Sri Lanka Week 6: Moving Through

Banana Man, photo by Chandraguptha Thenuwara

photo by Chandraguptha Thenuwara

Welcome to my last blog post about my Suramedura artists residency in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. You can read about week 1 here, week 2 here, week 3 here, week 4 here and week 5 here.

As always I am grateful to UZ Arts and Galway 2020 for providing me with the incredible opportunity that was Suramedura 2015.

My apologies for the crazy delay in typing up this last blog post.

Day 36: Monday 7th December 2015
Galle & Hikkaduwa

Today we all travel to Galle to attend a birthday party. The birthday girl, Aroshi, is originally from Dodandowa. She is a member of the family who invited us to tea last week. We have a short but wonderful visit to her home though it is a little strange that we are the only guests. Aroshi shows us around her fine home. We are also joined by her sister, her husband and kids and other members of her family. We are served a sumptuous lunch and, in true Sri Lankan manner, Aroshi and her family do not join us at the table. Juri plays his drum and we sing and have fun. We make her day in truth and she has tears in her eyes when we are leaving.

Back in Hikkaduwa Juri and I take a tuk tuk driven by Chinthaka into the jungle to cut down some bamboo. I need a tree high enough and light enough to act as a flag pole and he needs more for his cupa-cupas. We get caught in the worst thunder storm of my time here so far. Chinthaka and I wait in the tuk tuk for the torrential rain to blow over but Juri isn’t deterred. He wanders into the trees armed with a machete. We don’t see him again for ages. Chinthaka and I share a smoke. There is now no gap between the lightning flashes and the booming thunder. Every explosion feels like the whole world is being cracked open. I ask Chinthaka has a tuk tuk ever been hit by lightning? Oh yes, he says as calm as you like.

Eventually Juri returns, dragging a perfect-for-a-flag-pole bamboo tree behind him. The rain just won’t quit but even a lazy git like me can appreciate what Juri has done for me so out I get and help him tie the bamboo to the tuk tuk. In seconds my clothes are as soaked as if I went swimming in them. But I have the flag pole.

Another great day. Moving Through is coming.

Day 37: Tuesday 8th December 2015
Hikkaduwa

This doesn’t come from here

It was brought here

From the sea

They didn’t come from here

They were brought here

From the sea

They were told what to do

And they did as they were told

We come from here

We are different

Get ready because we are ready.

These are the words I will use to finish Moving Through. They come from something I learned about the culture of the women who pick the tea in Sri Lanka. Girls who are born to a mother who is a picker tend to grow up to be pickers and their daughters will also most likely spend their lives in the groves.

The ‘this’ in the first stanza is the tea that was brought to Sri Lanka by the British. ‘They’ in the second stanza are the families who were brought by the British from India to work in the tea plantations. ‘We’ are the descendants of these people. The words are about the past, the present and a possible future where the next generation breaks free of the constrictions of the past and choose for themselves who they will become.

It is a hope for a better future and I hope I am not being presumptuous in having it.

I pick up the flag from the tailor. I raise it on my 12 foot pole (stop sniggering). I try to walk with it. This won’t be easy.

Day 38: Wednesday 9th December 2015
Hikkaduwa

Today has its moments. I make a to-do list and, to quote Malcolm Tucker, it’s as long as a Leonard Cohen song. Or I should say it’s as long as my flag pole. However I feel good as I tick off each item.

I am struggling with the flag. It looks great but is heavy and awkward to carry. I ask one of the Sunbeach guys who’s the same height as me to hold it for a moment so I can see how it looks. He picks up the pole and off he goes walking without a care! No bother to him. Turns out I’ve been holding it wrong. He shows me how to hold it so that it is balanced. I take it from him and suddenly it is easier. Still tricky but now I know I can do it with some practise.

I come up for a different order for the Tea Ceremony at Dodanduwa. It’s Juri’s idea. The Afro Sri Lankan singers will start to sing as soon as the audience begins moving from the boat. This will take the pressure off of me to have the fire and the tea ready immediately.

In the evening, we go to Chaminda’s for tea. He invites us into his wonderful home. We all have a great time. It’s so good how well we all get along. I forgot to mention that Martin’s wife joined us on Sunday.

Oíche mhaith anois.

