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  • Staging War:Performing Bharata Natyam in Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • Ahalya Satkunaratnam (bio)

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Since Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, ethnically marked political parties have struggled over power, fostering nationalism and communalism1 within their constituencies, and provoking the civil war that continued for almost thirty years (Jayawardena and de Alwis 1996). Although the official warring parties, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam2 (LTTE)—ethnically Tamil—and the Government of Sri Lanka—predominantly ethnically Sinhala—entered a Ceasefire Agreement in 2001, hostilities resurfaced in 2005 (Bose 2007, 53-4). In 2007, Bharata Natyam performances throughout Sri Lanka's major city of Colombo addressed the twenty-six-year civil conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government, which significantly escalated that year. As the animosity grew on and off the battlefield, civilians were continuously affected by the economic hardships of a stifling war economy3 and by random acts of terror, including bombings and abductions, for which neither warring parties took responsibility. 4 The war was declared over in May 2009 with the killing of the LTTE leadership in the country, but it has been argued that both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army caused severe civilian causalities (Ethirajan 2009; New York Times 2009). Over this period, tens of thousands were killed, several thousand went missing, and hundreds of thousands sought refuge in Europe, North America, India, and Australia (Zolberg, Suhrke & Aguayo 1989).5

Sri Lanka is historically, to borrow the term from Neluka Silva (2002), a "hybrid island"—a placewith a complex history where several cultures and people converge. The island is rich with linguistic, religious, and ethnic diversity. The Sinhalas are the largest ethnic group; they speak the Sinhala language and are primarily Buddhist, although there is a strong and established presence of Christians as well. Tamils, the second largest ethnic group, speak Tamil and are predominantly Hindu, but there is also a significant and longstanding Christian Tamil minority. Other ethnic groups include Muslims and Burghers, or Sri Lankans of European descent. Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese (1505-1658), the Dutch (1658-1796), and the British (1815-1948). Although ethnic distinctions were less rigid in precolonial times, as with many nations colonized by European powers, identity has become a divisive marker, infiltrating and dividing people by language, religion, and culture.6

The Tamil and Sinhala people share a country and a vast history but have been, through the ages, "created" as distinct.7 And at the heart of the contemporary ethnic conflict is a belief in "the [End Page 81] existence of cultural and ethnic purity, and a concomitant fear of mixing and borrowing" (Silva 2002, i). Thus, there is a "historically constructed nature of identities of Sinhalese8 and Tamil peoples in modern times," forging the creation of ethnic difference in Sri Lanka while overlooking the commonalities between the Sinhala and Tamil peoples (Guneratne 2002, 37). As ethnic identity continues to be meaningful in the context of Sri Lanka's civil conflict, the ways in which cultural practice intersects with ethnic identification remains significant as dance and culture continue to be labeled ethnically for political and personal reasons.

In the midst of the escalating civil conflict, in 2007, dancing Bharata Natyam became a political act in an increasingly militarized city marked with armed checkpoints, massive walls, cordoned neighborhoods, and mysterious kidnappings.9 In a climate that not only silenced citizens from discussing the war in public but induced wariness of public gatherings, Tamil Bharata Natyam choreographers (all of whom were women) pursued their dance form, searching for performance venues and staging material that had contemporary significance. On the battlefields of stage and screen, nationalist images of nation and ethnicity jostled for power, and at other times, the very boundaries of ethnicity were complicated through the advancement of hybrid10 ethnic and religious experiences that complicated the boundaries of ethnicity. Mirroring the complexity of the ethnically marked civil war that was gripping the island and its ethnically diverse major city, these danced pieces offered strategies for staging multiply signified performance within and across the ethnic compositions of the bodies dancing and watching. Exploring...


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