills and capacities that a traditional dancer possesses. Yet, this long assiduous practice and the regimentation of bodies along with cosmic teaching pertaining to demons and deities would undoubtedly affect and discipline not only the learner’s physicality but their thought process as well. Therefore, these pedagogical systems do not allow the learner to explore various expressions or movement culture.

In this article, I am going to discuss about an emerging dancer and choreographer Kanchana Malshani and her recent work titled, Talking Silambu performed, at the Royal Taprobanian cultural hub in Navinna, Maharagama. In this piece of dance work, Kanchana raises several questions worthy of discussion through the current practice of dance pedagogy in Sri Lanka and ontological questions of what dance is, and who a dancer is. Further her work explores how dance can be a self-exploratory journey for those who seek alternative avenues through breaking their links to traditional forms and regimented bodies.

Kanchana

Kanchana Malshani has studied traditional Sri Lankan dance forms from various teachers since her childhood until she graduated from university. Kanchana is a graduate from Sripalee campus, University of Colombo and received a First Class honours degree. Being a student of traditional Sri Lankan dance forms such as Kandyan, Sabaragamuwa and Low country dance, Kanchana has developed her own style through her engagement with contemporary and experimental Sri Lankan dancers such as Venuri Perera and Umeshi Rajeendra. Learning and working with Venuri Perera and her influence on Kanchana’s reincarnation as a contemporary dancer is immense; in her ‘second life’ as a choreographer and dancer, she is being mentored by Venuri Perera. Her recent incarnation as a contemporary dancer signifies that she as a dancer needs a different life and expression within dance scholarship. Her recent work, Talking Silambu, shows a clear rebellious individuality that seeks to break the traditional codification and rebirth as a free bodied woman.

In 2017, Goethe Institute organised a Choreography Lab with dancer Venuri Perera, in Kalpitiya Sri Lanka. At this particular dance lab, Kanchana learnt contemporary dance from Yuko Kaseki, a Japanese Bhuto dancer, and Mahesh Umagiliya. Further, she learnt from Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith, Professor of dance at Denison University, the USA, who has travelled several times to Sri Lanka as a Fulbright scholar. Her intervention in popularising and mentoring Sri Lankan dancers included a group of students at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sripalee campus, was also a turning point in her dance career. Dance teachers like Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, Preethi Athreya, Maria Colusi have also helped Kanchana develop her skills. After receiving a half scholarship to visit a two-week-long dance camp at Sanskar Dance Festival India, she has been able to work with teachers such as Vittoria de Ferrari Sapetto and Roberto Olivan. Apart from her dance training, Kanchana has been working with one of the English Theatre companies, Stages Theatre, led by writer and director Ruwanthie De Chickera in Colombo. Kanchana may have undoubtedly learnt the value of being an artiste and professionalism in theatre through working in an actors’ ensemble at Stages Theatre.

Dance and Contemporaneity

The term ‘contemporary dance’ signifies specific meanings to dance specialists than non-specialists of dance. There are certain qualities that set contemporary dance apart from other genres. Contemporary dance can be distinguished from modern and other forms of dance because of its shift from the traditional narratology, dancer’s perspective, and breaking away from some of the dance prejudices to integrate text, words, digital and intermedial elements to it. One such difference is that contemporary dance work departs from traditional third person singular narrative to first person singular self-expression. This first person perspective allows the dancer to reflect her own auto-biographical material.

Yet, these auto-ethnographic or auto-biographical narratives finally gets transformed into a political idiom.

Further contemporary dance deconstructs the aesthetic body celebrated in traditional dance and questions and dissects the skin of the dancer by opening up the inner flesh of the body. André Lepecki further identifies the uniqueness of contemporary dance from other genres because of its ‘ephemerality, corporeality, precariousness, scoring, and performativity’ (Kwan, 2017, p. 39). Thus, contemporary dance does not stick to a particular form, style or a structure. Instead it integrates various techniques, styles, and influences even from traditional dance forms to use the body as a political tool and the self as the centre of expression.

