18 November, 2017

‘I Am’ – A Project That Aims To Capture Disappearing Narratives Of Sri Lanka

By Shashika Bandara

Shashika Bandara

Shashika Bandara

‘I Am’ – A project that aims to capture disappearing narratives of Sri Lanka to understand our divisions better

I was told ‘we have been so many years in Ceylon. No one has studied Buddhism. Would you be able to do it?’ I said well, I will try” recalled Father Vito Perniola, one-hundred-year old Italian Jesuit priest who came to Ceylon in 1936. Fr. Perniola went onto teach Pali to Buddhist monks and nuns, and also published the standard textbook on Pali grammar in English.  On the other side of Sri Lanka, Byron Ummani the Veddah elder from Batticaloa, reflected on the development of his people, but also expressed his sadness at how the younger generation are abandoning their native language.

Capturing these unique and disappearing narratives of elders, Kannan Arunasalam, an award-winning filmmaker, and narrative journalist explains that his journey began with a single question: ‘Was there a time when people in Sri Lanka didn’t describe themselves as Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher?’ (http://iam.lk/about) He set off to meet a generation of elders who could shed light on the many facets that make up the Sri Lankan identity and tell us why people’s perception of identity became increasingly ethnicised and polarised.

For Kannan it was personal also. Born in Jaffna, raised in London and returning to Sri Lanka in 2004 to put down new roots, he wanted discover the many facets of his own identity. “I was from Jaffna, a British Tamil, and — having taken up dual nationality — a Sri Lankan citizen too. It’s complicated. I didn’t feel that I was just a Tamil”.

“But the highlight for me was meeting elders from other communities that I wouldn’t have come across in my everyday life. Hearing their stories — both familiar and universal — helped me understand ‘the other’. And I hope visitors to the website will also be inspired to learn about the wonderful diversity we have here in Sri Lanka. For me, the project is a celebration of that diversity”.

The http://iam.lk photographs and audio to create fascinating multimedia portraits of elders. In a journey that lasted over 3 years, the project features 66 elders, over 1,250 images and over 14 hours of stories. Ultimately, the ‘I Am’ project aims to engage people with oral history, to challenge perceptions of identity and explore how this could help bring communities together. The project covered six regions of Sri Lanka, beginning in Jaffna, and moving to Kandy and Galle in the first series, and covered Colombo, Batticoloa and Negombo in the second Kannan Arunasalam the creator of the project series.

Most of the elders are ordinary Sri Lankans with extraordinary stories, but some of them are very well-known elders, like Judge Christopher Weeramantry, union leader Bala Tampoe, filmmaker Dr. Lester James Peries, cricketer Chandra Schaffter, the journalist Edwin Ariyadasa and former Secretary General of Parliament Sam Wijesinghe.

In one of the many moving narratives, Jaffna teacher, Somasundramoillai Pathmanathan, explains how Sinhalese and Muslims were once part and parcel of the Jaffna community before the conflict. “The Sinhalese baker was an essential part of Jaffna life. You never thought of a Jaffna man entering that business because that was the realm of the Sinhalese,” he recalled in his interview. “In as much as the tailors here were all Muslims.”  He spoke of the guilt he still feels for not doing more when the Tamil Tigers evicted tens of thousands of Muslims from Jaffna in 1990.

Each character brings in a different element of Sri Lankan society, the region or the era that they lived in. Kandyan lawyer Harendranath Dunuwille speaks of his political campaign during the JVP insurrection and the sense of belonging he feels towards Kandy. From Galle, Mrs. Sultanbawa recalls the challenges she overcame to becoming the first female Muslim graduate from the Southern Province. Or the fisherman turned prayer leader Joseph Chooge who spoke of his exposure to many languages growing up in Negombo.

While the portraits are fascinating they may also provide a platform – especially for the younger generation – to learn about different communities and the diversity that exists in Sri Lanka. The project has been popular among both local and international audiences with over 30,000 Facebook followers and exceeding 345,000 website views.

The project can be viewed at http://iam.lk/

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Latest comments

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    Shashika Bandara:

    Do you know DR and Mrs. Rhys Davis who were sent to Sri Lanka by the British Anglican Church to ridicule Buddhism and later became Buddhists. At least, remember, Christianity is a SCREW-UP from the beginning.

    Later Rhys Davis did great work for Buddhism.

    There were many – Tibetan S Mahinda, a member of the buddhist Sangha who naturalized in Sri Lanka, Colonel OLCOTT – an american who found the value of buddhism, beauty of the country and the discipline of Lankans. They all were like Fr Pereniola.

