Strange Only Gets Stranger

19Masks are about the face we wear, how we manipulate it, and how it manipulates us. For the most part we live our lives in a trance. Some circumstances summon a brave face while others cause panic and terror. Pleasure morphs into pain and pain into pleasure in the blink of an eye with the two extremes blurring indistinguishably in between. We laugh, we cry, we rage and we lie all with the same facile and flexible face, taking it’s polymorphous plasticity for granted until we look in the mirror one day pausing just long enough to consider the riddle of our lives. Who? Who is this stranger?

Life is a theatre of masks. The question is where do faces come from? And where do they go? Is there a center to this seemingly endless procession of characters? When they exit offstage, where do they disappear?

Whatever the answers may be, there is no doubt the show must go on. We have no option but to keep going with the life we have been granted. It becomes a matter of “face” and “not losing face”. We can’t just walk off stage or quit the game. We would lose face and that is far worse than losing our passport. When we lose our passport other people don’t know who we are and we are not allowed to cross national boundaries. Losing face means we don’t know who we are and there follows the plunge headlong into an abyss without boundaries.

Masks are a means of exploring the question of identity. They raise the question of identity more profound than ethnicity, culture, race and religion. Masks enable us to reach inside and touch a part of ourselves that is quintessentially human, opening up the possibility of understanding and embracing others who are different from ourselves. We investigate the mystery of ‘original face’. What is our original face before our parents were born?

Joining us for the 3rd focus group session for the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum featuring masks were 12 students from Eastern University’s Faculty of Fine Arts – Kiruja, Navarani, Vathani, Kajethinithevi, Karthiga, Varaman, Pradeepa, Gnanashakthi, Ilakkiya, Anuja, Sasikaran, Anuja – as well as two friends from St. John’s American Mission, Biyoora and Hibakaran. Our translator Madame Rajes Kandiah was accompanied by one of her Tamil language students Michiru Kurumata, a physiotherapist from Japan working with handicapped and elderly people in Batticalao and also one of her senior English students, Hutson. The workshop took place in two sessions on the mornings of August 20th and 23rd.

IMGP5564During the first session participants painted masks prepared at Monkey’s Tale by Master Kularaj and his assistant Thevakanthan. They learned how to carve and shape molds out of clay then use these molds to make their own papier mâché masks using old newspaper cut in strips then dipped into a water, flour, and thurusei suspension. At the second session they were introduced to a Garden Path technique of story creation called The Puppet Ladder in which the masks acquire a spine in the form of a stick ladder bound with colorful wool yarn. The ladder acts as an antenna sensitive enough to receive and transmit stories belonging to the masks. In a playful improvised “séance” the masks come to life and speak their truth. What follows are brief accounts of a selection of five such tales reconstructed as best I understood them through the good graces of Madame Kandiah’s translation.

9.1 Stories from the Mask Sessions 

After All
The Story behind Pradeepa’s Mask

Ramiya is a gentle soul who, after things settled down in the years following the war, hoped to get on with life but knew better than to expect too much of her shattered world. The turmoil of those years robbed her of many close friends and relations and left her hurt in places no one could find. She was hospitalized with a mysterious condition that worsened as time passed and finally settled into a state of permanent depression bordering on despair. No one visited her except medical staff. She felt unbearably isolated and alone, unable to recall if she had any kin left anywhere in her ragged world.

One morning she woke up to find a team of doctors assembled around her bed discussing her case as though she didn’t exist. The next thing she knew orderlies were helping her pack up and showing her to the door. She found a bus to take her to the town nearest her home as best she remembered of it, a broken-down cadjan hut in the country where her family lived in the backwash of a brackish lagoon. Waiting for that bus she remembered dreams she once had of becoming a nurse. She had always wanted to help others but now she barely could help herself board the bus.

Thoughts of suicide flooded the long sleepless nights and hollow days that followed. Late one afternoon she dragged herself down to the lagoon compelled by an implacable urge to end her life there right there where it began. A crocodile surfaced. His unblinking gaze gave her pause. Maybe it’s no better on the other side, she thought. She turned slowly about and walked away in wonderment for, as she turned,  she felt a change in her heart and in the way her feet carried her along. She had an invalid mother, a troubled sister and a small brother at home. This is enough, she thought. I will live for them.

