Sri Lanka: The Role Of Arts And Culture In Reconciliation – Analysis


War tears us apart. Needless to say, seeing and experiencing – or committing – violence and injustice every waking day, for long years of our life, will take an untold toll on our humanity. Thus, when war ends, the cessation of violence and fighting on the battlefields and regained physical security of person does not serve to extinguish the rage and pain searing through communities who have hitherto been devastated by experiences of death, abduction, torture, harassment, intimidation, destruction, and deprivation. The war may be in the past, but the hurt continues. The world having been only a place of insecurity, anxiety, fear, and agony for those directly affected by war, the government and the people of a conflict-affected nation must do everything to rebuild the lives of the victims of war and allow the time and space needed to heal their gaping wounds.

The ex-suicide bomber, the orphan whose parents were killed by a suicide bomb, the ex-soldier in a wheelchair, the soldier who still walks but is haunted at every step by the carnage of war, the young widow who lost her husband in battle, the ex-child soldier abducted from home and given a rifle as a toy, a once proud homeowner turned into a homeless vagrant for twenty years – the pain of war will never be forgotten and is not easy to communicate. The pain of war is directly felt by individuals of all sides of a conflict, and in the context of Sri Lanka this means individuals of the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil, Muslim, and other ethnic groups. However, taken as communities, there is no doubt that the predominantly Tamil communities of the north and east of Sri Lanka have suffered the brunt of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE guerilla terrorist insurgency for more than twenty-five long years. Thus, the development, reintegration, and happiness of these communities must take precedence in the national reconciliation process, as well as the promotion of peace and inter-cultural education and interaction between communities, and inter-communal harmony may naturally follow – although post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction is by definition a long-term process.

Post-conflict reconciliation efforts must include the emotional and social spaces necessary for victims of war and divided community groups to express their feelings and thoughts, in addition to state-led security measures, reconciliatory political processes and policies, infrastructure reconstruction, and economic development of conflict-affected communities; indeed the Sri Lankan government has already accomplished much by for example, rehabilitating and reintegrating into society 11,500 former members of the LTTE (an extremely commendable act of restorative justice which promotes reconciliation), expediting the demining of conflict-affected regions, and reconstructing all key infrastructure of conflicted-affected areas since the war ended three years ago in May 2009. In Sri Lanka, there are also today a number of international and local NGOs and government and community-based organizations involved in peace-building work mainly relating to the emotional, social, and economic aspects of reconciliation. The potent role the arts and culture can play in encouraging reconciliation, however, has not been fully utilized by government and community organizations working for peace.

The arts and culture can be powerful catalysts in bringing about reconciliation within the hearts of individuals as well as between communities, changing who we are and how we relate to each other. Reconciliation through the arts and other cultural mediums can occur in two ways: firstly, a victim of war may find it easier to express one’s pain – including one’s remorse – through aesthetic mediums, and secondly, artistic and cultural projects and performances which are a fruit of collaboration between individuals belonging to different communities would lead to the regaining of each other’s trust and respect, understanding each other’s different but equally painful war-time experiences, learning about what is common and valuing what is unique in each other’s cultural heritage, and at last recognizing each other’s interdependence.

The Role of the Arts in Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

The arts, whether it is through music, painting, poetry, prose, song, dance, film, photography, theatre, or puppetry, can be a vehicle for truth, dialogue, and inter-cultural understanding for communities who speak different languages in nations where communal relations have been battered by the circumstances of war. Sri Lanka has seen several outstanding examples of how the arts have a great part to play in the national reconciliation process. An extraordinary concert was organized and directed by Mrs. Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan on March 6, 2012 in Sri Lanka where an orchestra comprising 100 young musicians from all districts of Sri Lanka performed in unison, playing a variety of Oriental and Western instruments. This talented and large assembly of musicians from diverse backgrounds conveyed a convincing and memorable message of “unity in diversity”.

The Aru Sri Art Theatre troupe founded by Mrs. Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan to promote inter-ethnic harmony rendered a captivating performance of the dance drama Sri Ram at the International Ramayana Festival in Bintaan, Indonesia on April 12 – 13, 2012 and in Singapore on April 14. They also presented scintillating performances of classical compositions on Hindu themes such as Bharathanatyam and the Cosmic Dance of Shiva which were performed by Sri Lankan dancers of different ethnicities and religions. The conciliatory power of the performing arts in drawing different ethnic groups together was never so vividly and vibrantly depicted. Aru Sri Art Theatre offers audiences across Sri Lanka and overseas contemporary interpretations and innovative productions of rich historical and cultural lore, while retaining the purity of the traditional performing arts. Sri Lankan theater and dance companies and associations, in this way, can organize dance symposiums to celebrate and bring together the different dance types in the Sinhalese tradition (such as Upcountry Dances, Low Country Dances, Sabaragamuwa Dances, and folk dances) and the Tamil tradition (such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, and Naddu Koothu and other folk dances).

