Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Reflecting on Education in Sri Lanka: an Interview with Sivamohan Sumathy

By Varuni Tiruchelvam
What is the current philosophy of education in Sri Lanka?  How has
educational philosophy changed?

Education today and perhaps in the past too has been bent toward
utilitarianism. Philosophically speaking, producing individuals who would
serve society is the overt claim of educationists and others in the field of
opinion making. While individuals might have genuinely embraced this
position in an idealistic vision, and also genuinely served society,
inculcating in students and those around them a spirit of critical thinking,
the goals of mass education has been to produce individuals who would
maintain the status quo and help perpetuate the system.
The aims of colonial education had been to create an intellectual class of
bureaucrats and others who would serve the system. This was so in the
colonies and at the centre as well, where educational system was meant to
serve the ends of industrialization by educating, training and disciplining
a workforce.
Education today is geared toward the production of a servile class of people
serving the corporate sector. On top of it, the education system is shaped
by two interlocking forces. One, global imperialist and market forces.
Two. Intense competition at the local level.
The global imperatives shape funding and aid agencies such as the World
Bank, which in turn stress English and IT. The corporate sector too streses
the knowledge of English and IT. I don't have much of a problem with the
stress on English, if the push comes in terms of opening up the world to the
student in ways of empowerment and dialoguing. But the stress on English is
seen as an acquisition of some skill. So the stress is on skills developmemt
and is not holistic. So, once again, the stress is on information gathering
rather than on critical thinking and reaching out, struggles etc. etc.
At the same time,  at the cultural level  chauvinist ethno nationalist
sentiments govern the curriculum.
While, I am painting a horrible picture here, I must hasten to add, that
it's through education that people in Sri Lanka, have found some measure of
social mobility over the years. Free education upto tertiary education has
made education available (of course with severe limits) to a large number of
What was your childhood education like in Jaffna?
My education as a child is a complicated. It's not complicated in terms of
its being different. I must say I was privileged in different way. Not
necessarily economically, but culturally. I was the third of four daughters.
My father was for a long time vice principal of a Christian private school
which was also co-educational.
But I was a teacher's daughter, and my father was vice principal of a rather
prestigious Christian Private school in Jaffna. Yet, paradoxically, unlike
many other private schools it also catered to the local community who came
from all walks of society. Unlike in the city schools, the students were not
always privileged. And Even the fairly well off students mixed quite
comfortably with the much less privileged ones. Looking back, I would say,
the tensions were probably there. I might not have seen them. Particularly
caste-wise tensions. But I was always on the margins. As my father was the
vice principal, I grew up with a 'healthy' disregard for teachers. This was
important for me later. In Sri Lanka you are generally expected to venerate
teachers. I was always skeptical of this.
I will give you one incident in the classroom that has stuck with me over
the years. It is not even particularly memorable. But it was valuable to me
then and has stayed with me over the years. When I was about 12, we had a
teacher from another  class come to stand in for a teacher who was absent
that day. She was for all appearances rather non descript. Middle aged and
conservatively  dressed. IT was the Tamil language class. I was getting
ready to be bored. The class began and in responding to a question a student
rose from her seat to answer as was and is the practice in class rooms. The
teacher in a lazy drawl said, why are you standing. There is no need to
stand. Sit down. ' I sat up then and took notice. I have absolutely no
recollection of what we learnt that day. Probably nothing too useful by way
of information. But for me it was a fulfilling day. I learnt that day that
there are different ways of doing things too and that comes not from high
faluting ideas, but from simple common or garden gestures from people form
the ordinary walks of life.
My mother did not work in the conventional sense, but she led an active
public life, in organizing day care schools, leading the Church choir. She
had an instinctive penchant for performance. I am also a performer, director
and actor, but when I think of my mother's performances in some very
challenging roles, like that of the servant woman in the House Of Bernarda
Alba by Garcia Lorca, a very demanding role that runs through the three act
play, I can see now, how she was an instinctive actor. I come to theatre
with a more intellectual sense, and I really admire that kind of
instinctivity in her. Anyway, to come back to my childhood, I must say,
being a child among other women was probably very empowering. In middle
class Jaffna, much of the attitude toward women and proper behaviour of
girls and young women is channeled through the sons, who bring in their own
anxieties and desires of sexuality into the home and project them onto their
sisters. This I could gather from the conversations with my girl friends. I
was rather oblivious of all that was going on, and would be sometimes,
mildly surprised at how my friends would sometimes chide me for my
behaviour. I was very independent that way. Also, we did a lot of things
that were considered boys' work, like going to the shops, running errands.
My father too, who is rather conservative, was ironically oblivious of
social norms. It was not that he did not think women had to behave
themselves, but he was not too aware of what exactly this meant. My mother
would sometimes chide my father for getting us to go to the bicycle repair
shop etc. etc. So, I grew up a little wild.
Being the third in the family, there was not too much pressure for me to do
too much. So, when I was not playing with my friends, I just kept on

