Sunday, January 22, 2012

Music, Heart, Home: Tanya Ekanayaka

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If you think accomplishment in an unlikely combination of linguistics and music performance together with model-material looks, grace, candour and humility sprinkled with a few funny facts like ambidextrousness and synaesthesia is impossible in one person; Google Tanya Ekanayaka. She’s got it all.

Her mother being a piano teacher and father an amateur violinist, it must have been the inevitable that Tanya started piano lessons as young as five years old. But unlike for most of us, playing the piano – performing – was not just another extra-curricular activity for her, but the development of a relationship. “As performers we all go through stages when as much as you love to play and as important it is, you need to be away from it... Then you sort of run back and there's a greater need and so much intensity!” she explains, the questioning look in her eyes swiftly replaced by a distinct sparkle. It is probably this intimate relationship she has with the act of playing the piano itself that makes her performances so fluid, a seeming conversation between herself and the instrument. “I never stopped playing” we are emphatically told, “but there was a lull... God forbid a day when I can’t access a piano!”

Tanya doesn’t play the piano simply because she is phenomenally good at it or because she likes it, but in her own words, because she has to. “I need it” she tells me intently “it sounds almost selfish to say that, but yeah...” Seemingly paradoxical for a linguist, Tanya believes she does not express herself all that much through language in the common sense. “It’s through my compositions that most of me is reflected” is the explanation. Those “most personal, intense, traumatic” experiences of Tanya’s life translate to her music and not her verbal expression, she says, claiming that certain original compositions of hers can be correlated to specific personal experiences. “[This] is why I can’t let go... It’s pure love; pure passion and drive.”

But as “essential [a] part of life” as music is to her, Tanya knew, and her parents recognized, that “from a practical point of view, it’s a very risky thing to make a career out of music – especially in this country”. And so, along came academia. Tanya’s father was professor at the University of Peradeniya, and thus she grew up on the campus premises, constantly exposed to the “academic” kind of atmosphere of the place. Not a surprise then, that she was admitted to the English Honours programme at the university in 1999.

“Linguistics took hold of me” she says, almost amazed by it herself. There is an unexpected bounce and care-freeness in the slight frame and flyaway hair as we chat on her veranda that contrasts completely with the obvious strength of her expressive hands and the intense involvement evident in her piano playing. And so with laughter and sparkly eyes is narrated the experience of undergraduate studies with well-known linguist Thiru Kandiah. “I was very fortunate, he really inspired me” she enthuses. Unable to give up her first love, yet falling headlong into her academic interests, Tanya began at this stage to fuse language studies with music. Her undergraduate thesis was focussed on a combination of the two, and earned her a place on the staff at the Department of English at Peradeniya soon after graduation.

“Oh, it was lovely!” she says of her first experiences as a lecturer, adding with laughter that she learnt more during this time “‘cus they just put you in the deep end”. But it was “fabulous” she says to sit with Prof. Kandiah and have “long, long discussions about everything”. In 2007 Tanya was offered a scholarship to read for an MSc in linguistics at the University of Edinburg. She has just finished writing her PhD thesis at Edinburgh, again bringing music and linguistics together in a study of language mixing in Sri Lankan pop-music.

Tanya has also continued to teach in the linguistics and music departments at Edinburgh and it was while practicing on a piano at the department that she was heard by a more senior member of the staff and “quite by accident” launched into an international career in music performance. Her performances gained Tanya the reputation that finally led her to the highlight of her career so far: becoming the first Sri Lankan to play in the ‘Pianists of the World’ series at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 2010. “It was a huge honour” she says quietly, humbly. The performance also marked the first occasion on which one of her compositions was part of the programme, as well as the first time a Sri Lankan composition was presented at that famed site. Since then, each of her concerts has featured an original composition (most of these – some found on YouTube – based on Sri Lankan tunes from her childhood). And these concerts too, have been many.

Despite these treasured achievements, Tanya’s heart was set on returning to Sri Lanka and her teaching position at the University of Peradeniya. And though she seems to deeply regret being unable to make it a reality yet, “I am determined to return” she says, of the future. “I miss a lot” she explains, so quiet and hesitant now. “I miss...the feeling of being home, because this is where my roots are.” She hopes that she will soon be able to perform in Sri Lanka, hinting that concerts with the SOSL will probably be in her agenda for the near future, once she has completed a series of performances at “prestigious” venues in New York.