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      Thank you for engaging. I think you have missed the point of the article and the project. This is a collection of narratives – including Buddhist monks, Priests, Film makers, journalists etc. The whole point is to not create this division and help us understand each other more. It is not about Christianity, Buddhism or any other religion. It is about the Sri Lankan elders and what we can gain from their narratives moving forward.
      Please read the article further and hopefully you can visit some other portraits that may interest you.
      http://iam.lk/the-namesake/

  • 2
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    Shashika, Great stuff, had a look at the site and it’s fantastic, keep up the good work.. It’s great to see young people paying more attention to the knowledge of our elders.

    Something we all need in this day and age is for some history and knowledge from the people who has lived and experienced more than us.

    • 1
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      Thanks. I would like to note that this is not my project and it was conceptualized and created by Kannan Arunasalam – an award winning film maker (as mentioned in the article). However, I truly believe in this project and its potential which is why I joined as a researcher. Also why I wrote this piece. I am glad you like it hope you uncover many narratives that amazes you as it did for me.
      please visit: http://iam.lk/about for more information about the project.

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        Shashika, it’s a great project to get these voices out, you have great control of the English language from your comments, I’m not sure and can’t think of what else I should say to you…………… I’ll tell you one thing though “Never follow like a sheep.. and always remember that in each and everyone of us, the gift of true knowledge exists, the difficulty is finding it…”….

  • 0
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    Dear Shasika Bandara………….. ………………………….

    “‘I Am’ – A project that aims to capture disappearing narratives of Sri Lanka to understand our divisions better.”

    First Study Karl Marx…. Religion of the Opium of the Masses….
    ………………………………………

    Then Listen to the following…….. to be Enlightened ……………

    Banda, …….All About the Enlightenment The Age of Reason-…………… Religion is the Opium of the Masses= Karl Marx. That applies Equally for Buddhists, Christians and Muslims and exploited by the Monks, Priests and Mullahs. ………………………………………………….. … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0B28_gwj0M ……………………………………………………… ……………………………………… Christopher Hitchens Destroys The Catholic Church. …………………………………………….. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3766TOukRo ………………………………………….. Why The Virgin Birth Is Important For Christians …………………………………………….. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaIzFia2p40 …………………………………………………….. Christopher Hitchens’ Epic Opening Statement @IQ² Debate Part 1 …………………………………………………. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-KMcTeLbes …………………………………………………… Christopher Hitchens’ Epic Opening Statement @IQ² Debate Part 2 ……………………………………………… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbMbrGcpyzQ

  • 0
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    Dear Shasika Bandara………….. ………………………………………………

    . “‘I Am’ – A project that aims to capture disappearing narratives of Sri Lanka to understand our divisions better.” First Study Karl Marx…. Religion of the Opium of the Masses…. ……………………………………… Then Listen to the following……..

    Sam Harris demolishes Christianity

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSdGr4K4qLg

    to be Enlightened …………… Bandara, …….All About the Enlightenment The Age of Reason-…………… Religion is the Opium of the Masses- Karl Marx. That applies Equally for Buddhists, Christians and Muslims and exploited by the Monks, Priests and Mullahs. ………………………………………………….. … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0B28_gwj0M ………………………………………………………

    • 0
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      Amarasiri…. go get a life or become a forest monk. Looks like you were one of those misguided JVPers who brought misery to the masses, and luckily escaped para military atrocities. Let young Bandara finds his own intelligence and stop brainwashing. FYI, Karl Marx is buried ina cemetery in North London, Soviet Union as it used to be is dead and broken up by Gorbachev who betrayed his country. Mao Tes Tung’s dream is being taken over by capitalism in China, run as per Chinese capitalism. I hate politics, but I also hate those who push their philosophy into others minds. Just let people live in anorderly society instead of a society full of political violence.

  • 0
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    Thank you Sashika. I think the project is a good idea. Two points
    (1) “..The ‘I Am project’ uses photographs and audio to create fascinating multimedia portraits of elders. In a journey that lasted over 3 years,…” – why do we need html code here? What we need is just http://www.iam.lk
    (2) Is your article balanced? What about the Tamils (Teachers, Engineers, Drs, Shop keepers,…) living in various parts of the island?

    “In one of the many moving narratives, Jaffna teacher, Somasundramoillai Pathmanathan, explains how Sinhalese and Muslims were once part and parcel of the Jaffna community before the conflict. “The Sinhalese baker was an essential part of Jaffna life. You never thought of a Jaffna man entering that business because that was the realm of the Sinhalese,” he recalled in his interview. “In as much as the tailors here were all Muslims.” He spoke of the guilt he still feels for not doing more when the Tamil Tigers evicted tens of thousands of Muslims from Jaffna in 1990.”

