Ahilan Ratnamohan examines reclamation of culture through language as instruction

Exploring language as a transmissive agent of culture and belonging through the collaborative arts practice of Sri Lankan performer Ahilan Ratnamohan.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Nov 29, 2021

Performer and practitioner Ahilan Ratnamohan is one of the artists on the creative roster for Colombo-based interdisciplinary arts festival COLOMBOSCOPE’s seventh iteration, titled ‘Language is Migrant’. He is among the more explorative creatives currently involved with COLOMBOSCOPE, and possesses a rather varied artistic practice. He tells STIR, “My body of work may be divided into 3 main categories. These are Football Dance Theatre, explorations of language learning as performance and my work with non-professional or non-classically trained performers.” He does not possess any formal training in theatre nor in dance, which some of his pieces involve, but instead comes from a film background and playing football semi-professionally.

01 mins watch Snippets from Mercenary, a kinetically-charged performance piece by the artist | Ahilan Ratnamohan | STIRworld
Snippets from Mercenary, a kinetically-charged performance piece by the artist Video: Ahilan Ratnamohan

During his studies, he participated in a community theatre project in Sydney, known as the Urban Theatre Projects, it was an endeavour aimed at accessing the South Asian community. Thinking back to his entry point into the collaborative artistic practice that composes much of his oeuvre, he mentions, “After that project, they kind of kept inviting me back for auditions and workshops and then eventually ended up commissioning my first ever piece, The Football Diaries.” This piece was very well received and combines the artist’s journey with explorations on the sport of football in Australian media and culture. Throughout it, Ratnamohan speaks through his body as well as directly, and engages his audience in an intimate and captivating performance. Later on, the artist would undertake the complex performance project Klapping along with fellow artist and performer Feras Shaheen. Klapping took its name from the development of a new urban dance movement of the same name, which in turn, samples the movements of a football player on the field. Next, the artists would begin residing within an urban space wherein they would establish a rapport with regulars. After involving a large group of locals within the project, they would perform an 'initiation' for them, inducting them into the Klapping family as 'youth'. Further on, the artist would conceptualize and carry out the piece Mercenary, which is equally noteworthy in his oeuvre. In this piece, Ratnamohan is accompanied by a group of footballers with Asian roots, in an effort to embody the lived experience of indentured labourers working on building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The performance piece is multi-layered but is primarily ensconced within Ratnamohan’s trademark football dance practice.

Klapping | Ahilan Ratnamohan | STIRworld
Klapping Image: Ahilan Ratnamohan

The artist says, “I'm always researching collaborations with non-classically trained performers, and in particular, how these can continue to become long-lasting and not just one-offs. You could say that I’m interested in a cross-section between football, dance and performance.” He continues, quoting Brazilian performer Augusto Boal as saying, theatre allowed one to “rehearse the revolution”, and continues, “In some ways, I see projects like these as a method to practice dreaming new futures through art. The other direction my work has taken is what I describe as a sort of 'gonzo journalistic performance art practice', using my own body to research in a way that accepts the bias inherent to journalism.” His piece for COLOMBOSCOPE, titled The Tamilization of Ahilan Ratnamohan is just such a project, and follows Ratnamohan, who is Sri Lankan in origin, attempting to learn Tamil from his natively Tamil-speaking mother. The artist expands on his concept, saying “The project builds on a practice of using performance to learn a language.  It's something I already did in Latvia and then also did with someone else in Belgium, with Dutch. Tamilization felt like a very logical continuation of this practice because it was something I was already busy with.” Currently, the artist is in Belgium and his mother is in Australia, which adds an interesting layer to the learning experience: it transforms the Tamil language into a cultural vector; manifesting a binding identity for both, the artist and his mother, neither of whom are currently embedded within the locus of their identity. In many ways, Tamilization will undoubtedly be less visceral and kinetic than much of the practice Ratnamohan is known for, yet by no means must one anticipate it to be any less impactful. The artist tells STIR, “If you see some of the stuff, I've been through to learn Tamil it's quite incredible; at times hilarious and at times kind of gut-wrenching.” He also addresses the fact that he has had to embark on this project over webcam, and Ratnamohan continues, “Unfortunately because of the Coronavirus pandemic, it won't be the ideal presentation I had in mind.  I really want to, and wholeheartedly intend to do this one live in a theatre, and we had also planned to tour this to Jaffna which is extremely important to me.” 

Ahilan Ratnamohan| STIRworld
Ahilan Ratnamohan practices Tamil Image: Ahilan Ratnamohan

While Ratnamohan’s work presented here certainly speaks to the transmissivity of language, it will steer clear from an overt exploration of post-colonialism. The artist explains, "In Europe, de-colonization feels like a term regurgitated by the institutions, and I don't really like to use it to describe my practice because of this. But within Tamilization, there is definitely a strong sense of re-educating myself and more so resetting myself to speak what should have been my mother tongue were it not for the imperial dominance of the British and, as a result, the English language." He adds that his research places a focus on deconstructing pedagogies and questioning dominant methodologies for learning in general, however, one cannot help but wonder what outcomes such a piece, undertaken through a post-colonialist framework, may have manifested.

01 mins watch More from Klapping | Ahilan Ratnamohan| STIRworld
More from Klapping Video: Ahilan Ratnamohan

The artist admits he has been quite lucky through the pandemic, having begun a research project at the Conservatoire in Antwerp right before the Coronavirus hit, and that he has managed to keep largely occupied with his work. He adds that many of his projects could be continued remotely, and therefore he hasn’t had to call too many of them off. Discussing plans for the future, Ratnamohan says, "No idea!  I don't really think about these things. I know that my interest in writing has been rekindled the last few years, which is a pleasant surprise and a practice I am really enjoying at the moment. I also saw that a number of ideas I was coming up with during the last few years were moving much more into the territory of visual art or maybe even public art." It will, no doubt, be fascinating to witness where Ahilan Ratnamohan decides to go next with his multidimensional practice. For the time being, audiences may visit the site for COLOMBOSCOPE to learn more about the festival and the various artists it will be fielding, and may even explore some snippets of Ratnamohan’s work for the same, online. And while it remains to be seen how multidisciplinary arts festivals such as COLOMBOSCOPE will function in a post-lockdown world, we have this festival and its fascinating explorations to satiate us and activate our imaginations. 

STIR is the exclusive international digital-media partner of the seventh edition of Colomboscope 2021, which is scheduled to take place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from January 20-30, 2022.

See the exclusive coverage here.

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