“I've always felt that in Sri Lanka people are very very fond of music”, she laughs that it’s a silly thing to say. “There's a real interest, even though there is – ironically – very little scope for someone to make a career out of it. People want to sing and talk about music in a very uninhibited sort of way... and I think that's wonderful. And I think that is why there is a lot of talent here. It is sad though, that this whole classical music "business" is restricted to a certain class of people.” Tanya believes that if the musical sphere were to be opened up and broadened out, out of that would come the new sounds of our generation. “Of course it is inevitable that a lot of confused sounds will be emerging out of that endeavour, but that is natural, and you absolutely need it. Look at Bach and Beethoven – that's what they did. They messed around with what was there before them, and made it their own and did something new – and it was new pop music at the time!”

As we talk music, linguistics, technology, boys, food, infection, philosophy and pop culture, the conversation keeps returning to what Tanya fondly and emotively calls “my home”. With her education, her experience, her stunning looks, her achievements and fame, one expects Dr. (yes, Doctor!) Tanya Ekanayaka to be overbearing and bowl one over. But in the few hours of chatting, we learn the opposite. Far from losing herself in who she is, the slim girl with the dainty step is still very much aware of where she comes from, and the simplicity of her character driven by two things: love of music and love of home.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nature Trails at Chaaya Wild

3A339269Nature Trails, the professional body of naturalists at Chaaya Wild, are much more serious about nature than just safaris and camping out in the jungle. They’re taking time to observe the villages surrounding the Yala conservation as well as their wilder friends in order to better understand the relations between the two and prevent potential problems. According to Chitral Jayatilake, Assistant Vice President of the John Keells Group as well as Head of Eco Tourism and Special Projects, leopard territory issues may become a problem for cattle farmers in the area. Having observed the issues chena farmers in the north-central province and surrounding areas have had with elephants in the recent past, and the level to which clashes have escalated, Chitral and his team are determined to prevent similar occurrences from taking place at Yala.

As young leopards grow into adulthood and begin marking their own territory, the space available at Yala begins to be insufficient and the junior members of this elegant yet fearful species are being forced to encroach into human property, using penned cattle for prey. With the help of foreign experts as well as our own wild-life enthusiasts, the Nature Trails team have embarked on Project Leopard. What they are slowly but steadily achieving is the availability of strong steel pens in which the farmers can house their cattle for the night, in the assurance that leopards will not be able to break into these as they do with the traditional pens.

Chaaya Wild is also serious about their waste management, recycling waste water and encouraging guests to take their garbage back to the city. “One or two of them, in fact, do take it back” Chitral shares proudly. He recognizes though, that better than guests to the property, it is the locals that are in a position to positively impact the conservation environment. “There are farmers and there are forest conservers” Chitral explains, “and most of the time there are clashes between the two groups. If they worked together instead, their work would be so much more effective.” Instead of just theorizing, Nature Trails is working. They conduct regular awareness workshops at local schools, in the hope that they will encourage the next generation to take a holistic approach to nature conservation seriously.

Nature Trails is also working with the drivers on the conservation, to give them guide skills as well. “We’re trying to build the driver-guide concept, get them vehicles, diesel etc. and educate them so they can provide better service to their customers and thereby earn a better pay”. This way, they hope, the drivers too will become more interested in the long-term impact they have on their environment, rather than just the short-term financial income.

“Sometimes the villagers misunderstand” Chitral shares regretfully, “but we have to be committed and we have to be strong.” He himself spends most of his time away from his family in Colombo, working to uplift the state of wild-life tourism in the whole island and set new standards. “These two years” he says with passionate determination, he is dedicating his life to the leopard.

A Night to Remember: Bob Fitts


The best word to describe the evening of Monday, November 7 is probably “blessed”, or better yet, “blessing”. Audiences generally walk out of an auditorium either disappointed or so pleased they don’t want to leave, but if nobody asked for an encore once Bob Fitts left the stage that night, it wasn’t disappointment in the experience. Most responses were “awesome” or “amazing” and the less hyper-enthusiastic ones were “good” and “nice”, not with that look of “I can’t really say anything rude can I?” but of wide-eyed radiance.

Bob Fitts claims a musical career of over four decades, and a repertoire that has been made popular through performances around the world from the United States to the Middle East and Asia. He is nearly a senior citizen, but the energy Fitts demonstrates in front of the congregation, jumping up and down, strumming his guitar and singing, you’d think he is still just a teenager rocking his ego. Unlike most musicians and artists though, who thrive on as well as give life to their audience by calling attention to themselves, Bob continuously leads the gathering to focus on the meaning of the music. The simplicity of his approach to what he does is further testified to in the lack of a fancy entourage, despite his status as a well-known and popularly emulated musician. Accompanying him on stage were just his wife and a backup band made up of amateur musicians from different parts of Colombo and the suburbs.

