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Embodied Witnessing: Performance Expressions as Acts of Citizenship within the Sri Lankan Context

Ruhanie Perera

Abstract

This article considers acts of citizenship and the dynamics of witnessing that are negotiated through performance, using as its point of departure the Viratham puja (offering) made by activist Sandya Ekneligoda in January 2022, which, as this article argues, is both an enacted memorial and an act of protest. Analyzed in juxtaposition are also the embodied practices of performance artist Janani Cooray and activist Swasthika Arulingam, which are useful to consider in terms of the articulation of performance as a socially engaged practice and their implications in locating the artist’s/activist’s intentions. Under discussion, the embodied practices analyzed here explore how witnessing takes place through expressions of performance that interpret, enact, and unsettle notions of citizenship by: encountering the materiality of the body in performance that enacts “citizenship” through strategic practices of remembering; the artist’s/activist’s intentions embedded in such embodied practices as performance art, ritual, and song, as read through their distinctive repertoires of staged embodied act(s) that may also be interpreted as acts of citizenship; and the positing of citizenship as a “domain of struggle” that is creatively advanced, where the citizen as subject, as political being, is produced and reproduced through the structures of performance/embodied practice and their material afterlives.

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Introduction

1This research is located in the uncertainties that emerge in relation to enactments of citizenship that are realized through critical, creative processes. Highlighting three illustrations of artistic/activist embodied practices from within the Sri Lankan context, the research draws on the conceptual framing of Engin Isin and Greg M. Nielsen (Isin and Nielsen 2008:2) who contend that advancing acts of citizenship as a theoretical concept makes it possible to consider alternatives for investigating ways of being or becoming a “citizen”. The diverse potentialities of realizing citizenship that is the focus of this research have meant a consideration of the precarity of being a citizen within the specificities of each of the circumstances in discussion, the materiality of the body and its relation to the state, and a chronicling of acts that suggest that the significance of citizenship lies beyond the scope of legal status, engaging practices—social, political, cultural, and symbolic—of making citizens (Isin 2008:17).

2To approach citizenship as a “domain of struggle” is crucial (Isin 2012:10). To explore this in relation to the embodied practices discussed here, where “citizenship is embodied and changed; new forms of togetherness, new strategies to claim rights and new civic roles are tested and rehearsed” (Hildebrandt and Peters 2019:1), enables an inquiry into how we apprehend an “acting subject” (Isin 2012:6), as well as how we consider what constitutes substantive citizenship that unfolds outside of the structures of the state that has conventionally determined the authority and limits of formal citizenship (Isin 2012:5).

3Drawing on this critical framework, the aim of this article is twofold. It seeks to position selected performances/embodied practices from within the Sri Lankan post-war context as producing affective registers through which subjects claim rights and mobilize their bodies in order to actuate strategic practices of remembering as memory activism (Gutman and Wustenberg 2022). It also invites critical thinking around the contextual specificities of the works under discussion in relation to acts of citizenship as negotiated through creative repertoires. The article thus asks to what extent performance/embodied practices might constitute an object of investigation of acts of citizenship, specifically as set within the transitional justice context of Sri Lanka. And, in what ways can the body that comes into political being through acts of citizenship be approached as a site of ongoing transmission of memory and witnessing?

  • 1 A Viratham puja is offered as an appeal to a deity in the form of an invocation. In return, an offe (...)
  • 2 At the time of the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was serving in his bro (...)
  • 3 An estimated 100,000 protestors gathered outside the president’s official residence on the morning (...)

4The point of departure for this article is the ritual of the Viratham puja1 offered by human rights activist Sandya Ekneligoda on January 25, 2022 at the Kali Kovil, Modera in Colombo, in the Western Province of Sri Lanka. On January 24, 2010, her husband Prageeth Ekneligoda, a journalist and political cartoonist, was reported missing. It has since been confirmed that he was abducted on his way home from work, prior to the presidential polls of 2010, during the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Dhawan 2024). Sandya’s journey for justice has been a long and arduous one, this being one of her more recent expressions against the Sri Lankan state apparatus. Following the enactment of this ritual, photographs began circulating on local social-media accounts on X, Facebook, and Instagram. The social-media posts were tagged #Prageeth. The person alleged to be responsible for the disappearance of her husband is former President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa,2 who, just four months after the offering of this Viratham puja, was compelled to submit his resignation following the citizen protests of July 9, 2022.3

5This strategic act of remembrance was documented as a puja (offering). As such, this article approaches the act within the framework of a ritual performance that is located within Sandya Ekneligoda’s activist trajectory that has, over time, seen the utilization of creative strategies and the reconfiguration of ritual as integral to her political being. In her 2013 Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture titled “The law, this violent thing.” Dissident memory and democratic futures, Vasuki Nesiah (2013:13) draws on the play Antigone and, speaking through the protagonist Antigone’s challenge to King Creon (who has forbidden the burial of her brother Polynices, considered an insurgent), she argues that, with the body of Polynices, the right to mourn in public is prohibited. Creon is challenged, not through the structures of grief that is private, but through the execution of the burial that is publicly enacted and witnessed through the absent body. Antigone establishes a space that might be claimed to be “outside rule” and yet integral to her political being. Hers is an act of citizenship as a dissident body occupying “a space of exception that refuses, as a rule, the distinction between … lives that belong and those that do not” as delineated through the state apparatus that she too is a part of.

6Through the abduction, disappearance, and inconclusive trials following the habeas corpus case filed by Sandya in 2010, Prageeth Ekneligoda’s body (if assumed dead) has been denied burial, denied funeral rites, denied a community in mourning. Sandya’s activist practice occurs by remembering him. Her consistent challenge to the state through its public emplacement rests then in what Nesiah (2013:13) describes as the “state of exception”. Sandya’s activism, to follow Nesiah’s line of argument, becomes galvanized not in the private space of grief, but in her performance of public ritual as an act of citizenship. The terms of her citizenship as situated here are delineated through remembrance, and in her refusal that takes exception to the violence of the law.

