By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Colombo, November 1 (Ceylon Today): A short period after the Sinhala song Menike Mage Hithe by Yohani de Silva hit the Indian silver screen, another all-time Sinhala song Suranganita Malu Genawa became a hit there, with none other than Premier Narendra Modi dancing to this catchy “baila” with the heroic Indian soldiers posted on the India-Pakistan border in Kargil on Deepavali day.
In a video circulated on social media, Prime Minister Modi was seen clapping as soldiers were singing Surangani in Sinhala and Tamil. The PM was standing at the center while some of the soldiers were tuning guitars and other instruments.
The Indian Prime Minister has been celebrating Deepavali with soldiers for several years now. He would distribute sweets among soldiers as a mark of happiness and camaraderie.
Lankan singer Yohani’s Manike Mage Hithe became an international hit and attracted Super Star Amitabh Bachchan as well. It paved the way for Yohani to sing for a blockbuster Hindi movie too.
These are some instances of strong cultural ties between India and Sri Lanka. While political relations have seen ups and downs, cultural bonds have not been affected even during trying times.
But much more could be done. Glaring loopholes could be plugged. Consider the modern Cultural Centre that India has helped build in Jaffna. Even after completion of the construction, the center remains closed due to some administrative issues.
The eleven-storied Jaffna Cultural Centre, located next to the iconic Jaffna Library, was inaugurated virtually by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March 2022. However, there is no sign of it becoming fully functional.
Lovers of cultural activities in the Northern Province expected this massive structure to become a happening place with its 11 floors and varied facilities. It has a conference hall-cum-seminar room, an amphitheater, a multimedia library with online research facilities, an exhibition and gallery space, and an auditorium that can accommodate around 600 persons. The Centre could provide everyone with much-needed space for culture and the arts to flourish.
So far, the building has been used only twice – first, in March, when it was virtually opened by Indian Prime Minister Modi, and then, on 15 August, when the 75th Indian Independence Day was celebrated by the Jaffna-based Indian Consulate.
India and Sri Lanka entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) under which India constructed the Indian Cultural Centre and the eleven-storied building was completed last year. After the soft opening, it was to be handed over to the Government of Sri Lanka under the provisions of the MoU. The agreement also stated that the Centre would be administered by the Jaffna Municipal Council. But once the building – built with an Indian grant of USD 11 million – was ready in 2020, the handover was not completed.
While the Indian Government agreed to provide funds for the maintenance of the Centre for 5 years, there seem to be differences over continuation after that period. There was also the issue of whether the municipality had the financial resources to maintain the building with its limited budget.
Jaffna Mayor V. Manivannan blamed the Government for the delay. He told the Indian media that the two governments had failed to decide on the handover of the Centre to the Jaffna municipality.
“We have informed the Government that we are ready to run it,” Manivannan said. “We have also spoken to the Indian Government… But the (Sri Lankan) Government doesn’t seem to like the idea that we will run the Cultural Centre. We can do it but they are not keen. Keeping the Cultural Centre closed like this is a total waste,” Manivannan said
C.V.K. Sivagnanam, the former commissioner of the Northern Provincial Council, told the Indian media that he could not understand why the Cultural Centre was not opened. “I heard there were some financial issues… But India has said it will meet the running cost for five years. So, what is the hitch?” he asked, and quickly added that these were his “personal views.”
He suggested that some of the floors of the building could be rented out to raise funds to maintain the Centre as the cultural activities will not require the entire building. He affirmed that the Cultural Centre will be useful to the Tamil population in Jaffna. “The question is how to effectively manage all the floors. Some space can be rented out. The building can generate income too,” he said.
The Indian media service, The Wire quoted Jekhan Aruliah, a Tamil resident of Jaffna, who had attended the 15 August event at the Cultural Centre as saying he was very impressed with the “excellent air-conditioned theatre, high-quality audience chairs, super sound system, and lighting.” He also hailed the outdoor restaurant area, which he described as the best such facility on this scale in Jaffna, and better than many of the star hotels in the rest of the country.
Aruliah wrote on Facebook saying he was upset that the Cultural Centre opened for only two days.
“There has been no such beacon since the Jaffna Library was burned down in 1981… The restored Jaffna Library reopened in 2003, is an impressive repository of printed material, books, and other publications. But culture is more than books, it is about music and dance and theatre and art and food and no doubt many other things.”
The Indian High Commission and the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs have formed a governing body to run the Indian Cultural Centre and both are confident that the Centre will commence activities and become the epicenter of Indo-Lanka cultural relations.