Creating new social imaginaries and critical democratic communities in post-war Sri Lanka through traditional culture and art

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Sociology

Abstract

This network will bring together scholars, artists, activists and local communities to explore how traditional arts, cultural practices and rituals can help with the promotion of human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka. It addresses a current limitation of human rights education that focuses on abstract moral and legal principles and formal institutions (like courts and the UN) which are very distant and inaccessible to many groups within society. It also confronts the question of how to achieve the necessary social and cultural transformation for human rights and democracy to be realised in everyday life.

The network will develop research strategies for:
1. Identifying forgotten, under-valued and/or peripheral traditions and arts that might contribute to new ideas about the culture and its potential to be more equal and inclusive;
2. Working with communities to re-imagine existing myths, stories, traditions and cultural practices in ways that challenge social injustice and promote greater gender and social equality;
3. Incorporating previously marginalised groups' views, practices and knowledge into formal educational spaces and development and human rights practice;
4. Exploring the links between the arts and politics and tradition/culture and rights.

Planned Impact

The activities of this network are designed to build the capacity of key actors currently engaged in peacebuilding, democratisation, human rights and reconciliation work in Sri Lanka. They will also help to develop a body of research, research practice and teaching material of use in other protracted conflict situations.

The network's impact will be incremental. It will start by consolidating the work already being done by the partner University:
- documenting and disseminating information about its activities, approach, research findings;
- establishing links with other stakeholders in Sri Lanka not already connected (NGOs, local and international artists, community collectives, government departments, international development and local agencies currently working in the areas of heritage preservation, memorialisation, transitional justice, democratisation and peace-building as well as women's and minority rights);
- providing a space for critical reflection on past activities and the identification of future areas of focus;
- conducting scoping research to test new methodological and conceptual tools.

A number of other universities across Sri Lanka have already expressed an interest in participating in community-engagement programmes (University of Ruhana, Peredeniya University, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Sripala Campus, Colombo). So too the Standing Committee on Gender Equity and Equality of the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Sri Lanka has been supportive of such initiatives. By hosting a masterclass series on aesthetics and violence, the network will also access a range of students from across the island who will be introduced to theory, empirical case studies and methodological approaches that they will take back to their home institution. By requiring students to also undertake a project that will later be presented to the public, the network's reach will be enlarged.

The masterclass series draws on and develops a model designed by the PI and Partner in 2017 focused on promoting gender equality through the arts. The UGC has expressed an interest in using these resources for future programmes conducted under its remit. In this way, the materials and design can be taken up and continued by the Higher Education sector in Sri Lanka beyond the life of these networking activities.

The new methodological approaches and theoretical concepts developed in the course of research and teaching activities will be documented and disseminated, both to those working within Sri Lanka and to a broader audience concerned with the facilitation of post-conflict justice, peacebuilding, reconciliation and democratisation as well as educational reform and community empowerment. This will take the form of public performances followed by discussion in different cities around Sri Lanka. There will also be a network report prepared and distributed across the network of scholars, artists, civil society, governmental departments and international agencies.

Hosting one activist scholar from the network as a fellow with the Unit for Global Justice at Goldsmiths College will provide an opportunity for further learning and dissemination. Events inviting other interested scholars and policy-makers will be hosted during the fellowship and the fellow will have the opportunity to attend an array of events in London that will further his/her professional and intellectual development.

Ultimately this network provides an opportunity for the development of a community interested in exploring alternative and innovative ways of responding to mass violence, communal divisions and high levels of inequality. Using the media of the arts - and particularly traditional art and cultural practices - and focusing on adult education (both popular and formal) through the University - this network proposes the development of strategies complementary to those focused on institution-building.

Publications

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Description The network has highlighted the importance and need for further work at developing alternative forms and ideas of community in Post-War Sri Lanka that move beyond the dominant ethnic and religious community divides. The network has provided a space for individuals from all the different communities in Sri Lanka to meet and discuss experiences of the war and its aftermath and to try to find ways of developing new relationships that can withstand ongoing inter-communal tension. This became all the more important following the Easter bombings in April 2019 and the return to power of a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist government. Through new connections there is now a group of scholars, artists, political and social activists and civil society and media professionals that are actively working together to overcome linguistic, geographic and political divisions to develop a more inclusive, diverse and tolerant version of Sri Lankan identity and culture.

