My first introduction to Bertolt Brecht was through the Sinhala adaptation of his play “Caucasian Chalk Circle” by renowned, respected and award winning Sinhala playwright and producer, late Henry Jayasena.
That was way back in 1970. I was once again invited to sit in the audience to watch the same play when “Janakaraliya” a very versatile, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural young group of performing artistes led by reputed, award winning creative artiste Parakrama Niriella, reproduced “Caucasian Chalk Circle” in Sinhala. That was late December, in 2013 before they left for the international drama festival in Kerala. This novel Sinhala version by Janakaraliya was based on Jayasena’s translation of the “Caucasian Chalk Circle”, but given a bit more political flavour.
On 22 July, the Janakaraliya mobile theatre ensemble performed its new version of the “Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the Veerasingham Hall, Jaffna to an exclusively Tamil audience. This time it was a Tamil adaptation of Brecht’s play titled “Venkatti Vattam” co-directed by Niriella and K. Rathidaran.
This was the first Sri Lankan Tamil adaptation of Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”. It was performed for the second time at the Visual and Performing Arts University in Colombo, on 25 July evening. It was a mixed audience. It was very much wonderfully youthful. It was also attended by the Colombo Tamil middle class. After two hours and 25 minutes of pin-drop silence in the audience, there broke out a loud and rhythmic clapping with the lights coming on.
Then came cheerful whistling and applause. Louder with every member of the caste coming on stage to greet the audience. It was an aura of delight and pleasure all around and I have not seen such exuberance in a theatre audience for many decades.
What prompted such spontaneous applause, is what I am trying to understand here, in my own way.
The tree productions, spanning a period of 46 years certainly have their contextual differences in understanding an “armed conflict”, a war.
In 1967 when Henry Jayasena set his hands on Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”, none in then “Ceylon” had any idea of what an armed conflict is and how life in such armed conflict would be. None had experienced “anarchy” where the State goes under new authority that cannot command total power over every part of the land. Where the rulers, legitimate or not, cannot enforce law and order.
Ceylon was merely getting dragged with day to day issues; cost of living and unemployment, the biggest issues. Politically, the only conflict was in how the Tamil people could be allowed to share power as equal citizens and that was not what the majority of the people were grieving about.
This left Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle as pure fiction, Jayasena could retell on stage as an entertaining folklore. The language thus used was very soft and literary, very musical and nuanced to keep the audience “entertained”. The audience was not taken through travails of a society that demanded justice outside a corrupt and thieving Governor in “Grusinia” appointed by the Persians.
That wasn’t Jayasena’s dramatic intention. His whole adaptation of Caucasian Chalk Circle, as with his own interpretation of the Sinhala folk story “Kuveni” in 1963 that brought her to a modern Court of Justice, revolved around the issue of social justice to the child (Prince Michael) and the “rightful” mother (Grusha). The disputed ownership of the child in a “chalk circle” and the maverick Azdak as a “people’s judge” was what Jayasena loved most to be dramatisedon stage. It wasn’t therefore what Bertolt Brecht had written as Caucasian Chalk Circle. It did not carry that human tragedy under a usurping ruler against whom the people revolted.
After over 400 stage performances of the original Sinhala adaptation, when Niriella re-produced Jayasena’s Chalk Circle, Niriella had lived through the ‘71 and 1988 – 90 JVP insurgencies and the brutal ethnic war that drastically changed Sinhala perceptions on human rights, democracy, civil liberties and in turn brutalised human decency and social life.
He was thus prompted to stitch those experiences into Jayasena’s script of Chalk Circle, he wasn’t going to change. Therefore, Niriella’s version of the Sinhala Chalk Circle had its war effects, the heavily brutalised life in anarchy, mostly brought out with stage effects and in few changes to dialogue. On stage it was more heavy and robust than Jayasena’s. It was also loud and harsh in language with music that added weight to what unfolded on stage.
