The vagaries of war create an emotional engagement in theatre

Ambika Ganesh Kumar with Shaan Kesha (Photo Supplied)

Dr Malini Yugendran
Auckland, March 28, 2023

Ahi Karunaharan’s play – Mixtape of Maladies, performed as a part of the Auckland Arts Festival on 26 March 2023, was a powerful and moving portrayal of a displaced family’s experience during the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Responses

As the play ended, the audience responded with enthusiastic applause, and many were seen wiping away tears, including Robert who attended the play with his wife.

“It is important that such narratives are shared,” he told Indian Newslink. His wife added “The play shed light on the struggles of people forced to migrate to a new country. Their stories serve as a real-life inspiration.”

Mr Karunaharan, who wrote and co-directed the play with Jane Younge said, “I was surprised how much the audience was moved. Initially, they responded in the way that I had hoped, laughing at the places but I did not expect them to be teary-eyed. I was so overwhelmed by their response that even I cried. After the show , a large number of people stayed back, which I believe is a positive indication of their enjoyment.”

According to the lead narrator, Ambika Ganesh Kumar, the feedback received was positive and emotional. “Friends from New Zealand, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Canada expressed their love and admiration for the performance, even though they had little knowledge about the civil war of Sri Lanka or Tamil music,” she said.

Gemma-Jayde Naidoo, who played the role of the younger Sangeetha character, said, “After the show, a couple met me; the wife is a South African Tamil, her husband a Sri Lankan Tamil. The husband said that the story was to his experience and that he lived through it all.

The Cast included Karishma Grebneff, Ravikanth Gurunathan and Raj Varma (Photo Supplied)

The Plot

“The play follows the life of Sangeetha, a vibrant teenager born in 1954, starting with her days in pre-war Ceylon and her eventual departure from Sri Lanka in 1990,” said Ms Kumar.

Throughout the story, we witness Sangeetha’s close relationship with her older sister, as well as her ongoing bickering with her older brother. The play also depicts moments of family joy as they gather to listen to music together with their parents.

Sangeetha is forced to flee Sri Lanka and settles in New Zealand, gets married, and has a son named Vishwanathan. “At the time of the play’s narration, Sangeetha is 65 years old and eager to share her life experiences with her son, who is a young adult with a strong New Zealand identity,” Ms Kumar said.

The Cast

The cast of the play featured a talented group of performers. Ms Kumar, who was born in Chennai, lived in Zambia and moved to New Zealand in 1994, read the character of the older Sangeetha. Raj Varma played the role of Sangeetha’s father and also read as a shopkeeper. Karishma Grebneff read as Sangeetha’s mother, Vani, while Gemma Naidoo was the younger Sangeetha. Ravikanth Gurunathan took the role of Sangeetha’s brother, and Muhammad Nasir delivered as Anton, the love interest of the younger Sangeetha. Isha Bhatnagar-Stewart read as Sangeetha’s older sister Subbalaxmi.

The cast brought the characters to life, making the play a captivating and immersive experience.
Ms Kumar, Mr Gurunathan, and Ms Naidoo delivered outstanding performances in their respective roles, contributing to a well-coordinated and impressive play that was a fantastic overall experience.

Ms Kumar said, “As the mother of two boys in New Zealand, I found it easier to relate to Sangeetha’s older character in the play. To prepare for the role, I researched the war, familiarised myself with the different locations mentioned, and listened to lots of Tamil songs, which I enjoyed.”

Ms Naidoo said, “As a South African-born Tamil, I have not been offered or even auditioned for a Tamil role yet. I am still on a journey of reconnecting with my roots. South African Indians have their own traumatic history, and I understand the importance and power of sharing these stories with the wider world. Unfortunately, every individual has some connection to war, pain, and loss.”

Ms Kumar agreed that the message of the play is universal and emphasised the importance of telling our stories.

“Listening to different people’s stories is crucial as it enhances empathy and understanding, which may lead to less conflict and war. The most impactful line of the play for me was when the younger Sangeetha said, ‘Our stories will remain buried in this bunker forever,’” she said.

Ms Naidoo said, “My favourite quote from the play is ‘Memory is both a gift and a curse.’ It powerfully reminds us that our history, no matter how painful, and shapes who we are. Exploring it with people around us can create understanding, enlightenment, and connection.”

The play skilfully combined acting and music (performed by Moksha Base) to create a magnificent performance. The music was thoughtfully chosen and integrated with the play.

The stage was designed to draw attention towards the performers and the music, without distracting props.

Ahi Karunaharan’s play was a thought-provoking and emotionally charged portrayal of the impact of war on individuals and families. The outstanding performances by the actors and the well-orchestrated music made the play a powerful, moving theatre.

Dr Malini Yugendran is an Indian Newslink Reporter based in Auckland.

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