7The position of dissidence that is framed here resonates with the argument that, “for an act of citizenship to be creative it must arise from a breakdown of our capacity to recognize how we should act while simultaneously responding to its crisis with an invention” (Isin and Nielsen 2008: 4). Creativity, as Isin and Nielsen argue, is premised upon a rupture; this sense of rupture of context is present in the artistic/activist practices set out below, which position the subject in terms of asserting agency, mobility, and legitimacy that informs the approach to reading acts of citizenship, memory, and witnessing. Presented as embodied acts that are situated independently of each other, the analysis of each performance under discussion also considers how they might offer counterpoints to each other through this parallel positioning:

    • 4 The devotion on Pattini-Kannaki and Kali is significant within post-insurrection, post-war Sri Lank (...)

    the Viratham puja offered by Sandya Ekneligoda on January 25, 2022 at the Kali Kovil, Modera in Colombo, in the Western Province of Sri Lanka. This ritual was preceded by the puja (offering) made on January 24, 2022 at the Nawagamuwa Pattini Devalaya, Kaduwala in the Colombo District, Western Province of Sri Lanka. While the Viratham puja offered at the Kali Kovil is the focus here, it is of significance that the female deities Pattini and Kali4 were entreated in this two-day memorial through the enactment of rites relevant to the worship of these deities, as well as the discursive space of the puja (offering) that allows for personal invocations;

    • 5 5 Observed each year (since 2009) on May 18 in the north and northeast of Sri Lanka, the last day o (...)

    the song Hum Dekhenge by Faiz Ahmad Faiz (translated into Tamil by A. Mangai and Ponni Arasu), performed by Swasthika Arulingam who positions herself as a human rights activist/lawyer. In 2022, she was a volunteer representative during the period of the aragalaya/porattam (struggle), advocating for the right of peaceful protest. Her rendition of the song took place at the memorial event held on May 18, 2022 at the protest village at Galle Face in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The significance of this commemorative event lies in its being organized and documented as a public memorial marking Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day5 within the larger environment of the mass protests. In a context of dominant triumphalist state narratives of war that affect the erasure of grief and memory tied to the unfathomable loss of the final days of war and its immediate aftermath (Buthpitiya 2023; Ganguly 2023; ITJP 2024), the memorial event attempted a performative remembrance of those last days, tangentially acknowledging the continuity of the pursuit of justice for the civilian life that was brutally massacred and forcibly disappeared (Ganguly 2023; ITJP 2024); and,

  1. the artwork titled osariya by performance artist Janani Cooray, presented at the Theertha Performance Platform, Colombo, Sri Lanka on March 16, 2015. This was the second iteration of the performance. The first was presented prior to the performance platform and took place at the JDA Gallery in Colombo as part of the exhibition titled SPACE (2015), which was organized by a collective of women visual artists of different generations who graduated from the University of Visual and Performing Arts. The exhibition, scheduled to coincide with the International Women’s Day on March 8, had become an annual art event since 2014 until the Covid lockdown in March 2020. The sculptural work of the osariya that was worn by the artist for the performance and the video documentation of the performance at the Theertha Performance Platform were most recently on display at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka as part of the exhibition “Encounters” in its third rotation from December 8, 2022 to March 19, 2023.

8In setting out a scope for “performance” for the purposes of the arguments made here, this research is informed by two frames of analysis suggested by Diana Taylor (2003:3) in The Archive and Repertoire: Cultural Memory and Performance in the Americas, namely: performance as constituting a) the object/process of analysis in performance studies that includes practices and events—for example, dance, theater, ritual, political rallies, funerals—involving “theatrical, rehearsed, or conventional/event-appropriate behaviors,” and b) “the methodological lens that enables scholars to analyze events as performance”. This framing of performance allows for the consideration of ritual, performance art, and song, discussed here, as embodied practices that offer a critical lens for the work of memory, witnessing, and acts of citizenship, which posits other cultural practices of relevance, such as gendered experiences, practices of ethnicized counter-history making, and intersectional solidarity formations.

9The discussion around the embodied practices focused on in this research situates the performance event, its documentation and circulation online, as a critical site of engagement, allowing for the reading of how subjects are “transformed into claimants of rights over a relatively short period of time through acts that were symbolically and materially constitutive” (Isin 2008:17–18). The structures of witnessing as contingent on the specificities of the event being witnessed are of significance to this discussion given that, as is argued by Ashuri and Pinchevski (2009:133), the ontology of witnessing is dependent on its context, which in turn involves different modalities of witnessing. The photographic/video documentation and online circulation of the performances in discussion—as visual evidence—allow for a consideration of “implicated witnessing” that makes the distinction between spectators and witnessing agents. This positions the artist/activist as an embodied witnessing agent, which also contours an extended body of witnessing agents through the affective register of their creative repertoires in circulation. Memory activism, elaborated on by Yifat Gutman and Jenny Wustenberg (2022:1075), which is concerned with memory as the object and outcome of activism, supports this interpellation of memory and witnessing as they relate to the embodied practices discussed here, and is deeply connected to the consideration of the body of the artist/activist as the memory activist, engaging in strategic acts of remembering/commemoration that, in turn, participate in and contend with discourses of public memory (Gutman and Wustenberg 2022:1071).