Sri Lanka held the Interfaith Music Festival (a first in Asia) in February 2012 which was organized and created by the Mother Sri Lanka Trust and The Art of Living Foundation. Children from across the island came together to perform Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Islamic chants and songs on one stage. The highly-praised Jaffna Music Festival was held in March 2011 where hundreds of local folk artists from all over Sri Lanka as well as international folk artists performed in Jaffna in celebration of the unique and diverse traditional musical heritage of Sri Lanka and the world. This event was organized by the Sewalanka Foundation with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Aru Sri Art Theatre, and Concerts Norway.

The Center for Performing Arts of Sri Lanka, founded in Jaffna in 1965 with 25 branches across Sri Lanka is one of the longest standing organizations working for peace in Sri Lanka. The Center has been using the performing arts as a method for conflict resolution, healing, and the promotion of inter-community co-existence and cooperation. Such performing arts productions for peace can also encourage the participation of ex-combatants, widows, and others affected by the war, who are non-professional actors, singers, musicians, and dancers. A form of theater which can be very effective in stimulating dialogue and interaction between communities is “playback theatre”, which is live, non-scripted, improvisational theatre that is performed in a democratic and non-judgmental space. It is performed by several ensembles of usually non-professional actors, can include re-enactments of individual, community, or cultural stories, and the ‘script’ of ensembles can change and transform according to those who have performed before them, allowing the actors as well as the audience to transform their thinking and learn from each other’s narratives simultaneously.

A local equivalent to playback theater may be the kolam farcical plays which were popular in Sinhalese villages in the past as a non-violent and entertaining medium for venting negative feelings about colonial rulers of the time, be it the Portuguese, Dutch, or English. The olu bakko1 mask dance-skits also farcical in nature and sometimes poking fun at local political leaders may also be used in peace-building programmes to bring people together. Naddu koothu, folk play of the Tamil people, although of late associated with the “lower strata” of community, can be celebrated once again through reconciliation programmes as well. Naddu koothu consists of dancing, acting, as well as musical dialogue, and it was a collective ritual and festival of the entire village when it was held, and those of neighboring villages were invited too. The themes and stories of naddu koothu were (and are still) religious and moral in nature, and is known to be a part of the unique heritage of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, where as bharatanatyam and kathakali originated in South India. The inclusion of and collaboration with the victims of war, other conflict-affected individuals, and professional artists and others from across Sri Lanka in such theater forums promoting social dialogue will have a profound impact in terms of reconciliation.

Film and cinema can also be compelling means of carrying a message of peace with their ability to reach wide audiences. Documentary films such as The Art of Forgetting (2006) by Lisa Kois (available in Sinhala, Tamil, and English versions) which captures the stories of ordinary people across Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2005 should not be forgotten; it was once used throughout Sri Lanka by national and community-based organizations as part of peace building programmes. Chandran Rutnam’s awarding-winning film The Road from Elephant Pass is a film that should be continued to be screened, as it portrays the story of an LTTE woman cadre and Army officer, bitter enemies, who after getting to know each other, finally learn to perceive each other primarily as human beings tangled in their own circumstances and learn to love each other. Such documentaries and films can be circulated once again and new documentaries and films can be made, capturing the different voices and emotions after the conclusion of a three-decade war. Sri Lankans are known to be great film-goers.

Painting and drawing is known to help us communicate our inner thoughts and feelings, and its therapeutic effect in the rehabilitation process has been recognized. Government rehabilitation centers in Sri Lanka for ex-child soldiers as well as Psycho-social Centers founded by Ms. Manori Unambuwe for conflict-affected children in the north and east incorporate artwork in their psycho-social programmes. Similarly, art workshops can also be held for adults of conflict-affected areas, which can be a space for former combatants and members of the community to interact. This can be one way of reintegrating former combatants of terrorist groups back into society. For example, in Colombia, a group of about eighty people including former members of guerilla groups gather in a local college every week to take music and dance classes together. “The great thing about this is that it shows you there are other ways of living. I didn’t realize there were opportunities like this; I thought the only way to live was by being a guerrilla. When you’re living in the jungle, you don’t get any education and you can’t imagine there are any other options. Music is helping me move on with my life,” are words from a former Colombian guerilla fighter. Sculpture and arts parks and community murals can also be created to commemorate nationally-celebrated leaders and social activists who have greatly contributed to the cause of peace democracy, and justice (as there can never be peace in the absence of justice), often sacrificing their lives. Films can also be made of these “champions of peace”.

As there is also a long history of painting and drawing in the heritage of Sri Lanka, a national exhibition can be convened to exhibit, side-by-side, the paintings and drawings on the theme of reconciliation of the different groups of conflict-affected individuals, school children, university students of Art, and professional and reputed local artists. Such a symposium where all contributors would have a ‘voice’ would enable participants and viewers of the public alike to leave with a ‘collective’ message, by understanding each other’s point of view, where we agree and disagree, as well as our common hopes and dreams. Art exhibitions have been held by various groups in many conflict-affected quarters of the world. For example, in Sudan, “Art of Reconciliation” was the first art exhibition after the end of Sudan’s civil war in 2005 which claimed two million lives, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission inspired artist Madelaine Georgette to embark on a personal path for inner reconciliation and exhibit many collections on the theme of reconciliation.

