Tuesday, October 22, 2013



In continuing their tradition of truly grassroots community empowerment, a group of activists, artists and intellectuals will this weekend host Madai: a festival dedicated to bringing together traditional artists from across the country to discuss and perform their arts in Trincomalee from 25-27 October 2013.

The aims of this festival are simple:

1. To act as a space for traditional performers to not only share their skill and expertise but also engage with each other: something which generally does not happen, even within a district, nevermind across the country;

2. To celebrate these traditional art forms and the artists who, despite very limited resources and support, find ways to sustain them;

3. To encourage the artists to reflect on and discuss their arts:
·         How are these arts impacted by societal developments, such as globalisation?
·         How do they (or can they) address issues of discrimination such as that based on caste and/or gender?
·         How and why do these artists continue to practice their arts? What value do they see in these practices – to themselves and society?
·         What are the challenges they face?

The aims may be simple but the philosophy of the festival organisers is radical.

While traditional performers have long been treated as ‘objects of study’, this programme is designed to make them active participants. Rather than the ‘experts’ being those who study, analyse, critique and write about these arts, this programme aims to shift the power back to those who are responsible for maintaining these practices: To treat them as people who also have knowledge.

In doing so, the organisers hope to gain a far richer understanding of why these artists do what they do and to discuss with them what they see to be the important sites for both continuation and change. After all, this is the value of - and conditions of survival for - any art: the meaning it gives to the lives of the people who perform, participate and observe it.

It is also only by discussing with those who operate within a culture or community that progressive change can be achieved. As we have increasingly learnt within the human rights world, the external imposition of norms will never achieve genuine social change, equality and justice if the community itself does not see the value in these principles. And at the same time, often the very sources for positive change already exist within the group: something that is overlooked when outside ‘experts’ see their role as simply one of ‘educating’ rather than engaging with the marginalised, discriminated or oppressed.

Thus, not only does this festival promise to offer a never-before-seen insight into a range of traditional art forms, it also presents a model for truly egalitarian political and social activism and research.

The performances will be captivating: it is a rare opportunity to see so many different – often quite marginal - art forms represented in the one place.

The discussions will no doubt be lengthy, complex and maybe even controversial. But they cannot fail to be interesting.

And best of all, this can provide the beginning of a long-term process of true empowerment. By bringing the community of artists together with intellectuals, activists and the general public, the organisers hope that it will provide a space for those who are so often rendered invisible by state and global forces to have their voices heard.

Dr Kiran Grewal
School of Social and Political Sciences
University of Sydney

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