By a Sri Lankan citizen
Colombo, April 9 (DailyFT): This is the first appreciation this citizen has ever written of any Sri Lankan Government minister and probably will be the last. These few paragraphs are an appreciation of State Minister of National Heritage, Performing Arts and Rural Arts Promotion Vidura Wickramanayaka, based on some of his recent steps to bridge the north and south through arts.
It is an appreciation of someone initiating within his power what seems to be genuine humaneness through official parameters. It is connected to him primarily asking a few ordinary northern artists last month to arrange for him to speak informally to a few of their colleagues in Jaffna to find out their requirements and issues, living as if they were in an area where the shadows of a painful past still linger.
His endeavour to get to know the issues of northern artistes is a follow up to his speech in parliament around two months ago where he announced the decision to construct a performance venue modelled after Tower Hall. This idea had apparently been first brought up by a cultural officer in Jaffna at a formal public meeting attended by several cultural officials with the minister to discuss the difficulties faced by artistes. Although having had a detailed formal discussion, Wickramanayaka had wanted to speak more informally to a wider set of artistes from different disciplines in January. He had approached the request for this meeting through some educationists of the north.
Having mentioned the above, it should be noted that it is in the backdrop of Sri Lanka having once again to face the Geneva human rights battlefield where it has to defend itself of alleged war crimes and current performance in national reconciliation endeavours.
What an ordinary citizen feels, is that we seem to lack either the strategy or the willpower to convince in a realistic sense to the international arena that efforts are being taken for the emotional wellbeing of the whole of Sri Lanka; not because any foreigner wants it but because we in this country, whether Sinhala or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher, wishes it. For the masses this is needed because we do not hold any other citizenship and this is the only home we know. This holds true for us in the north as well. Despite many Sri Lankan Tamils having left this region, there are many, including youth who follow their forefathers in wanting to remain and their wish is to contribute as they can to Sri Lanka as a whole.
It is generally understood that the ministry in charge of showcasing a positive image of Sri Lanka is the Foreign Ministry. Yet common sense tells us that the role of each and every Government ministry matters. Almost all ministries can, as per the individual portfolio, innovatively contribute to the image of the Sinhalese to be what they were as a civilisation; as a humane people with dignity and self-respect to themselves and others living on this land. Yet we see little initiative in this regard in general with some ministries even at times absconding doing their basic tasks.
Hence the below is a narrative of a minister in the current Government known for his simplicity, non-corruptness and forthrightness who is both approachable to ordinary citizens and known for his diligence. Although this is what we have heard of him we witnessed it first hand when we met him. It was clear to us that in his own way, and out of the limelight, he is silently contributing to the good name Sri Lanka deserves, within the limits that he can.
It is generally known that the priorities of each ministry come under the larger purview of whatever ideology a sitting Government largely holds and that some of the decisions of a particular minister are out of his hands.
Having said the above, it should be noted that despite possible overarching power influences, that there could be many opportunities for any person holding a ministerial portfolio to ensure holistic and rational decision making for the wellbeing of all citizens if he so genuinely wishes.
This could begin with small actions as was carried out in the last week of January, marking one of the recent visits of Minister Vidura Wickramanayaka to Jaffna. In one of his last discussions there a cultural officer had pointed out the lack of facilities for performing arts in the region as compared to Colombo and effort was taken by Wickramanayaka to follow up on the feasibility as needed for the building of a tower hall foundation branch in the north. This was announced by Minister Wickramanayaka to parliament around the month of November. By now several official discussions in this regard have been held in Jaffna to ensure this gets done.
While Wickramanayaka was holding these discussions, a colleague of mine was one of the persons approached by Jaffna’s most impartial citizens and veteran poet, S. Pathmanathan (better referred to as Sopa) to provide a private non-political location for Wickramanayaka to meet artistes, especially those of the younger generation. The minister wanted to find out their day-to-day concerns in producing their creations. He had specified the need to meet artistes from different disciplines; musicians, dancers, poets, novelists and theatre practitioners.
He could have easily made this request through official channels but he would have known that he may not be able to meet the kind of people he wanted to; ordinary people who were at the earlier stages of their artistic journey.
Sopa is Jaffna’s oldest poet, known for his literary and intellectual stature in society. He is not the type of scholar to fawn over someone who has a role to serve the people (thus holding the title of minister) and had agreed to make the arrangements. The conditions put to the minister was to respect the time of the artistes by being punctual and to arrive without the usual annoying fuss politicians accord themselves.
The time and location (a private education centre) had been arranged for the discussion with 10 artistes and the meeting had proceeded with each of the artistes explaining whatever difficulty they faced and citing the steps needed for the solution.
For example, when told the hardship of selling books in the post war region of north Wickramanayaka had been informed that steps would be taken to purchase 100 books of selected writers.
The Jaffna writers had explained that they have printers but no publishers and that therefore they had to raise loans or pawn the family gold to print their works. Once printed, there is no network for sales/circulation. The Assistant Commissioner of Local Government ACLG used to purchase the books and send them to the libraries of local bodies. The system worked well but it is defunct now. The central cultural ministry too could give a helping hand, the northern writers had stated. Wickramanayaka had assured the writers that the problem could be tackled.
The meeting of the artistes handpicked by Sopa and hosted by a former Secretary of Education, now involved in supporting pre-school education was eye opener for ministers to act like the true servants of the people they are. In a simple lunch arranged by the artistes, this informal citizen-based step was proof that even a small well-meaning step could open a vista for peace building through cultural understanding. The minister known for going barefoot, stating that he can walked down the roads of Jaffna to find a Sivara hotel for typical Jaffna breakfast, and explaining that he does this often in Colombo may have been something that made him more human than the kind of image as we are used to in Sri Lanka of the purported servants of the people acting like Lords.
Minister Wickramanayaka had invited a group of northern artistes to come to the south and present a concert of folk music, drama and koothu and stated that it could be followed by a presentation by Sinhala artistes in Jaffna.
We hope that this initiative of Wickramanayaka will be the one of the small steps of Sinhala Government ministers representing the country as per their portfolio and doing so from their hearts which makes all the difference.