Image via NKAR

Currently there is an initiative to draft a National Cultural Policy for Sri Lanka – which will look at bringing arts, culture and creative thinking into the heart of local life and nation building.

I have, consequently, spent much time thinking about and reflecting on this elusive concept of ‘culture’ – what does it encompass?  What does it reflect?  Naturally, much of my thoughts have been on what Sri Lankan culture is.

What is the culture of our country, really?  The immediate trap is to think that it is wide smiles, steaming cups of tea, four children running through a paddy field dressed in traditional attire, a florescent elephant, sun burnt fishermen, Sigiriya, the closely missed 8th wonder of the world and glittering Kandyan dancers.  These are the images that spring most easily to mind as these are the most routinely re-cycled and overused images of Sri Lankan culture.

But this is not our culture.  These are our postcards.

Our culture is everything that has grown with us and within us because of the lifestyle and value choices that we have made and we continue to make.  Culture is what we prioritise, what we endorse, what we practice and pass on, what we reach for, search for, what we value and what we invest in.  It is our way of life.

To some degree, culture is created through example and infrastructure.  Culture can be actively cultivated.  The celebrated ‘culturally rich’ cities and countries of the world today have become so because they have consciously highlighted creative culture, invested in it, created physical room for it and encouraged the mental pursuit of it.

Culture is a strange and complex thing, as markets for exciting, progressive and vibrant culture have to be created, not only within cities and communities, but also within the hearts and minds of people.  People need to be exposed to the benefits of a grounded, searching, creative culture in order for it to grow into something that is felt, seen, lived, chosen and passed on.

And if this need is not met with a grounded, critical and creative culture, then this need is met by default by cultures that are most easily and immediately available, accessible and  convenient.

Now the starting point in Sri Lanka on this issue is almost too easy;  too categorical.  (As a starting point it’s just great).  We have virtually no State investment, leadership or interest in the field of arts and culture.  Our successive governments have not given culture a priority, there is virtually no State funding in arts and culture, no infrastructural support of creative industries, no interventions, no best standards or practices or directions provided.  In fact, the emptiness of imagination and purpose within our Ministry of Culture is bleak metaphor enough for the wider cultural crisis of the country.

Following the apathy of the State towards cultivating creative cultures, it is disappointing (but not entirely surprising) that arts and culture are not a priority of either the private sector, philanthropists, or the NGO sector.  It has never been a priority, a commitment, an urgent, or even an importantly felt need.  Compounding this situation is our over-distended education system, which virtually shuns any pursuit in the arts, relegating it to the absolute last priority in school life, with shockingly sub-standard training at tertiary level.

As such our arts and cultural industries have not grown or matured at any satisfactory rate; and creativity and critical pursuits are not readily available to people as an option for lifestyle.  They remains invisible, dormant, sporadic, un-sustained, inconsistent, often low quality, and almost always lost.

However, the thing about culture is that it simply happens, no matter what.

Culture happens all the time.  For culture is what people turn to, in order to provide themselves with meaning, purpose and flavour in life.  It is what they learn to enjoy.  It forms patterns and habits.  It is what people take comfort in, feel secure in, relax with, value and choose to pass on to their children.

Culture one way or another will always thrive.  And it is thriving in urban Colombo.  It is pervasive and felt and subscribed to and understood. It grows everyday in visibility and strength.

So what are the cultures that pervade our way of life in Colombo? If we were to step back and look around we might begin to notice:

