Language can simultaneously connect and divide, as Sri Lanka has learned to bitter effect in the past.

The divisiveness could be said to have begun with the Official Language Act of 1956, which saw Sinhala replace English as the official language, and Tamil being shunted aside. This stemmed mostly from the nationalist perspective that Sri Lankan Tamils had a disproportionate share of power in terms of educational opportunities and positions in civic administration.

This, in turn, led to the Tamils feeling alienated. Though Tamil was reintroduced as an official language in a legal amendment in 1987, the damage was already done.

This division has been identified as one of the root causes of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. 

Six years after the war ended, language continues to be a burning issue.

As Sunday (February 21) is International Mother Language Day, Groundviews features the work of artists and performers who have incorporated the issue of language, and Sri Lanka’s struggle with it, into their work.

Imaad Majeed

Imaad is a writer, poet and musician who curates events like Kacha Kacha, which brings together performers in a variety of languages. It is quite normal for performances to segue between English, Sinhala and Tamil within the space of a short hour.

In 2014, Imaad wrote AntiPoem, which made him want to take a closer look at the Official Language Bill.

The result is a work-in-progress he initially called ‘1956’

As Imaad explained, the first, 9th, 5th and sixth words were collected in a spreadsheet, which were then fed into a Dadaist poem generator. The result – a series of phrases of four words each, which he then edited for coherence.

The process itself was painstaking and raised many conundrums.

It also revealed many interesting coincidences: not just the words that were eventually chosen, but also those that were left out:

Imaad went on to create a different poem using the words excluded by his method:

To sotto to Ponnambalam (A Paraphrase)

prescribe the Sinhala
the one of Ceylon
and transitory provision
made, presented by
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, 
and Minister of
External Affairs.
2.49 P.M.
Before the Bill
just been the
Hon. Prime put down
Reading, I propose a
question propriety.
In my proposed Bill
violation of Article the
Constitution Council of 1946.
S.W.R.D. Bandara-
naike the appropriate
moment that question?
The Hon.
Prime a question,
to me, namely,
is the appropriate time to
raise Indeed, I
my mind to
and I of a more
to raise when
the Bill and placed
Table of this have
looked precedents
where the raised not
Standing Orders of but
in constitutional propriety
in Bill should present-
ed at all violation of
In my submission the
most and that is
am raising
was going to the Consti-
tution

“This work came about as I was coming to terms with being stronger in English than in Sinhala and Tamil, and observing how it affected my interactions with other people. Language does come into play, along with social class and privilege,” Imaad said. “I felt quite disconnected with my mother tongue. Given the conflict, we had to study in Sinhala medium as I was Muslim, and people were afraid to speak Tamil in public. So this conflict was something I understood very well.”

Imaad plans to continue the project, using a different method for each page of the Hansard.

Pathum Egodawatte

Pathum is a graphic designer with an interest in how culture shapes design, focusing on vernacular design in particular.

“I always loved letters, and everything about them,” Pathum explains about his motivation to be a typography designer.

Rather than simply focusing on creating aesthetically pleasing typography, however, Pathum decided to use his talent to try and solve the resentment generated by conflict through his project, Amma.

Amma is a hybrid font merging elements of Sinhala and Tamil script, in a way that is understandable to both communities. In the video, Pathum explains the process that went into creating his font:

 

 

His unique project, which is on github, attempts to solve the divisiveness created by conflict, and could be used on signboards and food packets in conflict-affected areas, he points out.

p10

Amma drew much attention – Pathum was chosen as a speaker for designer showcase Pecha Kucha Colombo, as well as for the annual Typography Day.

KingSouth Krishan
Krishan Mahesan, (aka KingSouth Krishan) could be called a pioneer in the Tamil rap scene. Apart from his quickfire performance, though, he is also unique in that he has attempted to bridge language divides through his work.

In 2001, Krishan teamed up with Iraj to produce ‘J Town Story’ a hip hop song with conflict as its subject matter. The track featured Yaluwanan Wigneswaran and Infaas Noordeen.

Krishan has worked with musicians like Ashanthi and Randhir as well, with the idea of bringing people together through music.

The popular ‘Ran ran’ in particular saw all three languages being represented in one song.

“We bridged ethnicities by coming together to produce music. What we wanted to do is merge the Sinhalese and Tamil culture, through music,” Krishan explained – and it worked.

