Poongkothai with some of the children at Terrance House
Some months ago, I met a beautiful boy. My mind named him Darshan and framed his image — enormous eyes with long curling lashes, ear covered in sand from a night sleeping on the beach, formed beautifully like the layers of a sea shell, mouth and chin trembling on the verge of tears. He had travelled from Sri Lanka to India, and found himself staring at the sea surrounding Dhanushkodi the next morning. He must have been eight and he wanted very badly to be back home.
A couple of days ago, his face re-emerged. I saw the eyes in a smudged drawing by a ten-year-old remembering a world of blood and loss with colour pencils. I wondered if Darshan’s eyes had seen these scenes, if he could have drawn so much blood.
“The incident that affected me the most.” That’s the theme for the exhibition of works by Sri Lankan refugee children.
A little girl draws a school, children standing outside being shot by the army. Blood shoots forth; the guns are greatly detailed as she recalls her school under attack. Five hundred pictures, 500 voices, safe in Tamil Nadu’s 117 refugee camps. The memories give the debate against violence in the media a special edge. Rape, shootings, death, lives caught bet­ween the Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army, these children have seen them all and are recalling them in their childish hand. The exhi­bition, “Sunshine in a Teardrop”, seeks to put a human face on the conflict in Sri Lanka. It is a collection of very personal tales.
It’s a conflict that’s like an old friend to the organiser, Poongkothai Chandrahasan. She grew up in the backdrop of it, as her family has been inextricably linked to the struggle for Tamil rights over the years. Her paternal grandfather, S J V Chelvanayagam, was the iconic leader of the Federal Party. Her maternal grandfather, Dr E M V Naganathan, was another party stalwart. Father S C Chandrahasan is the founder of the apolitical, non-profit-making Organisation for Eelam Refugees and Rehabilitation (OfERR) that works with the 80,000-odd refugees in Tamil Nadu.
Despite this family’s history, Poongkothai found her way into it on her own. Now, 25 years after she left Sri Lanka as a three-year-old, she has brought together several of Chennai’s best-known young people to tell the story of childhoods lost to the conflict.
“The news talks of so many Tigers killed, so many soldiers killed, but we forget the human face of starving civilians, children losing their parents and worse,’’ she explains. ‘‘What began as a competition for an international exhibition is now a statement by these children. The war, to them, is not an abstraction. These are the stories of their sufferings, their personal tales of loss.”
Poongkothai discovered the lives of refugees after completing a course in filmmaking at Harvard. In the six years since, she has acted in one Tamil film, assisted people like P C Sreeram and Walter Cronkite, and made seven documentaries about children and the lives of Sri Lankan refugees in India.
“That’s when it struck me. I understood their lives too,” explains the young film­maker, whose Refugees to the Rescue (2006) has been screened in several countries. But her travels through both the camps in India and conflict-scarred parts of Sri Lanka did not prepare her for what this competition would show. “Five hundred children participated, and the topics included the incident that affected me the most — my dreams, peace, etc. When we saw the work, I realised how much pain and suffering these children have seen and undergone, and I understood their strength.”
She got her friend, R Sunder, a fashion photographer, interested in the project to tell their stories to a local audience as well. With him, she visited a short-list of children and discussed their work with them before photographing them.
“There was no posing, no pretend-smiling, we shot them as they were. And it was only in speaking to them did we, and even OfERR’s counsellors, see their angst. Children don’t lie. And while many adults seek counselling, the children have no one to share their stories with. Once they opened up, some of them cried at their memories, it was a terrible exp­erience,” she says, her voice trembling. “One thing that came out very strongly was a yearning for peace and a desire to go home.”
Back in the city, Poongkothai mustered support from other friends — actor Satyaraj’s daughter Divya is funding travel and prizes for some of the children to visit Chennai, Sat­yam Cinemas is helping with advertising, and Konica with the printing, Galatta.com with publicity and more. The show hits the roads today at the Madras Terrance House in Royapettah and will be on till January 18.
“I’m a filmmaker, I’m not good at organising stuff like this,” Poongkothai says, “but I thought it was important that these images be shared. So many people in Tamil Nadu have a negative impression of refugees. I want to take this exhibition to more places in Chennai and then hopefully locations near these children’s camps so that school kids there too can be sensitised.’’
She also hopes to raise funds for a seven-day workshop in the arts for 40 children selected from the camps. “Then they can go back and teach the others what they have learnt. I hope it works out because we promised and don’t want to disappoint them,” she smiles.