When the Song Comes
The Story behind Varanam’s Mask

Kanthan was born with no legs but a mighty mind and heart. Other than begging he had no way to support himself. Every morning, he dragged himself to the temple lighting lamps and praying to the gods before he began his rounds. He composed songs woven from morning light and flower fresh air, borrowing melodies from the birds to remind people trudging off to work that things could always be worse. Look at me people and give thanks you have legs, he sang. He had a friend with no arms but whose legs work fine, so he sang about him. He had another friend with neither arms nor legs. How does he get by, Kanthan asked the people who had stopped to listen to his song? With a smile, that’s how. He has a beautiful smile and a good set of pearly white teeth. And he makes glorious paintings holding a brush in his mouth.

MPC -049Kanthan sang and people responded with offerings from their meager purse. Sometimes he and his friends worked the street around the temple together. Where did all these arms and legs go, the ones that aren’t there anymore? The gods snatched them, the crippled jokers sang, the gods with so many arms and legs dancing up there in the sky wall of the temple. But not just the gods. The war took many arms and legs too, burying them along with the land mines that blew them off in the first place. Not even gods can fix things now. People liked these songs. Their irreverence and vitality somehow replaced what war had stolen from them, so on a good day he and his friends did not so shabby.

For a long time Kanthan tried to get enough money for his sister’s wedding. It took him months of effort but finally he hoarded enough away for the dowry. When the big day came his sister took him aside. Listen annan, she said, I don’t want you to come to my wedding. OK? Please don’t misunderstand me, but everybody knows you’re a beggar. You understand, don’t you, annan?

Kanthan understood. She didn’t want him to deform the wedding photos with his deformity. He was used to being shunned, but not by his little sister whom he always loved in a special way. This was too hard! He found a dark corner in the temple where he could cry without being seen. He sobbed. He raged. He pounded his head against the stone floor till it hurt. Then he laughed at himself and his sore head and prayed for mercy. He went back outside the temple gates, raised his empty hands to the sky and begged for a song from his broken heart. When the song comes – as he knew it would, as it always does – everything else will follow, like sun and moon. That’s what he told himself.

Malala Masala
The Story behind Biyoora’s Mask

Neela was a big fan of Mother Teresa and Malala. She wanted to help the poor just like her heroes. She didn’t know where to begin on the long road to sainthood but it was guava season and she thought, well, you got to start somewhere, why not with guavas? She bought a basketful and went around giving them away to poor kids. Everyday she went back to the woman who sold them in the market, refilled her basket, and returned to the poor part of town where she gave them away. The market lady began to get curious and one day asked if Neela had a jam factory. No, I just give them to the street kids, she replied. The woman paused,  then tossed a couple more ripe guavas into her basket. She lowered her veil and gave Neela a smile that lifted her to the moon. If it wasn’t Malala herself!

IMGP6025-001She was leaving for London the next day, she said, and invited Neela to accompany her. In London Neela met Malala’s cousin, an intense young man with hypnotic eyes named Ameer. She loved his courtly manners and gentle touch but when, out of the blue, he proposed marriage she turned him down flat. Malala couldn’t understand Neela’s abruptness and felt sorry for Ameer. I want to serve poor woman back home, Neela explained. Nobody else. Then she added with a chuckle, I can get married after that, when I’m a saint. Malala consoled poor heartbroken Ameer but secretly she was pleased. Not many people aspire to sanctity these days, she thought, or even sanity for that matter. She gave Neela airfare to return to Sri Lanka.

Wouldn’t You Say?
The Story behind Madame Rajes’ Mask

Kandeswami worked hard unforgiving land to the bone providing for a beautiful and cunning wife who gave him no pleasure, no children and no quarter when it came to her insatiable domestic demands. She spent all her time and his money going to town and coming back with fine jewelry, Manipuri silk saris and other bonbons from Bombay and Bangalore. Theirs was a mismatch made in heaven, having been decreed astrologically proper by the omniscient seers who oversaw such matters. Kandeswami didn’t mind at all because he loved his horrible wife and had from the fateful moment they met. Someday she will come round, he told his friends, but they all knew she never would. Kandeswami was a dupe but a loveable one. He could believe whatever he liked as far as his friends were concerned.

