Sri Lankan sociologist Anoma Rajakaruna is also a poet, photographer and television filmmaker documenting the lives of communities in South Asia, especially women, children and minorities in Sri Lanka. The Indian Ocean island was torn by a bloody civil war for 26 years, ending only in 2009. Tamil separatists had sought to establish a Tamil state in the north and east of the predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist country.
“Some people say I am interested in those controversial issues. I would say they are sensitive issues that may trigger strong opinions,” said Rajakaruna in a recent interview with Shanghai Daily. She had attended the Shanghai International Literary Festival earlier and read some of her poetry.
She declines to identify herself as either Tamil or Sinhalese, calling such distinctions racist and saying simply that she is Sri Lankan.
Rajakaruna, who is around 50, started writing when she was 9 years old and published her first poetry collection when she was 17.
She studied television, which was relatively new in the island at the time, and began making feature television films, for which she is famous.
She has addressed issues such as women in armed conflict, rape and violence against women, conflicts between humans and elephants, people with disabilities, indigenous people’s environmental awareness and water conservation, among others.
In the mid 1990s, she was sent to the war zone to work as a joint secretary for a citizen’s initiative. During that period, she had listened and documented the stories from Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim victims of the conflict.
“Every day I used to write down the traumatic experiences of 25 to 30 women,” Rajakaruna said. She recollected about how she started documenting.
She encountered and accumulated so much pain that she felt she had to express the suffering through poetry.
“I’m Somavathie, woman of the borders” is one of the poems she recited at the Shanghai literary festival:
I am Somavathie
First born daughter to Seelawathie Maduraperuma
Of the father Maheswaran Yogarajan
Forever on the borders
Living a life between their threats and your suspicions.
The name Somawathie Yogarajan indicates that “she” is of mixed birth, born to Sinhalese mother and Tamil father, explained Rajakaruna.
The Sri Lankan civil war claimed an estimated 100,000 lives; many more people were injured, many disappeared. Communities were disrupted and displaced, divisions were, and remain deep. The economy and environment suffered.
“Though the war has been over for almost four years now, there are wounds needing to be healed and souls soothed,” Rajakaruna said.
She said her work uses different media, formats and approaches to address the issues of women and children within communities, so that people pay attention to them.
Whether in a poem or a video, she breaks all the norms, she said.
If a poem serves a larger political purpose, she will write it. If an image captures the audience’s attention, she will put it into a bigger frame.
Since television now reaches wider audiences, she makes short documentaries to tell people’s stories on specific occasions at specific festivals.
“I like the ripple effect when a stone is tossed into a pond,” Rajakaruma said. “Even the smallest stone causes multiple webs. I am looking for those reactions, arguments and criticisms so that we learn to share and strive for peace.”
Her films, some of which have won awards, have been screened at film festival around the world and her photographic skills won her the opportunity to work at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.
One of her award-winning photos is about both Sinhalese and Tamil women sharing life and drawing water from a single well in Sri Lanka’s arid north. The well is the only large source of fresh water within a few dozen miles. Every day women walk many miles to fetch water with pots.
The photo does not actually show the women, however, but only rows and rows of pots — we can tell they are from two main ethnic groups. In the foreground, a pair of gnarled hands pours water into one of the pots.
“Can you imagine: When men are fighting on the borders, their women are sharing the same water from one big well?” Rajakaruna asked.
“In our society, women are told not to speak out or not to laugh aloud. We share a smile or a tear near a well or on a riverbank and sometimes around an urban public tap. What interests me as a sociologist is how women share life.”
(Source: Shanghai Daily)
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April 22, 2014