Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Sooriya Village rises

I’ve always believed that the performing arts are predicated on collaboration, along with a sense of togetherness and camaraderie that goes beyond the confines of individuality. Nietzsche said as much when he contended, for better or for worse, that music (considered the most universal of all the arts) embodied the collective. Institutionalising the medium and pigeonholing it to a set of formalised lectures, and that conducted by professors and academics more concerned with results than actual merit, is therefore futile. And self-defeating.

Forget that, though. Take another issue: the relationship between the arts and commerce. Some see nothing but a conflict between the two. Others argue for compromise, more often than not on the former for the sake of the latter. Few, very few in fact, privilege reason over rhetoric and argue for a link in-between. Sure, it’s not always easy to infer such a link and bring about a model (any model) that empowers these two variables, but it is my contention that most creative souls out there have what it takes to turn their creativity into income. Money, however, shouldn’t be the primary motive. Especially when it comes to tapping into potential and encouraging young blood to unleash creativity.

Both these points came to me the other day when I visited the Sooriya Village. It’s not an institution and it’s not somewhere you can seek isolation in. It clearly is founded and predicated on creativity, for ALL the performing arts. Yes, it’s impossible to think of such a place, if at all because we’re so inflated with noise and with a need for alienation. But then, the Sooriya Village isn’t there for your typical music class, lecture, or practice session. There’s a horde of other amenities to look out for. Starting with this: there’s no place like it anywhere else here.

Before everything else, however, it has a history that can’t really be charted to the dot, simply because the concept behind it was always there: vague, amorphous, forever changing.

Sooriya of course (as music lovers here would know) was named after that pioneer in music and record labels in Sri Lanka, Gerald Wickremesooriya. He had a house in Kollupitiya. After his death, it was initially decided to turn that house into a museum dedicated to all what he’d done. Now ideas tend to morph and evolve, so soon enough those who’d sketched out a museum proposed other more ambitious projects. All in all, they sketched out a book and a film on the man. This meant a compilation of every artiste, record, and archive collected throughout his career, a project that would take time but would be worth it in the end.

So they went on collecting. They went on compiling. In the end they hit on another plan. A music village.

In 2012, Gerald’s family bought a house in Skelton Road, Colombo 5. It was converted into a school for special needs kids. As events transpired, it was eventually decided to bring the village concept there. The inevitable debates, arguments, and conversations flowed: should they rent the house or should they fund it themselves? The original idea was then shelved in favour of a “centre” for artistes (from whatever medium in the performing arts) to come, practise, and if necessary, perform. It would be an artiste’s village, open and free for everyone and anyone.

That was then. Last year, Gerald’s grandson Sanchitha left for Morocco. He was there to witness arguably the world’s most vibrant religious music festival, in Fez. Given that he was a fan of religious music in general, he was entranced by the idea of a group of musicians and like-minded artistes coming together. This emboldened his and his family’s (by now concrete) project for an artiste’s village, and not surprisingly, things moved fast after his return to Sri Lanka.

I sat down with Sanchitha some weeks ago, to get his side of the story and to find out for myself what this out of the blue place was all about. He was firm on one point at the inception: there’s no catch to this place. “When we started sketching out the project a lot of people were baffled. They couldn’t take to the idea. They didn’t understand the concept.” That’s not a problem endemic to this alone, of course. “Even the Vihara Maha Devi Park has ample space for aspiring artistes to go and perform. There’s no legal barrier to stop them. And yet, how many do you see go there and unleash their creativity? Is it to do with fear or discomfort? Or is it to do with the fact that artistes here are being taken advantage of? I wish I knew.”

As for the Village itself, suffice it to say that it’s not your typical performing arts centre. There’s a library, a rehearsal room, a lecture room packed with iMac computers, and an open space in the garden to perform. I asked Sanchitha as to whether these are amenable to only music, and he replied that they are not. “We don’t push you into music. If you are into the cinema, drumming, basically anything in this vast, interminable terrain referred to as the performing arts, feel free to come here.” How? “Simply by going to our site at thesooriyavillage.lk and booking our facilities in advance.”

I was surprised at the charges for them. The practice room (packed with soundproof walls) fetches for about 600 rupees an hour, while after the third hour it goes down to 500. The Apple computers fetch for about 500 an hour, and with them you can basically do anything: create and edit visuals, compose music, even design landscapes. You can also order private sessions outside for anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000, while public performances are, well, completely free. And in keeping with the village concept, rooms are let out to those who want to live through what they create, for no more than 1,500 a night. “Quite cheap!” was what my friend Muzar Lye (who knows more about these things than I ever could) uttered.

This compels two questions. The first, how has the public taken to it? Sanchitha was prompt with his reply: “The response was amazing. We had two launches here. The first was a private dinner. The second was a public exhibition of this site. The public launch was not marketed in the media and it was only mentioned in our Facebook page. It’s hard to imagine, but more than 250 people came for it, even after paying a 500 rupee entrance fee!”

I was frankly surprised that there hadn’t been any preconceived marketing plan as such, so I prompt him on that matter. Again, he was quick with his reply. “We didn’t publicise the Village. We didn’t run articles. We didn’t advertise. We relied on word of mouth. That worked. Call us unconventional, but my family and I look for gloss only after getting things done. I personally am a believer in karma, and I believe that if what you set out to do is ordained by this universe, you’ve got to trust the general order of things to turn your plan into reality. If you start pondering on funds, marketing, and publicity, you’re not going anywhere. First do. Then look for returns.”

That brings up my second question: given that most of what Sanchitha and his family wanted is done, how have they looked for funds? I suspected the answer and I was not disappointed. “We have a restaurant here. It can accommodate up to a hundred guests and it has literally become a cash cow for us.” Apparently it’s managed to milk up a minimum of 80,000 rupees a day. Not an easy to get figure, one must concede, particularly since it’s been no more than two months since it was opened.

A passionate food lover himself, Sanchitha sketched out what went into the menu and this in conjunction with their culinary consultant, Koluu Ranawake. “It’s packed every Friday night,” he smiles. Not that there haven’t been problems: “We get guests who ask us to ‘lower the music’, that is any practice or jam session that may be in play elsewhere. I’ve personally told them that this is not your typical restaurant, and is situated in a complex that more or less operates on sound and music. If you don’t like that, too bad, go somewhere else.”

Apparently the Village captivated quite a number of veteran artistes. To name a few, Billy Fernando and his band, Anthony Surendra, Dinesh Subasinghe (“Who more or less lives here now”), Kishani Jayasinghe (“Who will start her upcoming Colombo Opera Company here”), and even the Colombo Symphony Orchestra (“Which booked the practice room for rehearsals for three consecutive days”) have come, seen, and booked.

All fine and well no doubt, but sometimes it has let in performers and groups who’ve tried to move away from the village concept. “Not too long ago a group of performers and artistes wanted to book this place for more than a month to conduct some music classes. I politely told them that the Village is not a formal institution.” Mercifully though, such (unfortunate) encounters have been, if at all, rare and far in-between.

There’s probably a lot more I can write, but for now I shall desist. There’s a time to write, after all, and a time to intoxicate oneself with experience. The Sooriya Village, going by the preview, looks great. It will take in and entertain. It will entrance and encourage. For those who love music and for those attached to that vast, interminable terrain referred to as the performing arts, hence, this is the place to go. And now’s the time to do that.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, October 23 2016