The mother of the Butterfly Garden in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, was the Spiral Garden in Toronto, Canada, may mother and child both rest in peace. Central to the story world of these gardens was a mound of well-kneaded clay known as Mud Mountain, the mythic Mount Meru of the Garden Path. Perhaps because it is the most unthreatening of artistic media, children take to mud like ducks to water. Secret worlds lay buried in Mud Mountain awaiting the ply of a child’s fingers to give them shape and the play of her imagination to launch them into full light of day firing them with the luminescence of laughter and pure delight.
Emergent from the layers of archeological epiphany unearthed by children on the Mud Mountain are random shapes – a dog, a hat, a flute, a flower, a foot with no leg to call its own, a pig’s ear, some broken hen’s teeth, a musical note, etc. These forms, when linked, become a story, and when the stories are enacted under the bower of an ancient tree, we have theatre. Given the chance, children everywhere perform magic everyday in their play. In the royal court of make believe they become whoever they want to be. They are kings, and of course, queens of the mountain, and sometimes both at once.
They are also scribes who, with the shaft of a crow’s feather and note pads slicked with wet mud, record what happens on the mountain. There may be some back and forth between scribes as they tussle to the get the story straight, but in the end they edit their own texts which come down to us a the Mud Mountain Codex.
Children in zones of conflict pay a steep price for their elders’ obsession with violence. The greatest loss is the voiding of their sense of beauty. Our ability to experience the world as mysterious and magical is dulled by habituation, particularly habituation to hyper-violence that we experience every day in our wired world. That’s where the mountain comes in. And it’s no problem if you don’t happen to have a mountain handy. You can make one out of the nearest molehill. Or better yet, fresh wet clay.
Working with mud and narrative provides a means to engage the middle ground between denial of the violence that is in all of us, and acceptance of it as routine and immutable; the ground between apathy and aggression. As stories are created and performed as theatre our bias is laid bare. Through being made conscious it is transformed and becomes the catalyst for more profound social change.
14.1 From Mud to Myth – Story Creation with Crow Feathers and Mud
The stories below are renditions of what I heard in Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum Focus Group No. 7, From Mud to Myth, which took place on December 3rd and which focused on collaborative teamwork in making up stories from imagery generated on Mud Mountain. Participants included six students from Eastern University Fine Arts Department: Varalasingam Atputhan, Navarani Thavarasa, Tharsini Nadarasa, Pradeepa Thilainathan, S. Kiruja and Parameswaran Rajathilakan. We had two guests: Asami Yamanaka from Japan, and Madame Muzhina Iqbal from Amen Corner, Batticaloa.
For the first half of this workshop participants used a crow feather to spontaneously illustrate four imaginary scenes on note cards slicked clay wash. The cards were then collected and shuffled. After a tea break two teams were chosen by lottery with each team dealt sixteen cards. The teams were given a half-hour to compose a story and select one of their group to tell it to the full assembly of participants before the session ended.
Has Anyone Seen Sanju?
The country of Niroda was an oasis occupying the strategic center of an otherwise arid region known as Paripookistan. In this verdant land, surrounded by seas of sand, the dream of the earth unfolded flawlessly under cloudless blue skies. Of special note were flowers that blossomed once every twelve years and miniature winged rhinos that survived solely on the nectar of these flowers, which, though they blossomed rarely, existed in great profusion due to very busy bees extravagantly engaged thereabouts pollinating the dream. There were also crows who watched it all unfold, recording the juicy bits on mud tablets using their feathers to write the world first tabloids.
Along came people. We were so smart and cute too, compared to our ape ancestors. We domesticated animals and started building villages and then cities in which we could barely live without violence. We migrated across deserts and seas to every corner of the world all the while getting more sophisticated and unpredictable. Ultimately we massed together in teeming conurbations of high-rise apartments. We learned to connect instantaneously with one another by electronic devices that made it seem like today was yesterday, and tomorrow would never come.
About this time our cleverness revealed what could only be described as a mass suicide wish. Somewhere along the way we forgot how to be kind to one another and embraced fear and aggression as the best way to destroy all we had achieved with civilization. What we now want, subconsciously at least, is a clean slate. Wipe out everything that went before and begin again: this is the unspoken logic. Maybe next time we’ll get it right. Of course the crow scribes won’t let us get away with it. Their tablet iPods scream conspiracy and betrayal 24/7/365.
As our numbers grow exponentially the odds of apocalypse grow proportionately. Mirrors fascinate us more than ever. We watch ourselves endlessly on TV and carry little mirrors in our pockets and handbags at all times recording our every facile gesture and thought. The government doesn’t have to spy on us since we happily do it for them. These devices give us moment-to-moment updates on everything we consider vital. We love personal photo-ops, taking ‘selfies’ at every opportunity, then broadcasting them worldwide via social media. Such a clever and successful species we are! Too clever by half some would say. There are now 7.3 billion of people on the planet with a million more of us born every four days.
Ram and Sita a typical upwardly-mobile couple. They live in Niroda and, on his birthday, they dress up their seven-year old son, Sanju, and take him to a big temple festival in the neighbourhood, where he gets lost in the crowd. He finds his way to a sweet shop and asks for help, a little frightened but still confidant he’ll find his parents. A real showstopper Sanju is, wearing bright gold bangles studded with gemstones – paste of course, but you’d never know from looking. In fact you never get beyond his smile. He is so enchanting. So beautiful. He smiles at everyone asking politely if they’ve seen his parents.
