Artist Ahilan Ratnamohan on what makes Latvians tick

A year ago, the performance artist Ahilan Ratnamohan knew next to nothing about Latvia. Now he's speaking proficient Latvian, loves our staple bread soup and is convinced that the cornerstone of Latvian identity is the country house. 

Stranger in a strange land

The Homo Novus theater festival is holding on September 7 several performances dedicated to interactions between cultures, based on research by Ahilan and Matīss Gricmanis. One of them runs from September 6 to 8 at the Galerija Istaba and features a foreigner with no prior knowledge of Latvian reading the seminal Latvian novel Bille by Vizma Belševica. 

Ahilan, who is of Tamil descent, hails from Australia but currently resides in Belgium. He's in Latvia for the Homo Novus theater festival where he's making a series of performances, called the Language Trilogy. 

In addition to Latvian, he speaks German, Flemish, Spanish, Portuguese, Tamil and of course English, which is his native language.

Latvian Radio's Māra Rozenberga spoke to Ahilan on what he thinks about Latvians and the country, also venturing into his fascinating biography that includes a stint as a professional footballer.

"I was always interested in acting. When I was a boy, I think I wanted to become a movie star. But my passion and my circle of friends was in soccer. There are many immigrants in Australia, and soccer is one of the ways you can find your place in the society.

"... I went to study in Amsterdam and got into the local soccer club. I had a taste of European soccer and became more and more obsessed.

"At the same time I took part in several modern theater projects at the university. I liked them but did not treat them seriously. Theater and soccer were two worlds going in parallel with each other ... I practiced very hard and was able to play in Germany.

"It was there where my journey with foreign languages began. I lived in a small village and had to learn German as nobody spoke English ... When I returned to Australia they offered to take part in a theater project where I had played before. Then another came by, and another. Then I was offered to direct a play of my own. It was called 'The Football Diaries' and it centered around my experiences as a footballer in Europe."

- What have been your experiences in making the Language Trilogy series here in Latvia? The announcement says you asked each Latvian you met what is the essence of being Latvian. What did you learn from that? 

Oh, a lot! I guess you can divide what I learned into superficial and funny as well as deep and serious. Well, now I know how Latvians open their beer bottles. (Māra Rozenberga: I admit to Ahilan that it's the first time I see bottles opened this way. He promises to teach me.)

Of course I have learned that the last pancake or piece of cake has to be left on the dish. And that you cannot shake hands over the doorstep. I could go on and on, but through my performances I want to get to things that are more serious and deep.

I think what speaks to me most is the idea about the country houses. Up until now I have visited about three of them and in one I spent a longer period of time. And I think that country houses are the essential part of Latvian life.

You may not have a rich country, but I have the impression that each Latvian is able to get to a country house. It's something very special. I think it's part of the daily routine of Latvians. You have this city life and then you go to nature to recover.

Many believe that Australians have close ties to nature, but I think we're a far cry from Latvians in this regard. I think we're much more afraid of nature. And country houses seem to me a place of spiritual renewal, one which fascinates me completely.

Especially the pond, the sauna, all these parts of a country house that each have their own special meaning. As a friend of mine said on the way to Riga - Latvians have retained, through the Soviet era, their country houses and the ability to grow food for themselves. At least the older generations know how to do that, even though the younger people seem to adopt it on a lesser scale.

But that's what I felt right when I had first arrived to Latvia - these ties with the land and the ability to take care of yourself.

The head of Homo Novus, Gundega Laiviņa, for example has a wooden stove in her home. When I saw it, it just seemed so great! It allows you to feel real ties with nature... Yes, I think that's the thing that has charmed me the most ...

Have you felt a suspicious or unpleasant attitude against you because of your skin color or language while staying here?

I don't want to judge people as I don't really know what they feel but I have felt that people often stare at me on the streets.

Or when I enter a store, I see a sort of tension. Maybe someone would say it's racism, but I would like to think that it's just discomfort from a new, unusual situation.

...

I think that language may be much more important than skin color. Whether it's strong enough to allow me become a Latvian - that's an entirely different question. 

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