10Three iconic photographs of the performances in discussion have been selected for analysis. Video documentation and photographs of the performance on social media as reference images of the extended site of the performance are also included in this research, being essential to the assemblage that makes up the performance event. Social-media platforms are considered here as a source for accessing/retrieving the performance experience, its archival reference, as well as the primary method of data collection for this research. All photographs and video recordings referenced in the essay are public-domain images that have been either shared directly by the artists/activists through their personal social-media accounts for the purposes of this research, specifically with reference to the work of Janani Cooray and its online response, or accessed via social-media platforms through the following public accounts: @EmDeeS11 (public individual account), @MaatramSL (citizen journalism website), and @SRajasegar (public individual account) on X, and the corresponding Instagram accounts @maatram (citizen journalism website), @mari_desilva81 (public individual account), and @rajeshshot (public individual account). In two of the three examples, the Viratham puja and the commemoration of Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, social-media commentary informs this article’s examination of the affective force of the performance.

  • 6 Protesting Bodies and Performing Residues: The Afterlives of Contemporary Performance Art in Sri La (...)

11This method of access, which includes the compilation of both photographs and video documentation when reconstructing a performance, as it concerns the performance event, might be considered a vital encounter with the material afterlives of performance. Sandev Handy and Sharmini Pereira (2022)6 posit that, in the analytical consideration of what they frame as the material afterlives of performance, the documentation of performance constitutes “continuously functioning,” “ideologically active, political, social and cultural actors”. This critical premise points to a shift in both the materiality and contemporary/historical witnessing of performance, and as such its points of reference in terms of the circulation of performance through social media warrant a responsiveness and analysis that must take into consideration how performance might “accomplish a historically situated response from which we might address and craft a cannon of art, and perhaps help us—like it helped those in attendance—to recover or work our way back into a communal memory” (Handy and Pereira, 2022).

12The performances have been selected primarily because of their (re-)emergence in Colombo during the year 2022 as live performance events, performative acts, or documented practices/exhibited works. In a sense, the works present us with a broader context of activism that references political action and artistic interventions within which is embedded a key political event of the aragalaya/porattam (struggle) of 2022, i.e., the resignation of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The works thus punctuate a complex period of political volatility. The presence and continuity of the embodied practices under discussion speaks to a historicity of political being, necessary solidarity formations, claims for legitimacy and justice, and the memory and experience of violence. Isin (2008:27) argues that acts of citizenship that define political being begin as ruptures, they are not reactionary; they are, in effect, beginnings that create the “actor” and enable that actor to remain at the scene. This idea of what it means to remain at the scene seems explicit in the works discussed as the embodied practices of these women artists/activists have demanded endurance. Over time, their staying power has also meant a definitive responsiveness that propels articulations of memory activism that can be discerned and analyzed in their respective artistic/activist trajectories. On reflection then, the relationship between vital artistic interventions and the enactment of political being in post-war Sri Lanka warrants a chronology and a framework for understanding.

Acts of Transfer, Acts of Citizenship

13Writing on performance, Taylor (2003:2) argues that performances function as “vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory and a sense of identity through reiterated behaviors”. This phrasing of the “vital act of transfer” that is rooted in social knowledge, memory, and senses of identity is connected to the framing of the act of citizenship in that, in trying to interpret what precisely constitutes the dynamic of the “vital,” it is possible to hone in on the way in which Engin Isin explores Hannah Arendt’s approach to the practice of citizenship, writing:

the disclosure of ourselves through unpredictable and uncertain actions becomes our way of exercising freedom not as a choice or sovereign will but as a capacity to call something new into being whose outcome is unpredictable. (Isin 2012:116)

14This section builds on artistic/activist practices that have been historically associated with the theater context in Sri Lanka and, since the 1980s, theorized more explicitly in reference to the Sinhala theater performed predominantly in the south of the country. The theatrical and cultural memory embedded here is of significance, given that the embodied practices under discussion have occurred nearly two decades later and yet hold resonance in terms of memory and political being. In her introduction “Guns, Coffins and Existence: Five Sinhala Plays from the 1980s and 1990s,” Kanchuka Dharmasiri (2021:xi) traces the proliferation of theater works produced in Sinhala in 1988/89: 180 plays were produced in 1988 and 136 in 1989, as opposed to 40 plays in 1986 and 23 in 1987. She notes the contextual specificities of events that marked the rupture of the 1980s, impacting the theatrical and cultural memory of the South which produced forms of memory activism carried out through creative means, specifically the anti-Tamil violence in 1983, the initial stages of the 30-year Eelam war, and the second youth insurrection led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna from 1987 to 1989 (2021:xii–xiii). A key factor considered as part of this mapping of the theatrical landscape in relation to political events is the institution of the executive presidency in 1978, and through it, the centralization of power that had a damaging impact on the freedom of speech and the practice of art due to censorship and emergency regulations (De Mel 2021; Dharmasiri 2021; Karunanayake 2020).

  • 7 Yadam (Chains) by Sri Lankan actress, playwright, theater director, and educator Somalatha Subasing (...)

15It is against this environment of violence that Ranjini Obeyesekera (1999) delineates a “permitted space” in the theater of the 1980s, the parameters for which were drawn and redrawn in a climate of political volatility. There existed then tangible possibilities embedded in the practice of theater to navigate power, state-sanctioned violence, and arbitrary censorship mechanisms introduced to regulate the media and the arts (De Mel 2021; Dharmasiri 2021; Karunanayake 2020). Dinithi Karunanayake explores the production of theater within the same timeline and landscape of violence. Her focus, however, is on theater translation as a means of cultural activism and a discursive site where issues of social justice are addressed. Her essay “Global Narratives, Local Realities: Probing Issues of Justice through Theater Translation as Renarration” draws on theater in translation arguing that through translation there is an attempt to intervene in debates concerning issues of justice. Meaning-making is a complex exercise because a source text precedes its translation, addressing an audience situated in the sociocultural fabric embedded within the writing. Yadam (Chains),7 first performed in 1992, was able to go beyond this; the play “addressed a country that had seen violence both from the government and factions supposedly offering political alternatives to mainstream politics(Karunanayake 2020:120). Karunanayake argues that Yadam, as a renarration, “placed theater in the realm of political discourse” (2020:134). In this way, the Sinhala stage became “a controlled outlet for dissent,” although practitioners were conscious of the risks of assembly at rehearsals and performances (De Mel 2021:42).

