Selvaraj Leelawathi a young Tamil woman from the hill country of Sri Lanka, met Ronika Chamalee, a Sinhalese woman, for the first time in 2004, through Janakaraliya - a Sri Lankan theatre group. Both were recruited as team members of the mobile theatre group. At that time, neither of them was able to speak the other’s language, speaking only Tamil and Sinhala respectively. They have come a long way from where they were when they joined and today, they are co-directing the first Tamil play to represent Sri Lanka at an international theatre festival, together with their multi-ethnic crew.
Janakaraliya has been working for a culture of peace at the community level in Sri Lanka for almost a decade as a mobile theatre group. Its crew is recruited from groups whose voices are farthest away from the political debates that are going on in the centre, coming from distant areas to the capital. The often monolingual team members come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Once they join Janakaraliya, they live, learn and perform together as a family. In this process, they model coexistence to their audience and beyond
For the first time, a Tamil play co-directed by Tamil and Sinhalese directors is representing Sri Lanka at an international festival. The play, ‘Payanihal’ (passengers), was originally written in Sinahlese by the director Dharmasena Pathiraja. Rasaiah Lohanandan, another Tamil member of the Janakaraliya team who joined as a monolingual but achieved fluency in both Sinhala and Tamil through his journey with Janakaraliya, translated the play for Selvaraj Leelawathi and Ronika Chamalee. The cast and the credits list are also multi-ethnic, as is often the case with Janakaraliya. The play will be performed at the Delhi International Drama Festival organised by the National School of Drama on the 8-22 January 2012.
It is not a surprise that Janakaraliya is the group to take this inaugural step: it has a track record of winning awards at the national drama festival over the past few years. In the 2009 and 2010 National Drama festivals, Ronika Chamalee was awarded the best actress and best supporting actress while Selaraj Leelawathie was selected for the Best Makeup and Best Stage Management awards.
Janakaraliya carefully avoids the pitfall into which many 'Peace through Arts' initiatives fall: that of sacrificing the artistic quality for the political statement. The philosophy of peace behind Janakaraliya has become complementary to its aesthetic quality, adding value to it. Thus, the inter-communal coexistence and cultural sharing that takes place through Janakaraliya succeeds in winning acclaim while making its voice for peace to be heard in increasingly large circles, opening up a path towards a shared Sri Lankan culture.