Colour, Song And Drama
- Helping Women Recover From The War
By Maryam Azwer
As the North and East still recover from the conflict, women have been recognized among the worst affected. They suffer in silence beneath a heavy blanket of post-war trauma, of failing livelihoods and a multitude of social problems. At a time like this, Batticaloa based rights activist and artist, Vasuki Jeyasankar, has discovered that two things can sometimes help these women express feelings they have bottled up for such a long time: Art and theatre.
The wife of S. Jeyasankar, a well-known Tamil theatre personality, Vasuki has herself been involved in the arts ever since she took to painting at a very young age. Art and theatre are not alien concepts to the people of the North and the East, who even engaged in such activities during the conflict, interweaving it with their own cultural and social ideals. Keeping this in mind, Vasuki uses drawing, painting, singing, dancing and acting as a means of therapy, and in addressing issues faced by conflict affected women.
“Perhaps it’s not the same for all women, but some of them do find it easy to express themselves this way, to address issues they otherwise wouldn’t talk about – they bring out their expressions on paper, or on a wall, through colours. They have their own explanations for what they do, and go through their own journeys. For some it’s a form of self-counselling, at other times these women use art and drama as a collective voice. Sometimes, we even get women from all ethnicities, and collectively do paintings on peace,” she said.
Vasuki explained how, at first, she felt uncomfortable asking these women to engage in these activities. “I’m not a counsellor or a psychologist myself, I’m just an artist, so sometimes we would have a psychologist to assist us in these programmes. I know what these women have been through, and at the beginning, when I told them to do these things [painting and acting], I didn’t know how they would take it. Usually their first reaction is ‘we don’t do these things… only our children draw… it has been fifteen years since I used paints…’ but after some time they gradually get used to it. Some women even show a keen interest in it. Even older women like to sing and dance. They feel comfortable doing things in groups. I think they just need the space and opportunity,” she said. She described one exercise she had done with war affected women in the Vanni. “These women were provided with different paints, colours, and other materials, and we asked them to start with one experience, where they wanted to express their anger. They could do anything, as long as they used what we had given them – they could even break the brush or tear the paper. After that, they would relax for a while and take a look at their situation, and think about the things that made them happy now. We made them come up with colours or images which made them come alive at that time. Basically, it was about starting with something negative and moving to something positive,” explained Vasuki.
The experience even produced positive results, she said: “All of them said that it helped them touch a part of their mind which they were afraid to touch before.”
Vasuki says she works mostly in the East, although she also works with groups in Mannar, Jaffna and the Vanni from time to time.
“This kind of thing can never be done in a big way,” she said, explaining that they conducted small workshops, or got women together whenever they could, on an informal level. Conducting such programmes on a formal or professional level was not practical, she said, partly due to lack of resources, and partly due to the women’s unwillingness to participate.
“We keep it small, because these women also have responsibilities and can’t always come for these things. Finding resources and space is also a problem – we require some confidential, private space, and the colours and paints are an expense. Sometimes we make do with whatever materials we have – even pieces of old cloth that we cut and paste,” said Vasuki.
When asked how effective she thinks this is, her response was, “Sometimes it’s confusing, because I don’t know if it’s the actual solution they seek. As an activist I sometimes feel very nervous. Some of these women can be very expressive, very open. At the same time, when I see them communicating, and coming out with their feelings, it gives me a feeling of satisfaction.” At other times, Vasuki said, even those watching had much to learn from these women. “I always experience a mix of feelings. Watching these women express themselves on stage, and speak of everything they have gone through, sometimes it is the audience who are left in tears,” she said.