16The premise of the space of the permitted as identified above relates more directly to works produced within the frame of the proscenium theater. It is possible, however, to reference this practice of the permitted outside of the proscenium. What is significant, however, is that with the embodied practices discussed below, political being is not limited to radical critique, or intervention. The frame of the act of citizenship demands a consideration of how subjects are constituted as “claimants of rights and justice” (Engin 2012:133). There is a precarity then that defines the bodies under discussion differently in terms of their political being and endurance.

Mourning as Embodied Witnessing in the Ritual Offering by Sandya Ekneligoda

Figure 1

Figure 1

Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 25, 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.

17On January 25, 2022, when photographs of what was framed as a Viratham puja were circulating on social media, what was apparent in the electronic and social-media documentation of the event was Sandya Ekneligoda’s consistently stated intention to be a witness to the enforced disappearance of her husband. She stated:

  • 8 This is a text in translation (mine), which draws on the text published under the headline Sandya E (...)

Twelve years ago, my husband was forcefully abducted. From the day he disappeared, twelve years have passed. Today, at a time when this country is steeped in fear, when anxieties about disease have taken over, and people are burning with hunger, I came to Mother Kali to shave my head for my husband. (Sandya Ekneligoda in NewsFirst Sri Lanka 2022)8

18Addressing the media at the conclusion of the puja, Sandya’s utterance takes the form of a testimony. Soshana Felman (1992:5, in Cohen-Cruz and Schutzman 2006:107) argues that testimony constitutes the production of the speech act as “material evidence for truth”. Jan Cohen-Cruz (2006:107) builds on this, suggesting that “testimony contains the notion of answering to the higher power” when made under oath or as a declaration of a spiritual experience. Sandya’s utterance situates her as a witnessing agent who makes the absence through abduction present through her speech, as well as through the performative act of ritual that reaches beyond the institutional structures of justice that she has repeatedly appealed to.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 25, 2022. Source: Maatram, IGTV.

19Two circulating video recordings capture the Viratham puja slightly differently, one on the news channel NewsFirst Sri Lanka,9 and the second on IGTV10 on the Tamil-language citizen journalist platform Maatram. Both capture Sandya wearing a black saree with a red shawl draped over her shoulders. She walks from the shallow water towards the shore, her head shaved completely, her shawl under one arm. Her walk is measured. The next frame reveals the immediacy of the ritual as the eye is directed to the movement of the razor drawn against the scalp. Sandya stands unmoving, her eyes directed outwards.

20In positioning her body in the line of sight of the spectators, she is both the material evidence of and the primary witness to the violence of loss. In invoking Mother Kali, she positions the higher power of her choosing, and in doing so

she is not simply appealing for divine justice or engaging in a personal act of remembering and mourning. Rather, she is critiquing legal justice; interrogating the possibility of justice through formal law in Sri Lanka, engaging in a public act of mourning; and insistently keeping the memory of Prageeth Ekneligoda alive in the public sphere, while transmitting knowledge of his disappearance. (Kodikara 2022)

  • 11 It has been 14 years since Sandya Ekneligoda filed the habeas corpus application. As recorded by Ko (...)

21Chulani Kodikara (2022) has traced Sandya’s legal struggle11 through three successive governments of Sri Lanka in 2010–2015, 2015–2019, and 2019–2022. She connects this journey with Nesiah’s writing on dissidence as connected to political being and, by extension, to an enactment of citizenship through dissent. She thus contends that within the post-war Sri Lankan context where there is denial by the state of all disappearances, which also “constructs soldiers accused of disappearances as heroes of the State and nation,” Sandya can be considered “a subaltern dissident citizen”. Her activist trajectory which has evolved over almost 15 years has encompassed an ongoing practice of remembrance as protest that is vital to democratic process as “a form of social and political life” (Nesiah 2013; Sparks 1997 in Kodikara 2022).

22The Viratham puja, as documented by NewsFirst Sri Lanka, captures the moment of arriving at the water; the long-haired Sandya is accompanied by a female companion who assists in cutting her hair, which Sandya offers to the sea. The full length of hair in an open plastic container is held up by Sandya, her palms open. The devotion embodied in her stance by the water can be contrasted against her activist stance of rejection of a legal system that cannot assure its citizens of justice, as is articulated by her:

  • 12 See note 6 above regarding the translation of this quote.

I have been to every courthouse seeking justice and reparations … I do not trust what happens in the courthouse tomorrow. From the court, I have no expectation of justice. (Sandya Ekneligoda in NewsFirst Sri Lanka 2022)12

23Kodikara makes the critical observation that Sandya has never confined herself to the courthouse. Her appeal for truth and justice has “insistently invoked archetypal feminine figures of tragic loss, grief and mourning as well as rage, rebellion, lamentation, imprecation, and incantation as critical supplements to her struggle” (Kodikara 2022). Sandya’s appeals for justice thus combine the sheer force of her bodily acts, the intention to remember the absent, and the unrelenting public face of her critique of the state and of the legal justice system.

Figure 3a

Figure 3a

Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 25 January 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.

Figure 3b

Figure 3b

Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 25 January 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.

Figure 3c

Figure 3c

Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 25 January 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.

24During the performance, Sandya was surrounded by her sister and brother-in-law, friends, sisters in activism, as well as some who she may not have known but were present at the ritual out of solidarity. This presence is a marker of the reach that Sandya’s appeals for justice have extended over the years, especially through deliberate solidarity formations that have resonances with other locally based protest movements, like that of the Mothers of the Disappeared of Sri Lanka. Sandya’s activism has necessitated the presence of community, one that is shifting but remains committed to her memory and endurance.