The network has also acted as a support to individuals who have been trying to combat racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in their own communities but have often been isolated. It has offered a space to share ideas, critically reflect on current practices (political, artistic, intellectual) and to experiment with others (aimed at building democratic debate, solidarity, social change). A recent development has been a greater focus on the issue of emotions in politics. This came out of earlier network activities and has led to follow up discussion forums in which participants have been encouraged to share their feelings of frustration, disillusionment, sadness, etc to both provide a supportive environment and a source of theoretical insight into the role emotions play in building different forms of community and political practice. Two discussions have been held so far - one for Colombo based academics and activists in October 2020 and the other for Tamil speaking community activists and researchers in February 2021. Due to COVID-19 these discussions have only been possible online but it is hoped they will continue in person when the situation allows.

Finally, members of the network have maintained an online reading group since March 2020 which has provided a space for ongoing connection both within Sri Lanka and with international scholars. Future collaborations will hopefully emerge as a result, for example with Dr Magdalena Zolkos currently at the Goethe University, Frankfurt.
Exploitation Route While severely limited by the COVID-19 global pandemic and the resultant lockdowns in both Sri Lanka and internationally, the network has nonetheless continued. Dr Sudesh Mantillake has integrated thinking from the network into the redesign of the performing arts programme he oversees at the University of Peredeniya. He has also recently published a book in Sinhala that was in part supported through the writing and capacity building activities of the network. He is collaborating with another member of the network, Dr Eva Ambos on a number of publications and is still planning an arts and reconciliation conference that will include many other network participants he has met (including PI Grewal and Co-I Sivagnanam) and draw in members of these participants' extended network of activists and artists from around Sri Lanka. Two other academic members of the network - Dr Prabha Munaratne and Mr Andi Schubert - have produced academic journal articles in which they specifically acknowledge the support received through the network.

Members of the network also continue to be involved in an ongoing British Academy funded project led by the PI and will be contributing to the upcoming 2021 Decolonial Summer School to be hosted online from May 2021-August 2021. The Decolonial Summer School which ran for the first time in 2019 is proposed as an annual event that allows for the expansion and development of the network and its aims.

The Network's Project Manager Ms Kaushalya Ariyarathne has used the opportunity of being engaged with the network to develop her own research capacity and is currently completing her PhD with the University of Colombo. She has also published 2 journal articles as a result of the project. She is also responsible for developing programmes at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, University of Colombo that draw on ideas from the network. The Law and Society Trust has also asked the PI, Project Manager and other members of the network for input on their own ongoing community engagement and research projects.

Ideas from the network and its publications have also led to PI Grewal being asked to consult on the development of a course on law, gender and development at the Open University of Sri Lanka and on the human rights programme at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, University of Colombo. Participants of the network are now also developing a programme of activities for students in the Faculty of Arts at the Open University of Sri Lanka based in the East of Sri Lanka. This programme draws inspiration from the network's aims and outputs and has received the support of the Open University.

The essay books produced and disseminated for the network are now being used as teaching tools by academics at the University of Peredeniya, Kelaniya University, University of Colombo, Eastern University of Sri Lanka, Open University of Sri Lanka and the University of Visual and Performing Arts. It has also been distributed through the South Asian University, New Delhi and Institut Francais de Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu as well as through the Unit for Global Justice, Goldsmiths and integrated into the MA for Human Rights, Culture and Social Justice as a teaching tool in the module, 'Gender, Culture, Rights'. The PI has presented the essay books at an internal Department of Sociology research event as an example of promoting public engagement with theory and research.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description Ideas developed through the network events, discussion forums and publications have been used by a variety of groups within Sri Lankan society. Within the university/performing arts space, the network has allowed for not only exchange but the development of deep engagements between Sinhalese and Tamil performance artists and scholars. This is informing curriculum development, providing new teaching materials and also forming the basis for new collaborations in research and performance. For example, a Sinhalese scholar and performer trained in Kandyan dance is now seeking to collaborate with drummers and Kooththu performers from the eastern Tamil community. Meanwhile a significant number of participants in the network - including those who were previously unknown to each other - have become involved in the New People's Power coalition of progressive political parties and civil society organisations. In this process they have forged new alliances that challenge traditional notions of community and identity across ethnic, caste, class, geographic, sexual and gender lines. This was facilitated through the spaces for reflection and discussion offered by the network activities on precisely these topics. Moreover these network participants have actively tried to incorporate some of the ideas generated in the network into the political platform and narrative being presented: in 2019 for the Presidential elections and currently in the lead up to the 2020 general elections. For example, there is for the first time an explicit position on women's rights, the place of minorities and LGBT rights being offered by a major political party. there have also been public statements of apology for past violence. Activist and civil society organisations have also been exploring the idea of 'social imaginaries' in their own work: for example, a group of queer activists have taken up the challenge of identifying and describing 'queer social imaginaries' in post-war Sri Lanka. And civil society organisations like the Law and Society Trust are also thinking about how their research and advocacy work with the community might include challenging dominant myths, stories and cultural norms alongside material institutional and structural change.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Influencing political and policy discourse around reconciliation, minority rights, women, sexuality
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact A number of the participants of the network including the Project Manager have been directly involved in national-level debate and policy development in a range of areas related to the network's research and outputs. In particular, they have been part of consultations (both within particular political parties/coalitions and with the government) on women's rights, minority rights, sexual and reproductive rights and alternatives to ethno-nationalist political rhetoric.
 
