South of Kandy Literary Forum 2016 (SKLIF 016), an independently organized mini literary forum, was held on the 10th of December at the Hindu Cultural Association, (500 meters south of) Kandy, to which I was able to contribute as a writer and in a minor organizational capacity. The platform was set up by a group of literature enthusiasts, as a way of breaking the shackles of tedium and inaction that often accompany the progressive approach to art. When first approached, I was told by the organizers that the platform would be a “non-politically correct, non-decorous” deal, where progressive opinions and ideas, no matter how ugly or bitter, will be given the pulpit. My commitment to the event went well rewarded, as a full fledged eight panel assortment of creative artists and critical commentators from a wide cross-section of the arts and humanities left all ends covered and all stones turned.
SKLIF 016 featured four panels of creative writers, who read from their established and upcoming work, and four further panels on issues current to literature and the arts.The vocal Jean Arasanayagam and the wisely perched Kamala Wijeratne – easily, 60 publications among them – were the tone setters to the creative quarter, which also featured Krishanthi Anandawansa, Kevin Perera, Amaresh Pereira, Marlon Ariyasinghe, Anupama Godakandha and Katt Stanblazer. Kevin and Katt had braved the extended long weekend to come down from Colombo in public transport, and Krishanthi, from Horana. Amaresh read a sincere and moving tribute, hailing the memory of his mentor and idol, the late Professor Ashley Halpe. Marlon read from poetry brewing for upcoming publication, while Katt’s reading (on later inquiry) seemed to have left a bitter-sweet imprint in different sections of the audience. Anupama’s delivery, again, was said to be from a forthcoming collection, quite enigmatically titled, “I am a Racist”. In all, SKLIF 016 seemed to hint at 2017 going to be a particularly good year to look out for, where poetry publications are at stake.
Of the critical forums, the highlight was Bevis Manathunga and Vishnu Vasu discoursing on “Kandy’s arts scene in the 70s and 80s”, in a panel chaired by Chrishain Jayalath. Both products of Kandy’s flourishing literary and arts scene of that era, Bevis and Vishnu blended anecdote with recollection, and opinion with banter. Bevis, the proverbial “Maara Man”, who until 2013 used to be a city sight under the tree near the Bake House, along the main pavement, had come from Dambulla, where he is now into eco culture. Vishnu was returning to Kandy after a longer absence, and had coincided his “homecoming” with a screening of his acclaimed short film “Butterfly” at the Jana Medura, the day before. That, however, is a thread for a different essay.
Praveena Bandara chaired a panel on “Literature in Education: where it is, and where it should head”, in which I spoke along with the lit veteran Liyanage Amarakeerthi. Amarakeerthi, quite admirably, had brought in much theoretical input, and quoted from decades of meticulous study on the subject, including from his translation of Martha Nassbaum. Quite irritatingly, this panel was hijacked by two vocal members from the audience, who, like two Elizabethan dramatists, crossed the line between the stage and the audience with the ease of moving from the pantry to the dining room. A second panel chaired by Manikya Kodithuwakku, featuring Thyagarajah Arasanayagam and Ayathurai Santhan on “Mapping Conflict and the Role of English Literature in Reconciliation” was taken for a walk by Arasanayagam, who, in passionate outbursts, out-voiced his more soft-spoken, mild-mannered counterpart. Santhan, in fact, seemed to have a few important points to make, had he more space and time. Santhan was also felicitated by his publisher (and mine) PawPrint, for a fruitful partnership over the past year and half. He had earlier bagged the coveted double of a Fairway Literary Prize and a Godage Awards for Rails Run Parallel under the PawPrint label. PawPrint was represented at the event by its co-founder and former senior editor, Manikya Kodithuwakku.
The forum also featured internationally acknowledged photographer Stephen Champion, whom I had the good fortune of chairing, as he discoursed along with Danesh Karunanayake on “Art and Technology: from pre-digital times to the present”. Both panelists came across as persons with a knack for conversation, and good conversation too, which made the chairman’s job quite a treat. The duo synchronized well, Stephen going into technical detail, and Danesh resorting to practical wisdom, courtesy of a prolong involvement in trade union and left of center politics.
In all, SKLIF 016 housed 16 writers, artistes and critics, in 6 hours worth of pow-wow on matters literary and social. A welcome presence were Ameena Hussein and Sam Perera, who drove down from Colombo, giving the audience a sneak peek into Ameena’s forthcoming work. It was a very warm gesture on a very warm day, further warmed by lack of A/C in the Hindu Cultural Association’s somewhat stuffy conference room.
The central nerve of the organizational body were a small group of young men and women who are brought together by a thirst for literature. When I was contacted, all they wanted me to do was to help draft a plan and to get the chosen artistes on board. It was a clinically executed programme without finesse or filigree, and was carried out without pomp, and with the stern focus on art and art alone. The organizational set up taught some of us artistes (myself included) the ground you can cover by having a clear, central agenda, where your funny egos don’t get involved. The talent spread about Kandy, largely in small pockets and clusters, reminiscent of small formations of fat, is Gulliverian. The tragedy is that these energies cannot be meaningfully pooled together to synthesize a progressive vision for Sri Lanka’s literature and the arts. In that way, Kandy’s artists and the pocket groups that represent Lanka’s Left have that much in common.