25Once completed, the ritual transcended the community gathered in situ. Each new image of Sandya that has circulated since January 2022 has meant that each activist statement/event since then has been informed by the weight of the ritual offering. Two years on, the shaved head of Sandya Ekneligoda endures, being now emblematic of her dissent, her act of citizenship, as she continues with her activism. Of significance are the statements she made as part of the representations advanced by the Journalists for Democracy Sri Lanka at the Permanent People’s Tribunal in The Hague in May 2022 and the 23rd Session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances in September 2022. As the destabilization of the Sri Lankan state unfolded over the course of the year 2022, #Prageeth was evoked across social-media networks as a continuing signifier of a collective demand for justice.

The Activism of Swasthika Arulingam: Positioning the Marginal within the People’s Struggle

Figure 4

Figure 4

Swasthika Arulingam, Galle Face, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 18 May 2022. Photograph by Amalini de Sayrah. Source: X, @EmDeeS11.

26In the morning hours of May 18, 2022, Swasthika Arulingam was part of a community gathering at Galle Face situated in Colombo in the Western Province of Sri Lanka. Amidst the momentum gained by the aragalaya/porattam (struggle), predominantly in Colombo since March 2022, there emerged a resolve to organize a commemorative event marking Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day from within the group of activists driving the momentum of the mass protests, as well as making up the mass of people that occupied the central protest site.

  • 13 On April 12, 2022, the Government of Sri Lanka announced that there would be a temporary suspension (...)
  • 14 In May 2022, the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to submit his resignation, and by July (...)
  • 15 On May 9, 2022, peaceful protestors gathered outside Temple Trees were attacked by pro-government s (...)

27Since April 2022, the site of Galle Face had become synonymous with the aragalaya/porattam (struggle) that emerged as a result of severe shortages of food and energy,13 which would overwhelm the country in the months to come. The political instability rooted in a context of financial insecurity produced a loss of faith in government and governance. As part of the demand for accountability and the larger critique of corruption and wealth amassed by the elected representatives of the people, the mass protests called for the resignations of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (his brother, the former president of Sri Lanka).14 The premise of the struggle was further reinforced with strategic demands that included constitutional reform, the abolition of the executive presidency, and the repealing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), as well as justice for the families of victims of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. On May 9, 2022, the protest village came under attack15 and, as a direct consequence, the struggle gained visibility. The question of a more representative and responsive approach to silences and precarities embedded in the protest site shaped the consciousness of the activist presence at the protest village, specifically with regards to conversations around the political recognition of Tamil sovereignty, which was also a criticism levelled at the protest discourse.

28Albeit small-scale, the marking of Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day at Galle Face acquired visibility through social media, predominantly through X updates and Instagram stories—specifically live broadcasts. There were concerted efforts to mark this as a day of remembrance and mourning in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, despite surveillance by the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces, the destruction and erasure of memorial sites, and the forceful removal of smaller gatherings of grieving and mourning families and communities from memorial events or sites. Thus, in terms of this being counted as a documented public event taking place in the south of Sri Lanka since 2009 to commemorate loss and grief, as opposed to events largely fronting the military and victory narratives that have been circulating in the south of the country since the end of the war, this evidences the emphasis placed on this moment of collective remembering by those assembled.

29Swasthika Arulingam is an activist who does not see herself as an artist. When prompted to speak at the commemorative event, however, her instinct was to counter this by suggesting a song. Accessing the event via social-media channels, specifically on X, through the profile of @EmDeeS11, three moments mark the embodied remembering and collective witnessing at the site: the portioning of kanji (porridge), served out of a large cooking pot into coconut shells, passed from hand to hand, and consumed; those gathered then walked to the water, where they made offerings of jasmine flowers before making their way back; bridging the moment of consuming the kanji (porridge) and walking to the sea was the voice of Swasthika singing Hum Dekhenge by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, translated into Tamil by A. Mangai and Ponni Arasu.

  • 16 On May 18, 2024, the government of Sri Lanka actively used a court order to actively prevent the mo (...)

30The kanji (porridge) was consumed as Swasthika repeated the lines “we shall see a new dawn; we shall see that dawn” with which she intended to activate a remembering of loss that has persisted in and through the denial of the discursive as well as bodily autonomy to mourn which, for example, has been the stance taken by the Mothers of the Disappeared in the north and east of Sri Lanka since 2009.16 The desire to stay connected to the memory work and struggle for justice to which the protest community of the Mothers of the Disappeared is committed informed both the choice of the song and its execution. Taylor (2003:21) writes,

Multiple forms of embodied acts are always present … They reconstitute themselves, transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next. Embodied and performed acts generate, record and transmit knowledge.

31In extending the site and practice of remembering, grief, and mourning embedded in Mullivaikkal since May 2009, a symbolic site of memory was shaped, enabling a fragmented people of the South to assemble in remembrance.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Swasthika Arulingam: Fragment of Saree, Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, Galle Face, Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 18, 2022. Photograph by Amila Udagedara. Source: Instagram, mari_desilva81.

Figure 6

Figure 6

Swasthika Arulingam: Moment of Silence, Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, Galle Face, Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 18, 2022. Photograph by Amila Udagedara. Source: Instagram, mari_desilva81.

32Much of the documentation across social media focuses on the making of the kanji (porridge). Swasthika is thus heard before she is seen. She moves through the crowd while singing, only partially visible. Here, she does not assume the body placed in the line of sight, that which is to be witnessed. She also performs the “place from within to watch what may occur” (Howell 1999:9). Her body thus directs the line of sight through which the witnessing might occur. Hum Dekhenge (“we will see”) traces histories of political resistance. Translated to and sung in Tamil, the song resonates with this act of remembering and witnessing that takes place through the communal eating of kanji (porridge) made with rice and salt water, which recollects the final days of the war. The performance becomes the conduit for encountering memory and its transmission (Taylor 2003:50).