 

Talking Silambu

In this dance work titled, Talking Silambu, a twenty minute long piece of choreography, Kanchana appears in a non-traditional lose attire while wearing two Silambu (Silambu is a type of anklet made out of brass which Kandyan dancers wear when they perform) In the first instance, we hear the sound of Silambu as Kanchana’s legs begin to move. Yet, her dance body starts movement towards the audience while mixing traditional Kandyan dance codification with free body movement. It is clear that she performs half Kandyan and half improvised body movements in the score. In other words, her body movements are choreographed through semi-Kandyan codification mixed with free style movements. When the dance intensifies, she removes her Silambu, holding them in her hands and begins to shake them with vigorous body movements while throwing her body in various directions. At this point, Kanchana uses a trans-like act depicting trans-performance inherited particularly in low country devil dance. In this work, it is clearly demonstrated that her body is struggling with Silambu and trying to remove its connection to the body. This struggle culminates in the final phase of the dance work by indicating she runs away from the codified body and becomes a free woman. In this work, Kanchana demonstrates her discontent with the previous life as a traditional dancer and her struggle to break her affinity to the codified structure and beautification of the body in Kandyan dance. In a short conversation I had with Kanchana, she mentioned as particular rebirth that occurred at a dance camp organised by the Goethe Institute Colombo:

“I have been trained as a traditional dancer since my childhood but for the first time, working with this Japanese Butoh dancer, Yuko Kaseki, I learnt how to speak from my body. For many years I was living in a cage-tradition where I was entrapped. Living in this cage, I have performed what others wanted me to do. But in this dance lab, I found myself speaking to my own body and speaking through the body. I don’t want my body to be beautiful and aesthetically refined. I don’t want to display precision and codification of my body. I want to show how ugly I am and how vulnerable my body is.” (Kanchana, M., Pers. Comm. Dec. 2020).

 

Against the grain

In the traditional dance pedagogy, the dancer’s body is understood as a vehicle via which the dancer’s symbolic meanings are conveyed. There is a clear division between the inner and outer faculties in the dance body, and the dancer’s role is to bring forth those inner feelings to the onlooker via her body movements. This conceptualisation of the dancer’s body as a split between inner and outer is a complex issue pertaining to dance. Knowingly or unknowingly the dancer divides her body into body and mind and this Cartesian division has influenced the dancer to theorise the body and her craft.

Living in an ocular centric world, the dancer’s outer body is a place where womanhood is exploited for commercial purposes. From state-sponsored national festivals to television advertisements selling instant noodles or carbonated drinks, the dancer’s outer skin is commodified. Writing about Sri Lankan neo-dance traditions, propagated and performed at high profile delegations, product launches and in TV commercials in the country, I have written elsewhere that ‘women’s bodies succumb to the surgical knife of the choreographer whose male sexual desires are displayed on those bodies. Hence, no difference can be made between a choreographer and a cosmetic surgeon, whose expertise on women’s bodies, especially breasts and buttocks, are surgically transplanted and enhanced by incisions, stitches and staples’ (Liyanage, 2016). Amidst this commodification of female bodies in Sri Lankan dance arena, Kanchana’s attempt is to break away from this commodified, sexualised, and mechanised body to establish a non-codified and unified body of self-expression.

Here it is important for contemporary dancers to understand the value of the ‘living body’ or the ‘lived’ body that is celebrated in the vast literature of phenomenology and dance theory in the contemporary dance literature. In the dominant dance cultures from stage performances to digital and visual representations, the dancer’s skin is the most valued and emphasised. Now, with the contemporary dance turn, the dancer’s living or lived experience has come forth. Kanchana as a dancer now understands that her body is not a place for others to communicate vague meanings but a living entity where her own selfhood is reflected and displayed. It is a challenge for a dancer like her because the dominant female body has already been already established by key dance authors of the country. These dance authors have created a symbolic and sexualised female body for live and digitised performances. This symbolic and sexualised female body consists of the idealised female body for the male viewer. Kanchana is challenging this idealised body that is dominant in the real and digital world.

 

Dancer and Danced

The key juncture where the lived body differs from the symbolic body is that the symbolic body that is propagated in the media and elsewhere is the body that is not presented as a place for knowledge. Let me explain this further. In the traditional dance pedagogy, the dancer’s body is a place where meanings are generated and shared. In other worlds, the codified body is a canvas or a display where the onlooker extricates meanings. This codified, symbolic body is not presented to us as a place for knowing or sensing. Kanchana’s work and the work of other contemporary dancers suggest that we should understand the body as a place of sensing and knowing. This marks an epistemological turn in dance making and its reception. Dance, or the dancer’s body, has not been considered a place for ‘knowing’ in Sri Lankan dance pedagogy. Most often, a dancer narrates someone’s story or represents a third person singular perspective of the dance.