The shopkeeper keeps a close eye on this pretty boy and while so doing an idea springs to mind. He closes the shop early telling the boy he’ll help him find his parents. “He reminds me of Baba Ganeth,” Sanju thinks as he climbs aboard the Honda Phantom embracing his pot-bellied protector. They rev up and turn into rush hour traffic. That’s the last anyone sees of Sanju.
Muhzina Iqbaal / Pradeepa Thillainathan / Navarani Thavarasa / Rajathilakan Parameswaran
The Someday Song
Fair to frightening with terrifying intervals, thought Brito, as he surveyed skies north to east setting his bearings for a bright spot on the horizon. Here we go again, he sang, as boldly he hoisted the mainsail and set about on high seas fishing for fish off Kalmunai coast. What else would I be fishing for besides fish, he thought? Maybe something that gets a better price at market than jack or puffer. How about oil or gold or bounty from a sunken buccaneer? But no, this is my life and I’ll fish if I must, to please my dear wife and darling boy, Saburah and Jayram. They’re reason enough for today.
Off he sailed straight into a force ten gale that was fated to sink him but settled for second best beaching him bedraggled on a desert isle where he built a shack out of what remained of his catamaran, roofing it with scraps of sailcloth, which he also found useful to wrap around himself as sarong and poncho. His beard and toenails grew so frightfully long he began to wonder if he was man or beast. He tried biting them off by contorting himself into various absurd positions, but then reconsidered such uncivilized behavior, in case someone might be watching.
But who on earth would be spying on him? Well, a parrot or a monkey, or one of those big lands crabs he stewed up for supper on the beach watching the sun go down. Even when you’re all alone, he reasoned, you’re not. Not really. Otherwise, to whom did he talk to when he talked to himself? Someone always answered and told him what to do. And he listened because he wanted to go back home some day and this someone assured him would happen, if he only believed.
And believe he did, with every fiber of his being, and so did his Saburah and Jayram. Even after five years passed and the boy had grown up into a sturdy adolescent, the pair of them believed that one day the old shipwrecked sailor they loved would walk in the door and then and there all their sorrows would end. The trouble was money. There was never enough and making lunch packets for school children to subsidize the household needs was untenable, especially after Saburah came down with dengue. It broke her heart when she asked Jayram to go to the capital and get a job. Reluctantly he did as bid leaving his beloved mother behind. He now became an orphan in a strange world not his own.
On the way to the big city he passed a school where all the kids his age were learning about this world from books. He hid behind a tree and listened. Eager for companionship and knowledge of this kind he tarried for a few days, scrounging food in the market, sleeping in back alleys, slipping back by day to hide behind the schoolyard tree and take notes. The shade of mother appeared in a dream hovering in the crown of that tree sighing his name. She wasted away as the night wore on, bone-by-bone, her remains sifting down into a pile of dust at his feet.
Next morning Jayram jumped a lorry laden with pineapples bound for city street fruit stalls. He got a coolie job in the port market where he met an older man, a sailor who’d been shipwrecked years before and had taken on coolie work himself to get back home to his wife and son. The story had a familiar ring to it. When they walked into the yard a few months later, Saburah was bent over a bucket of laundry by the well. They remembered her washday song and chimed in with the chorus.
water and sunshine make everything fresh again
your face and your eyes my life will bless again
Atputhan Varalasingam / Tharsini Nadarasa / S. Kiruja / Asama Yamanaka
14.2 From Mud to Myth – Making the World Up from Scratch
Focus Group No. 7 – MONKEY’S TALE CENTRE, Batticaloa
Facilitation: E. Kularaj, K. Thevakanthan
Translator: Rajes Kandiah
Guest: Paul Hogan
Participants: 6 students from Eastern University Fine Arts Department and 2 guests
Thursday December 3 – Creating Collective Narrative form Clay – 9 AM through 12:30 PM
The Process of Story Creation on Mud Mountain
- 8 participants and facilitators gather at Monkey’s Tale painting hall on arrival
- Kurumpeti Circle takes placein front yard under mango tree
- Reflection on the Earth Labyrinth (Poho) in back yard at MTC
- Silence 3 Minutes
- Earth Labyrinth Walk (using “finger” labyrinth)
- Program Description: using clay and crow feathers to make stories (Kula)
- Using crow feather as stylus, participants scratch random scenes on mud cards
- Each participants scribes 4 cards
- Cards dry in sun for 10 minutes
- Each participant gives 3 of his/her cards away to other participants, keeping one
- Each person ends up with 4 cards, three of them not his own (4 cards x 12 persons = 48 cards)
- Participants break up into 3 teams selected by lottery using Black and White Stone Lottery
- Tea Break
- Each teams creates a storyboard for drama with their 16 mud cards
- They paste the cards down in agreed-upon narrative sequence
- One team member is selected by each team to tell the story
- The three stories are told and heard and recorded by scribe
- Session ends with silent reflection for 3 minutes
- Comments and queries
Did you enjoy the program?
What did you learn from participating?
How does help you with your studies or life in general?
How can you share it with others?
Don’t all the crows sitting around watching us make you nervous?
The preliminary rituals in the front yard created a bond with the other participants. The sound of the bell resonated deeply in my mind and the tickle spider ritual immediately opened me to others. I had a moment of panic in the back yard labyrinth when I thought I was lost. But I found my way back and into the stories made with mud. This combination of contemplative, communal, creative collaboration is a playful but powerful experience.
I learned a lot here that will be valuable in playing with my grandchildren.
Communal story creation is new to me, and so simple, just feathers and mud. Great fun!
Drawing with a crow feather in mud had a pre-historical quality that brought into a far-off but quite familiar and friendly world. Perhaps childhood remembered. A consoling experience somehow.
Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
December 10, 2015