A frame for non-partisan intervention for a State Cultural Policy and institutional process directed to the well being of the people

- Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardena
This draft may be seen as an extension to the longstanding discourses initiated by us through the Vibhavi – Centre for alternative culture in 90s, and later through Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts, and as a response to discourses initiated within last 4-5 years by organizations such as November Movement and Heritage Initiative, as well as by leading artistes and scholars like Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Parakrama Niriella, Prof. Sivathamby, Prasanna Vithanage, Lakshman Gunasekara, Nirmal Ranjith devasiri and recent progressive interventions to the public discourse by prominent artistes and cultural critics such as Chandragupta Thenuwara, Jagath Weerasinghe, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Rajitha Dissanayake , Saumya Liyanage , Gamini Viyangoda, Piyal Kariyawasam, Kaushalya Pranandu, Chandana Aluthge, Priyantha Kaluarachchi, Namal Jayasinge, K.Gnanadas and many other younger artistes and cultural activits.

*Speaking generally and considering the fact that culture has been universally claimed as constituting a fundamental and inalienable sphere in the total human development , and,

*Speaking specifically and considering the fact that our country is presently engulfed in a serious crisis of civilization, recovery from which can only be achieved through renaissance and empowerment of the society which must draw the essential strength from the development and transformation of its cultural-spiritual life;

We draw attention to the following facts regarding the cultural affairs of the country in relation to the state.
The Problems we see
It is our observation,

  1. i) that no vision , objectives , hence and overall policy has been formulated for the last sixty years for a proper and adequate participation by the State in the cultural field,

  2. ii) that successive governments of all hues have displayed an incredible insensitivity and apathy towards this area,

  3. iii) that since its inception the Ministry of Cultural Affairs has operated within a very narrow perspective and framework of activity in terms of subject area,

  4. iv) while its operation from the very inception also has been very problematic, as it failed in meeting basic criteria of social justice and social harmony, has been an added factor behind major post-colonial social conflicts rather than a support for conflict transformation, hence social well-being,

  5. v) specially this situation can be seen both as facet of failure of post-colonial Nation Building project and one of its underlying factors,

  6. vi) and that politicians in power have constantly and continuously misused the state cultural institutions for their individual and party interests,

  7. vii) and specially that the total cultural life of people has been permitted to be exposed to the wanton mercies of the unregulated forces of the liberal market , blocking the possibilities of development and empowerment of a socially responsible citizen and collective life of people in explicit and implicit ways,

  8. viii) This situation is seen created by,

ultimate destruction of whatever traces left from the Public Broadcasting tradition in the country, mainly by giving state media away to the mercies of commercial capital and partisan power politics,
paving way for total commercialization of the cultural production area of country, as no policy has been formulated and no institution has been set up to guarantee availability of any public funds in this sector, and
last but not least , by de-linking the vision and objectives of education with needs of social well-being, nation building and ethnic harmony and in overall, with the need of fashioning a modern citizenry with necessary spiritual -cultural development.

In the aforesaid problematic background, the character of the State cultural Policies and the nature of activities of State cultural institutions which are maintained by public funds are determinants in the correction of the above unsatisfactory state of affairs, and for the development of a cultural processes throughout the country , that should be directed at the end of the day to the welfare of the people.
The conclusion to be drawn from the above said factors is that an important part of basic human needs in relation to general well-being of people , collective identities and freedom, and , if to look at from a rights based approach, an equally important area of fundamental rights of the citizens of this country, are being continuously violated. It is also then clear that although the State of Sri Lanka has been a signatory to the Geneva International Covenant and to many other such international agreements related to the Right to Culture and Cultural Rights, it has not up to now acted with least resolve to fulfill its obligations

What we propose

We propose that all the central and regional governing bodies should take this area as a crucial area related to the development of the country; it is needless to say that a special responsibility devolves on the government in power; First of all the status of the Cultural Ministry has to be upgraded making it a centrally important agency in the government affairs , making sure that it will be led by a person with due intellectual abilities and personal integrity . It also should be equipped with adequate human and intellectual resources and economic strength.
Addressing governing bodies we also wish to resolutely emphasize that speedy steps should be taken to device institutional processes based on a comprehensive policy frame, and planned and correct strategies designed to ensure the cultural-spiritual welfare of the people while taking into account the contemporary national and international politico-economic context, its problems and challenges.
Special emphasis should be made to transform cultural dimensions of social violence that encompass many areas of social life. Related to this it also should be emphatically noted that there is an array of harmful cultural practices prevailing in the country, to which not only policy makers, but even the majority of the educated public is blind. One can see such practices, which are harmful to the wellbeing of individuals and the society as a whole, within social relationships linked to deep structures like gender, cast and generation. Needless to repeat that the State has been totally blind to the reality of cultural diversity of the country, hence state functions and national celebrations conducted by the State usually seen as spaces that marginalize or exclude certain sections of Sri Lankan people.
First of all the government should formulate a State Policy frame in collaboration with concerned professional cultural bodies and cultural workers. We give here some important guidelines for such a policy development .