What Kanchana and the contemporary dance body suggest is to make a shift from the third person singular narrative to a first person singular perspective. This ‘I’ or the first person perspective allows the dancer to narrate her own stories and engagement with the social, cultural and political terrains. Further, a dancer as the author of her own work marks the departure of the dancer as an employer for a particular author. What Kanchana does in Talking Silambu is that as a dancer she tries to incarnate herself and narrate a story of searching a breakthrough and liberation. In this performance, her body works as a site of struggle and seeks the unity of her body and soul.

Conclusion

Understanding the body as a sensing and perceiving entity is still an alien concept to dance pedagogies in universities and private schools. Furthermore, dance can be a self-expressive and auto-ethnographic inquiry and is also a far-reaching idea for our students. Hence, the mainstream dance pedagogy produces dancers who dance without self-motivation to satisfy the audience who come to see symbolic representation of the body. Yet a handful of dancers who are eagerly exploring other avenues for dance expressions are also facing complex issues that their artistic interventions are not fully accepted in the mainstream dance scholarship in the country. Moreover, dancers like Kanchana have chosen a non-popular pathway to pursue their future dance careers and already faced deadlocks, as their artistic practices are not being accepted or sustained by institutions or organisations. Yet Kanchana is determined to break her cocoon to be incarnated as a hybrid moth.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Senevirathe for their assistance in preparing this paper. Further the author’s gratitude goes to dancer Kanchana Malshani.

References

Kwan, S. (2017). When Is Contemporary Dance? Dance Research Journal, [online] 49(3), pp.38–52. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/dance-research-journal/article/when-is-contemporary-dance/8D44743A01A1ECC8100C5E65C1142DC2 [Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

Leavy, P. (2019). Handbook of arts-based research. New York: The Guilford Press.

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Midweek Review

‘Perils of a Profession’ jolts scandal-ridden police

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Retired Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Merril Gunaratne quoted the then Air Force Commander Air Marshal Walter Fernando as having said at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, chaired by the then President JRJ, in the mid-80s: “It is not a laughing matter for me.” Fernando was responding to the late Lalith Athulathmudali, the then National Security Minister whose comment on an incident in Vavuniya that claimed the lives of several airmen dismayed the Air Marshal. Gunaratne had been there as the top intelligence representative.

Fernando served as the Commander of the Air Force from May 1, 1986, to July 1, 1990. Fernando retired a few weeks after the eruption of Eelam War II. It would be pertinent to mention his only son Squadron Leader A.P.W. Fernando, was among those killed when the LTTE brought down the Chinese-built Y8 flying over the Elephant Pass area, on July 5, 1992.

The revealing anecdote was one among many such disclosures in Gunaratne’s latest book ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this month. Gunaratne asserted that the Air Force Commander resented the Minister’s comment that apparently belittled the service.

The author of two previous books ‘Dilemma of an Island ‘ and ‘Cop in the Cross Fire,’ released in 2001 and 2011, respectively, the outspoken retired top cop couldn’t have launched his third at a better time than when the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PcoI), into the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, is on the verge of concluding its high profile inquiry. Gunaratne certainly didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the PCoI last year.

The question is whether perhaps the worst ever intelligence failure facilitated the coordinated suicide attacks on six targets on the morning of April 21, 2019? Or could it have been thwarted if the Attorney General’s Department acted swiftly, and decisively, when the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) brought the growing threat, posed by the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) leader Zahran Hashim, to its notice, in July 2017?

 

Kudos from retired Maj. Gen.

In his latest work, Gunaratne, whose illustrious career spanning 35 years included a significant period with the premier intelligence service, dealt with precision the deterioration of the once proud police service. In spite of ‘Perils of a Profession’ being rather short, the revelations, therein, are certainly explosive. There hadn’t been such disclosure in the past, by any other retired law enforcement officer.

Gunaratne’s writing skills received the acclaim of retired Maj. Gen. Lalin Fernando, an admirable writer himself. In a brief commendation of Gunaratne’s third book, Fernando asserted: “No gazetted police officer has shown his ability to write as lucidly on real concerns of the police, from professional competence to welfare of the beat constable.”

Having joined the police, in July 1965, Gunaratne served the department during a turbulent time, before leaving the service, as a Senior DIG. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion nine years after the author’s retirement, in 2000.

Perils of a Profession’ dealt aggressively with the deterioration of the service, over the years, resulting in an unprecedented crisis. The writer, without hesitation, blamed the politicians and the police for the degeneration of the department to such a pathetic state that today the once proud Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) is under investigation for dealing in heroin.

Retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, now in charge of the police, in his capacity as the Public Security Minister, should peruse ‘Perils of a Profession’ without further delay. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the police coming under a retired military officer, though the last government made a desperate bid to secure the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as Law and Order Minister. The senior partner of the yahapalana administration wanted Fonseka to replace Sagala Ratnayake, one of the beleaguered UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s close associates. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not only brought the police under a retired Rear Admiral, he named retired Gen. Jagath Alwis, his first choice as the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), as the new Secretary, Ministry of Public Order.

Against that background, another disclosure made by Gunaratne, regarding certain law enforcement officers thwarting Minister Ratnayake’s efforts at reforming the police, should be examined. That particular anecdote revealed how serving officers resented Ratnayake’s bid to secure the retired intelligence officer’s expertise. Perhaps Ratnayake hadn’t been aware of Wickremesinghe’s resentment towards Gunaratne whose controversial assessments on matters of national importance exasperated him.

Cop in the Cross Fire’ revealed how Wickremesinghe’s own views on national security matters clashed with those of Gunaratne during the latter’s tenure as an ‘advisor’ – 2002-2004. Gunaratne’s bold assessment, in his capacity as an ‘advisor’ on the rapid increase in the fighting cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), after the signing of the highly controversial Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), finalized in Feb 2002, without the knowledge of President Kumaratunga, and much of his own government, quite angered the then Premier Wickremesinghe.

 

Athulathmudali’s intervention

Gunaratne questioned security/intelligence strategies that had been in place, or were in the process of development when the NTJ struck in April 2019, in spite of receiving specific information from neighbouring India. The writer dealt expertly with the weakening of the police, including the premier intelligence apparatus over the years under whatever name it was called. In Chapter 7, titled ‘Moving into intelligence from normal police work,’ Gunaratne disclosed how Athulathmudali re-named what was then called Intelligence Services Division (ISD). Whatever, the country’s premier intelligence network was called, a senior policeman had been always at its helm.

In Gunaratne’s assessment, the Special Branch (SB) of the CID and the Military Intelligence (MI) played a relatively lower role when compared with that of the premier apparatus, called the State Intelligence Service (SIS), at the time the NTJ struck. That resulted in the SIS being placed under Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally, formerly of the MI. Interestingly, the then Premier Wickermesinghe found fault with the then Brigadier Sally for the writer’s reportage of the recovery of explosives in the north and the arrest of some suspects in the early 2016. The premier intelligence service had always been under a senior police officer. At the time the NTJ struck, SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena had been at the helm of the SIS. The proceedings undertaken by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the on-going PCoI revealed the existence of a special relationship between the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the SIS Chief.

Did the close association between the Commander-in-Chief and his spy chief, too, contribute to the overall deterioration of the security setup? The PSC, in its report tabled in Parliament on Oct 23 found fault with Jayawardena for the pathetic handling of the available Indian intelligence until the NTJ terrorists went on the rampage.

Gunaratne blamed an appointment of a novice as the head of the premier intelligence service, after the 1994 presidential election, for the rapid deterioration of the apparatus. Although, the author refrained from naming the officer, the recipient of the coveted post of Director, SIS, was the late retired Senior Superintendent of Police T.V. Sumanasekera.

Nilantha Jayawardena, who is now literally on the mat for the Easter Sunday intelligence failure, too, had served  the SIS even then. Gunaratne’s reference to SIS having wiretapping apparatus is certainly not necessary as the premier intelligence outfit couldn’t perform its legitimate duties without that particular capacity.

The deterioration of politics can be certainly compared with the current political setup. Having read, utterly contemptuous account of the top political leadership and members of the Parliament, the police and the Parliament seemed to be in the same predicament.

 

UNP faulted

According to Gunaratne, the rot had set in the wake of the UNP landslide, in 1977. The author compared his experience as SSP, Kelaniya and SSP Kurunegala during the period 1977-1978 and how some of those who were represented in parliament violated the laws of the land, misused police and political interference made at the highest levels. Among those miscreants who had been named by the retired cop was the late Minister Cyril Mathew. Gunaratne explained how the UNP cleverly used and abused the police in its diabolical project. An influential section of the police, for obvious reasons, cooperated with the then political leadership much to the dismay of those who struggled to thwart constant and belligerent political interference. Gunaratne earned the wrath of some UNP lawmakers for refusing to cooperate with the ruling party’s strategy. Some took up Gunaratne’s conduct with no less a person than JRJ and in some instances with Premier Ranasinghe Premadasa.

