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Culture(s), aesthetics, university education and sacking of UVPA Vice Chancellor


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 10 October 2019 00:52


What is needed is an urgent coming together of all concerned groups to raise awareness about this perilous situation in relation to aesthetic education in the country in order to support Prof. Chandrajeewa in the long road he has so unceremoniously found himself pushed down

By Andi Schubert

On 18 September Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) was sacked from his position by President Maithripala Sirisena with no explanation. The sacking of Prof. Chandrajeewa follows the similarly unceremonious sacking of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna, Prof. Ratnem Vigneswaran in May this year. 

The sacking of both Profs Vigneswaran and Chandrajeewa highlight once again the widening gap between the promise of university autonomy and the reality of political interference in academic administration in Sri Lanka today. While there is much that has been said and needs to be said about the procedural and legal implications of both these sackings, in this article I want to draw attention to the specific case of Prof. Chandrajeewa.i 

The news of Prof. Chandrajeewa’s sacking drew widespread condemnation from a number of renowned international academics such as Prof. Rustom Barucha, Prof. Sasanka Perera and numerous others.ii However, to the best of my knowledge the only locally-based academic to publicly speak out against the sacking of Prof. Chandrajeewa is Prof. Saumya Liyanage, the current Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at the UVPA. 

In his recent article in the Daily Mirror, Prof. Liyanage drew public attention to the situation at the UVPA and the chilling impact of the sacking on the activities and vision of the UVPA. In this short article I want to add my voice to that of Prof. Liyanage’s and highlight the need for broader public interest and activism against this sacking. 

The UVPA was established as a university in 2005 ‘for the purpose of providing, promoting and developing higher education in the branches of learning of Visual and Performing Arts and for advancing these arts to achieve standards of excellence in relation to their aesthetic and applied dimensions’iii. However, the longer history of the UVPA (at least as borne out on its website) bears excellent reading and points to its evolution from its humble beginnings as a course offered by the Ceylon Technical College in 1893 to its establishment as an Institute for Arts in 1952, through its subsequent bifurcation into various Government Colleges of Art in the 60s and then its unification into an Institute of Aesthetic Studies in the mid-70s to the final establishment of the University of the Visual and Performing Arts in 2005.iv 

This sketch shows that the UVPA’s earliest beginnings were linked to the imparting of an arts education as a technical skill. However, with its links to ‘traditional’ cultural practices through music, art, and dance the responsibility for arts education was shifted away from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Local Government and Culture in the mid-1950s. In the 1970s the Aesthetic Institutes were once again linked back to Universities (Kelaniya and Jaffna), bringing them under the aegis of education rather than culture, though this time with a significantly different valence. Contextualising the UVPA within these historical developments is important because they point to the central strand of my focus in this essay – the relationship between culture and aesthetic education in the country today.

Culture or education? 

The UVPA’s position in relation to both education and culture in Sri Lanka places the university in an extremely unique position. Whereas the 13 other conventional universities have a more general mandate, the UVPA’s mandate is arguably directly imbricated in a tension between a focus on education and a focus on culture. These tensions are visible on the home page of the UVPA.  On this page we find that the vision of the university is to ‘be the premier university, to develop and refine the knowledge of human experience in cultural, aesthetic, creative and entertainment areas in appreciation of different traditions and trends of visual and performing arts’. A little further down however the values of the university in relation to ‘our nation’ (with no clarity on who is possessed here) is – ‘to preserve and maintain cultural values and national heritage for the wellbeing of the future generation’. 

So, is culture and aesthetics to be developed and refined or should it be preserved? And what is the role of university education in either of these focuses? Is an aesthetic university required for cultural preservation? Or would it require a different institutional structure? We might also add, what is the relationship between the appreciation of different traditions and trends and the maintenance of cultural values and national heritage?   

The situation at the UVPA deserves far greater conversation among the broader public. We live in a country in which no opportunity is lost to trumpet the greatness of its 2500-year-old culture (assuming of course that the culture in question is singular). The problem with this view for me however, is that it takes as its premise the belief that cultures don’t change and that they can remain static over an arc of time as long as two and a half millennia. It is only within this view of culture that a focus on preservation and maintenance of ‘a’ culture makes any sense. 

This tension between education and culture is crucial to placing the sacking of Prof. Chandrajeewa within concerns that extend far beyond issues relating to university administration and autonomy. 

In his intervention regarding the situation at the UVPA, Prof. Liyanage writes: “But for the last ten years, its role has been evolving with insights from foreign-trained academics, increased exposure and new leadership. Even though it embraced certain liberal educational changes proposed by authorities, such changes brought significant improvement and enhancement to teaching, learning and research. As recent incidents signify, what people want now is to keep the UVPA at its embryonic state where the politicians and officials can order dance troupes and musicians for their rallies and ceremonies. They want this university to produce jesters and marionettes where they can showcase them at tourist shows for entertainment”.v

What interests me in Prof. Liyanage’s comments here is not so much the specific charges but Prof. Liyanage underscoring of this situation as being a question of the sacrificing of the focus on education for a focus on culture. In other words, we return again to the tension between education and culture that has marked the development of the UVPA since its inception. 

Aesthetic education and cultural change

The situation at the UVPA deserves far greater conversation among the broader public. We live in a country in which no opportunity is lost to trumpet the greatness of its 2500-year-old culture (assuming of course that the culture in question is singular). The problem with this view for me however, is that it takes as its premise the belief that cultures don’t change and that they can remain static over an arc of time as long as two and a half millennia. It is only within this view of culture that a focus on preservation and maintenance of ‘a’ culture makes any sense. 

