Annasi & Kadalagotu Literary Festival
Novels, short stories, poems and lyrics, even rap music; launch of new publications; introduction of new authors inclusive of Sinhala, Tamil and English; and sale of books both new and second-hand. All that and much more was the Annasi and Kadalagotu Literary Festival at the Mt Lavinia Hotel on Saturday October 8 starting at 10.00 and going on into the evening. The venue was particularly apt being imbued with the memory of stolen, secret romance where the Governor of the British colony Ceylon, Sir Thomas Maitland (1805-1811), built himself a bungalow Galkissa on a promontory with a panoramic view of the Mt Lavinia beach and far north to Colombo Fort. He is said to have fallen for Lovina Aponsuwa and to visit her in his holiday residence where he must have set her up, he built a tunnel and came through that. The A&K, (abbreviated name of the festival), capitalized on this with its distributed flyer showing a very attractive, nay sexy, young girl (more Spanish than mixed Sri Lankan) with a white man in braided red tails with the wording : Life, Legend and Literature, Mount Lavinia Hotel from whence a forbidden tryst began, a celebration of stories will unfold anew. Much more than stories were unfolded.
I have been to the two previous annual A&K festivals in different locations in Colombo. It was good to see the improvement – the hard work of Keith Wijesuriya and his team headed by Jason Wijesuriya, Dananath Fernando and Julian de Valliere with of course the guiding hand of Capt Elmo Jayawardena, whose brain child this annual literature festival is.
A&K says of itself that it is a down to earth version of all celebrated literary festivals and affords a platform for aspiring writers to come out with their work. It is bare-boned, low key, simple, yet does not compromise on quality.
The day started auspiciously and traditionally with the lighting of the oil lamp by Capt Elmo Jayawardena, a Manager of the hotel and some others, with very short speeches. Capt Elmo, noting that literature was the mirror of society emphasized that the literary festival was trilingual in that writers, particular recent ones, in the three languages were welcomed and could present their work in the language of their choice. The Manager of the hotel said that Mt Lavinia Hotel wished to assist this generous gesture and support writers. A ticket of entry was only Rs 100/-.Three sessions ran concurrently in three halls: Empire, Horizon and Maitland Rooms.
Events: presenters and some of what they did and said
My first choice of programme event was Romancing the Pen, a discussion with panelists Krishan Mahesan – Tamil rap composer and singer; Suresh Jayawickrema – composer of songs in English and lyrics; Chandradasa Fernando – career Sinhala lyricist who writes the songs sung by the Gypsies and film songs; Malinda Seneviratne – well known journalist, poet and Gratiean Award winner; moderator Lasitha Gunawardana. A significant idea that emerged from the session was that a lyricist needs to be as talented as a skilled poet expressing emotions and notions having his creations sung to music. Prime example is Bob Dylan who was in 2016 Nobel Literature Prize winner; rather controversial bur selected perhaps because of the universal messages of fellow feeling and compassion encapsulated in his songs. Inspiration to write is important, but a lyricist has to often write what the singer or group wants to sing or the film playback singer to sing. While the others wrote for personal pleasure or to give way to an emotion, Chandradasa wrote lyrics to be sung as a career from 1969. Speaking in Sinhala, he said he had wanted to be a writer after leaving school but a teacher had advised he proceeds to lyric writing.
Krishan Mahesan and Suresh Jayawickrema wrote lyrics as a recreational pastime and had them performed as rap and pop songs, respectively. Krishan has a band of his own and from early on had a strong desire to be a rap performer with his brother. The session ended on a high note with the words of a lyric of Suresh projected on screen and then a CD played with a woman complaining about domestic abuse and her husband all confused expressing his thoughts with Krishan joining the male voice by singing along. Marvellous! I changed my mind about rap to positive after listening to Krishan!
The second session was the launch of three books moderated by Malinda Seneviratne. Thelma Wheatly introduced her third book and first novel The Tamarind Sky – mainly about the mixed marriage of a Canadian woman and a Eurasian man now domiciled in Canada. Thelma herself, a Britisher, married the grandson of an upcountry Irish owner-planter of tea who had many children from a Sinhalese woman. She spoke in detail about tea planters who cohabited with local women and whose children were considered bastards; thus the idea of discrimination et al. She had visited Sri Lanka on several occasions and found what she had written which had been told her by her husband still held good, except that estates workers got a much better deal now.
Somasiri Devendra reminisces about the first taste of village life in Tiriwanaketiya, Ratnapura, at a very young age and thus the title of his book Two to Tango connoting the grown man’s narrative of the young boy’s adventures in a new milieu that has almost disappeared.
Chitra Premaratne Stuiver launched her Offering: a book of poems and photographs. . She married Willem Stuiver, American Dutch, migrated to Honolulu, Hawaii, and developed her skill as a photographer. Chitra and Willem retuned to settle in Sri Lanka in her inherited family home in Mt Lavinia. Her husband’s death in 2009 devastated her and so she took to poetry writing. Her earlier book of short poems In Praise of Brevity carried Sybil Wettasinghe’s distinctive illustrations. Chitra also produced a book of her skilled photographs in Art in Nature.
A leisurely lunch was enjoyed with two friends on the terrace of the hotel. Due to the buffet being vast and exchange of what had so far been listened to detailed, one session of A&K was missed.
The next item attended was Reliving the Past moderated by Capt Elmo Jayawardena. Present on stage were the 2016 Gratiean Award winner for her novel Stories – Charulatha Thewarathanthri; Tyron Devotta who is researching for his book on the Japanese invasion of the western coastal belt of Ceylon, Easter Sunday April 1942; Prashani Rambukwella who has two well known books to her credit and won the Gratiean for Mythil’s Ghost; Dr Gamini Goonetileke’s In the Line of Duty: life and times of a surgeon in war and peace and Arif Hussain with his novel Achchi’s House and Umma’s House about a mixed marriage (his parents) between a Muslim man and a Sinhalese girl from a very conservative Buddhist family. The narration is set mostly in his Sinhalese grandmother’s house in Boyd Place and his Muslin grandparent’s home in Alwis Place, both in Colombo 3, where he shared time with the two families as a young boy.
They had written from personal experiences whether fictionalized or real as with the surgeon’s account of his 11 years posted to Polonnaruwa during the height of the civil war when the injured from the eastern front were sent to his hospital. Dr Gooonetileke said it was horrendous seeing the grievously injured young men, especially those from landmines. He worked indefatigably. Through sheer persistence and commitment, he got conditions in the hospital and nearby hospitals in Vavuniya etc where his services as a surgeon were required, improved.
Two more sessions were schedules for later: Doing It for the First Time and Open Mic Session where anyone could read their poetry or prose passages.
Thank you, Capt Elmo Jayawardena for a fine day of immersion in the written word of our artistes in three languages; and many just embarking on a thrilling pastime or career. Thank you to the organizers and the lovely, very courteous young helpers who gave us the first indication of easy camaraderie with their genuinely welcoming smiles and were at hand all the time to assist, if needed.