British liberal columnist Jonathan Power has written about the opening of the new extension of St. Petersberg's Mariinsky Theatre. This is what he has to say:
"Observers say that what drives President Vladimir Putin is to make Russia respected. But perhaps Putin over-estimates how much power Russia already has. He has overlooked which trumpets to blow - it is not his 'hang tough' policies in international affairs, especially vis-a-vis the United States. It is Russia's culture.
"These thoughts were prompted by watching the opening of the new, quite beautiful, extension of the Mariinsky theatre in St. Petersburg. The Marrinsky is run by Valery Gergiev and he arranged a show (and conducted it) so rich and of such supreme achievement that it overshadowed in my memory all the great performances I've seen, whether in London, New York, Paris or Moscow. Each segment lasted a bare four minutes and it alternated between opera, ballet and two solo violinists and one pianist….Putin was in the audience, not in the official box but down in the middle of the stalls. Was he aware of the political power of an event like this? I doubt it. Nor of the power of the rest of Russia's great inheritance (for complete article, see the Daily Mirror of July 6, 2013)."
"In Sri Lanka, we can't be eclectic because we remain suspicious of outside influences. Fear of what is Western is endemic. Even what is Indian is suspect even though much of what we call our culture has its origins in India. We have fallen into a cultural black hole as the opening of Nelum Pokuna so starkly demonstrated."
The key words here, as far as I'm concerned, are: "the political power of an event like this;" i.e, a cultural event. Have we ever thought of culture in those terms?
I doubt it, or our arts - be it literature, music, the cinema, dance, painting, or the theatre - wouldn't be in this sorry state today.
My mind goes back to the much hyped opening of the Nelum Pokuna complex. Our cultural czars couldn't manage anything bigger than a performance by a lightweight musician, while we have several orchestras languishing for want of a broad audience - the national orchestra, the national youth orchestra, the symphony orchestra of Sri Lanka, etc. and individual performers of high calibre in both Eastern and Western music.
Along with them, we could have staged a dazzling cultural show by asking the Russians and the Chinese to send us ballet troupes and orchestras. We could have asked India. We have our own talented but pathetically neglected dancers. Nelum Pokuna suffers from many defects, including a military administration which is clueless as to what culture is all about. Instead of being the epicentre of new cultural renaissance, it has become a stark symbol of our cultural incompetence and poverty. In fact, we don't have anyone qualified to be the director of a venue (with all its design faults) which can stage ballet, opera, dance and theatre on a grand scale. We should get an expatriate, East European or West European, to manage the place till our choice (not a political one) gains experience.The Russians are extremely proud of their cultural achievements. Even during the lean and hard 80s and 90s, they didn't let their ballet companies go to ruin. While the country has lost its superpower status, the government is focused clearly on one vital matter - the conservation and development of culture, as manifest in the gala Mariinsky opening. We can only dream.
Jonathan Power made a very pertinent point when he said that the Russians have the most eclectic culture on earth. Whether that is so can be debated. There is no argument, however, that Russian culture is eclectic.
It's no exception in that context. In the modern world, most cultures are so due to mass migrations, invasions, colonialism, commerce, inter-marriages and other historical factors. The only problem is that being eclectic is not seen as a problem by some cultures while it is abhorred by others. Sri Lanka increasingly belongs to the latter group.
Getting back to the Mariinski theatre opening, neither opera nor ballet are Russian art forms to begin with. Both are imported art forms, ballet coming from France as late as the 19th century. It's a tribute to Russian creativity that Russian ballet has achieved such supreme status throughout the world with renowned companies such as the Bolshoi. Featured too, were some Russian opera artists who are among the best in the world, including star singer Anna Nebrestko.
Therefore, what the Russians were highlighting that night were essentially Western art forms, though it's doubtful if anyone in Russia, including Vladimir Putin, would have cared to think of them in those terms. Many West Europeans and Americans don't think of the Russians as part of the West. That's one reason why Russia isn't part of the European Union (it's barred, just as Turkey remains barred). But this is a complex political problem, not racial, because some East European nations - Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as some Baltic states - are members of NATO, while Russia is not.The point is that it bothered no one at the Marrinski opening that ballet is a Western art form. This is what Power meant when he called Russia's culture eclectic. Many fast developing, non-Western countries have grasped the essentials of this phenomenon - China and South Korea, for example, as well as India though at a much slower pace. China has millions studying Western music and excellent ballet dancers. Both China and South Korea have world-renowned performers of Western music. This is because they have highly eclectic cultures.
In Sri Lanka, we can't be eclectic because we remain suspicious of outside influences. Fear of what is Western is endemic. Even what is Indian is suspect even though much of what we call our culture has its origins in India. We have fallen into a cultural black hole as the opening of Nelum Pokuna so starkly demonstrated.