But unfortunately, as material conditions change so too do cultural practices. In the Polonnaruwa period for example the exclusion of the cow from the ‘sandakada pahana’ is often traced to the increased influence of Hinduism on the monarchy. Another example – the Sigiri graffiti no longer make any sense to us if we read them on the wall. We require translations and, in some cases, at least, explanations. The point being even the language used to compose the graffiti written by travellers is no longer as easily accessible to us.  

The UVPA’s position in relation to both education and culture in Sri Lanka places the university in an extremely unique position. Whereas the 13 other conventional universities have a more general mandate, the UVPA’s mandate is arguably directly imbricated in a tension between a focus on education and a focus on culture. These tensions are visible on the home page of the UVPA

A fascinating recent PhD by Dr. Sudesh Mantilake of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Peradeniya highlights the influence of British colonial practices on some of the developments in Kandyan dancing. Though these may seem like small examples of what we often bracket off as cultural practices – song, dance, art – the point is that changes to the economic and political conditions had a massive impact on the forms of aesthetic expressions under which it was produced.  I might even go a step further and add that even the question of preserving particular forms of culture are influenced by economic and political conditions. Thus, concerns about preservation or performance cannot and should not be the sole focus in our attempts to examine the tensions between culture and education. This dynamic view of culture is central to the development of a tertiary level aesthetics education. If we look at the world around us, we can see how developments like the ubiquity of the internet or the emergence of the film camera have radically transformed aesthetic expression. Even as scholars recognise the dynamic nature of cultural practice, aesthetic education has been broadened into discussions on questions of expression and inclusion, power and subjectivity, technological improvements, ethics and practice. 

Universities around the world, particularly those with a focus on cultural and aesthetic education, have played pivotal roles in shaping conversations between theoreticians and practitioners of cultural practices. These conversations have been tremendously productive for these traditionally dichotomised communities and have helped to underscore the mutually beneficial relationship between theory and practice.

I witnessed the value of such conversations in Sri Lanka first-hand myself during the fabulously organised 1st International Conference of the UVPA that was held in December last year. The lively atmosphere and the vibrant discussions among practitioners, academics, artists both local and international that took place over those three days highlighted the possibility of what can be achieved when a far more dynamic view of both cultural and educational practice is foregrounded. In short, the conference highlighted the important role that a university can play in moving aesthetic education beyond the moribund concerns about preservation or performance to more dynamic and fruitful considerations.  

 As long as we continue to believe that the true end of a tertiary level aesthetic education is merely preservation or performance, forward thinking scholars and practitioners like Prof. Chandrajeewa who visionise, develop, implement, and demonstrate otherwise are only going to be punished for expanding our current horizons. This is why the sacking of Prof. Chandrajeewa should not merely be a concern for university trade unions but should be taken up by a broad coalition of progressive artists, practitioners, academics, civil society, and political leaders as well. Our failure to do so, is a sad indictment of our own priorities and preference for comfort and security at the expense of development and growth

What is so extremely unfortunate about the unceremonious sacking of Prof. Chandrajeewa is not simply the death blow it strikes to university autonomy or the right to due process or even the question of what kind of leadership is required for a university of aesthetics. What Prof. Chandrajeewa’s sacking highlights is our preference for ferreting further down into our comfortable rabbit hole of a static culture at the expense of discovering more open, dynamic and negotiated perspectives on culture(s) and aesthetics. 

As long as we continue to believe that the true end of a tertiary level aesthetic education is merely preservation or performance, forward thinking scholars and practitioners like Prof. Chandrajeewa who visionise, develop, implement, and demonstrate otherwise are only going to be punished for expanding our current horizons. 

This is why the sacking of Prof. Chandrajeewa should not merely be a concern for university trade unions but should be taken up by a broad coalition of progressive artists, practitioners, academics, civil society, and political leaders as well. Our failure to do so, is a sad indictment of our own priorities and preference for comfort and security at the expense of development and growth. 

What is needed is an urgent coming together of all concerned groups to raise awareness about this perilous situation in relation to aesthetic education in the country in order to support Prof. Chandrajeewa in the long road he has so unceremoniously found himself pushed down. If we are truly as serious about national cultures, university education and aesthetic expression as we claim, we can’t afford to wait any longer. 



(The writer teaches at the Open University of Sri Lanka.) 

Footnotes

  1For a fuller account of the sacking of the Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University see - http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/09/15/opinion/removal-vice-chancellor-university-jaffna-and-politicization-higher-education. For the statement by Prof. Sasanka Perera see - http://island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=211103

2 For a few of the statements by internationally-based academics on the dismissal of Prof. Chandrajeewa please see the “fi!kao¾h Wml=,m;sjrhd fírd .ksuq” Facebook page. 

3 https://www.ugc.ac.lk/downloads/orders%20&%20ordinances/universities/University%20of%20Visual%20and%20Performing%20Arts%20(UVPA)/2005%2007%2008%20Order/2005%2007%2008%20English.pdf 

4 https://vpa.ac.lk/history/ 

5 http://www.dailymirror.lk/news-features/Removal-of-Vice-Chancellors-and-the-Lesson-of-Dr-Stockmann/131-175338 


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