13th May 2001
Sports| Mirror Magazine
Earlier, meticulous planning had made the procedure of checking in at the Bandaranaike International Airport smooth and easy. As we checked in, or some of us actually trundled in, we were indeed a motley group. Seven on wheelchairs, one sightless, four with one leg, two with hearing impairment, eight victims of Down's Syndrome, 14 displaced persons from Thirukkovil and Pottuvil, a 60-year-old and two children, seven and eight. This is the 'Butterfly Group' of the Sunera Foundation set up by Ms. Sunethra Bandaranaike to integrate creative young people irrespective of any disadvantage.
Having performed in Sri Lanka for two years under the direction of Rohana Deva Perera and Wolfgang Stange of London's AMICI Dance Theatre Company, the 'Butterflies' are on their maiden foray into foreign climes, with the help of numerous local and foreign sponsors including the the Commonwealth Foundation and the Catholic Association for Overseas Development.
After emplaning, the indvidual TV screens are an instant hit, with most of the group humming Sinhala and Hindi songs while watching movies or listening to Sinhala or Hindi songs and singing along with the music. By dinner time, little Hashan is fast asleep most probably dreaming about the bicycle he hopes to take back home from England. Hashan has not told his classmates of this exciting journey for fear of being asked for gifts and toys.
Gradually, as the passengers settle down to read or sleep through the 12-hour journey, red and blue heavy coats, some with fur-lined hoods, are whipped out of hand luggages. For a majority of 'Butterflies' the flight is a first, an exciting but also frightening experience. Only 'special' Maduri is overcome by air sickness and has to be sedated by the doctor who accompanies us.
As the descent to Heathrow begins, the smiles fade and some members clutch their ears in agony. Half-an-hour at the baggage conveyor belt and a traveller's worst nightmare comes true for eight-year-old Dilini. Her bag is missing.
Amidst assuarnces that it will be found, out we go with our baggage trolleys to a rapturous welcome of flowers, hugs and a few Sinhala words for each and every one from the British organizers. We are slowly led to the massive luxury coach parked outside to the accompaniment of "Oohs" and "Aahs", "Wewlenawa" (Shivering), "Harima Seethalai" (It's very cold). The 'Butterflies' face typical London weather, a slight drizzle, with a chilly wind.
"It's so different to Sri Lanka. It's cold," says Ranjith Rajapakse, 26. He is sad, but also happy. Happy about visiting London, but sad that he cannot see this city. Rajapakse had lost his sight in an LTTE mortar attack in Arali in 1997.
We are on the bus, warm and comfortable, heading for the hotel. Screams of delight, as the two kids spot plane after plane coming in to land at Heathrow. The adults too join in the fun of counting, as one plane flies low overhead, tailed by another emerging within seconds from the grey clouds.
Spring's hand has just brushed over London, for the tulips and the cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom. The tender green of the new leaves, is in contrast to the browns of the skeletal trees. There's a feeling of deja vu for Dilini Kanchana, 8 from Meegoda. "Already I miss my mother, but somehow feel that I've been here before. Mehe dannawa vage."
We reach the hotel in Hammersmith and rush into the welcoming warmth of the lobby and also the familiar odour of home. The organizers have thoughtfully decided that two meals each day would be rice and curry and the lunch now awaits us in nicely packed containers. Up we go to our rooms, two by two. Sharing rooms to cut precious costs and enable the group members to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. The group is scattered across the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh floors and a hint of unease trouble begins then. That first night in London is unot the best. The disoriented members of the group walk around looking for their friends and soulmates of the past two years.
Day 2 — The smiles are back, as we sit down to a hearty breakfast of fruit, cereal, bacon, sausage, egg, mushroom, toamato, toast, juice, tea, coffee and hot chocolate. The 'Butterflies' chuckle over Marie Indrani's time mishap. She had woken up and assuming it was time for breakfast, called the hotel staff to help her wheel herself down to the first floor. Two staffers had immediately come to her room, and politely informed her that it was only 5 a.m.
A treat awaits us. Though the skies are overcast, it's into two huge coaches once again and onto Windsor. A day at Legoland on the invitation of a Sri Lankan expatriate. As we stroll into the fun park, decorated with the vivid colours and shapes of Lego pieces, the sun comes out. Till 3 o'clock it's rides and games. A rollercoaster and water rides are the most popular.
