My Experience of IndependenceMarch 5, 2016, 5:47 pm
by Kishani Jayasinghe - Wijayasekara
Every Performing Artiste dreams of that one Event - one opportunity that changes the course of his or her destiny. That one unforgettable and special ong/dance/painting/sculpture/role or oration that changes life as they know it and in some cases like this, even defines them.
As an opera singer, I have worked tirelessly for over a dozen years to perfect a highly technical, respected and beautiful form of singing and attempted to perfect a craft that few truly ever master. To be an opera singer - or any performing artist - is to commit to a vocation and not merely a career. I always imagined it would be a particularly moving rendition of Puccini in Italian; or the luscious sophistication of a French Gounod or the musical genius of Mozart in German which would define me. Never did I imagine that a Beloved Song I learnt to sing in primary school in my mother tongue, would be the golden anthem that would affect my life so drastically.
Performing for the 68th Independence Day Celebrations on the 4th of February 2016 at Galle Face Green, was for me an extremely proud and humbling moment. An opportunity to give something back to my beloved country in the best way I could - through song and music, doing what I love. That should and could very well have been the end of it. But as fate determined otherwise, within a few hours, it was picked up by an anti-government website on social media (probably as being an easy target to incite the less well informed - something we will never truly know) and gained such terrifying momentum that within a few days it had turned into a cyber war.
Sri Lankans far and wide were discussing the pros and cons of everything ranging from Politics & Culture; Western influences & Eastern traditions; Inherent prejudices & Open mindedness; Operatic style & Folk song; Island mentality & Evolution; Nationalism & Internationalism; Freedom of speech & Responsibility of the media; Feminism & Gender equality and of course that Beloved Song - Danno Budunge - which will now always identify my musical journey and be irrevocably linked to my life forever.
Having an opinion is a good thing. Ideally it should be an informed opinion, but either way, it is our Right, afforded by way of Natural Justice and often protected by Statute and therefore something to value. An issue that polarizes a nation is a very real phenomenon and nothing new. It is not necessary that we all agree. Tastes differ for a multitude of reasons, and sometimes it needs no reason at all. It is just something we feel and sometimes something we relate to or not at all.
However, I have always felt that what is important is that we have the ability to see, hear and observe things with open ears and eyes. Or at the very least, that we try to develop the skill and patience and tolerance to be able to. That we allow ourselves the opportunity to assimilate things with an open mind and give something a chance. Condemning it for the sake of doing so, is a lost opportunity because that way we never open ourselves up to something new. If I have learnt just one thing in the past four weeks, it is the importance of being tolerant.
Since February 4, 2016, I have been the recipient of over 500,000 emails, messages and notes from all around the world. And they keep coming. With all kinds of opinion, ideas, requests and suggestions which have opened my eyes to what really bubbles underneath the surface of what otherwise might seem a benign and tolerant society. By and large the discerning public has been very supportive and what began as a vicious mob mentality has now mellowed into a more inquisitive and inquiring mindset. The tide has most definitely turned, and the messages that have been coming in most recently are mainly all positive and heartening. Now that the waters are calmer, it is perhaps important to start picking up the pieces and ask the important and sometimes difficult questions that must not remain unvoiced.
There were those who felt this one incident - this different interpretation of a national favourite, was a disaster to Sri Lankan music; a desecration of our culture and something that they were just not prepared to hear or listen to or accept, as it was different from what they knew and related to. Whilst a part of me understood their very real concerns, it was with a heavy heart that I read some of those messages. Not because I was unhappy that people didn’t like my interpretation of the music or the singing itself. Like the Buddha himself said, blame and fame is a part of life; never more so than in the journey of a professional performing artiste. So it most definitely was not the dislike for what is now being termed ‘the operatic style’, or for me personally that was worrying. It was the depth of the anger and the hate that seemed so monumentally disproportionate, that I found most disturbing. It is probably not appropriate to mention all of which was said, and certainly not the manner and language that was used to express these sentiments. But I do feel it is important to share the ‘top three’ as I call them, in order to give a comprehensive idea of what lies beneath this veneer of civilization and ‘culture’ that these individuals were fighting so hard to protect.
In third place was the message that suggested that for the manner in which I dishonoured this song and through it my culture and religion - especially being a Buddhist - I should be born mute in my next birth. In second place I put the message that told me the best punishment I could receive for distorting my heritage is to have a painful and speedy death preferably in some sort of horrible road accident. Bringing in the top – simply because this individual was so driven by violence that they felt it necessary to included innocents in the message - was the email telling me that the only suitable remedy for the aggrieved people for the devastation I have caused upon our heritage for generations to come, is that not only should I suffer for this act during the course of my lifetime, but also that my innocent children should suffer as they did, and bear the pain of it too.
I must stress at this point, that I have no undue mental anguish regarding these utterly futile and sadistic messages. It merely highlights the baser nature of some people which I hope, by no means reflects the masses. Now that the initial shock has long subsided, what I feel is a sense of sadness and a certain despair that a human being is able to put down in writing something like this to a perfect stranger for something as innocuous and simplistic as singing a song.
