Internationally renowned musician and SAARC Cultural Centre’s first Deputy Director (Programme), Soundarie David Rodrigo believes culture is an important ‘soft’ diplomacy tool that could be used to bring nations together. Soundarie, the newly-appointed Director Programmes of Colombo Cultural Hub -- a trust set-up to promote Sri Lanka as a cultural hub for South Asia -- is of the view that culture could be used to heal the wounds of a country’s history, the urgent and important need of the hour for Sri Lanka.
At a time when the achievements of SAARC have been marred by internal political changes and bilateral issues of its members and even some of the SAARC regional centres have been closed down over the recent years due to underperformance, the SCC with a comprehensive and busy programme schedule of arts and culture was able to become the best regional centre of SAARC in 2014. Following is an interview with Soundarie who believes that internal political decisions have impacted a lot on the SAARC mechanism.
QWhat is SAARC Cultural Centre? How did it come into being?
The decision to establish a regional centre under the SAARC umbrella has been in discussion since the 2008 heads of state summit held in Colombo. As Sri Lanka never had such a centre until then, the SAARC Cultural Centre (SCC) came into being in 2010 – it was the eleventh regional centre of SAARC. Here, I should mention a few people who were instrumental in establishing the centre; they were former Ambassador and one of the Former Secretaries General of SAARC Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo.
The main idea of the SCC is to promote regional cooperation through culture, and also to bring the people of South Asia closer to project the distinct South Asian identity.
The SCC was intended to function as a major meeting point for academics, the artistic communities and policy makers in the field of culture. Briefly, SCC is expected to operate as SAARC’s public diplomacy wing.
QWhen you look at SCC’s past, its website brings about a vivid presentation of activities spearheaded since its inception and until 2016. The centre has been culturally active. What are your thoughts?
Yes. For any organisation, its leadership matters the most. In this regard, I would like to mention that it was under the leadership of Founder Director Mr. G.L.W. Samarasinghe that all this became possible. Why I say so is because by 2012, the centre was able to emerge as the best regional centre under his direction. All the successful programmes, in both research and performing arts, became a resounding success due to his able leadership. Another distinct characteristic of Mr. Samarasinghe was that he chose the best of the best, in terms of qualifications, work experience and most of all the ability to conceptualise and implement programmes. To work for the SCC and become the best centre within a very short stint didn’t remain a mere dream. It became a reality quite naturally.
And the untiring support extended by the Foreign Affairs Ministry further bolstered the centre in its successful years. Mrs. Damayanthi Rajapakse, Mr. Prasanna Gamage and Mr. Y.K.A. Rohanajith from the SAARC division of the Foreign Ministry were also part of the centre’s success story.
QWhat are the achievements of the SCC? Do you think the mandate of the centre has been achieved through its establishment?
Since SCC’s establishment in 2010, the centre has become quite a busy hub of cultural activities. We had two main divisions (research and programme), and I was heading the programme division while Dr. Sanjay Garg from India was heading the research. We were working and implementing many programmes, back to back, at least one per month.
SAARC film, cultural and drumming festivals, artists camps, annual research conferences, seminars, workshops, publications of annual poetry and short story collections, annual research journals, monographs and research reports -- this condensed but comprehensive list certainly gives you an insight into what the SCC has contributed to its mandate as well as to its people. If you visit the website of SCC, detailed information on all these programmes could be accessed. This was during the period from 2010 right up to mid 2016.
QAs the first Deputy Director (Programme) of the SCC, how do you assess your own contribution to the progress of the centre?
Though music is my major passion, I also wanted to pursue a career in law… of course to complement my artistic interests, hence choosing entertainment law for my LLM.
I was a recipient of the Rotary World Peace Scholarship, and had the honour of completing my Masters at the Berkeley University in California. Prior to this, I was working under the then UN Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy who was also heading the International Centre for Ethnic Studies.
I worked under her guidance as a researcher. I looked into issues such as constitutionalism and human rights, and was able to learn a lot during this time period. I also did my apprenticeship under Senior Lawyer Dinal Phillips and managed to focus on Intellectual Property Law which eventually turned out to be my area of expertise.
The times at UC Berkeley was very special as I was able to work with the best in the field of Entertainment Law, and this also included work experience at Warner Brother Studios and with other well-known entertainment lawyers. After completing my LLM, I started working for the law firm ‘Varners’ prior to joining the SCC as its first Deputy Director to head the programme division. I was blessed to have the guidance of Director Samarasinghe and the able assistance of my Programme Officer from Bhutan Mr. Karma Wangchuk. Both my colleague from India Dr. Sanjay Garg (the then Deputy Director Research) and I were able to implement all programmes during that time, and the centre ensured that funds of the governments were made good use of by bringing together the nations of the SAARC countries through culture. Therefore, it was tough work for the entire SCC team to keep up to our own policy of not cancelling any of the programmes streamlined in our calendar of events.
Music always has and will continue to be a major part of my life, but having completed my extended term of 6 ½ years at the SCC, I am now moving on to something that I hope will help showcase Sri Lanka to the rest of the world. More on it will be up soon for the public. Having gathered a wealth of experience and knowledge from my experience at SAARC, focus on culture and entertainment law and also being on the World Choir council, I am confident that Sri Lanka will be on the world map for its rich cultural heritage, talent and beauty.
Culture is an important ‘soft’ diplomacy tool that could be used to bind nations together. It could also be used to heal the wounds of a country’s history, and I consider this to be the need of the hour for Sri Lanka.
QThe achievements of SAARC have always been marred by internal political changes and bilateral issues of its member states. Do you think this had any impact on the achievements/ sustenance of the SCC in Colombo?
Everything is at some point political. And yes, I strongly believe that internal political decisions and bilateral issues between member states have impacted a lot on the SAARC mechanism.
For instance, the heads of state meeting scheduled to be held in Pakistan got cancelled due to obvious tensions. Similarly, internal political changes have also had a great impact on certain regional centres.
As you might be already aware, some of the SAARC regional centres have been closed down during the last years due to under-performance -- this is largely due to the internal changes that occur within the countries. So, against this backdrop, internal politics can have a greater say in deciding the future of SAARC and its regional centres.