Day 39: Thursday 10th December 2015
Hikkaduwa

Wow what a day. After breakfast I go to Dodanduwa. I light the fire, make the tea and share it with the fishermen. Then back to the hotel for make and do. I finished the tea bowls with some help from Stefi and her glue gun. Then I go into town and pick up the last few bits and pieces I still need. We then have a public rehearsal on the beach beside the hotel. The flag is getting easier to handle. After dinner I perform the Tea Ceremony in the hotel as a rehearsal for Saturday. It goes very well but it is 45 minutes long. I have to shave off 15 minutes so I have to scrap three of the stories, maybe four. That will be tough.

A long day but a good one. Moving Through the day after tomorrow.

Day 40: Friday 11th December 2015
Hikkaduwa

Everything now depends on the weather. So far it’s holding. Breakfast is quiet. There is a sense now of something coming. Tomorrow is my last full day in Sri Lanka.

After breakfast we go to Dodanduwa and walk through Moving Through. Then we have lunch (Chaminda organises delicious spring rolls to be brought to us by tuk tuk) and after lunch we have a full on dress rehearsal. It’s all good, all in good shape. After this back to the hotel and spend time on last few bits and pieces. Juri comes to me. He is concerned that the lines “they didn’t come from here, they were brought here” might be misconstrued as to be about the Afro Sri Lankan musicians who will be behind me as I say it. He’s got a point. I’ll think on it.

The girls from the university arrive. Excellent – we have more women performers.

We all go to Ranjith’s for one. Bad mistake.

Day 41: Saturday 12th December 2015
Hikkaduwa

The Boat, photo by Chandraguptha Thenuwara

photo by Chandraguptha Thenuwara

Oh day of days.

I awake upside-down on my bed in my clothes. I’ve a vague feeling someone dropped me off in my room last night. Fecking Ranjith’s.

I get up and go straight into the sea for my last swim before breakfast. After breakfast it’s all hands on deck. We transform the hotel into a space for an exhibition of our work. We parade on the beach with Juri’s rope demon and my flag. The day is looking good with no rain but the wind has risen strong and to my consternation I cannot carry the flag. Martin has to carry it for the parade.

After the parade we open the exhibition with some speeches and (glorious) music from the Afro Sri Lankan singers. Then there is lunch.

During lunch I get the fire lit and the water on the go for the Tea Ceremony. Chinthaka the tuk tuk driver helps me with the fire. The wind is playing silly bugger but the water boils and I make the tea and I share the tea and I perform the Tea Ceremony. This is what I came here to do. And it is very good. These young folk from Sweden we met last night in Ranjith’s are in the audience and they get it and enjoy it. This is all the more gratifying since they look quite put off during the performance. The Tea Ceremony was:

I chant Tá Mé Ábalta.

I sing Let Me Go.

LET ME GO

(Chorus)

Won’t you let me go

Please let me go

It’s not enough to go with the flow

Won’t you let me go

I came here to stay the same

I came here to duck and dive

I came here to get away

I came here to stay alive

(Chorus)

You’ve held my hand for long enough

You’ve done what you thought was for the best

You’ve kept my head below the surf

You’ve never given me a day’s rest

(Chorus)

Time for me to change

Time for me to grow

Time for something strange

Time you let me go

(Chorus)

Martin plays his dulcimer.

I make the first tea bowl.

I share the first tea bowl.

Martin stops playing.

I make the second tea bowl.

I tell the story Diesel.

I share the second tea bowl.

I make the third tea bowl.

I tell the story Abandoned.

I share the third tea bowl.

I make the fourth tea bowl.

I tell the story Faruk!

I share the fourth tea bowl.

I make the fifth and final tea bowl.

I tell the story Outbreak.

I share the fifth and final tea bowl.

I tell the story Abandoned Again.

Martin plays.

I tell the story The Temple in the Jungle.

Martin stops halfway through The Temple in the Jungle.

I tell the story Sit. Wait.

End.

It is a beautiful, simple ceremony and I am in love with it. That’s some feeling. But there is no time to bask as we are off for Dodanduwa and Moving Through.