Did education influence your activist perspective?

It probably did. But perhaps not in the conventional sense. I grew up in a
fairly sheltered conservative middle class background. But books opened up a
great wide world to me. I think in some ways, it was the solitary act of
reading that pushed me to think differently. When I was very young, I read
everything that I could lay my hands on. From recipes to boring biographies
of people considered great. I remember reading the biography of Sarathadevi
the wife of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (this is all from memory) when I had
just started to read books on my own. I might have been about 6 or 7 at that
time. I had no idea who Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was. But some of the stories
of this woman have stayed with me to this day. When I eventually came to
know of this leading figure in the Bengali renaissance, perhaps a
questionable figure as well, I was both amazed and amused. For one, he
espoused a philosophy that I would be critical of. On the other hand, to
this day, that experience of encountering Saratha Devi as a child has helped
develop in me to ask critical questions about what is probably not said
about somebody, or some issue. To ask about the wives of great people! Or
about the women around them! So, for me, the women's question, started very
early, even before I thought about it in any significant way. Of course I
read this biography and other stuff purely as entertainment. I used to go to
my grandparents for vacations and there would be a lot of this stuff and
also a lot of Christian material, including stories. I devoured all of them.
Later, of course, with more choice at my disposal, I became more choosy
about what I read.  And in some ways, I think I lost out a bit. Later in the
teens, I read more of what my peers read.... I don't read much now. And it
has become more of a chore. The initial charm of discovery is not there now.
In my book, like myth and mother, I have a poem about the discovery of the
script, called the first lesson.  While I have turned it into a poem, with
many nuances, I still think, I cannot put in words, my first encounter with
the wonderful world of signs (the script). It was not just about reading. It
was an act of discovery, exploration, magic and all and it is about the self
and the other, an exchange, a dialogue.

How did you learn about Theater of the Oppressed and how much are
their techniques used in Sri Lanka today?

I had read about the Theatre of the Oppressed and also some works by Augusto
Boal. I had also incorporated into my own work aspects of theatre of the
oppressed as a form of dialogue. But this came to me from Brecht rather than
from Augusto Boal. When I was studying at Washington State University, in my
last semester, in the middle of the frenzy and anxiety of finishing the Phd
dissertation, a theatre of the oppressed duo came from Seattle to work with
students in the university on the theme of race. It was a wonderful
experience for me. Apart from the hands on experience of working on this
form in such a fulfilling way, working out forms that raise so many critical
questions, I was also happy to work with other students on campus, mostly
undergraduates. Once I sent in an abstract for the Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Conference, offering to perform  my piece, In the Shadow of the Gun.' This
was to be at some university in Nebraska. But in the end, the registration
fee was so high, unusually high, I withdrew my application. It was ironic
that it was called the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conference.
It is my candid view that in Sri Lanka Theatre of the oppressed is done in a
way that is depoliticized. Either they are on political issues where the
director facilitator has little knowledge of the issues and the emotions, or
it is done as a way of managing the issues. I have adapted theatre of the
oppressed forms in my theatre workshops and use some of the insights
extensively. But we produce theatre that is far more reliant on performance,
composition and collaboration. But politically and methodologically, I would
say that it is embedded in a practice of the theater of the Oppressed.
Sivamohan Sumathy teaches literature, critical theory, theatre, and film theory at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Her works include Thin Veils, like myth and mother, Piralayam and Oranges.
Written by Kumari on Thu. Feb 25, 2010 |

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