Sri Lankan minister calls on poets to help unite a divided nation

A view of Ella in Uva province: poets are being asked to turn their attention from poems extolling the nation’s beauty to rethinking what it means to be Sri Lankan. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

A view of Ella in Uva province: poets are being asked to turn their attention from poems extolling the nation’s beauty to rethinking what it means to be Sri Lankan. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

For centuries, the poets of Sri Lanka have sung the praises of the island nation’s stunning physical beauty – and spoken too of the conflicts that have torn it apart. Now, the government is looking to the country’s literature to heal the wounds of a brutal civil war.

Rajiva Wijesinha, the recently appointed minister for higher education, has called on universities to organise programmes of poetry, along with sports, drama and dance, to “bring together” the largely Buddhist Sinhala majority and the largely Hindu Tamil minority.

“The arts are important. They can only be a part of a much broader effort, but should not be neglected. Nothing will make everyone happy but you can reduce the intensity of grief and anger,” Wijesinha, who recently published an anthology of poetry translated into English from both the main local languages, Sinhala and Tamil.

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Trilingual Poetry Tour with Prof Satchitanandan, former Chief Executive of the Indian Sahitya Academy

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Prof Satchitanandan speaking at Nalliah Auditorium – Batticaloa.

Three Sri Lankan poets travelled with Prof Satchitanandan, former Chief Executive of the Indian Sahitya Academy, to three different universities for extended poetry programmes. Prof Satchitanandan, a distinguished writer and critic and translator spoke about Indian poetic traditions and also about his work, from which he read to great audience appreciation. This was followed by a discussion involving So Pathmanathan, Ariyawansa Ranaweera and Kamala Wijeratne about Sri Lankan poetry, based on their contributions to ‘Mirrored Images’, the collection of English, Sinhala and Tamil Poetry that had been published by the National Book Trust of India. Prof Amarakeerthi Liyanage who had also contributed to the book participated in the discussion at Peradeniya University, while Dr Major Ariyaratne and Mahinda Pathirana who had supplied translations took part at Sabaragamuwa University in Belihuloya.

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Audience at Eastern University

In Batticaloa the meeting was held at the Fine Arts Department and was attended by local writers as well as students and staff.

Prof Satchitanandan’s visit was sponsored by the Indo-Sri Lanka Foundation, and the tour was facilitated by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration. Many ideas about the important role literature could play in bringing people together were raised in the discussion which Prof Satchitanandan chaired, with invaluable contributions from the panellists who had wide experience through their work as teacher educators and, in the case of Mr Ranaweera, Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The need to promote training of translators was stressed by all, and it is hoped that the Ministry will be able to take
up the challenge.
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With students at Belihuloya

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The panel at Peradeniya

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Academic staff at Belihuloya

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Audience at Batticaloa

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The Panel at Batticaloa