With the UNP enjoying an unprecedented 5/6 parliamentary power, the dictatorial UNP administration expected the police to fall in line. They largely did. The situation deteriorated further in the wake of the 1982, more or less, rigged referendum, that allowed the UNP to retain a monstrous overwhelming 2/3 majority, till 1988.

The late Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s short tenure as the President during the period 1993-1994 in the wake of Ranasinghe Premadasa’s May Day 1993 assassination, never really received much public attention. Wijetunga oversaw the party in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential polls in August and November, 1994, respectively. Wijetunga thwarted Wickremesinghe by facilitating the return of rebel Gamini Dissanayake back to the party. The author refrained from discussing Wijetunga’s political moves though he dealt harshly with the President’s destructive policy as regards the police. Gunaratne explained how the successful Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF), the late Lionel Karunasena, failed to prevent Wijetunga’s interference. The author examined Karunasena’s failure against the backdrop of his success in convincing JRJ and Premadasa not to interfere with the elite unit.

Gunaratne’s allegation, with regard to the shortsighted increase of the DIG cadre, from 11 to 30, overnight, and the number of Senior DIGs, from three to five, contributed to the overall deterioration of law enforcement, should be thoroughly examined. The accusation that Wijetunga lacked even the basic understanding of law enforcement thereby caused chaos in the overall administrative setup, by constant interference, should prompt a reappraisal of the whole department. Successive governments played politics with the police to varying degrees. After the change of governments, those who even vacated posts, or were moved out on disciplinary grounds, manipulated the utterly corrupt system to return to the service and secure backdated promotions. Backdoor promotions were routine and so widespread, higher ranks could be secured outside, what Gunaratne called, eligibility criteria.

 

A righteous IGP

‘Perils of a Profession’ explained how successive governments, since the 1977 general election, contributed to the ruination of the police department. Backdoor promotions had been a major cause of concern. Having dealt how he personally took up an alleged move to overtake him in the seniority line to pave the way for another, with President Premadasa, at an STF circuit bungalow, Gunaratne paid a glowing tribute to Cyril Herath, as the only IGP who had the strength to quit the service than play politics.

Gunaratne claimed he was present when Herath turned down an offer of an ambassadorial post from the then Defence Secretary Gen. Sepala Attygalle in the wake of the former’s decision to resign.

Gunaratne has quoted Herath as having told Attygalle: “Sir, I have not come to you with my resignation letter to canvas for an ambassadorial post.”

During PSC and PCoI proceedings, the alleged offer made by President Sirisena to the disgraced IGP Pujith Jayasundera to accept the responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage in return for a diplomatic posting, transpired. Obviously, Jayasundera declined the treacherous offer. The previous Rajapaksa administration named Mahinda Balasuriya, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Brazil, after he accepted responsibility for the police firing at a group of protesting Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FRZ) workers.

There certainly cannot be any other instance of a senior retired police officer coming out so strongly against the system at his own expense. Have you ever heard of any retired public servant objecting to a scheme that certainly benefited him at the taxpayers’ expense? Gunaratne discussed the controversial move to assign police personnel to retired IGPs and SDIGs for what the Association of Police Chiefs (APC) described as an effort to ‘maintain their reputation and dignity.’ The APC proposal that had been approved by the National Police Commission (NPC) on April 23, 2020, was the brainchild of retired SDIG Gamini Navaratne. The whole exercise was meant to provide a controversial facility on the basis that senior retired military officers enjoyed such a privilege.

Gunaratne’s thought-provoking opinions on law enforcement operations should be seriously examined. If the Public Security Ministry is genuinely interested in reforms, perhaps the Minister and Secretary can seek a Presidential Commission to make recommendations. Actually, Gunaratne has made some excellent proposals, first to arrest the decline and then improve the service. The police service has deteriorated to such an extent, it would be a herculean task to restore the standards to the pre-1977 period.

In fact, the blatant role the Office of the President had played, since the introduction of the JRJ Constitution in the ruination of the once public friendly service, shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. The deterioration of the police should be examined, taking into consideration extremely serious lapses on the part of the Attorney General’s Department in the run up to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Although, Gunaratne never referred to the AG’s Department lapses that may have given the NTJ the time and the space to mount near simultaneous suicide attacks on six unprotected targets.

