n Tamil theatre, director Kumaran Valavan’s play Land of Ashes, the ethnic conflict that rocked north and east Sri Lanka and coastal Tamil Nadu for two decades becomes a leitmotif—but only by suggestion. Though all the signs and symbols of war are all around you while watching the play, the conflict per se doesn’t find direct mention. In turn, you have the mise en scene of conflict lit up by testimonies of those who suffered during the strife. Interposed in all this are the melancholy verses of sixth-century Tamil poet Karaikal Ammaiyar. The disjointed nature of the poetry provides another backdrop for the contemporary action. Mythology and monologues form the narrative of the play. Out of the darkness, within the duration of one night, phantoms appear from the nether world, musing and reliving a few moments from the lives that they used to live before life was brutally snatched away from them.
“This is a mood play,” says Cordis Paldano, the lead actor. “Though the Tamil conflict ended in the middle of 2009, the consequences of the war are very evident amidst those who suffered or were witnesses to others’ suffering. That forms the crux of the play,” he says. Land of Ashes is largely in English, with Tamil verses and expressions “that could not be translated” remaining in the original.
“It’s a deliberately non-linear way of treating the subject,” says Valavan. “The play emerged over watching, reading and speaking to those who were caught in the conflict. The question we wanted to ask was: What does it mean to have your life and way of life snatched away? What does it mean to have lost what you had?” asserts Paldano. Paldano and Valavan are part of Indianostrum, a French theatre group with an Indian troupe in Puducherry.
Both Paldano and Valavan are quick to assert that the play is non-political. Indeed, the play aims to transcend the pettiness of political grandstanding. Which is why the play doesn’t name the conflict directly. “One of the major lessons from the strife was the disappointing conduct of Tamil political parties across the spectrum,” says Paldano. “What was worse was the usage of the issue to score political brownie points without handling the problems of Tamils who made their way across the Indian Ocean to Tamil Nadu… So this play, for us, is a form of homage to those who suffered and those lives that were not accounted for. More than giving an answer or solution, we wanted to create a play contrary to what is expected. A sort of catharsis to all those who suffered,” he says.
Land of Ashes will run at Ranga Shankara, Bangalore, on 10-11 February.