Building Peace Through Creative Means

“Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can effect change – it can not only move us, it makes us move.”
Ossie Davis (American actor and playwright)

For the first time ever, Tamil and Muslim students from Jaffna District in the North of Sri Lanka came together and produced radio dramas on social issues. They wrote the scripts, and ‘acted’ them out over the radio. The radio station received more than 10,000 text messages from listeners lauding this initiative.

Further south in Badulla, a multi-cultural group of students from 3 schools (for Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamil respectively) was formed after they participated in workshops where they produced 10 stories for digital story telling. This initiative was endorsed by the Provincial Director of Education, as well as the principals and teachers of the three schools.

In both instances, students said they got the opportunity to relate to each other as peers, and were able to better understand the need to be culturally sensitive, and to respect differences, as topics such as tolerance towards different ideas and practices; caste; food; division between urban and rural population; religion; education to name a few, were discussed. These students have become friends, and are in contact via a web-based networking forum.

A group of Sinhala students from Colombo collaborated with students in Jaffna to produce and stage a drama based on a true story of a female Tamil student from the North who committed suicide as a result of war-related trauma.

More than 30,000 pages of 262 books were uploaded onto an Internet library which gives readers round the world the opportunity to access Tamil literature and information at no cost.

An exhibition of mystery paintings, produced by persons who were traumatised as a result of abuse, imprisonment, war and violence, was held to raise funds to sustain the activities of an organisation.

These are some of the 40 initiatives that have been supported by the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT) as part of its Arts and Culture Portfolio.

As early as 2001 – the year that the organisation was founded, NTT pioneered the introduction of arts and culture in peace building as a medium to ease the tensions associated with strife, as a catalyst for reconciliation among and within communities, and as a vehicle to drive peaceful co-existence & intercultural dialogue. Artistic and cultural expressions provide a creative means of solving problems and addressing social inequalities. The arts have the added advantage of being perceived as a non-threatening mode of engagement and creates space for communication even in an otherwise restricted environment. Artists can also act as mediators bringing about empathy and better understanding among communities.

The Arts and Culture portfolio represents 25% of our financial support to organisations, largely women’s and youth organizations while several endeavors by reputed and creative artists island-wide have also been funded.

In 2010, NTT supported the production of Trikon Arts Centre’s ‘Ravanesan’, an Eastern Sri Lankan koothu style opera by Prof. Sinnaiah Maunaguru of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka. With a cast of over 30 players, an aspect of the mythical character Ravanan was chosen to portray the enduring pain and suffering caused to women due to his ill-advised step to wage war. The anti-war message brought to the boards was even more poignant as it came from the war-torn east soon after the end of the war.

NTT’s support opened many doors for Trikon Arts apart from the opportunity to stage the koothu after nearly three decades. Prof. Maunaguru was invited to present the koothu tradition at a Forum in Norway, perform at the Annual Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January 2011 and was extended an invitation to explore opportunities for collaboration from the veteran Kandyan dance performer Ms. Uphekha Chitrasena combining the two traditions. Academics from Peradeniya University Fine Arts department have also shown interest in inviting the troupe to perform at their annual wala theatre festival, with a view to popularizing various folk traditions of Sri Lanka, especially those that are not “mainstream”, which NTT plans to support.

This example amplifies the spiral effect that seed initiatives such as this can have, not only in the message that they deliver and the power of the medium of delivery, but in their ability to reach out to a range of audiences who are otherwise disconnected.

This has been the strategic direction of the Arts and Culture portfolio of NTT since 2009 when the armed conflict ended. The aim is to further the understanding of rights and peace within Sri Lanka through creative means while providing a base for visual and performing artists, particularly those that embrace activism as part of their artistic make-up to display their works.

At the same time, NTT also adds to Sri Lanka’s artistic scene by bringing a culturally rich and vibrant display of performing arts from beyond its borders — from South Africa, India and Pakistan — which are eagerly sought after by the country’s art aficionados. These cultural offerings commemorate the birth of its namesake Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam with performances organised in Colombo, Galle and Jaffna. Artists have included veteran bharatnatyam dancer Alarmel Valli, kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, the Tribhangi Dance Theatre group from South Africa, and Pakistan sufi drummers Pappu and Jura Saeen.

As an indigenous philanthropic organisation, and in keeping with our mission to engage strategically with our stakeholders and partners, we regularly invite individuals and organisations to partner with us in fostering a vibrant tradition of artistic and cultural expressions, and to help bring to new and different platforms, local talent and traditions that would otherwise not have a chance to be seen or heard.

Indeed our strategic plan vis-à-vis arts and culture for the next 3 years is to allocate support that will promote a pluralistic and vibrant arts and culture sector, that contributes to the overall peace building, reconciliation & democratisation efforts in the country through dialogues, artistic expressions, awareness creation, advocacy and networking.

Jacqueline Netto-Lyman is the Executive Director of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Sri Lanka. For further information contact Jackie at or visit