Negotiating Visibility: Janani Cooray’s Socially Engaged Art Practice

33Janani Cooray is a performance artist and art educator based in Colombo. Presented as part of the Theertha Performance Platform in Colombo on March 16, 2015, the concept for the performance of the work osariya originated from an artistic preoccupation with gender roles and conventions of the body in relation to clothing. While she does not frame her work as activism, my consideration of this performance trajectory here reflects on its dynamics as a socially engaged artistic practice. I also focus on how this particular performance might be situated as activism, which is also an uneasy negotiation with political being that the artist experiences, even though it is apparent that her work engages with positions of resistance.

34As is the requirement of many local schools, Janani, as an educator, is expected to wear the saree to work daily. This she does, more specifically, the osariya (six yards of fabric draped in a specific style of saree adopted by women in the Kandyan provinces, which has been evolving from about the 15th century), while also acknowledging the demands of a dress code as an institutional regulatory practice. The historical weight of the osariya has been examined in the context of post-independence dress reform in Sri Lanka by historian Nira Wickremasinghe (2003:16), who observes that within the nationalist ideology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dress reform was informed by gendered approaches to the authenticity of body and clothing, and, by extension, the rejection of hybridity as a by-product of the evolution of clothing during three successive colonial encounters. While the saree was “a morally acceptable dress” because it concealed the body, the reason for choosing the osariya as the national dress was its Kandyan origin. The osariya was seen as “the authentic, unspoiled and ‘pure’ dress of the Sinhalese” (Wickramasinghe 2003:16–17). Janani’s assertion that because one wears the osariya, one automatically comes under scrutiny resonates with this history. For her, the critical questions that inform her performance begin in acknowledging ­these ideological implications.

35In the title of an earlier work, The Proposed Sinhala Bride (2014), Janani refers to arranged marriages; the idea of suitability is also suggested. This performance can be read as a precursor to osariya, drawing on letters from potential suitors received by her mother in response to an advertisement published in the matrimonials section of the weekend newspapers. The performance was her response to the experience of reading what was expressed as expectations of the “ideal bride.”

36In these articulations Janani identified the abstracted desire to “see,” to construct an ideal wife. She reconfigured the conventions of the proposal to speak back, through performance. She stood at the entrance of the J. D. A. Perera Gallery, Colombo for an extended period of time dressed in a white saree, which was draped in the style of an osariya—mimicking bridal attire. On the saree, the artist wrote down in gold all the expectations of a wife as recorded in the letters received by her. In her hands, she held a sheaf of betel leaves. Ordinarily the betel leaves, when extended, signal being welcomed or accepted within a space, social situation, or a relationship. Offered to adults—often parents, older relatives, and teachers—they are also symbolic of respect or deference. In the context of a marriage proposal, they signify assent. Janani would from time to time extend the sheaf of betel leaves as an offering to male visitors at the exhibition, thus steering the circumstances of encounter, dismantling the abstract idealized bride on whose body a multitude of expectations are projected.

37A year later, Janani built the osariya. The external structure was made with barbed wire and aluminum sheets were used to create an inner structure of underskirt and saree blouse. This was displayed in the J. D. A. Perera Gallery after the opening performance when Janani presented this work for the first time in 2015. In this iteration of the performance, Janani only walked within a limited area just outside the gallery space for a specific duration of time, almost receiving audiences coming in. Her concept for the performance at this stage of the evolving work remained connected to the site of the gallery.

Figure 7

Figure 7

Janani Cooray, Theertha Performance Platform, Borella, Colombo, Sri Lanka, March 16, 2015-2017. Source: Theertha International Artists’ Collective Archive, courtesy of the artist.

38Shortly after this iteration of the work, Janani moved the performance to the street, as part of the Theertha Performance Platform. On the street, walking meant a different embodied experience for the artist. On uneven ground, her body was impacted and the barbed wire cut into her skin. When asked why she chose to use the pedestrian crossing and move across the road rendering herself more visible, heightening an already difficult walk, her response has been consistent: in choosing 5pm as the start time of her performance and moving across the road, she would be part of the urban evening traffic. Writing on the “living statuary,” Howell (1999:5) comments, “there is both familiarity and unfamiliarity”. Here, Janani becomes the living statuary that produces the “uncanny effect” through the contradiction of being the living human participating in an urban spatial practice, in the guise of the everyday, while also performing an unfamiliar stillness, even as it manifests through the limited mobility of the structure she is wearing.

  • 17 In her 2015 report titled, Forced Evictions in Colombo: High Rise Living, Iromi Perera contextualiz (...)

39Set within a larger urban context of forced evictions17 and resettlement through vertical housing projects, and demands for spatial justice that deconstruct the myth of the “world-class city” (the tagline for the post-war Colombo city), the horizontality of Janani’s performance, and its repeated stillness of each step that she takes, denies the passing of time. In choosing to participate through this stillness in pedestrian life, she becomes the monument, the memorial. While she does not directly employ the practice of dissidence in relation to the question of justice, she negotiates the terms of her political being, as citizen, through this articulation of “the need to have a plurality of voices and traditions in the public sphere” (Nesiah 2013:20).

40Over the next three years, this performance was drawn into activist narratives and events. While her work has been centrally located within the framework of her body and while her art practice might be approached as a socially engaged one, Janani has never articulated her work as being activist. The criticality presented through this embodied act, however, positions the body of the artist and the materiality of the clothing within a larger political consciousness that is both reflected and produced through her practice.

