Sri Lanka - A Meeting of Minds

You know when you've arrived in a cricket-mad country when the passport officer pays no attention to your visa or your letter of accreditation, but merely looks at you wistfully and says "what on earth happened to your cricket team last night?" That followed England's last over defeat in the World T20, which I'd watched just before leaving for a British Council Regional Arts Meeting in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka may feel relatively stable by comparison with some of its regional neighbours (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan), but it has pressing issues of its own - without, however, the "advantage" of having the regional spotlight upon it. Still emerging from a decade or more of civil war, slow economic growth, old-fashioned education system - and absolutely no cultural policy, as I discovered when I talked with two cultural operators (one a theatre professional, one an academic) who have been charged by government to advise independently on what one might look like. It was fascinating to hear their take on it, and how some of our own UK experience and our British Council initiatives (policy work, skills, creative economy, research, culture in post-conflict areas) might help them achieve their goal. 

There is clearly no shortage of talented young professionals and social entrepreneurs in the market, as I discovered on my first evening, when I met a group of them (some cultural, some in other fields like Active Citizens) who are part of our network. Bold, energetic and passionate, they all felt they had much more as a young generation to contribute to Sri Lanka's development than current social norms would allow. 

As far as culture goes, there is little or no public money available, and precious few suitable spaces for shows, exhibitions or concerts. You would think that, with such a rich and diverse cultural heritage, and a tourist industry with such potential, the government should be hanging its metaphorical hat on a comprehensive cultural policy as one of the pillars for economic and social development. We shall see... 

As part of our meeting, we were able to meet several "activists" from the Sri Lankan scene, including poets, writers and theatre people, most of whom pursue other working careers in order to fund their artistic activity. A Poetry Slam in the British Council Library in Colombo provided one such opportunity, complete with bean bags and lighting effects. 

I was able to escape for 36 hours to the extraordinary setting of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa's self-designed home/retreat at Lunuganga, some two hours south of Colombo. It's a visionary place - at the same time modernist (1980/90's ish) but also strongly local in its appeal and the sympathetic reconstruction of an old collection of buildings. And the gardens are superbly landscaped, complete with Italian and Chinese statuary, lawn chessboards, butterfly-shaped lakes, and hidden nooks and crannies. If you go and stay, take your own drinks though... it doesn't have a license! 

My last night was spent at Galle in the historic (world heritage site) old fort. A cricket mad mini-city, it must be the only place you can watch the game from 400 year old fortress ramparts.