 

A shocking injustice

‘Perils of a Profession’ is the story of incredulity. Having suffered in the hands of the UNP as a result of him being dubbed an SLFPer, Gunaratne, in the wake of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s victory in 1994, was targeted over his alleged role in the Batalanda torture chamber. In spite of Gunaratne being cleared by way of an investigation carried out by the police at the behest of the Presidential Commission that probed Batalanda, the top cop was placed on compulsory leave. Gunaratne speculated whether the then government sent him on compulsory leave to pave the way for Lucky Kodituwakku to succeed retiring IGP Rajaguru. Gunaratne questioned how Kodituwakku, having resigned, following a rather short career, returned in the wake of the People’s Alliance (PA) victory to take the top post.

Gunaratne had no qualms in discussing perks and privileges enjoyed by the senior officers. The top layer seems to be having a good time. With a section of the department given special status, the others appear to be going ahead with their own projects. Last year’s exposure of the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) dealing in heroin is a grim reminder of the appalling state of affairs. The releasing of Easter Sunday terror suspect, Riyaj Bathiudeen, held by the CID in late Oct 2020, raised many an eyebrow. Let us hope the ‘Perils of a Profession’ really jolts the Public Security Ministry.

However, some may not buy Gunaratne’s narration. Critics may find fault with Gunaratne simply because some of the people he is now freely writing about are no longer alive. The author cannot deny the fact that he enjoyed the ride as the head of intelligence, under the UNP, for quite a long period, at a time the NIB was dubbed No Information Bureau.

The police top brass cannot absolve themselves of their failure to prevent the ‘83 riots. Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for that dastardly violence. Were the police taking orders from outside interests to cause a calamity here? The same thing happened in the run up to the Easter Sunday carnage and thereafter when Sinhala mobs went after ordinary Muslims. Both the police and the Army simply did not act even when mobs came in their hundreds on motorcycles from outside to places like Minuwangoda. Did the cops fire a single shot towards those rampaging mobs? Even our then big talking Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake did nothing.

Police had been always bumming those in power and this was a practice coming down from the colonial period. They were no angels prior to ‘77.

Whatever the shortcomings of President Wijetunga, he should receive the kudos for refusing to fix the election against Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in 1994. Normally the UNP was famous for stealing elections up to then.

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Midweek Review

The Curtain Falls

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By Lynn Ockersz

Battered by ghoulish violence,

The towering citadel of democracy,

Stands desolate and forlorn,

Its glow dramatically dulled,

Its iconic status seriously in doubt,

And the realization dawns fast,

That a ruling idea has come crashing down.

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Midweek Review

Artistic mitigation of viral impact on education

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PATOC 2020: Performing Arts in the Time of Corona

This international conference further created a platform for many administrators and policymakers to discuss and debate how to facilitate and develop infrastructure allowing for a better online learning experience. It also allowed academics to reconsider how Covid-19 has altered teaching, learning, and assessment methods, and how technology has intervened in the teaching and learning experience. In general, a majority of academics and researchers are still not in a position decide whether the changes happening in academic spheres and the intervention of technology to deliver subject content are to be fully accepted.

 

By Saumya Liyanage and Nipuni Sharada Pathirage

According to a recent report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), after more than twelve months of battling the pandemic, more than 75 million people worldwide have been infected by the coronavirus while 1.6 million deaths have been reported worldwide (Who.int, 2019). In late 2019, coronavirus was first found in the Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China and within a short period, it spread rapidly around the globe, hampering human interactions and mobility. Economic, political, and social activities have slowed down, and many cities, townships, and regional areas have been isolated.

Numerous political, economic and social issues have cropped up during this health crisis (Liyanage, 2020a, Liyanage, 2020b), and the education sector is paralyded (Kaufman, Brodeur and McGlone, 2020, Asia Society, 2020). For the last twelve months, teaching in schools and universities in Sri Lanka has been affected and online learning and teaching activities have been introduced. In order to sustain undergraduate education, universities have introduced online learning platforms to engage with their teaching, learning, and assessment activities. Students are also engaging in e-learning modes and academic activities, weekly meetings, lectures, conferences, and even symposia are also being transformed into online and virtual. The face-to-face engagement and tangibility of human interactions in performing arts education are becoming scarce.

