Culture in Kandy

To say – as I and many expat and Sri Lankan friends often do – that Kandy is a cultural desert is not exactly fair. It is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage City though it seems to have managed to hang on to that status a few years back only by its fingernails and through the inertia of UNESCO. WHC status is supposed to reflect, inter alia, various environmental and governance criteria for which my home town manifestly fails to reach the mark, but as ever it is politics which rules at the end of the day. ‘Nuff said – or I would need to go off on a lengthy and probably unwise diversion.

There is plenty of culture of the religious, heritage kind in Kandy. What it lacks – and what this piece is about – is any modern secular culture whether Sri Lankan, western, or even indeed Korean. Kandy shuts down around 7pm once the flocks of mynahs in the city’s trees have stopped their chattering and gone to roost. Not that there’s much going on in the daytime either.

From time to time people have a go at offering something. Just recently there was a weekend ‘night market’ for three nights – but what was on offer was essentially the same as one could get in any of the daytime stores. No outlets for craft- or food-based social enterprises, no accompanying street entertainers, nothing special. A while back there was a ‘book fair’ in the shopping mall with pre-publicity implying that some flesh and blood writers might even make an appearance. But no – it was just a glorified bookstall run by the usual bookshops. None of the few cinemas show anything not in Sinhala or Tamil or possibly another South Asian language; in a city whose road and other signs are mostly in English it seems odd, to say the least, that none of the entertainment is.

What of the visual arts? There used to be a small but quite well-formed art gallery up a couple of flights of scarily steep stairs near the Temple of the Tooth but it closed down. I never saw another customer or browser in there on any of my visits. No-one knew about it, you see. There is now The Atelier, a newish, poshish hotel out on the Peradeniya Road, a long way from the city centre, which has an art gallery and supports local visual artists as well as putting on occasional cultural events. I wish it luck, but fear it will go the way of every other half-realised and stand-alone good idea in the arts in Kandy. The Events page on their website only shows events which have already happened – not an encouraging start.

Performing arts? Leaving aside the tourist-oriented dance and drumming shows there’s really nothing on offer. Well, there is some western classical chamber music from time to time, and choral societies whose repertoire is largely Christian. But little or nothing professional, certainly nothing large-scale and certainly nothing musical dating from any time after the last world war. No modern theatre or dance, of course. Poetry slams? Come on!

Well, maybe architecture then? Kandy has many architectural gems, though few of them are modern. And given the city’s emphasis on heritage, why is there no attempt to capitalise on its architectural heritage? Geoffrey Bawa doesn’t seem to me to have made the impression on the country’s ‘cultural capital’ that he did elsewhere in the island, though I have no idea why and I may be completely wrong about that. The new buildings that have sprung up in and around Kandy in recent years seem for the most part uninspiring whether they are large- or small-scale.


Kandy is not without intelligent, creative people. So why does the city sell itself so short culturally? Let’s dispose of the obvious reason first. Kandy prides itself on its status as Sri Lanka’s ‘cultural capital’ but this is a vision of culture set in aspic. A culture that is essentially Sinhalese, Buddhist and introspective rather than inclusive, progressive, outward-facing and risk-taking. Preserving heritage is fine, but not when it is taken to mean preventing everything else. And, sad to say, that is what the Buddhist establishment does.  It is a retrogressive, controlling force in the city, restricting its economic development and the pleasure of its residents and visitors in the name of a religion which is supposed to be about personal enlightenment, not telling non-Buddhists what they can and cannot do in their lives. Kandy is our town, too. And I fear that at some point, if the legitimate economic and cultural aspirations of Kandy are to be realised, this reality will have to be named and confronted.  Any volunteers? Actually, it could be easier than we suspect. It’s a matter, like all negotiations, of finding common ground rather than win-lose. If the secular side can convince the Buddhist establishment that it has nothing to fear by loosening the restrictions – and it hasn‘t; no-one is proposing letting loose a stream of drunken yobs on the sacred precincts of the temple – then the ground could be laid for a constructive dialogue about the future of Kandy as both a Buddhist centre and a city respected and liked for its other, secular attractions.