Yet, it wasn’t near enough to Brecht’s version of the Caucasian Chalk Circle. Obviously, Niriella like those sensitive minds in Sinhala South, was only a serious observer of what unfolded as war and the brutalising of society as seen from the South of the barricade and not one who actually lived through pain of war. Therein lies the difference in this Tamil version that comes after the savage conclusion of the war on the banks of Mullivaikkal in 2009 May after over 26 years of armed conflict.
This Tamil translation of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle is by Jaffna based veteran Tamil dramatist M. Shanmugalingam. I came to know Shanmugalingam more popularly known as “Kuzhanthai” through translation of three of his plays into English by poet Sopa Pathmanathan.
Dramatist Shanmugalingam, I found had the knack to read through ordinary life in conflict, as captured in his play, “Enthayum Thayum” written after the Vadamaraachchi attack and its displacements. In fact, Jaffna lived through armed conflict for more than 26 years with the first political murder of its Mayor Duraiyappa in July 1975. For Shanmugalingam therefore, reading the original version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle would have been as agonising and revealing as reading the events of the last few years of the Vanni war. He thus stood more sensitive than any Sinhala playwright to handle the translation of Brecht’s Chalk Circle and he proves it in every line that comes on stage.
With my very little understanding of spoken Tamil, what stood out strong for me was the political reading that the Tamil production brings out on stage. Unlike the two Sinhala stage versions, this Tamil version is “conflict” driven. It gives the audience the bitterness of human tragedy in a conflict.
The displacement of human life and the utter desperate haste to find refuge and safety. Scarcity of human decency, in terms of economic life, rule of law and failing morals.
The uncertainty in life the absence of authority in society allows to rule the day. And then human bondage that struggles to find respect with people, who dream of a peaceful future.
All of it in this Tamil version, was what any Sri Lankan Tamil could feel and be emotionally moved, having lived through a bloody and brutal war.
With Shanmugalingam’s very honest translation of Brecht’s Chalk Circle, this production co-directed by Niriella and Rathidaran, has thus done more justice to Brecht than what the two previous Sinhala productions could do.
The added strength of this production was the hard and powerful portrayal of characters like Azdak, Grusha, Simon Chachava and the lead singer to whom everyone else on and off stage add their worth.
All that said and done, what I missed in this Tamil production too is the political link that Bertolt Brecht makes with clear rationality between “ownership” and “right to ownership”. The link he forges on “right” to ownership and actual “possession”.
This issue is raised by Brecht in introducing the play on stage and in concluding the play on stage. Yet in all three productions, two earlier Sinhala and this Tamil production, what comes out is the right to possession as articulated through the child and not through land. In fact, my reading of Brecht’s Chalk Circle tells me, his Chalk Circle and the child within it is so formulated to establish the fact that land belongs to the ancestral people, who cared for the land, the issue he presents to begin his play.
I would thus conclude this short essay by quoting direct from the old English translation of Bertolt Brecht’s script (1944) that argues the case for rightful possession of land.
This dialogue in Scene I, is set in a war torn Caucasian village. Members of two “Kolkhoz”, collective farms from two valleys keep arguing about who should own the land and what should be farmed there.
An “Expert” from the State reconstruction commission from the “capital” moderates the discussion, using his authority as an official from the ruling regime.
The old peasant seated on the right – “It is not perfect. It’s barely middling. The new pasture is no good, whatever the young folks may say. I say we can’t live there. It doesn’t even smell like morning, in the morning.”
The Expert – “Let them laugh. They know what you mean. Comrades, why does a man love his home country? Because the bread tastes better, the sky is higher, the air is spicier, voices ring out more clearly, the ground is softer to walk on. Am I right?”
The old peasant seated on the right – “The valley has always belonged to us”.
It’s on that same logic that Azdak decides possession of Prince Michael. He had belonged to Grusha right through the hardest period of life and Grusha is who cared for him with affection.
This connection, this political argument still goes missing even in “Venkatti Vattam” If my little Tamil allowed me enough understanding of the play that the Janakaraliya team, Niriella, Shanmugalingam and Rathidaran teams up to bring on stage. A play even non-Tamils should sit through watching.
Easily, an evening of rich entertainment.