The wind. It is my enemy. The flag will be hard to handle and on top of that the fire is refusing to light. Chinthaka to the rescue. He parks his tuk tuk beside me to provide some shade whilst we get the fire going hot and the water boiling. There are plenty of Dodanduwans around. Still no rain. We start the show on time. There is a very decent sized crowd. And suddenly we are rolling through Moving Through. The flag is hard to carry but I persevere. Kids run around me calling, ‘come on, John!’ I make it to the first station of the performance and the audience is treated to the sight and sounds of Juri and his cupa-cupa orchestra who are playing in the water, the coconut demon standing behind them. Samson joins in with a call and response from the shore. Juri, Martin and the students then hoist the coconut rope demon and bring it to the audience onshore. Suddenly Matteo resplendent in his crow costume joins us from the rocks and dances with the audience. He removes his mask and presents paper streamers from a coconut. The students bring these streamers to the audience and say, ‘send a message to the sea’. They show the audience how to write a message for the sea on the streamer and then tie it to the coconut rope demon. After they are given time to do so I lead the audience to the next station along our route. I am struggling with the flag but enjoying it also. At this point we are joined by Samson and Stefi in their beautiful masks. In a nice piece of choreography they slowly approach us from a distance  bearing a gift from the ocean – it is a clay bowl containing the tea I will use for my ceremony. Just as they reach me and are about to make the handover Juri arrives wearing the coconut rope demon, whirling and dancing and charging at us and the audience. This is a beautiful moment since most folk up to now believed the coconut rope demon to be a sculpture and not a costume. Now the sculpture has come alive and it’s crazy. Samson and Stefi dance with the demon and eventually he is placated. He sings as he walks off and into the sea. I take the tea and pass the flag to one of the students. It’s time for me to skip onto the last station at the net house so that when the audience arrives the tea is ready. The new flag bearer leads the audience to the next station along the path and the audience watch as Steven emerges from the jungle dressed in his incredible Banana Man costume. He slowly walks to the audience and when he reaches the path, he plays a note to the sea on a harmonica hidden in a short piece of bamboo. He then turns to the grounded fishing boat and plays the note to Juri, Martin, Samson and some of the students who have climbed up onto the boat. The day before Juri and Martin transformed this boat into a musical instrument and now the audience are treated to songs and music played on it. After a few songs the flag bearer leads the audience to the final station where I am set with tea ready on the clay urn with the Afro Sri Lankan singers singing behind me. The audience surprises me by rushing right up to us instead of forming a circle around us as we expected. But it’s cool and the tea bearing students and I share the tea bowls with the audience just as we practiced. We finish with these lines spoken by me in English and by the students in Sinhalese:

We came here to your home

You made us welcome

We made this together

This will never be forgotten

We thank you.

Man it’s beautiful. It’s simple and it’s beautiful. When the students say “we thank you” the women in the audience smile and say we are welcome. The Afro Sri Lankans start up again and the music gets fast and Samson and Stefi dance with them and suddenly everyone is dancing and Moving Through is over.

(You can watch a short video of the day here. See a gallery of images here.)

Back at Sunbeach we enjoy a hell of a wrap party with the staff and the students and many of the audience members with a feast of twelve curries prepared by Chaminda. Delicious food and blessed company. The Afro Sri Lankan start up again and all of us hit the dance floor. We go nuts. There’s no other way to say it. We dance and dance and dance until I think we’ll explode. It’s like a mad session at The Crane Bar only sexier. Then we light the craziest most dangerous sparklers I’ve ever seen and dance in our bare feet. My hands get burnt, so do my toes and I don’t give a shit. Neil and Chaminda (like two guys in a weird buddy cop movie) light a huge, I mean fecking ginormous, firework display on the beach. We dance some more. Finally Chaminda reminds us all that this is a hotel and we finish. The staff are done for the day and since I am leaving for the airport at 4am I now make my farewells. It’s sad to say goodbye. I hug Chaminda and he says come back soon. I say I will. This can’t be my only stay at Sunbeach Hotel.

The night doesn’t end there however. We all head to Ranjith’s (of course). We take over the joint. He are drunk on success, comradeship and arrak. Juri plays his drum and finds a rhythm that goes on for half an hour. He goes deep with it. By the end the entire bar are on their feet clapping and cheering. He plays some more. We dance. He plays nonstop for over an hour. It’s trippy and the crowd loves it. After this we dance to Ranjith’s playlist of cracking tunes from the 70’s and 80’s. We manage to get everyone in the place up on their feet and shaking their arses. Somewhere along the way I lose my sandals.

Everything must end.

Ranjith in due course throws us out but not before I end up behind the bar hugging the entire staff in one go. We walk the beach back to the hotel. I make sad goodbyes to my fellow artists. Bed awaits them. For me it’s a taxi to the airport. Thankfully I’d already packed. I touch the walls of my room in an attempt to make the memory of this place forever real instead of a six week dream. In the taxi I ring Ireland to say that I am on my home. I just about remember doing this. I sleep the entire way to Colombo. I board the plane. We take off.

Suramedura is over.

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