However, I think there is more to it than that. Kandy’s cultural failure has other roots, too. One is the national assumption that to do or get anything interesting one must go to Colombo. As I’ve found on numerous occasions this maxim applies equally to obtaining fire extinguishers or eating really good food as it does to seeing films or theatre. The British Council – bless its collective cotton socks – promotes all kinds of cultural things in Colombo and bugger all elsewhere unless it’s related to the post-war reconciliation agenda up in Jaffna, perhaps. ‘Time Out Sri Lanka’ really should be retitled ‘Time Out Colombo’ if there were such a thing as a Trades Descriptions Act in this country. I used to think England was unhealthily London-centric – still do, in fact – but that pales when compared to the cultural stranglehold Colombo exerts over the rest of the island, including Kandy.

But excluding Galle. Galle is different. Galle has great restaurants, interesting if pricey places to stay, a range of shops that westerners and educated Sri Lankans feel at home in, the only Barefoot outside Colombo, and of course the Literature Festival. Built largely on the tourist and expat dollar, so to speak. So why not Kandy? We are also mobbed with tourists and have a fairly sizeable resident expat community. And unlike Galle we also have a top class university just down the road in Peradeniya, which does put on some cutting edge stuff from time to time, but presumably for its own good reasons does this on its isolated campus, not in the city. The Galle I first visited over twenty years ago was a very different place. Utterly magical, but boy was it down at heel! Since then people with vision and money have invested in it – helped, I know, by the Dutch government – in a way that has not even begun to happen in Kandy, with the possible exception of the Kandy City Centre shopping mall, of which a little more later. If you want to know what Galle Fort used to be like take a walk around Matara’s old town, just down the coast. If I were wealthy that’s one of the places in Sri Lanka where I would invest my riches, another being Mannar. And Kandy – if the Buddhist stranglehold can be relaxed. But I digress. My point is that Rome and Galle were not built in a day, and Kandy needs people with similar vision, tenacity and – naturally – wealth if it is to climb out of its present soporific pit and assume the cultural status it has the potential for. I’ll sketch in who these people might be later.

Champions, ‘angels’, sponsors and benefactors are only part of the equation, though. If Kandy is to come close to achieving its potential it needs two other variables to develop. One is a sympathetic and encouraging municipality brave enough to take tough planning and other decisions to provide the necessary infrastructure. Transport, parking, pollution control, pedestrian-friendly environments – that sort of thing. I don’t propose to say more on that subject. It’s essentially down to politics and I’m an expat, not a Sri Lankan citizen, and others need to take up the cudgels if they want to. Though as an aside I’d note that publication and open discussion of the Kandy Development Plan might be a good starter.

The other is what we oldies used to call a grassroots movement. Almost all successful and sustainable cultural initiatives stem from small beginnings and a set of determined and often cashless people who just refuse to give in or to be downcast for long when their latest funding application fails. Big creative ideas imposed from above almost never last the distance. My favourite UK example is the failed Sheffield Popular Music Centre; a northern city in need of investment and with an heroic recent history of star singers and bands was deemed to be fertile ground for throwing in a centre for the celebration and performance of popular music, housed in a costly and futuristic building. But audience numbers were passing disappointing. The good people of Sheffield didn’t have any sense of ownership of this great gift foisted on them, and after a few years the centre closed its doors for good. That’s exactly the kind of ‘help’ we don’t need in Kandy – future governments and potential benefactors please take note. What we do need is for some of the people who are doing their own small things already, plus others who can be inspired and cajoled to join them, to collaborate perhaps under some kind of banner to showcase what the city might be able to achieve with the right kind of support.

