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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Reconciliation through Poetry

Can poetry reconcile people of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds to each other? Can poetry heal the wounds left behind by conflict and wipe away the tears? Can poetry build bridges and bond people together?

Professor K. Satchithanadan of Delhi University, one time secretary of the prestigious Sahitya Academy of India, had no direct answers but made it clear that poetry gave voice to the voiceless, power to challenge injustice and oppression and pricked the conscience of humanity. This message of humanity was conveyed by him and a team of Sri Lankan poets, So Pathmanathan from Jaffna, Ariyawansa Ranaweera from Colombo, and myself from Kandy. Led by him, we visited three higher institutions of learning- namely the University of Peradeniya, the Eastern University and the University of Sabaragamuwa, Belihuloya.

The three poets represented the three languages used in Sri Lanka- Sinhala, Tamil and English. Significantly, they were bilingual and bonded with each other culturally and aesthetically. Above all they shared the enthusiasm to reach out to each other and facilitate others to reach out to them and to each other. The three contexts in which this sensitizing and humanizing activity took place were well selected in terms of background, audience and response. They also formed a cross section of the Sri Lankan population Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. At the University of Peradeniya something akin to this session had been done by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha when his book ‘Mirrored Images’ was made familiar to the academic community and the alumni there. But this session had vertical proportions in that the participant audience comprised senior academics, academics and students. The audience was participatory and as was to be expected critical. Professor Satchithanandan took them on intellectually as well as poetically. He raised awareness through his very erudite lecture, taking the audience through the ages from Ramayana to Faustus, from Neruda to modern poets who write poetry of violence. He charmed with his recital of his own poetry. He showed without doubt the power of poetry.

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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.

With students at Belihuloya


The panel at Peradeniya


Academic staff at Belihuloya


Audience at Batticaloa

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The Panel at Batticaloa

Launches of Mirrored Images

DSC03751Mirrored Images, an anthology of Sri Lankan poetry, edited by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha and published by the National book Trust of India, New Delhi, was launched at the Indian Cultural Centre, Gregory’s Road, Colombo, on 20th of September. The function was presided over by His Excellency Y.K.Sinha, High Commissioner of India for Sri Lanka. Hon. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, M.A.Sikander, Director, National Book Trust of India and Mr.Claude Martinez of the Alliance Francaise de Kotte, were the Guests of Honour.

In his address, H.E. Y.K.Sinha mentioned about the cultural ties between the two countries and stressed the need for translations in order to enhance the understanding between people of different tongues. Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha, while welcoming the guests and audience said that his intention is to showcase Sri Lankan poetry in all three languages since independence. He also appreciated all those who supported him in his endeavour. The book was launched by the Hon. Minister by handing over the first copy to H.E. the High Commissioner. The speeches by Hon.Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Mr.M.A.Sikander and Mr.Martinez were followed by the recital of poems from the anthology by poets Anne Ranasinghe, Ariyawansa Ranaweera, So.Pathmanathan  and Ayathurai Santhan.

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“Mirrored Images” – a move towards unity (and sanity)

I had the good fortune to participate at the launch of Mirrored Images, an anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry edited by Rajiva Wijesinha.  The book was published by the prestigious National Book Trust of India.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha had already collected An Anthology of Sri Lankan Short Stories for NBT, beside, of course, his modest collection of Modern Sri Lankan Poetry in English.  But this is a more ambitious work which has drawn from Sinhala. Tamil and English representative works.   The volume which runs to 400 pages contains 138 poems written in Sinhala and Tamil translated into English and 72 poems originally written in English.

These poems were written over the last five decades during which the island nation – after independence – went through radical political, Social and economic changes.  It also witnessed the deterioration of the relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils which culminated in a bloody civil war.  War means death, destruction and displacement. It also leaves, in its wake, thousands of widows and the disabled who become the responsibility of the country.  That was – and is – the context in which these Sri Lankan poets worked.  So, understandably, a substantial number of the poems in this collection are disturbing and sad.

Appropriately, Hon. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Minister of National languages and Reconciliation graced the function.  Present in the audience were senior writers, critics and media persons.

“Genuine poetry”,   said T.S.Eliot “can communicate even before it is understood” This was affirmed as I first read out the Tamil originals of my poems.  At the launch, the audience, mainly non – Tamil, sat in husband silence because, I believe, the reading was infused with so much passion.  Their understanding was complete with the English version that followed.

Anne Ranasinghe, the veteran, (she is 80!) had to be helped to her seat but her reading was clear and well – articulated.  A.Santhan read his Bigger Match with a brief introduction about a correspondence that occasioned the poem. Continue reading

‘Mirrored Images – An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry’ launched in Canada

A recently published book “Mirrored Images  – An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry” Edited by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha was launched in Toronto at  an event organized by the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa and, the Consulate General’s Office in Toronto. The Anthology brings together the poetry of 89 poets including translations from Sinhala and Tamil together with poems written  in English.

Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam of the English Department of the University of Toronto who gave the Keynote address on the topic “Translations and the idea of Meditative Thinking” said that “In a world dominated by the discourses of globalization a book of translations forces us to reflect and meditate, and it alerts us not only to differences but also connections and intersections among communities, religions and ethnicities”. He further  stated “that there are similarities and there are differences.  Both are in fact important. Context shapes the way one lives.  The subject matter too could be different. But the meditative dimension, the concern with belonging, and with identity and rootedness are similar”.

Referring to Rajiva Wijesinha he said that the Editor has been fair, balanced objective and thorough.  As a writer and as a critic he is aware of the need to let  literature speak for itself and construct worlds that readers must decode for themselves.  “Mirrored Images” is a significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s multiple literary histories. Continue reading