  1. Issue; Lack of vision , comprehensive cultural policy and monitoring mechanism; In Developing an overarching comprehensive policy on culture, in terms of goals , focus should be directed to two inter-related issues;

v Total human development (as against prevailing narrow and socially harmful concepts of ‘development’) and,
v Building of Sri Lankan Nation.
It seems, this task could be achieved only by establishing a multi-sectoral cultural taskforce comprised of experts, relevant stake holders including civil society representation with close coordination and cooperation between the Ministry of Education, Ministry Mass media, Ministry of Cultural affairs.

  1. Further, in the formulation of a National Cultural Policy and the determination of the strategies of its implementation , the diversity of urban-rural , Gender and Generation , as well as of Ethnic and other cultural groups and the diversity of their cultural needs should be taken into account. Special emphasis should be made here on the need in rebuilding and renewal of the cultural institutions and spaces destroyed by the war. Critical knowledge about problems attendant on and opportunities provided by the current globalization processes should be considered absolutely necessary. In essence the protection of the general rights of citizenry to cultural achievements of the country ( Right to the culture), as well as the specific cultural rights of communities and as a part thereof, the right to artistic achievements and the right to access and enjoyment of the best achievements of artistic endeavor should be ensured and opportunities provided to all citizens of Sri Lanka as a fulfillment of the responsibility of the democratic state.

  1. Issue; Lack of adequate institutional process to develop infrastructure supporting artistes and arts , including arts education;. In order to elevate and uplift from its present sorry state , The Arts Council which, among the many State cultural institutions , should be the foremost , in its capacity and potential to fulfill the country’s requirements pertaining to development of diverse arts fields ; it is absolutely necessary to strengthen its mandate and structures , broaden its scope of work and most importantly restore and safeguard its autonomy. If this is to happen , it will be essential to pursue a positive course of action both democratic and transparent at every level of its life.

  1. Further to the Issue No.3; Lack of public funds to support the arts and culture, and relevant infrastructure and specifically to meet the needs of country’s arts production. Under this most important issue, pursuing important goals such as Cultural enrichment, promoting inter-cultural harmony and developing socially relevant arts production and securing wellbeing of artists it is compulsory to set up a public agency for fundraising and establish a National Cultural Endowment for the arts. This agency could be an autonomous body or may function under the Arts Council as it is practiced in some of the commonwealth countries. While fulfilling this task , it is also important to fight against the feudal patronage practices by politicians who are used to buy out artistes for their ends by giving ‘privileges’ to a selected few. Thus the unethical , closed and unsystematic disbursement of financial and other forms of aid and assistance to artistes by the Cultural Ministry /or by other government sources should be abolished. Instead, as recommended here , a systematic plan and transparent method for financial and other forms of assistance should be instituted for the benefit of artistes, art institutions and communities. It should be emphasized that State has an obligation to ensure adequate flow of public funds to the area of arts production.

We do not at this point delve in to the existing area of cultural industry dependent solely on the commercial capital. We believe that once the foundation for healthy , socially responsible arts and cultural production is laid, and powerful cultural processes are underway, the commercial area cultural production and its market would automatically undergo transformation which would be beneficial to the arts and artistes.

  1. Issue; Politicization of institutions dealing with arts and culture; The cultural institutions run by the State and their activities should not be subjugated to the ends of power politics, but fulfilling the State’s obligation to ensure full-fledged activity on their part , the maximum State assistance should be made available to them. In doing so, the proportional importance of the cultural component in the total development process should be taken into account in the allocation of funds by the State. Two important institutions that have been greatly suffered by this problematic situation are Film Corporation and Tower Hall Foundation.

With an aim to free the Tower Hall Foundation from narrow political control and for making it an institution which is amenable enough to entertain the variety and promoting the excellence of the dramatic and theater arts, The Tower Hall Theater Foundation act should be amended and adapted to suit the times and needs of the nation.
With regard to Film Corporation and cinema field , there have been reasonably good surveys done and reports with recommendations drafted, ( for instance Prof. A.J. Gunawardena report) if to chart a more relevant to the existing needs enlightened course

  1. Issue; Inequitable access to achievement of culture; With the aim of converting to practical reality the protection of the right to culture of every citizen , no matter where s/he resides, cultural action should be arranged in the provinces under the guidance of Arts Council or whatever autonomous institute of national standing is established in its place. For this purpose , the Cultural Centres which are presently inactivated or idling due to lack of funds, proper planning and direction should be renewed and be made nucleus of cultural action in the provinces. Their activities should be planned and conducted with close collaboration of the artistes , intellectuals and other cultural workers of the localities, there by establishing People’s Cultural Forums as a major player in the provincial and national cultural action. However we recommend here to set up a central Coordination and Training Centre that would serve the needs of the network of provincial Cultural Centers under the Arts Council. It would also probably be a wise step to establish a network of mini-theaters (that would function both as mini cinema halls and theater stages) at provinces , managed possibly by provincial councils or independent community bodies, that would serve as an income generating projects for given community.

  2. Issue; Non-inclusion of major elements of Sri Lankan culture in State functions, institutional processes, and celebrations ; In Recognition of the diversity and pluralism of Sri Lankan culture , and hence with the aim to support an inclusive process of building Sri Lankan nation , it is clear the problematic exclusivist signs prevalent in State functions, institutional processes, and celebrations have to be erased. Solution here is to amend protocol/procedures for State functions, institutional processes, and celebrations to include the diverse nature of the Sri Lankan cultures.


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