 

Performing Arts and the Pandemic

The University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) is the only university in the country dedicated to undergraduate and postgraduate studies in music, dance, drama, and visual arts. The UVPA has also been affected by Covid-19 pandemic measures, and the health emergency adversely impacted the undergraduate activities in four Faculties of the University. It has particularly disrupted the teacher-disciple engagement, which is essential for learning performing arts. Live corporeal presence in performing arts learning has been altered by virtual bodily presence. These virtual bodies are accompanied by amplified human voices mixed with ambience generated through online technologies. Continual disruptions to the Internet, time lapses between the teacher and student, ambiguity of virtual presence, monologic narratives, narcissistic embarrassments, and the gaze of the ‘Other’ are becoming norms in the ‘new normalcy’ of the world.

As a premiere institution for performing arts education in Sri Lanka, UVPA has been forced to deliver subject content through online platforms. Offering university education, especially performing arts, through distance learning is still a contested and provocative idea among academics and students (Simamora, 2020). While some academics argue that the only solution to continue undergraduate education during pandemic restriction is to introduce online platforms, others are still not convinced that these online platforms could be a wiser solution to the ongoing crisis of performing arts education. However, with the advent of the pandemic and its impact upon ongoing learning activities in Universities, research on delivering performing arts through online modes such as Zoom conferencing, Learning Management Systems (LMS), Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams have become a key topic for many research papers published (Demuyakor, 2020, DeWitt et al., 2013, Kindelan, 2010, Simamora, 2020). These discussions undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing debate about online learning and virtual experience in performing arts education in the higher education sector. The culmination of this debate at the UVPA Colombo was the two-day international conference organized by the Faculty of Dance and Drama, which took place on the 21st and 22nd of December via Zoom technology.

 

PATOC 2020

Facing daily pandemic measures and also converting and continuing traditional performing arts pedagogy on an online platform was a novel but challenging task for academics at the Faculty of Dance and Drama at UVPA Colombo. The methods of distance learning and technology were relatively new to both academics and students of the Faculty. During the first wave of the pandemic, academics attended workshops and seminars to identify the capacity of distance learning and exploring new methods and strategies of delivering performing arts content online. In this context, the Dean of the Faculty of Dance and Drama, Dr Indika Ferdinando came up with the idea of an online international conference to discuss and debate on various aspects of e-learning and performance practice. The action team of the conference and the Faculty web committee decided to use this opportunity as a space for discussing the impact of Covid-19 on performing arts education and practice particularly in Sri Lankan universities and explore how other stakeholders and institutions are grappling with the current situation.

The theme of the conference was Performing Arts in the Time of Corona: The Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on Performing Arts education and practice (PATOC). The PATOC International conference invited practitioners, academics, students, and researchers all over the world to present their abstracts on the theme. The online conference commenced on 21 December 2020 with Dr Indika Ferdinando delivering the welcome speech and spelling out the objectives of the event. The chief guest of the conference, the Vice-Chancellor of UVPA, Senior Professor Rohana P. Mahaliayanaarachchi delivered the inaugural speech about the therapeutic value of performing arts. There were three keynote speeches on both days: Prof. William Peterson from Flinders University, Kalakeerthi Ravibandhu Vidyapathy and Professor Adrian McNeil from Monash University delivered their keynote speeches. The first event of the PATOC conference was the keynote by Prof. William Peterson from Flinders University, South Australia and this session was chaired by Prof. Saumya Liyanage. Prof. Peterson discussed how a group of artists challenges the codependency of Covid-19 and suggests new ways of living, and practices creative arts in this pandemic time. The afternoon session of the day started with the keynote speech of one of the eminent dance practitioners and artists in Sri Lanka, Ravibandhu Vidyapathy, who suggested that dance practitioners should move to open spaces, use basic technical devices to create minimalist dance that glorify the aesthetics of artistically extended human movements and celebrate the dance art. This keynote session was chaired by Dr Anasuya Subasinghe. The second day of the conference started with another keynote speech delivered by Prof. Adrian McNeil from Monash University, Australia. This keynote session was chaired by Dr Priyeshni Peiris. Prof. McNeil discussed the impact of Covid-19 on the music industry considering two music festivals: St. Kilda Festival in Melbourne and the Swar Samrat Festival in Kolkata. Taking them as case studies, he concluded that universities have responsibilities to sustain and practice diverse musical heritages and find ways to cope with social and natural catastrophes.

