The trickledown effect

Thursday, 9 December 2010 00:31 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sunday last, in the Deep South of Sri Lanka, the rain gods also played games. We had touring relatives staying with us and they were keen on getting away from watching rain drops fall on lotus leaves all day.

The intermittent reading they did was not enough and they wanted to get a taste of some good Sri Lankan food and entertainment. Having missed seeing a Sinhala movie in the town of Tangalle due to lack of an audience (five of us including an American were the only ones there and it was ‘Ira Handa Yata,’ a well-crafted movie with a serious theme), we took off further to have dinner at the Dickwella Beach Resort.

The place was well patronised and the dining room and surroundings were hosting a good number of mostly Italian tourists. There were also some Chinese visitors who looked like they were on a business mission.


At dinner we had a full-bred Sri Lankan, who we later learnt was from Aluthgama, providing ‘entertainment’. Dressed up in an American cowboy outfit with leather hat and all, he was serenading each table.

We heard the ‘Besami Mucho’ s and the ‘Que Sera Sera’s sung together with our own ‘Dilhani Duwani’ and ‘Kalu Mame,’ all sung on the same pitch, tone and accent. When he approached our table and asked, “What songs would you like me to sing?” I said to him, “Please sing a good Sri Lankan song,” placing emphasis on the word ‘good’.

He began to sing ‘Dhanno Budunge Sri Dharmaskandha,’ meant to be a Buddhist devotional song, strumming his guitar to the same pitch, in the same tone and accent as he did before. I begged him to stop, as I felt embarrassed as a Sri Lankan to witness a gem of a song being bastardised that way.

This of course was not the first instance I had seen this happen. I have seen and heard this very song rendered by drunks at elite city parties holding a drink in hand and at other events, with various accents ranging from very British to American.

Poor offering

What made me wonder is why we do not make the most of the time, place and the situational advantage of tourism at most of our resorts. Calypso groups in straw hats and American cowboys are a usual scene at dinner time at most of our beach resorts and even elsewhere.

At a destination with such rich traditions and art forms, we seem to offer our visitors what I would call ‘crap’ from a ‘nobody knows from where’ culture, for in Venice, Florence, Rome, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai or Kunming one has the opportunity to feel and enjoy the best of their own culture, unique to each location.

No easy task

It is then that my mind’s eye went on to imagining the performances that I learnt were unfolding each week of our dance and other cultural forms in the heart of the city of Colombo at the Tourism Training Institute’s auditorium.

Although I am yet to see a live performance of it, for I live far away from the city and only make it there once a month, I read much about it and saw pictures of the performances. I also heard from those who had been to see them how good they were.

I venture to congratulate the team at the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau, led by Vipula Wanigasekera, for taking on this most timely initiative. He himself is an accomplished musician of the classical tradition, having a feel for things our own.

Bringing together the best among the best of our traditional dance and cultural forms each week is no easy task. While it is easy to make payments to already-established artistic groups that perform at each and every corporate function and event, it is not easy to find the right fusion between tradition and class, drawing from the wide-array of art forms, schools and traditions we have.

The real thing

I often wondered why visitors to our land are not exposed more often to the real and had always to be satisfied with the fusion or the stage-crafted forms. Our ‘Kohomba Kankariya,’ ‘Bali,’ ‘Yaga,’ ‘Thovil,’ ‘Sokari,’ ‘Kolam,’ ‘Janagayana’ and ‘Rukada’ representing ‘Uda Rata,’ ‘Pahatha Rata,’ ‘Samabaragamuwa’ and ‘Uturu’ ritualistic dance forms will be most enjoyable for visitors, for most of them prefer the real to the ‘make believe’.

There are stories to be told of them and these are ways of exposing our visitors to the richness of our culture’s marvels.

During the bad times when terrorism held us back and there were only a few tourists, that was the cited reason for not having this exposure made. “It did not make good business sense,” we were told. Now that the demand is a non-issue, what holds us back perhaps may be our own inability to appreciate the finesse and the richness of things of our own.

I recollect how once a when I was at Sri Lanka Tourism and mentioned that we must have a performance of ‘Daha Ata Sanniya’, a newly recruited young executive working on events quipped back, “You mean the ‘Olu Bakka’ dances?” I was not sure at that moment whether I was to be angry or sad. I was certainly disappointed at the lack of our own people’s understanding of our own.

Learning experience

Featuring the best of our own cultural forms to our visitors will not only be an expression of our rich and vibrant traditions, but will also be a meaningful learning experience for them.

For our traditional artists, crafts-persons, dancers and performers of rituals who have been struggling for so long to keep these traditions alive, the trickledown effect of tourism will bring in the power and ability to be vibrant again and regain their pride in their work.

(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

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