"We had to witness at first cultural genocide and then all out genocide"

Rani Moorthy, Tamil Sri Lankan actress, discusses cultural dislocation, civil war, and her new one w

Rani Moorthy.
Rani Moorthy.

What impact did the civil war and the subsequent defeat of the LTTE have on the Tamil diaspora?

For those of us who did not grow up in Sri Lanka and especially did not grow up during the war, being displaced and bearing witness to the death and devastation has always been a complicated mix of emotions.  Being a pacifist, I could not understand the relentless fighting force that the LTTE cadres evolved into. Intellectually and politically however, I could empathise with the feeling that lives and the entire Tamil culture was being threatened by hatred. We had to witness at first cultural genocide and then all out genocide. In the end you  feel grief and mourning and this has made way to a feeling of a deep sense of injustice at how Tamil civilians were exposed to the most horrific atrocities from both sides and the virtual silence of the international community. That is particularly chilling.

One thing the play examines is the survival of Tamil culture in Sri Lankan life. Do you worry about that?

I have a profound sense that you cannot really comprehend what you have lost until it feels utterly gone.

I was invited by the British Council in 2003 to tour my one-woman show Pooja in Sri Lanka, including taking it to Jaffna and Batticaloa in the North of the island. The play was quite critical of aspects of Tamil life such as Hindu dogma, intergenerational clashes, the caste system and the position of women. Meeting young Tamils who had only known war was enlightening because they seemed free of the rituals that I had to undergo. The experience forced me to examine how only the mawkish, dogmatic and superficial aspects of Tamil culture thrive outside Sri Lanka.

There is a real sense that for a long time, within Sri Lanka itself Tamil culture was slowly eroding due to some of the policies that really caused some Tamils to turn to violence. The whole need for a separate state was due to the many threats to a very ancient and proud culture.

We who grew up outside Sri Lanka felt that there was an almost desperate need to hold on to our Tamilness. I used to resent my family saying everything was better in Jaffna - my grandmother till her dying day wanted to go back. We create mini Sri Lanka's everywhere, and yet I feel the anchor was firmly back in our villages and towns- where our people came from.

I remember the impact of the burning of the Jaffna Library on my family and in many ways we mourned the loss of tens of thousands of unique works of literature that cannot be replaced. Not only was it a tragic event but it cut into the heart of the deeply entrenched importance placed in knowledge and on learning.

As a Tamil growing up in Malaysia, my attachment and connection to the homeland was through food and story telling. The stories are so vivid and strong forces in my life that I cannot help but express them through my work. In my family the equivalent of the Sunday roast was a large family gathering to eat kool, a stew that by definition has to be shared, ingredients brought back from visits to Sri Lanka and now imported to all parts of the world. My uncle, when I was a child, said kool was our version of Hungarian goulash.

In 2009, I was in Budapest during the final days of the final conflict which ended the war, I watched the scenes of utter suffering and went to have Hungarian goulash and the tears just fell into the bowl. It catches you and you realise that true culture is part of your DNA, the sum total of memory, layers and layers of story that come at you in waves. The tastes, the strains of a Hindu dirge, a whiff of strong Ceylon tea all transport you to that sense of connection.

Channel 4 recently showed a second documentary on atrocities committed during the Sri Lankan civil war. What is your view on that?

The documentary highlighted for me how systematically the instruments of hate were used, how the people who should protect the rights of all people turned away and let the Sri Lankan government reach the final solution. But the most brutal blow of all is the lack of political will to bring the perpetrators to justice. Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation which purports to document the last days of the war in order to forge a peaceful future for all Sri Lankans, is a hollow and empty promise in the light of how Tamil civilians were treated and are being treated with the militarisation of the North.

My fear is how little it takes to forget.

Is drama useful for effecting political change, or just for exploring ideas?

I went into theatre because I was afraid I would not be heard, that I would be lost, and from a fear of being ignored. I set up my theatre company Rasa based in Manchester in 1998.

Growing up as a minority, I literally had to tick a box that said OTHER in Malaysia if I wanted to be identified as Sri Lankan Tamil. Experiencing race riots in Malaysia in 1969, when neighbours turned against each other, made me profoundly aware that I cannot just make art for pleasure (although that can be a happy outcome) and I am always motivated by the sense of art being a warning, an antidote to ignorance and apathy. I have known firsthand the price we pay for just being blinkered by the apparently safe world. I grew up under the shadow of Vietnam and in Malaysia and Singapore, art and artists are closely watched for approaching ‘sensitive issues’ and the Internal Security Act is not too far from our consciousness. So being political is a default mode. I do not have to dwell on it, but it is part of the ether in a Rani Moorthy experience.

I chose to do Looking for Kool in non-conventional spaces, in this case the underground labyrinth beneath the Royal Festival Hall, because I could not bear the idea of an audience sitting comfortably watching something that some may feel does not affect them at all. Theatre must always be a communal experience and I like to take that further. But part of my drive in theatre is to find the connective tissue between everyday people and the big issues in life and really examine and mine that emotional landscape - hopefully with humour and humanity.

Why did you decide to do a one woman play?

Looking for Kool is my attempt to really explore one woman’s experience through the pre-war, war and post-war contexts in Sri Lanka and how her one life impacts on so many members of her diasporic family. Mrs U is irreverent and funny and lives underground as a defiant act of rebellion. She spurns any attempt by her family to get her to London or Toronto or Sydney for a safe life. Mrs U is a kind of Kafkaesque everyman whose observations and memories bring the impact of war and genocide closer to the audience. One story is the strongest way, I felt, to reflect a catastrophic context. And yet she is not defined by war but by her humanness, her need to feel like a woman, her need to cook kool and feed people, her commitment to life when she could easily let the vagaries of war get to her.

In Looking for Kool, I play not only Mrs U, but also her Malaysian nephew, her British granddaughter, and her rapper star Canadian granddaughter. I enjoy the transformative nature of the one-person show. I am making both obvious but also more subtle connections with each character linked by Mrs U. It is a challenge for me as well as the audience, as war tourists they are complicit in the story telling.

A last anecdote as to how inter-connected things are on so many levels. When I was in Sri Lanka touring the one-woman show Pooja, an old relative of mine came up to me after the show and said, ‘You have your great-grandfather’s gift’. He was a famous actor and toured widely doing one man shows enacting scenes from the great epics. This was kept as a family secret and I somehow found my way into doing what he did. It’s in the DNA.

Rani Moorthy performs in Rasa: Looking for Kool as part of Alchemy-Southbank Centre’s festival of music, dance, literature and culture from India, the UK and South Asia. Thursday 12 April 2012 - Sunday 22 April 2012, Boiler Room, Southbank Centre. £10 tickets (concessions available)

Also Join Rani Moorthy and guest speakers; international human rights campaigner Paul Murphy MEP; former BBC foreign correspondent Sri Lanka, Frances Harrison and T U Senan international coordinator of Tamil Solidarity for Symposium: Sri Lanka, the aftermath. Friday 20th April, Level 3 Function Room. Ticket Office:  0844 847 9910  www.southbankcentre.co.uk.