41The online response to this work has a parallel trajectory: photographic documentation of the work was also co-opted and circulated in the form of a meme on social-media platforms, predominantly on Facebook and WhatsApp. The performance is produced and reproduced online through various anxieties and aggressions that censure the artist, which is indicative of the direct impact on the discursive spaces the artist occupies on social-media platforms, both as an artist and an educator.

Figures 8a, 8b, 8c, and 8d

Figures 8a, 8b, 8c, and 8d

Janani Cooray, Theertha Performance Platform, Borella, Colombo, Sri Lanka, March 16, 2015. Source: Theertha International Artists’ Collective Archive, courtesy of the artist.

42Complaints that were recorded by parents’ groups identify three key factors: the “act” falls outside the remit of the role of “a teacher”; public attention is drawn to her body by design; and the degradation of the “traditional dress” of the Sinhala woman. Janani has also been seen as a “threat” to the teaching profession through her art practice and this work in particular because of its visibility. She has been called on institutionally to present accounts of her artistic practice and has submitted documentation of her performance work, including catalogues of festivals, as well as international residencies she has been a part of as an attempt to legitimize her art practice and her intentions for osariya.

43Osariya engages with the historical meaning invested in clothing, specifically the implications of what has come to constitute the “national dress” embedded within the framework of marriage. Dress reform imposed by the nationalist ideology of post-independent Sri Lanka recognized that the woman had a role to play in the new nation in formation, however, the key signifier of presence and visibility which was “the reformed dress was not invested with the same symbolic meaning contained in the concept of [male] national dress” (Wickremasinghe 2003:16). “The male national dress,” Wickremasinghe explains, “conjured political belonging,” whereas “women embodied the nation” and therefore represented family and home. Through her artistic engagement with its form, structure, material, and materiality, Janani reconfigures the narrative trajectory and symbolic meanings invested in the osariya. In so doing, she becomes a different kind of dissident, undoing what lies at the core of the post-independent ideal woman: the notion of “authenticity”.

Conclusion: Dissidence, Citizenship, and the Activist Trajectories of Embodied Practice

44This article explored acts of citizenship and witnessing through a selection of performances/embodied practices located within the post-war Sri Lankan context. The article thus examined the affective registers through which subjects claimed rights, justice, and legitimacies of memory and creative practice through the structures of performance art/activism. Vasuki Nesiah’s observations of the “disruptive and dissident” identify the bodies of Sandya Ekneligoda, Janani Cooray, and Swasthika Arulingam and their embodied practice as “a direct challenge to the state” (Nesiah 2013:16). She writes,

women’s engagement with the legacies of war echo Antigone’s insistence on a counter hegemonic grief that challenges … efforts to channel war’s aftermath to cement nationalist self-aggrandizement. (Nesiah 2013:16)

45In each of the embodied practices discussed in this research, what can be discerned is that the bodies of Sandya Ekneligoda, Janani Cooray, and Swasthika Arulingam are embedded in the practices of the postcolonial, post-war state/nation, even as their bodies are transformed into an apparatus of signification through the structures of their performances and their respective circulatory trajectories. Each new iteration—Sandya’s annual memorial event that marks the date of her husband’s disappearance at the beginning of each year and her continuing activist trajectory in court and through solidarities formed across the experience of grief and trauma; Janani’s new performance artwork that consistently engages the materiality of her body and its signifying framework, her teaching practice, as well as the online residual discourses and traces of the osariya performance and its aftermath; and Swasthika’s occupation of activist spaces and discourses as a lawyer and human-rights activist—has meant that the body continues to be a direct challenge to the state and institutional structures. Intentionally, and unintentionally, they remain memory activists—their disruptions emanating from the ruptures of their lived experience enact a relationship to citizenship as an act and site of struggle, and an encounter with affective registers and creative repertoires that circulate through and exist in contention with public memory.

46Situated within the Sri Lankan context where the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Prevention of Terrorism Act have been invoked in order to silence and incarcerate artists, these works emerging from the bodies and lived experiences of women artists acknowledge and resonate with the diverse practices of art and resistance that exist in a symbiotic relationship with each other. Given their visibility, the works become emblematic of resilience in a political culture of silencing and censoring that directly impacts the plurality of expression, their continuity with the legacy of the practice of art and resistance in South Asia, as much as it does in the structure of the works itself, which time and time again makes it possible to revisit them in relation to their critique of the world in which they exist.

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Notes

1 A Viratham puja is offered as an appeal to a deity in the form of an invocation. In return, an offering is made and the continuity of this offering is pledged. In her statement to the media following the puja (offering), the goddess Kali was entreated by Sandya Ekneligoda in the name of justice.

2 At the time of the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was serving in his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development (2005–2015). In May 2009, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa oversaw the final stages of the armed conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On July 14, 2022, the International Truth and Justice Project. Sri Lanka and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka made submissions to the Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review (Fourth Cycle) detailing ongoing violations in Sri Lanka from 2009 to 2021 (ITJP-SL and JDS, 2022).

3 An estimated 100,000 protestors gathered outside the president’s official residence on the morning of July 9, 2022 demanding the resignation of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse. By July 15, 2022, his resignation was accepted by Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana, Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka (Parliament of Sri Lanka 2024).

4 The devotion on Pattini-Kannaki and Kali is significant within post-insurrection, post-war Sri Lanka. Writing on Pattini-Kannaki worship, Malathi de Alwis (2021:73) observes that the resurgence of this devotional practice is deeply connected to issues of “justice, retribution, sorrow and suffering that are evoked through devotion” as a means to “re-inhabit the world in the face of continually deferred loss and devastation”.

