By 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/