Each day was designed with two parallel sessions consisting of blind-reviewed papers selected by a group of academics. Eight-minute-long PowerPoint presentations were recorded by researchers, and during the sessions the technical staff played them to avoid technical interruptions. There was a five-minute online Q&A session after each presentation and the presenter was asked to be online at this point to respond to the comments and questions for the presentation. To conclude the two-day online conference, a panel discussion was organised and it was chaired by Prof. Saumya Liyanage. The theme of the discussion was ‘Potential alternative modes of practicing and teaching performing arts during the pandemic’. Prof. William Peterson, Professor Adrian McNeil, Dr Or Kittikong and Dr. Chinthaka Maddegoda presented as panelists. Approximately 140 participants were registered for both days of the conference.

For two days, academics, practitioners, postgraduate students and undergraduates from various institutions in the country and abroad shared their thoughts and research findings at the PATOC conference. Some quantitative research was presented at the conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on performing arts education, as well as the perspectives of academics and students on teaching-learning performing arts through online methods. Most of the papers asserted that physical distancing had affected the traditional systems of performing arts education and practice. Also these papers concluded that there are limitations of sustaining the collectiveness and the liveness of performing arts when delivering content through online modes. Some papers came up with innovative ideas to overcome these challenges. For instance a group of researchers introduced effective ways of using video materials and sound technology in performing arts education though the general conception of online technology was negative. While some papers emphasised the value and importance of embracing the new digital technology and virtual performance to sustain the industry, some researchers promoted solo performances as a new way of skill development in performing arts learning.

The role of performing arts as a medium of promoting social awareness, or as a therapy and tool for developing mental stability and reducing phobias during the pandemic were some of the key points shared. Researchers in general implied that performing arts educators and practitioners needed to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and to think out of the box to design alternative modes and practice.

Prof. Peterson at the final plenary session discussed the current crisis of arts and cultural studies in major universities in Australia and the challenges they faced in restructuring departments and reviewing existing theatre music and dance studies. It was evident that it is not only the pandemic that has challenged the existing performing arts education and industry but other socio-political forces are also in place to destabilise the sustainable progression of performing arts education. Dr Chinthaka Maddegoda, an academic working at the Faculty of Music further explored the pandemic situation and current declining gurukul or gharana traditions in teaching performing arts.

Dr Maddegoda emphasised that the current health crisis had created opportunities to liberate traditional teacher-centered learning, and opened up democratic spaces. Prof. Adrian McNeil raised several vital questions related to the declining cultural economy by comparing two global cultural venues namely Calcutta and Melbourne, Australia. As Prof. McNeil further argued, with the new normality, the reconfiguration of cultural practices and their discursive implications and reconfiguration of the idea of aesthetics in the new era of performing arts should also be revisited and reconsidered. Dr Or Kittikong from Khon Kaen University, Thailand, further discussed the limitations and also opportunities in teaching performing arts during corona pandemic measures. Her main concern was the issues pertaining to the failure of co-presence of student-teacher conundrum in the classroom setting. With governments imposing measures to maintain social distancing and other health rituals, performing arts teaching and performance practices are becoming social taboos. Some of the vital elements in performing arts such as collaborating, engaging, creating, communication, critiquing, and enacting are becoming alienated concepts.

 

Conclusion

The PATOC 2020, Performing Arts in the Time of Corona, online international conference brought various artistes, practitioners, scholars, and students who are currently working, studying, and conducting research on performing arts and its related disciplines into a single forum where they share their stories in the time of a pandemic. This international conference further created a platform for many administrators and policymakers to discuss and debate about how to facilitate and develop infrastructure allowing for a better online learning experience. It allowed academics to reconsider how Covid-19 has altered teaching, learning, and assessment methods, and how technology has intervened in the teaching and learning experience. In general, a majority of academics and researchers are still not in a position decide whether the changes happening in academic spheres and the intervention of technology to deliver subject content are to be fully accepted. However, with the pandemic situation and the lack of physical presence of students and teachers in the university premises, alternative e-learning is the only way to continue performing arts education and practice. Yet, it is worthwhile to note that the corporeal presence and its on-site contact with the audience are still vital elements for a successful development of the discipline.

 

Acknowledgements

The authors of this article wish to acknowledge the Vice Chancellor Senior Professor Rohana P. Mahaliyanaarachchi, the Dean, Faculty of Dance and Drama, Dr Indika Ferdinando, the PATOC 2020 conference committee members. Further, the authors wish to thank Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Seneviratne for proofreading this paper.

About authors: Prof. Saumya Liyanage is an actor and academic currently working as a Professor in theatre and drama, Faculty of Dance and Drama, UVPA, Colombo. Nipuni Sharada Pathirage is an actress and academic currently working as a probationary lecturer attached to the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Modern Dance, UVPA Colombo.

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