One day his wife, Manusha was her name, got it in her head to open a teashop in the village. Naturally it fell on Kandeswami’s shoulders to make this happen. Slaving in the back paddy field provided insufficient funds to open the new shop, so Kandeswami parcelled off a portion of his land and sold it. The teashop opened on an auspicious day and did exceptionally well for a new business, but this was not enough for Manusha. She decided she wanted to expand it into an elegant restaurant called Manusha Mahal, with unusual menus of fresh local food and a select wine and arrack list. It was a big hit once again, and not just with locals. The smart set paraded down from Kandy in peraheras for the weekend all-you-can-eat buffets queuing up at the door under their parasols, sunshine or rain. Success caused Manusha such stress she ended up bonkers and had to be warded in the local psychiatric institute.

Kandeswami was inconsolable. He could not bear to look at the Menusha Mahal without his wife around so he closed it. Termites took over and built a big mud mound inside the main hall, which became the palace of a king cobra. The cobra felt sorry for Kandeswami and told him by way of dreams that he planned to move on after the rainy season and when he did he’d leave something behind for him in the termite mound, something very special, but don’t tell your wife, he cautioned the old man.

After eight months in a dismal back ward at Batticaloa general hospital Manusha was discharged. As soon as she walked in the door Kandeswami fell into her arms and unburdened himself. He blurted it all out – everything – including what the king cobra told him in his dreams. Immediately Manusha ordered him to open the shop and dig up the termite mound. There, as predicted, he found a brass urn filled with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other priceless gems. Manusha didn’t waste a moment. She threw all the loot into a suitcase, ordered a limo with suitably armed bodyguard, quite a handsome one at that, and headed for the hills.

Kandeswami girded his loins and returned to what was left of his stricken little paddy field. It was the height of the dry season. The heat was unbearable. Everything was dead or dying by inches. The cobra joined him there for a natter one day in the shade of his little stick hut. It’s OK old boy, he said. Looks like the old lady got the gold and you’re out in the cold. But, not a bad place to be on a hot day, wouldn’t you say?

Home Free
The Story behind Ghanashakti’s Mask

“Fingernails or toenails,” the interrogator, an infamous devil named Cabraal, wanted to know. “We are reasonable people. You have a choice. Which will it be?” I was too tired to think. I’d been tied naked to a stake baking all day in the hot sun when they came for me. I stared down at my toes mute with anguish and indifference. I didn’t recognize the toes as mine. They could have been anybody’s. In fact, I wished they were.

“So you don’t care, is that it?” Cabraal said, reaching for the pliers an attendant offered from a table drawer cached with similar crude instruments. “ Fine. Let’s start with your right hand then, shall we?” I recoiled and pulled my hand away. He slapped me hard across the face with the back of his hand. I fell forward and he kicked my legs out from under me.
“Tie his feet then, corporal. Unless you want to change your mind and tell us who was with you in the ambush last week at the Chenkalady market.”
I had nothing to say. My feet said: don’t talk. I’ll take you somewhere better. Soon!
“Can’t remember? I see.” He smiled contemptuously. “You buggers are all the same. OK corporal. Showtime!”

They tied me to a table and started in on my big toe. “Big toes are always tough,” the interrogator instructed his student as the young man jerked and pried with the pliers. “That’s it! Just keep tugging. You’ll get the hang of it. Rip out his claws and feed him to the kites.” He looked me square in the eye. Time’s on our side Tiger boy. Ten toes to go. You want to sing pretty? Or you want to scream?”

The soldier jerked and pulled clumsily. The night was deaf. The whole world was deaf, and dumb, blind and screaming. When I came to the next day I still had four nails left on my left foot and five on the right. My big toe was black and blue. Not so bad, I thought, with pain shrieking through every pore of my body. They returned around dusk and tried to make me walk with them to the room but I couldn’t so they dragged me back to the table and started all over.

Cabraal, appeared, smiling and dapper. Freshly shaven and attired, he called for the pliers. “Right then, shall we get to work?” he said. “That wasn’t too bad, was it, yesterday? And today we’ve got is bonus for you! Today Corporal Kalabala will do the honors. He’s new. Specializes in teeth. Or is it testicles? Can’t remember. Whatever… you may feel a pinch or two, but on-the-job training is best for this kind of work. And some people are especially suited for it, we’ve found. Like Kalabala here. He’s got a real gift. One of those people who really enjoys his work. Ready, corporal?”

I won’t bother telling you how many toes and fingers they’ve gone through by now. This cell is in the middle of an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere. It’s just a room. Nothing special. Empty apart from a table, a couple of chairs. No windows. No fan. No words to describe it’s horror. Basic and functional is all I can say, a room like any other but for the fact that I will die here. I know it. I accept it. I regret nothing except the pain it will cause my mother and father.