“The songs went commercial. Even though Sinhalese didn’t understand the music, they would sing along with the Tamil rap verses,” Krishan said. “Tamil people too started listening to Sinhala songs.”

Minal Naomi

An interior design student and artist, much of Minal Naomi’s work explores themes of identity. She recently became fascinated with the double-edged sword that is language.

IMG_2390

This exploration, which started out from doodles, has led to artwork displayed at the recently held Colomboscope, and has also formed an essential component of her final year project.

IMG_1264

sri

“My study of language stems from the exploration of my own identity, as a person of mixed ethnicity. I identify equally as Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher. However it was interesting to me to note how people interacted with me on the issue of language – with most expecting me to be more conversant in, and identify more with, one language in particular. I tried to find the commonalities in both languages in the work that I do in order to communicate that language should be used as a tool to connect, not promote divisiveness.”

For the first time since 1949, this year the national anthem was sung in both Sinhala and Tamil. This was celebrated by some, but raised outcry from others, leading to lengthy debate on the history of the national anthem, and whether or not it should be sung in one language.

There is also the pervasive spread of slogans promoting the Sinhalese and their interests – which in itself are ominous signs of things to come.

It is an encouraging sign, however, that so many have come forward calling for unity, even in this unsettled environment.

If Sri Lanka is to avoid future conflict, there is a need to put aside the divisive thinking and insecurities that have led national discourse in the past. Whether this will actually be achieved, however, is yet to be seen.

  • puniselva

    Very innovative gestures by young Sri Lankans.
    Politicians will have to follow with concrete results in the North and the East: employment, economic development and environmental protection. Implementation of Official Language Policy of 1987 is very much intertwined with all these.
    Will the Prime Minister start with the Circulars on his website please:
    http://www.pmoffice.gov.lk/download.php?d_type=Circulars&p=7
    Will the President(Minister ofMahaweli Development and Environment0) translate thepublications/circulars posted by his predecessor please
    http://www.environmentmin.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=175&Itemid=291&lang=en

  • puniselva

    ”This stemmed mostly from the nationalist perspective that Sri Lankan Tamils had a disproportionate share of power in terms of educational opportunities and positions in civic administration” is a myth used by politicians to grab political power.
    By publishing the ethnicity of the government employees in the British empire with the help of advanced ICT, we can lay the myth to rest.

  • puniselva

    ”It is an encouraging sign, however, that so many have come forward calling for unity(and reconciliation), even in this unsettled environment”

    Yes. But then UNITY is the abstract result of many concrete steps: employment, economc development, environmental protection, ……
    So it’s time after 68yrs to raise questions like ”Are there equal opportunities for all?” ”How can we come to have equal opportunities for all?” ……………..
    But the government appoints a Ministry of National Reconciliation instead of asking each of the scores of Ministries to look at their practice where Tamils can have equal opportunities in getting employment in their offices or in getting their services.

  • puniselva

    ”The divisiveness could be said to have begun with the Official Language Act of 1956”?

    A faction of All CeylonTamil Congress (which was with the D.S.Senanayake government) broke away and formed Federal Party in 1949 after Tamils of Indian origin in the estates were disenfranchised in 1948/9. In 1953/4 Tamil farmers were shown discrimination in the GalOya Development Project. ………

    • puniselva

      Official Language Act precipitated what started with disenfranchisement of Upcountry Tamils. Those who’ve been half asleep for 8yrs were jerked up in 1956 by the Act .
      The Ministry of National Reconciliation is meaningful if all the other Ministries implement the Official Language Amendment of 1987.

  • puniselva

    All the animals that can produce noise can only use various forms of it along with other physical gestures/force to communicate with each other. Evolution of spoken and written LANGUAGE has been proving to be a blessing and a curse for mankind.
    Successive Sri Lankan governments have been using pompous language at international fora to hide the lack of political will to serve justice and equality to Tamil-speakers. That has risen to a sophisticated level as seen in the speeches made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs recently at UNDP and USIP in the US. But what actually happened was the he was making statements the President and the Prime Minister should have been making inside the country.
    The Tamils voted for the President without conditions in Jn’16. They voted in the TNA in Aug’16 who are anxiously waiting for the government tomake the right move. How long can they wait?
    If the government can translate those speeches meant for international audience into Sinhala and emlighten the Sinhala masses as to why we should find a political solution to the ethnic problem we are almost sure of finding justice/equality, peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.