Description Writing Retreat - Professional and Academic Writing Skills Development Sessions
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Through the delivery of academic and professional writing skills sessions we have been able to assist with the development of capacity among academic, artistic, media and civil society practitioners. They have reported to us the usefulness of the sessions and the impact it has had on their work and have asked for further sessions in the future.
 
Description Collaboration with IFP, Tamil Nadu 
Organisation French Institute of Pondicherry
Country India 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution PI Grewal spent 6 weeks at the IFP, Tamil Nadu in May-June 2019 and the Project Manager also visited in June 2019. We cultivated the relationship, spoke about the network and activities of the participants. We supported one member of the IFP visiting Sri Lanka to conduct workshops with students, school children, writers and community activists (IFP provided a further member).
Collaborator Contribution The IFP hosted PI Grewal for 6 weeks and provided 2 staff members (one of whom they funded, one funded under this network grant) for workshops in Sri Lanka in December 2019.
Impact The collaboration has led to a series of workshops and events in Sri Lanka in December 2019 involving a range of participants: civil society and community groups, school and university students, artists and writers working across a range of disciplines - Tamil literature, fine and performing arts, history, politics, gender studies, sociology, anthropology. We have gained access to an important library of materials including those in Tamil and those documenting Tamil experiences of the war and aftermath. A number of writers have gained access to Indian publishers through IFP contacts and there is a possibility of future visiting fellowships for members of the network interested in spending time at the IFP in India. The essay books produced as part of the network are now available in the IFP library and future translations (of English material into Tamil and Tamil into English) are being discussed (for example important works of political and social theory not currently available in Tamil, work on caste currently only in Tamil and literary and academic work on Sri Lankan Tamil experience).
Start Year 2019
 
Description Collaboration with South Asian University, New Delhi 
Organisation South Asian University
Country India 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The project manager has contributed a publication to the journal edited by Professor Sasanka Perera and the team has worked with a number of SAU students to assist them in developing their research capacity. Copies of the essay books produced as part of the network have been widely distributed through Professor Perera's networks and to SAU students.
Collaborator Contribution We have been in discussion with Professor Sasanka Perera at the South Asian University about supporting the development of future publications and an annual decolonial summer school. Currently Professor Perera has helped with mentoring and publication support for the network's project manager and other members of the network. Further plans to develop publications were unfortunately delayed due to COVID-19. Professor Perera has also supported students from South Asian University to be involved in the 2019 and 2021 Decolonial Summer School organised by the PI, project team and other network members. We are exploring the possibility of further support to continue this annual programme following the end of British Academy funding at the end of 2021.
Impact Ariyarathne, Kaushalya (2020) Kaajal Thavaroo Desin Helana Belum: Nirprabhu Deshapalana Prakaashanayak Lesa Shree Lankawe Jogi Natum (Gaze of the Kajal Painted Eyes: Jogi Dance in Sri Lanka as a Subaltern Political Expression, Patitha: Social-Cultural Review, Volume 11, pp. 13-37.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Being Tamil in Sri Lanka and Beyond: Critical Thinking and Political Skills Development Workshop with IFP Tamil Nadu 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Through connections built with the Institute Francais de Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu, two scholars came and provided a weekend workshop for the general public and a series of masterclasses to school and university students in Batticaloa, Eastern Sri Lanka. The workshops were aimed at developing and promoting critical thinking skills and providing a space for discussion of the meaning of democracy, justice, reconciliation and equality in post-war Sri Lanka. This was done through the collective reading and discussion of a series of Tamil texts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description New Social Imaginaries facebook page and blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact This blog has allowed us to begin to reach out to a wider audience both nationally and internationally, to share the findings and activities of the network (hopefully encouraging others to become involved) and to promote future events such as the decolonial summer school programme. It has offered a space to showcase research and writing by members of the project team and other network members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://socialimaginariessl.wordpress.com/
 