The two and a half hour programme featured a good repertoire of over twenty songs ranging from gentle, meaningful classics like ‘Blessed Assurance’ by Fanny Crosby to exuberant contemporary numbers such as Hillsong’s ‘Mighty to Save’. There were the poignant moments of prayerful meditation and the light funny ones too. “I never thought there’d be a worship song with the word intoxicated in it” he laughed, “but here it is!” launching into ‘You Are Worthy’. ‘Glory, Glory Lord’ he sang in English, Spanish, Hawaiian, Sinhala, Tamil and even “Ostraailian”! Although the repertoire didn’t call for display of a wide vocal range, the fluidity of Bob Fitts’ delivery was unmistakable, as was its gentleness and sensitivity. Added to the child-like smile that continuously adorns his face, it steadily becomes impossible not to be infected with his optimism and joy.

The freeness of his performance was more obvious in contrast with the relatively tensed nature of the CHRAFT choir that took the stage before Fitts. For a group of amateurs though, the choir boasted good strength and roundness of sound as well as a number of very good voices that stood out in the solos and full upper notes. A particularly enjoyable arrangement of ‘He is the Rock’ set the group more at ease, and one wished they focused more during the other numbers as well, on conveying the meaning of what they sang and enjoying themselves than putting up a grand performance.

Singing heartily along with Fitts and the choir was a 5000 strong congregation from different backgrounds, packed in the main auditorium at Calvary Church, Kirulapone. It was a rare and unique event that brought together people from a multitude of racial, ethnic, economic and linguistic backgrounds together with one heart and mind. “Say to those who are broken-hearted / Do not lose your faith... He will come and save you!” they all sang, hands held across the theatre and raised to the sky, echoing Bishop of Colombo Rev. Cangasabey’s prayer for our people as “one nation” to “receive healing”. It was an unexpected and meaningful moment, and true to Bob Fitts’ words, the evening was “more than just a concert”. If you missed it, what you missed was so much more than a musical show, what you missed was time to come together in all the diversity our society has to boast and take away a likeminded unity in hope.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


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Many of Peradeniya’s graduates from the 50’s and 60’s look back nostalgically past the serene surroundings and grand structures of the famed campus to the glory of her academic achievements, the brilliance of the intellectuals it produced, and most importantly the simple inspiration of its atmosphere. Those moments of genius, the hours of passionate discourse and the joy of intellectual stimulation seem to have all but disappeared from what used to be the home of the Social Science and Humanities departments of the University of Ceylon, but for two days last week, some of that clarity in the air of its heyday seemed revived. Intellectuals from around the globe gathered on the premises of the Faculty of Arts to mix, mingle, discuss and debate ‘Social Sciences and Humanities in 21st Century Sri Lanka’ at the first International Conference on the Social Sciences and the Humanities (ICSSH).

The main theme under which presentations were made over the two days was “Knowledge Society, or Knowledge for Society”, a reflection of the fact that the ICSSH, as according to organizing Chair Prof. C. Wickramagamage, hopes to “reinstate the human subject” to the centre of the knowledge production process, which she believes has in fact come to “marginalize the human subject in whose name knowledge generation is, or ought to be, undertaken”. The academics at the Faculty of Arts, “far from being abstract thinkers living in ivory towers, are interested in knowing how best to deal with social problems and issues that are the inevitable outcomes, unfortunately, of the advances made in sciences, economic development and technology”, Dean Prof. A. Abhayaratne asserts. The inauguration of such an event as ICSSH, which the Vice Chancellor of the University Prof. S.B.S. Abayakoon hopes will be become an annual fixture in the faculty’s calendar, marks the fact that “the Arts Faculty is ready to face the challenges to its academic domain as well as to navigate the faculty in new directions”.

What these challenges are, is no secret, as recent FUTA and Students’ Union action has brought problems within the tertiary education system of Sri Lanka, even momentarily, to the fore of national attention. But the conference was concerned with much more than just the issues of education in Sri Lanka, and with the presentation of approximately 60 papers, brought under its broader theme those including ‘Knowledge, Equity and Development’, ‘Governance, Rights and the Discourse of Development’, ‘Transforming and Transformative Education’, ‘Revisionist Representations – History, Arts, the Media’, ‘Conflict, Mediation, Security and Human Well-Being’, ‘The Environment, Business and Entrepreneurship’ and ‘Sri Lanka: In the Region and In the World’. Presentations on topics ranging from women, empowerment, industries, environment, human-animal conflict, MDG’s for 2015, public accountability, post-conflict development, the psychology of education, kandyan dance, literary criticism, ethics, IT, globalisation, identity and even Facebook opened up debates and discussions that flowed from the sessions into tea breaks and lunch buffets.

