Was there a time when people in Sri Lanka didn’t describe themselves as Sinhalese or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher?
Or at least when these identities weren’t foremost in their minds?
Today, one’s ethnicity is likely to be paramount when Sri Lankans describe themselves. I began to observe how conflict and ethnicity were inextricably linked. I wanted to challenge perceptions of identity, to see identity differently, and explore how this could help being communities together. An anthropologist I spoke to told me that a long time ago Sri Lankans, or the Ceylonese as they were known then, were more likely to talk to you about their kith and kin connections, what they did for a living or their hometowns. So with this in mind, I set out on a journey, seeking a generation of Sri Lankans who were from such a time or perhaps still responded in this way.
I visited churches, kovils, temples and mosques and was welcomed into people’s homes and workplaces. I traveled by plane, by road and by boat. I met and photographed elders; many wise men and women who trusted me with their life stories. They shed light on my questions and I grew more convinced that reflecting on the shared experiences of elders is key to moving towards reconciliation in this conflict. The ‘I am’ project was born – a collection of portraits in photography and sound of the experience and insights of Sri Lankan elders. I hoped that people would engage with these portraits of community, identity, and coexistence, and move them towards reconciliation. I also wanted to encourage those I met on my journey to tell others about the project, and in turn, encourage them to tell their own stories.
The ‘I am’ project is trying to engage people with oral history and, through the wisdom of these wonderful elders, to challenge perceptions of identity and explore how this could help bring communities together. This was my journey of discovery and I hope that my own transformation through engaging with these stories will help others do the same.
Concept, creation, curation
“That Kannan is succeeding in this is evident. Aside from the many views on his website, his work will reach new audiences as part of the 8th Aljazeera International Documentary Festival 2012 and Film South Asia 2012. He was also part of the just concluded Colombo Art Biennale. Linking them all thematically is Kannan’s great obsession – an exploration of the shifting Sri Lankan identity. His own family’s circumstances and choices have made these stories deeply personal for Kannan, particularly the series titled ‘Longing and Belonging: Diaspora Shorts,’ available on the website Groundviews. But it is his ‘I Am’ series which absorbs him now. The first set introduced 36 narrators from Jaffna, Kandy and Galle and began with the filmmaker’s determination to explore the answers to this one question: was there a time when people in Sri Lanka didn’t describe themselves as Sinhalese or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher?” Telling their stories, Kannan Arunasalam speaks to Smriti Daniel about his endeavour to record narratives from a fast disappearing Sri Lanka, Smriti Daniel, The Sunday Times, February 26, 2012
“Among the photographers/filmmakers, Kannan Arunasalam’s I am stood out at Park Street Mews, for the arresting composition of images, fine sense of tonal and descriptive detail, evocative voice overs and choice of subjects for his short photo-biographical essays. We were deeply moved by his emerging portrait of this troubled country we sat uncomfortably at home in.” Becoming Biennale, Dr Pradeep Jeganathan and Dr Malathi De Alwis, February 26, 2012
“Kannan Arunsalam wants people to rethink the ideas on identity and talk about the concept in a more constructive way. He hopes people will be drawn to the project because it is talking about their home towns and ultimately see the bigger picture. “I am hoping that the message that was created in this project will help people to see something that goes a bit deeper into issues, through different eyes.” Kannan Arunasalam appreciates the connections he has made and he describes it as a lovely gesture that the nun Sister Pushpam Gnanapragasam from the project continues to write him letters. “I like the idea of keeping in touch with them, I think it is important. Sometimes people take a story that is really valuable and personal and then disappear. That is not right.” A journey beyond ethnic identity, Maya Bille and Nadine Wardell, Sunday Island, March 5, 2011
© 2010-2012 Kannan Arunasalam. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)