Day 3 — Sharp at 1.30 p.m., the 'Butterflies' gather in the hotel lobby for the 10-minute walk to Riverside Studios. We slowly wend our way along the main road, some wheeling others, some holding hands, clutching their coats tightly. Care and concern for each other are much in evidence. A good lesson for many of us back home, where only "me and mine" take precedence over everthying else.
We enter the studio and the 'Butterflies' cluster around the large pictures of their 'Flower Production' advertising the drama.
A lengthy photo and interview session with a Guardian journalist and photographer follows.
At four, the 'Butterflies' troop onto the stage for their first practice in London. Sri Lankan music greets them and the change is amazing. They laugh, they dance, they tap their toes, they clap. The coats come off, as also the shoes. They give the thumbs-up sign. The 'Butterflies' are in their element.
Day 4 — More rehearsals. The lighting is not perfect yet. Scenes are repeated. Stopped halfway and done again. The group is oblivious to the riots in Central London on May Day, as they go through their familiar paces.
"Will the people understand our drama?" asks Thangeshwari from Thirukovil as the others nod their heads, wondering. The dialogue is in Sinhala and Tamil, with one or two English lines thrown in.
Day 5 — The tension is tangible. Not among the actors, but among the producers and the organizers. The actors get about their business unfazed. In the dressing rooms the make-up artist is working frantically, as show time approaches. Those already in their costumes sit around, eating biscuits and drinking plain tea, chatting unconcernedly.
Not so the producers and the organizers. "Will they perform well?" "Will the tickets sell?" are the nagging problems.
Lights out at 8 o'clock. It's the climax. The actors are about to get on stage. There is no curtain, only lights out, in keeping with modern times. The hall fills up and Ms. Sunethra Bandaranaike, whose dream this has been sighs in relief. But her worries are not over yet. Nail-biting suspense as the drama unfolds and the organizers scan the faces of the audience in the dark.
Thunderous applause. Fears unfounded. As Wolfgang Stange of AMICI aptly
puts it, "They are the best."
The theme of 'Flowers will always bloom' by the Butterflies Theatre Group presented by the Sunera Foundation in association with the AMICI Dance Theatre Company is all too familiar to us. The different communities and religions living together. The New Year revelry changing from crackers to shooting and bombings. The most innocent of the lot, two children, in pursuit of butterflies, becoming the victims. Within a matter of seconds their mother, a Sinhalese, (Ramani Damayanthi) is both a widow and childless. It drives her mad. The haunted look we've seen in real lifesoon after such bloodbaths as the Central Bank bombing.
But the children, sans legs, are taken by three kindred spirits to the home of a childless Tamil woman (Thangeshwari), who accepts them with joy.
More violence and its pathetic aftermath of the mass exodus of people from hearth and home. Refugee camps and foreign donors, it's all there in this drama. The paths of the insane Sinhala mother and the Tamil woman who adopted her children cross, at a concert. The concert is given by the Sinhala mother, who has been urged by a blind man, a recurring figure — in a sense the epitome of Sri Lankan society today — to make use of her voice to bring light to those such as he. Then comes the identification of mother and sons and the joining of both families. The crowd rejoices too, but the happiness is short-lived. The bombs are the only permanent factor.
I am no drama critic, but the pin-drop silence during the performance and the loud and sustained applause at its conclusion seemed to say it all. "Shattering", "Powerful", "Moving", "Gripping", "It brought to us the reality of the war", were some of the verdicts of both the foreigners and the expatriates who were in the audience.
The drama begins and ends with the tolling of a bell, leaving one wondering whether the bell tolls for Lanka and its people. But to me seeing the actors, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, disabled soldiers, refugees and the underprivileged, complemented by Lanka's prima ballerinas, Khema and Upekkha, brought hope. When the refugee girl from Thirukkovil — whose father had been killed in military bombing and whose nephew had been killed in Bindunuwewa — as the Tamil mother hugs and cares for two disabled soldiers whose legs have been blasted by Tiger mortars, there is irony.
However, seeing them interact off the stage, helping each other and acting as one, there is also hope. Hope that everyone in our fractured motherland could overcome hate and bigotry, if only we would try.
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