Many of the presenters were positive they would come back for the next series of sessions, adding that discussions following their presentation were enlightening and encouraging. “On the whole, the sessions were informative and interesting and some of the papers were quite thought-provoking” shared Crystal Baines, an undergraduate at the university, “but the real treat was the opportunity to hear some distinguished scholars and great thinkers of our times share their ideas”. “It was amazing how even if the topics of the keynote addresses were not of particular interest to you, the ideas were so lucid and well-put that sitting through the 45-minute lecture was a pleasure!” another student, Samitha Senanayake enthused. True enough, if the key-note speakers were not commended with enthusiastic applause, they were followed out by a stream of participants and fellow speakers with questions, comments or bones to pick! – A sure sign of the audience’s serious engagement.

First of these distinguished speakers was President, Pugwash Conferences for Science and World Affairs and Deputy Chairman, Governing Board of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Jayantha Dhanapala. His provocative speech on ‘The Formulation of Foreign Policy in Independent Sri Lanka’ placed the topic in the sphere of a “legitimate public concern”, questioning Sri Lanka’s response, to “shirk or rise to the challenge” of fixing its international relations.

‘Is there a Future for the Social Sciences and Humanities?’ Gishan Dissanaike, Adam Smith Professor of Corporate Governance at the University of Cambridge asked, in his address. “The harsh reality [is] that no university should have to say their students are unemployable” he said, pointing to the problem of tax-run universities producing a majority of graduates in what are generally considered non-income-generating fields of study. He drove home, with wit and fact, the idea that Sri Lankan departments of Social Sciences and Humanities need to begin focussing on quality over quantity.

A trend for voicing honest opinion whether it be to the distaste of those gathered was thus set in the first day of the conference, testimony to the integrity of the academics gathered at the event. Following suit, or simply heeding the alma mater of her memory, Emeritus Professor of Law Savithri Goonesekere addressed the conference on ‘Imagination, Thought and Development’ in order to set some more people at their unease. Tracing the development of Sri Lankan universities and their decline in the recent past to badly formulated education/linguistic/recruitment policies she stressed “the realities have not changed... the quest for applied knowledge undermines the relevance of imagination, thought and reflection”. “Have our failures... impacted to perpetuate intolerance and violence that has been generated on campuses?” she asked of her fellow academics and teachers, “should we transform the guru-gola relationships that we often see today in hierarchical terms of an empowered teacher and a disempowered student, to the ‘Guttila Kavya’ model of a talented student who challenges the teacher?” As one might expect, this was one address that struck home with the attending undergraduates! From tertiary education to the focus on employment-driven degrees, Prof. Goonesekere addressed the issues of “sustainability” in development, and the attitude changes required to bring about such development.

Avid blogger Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan who is more (or less?) significantly Senior Consultant Social Anthropologist for the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies took a slightly different approach to his keynote address on ‘Politics, Ethics and the Human Sciences’. Wittily he drew on Althusser, Foucalt and enlightenment trends in “scientific inquiry”, in order to bring to light the political implications of disciplinary practice, questioning the construction of the relationship between student and subject. In the light of such heavily philosophical discussion, Prof. Priyan Dias from the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Moratuwa, made during the final panel discussion on ‘Priorities for Higher Education in 21st Century Sri Lanka: Natural Sciences and Technology versus Social Sciences and Humanities’, the important yet seemingly disregarded observation that “the humanist project as we see it, even as I see it, is an elitist one”. And as Nishan de Mel, Executive Director, Verite Research, concluded his take on the panel discussion, “the humanities is not about humanising, but about making sense of the complexities of being human”.

Many questions were raised at the conference, not only on the themes under discussion, but also on issues such as funding to facilitate such discussion, which is, unquestionably a problem. But the one that seemed to nag the most was whether this was really a Knowledge Society or Knowledge for Society. If, as the Chair pointed out at the inauguration of the conference proceedings, the human must be returned to the centre of knowledge production, and if knowledge is to be produced for society, then what are the knowledge producers  doing to translate and transcribe that knowledge for society? And maybe within Peradeniya’s halls of education there still dwells a spirit capable of inspiring transformation, but even if the academic in his “ivory tower” is driven to search for this knowledge for society, we absolutely must also stop to ask: is society for knowledge?