    • 3
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      Anpu,

      Thanks for the comment. I am glad to see you engage in the conversation. The project is conceptualized and created by an award winning film maker Kannan Arunasalam. It is not my project – I was a researcher on it as I truly believe in creating awareness of our diverse make up in the country is important.

      Thanks for noting the code – I was under the impression they might need it when I sent in the article. The editor posted the article to the site.

      More importantly to answer you question about balance – it was a quote from a narrative that talks about many things. It was just to invite you to listen to the narratives of these characters. Please listen to the narratives. I have tried my level best to be neutral in this article – and my aim if you read the article is to deter polarization of communities.

      • 0
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        Thank you Shashika. Keep up the good work.

      • 1
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        Shashika
        “..deter polarization of communities”
        Reasons for polarisation –
        The International crisis Group report 141 of 2007 dwelling on Sinhala Nationalism says, “The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) have never been able to agree on a proposal for power sharing with the Tamil community. Instead, they have engaged in recurring bouts of ethnic outbidding, with each undermining the other’s devolution policies.”

        In other words when one considers the bouts of state sponsored violence against the Tamils in which they were ‘killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless’ before the ‘state- created’ militancy raised its ugly head, each Sinhala majority political parties competed among themselves, which one of them would inflict the maximum obstruction for Tamil political advancement. Would the erudite individual consider these as Sri Lankan ‘political considerations’ for the wrong reasons?

        What Sinhala politicians said
        •D. S. Senanayake who became the first prime minister after independence said in a speech in 1939, ‘We are one blood and one nation. We are a chosen people. The Buddha said that his religion would last 5500 years. That means that we, as the custodians of that religion, shall last long’ [ Rajan Hoole 2001: 5 ].

        •S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who as prime minister in 1956 declaring Sinhala the only official language of the state, made the following statement:

        ‘I am prepared to sacrifice my life for the sake of my community, the Sinhalese. If anybody were to try to hinder our progress, I am determined to see that he is taught a lesson he will never forget’ (Rajan Hoole 2001: 5).

        •‘The Tamils will destroy us eventually. Before that happens, I ask that the Tamils be settled once for all.’ – Pani Illangakoon (Rajan Hoole 2001: 471).

        •‘The Tamils are gaining strength in all parts of the country where they are. The Sinhalese are in danger of being liquidated by them.’ – Sagara Palansuriya

        •‘Destroy them.’ – Lakshman Rajapakshe (Rajan Hoole 2001: 471).

        •President of that time said, “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” – J. R. Jayawardene (London Daily Telegraph, July 1983).

        •“I strongly believe that this country belongs to Sinhalese…We, who comprise 75% of the population, will never surrender ourselves. The right to defend the country lies in our hands. Minorities can live here. But they cannot make unjustifiable demands using the cover of being a minority.” – Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, Commander of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (23 September 2008 – National Post, Canada).

        • 0
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          Yeah. I have been reading up. Think projects like this will help people understand further and engage. A dialogue is always better than pouting fingers I personally believe. Thanks for the comments.

  • 0
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    Shashika Bandara -………………………………………….

    Here is another Narrative from England with Tony Blair……….

    May me can you dive a Similar Narrative With David Cameroon and Mahi da Rajapaksa…………………………………………..
    …………………………………….

    Christopher Hitchens explains catholicism to Tony Blair
    …………………………………………………………..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTUxcxHLdrM
    ………………………………………………………..

    • 1
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      Thanks for your information. I think you may not have been able to read the whole article. This is not about Christianity or about any religion for that matter. This is a collection of narratives that carries narratives from Buddhist monks, Christian Priests, Fisherman, Noted Filmmakers, journalists etc. The project aims to create a better understanding about our communities and is a platform for us to listen to these disappearing narratives. I sincerely hope you would be able to visit the site and learn for yourself about these characters.
      http://iam.lk/the-namesake/ This might interest you more.

  • 0
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    Interesting & good article – I would rather the project was named “we are” instead of “I am” as that sounds more sri Lankan – i think Asian think more as a collective and not as individuals.

  • 0
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    great website … really enjoyed listening to people from different areas of SL. especially Jaffna as I have never been there.. thanks.

  • 0
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    There is no country in the world called Ceylon now.For English with the difficulty of pronouncing local name they called it such. In Bangkok museum and in the old city of Sukhothai Sri Lanka is reffered to as Lanka dweepa and history books confirm it.Still our “Kalu sudda” and also old Tamil people in UK refer to it ad Ceylon. Thousands of years we called it Sri pada but Kalu sudda calls it Adam’s peak…Poor lankadeepa!

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