Writing and poetry can also foster reconciliation. “Peace literature”, literature which has been written by local writers on themes of peace and inter-ethnic harmony, should be a part of peace education incorporated in education curricula from kindergarten through university. International literature which carries the message of peace can also be included in syllabi (appropriate to grade level), such as the formidable War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Translations of great works by writers from different ethnic communities should be included in literature classes, and there if there are no translations, the state must sponsor the translations of all great literature of the island into Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Special emphasis should be placed on poetry in writing and literature classes to revive the proud tradition of writing poetry which is part of both the Sinhalese and Tamil heritages. Writing prose can also be encouraged (Sinhala and Tamil being two of the oldest languages in the world). Writing, literature, art, and performing arts classes can thus be taught in school and university in the spirit of peace and in celebration of the rich cultural diversity on the island, and it is imperative that teachers and lecturers are trained and supervised in this regard.

The Role of Culture in Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Other reconciliatory elements in our culture such as religion can be harnessed to promote peace, the religions of the island being Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity in which peace and tolerance are central themes common to all. In places of conflict in Africa, the traditional concept of “ubuntu” (a Nguni word) describing an African philosophy of life, i.e. understanding the interconnected of all beings and seeing the universe as one organic entity, is used in conflict prevention and resolution efforts. Ubuntu calls for the respect of each other’s humanity and needs, seeks the contentment of the whole community not just some individuals, and expounds a conciliatory and non-adversarial dispute resolution process where understanding is the goal, not vengeance. This is similar to the restorative justice valued by Eastern religions and cultures in which forgiveness and empathy is championed as opposed to the retributive justice of “an eye for an eye”. The echoes of a community organized around such principles will travel the whole earth.

The study of Sri Lanka’s history makes it abundantly clear that geographical divisions based on ethnicity or even ethnic divisions based on name and language-spoken are impossible due to the inter-mixing of populations and migrations between kingdoms (geographical areas) since ancient times. The ancient relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils are evident in the mutual borrowing of cultural artifacts from each other historically. For example, many Sinhala words have now become a permanent part of the Tamil language and many Tamil words are in the permanent vocabulary of the Sinhala language. The religious customs between the Buddhists and Hindus on the island also have parallels and they share important places of worship. The laws, the caste systems, and social structures are also similar. There are many common elements in the habits and customs of the Tamil and Sinhala communities in Sri Lanka as well. Thus, simply a careful study of one’s own history and learning about our interconnectedness, serves as education for peace.

More State Initiative and Support Needed in Preserving the Cultural Heritage of Sri Lanka

Finally, state support should be extended as much as possible to the educational institutes, organizations, and peace-building groups studying and promoting the arts and culture of the country. Preserving the cultural heritages of all communities will undoubtedly work to preserve peace on the land. To this end it is absolutely essential that the Jaffna Library which was destroyed during the conflict be fully restored to its former glory as soon as possible with technological improvements and added facilities for research, although to the loss of the heritage of South Asia, the irreplaceable historical manuscripts are gone forever. The attack on the Jaffna Library and the attack on the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy are examples of our humanity being transforming by war. In other inter-ethnic conflicts in the world as well, monuments of historical and religious significance have been ruined in an attempt to destroy the ‘other’s’ identity and morale. The Colombo National Museum of Sri Lanka and other museums must also be restored, followed by investigations into invaluable historical artifacts that are now missing.

Structured steps must be taken by the state to protect all cultural monuments and artifacts of all communities. All ethnic communities are proud peoples with proud histories, and it is the obligation of the state to preserve the nation’s heritage, which is a collection of the heritages of the different communities which inhabit the island. There is a theory that “culture must wait” in post-conflict reconciliation, as security, rehabilitation, and economic and infrastructure reconstruction needs seem more immediate, but restoring and reviving the cultural heritage of all communities and utilizing it as a medium of reconciliation is an integral part of the national reconciliation process which must be embarked upon soon after a conflict ends in meaningful ways. The media and academia can also play a supportive role by bringing awareness to and credibility to the role of arts and culture in reconciliation through conferences, symposia, and publications.

The road to reconciliation is long and thorny, but a journey all conflict-affected nations must make to achieve a permanent peace. Nelson Mandela asked of his country, “Can we forgive the past to survive the future?” One way of learning to forgive each other is through the arts and culture, where we tell the truth, mourn what is lost, admit to wrongdoings, talk about what needs to be done, and learn to value cultural diversity as a source of knowledge and creativity.

About the Author

*Born in Prague, growing up in Cairo, Washington, D.C., and Colombo, Iromi Dharmawardhane is a Sri Lankan researcher with a global orientation.


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Hutt, Jenny and Hosking Bev (2003-2004), “Playback Theatre: A Creative Resource for Reconciliation”, Recasting Reconciliation through Culture and the Arts: A Virtual Collection, International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Brandeis University, at , accessed April 15, 2012.

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