  • The culture of our streets – endless retail clothes shops, shopping malls, beauty salons, gyms, restaurants, traffic jams, (thank god no more posters!), aggressive luxury vehicles, over-packed buses.
  • The culture of our schools – exams, homework, tuition classes, children bent double under heavy school bags, student suicides, ambitious parents, admission bribery, disgruntled and unmotivated teachers.
  • The culture of our politicians. – impunity, unaccountability, inconsistency, arrogant, obsession with power, shrieking speeches, fat bodies, firearms, body guards; everything loud and large.
  • The culture of our museums and libraries – (what museums and libraries?)
  • The culture of our corporates – self promotion, overachievers, long work hours, making money, gyms, bigger and bigger vehicles, buying up real estate, holidays in boutique hotels or overseas.
  • The culture of our holiday sites – garbage upon garbage, big and domineering vehicles, traffic jams in nature parks, pilfering of sacred sites, paedophilia, unbelievable extravagance of food.
  • The culture of our universities – insular student politics, unemployed graduates, disinterested undergraduates, obsessions with scholarships to leave the country.
  • The culture of the Mega – big structures with nothing to fill them – these could be commercial cultural shows, empty degree certificates, a ports city nobody wants or needs, inflated parliament.
  • The culture of our TV stations – 600 episode tele-dramas of the worst calibre, incessant and multiple advertising, super star contests, sensationalised reality shows, preachy children’s shows.
  • The culture of our media – sensationalism, irresponsible reporting, un-researched writing, opinion over fact, untrained and underpaid writers, interfering proprietors.
  • The culture of our radio/tv presenters – young people with nothing interesting to say, and no interesting way to say it
  • The culture of our arts – exhausted artists, slapstick dramas, unsustainable or unpublicised isolated arts events, commercial art, empty theatres and film halls.
  • The culture of role models – do we have anyone other than our cricketers?  And by indiscriminately endorsing everything from supermarkets to clothes to banks to phones to restaurants – what do they really herald other than consumerism.
  • The culture of our hospitals – hypochondriacs, consultants overdose, hysterical and indiscriminate multiple testing.
  • The culture of problem solving – denial, blame, lying, framing, avoiding.
  • The culture of our homes – sitting around the TV, ferrying children to classes, piles of home work, children on separate devises, parents on devises, mother in the kitchen.
  • The culture of nepotism – we all yell about this one, until (its someone of ours that is in line to benefit.)

The culture of silence – enough said.

Yes. Culture happens no matter what.  And while we have all been looking away, or looking after only ourselves; while we have been so busy investing in buildings and roads and exams  and certificates and temples and churches and firearms and political campaigns – our children and our people have been growing up without a desire to read, with little interest to pursue truth, with no inclination to ask difficult questions, with no courage to break away from the norm, with little insight into spirituality, with no appetite for art, with little ability to form an independent opinion, with no belief in discernment, with peripheral interest in justice and with little will to challenge, change, create or just imagine anything beyond the most obvious and the most convenient.

If we don’t create the thirst for an integrated creative culture, we begin to loose our people, our country and ourselves to apathy, insularity and small mindedness..

Where are our politicians who refuse firearms? Where are our businessmen who inspire their employees to do something other than make money? Where are our radio personalities who read the papers? Where are artists who can pursue their art as a full time profession?  Where are our inspired teachers?  Where are our principals courageous enough to stop that horrendous yr 5 scholarship exam?  Where are our easy-going parents?  Where is our younger generation that refuses to buy polythene bags?  Where are our religious leaders who question extravagance and lead through example rather than through preaching?  Where are our university graduates agitating for the rights of anyone else other than themselves?  Where are our Tamil artists?  Where are our museums?  Where are our people reading in the parks?  Where are our ashrams?  Where are our role models?  Where are our young people asking exciting questions?  Where is our street art?  Where is our imagination?  Where is our culture of compassion?  Where, around us, is there any evidence of a country that is sensitive, integrated, progressive and interesting – and culturally grounded?

Oh, of course individual examples of all these kinds of people exist.  But the thing is, they are the exception.  They exist in isolation, or they exit only in the past, or they exist only when they leave this country.  And this is a crisis.  Because culture is not the exception.  Culture is the norm.  And if we are a country where the exception is the person who doesn’t bribe, who will not lie, who can think originally; if the exception is the child who doesn’t go for tuition; if the exception is the thin politician, the honourable resignation, the policeman who does not assault those in custody; if the exception is the stunning street sculpture, the reading corporate, the painter who doesn’t give up on his art; then shame on us.

Shame on us all.

You see, its not the postcard that is our culture.  It is what lies behind the post card that forms our real culture.  Is the wide smiling girl a victim of domestic violence?  What are the living conditions of the labourers of the factory that produce the steaming cups of tea?  Are the four children running through the paddy field, in fact, all Sinhala children dressed up as minorities?  Did the florescent elephant die choking on a plastic bag left near his cage?  Are any of the sun burnt fishermen’s children taking to fishing?  Is Sigiriya still a garbage dump?  How many of the Kandyan dancers stopped dancing and took up jobs as bank tellers?

Culture happens no matter what.

No matter what our postcards say.