What type of society do we live in, that a person is able to write something like this and send it off with no qualms whatsoever and no thought about what it could do to the recipient? In my case the damage was minimal. I often say I come from strong stock, but to say the damage was non existent would not be entirely truthful for there were moments - even after the debris had settled - that I was still occasionally scorched by the embers of this raging inferno that literally raged across the Internet indiscriminately for weeks.
And one of the most shocking observations of all? That the top three remarks I mentioned above, all came from women. This was what hurt and surprised me in equal measure. If women can say these things with such little care to other women, how then can we collectively ask for respect from men? I have been an advocate for Women’s Rights/Equality/Education/Social development and basically anything that touches or affects the lives of my own kind. I went to the largest leading all girls National school in the country and still count a very wide cross section of girls amongst my closets confidants. I have campaigned and fought for my sisters whilst in school, at University and as a professional Artiste, and the very notion of sisterhood runs deep in my veins. So why then were the harshest blows dealt by those very same people that should have been the first to extend a hand?
When the fire was most scorching, it was the Prime Minister who stepped in to extinguish the growing blaze and battled the flames with intelligence and knowledge; an incredibly honourable and cultured gentleman. There were several other learned and highly respected Academics, Journalists and Musicians who also stepped in to curtail the flame. Whilst I will always be grateful to the handful of sisters who waded in, and did so with great gusto, the majority of support came from men. An incredibly sad realization, that the Hand of Sisterhood that I would have expected and been the first to extend myself was startlingly weak. This also then perhaps makes it easier to understand why there is less than five percent representation of women at present in Parliament. This is very telling about our democracy and the place of women in it. Particularly in a country which boasts the first female Prime Minister in the world, this was probably the most devastating realization of all.
I am not one to live my life through fatalistic prophesies or to mark time waiting for future predictions to come true, but in the midst of this episode, a long forgotten incident came to mind: I had a chance encounter with Sir John Kotelawela’s nephew, Douglas Kotelawela, many years ago. He glanced at my palm and in his incredibly melodious yet authoritative voice remarked, "take good care of your voice young lady...one day it will arrest a Nation...". I was just a teenager at the time and thought it was incredibly curious - almost amusing – but it struck a chord even then.
Amongst the extreme and very vocal outpouring of opinions this incident received, there were nevertheless many women who did reach out in different ways. There were informative emails about personal experiences about what they have had to endure which had influenced their outlook in life. Many of them claim this current issue highlighted an inherent sexism - an underlying issue within the psyche of our society that undermines the strength of the primary care giver of any Nation. I felt a strong need to serve this request to champion their causes and often extraordinary circumstances, brought about simply because they belong to the female segment of the population.
Personally, I am so fortunate. I have a very supportive and strong family, had a loving and balanced upbringing and unusual life experiences as a performing artist, all of which combined, has given me a certain strength of character and mental strength to withstand this onslaught. We are often told that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; that every dark cloud has a silver lining and countless other pearls of wisdom that help us deal with various trying situations. Sometimes something really good and positive can be the result of adversity. One of the by-products of my experience was the resounding echo of many of my fellow sisters here and across the seas. Calling for a voice - a challenge I am more than ready to accept. To be the voice of a different kind. Not only that of an Artiste, but also to be a voice for Change, an advocate for Tolerance and Acceptance.
To be a Voice for Women - a role that I hope to strengthen and one I take very seriously. To me, the sheer magnitude of response was the biggest revelation. I have learned so much about myself in the past four weeks: About what hurts; who inspires; what truly matters in life; what identifies one as an individual; what it is to have unfaltering support from those who know and love you and especially to be humbled by the kindness and actions of strangers. It seemed unfathomable that this matter stirred a Nation, here and abroad. On the other hand, I feel very fortunate to have been a catalyst strong enough to open a global discussion amongst Sri Lankans everywhere, about who we are; what we stand for; what we consider relevant to us and how important our cultural identity is. In the end it is not so very important what we think as individuals.
In my heart I know we will never all agree and if truth be told, that is also the wonder of it. There is an incredible beauty about the fact that these differences and diverse opinions are what makes us stronger as a Nation. It gives us the wherewithal to move forward as a unit and makes us resilient as People. Overall, it adds colour, flavour and texture to our already incredibly rich heritage and cultural landscape. There is no doubt that our differences can make us stronger as long as we are tolerant enough as people to allow them to co-exist. Like different forms of Music. It has also taught me the true meaning of Tolerance.
I always believe there is a reason for everything. There was a reason I chose Music over Law; or as I have often said, why Music chose me. I sing in ten languages, but none have been as powerful or as profound as the language of Music itself. It can cause a commotion - this we have seen with startling clarity. But Music - like Tolerance - canalso heal, foster understanding, break down barriers, bring us peace and give us infinite joy - If we but let it.
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