Ceylon Literary & Art Festival

Feb 16 2024.

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Sri Lanka’s burgeoning community of literary and art aficionados were treated to a smorgasbord of delights by way of the literary and art offerings scheduled as part of the Ceylon Literary and Art Festival which had HSBC as its principal sponsor along with MasterCard. Founded by Ajai Vir Singh the festival was curated by Sri Lanka’s leading writer Ashok Ferrey.

Creating an excellent programme which was both inclusive and entertaining, the inaugural Ceylon Literary and Art Festival satiated the appetite of those who were yearning for events of this nature. The Sri Lankan writers of the likes of Shehan Karunatilake, Lal Medawattegedera, Shyam Selvadurai, et al proved to be popular with their sell out sessions.

International writers of the calibre of David Hare, Luis De Berniere, William Dalrymple, Anita Nair, Shobhaa De, Shrabani Basu and many others were also part of the festival.  Another value addition to the festival was the number of art related session which included talks with fashion designer turned sculptor Nicole Farhi, a guided tour of David Paynter’s artistry, a visit to Helga’s Folly, and a ceramic creation workshop conducted by Dr Weerainghe which proved to be popular. Kudos to the organisers for creating this platform, despite the odd hiccup, as to be expected given it was the first, the event proved to be a great draw for many.

Q IS YOUR BOOKER BIGGER THAN MINE? Shehan Karunatilake moderated by Savitri Rodrigo This first session of the Ceylon Literary and Art Festival was held at Trinity College to a packed audience which included many students from leading schools in Kandy. Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilake elucidated how much his life has changed since he won the coveted Booker Prize in 2022. Speaking about the new Booker Prize winner in 2023, Shehan drew parallels with the author and himself as both of them were from countries which at some stage were imploding.

The Number One Ladies Detectives Shrabani Basu, Carmel Miranda and Anita Nair

The panel discussed how they started their writing careers. Basu said she likes to write about unknown people. However in her latest book she has Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the central characters. She selected him as the protagonist after reading a news items about some of his letters to a policeman being up for auction. Basu also explained her methods of research before writing a book. Responding to a question from the author, Anita Nair explaining the paucity of South Asian murder films on TV said that there was a lot of interference when solving South Asian murders cases unlike the popular Scandinavian murder mysteries which are aired on TV. Speaking about her book Miranda she said she used her knowledge of medical science as a doctor and based her main character on a medical student.  She said that in most books doctors are created as heroes but she decided to make a medical student the hero in her book. 

Sir David Hare in conversation moderated by Prof. Neluka Silva

The illustrious playwright traced his roots back to his childhood where he said he was a “scholarship child” at both school and Jesus College Cambridge. This provided him with a unique perspective in comparison to other students of the British class system which he endured. Hare said he was thrust into playwriting due to the fact that the person supposed to write a play failed to do so and he had to shoulder that responsibility. He said that he enjoyed that process of writing a play and continued doing so.  Hare also explained that “news from the street” makes great theatre as it is about engaging with the world outside. Responding to a questions from the audience Hare said the appointment of British Sri Lankan Indhu Rubasingham as Director of the National Theare in London, was well deserved and Indhu is the first woman to hold such an exalted position within the world of theatre in the UK.

It’s the body stupid - Koluu, Prajwal, Parajuly and Tina Edward Gunawardhana moderated by Mrinali Thalgodapitiya

A topic close to the heart of many, the panelists, discussed how body image is portrayed in the media. Koluu who is considered Sri Lanka’s first drag queen reminisced how people were intrigued to see him in various revealing costumes including a bikini. He also related an incident where in a packed hall a guest had asked him why he was so fat. Koluu explained in no uncertain terms how he gave the woman a ticking off that she would never dare to bring up the subject of weight again. Explaining how the media portray plus sized people, Tina said that at the inception of Hi!! magazine they had featured Koluu a plus size person on the cover. She also added that as a writer she sees it as her responsibility to shine the spotlight on plus size people who are also achievers and not just feature people who are seen to be of an accepted size. Inclusivity needs to play a more central role in media she added.

Prajwal spoke about how apart from size, people place emphasis on fair skin, which is a trait that needs to be stopped and more people with melanin rich skin need to be spoken and written about. One of the huge plus points of the festival apart from it being free for students was the workshops for children offered by Prof. Neluka Silva and Artika Aurora Bakshi One of the many highlights of the programme included the session with Shyam Selvadurai who launched his book Mansions of the Moon. In a session moderated by Ameena Hussein, Selvadurai  held the audiences in rapture  as  he read excerpts from his book. Historian and art curator William Dalrymple was another big draw at the festival and each time he spoke, the venue was packed to the brim. Another who stole the show was antiques expert James Braxton the star of the BBC series Antiques Road Trip. Braxton spoke about how he joined the field as an antiques expert. In his own inimitable style laced with humour he explained how he wrote his first novel based on a real life experience.

A highlight of the five day festival was the session “Will the last feminist turn out the lights when they leave?” The panel comprised, Shobhaa De, Sonora Jha and VV Ganeshananthan moderated by George Cooke. The animated discussion touched on subjects such as bringing up sons attuned to feminism and feminism in a patriarchal  society. British fashion designer turned sculptor Nicole Farhi’s session with Dinesh Chandrasena gave an insightful glimpse in to her career as a respected sculptor and how she transitions from fashion design to being a sculptor.

Ending the five day literary jamboree was a panel which comprised, William Dalrymple, Shobhaa De, Dr Palitha Kohona and Anita Nair who discussed the topic “The Empire strikes back” with the Sri Lankan President in attendance in the audience. A fiery debate took place with both China and India’s role being examined.  

CHRISANTHI SENEVIRATNE  "IT is an absolute treat for us to hear a Booker Prize winner speak in Kandy. It was very interesting to hear his stories.”  

SACHINI RANASINGHE "It is good to listen to local speakers of this calibre. The opening session has been excellent.” 

SHIROZA WADOOD "Listening to these excellent women writers is a great motivating factor and an inspiration to us.”  

SULEKSHINI BAMBARADENIYA "He knew his subject matter well and it was an absolute treat to hear him speak. The excerpts from the plays which he read were fascinating and it is an honour for us to hear  one of the greatest playwrights of our time speak.”  

RISHITH ABEYWEERA 'I got to hear the perspective of a great playwright and a glimpse in to the mind of a genius in the literary world”  

JULET COOMBE "It is good that people are highlighting a subject such as body positivity. Open discussions such as this need to take place more often and it was good to see a diverse group of people on the panel who spoke passionately about a topic close to their heart.”  

PARAMEE SILVA   "I am absolutely delighted that people are talking about sizeism and coloursim. For too long these subjects have been considered taboo. Kudos to Ceylon Literary and Arts Festival for having a panel to discuss these issues.” 

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tina Edward Gunawardhana

Tina Edward Gunawardhana is a journalist specialising in travel, fashion, lifestyle, cuisine and personalities. She is also the Deputy Editor for Hi!! Magazine. An intrepid traveller, she likes to show readers the world through her eyes and experiences. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram - tinajourno [email protected]

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