22I have visions of early days. I’m not so old that I forget how happy we once were. Even with all this, I remember those days, the love in our home. My mother and father. My four sisters. My little brother. The boys came one day. They wanted my brother. I said no, please, no. Let me go for him. They could see I was bigger and brave enough to speak up so they took me. My mother pleaded with them not to take either of us. They said it was duty. We all had to give something for the liberation of our people. I said, it’s OK amma, I will go. I admired them in a way. I wanted to join the cause. They took me with them and I didn’t look back.

I couldn’t bear to see my family back there in tears so I imagined them in front of me. Smiling. I saw my sisters and me riding to school, five of us piled up on the same wreck of a bike jolting down those rutted red roads. The teacher never punished us for being late. He was a kind man and he knew my father. A nail had pierced my father’s foot and he couldn’t work the way he used to as a carpenter. The teacher knew all about us.

I’m named after my father, Theepan. He taught me everything about building. And more. He taught me everything about the world and he taught me never to give up. Ever. Even if it means losing all my finger and toes, I won’t give up. I took that spirit with me to the fight and the boys recognized it. They made me a section leader, which meant I was in on the planning of things, like the raid on the army base in Chenkalady. We lost some boys there and I went down with them. Now I’m here with Cabraal and his boy. But not for long. They will take my toes and fingers and then they will take the rest of me but I really don’t care. I’m on the bike with my sisters. There’s our little brother running down the road to meet us. My mom and dad are up on the hill. I’m home free.

9.2 The Role of Mask and Story in Community Wellbeing

8Focus Group No. 3 – MONKEY’S TALE – Batticaloa

Facilitators: E. Kularaj, K. Thevakanthan
Translator: Rajes Kandiah
Guest: Paul Hogan

Participants: 15 students from Eastern University Fine Arts Department and St. John’s American Mission

1st Day Thursday, 20 August – Mask / Story Ladder – 9 AM through 12:30 PM

2nd Day Friday 21 August – Story Creation with Mask – 9 AM through 12:30 PM

Mask (1st Day – August 20)

  • 15 participants gather in from of Monkey’s Tale Center (MTC) for Kurumpeti Circle at 9 AM
  • Adjourn to ritual area in back yard Of MTC
  • Kula welcomes participants to the session
  • Ghost (unpainted) masks are hidden around the yard in 15 ghost pots
  • Participants search for blank ghosts masks blindfolded
  • Participants each find a blank mask
  • They retire to 3 painting areas (cabana / verandah / mango tree) to paint masks
  • Paint areas are set up with pencils, paper, paint
  • First participants draw design for mask on paper, then on the mask
  • After finished designing mask they start painting it
  • Tea break
  • After tea participants return to ritual area, sit in circle on mats
  • Kula gives demonstration on how to make a mask from scratch
  • Participants now finish painting masks
  • Everyone returns to center circle and is given a ladder
  • masks are attached to ladders
  • Participants return to painting hall
  • A short period of mediation ends the 1st day

Mask (2nd Day- August 21)

  • Kurumpeti Circle at 9AM
  • Participants accompany their mask / ladder to the circle in back ritual area
  • Silent meditation
  • One by one each person tells the story of his/her mask
  • After telling story they throw a spool of sting across circle to next teller
  • This person then tells her/ his mask’s story
  • When all are finished period of silent reflection
  • Comments on process and potential of mask making in community setting


When I come into the Monkey’s Tale Centre I feel such peace I’m reluctant to leave. It’s like a temple. I tried the Story Stone technique with my kids at St. John’s Mission. I cannot believe the torrent of imagination it unleashes. Biyoora

Painting the masks in such silence, with such concentration, I am a child again. Navarani

We find we have talents we did not know we possessed. The masks appear on the ladders and the stories come down as if by magic. How did we do this? Sasikaran

I was nervous when I came here to visit the Monkey. The sound of the bell and the walk through the labyrinth transformed my mind instantly. I was at home. I became fearless. It’s all make believe! Hibakaran

I am a physiotherapist and I realize how big a role imagination plays with patients. After participating in these sessions I feel that combining physiotherapy with art would be very effective healing modality. Michiru

Monkey’s Tale Centre
September 7, 2015


Written by Paul Hogan