Description Newspaper Column 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Project Manager KA was asked by a Sinhalese newspaper to provide a weekly column on themes touched on in our network and its research. She has been writing these columns since March 2019 for a newspaper that has a national circulation. Her contributions have led to her being invited to speak at political gatherings, in policy reform meetings (such as on the changes to school textbooks in relation to sex education), on television and at professional workshops (with media and public sector employees). She has also been asked to contribute to a Sinhalese publicly available academic journal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description PI KG Guest Lectures - University of Colombo, Eastern University of Sri Lanka 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact PI Grewal has been invited to present 2 guest lectures at the University of Colombo (Centre for the Study of Human Rights) and Eastern University of Sri Lanka (Department of Fine Art). She has also been invited to present at a workshop organised by the Law and Society Trust on women and debt, on a panel entitled 'Art and Social Justice' at the Department of Fine Art, Eastern University of Sri Lanka and to speak at the Staff Union lunchtime seminar at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka. These have been opportunities to spread word about the network, its aims and research. Further participants have joined the network as a result.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
 
Description Panel Discussions and public paper responding the Easter Attacks 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Project Manager KA, CO-I JS and other members of the network organised a number of public events in May 2019 in different parts of Sri Lanka, responding to the Easter bombings in April 2019. They published a public paper in English and Sinhala that was also discussed in Tamil. The aim of the events and publication were to challenge dominant exclusionary and discriminatory discourses that followed the Easter attacks and to present an alternative account of Tamil-Sinhalese-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka. The main outcome of these activities was that it allowed different communities to come together and speak to each other in a climate of intense mistrust and suspicion that had also turned violent.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Short essay books on politics 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact PI KG has written 2 essay books featuring 3 short essays on the themes of the network but written for a broader audience. The essays have been translated into Sinhalese and Tamil and have been sent to a range of organisations - universities, research centres, libraries, community centres, civil society organisations, government departments, media. These essay books have generated a lot of excitement and have reached a wide audience beyond those usually reading academic writing. The Head of Sociology at the South Asian University and prominent Sri Lankan public intellectual Professor Sasanka Perera contacted the research team to say that these were a particularly important contribution as a result of being in the local languages and to explore possibilities of a long-term publishing project. These essays are being used as resources by a number of community groups, academics in their teaching, civil society organisations and have also been taken up by international scholars, artists and development practitioners working in Sri Lanka/with Sri Lankans.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
 
Description Sunset Reflections 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Throughout the life of the network there have been ongoing community workshops and discussion forums: some have been focused on specific issues (discussing and reflecting on the myths and stories that are contributing to social division, inequality and violence in Sri Lanka and ways to challenge or reshape these; discussions on the nature of community; responding to political crisis in the aftermath of the Easter bombings; Islamophobia and sexism experienced by Muslim women) and others have been more general spaces for members of the community to bring issues and concerns for discussion and to practice forms of democratic debate. These have been both formal and informal and facilitated by members of the network including visiting scholars such as Dr Eva Ambos, Tubingen University (Germany) who works in the East of Sri Lanka and has expertise on ritual practices in Sinhalese and Tamil communities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
 
Description Visiting Fellowships, Networking Activities and Public Talks in the UK by Network Participants 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Ms KT, a member of the network, a feminist and peace activist and current postgraduate student spent 1 month as a visiting fellow at the Unit for Global Justice, Goldsmiths where she met with a range of scholars, students and others interested in/involved in human rights, peace, development work in Sri Lanka. Ms KT presented her professional work and her research - focused on inter-ethnic women's activism in Eastern Sri Lanka following the Easter bombings - at a public talk at Goldsmiths. This provided an opportunity for others to obtain an insight into the current situation in Sri Lanka and for Ms KT to develop her own ideas and research. She has taken this experience back into both her professional and research work. Another member of the network, Ms HC, also spent 2 weeks at Goldsmiths where she also provided a public talk on Muslim women's rights issues and activism in Sri Lanka, a guest lecture on Islamic feminism to MA students and attended the British South Asian Studies Association conference in Durham, March 2019 giving her an opportunity to network with Sri Lankanists and South Asian Studies scholars. Ms HC is now preparing to begin a PhD which will explore aspects of her activist and legal work on the rights of Muslim LGBT and women in Sri Lanka.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Workshop on the Political 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A workshop in January, facilitated by PI Grewal and activist scholars Dr Malathi de Alwis and Dr Debanuj Dasgupta (University of Connecticut) brought together political activists to discuss and reflect on the recent Presidential elections in Sri Lanka and workshop ideas about how to strengthen democratic debate and practices in the lead up to the 2020 general elections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Writing Retreat 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact A 3 day writing retreat was organised for media, civil society researchers, artists and academics in December 2019. The outcome of this retreat has been a series of creative texts, social media, academic and mainstream media publications by the participants on a range of themes related to the network's aims and research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019