ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday January 6, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 32

Be an instrument of peace

In an inspiring speech at the prize giving of Trinity College, London held at the Bishop's College auditorium, Dr. Rama Mani, Executive Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies touched on 'The responsibility of an artist in a turbulent world'. Here are excerpts of Dr. Mani’s speech.

As you stand poised with these certificates in your hands, as the enchantment of your performances still holds us captive, I want to speak to you of the unique power of music and the arts, and, of the great responsibility that comes with the gift you possess as artists.

For millennia, our ancestors have found ways to demonstrate their creativity. Exquisite carvings hewn on rough rocks in their cave dwellings, musical instruments crafted roughly from bones, percussion instruments from stones. The ipod appeared only a few years ago; the portable CD player is but a few decades old. But already in the Oldowan era 2.6 million years ago, our predecessors who had still not stood up on their two feet were already finding creative ways to use tools for utility and art.

Dr. Rama Mani

Our stories and myths are replete with the ingenuity of artists and how it has often saved their lives: the 1000 nocturnal tales woven by Scheherazade, the endless weaving and unweaving of Penelope, the wily pipe of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It is the ballads of our bards and minstrels, and the lullabies of our mothers and grandmothers that have taught us our greatest lessons.
Music is in our souls, art is in our genetic coding.

Some of the greatest works of art, the finest pieces of music, the most powerful stories, poems and plays, have been produced by artists in moments of deep crisis in their lives. How many Nobel Laureates of Literature were writers who had expressed hope in their prose and poetry amidst dictatorship and war. How many great men, women and children escaped repression and death to express themselves through words and sounds, movement and paint. Primo Levi who escaped the gas chambers of the Nazis, and Corneille the young musician who escaped the genocide of Rwanda, and Miriam Sursal the Somali refugee.

So too when societies have undergone trauma and crisis, devastating wars that have created divisions where there was oneness... it is there that human ingenuity emerges like so many lotuses in the marshlands. My own work in countries in or emerging from conflict opened my eyes to this as I traversed countries ravaged by war and found in each traces of unique culturally specific human creativity.

In Somalia the ancient tradition of story telling was used by the elders to compose tales of sorrow of war and the desire for peace. In South Africa, youth rebelling against apartheid’s dehumanisation used the strident musical poems to galvanise them and bring down the regime.

In Mozambique sculpture took on a new form when guns were transformed into art work in the aftermath of war. In Israel and Palestine a new form of music emerged as youth committed to peace formed a unique fusion of their Hebrew Arab musical traditions.

It is these experiences that led me to a profound conviction that it is through art and culture and through human creativity in all its forms and expressions that we will truly bring about change and transform the world. For a piece of music can awaken a deadened heart, a play can stir deep emotions long repressed, a poem can sow the seeds of reconciliation and a painting can show the road into the future beyond the ravages of the present.

And nowhere is this more evident than in Sri Lanka. Always this island has been home to tremendous artistic talent and creativity, producing a high ratio of artists, writers and musicians. Over the past 25 years, as war has ebbed and flowed, artistic creativity has seen an unceasing tide. Music, art, theatre, literature have flourished in new ways expressing the innumerable facets of a country that resolutely believes in itself despite all that seeks to tear it apart.

Artists of all media are playing a unique role in our societies around the world, most especially in countries torn by violence, repression, injustice and suffering. Through your movement and music, through your poetry and prose, through your sculpture and scenes, you do what no politician can.

You can transcend and unite past, present and future. You, artists, help us to remember what we must never forget. You help us forget what we cannot bear to remember. You help us forgive others so that we can move forward. You help us see that the future can outshine the suffering and sorrow of the past and present, that the future can bring us together as one, once again.

This is why the gift that you possess as artists is so vital. It is precious. This is why the gift that you possess brings with it such a powerful responsibility. The sounds and movements you delighted us with today, the prizes you carry away with you bring with them also responsibilities.

As gifted young artists you have three responsibilities:

You have a responsibility to remain true to this gift that Trinity, in its impeccable long standing tradition, has helped you to develop to a high degree of perfection. You owe it to yourselves and to your family and society around you to respect this gift that you were born with and have worked so hard to hone, and to use it always with creativity and with passion. Always know whatever the path of your lives, that you have already crafted the best tool to cope with life’s greatest challenges, the best method of emerging from each personal crisis you might face or see your friends, your company face, you can turn to your gift of music, theatre or other art form and find a creative solution.

Through the harmony that your artistry creates you can remind divided communities that their beliefs of their differences are but illusions hiding our essential unity as a human species. You can help your communities and your country remember and celebrate what is common.

Why this great war between the countries — the countries — Inside of us?
What are all these insane borders we protect?
What are all these different names for the same church of love
We kneel in together? For it is true, together we live, and only
At that shrine where all are welcome will God sing
Loud enough to be heard
-(St Teresa of Avila)

You have the responsibility through the beautiful harmony your music creates, through the unity sown by your theatre, to remind your countrymen that like the notes of music that make up a harmony, like the diverse actors playing their distinct roles that make up the unity of a play, so too they are one.

Whatever shape politics may take, they cannot change our essential human nature which is fundamentally the very same. At no time has this responsibility been more important than today when violence and fear creep across the land, and across the world.

Sri Lanka is an island, one of the most beautiful in our exquisite planet Earth. And afloat on the ocean, it has ripple effects for the Earth as a whole. Your actions here will carry the ripples far and wide. And your paths, like those of thousands of Sri Lankans before and after you, will take you to far flung places. Your capacity to impact upon this world goes far beyond the contours of Sri Lanka. Be aware of this and make wise and gentle use of this knowledge.

Inspired by the poetry of that great saint who tenderly loved all living beings, St. Francis of Assisi, allow yourselves to be the unique ‘instruments of peace’ that artists can be. Recognize and fulfil the words of the Earth Charter, a unique universal document of human aspiration for the future like no other.

Recognise that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which we are all a part.”

Allow yourselves to sow light where there is darkness, and hope where there is despair.

- Denise Levertov

They speak of theArt of War
But the Arts draw their light from the soul’s well
Dries up the soul and draws its power
From a dark and burning wasteland.”
Allow yourselves to be above all the voice of compassion when hatred makes itself heard and tries to gain supremacy.
“The Heart is the Thousand Stringed Instrument that can only be tuned with love
.” (Hafiz)

Music and Art open up our souls to the love and compassion that is inherent within us all. Go forth and as artists live up to your unique ability, your great responsibility to awaken mankind to this compassion that is our true nature. Take your thousand stringed instruments into the wider world, for we need you, we need the beauty and the light, the love and the hope that you bring in your wake.

Thank you for tuning my heart today.

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