Singing to Sri Lanka
At his last public poetry reading, Osip Mandelstam was challenged by an audience member to explain why he wrote so much about antique Greece and contemporary Western Europe. Mandelstam, who had already been weakened physically and mentally by years of harrassment by Stalin's culture police, and would soon disappear forever into the vortex of the gulags, defiantly replied that he had 'a homesickness for world culture'.
Kiwi-French musician and writer Bill Direen would surely blush at being mentioned in the same breath as Mandelstam, but he shares with the ill-fated Russian genius the conviction that internationalist politics are of no use if they are not grounded in an internationalist cultural outlook. Direen's journal Percutio is a bold and perhaps bloody-minded attempt to open a dialogue, or a series of dialogues, between cultural milieux that are too often separated by ignorance or outright prejudice. It is hard to think of another publication that would have the nerve to put poems about the nineteenth century Maori prophet Te Kooti into French, to reprint a long essay about ancient Sri Lankan graffitti by a French scholar, to reproduce the eerie images of Dunedin free noise musician and artist Nigel Bunn, and to still find room for an English-language summary of the latest action in the avant-garde theatres of Paris.
Direen is always interested in going where others fear to tread, so it is appropriate that the unfashionable conflict on the island of Ceylon will be part of the next issue of Percutio. In a recent e mail, Direen told me about an intriguing work he is preparing for print:
I have received a song lyric (and the sheet music is about to be scanned) for the next Percutio (2009) which might interest your readers. 'I long for peace in Sigiriya and Pidurangala' is a song by Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, who wrote an essay on translating the Sigiriya graffiti in Percutio 2008. These graffiti were actually poetic lines of appreciation by visitors to the painted images of women over the course of several centuries.
Dr Coulardeau has collected all descriptive elements of these famous Ladies of Sigiriya and recomposed them into his song in English (which has its own musical accompaniment in Sri Lanka) and in French. A project exists to bring together the most striking graffiti into a poetic show with musical and theatrical setting, but it seems to have encountered some resistance (Sri Lanka not being as fashionable as India right now).
As readers of your blog will be aware, Sri Lanka has been incapacitated by the ongoing struggle for secession by the Tamil Tigers. Dr Coulardeau believes that "the Ladies of Sigiriya should inspire us to believe that a political solution integrating a Hindu Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is possible. The condition is, naturally, that both sides detach themselves from their narrow nationalistic approaches. Such detachment, which is quite Buddhist in inspiration, can only occur when the weapons of war fall silent."
Whether or not the conflict in Ceylon lends itself to such an easy solution is, of course, very much open to question. Anybody who has read about the long history of oppression of the Tamil minority by Sri Lanka's Sinhala ruling class may doubt that Sinhala and Tamil nationalism should shoulder the same responsibility for the current crisis on the island. Bill Direen is to be congratulated, though, for trying to bring the history and cultures of an unjustly neglected part of the world to the attention of parochial Kiwis like myself. I look forward to reading Coulardeau's lyric in the next issue of Percutio.