Hope, self-belief and trust are words that we use with great comfort when the very experience of the opposite is but an imagery derived from storybooks or newspaper narratives. These are qualities that are not born out of one’s own upbringing and environment but every thread of civilization has worked towards the strengthening of these pillars. This was exactly my thought every time I met a Tamil in the northern province of Sri Lanka. There is no other way these wonderful people could still smile and laugh in spite of all that they have seen and experienced. My recent concert tour of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya organised by the Indian High Commission Colombo was the first in 30 years and a learning experience.
Having met many Jaffna Tamils in various parts of the world I was very aware of their deep bond with their culture, in particular their language, music and religion. In spite of this understanding I was still apprehensive as to what to expect. Is music and art important in one’s life when everything else around you seems to be breaking down? I wondered. I got the answer the very next day when I took to the stage at the Veerasingham hall in Jaffna. A full house greeted me with so much love and affection that I was truly humbled. Every individual in the audience was there because of the passion and thirst for music. The serious listening, discerning appreciation and instant applause were stunning. I must say here that I have never met another community that treats artists the way these people do. True respect and affection for all artistes and a willingness to help them almost always is overwhelming.
The day after our Jaffna concert we were invited to the Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts, which now teaches music, dance and visual arts to interact with the students. Going into their performance space, we were greeted by close to 400 students. The faces, the laughter, the curiosity, questioning, smart answers were beautiful. This could have been a performing arts school in Chennai, there was absolutely no difference. Could we imagine that everyone of these girls and boys surely have a family member or friend affected by war? It’s astounding that so many young people were interested and learning the arts in spite of the trauma around them.
The scars of war are there for everyone to see even in Jaffna. The Dutch fort is being rebuilt but the destruction is very evident, the library is not the greatest treasure house as it once was, the old high security zones are open but there are not many people in those areas. We do still see army personnel around the peninsula with guns and a glare of suspicion. Shelled and bullet ridden houses dot some of the landscape along with smaller townships around the Jaffna region. There are temples like the one in Maviddapuran without a roof, and life here comes to a standstill by around 6 pm. We were even told that many students could not come to our concert as transport was difficult. Alongside this exists the beautiful Nalloor temple with an ochre coloured gopuram, and the ceiling inside is draped with cloth.
The concert in Kilinochchi the next day was attended by far less number of people and we were told that things had not yet settled and people were still finding their feet after the war. But after the concert something unforgettable happened to me. An elderly gentleman with tears in his eyes came up to me and said that this was the happiest moment in the last 30 years of his life. A truly life changing moment for me.
The next day I decided that we should try and visit Mullaitivu before we drove down to Vavuniya. On the way for the first time I saw children with school bags, sharing umbrellas and walking to school, an extremely heartening sight. Then all of a sudden out of nowhere a huge dump of damaged cars, buses, lorries, cycles and motor bikes appeared, followed by coconut trees marked with the warning of live mines. As we travelled further away from the national highway we saw more army barracks, checkpoints and less civilians. The contradiction between the ghost town of Puthukkudiyiruppu with bullet ridden buildings, live land mines and beautiful beaches, lagoons ,birds and temples in Mullaitivu are images very difficult to erase from one’s memory.
The greatest challenge for me as traveller was to battle with the conflicting images and impressions which made me question my very presence and why I was there. Am I a cultural ambassador? Am I a tourist? What about the conflicts and its residue that I witness? This was a serious struggle and one I am still unable to resolve.
The connection of the people with India is far deeper and older than the very identities of India and Sri Lanka and hence the natural connection. India has a lot to offer. Yes infrastructure and money are essential but the support to human reconstruction should be our greatest contribution. To us in the south, the Tamils are very similar and we understand their ways and thoughts better than anyone else. If anyone can contribute to their emotional well-being and rebuilding it is us. Society is a fabric of people and therefore we need to address emotions through culture and history to create a conscious strong society. I believe that music, dance, drama, and literature have to play a serious part in India’s initiative for Northern Sri Lanka. Not just as a balm but to actually revive an age old connection that we have forgotten but they have not. A cultural connect that we can use to give them more self belief, pride and faith in themselves and their lives.
Artistes don’t stand for elections, don’t fight on the battlefield but we offer to everyone the very breath of life—happiness.