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From the Jungle to the Sea: S. Shakthidharan on telling community stories

“Surviving loss, discovering love and building a path to justice”

When S. Shakthidharan (Shakthi) decided to develop theatre work Counting and Cracking, a co-production with Belvoir St Theatre, his mum was hesitant about him depicting Sri Lanka’s story. As a child he was immersed in Tamil culture but had limited knowledge on the country’s history.


Counting and Cracking really healed mum’s relationship with her homeland. She would come to Belvoir and answer questions from strangers, telling them things that she wouldn’t even tell me! This informed the character development and story arc,” says Shakthi.

His mother Anandavalli - a renowned Bharathanatyam dancer and teacher - had left Sri Lanka during the 1983 riots, compartmentalising her pain for many years as a coping mechanism. Counting and Cracking enabled her to confront her experiences on her own terms, opening the window to her involvement in his latest co-production with Belvoir, The Jungle and the Sea.

“I had ideas about how Bharathanatyam would be in the show and that’s why I thought she would be the perfect person to play this role. I made a deal with Eamon [co-writer and co-director] that he would direct her,” he says jokingly.

The Jungle and the Sea is about a mother’s experience (played by Anandavalli) during civil conflict - surviving loss, discovering love and building a path to justice. It’s been framed as combining elements of the Mahabharatha and Antigone.

“She has risen to the occasion and should be proud of what she’s done,” he says of his mother’s performance.


Photo by Sriram Jeyaraman | (L-R) Emma Harvie, Prakash Belawadi, Anandavalli & Nadie Kammallaweera


This work touches on the bleaker parts of Sri Lanka’s history. Centring the community as the primary audience, Shakthi hopes to reach a wider berth, including those with shared migrant experience and the avid theatre goer. His work isn’t about acting in opposition to western artforms but centring South Asians within it and inviting a broader audience to engage. “Theatre enables us to come to terms with ourselves. I collaborated deeply with a cross-section of the Sri Lankan community and those that have lived through these experiences in developing this work. The show changes a great deal with what they say,” he says. 

The specificity of its ‘Sri Lankness’ unites the assimilated versions migrant communities share publicly with the full expression of their culture experienced in home life. At its heart, the show uses the universal centrality of familial kinship to speak to the loss experienced by many in the Sri Lankan war.


Photo by Sriram Jeyarmaman | S. Shakthidharan

“I didn’t want it to address trauma for trauma’s sake. People are still cheeky and foolish and have courage and resolve. This play doesn’t shy away from the incredible community loss through the war, but it also has moments of laughter. A family story enables us to show joy and loss happening side by side,” he states.

The play melds theatre with Bharathanatyam (an Indian dance form) as a means of providing two entry points for connecting with the audience. For many members of the Sri Lankan Tamil community, Shakthi’s shows are their first foray into mainstream theatre.
“Bharathanatyam is one of the most sophisticated living artforms in existence and the Mahabharatha one of the most epic stories. The dance pieces throughout strip away everything to establish this very raw connection between audience and performer that’s stark in its power. Having both artforms [theatre and dance] in the one work creates a depth that I’m proud of.”

Shakthi continues to evolve the work based on ongoing community feedback as it progresses through its season at Belvoir St Theatre. True, authentic storytelling is at the heart of his practice. He’s clear that the complexities of Sri Lanka’s history cannot be captured in this one work and hopes this opens opportunities for other community practitioners to tackle this story. “I knew I was opening myself up to critique from aunties and the community. Critique is great! It opens conversations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. It’s about having that direct relationship with the audience,” he says.

All accounts from family, friends with migrant heritage and peers within the arts sector is that this is a must-see performance work, both for its emotional evocation as well as its artistic integrity.
“This play shows that our story is a part of the Australian narrative. What we have, our ancestors have given us; what we contribute can stand as their own stories.”

The Jungle and the Sea is showing at Belvoir St Theatre until 18 December 2022.

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About the author

Vyshnavee Wijekumar is freelance writer and culture critic of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage. She has pieces published in The Age, The Monthly, The Saturday Paper, The Big Issue, Refinery29 Australia and ABC Everyday. She is also on the board of the Melbourne Women in Film Festival and the fortnightly film reviewer for Triple R Breakfasters.



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