Kandy’s cultural future needs to be home grown. Here’s one reason why. A few years ago, just after my wife Sally and I had moved from the UK to live here we found that the Galle Literary Festival was planning two smaller satellite festivals that year, one in Jaffna and one in Kandy. This was in November – we were just off the ship, as it were – and the event was scheduled for January with a toothsome line-up of literary figures and events. We enthusiastically e-mailed around the handful of people in the area we knew at the time, to discover that not one of them was aware of it. Even so, time was getting short when the box office opened in the Olde Empire in December and we hot-footed our way down there in trepidation that all the good acts would already be sold out. But this was not the Perahera. Or even the train to Ella. Aside from the volunteer staff there was one other person there buying tickets. Among other things we got to lunch with Sebastian Faulks along with a handful of other souls for less than a tenner each (that’s two thousand rupees at the then prevailing exchange rate, by the way). Possibly the best bargain of my entire life. To say that attendances at the Kandy events were disappointing would be a wild understatement.

Gratified by what Galle had done for our new local city we thought we should offer some help for the following year. Sally has a long professional arts management career behind her (I’m just an amateur enthusiast) and we both volunteered our services in marketing the next Kandy mini-fest as well as recruiting local volunteers for box office and stewarding and other work and maybe trying to find some local sponsorship. But the Gallic powers were unmoved. Their conclusion was that Kandy folk were not sufficiently interested in literature to make it worthwhile repeating the exercise. On one level they were wrong. As any arts centre manager (Sally) or community worker (me) knows, if people don’t come to your show or meeting it’s either because you’ve pitched it wrongly or have failed to inform them at all. Not because they are apathetic. But in another sense they were right. Galle needs to stick to its knitting. Kandy needs to find its own home-grown cultural solution, not piggy-back on someone else’s achievements.

But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do with some outside help. At this stage of the game it might be what in dear old Instagram I believe they call an ‘influencer’ putting some weight – intellectual and/or financial – into Kandy and declaring publicly their faith that the city has a cultural future which extends beyond the Temple of the Tooth, the annual Perahera and the Museum of World Buddhism. How about diverting some of the British Council’s cultural (as opposed to educational) resources from Colombo into Kandy? How about Time Out taking some time out to see what happens in the rest of the island and running some copy on it? Barefoot – how about a Kandy store? Locally, big hotels like Ozo and the Cinnamon Citadel could be brave and reach out beyond their usual food-and-drink-related soirees into things that were a little more challenging and risky (I wouldn’t expect their dowager relatives like the Queen’s and the Suisse to embrace this new agenda, but one can always live in hope).

And then there’s KCC – Kandy City Centre shopping mall. Long ago I used to work on British social housing estates where they built all the houses, stuck in a few expensive shops and a primary school but never quite got around to the play areas, the community centres and the parks that make a community work. Then they wondered why the place became a slum – and of course blamed the people who lived there. KCC is a bit similar. A couple of years ago, when the top floor (now a food court and fun palace) still lay largely empty there was an exhibition up there setting out the plans for the next few phases. Next up was the multi-storey car park, now complete. That’s the easy bit. After that there was/is to be a theatre/cinema/performing arts venue, a new public transport hub to replace the chaos of the Clock Tower and Goods Stand bus stations, and – joy of joys – a cable car up to the Hanthana  mountains where I live. Get the shopping back home in double-quick time! Needless to say, none of this will ever be built and we will be left with the usual temples to mammon and the motor car. But – the fanciful cable car excepted – it is these unbuilt bits that make a city special and liveable. And it is culture – vibrant, edgy, inclusive culture – above all that regenerates urban environments whatever the planners and politicians will tell you. Let’s make a start, Kandy.


2 thoughts on “Culture in Kandy”

  1. Oops, ‘Gosh + comma’ wasn’t a very full comment, there. What I meant to say was Gosh Jerry you obviously feel very strongly about this – hope you manage to liven Kandy up, somehow!
    (In the meantime, it sounds like a great place for a bit of peace and quiet.)


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