By Chenelle Fernando
It’s no surprise that Sri Lanka is a country blessed with a rich cultural heritage that has evolved through time; sectarianism aside, numerous cultures collectively intertwine to form what best signifies true Sri Lankan identity. Sri Lanka is home to numerous cultural sites now conserved due to their status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Kandy, Sigiriya, Dambulla, and Anuradhapura to name a few. Many facets of cultural importance in Sri Lanka, such as the arts, have captivated the world, with a large number of visitors visiting these sites every year.
As culture is a facet that influences the identity of a country, it goes without saying that the maintenance, conservation, and growth of the cultural arts should inherently be everybody’s business – citizens and governments alike.
“Dear Children, Sincerely”, a production by the Stages Theatre Group directed by Ruwanthie De Chickera, will be showcased at the Lionel Wendt Theatre today, 1 September. The show is presented as a means of raising funds for Akalanka Prabashwara, who has been presented a one-year scholarship at a renowned arts university in the US, for the purpose of covering his living expenses. Investment is needed to maintain the arts and culture of a country, specifically reinvestment in its actors in a bid to assure and enhance its quality. Unfortunately, our country remains in much need of this, for cultural investment in the arts seems to be a rare occurrence.
Speaking to de Chickera, we came to understand that culture has been stained as being merely for entertainment, despite the fact that it plays a vital role in the development of a country as a whole.
She explained: “I’ve been doing art for the past 20 years. I started when I was 19 and now, I’m in my 40s and still, it’s difficult.”
It’s unfortunate that we have to witness such perils to the arts, as the standard maintained by Sri Lankan artists remains to be exceptional, despite the lack of support. “I’ve gone overseas with artists and Sri Lankan artists are on par with international artists,” she concluded.
Investment in theatre has become a global practice as most countries invest in their culture; European governments invest in arts as they are aware of its importance; in America, philanthropy is prevalent due to the wealth of private investment in the field.
Commenting on the local stance with great remorse, de Chickera stated: “If people were to invest, they would do so for social causes and not necessarily on culture. That has a huge impact on a country when it doesn’t have a strong cultural industry. As there is no funding, there is no investment in the arts.”
As mentioned afore, culture reinforces and contributes to a country’s identity. Why then, has it failed to gain the same respect or support other areas of interest, such as the sciences and social sciences, have – that too, regardless of successes or failures?
“On the one hand, it is incredible that there’s this level of artistic input,” said Prabashwara, also commenting on this aspect, adding: “The DCS (Dear Children, Sincerely) project comprises artists, costume designers, etc. But rather than only focusing on their specific aspects for the project, the team conducted research on our history, putting aside the theatre aspect of it initially for a brief period.
“Unfortunately, a culture of investment in research-based projects, through the allocation of sufficient funds for the work carried out on the basis that our findings would ultimately benefit society at large, is not prevalent in Sri Lanka. This happens overseas only.”
What is studied under the subject of theatrics in universities in the current day is a result of research and study conducted by renowned names such as Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski and Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal.
While speaking to Nalin Lusena, a member of the Stages Theatre group, it became clear to us that a proper mechanism to conserve or maintain culture has not been instilled as a result of the lack of knowledge on the role it plays in society and our country. He said: “Because of this, not only are artists required to create, they are also required to conserve what they create.”
As a means of circumventing this, the Cultural Investment Fund was thus initiated by the production group. It seeks to change the existing dynamics by creating a space for artists to train and from where they can conduct research on their artform. This, they believe, would enhance the quality of performance as well as overall production.
Brilliant artists are lost each day due to a lack of sufficient funds to support them, and so they hope this initiative would act as a preventive measure to this problem. As indicated by Akalanka: “There isn’t a mechanism or systematic method to ensure the sustainability of the artists in our country. The Cultural Investment Fund is a step, and we hope to do remedy the current situation and hope to carry it forward.”
Lusena believes that one reason behind the lack of investment in arts is that it doesn’t seem to generate immediate returns for its investors; although the long-term benefits encompassed are priceless.
Lusena is also a scholarship-holder at the same university that Prabashwara will enrol himself at soon, although he is unable to do so due to a lack of sufficient funds. “There have been numerous funding systems in our country, but now these systems don’t exist.”
Despite Lusena’s capabilities that go beyond the requirements that qualify him for such a scholarship, the lack of funds for sustenance thereafter prevents him from continuing his pursuit in the field.
The manner in which artists contribute to society is threefold; entertainment, healing – for a country that has endured war, this is vital – and lastly, critical thinking.
The latter, de Chickera believes, is most important, as the ability to think critically is generated through the arts and this, she believes, requires protection. She added: “If you take the renaissance for instance, countries have moved forward because artists have said what the governments were doing was wrong. This was the same with Animal Farm too.”
It is only just and reasonable to engage in systematic methods to sustain this talent, to develop an artform that not only works in the evolution of culture and state, but also to reap the benefits that would materialise in future generations. Lusena and Prabashwara are only two artists we came across, although considering our rich cultural heritage, the pool of talent that exists within our nation is unthinkably vast.