5 5 Observed each year (since 2009) on May 18 in the north and northeast of Sri Lanka, the last day of the war, Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, commemorates those who died in the final stages of the 30-year civil war between the state forces of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), following a brutal military offensive. Until 2015, public assemblies organized with the intention to remember or memorialize Tamil citizens counted as dead were prohibited by the Sri Lankan state, and as such took place in secrecy, out of the public eye (Buthpitiya 2023:64).

6 Protesting Bodies and Performing Residues: The Afterlives of Contemporary Performance Art in Sri Lanka is co-authored by Sandev Handy (Curator) and Sharmini Pereira (Chief Curator) of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka. This unpublished research was first presented at the conference “Fugitive Forms: Performance in South Asia” organized by the Tate Modern in October 2022.

7 Yadam (Chains) by Sri Lankan actress, playwright, theater director, and educator Somalatha Subasinghe is the Sinhala translation of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo. According to Karunanayake (2020:120), when Yadam was performed in Sri Lanka, “two insurgencies by the JVP had already taken place: the first in 1971 and the second from 1988–1989, referred to in Sri Lanka as the Bheeshana Kaalaya (time of terror) or simply Bheeshanaya (terror)”. She also notes that “the country was also going through the second Eelam war by 1990”.

8 This is a text in translation (mine), which draws on the text published under the headline Sandya Ekneligoda Vows to Continue Fight till Justice Is Served (Video) (accessed on January 26, 2022 at https://lankanewsweb.net/archives/3106/sandya-ekneligoda-vows-to-continue-fight-till-justice-is-served-video/), and the corresponding video documentation by Newsfirst Sri Lanka, In Search of Justice, Sandya Shaves Her Head (accessed on January 25, 2022 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JUvNZmh4qc).

9 Video documentation In Search of Justice, Sandya Shaves Her Head by Newsfirst Sri Lanka accessed on January 25, 2022 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JUvNZmh4qc.

10 Video documentation by Maatram accessed on January 25, 2022 at https://www.instagram.com/tv/CZJ5HFiJjHK/?igshid=MDJmNzVkMjY%3D.

11 It has been 14 years since Sandya Ekneligoda filed the habeas corpus application. As recorded by Kodikara, in November 2019, with more than 300 court hearings attended at the Homagama Magistrate Court, the Attorney General indicted nine military intelligence officers before a special trial at bar in relation to the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda. The case is still ongoing (Dhawan 2024).

12 See note 6 above regarding the translation of this quote.

13 On April 12, 2022, the Government of Sri Lanka announced that there would be a temporary suspension on the repayment of all external debt, signaling the bankruptcy of the state. By the end of March 2022, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka announced 13-hour daily power outages nationwide. By July 2022, gas and fuel queues would involve overnight waits, with the queues themselves stretching over five kilometers. By August 2022, the total number of people who died waiting in queues had risen to 20.

14 In May 2022, the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to submit his resignation, and by July 2022, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa resigned from office in a historic moment after the storming of the Presidential Secretariat by peaceful protestors.

15 On May 9, 2022, peaceful protestors gathered outside Temple Trees were attacked by pro-government supporters. Nine deaths and 220 people with injuries were recorded.

16 On May 18, 2024, the government of Sri Lanka actively used a court order to actively prevent the mothers from cooking the kanji (rice porridge) as an act of remembrance. In the lead up to the day, four women were arrested and detained for serving kanji as a symbolic reminder of the conditions of starvation in the final stages of the war.

17 In her 2015 report titled, Forced Evictions in Colombo: High Rise Living, Iromi Perera contextualizes the modalities and the repertoire of the Sri Lankan State, post-war, in its bid “to create a slum free Colombo by 2020 through its Urban Regeneration Project” (2015:5). As such, Perera notes that the forced evictions took place through “military force, intimidation and harassment” (2015:5). The earliest documented evictions, under this agenda, took place in Colombo 2010 by the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development authorized by the Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse. Much of the analysis that comes from urban studies and spatial justice note that high rise living imposes a vertical existence unfamiliar to communities that have lived with a very different sense of space. This context thus positions the horizontality of this work as its political unconscious.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 25, 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 2.0M
Title Figure 2
Caption Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 25, 2022. Source: Maatram, IGTV.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-2.png
File image/png, 25k
Title Figure 3a
Caption Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 25 January 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 164k
Title Figure 3b
Caption Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 25 January 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 212k
Title Figure 3c
Caption Sandya Ekneligoda, Modera, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 25 January 2022. Photograph by Selvaraja Rajasegar. Source: Maatram, Instagram post.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 192k
Title Figure 4
Caption Swasthika Arulingam, Galle Face, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 18 May 2022. Photograph by Amalini de Sayrah. Source: X, @EmDeeS11.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 776k
Title Figure 5
Caption Swasthika Arulingam: Fragment of Saree, Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, Galle Face, Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 18, 2022. Photograph by Amila Udagedara. Source: Instagram, mari_desilva81.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 180k
Title Figure 6
Caption Swasthika Arulingam: Moment of Silence, Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, Galle Face, Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 18, 2022. Photograph by Amila Udagedara. Source: Instagram, mari_desilva81.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 224k
Title Figure 7
Caption Janani Cooray, Theertha Performance Platform, Borella, Colombo, Sri Lanka, March 16, 2015-2017. Source: Theertha International Artists’ Collective Archive, courtesy of the artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-9.jpg
File image/jpeg, 96k
Title Figures 8a, 8b, 8c, and 8d
Caption Janani Cooray, Theertha Performance Platform, Borella, Colombo, Sri Lanka, March 16, 2015. Source: Theertha International Artists’ Collective Archive, courtesy of the artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9368/img-10.jpg
File image/jpeg, 180k
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References

Electronic reference

Ruhanie Perera, Embodied Witnessing: Performance Expressions as Acts of Citizenship within the Sri Lankan ContextSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 31 December 2023, connection on 18 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/9368; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/11vx0

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About the author

Ruhanie Perera

Department of English, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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