There is no one form of expression for Anuradha Kodagoda. She is a multi-talented writer, journalist, short filmmaker, sculptor, author, and arts lover. In this interview with Women Talk, Anuradha talks about her childhood that was inspired by reading and writing, her love for journalism, and her diverse work that spans across the field of arts and culture.
You have a portfolio of multifaceted experiences with art and culture, theatre, literature, journalism, public relations. Where does this journey begin for you?
I was inspired to get involved in the print media mainly because at my home my father is an avid reader. He maintains, even now, a large library. His room is filled with books, to the level that there is no space in there even for him. My brother and I were encouraged to read, whether we liked it or not. Reading was perhaps the only hobby that we had. So, naturally, I got an interest in reading and writing. My uncle is a journalist. I got exposure to his writing a lot. Since I was a child, I got inspired from journalism and writing, as a result.
Initially, I worked in the corporate sector and remained there for about 5-6 years. The first opportunity I had to work in the print media was through the Daily News. Although the corporate sector liberates you commercially, because of the immense love that I had for writing and journalism, I decided to leave my comfort zone aside and joined Daily News as a cub-reporter for a very small allowance. I had a love to learn about journalism. I worked in both the Daily News and Sunday Observer for over six years. Then I made a switch as a freelancer. If you look at my career through a broad spectrum, writing is my main focus. But I have worked in multiple fields that relate to writing. However, my focal point had always been writing.
When you say journalism there are many areas. My main interest and work had been in art and culture, be it writing stories, reviews or doing interviews. During my final three years at the Sunday Observer, I headed the Youth Observer magazine. That was a great opportunity to do many things that I loved. I enjoyed the work I did there. Even then, my focus was on art and culture. That is how I started and evolved as a writer and journalist.
You worked with a team at the Youth Observer. What are your experiences surrounding team work at a newspaper?
With most newspapers, whether in Sinhala or English mediums, a common issue is the lack of writers. In particular, young writers and those who enter the field of journalism has diminished. We also faced the same issue at Sunday Observer. Therefore, we had to work a lot with freelancers. There were many freelancers who worked with me, who were employed in different fields. Several young passionate writers worked with me. Senel Wanniarachchi being one of them, did a very insightful column. I enjoyed working with young writers a lot. With their involvement, I was able to well-develop the magazine.
Then you make a switch to working as a freelance journalist, in the alternative newspaper Ravaya, and also continuing at The Sunday Observer. What made you switch to a freelance role?
I have a bit of a phobia about institutionalisation! Sometimes I feel limited by restricting to a permanent institution. I prefer to work independently. I was also looking into developing something of my own. So, I took a break. I also had several art projects on which I could work simultaneously at the time. Something I must emphasize is that Sinhala is my first and comfortable language although I worked in the English language. I had a passion to write in Sinhala, too. Ravaya is one of the best alternative newspapers in Sri Lanka. I think it is fair to say that it is the paper of the Sinhala elite. It was a great opportunity that I got to write for this paper. So, I began to freelance between Ravaya and Sunday Observer. I was hoping to get a different exposure and bring variety to my work by writing also in the Sinhala language, while it was a challenging decision to become a freelancer. I like to experiment with different things in life in ways that could develop my capacities.
You are also a short filmmaker. Devi is a short film that you directed and conceptualised. How did you get an interest in filmmaking?
Film is a medium that I am greatly passionate about. I watch a film daily at night and it is a hobby of mine and I would say that’s my escape point of day to day chaos. Actually, I have an overall love for art – so, besides all the tags I carry, I’d love to call myself an art lover.
I am not limited by a particular medium of expression. I like to express through diverse mediums. I did the higher diploma in filmmaking at the National Film Corporation. The final assignment of that course was to make a short film. Devi was born, as a result. Devi was nominated for the most gender sensitive film award at the Agenda14 short film awards. Even when I write, I usually work with visuals. I imagine through visuals. So, film is a medium that deals with visuals. My expression and the medium with which I express, therefore, is always diverse and varies accordingly. It could be writing, reading, film, sculpture.
Devi is about a woman, Devi. It captures a day in her life. It shows the life that she likes and the life that she is made to choose in the end. The film is about that struggle of Devi. It is about the choices people face at certain moments. Whether it is our marriage, relationships, or children, what we take on as life is something that the society puts upon us. No matter how we struggle against that many reasons come together to prevent us from doing what we like and set us in different directions. There was a good discussion about this film among those who saw it. The film was shown in several locations. In Sri Lanka, there is no market or systematic ways to show short films. There are very limited possibilities. Mostly, they are screened in alternative circles. But I really enjoyed working in this medium. I have written some short stories that I am hoping to turn into a series of short films.
You are also a translator, among these are Russian literature that you translated into Sinhala. Could you elaborate on your involvement with the literary scene?
I had read many Russian stories as a child. Those inspired me a lot. The short story that I translated was of the writer Anatoly Aleksin, Just ring up and come. I translated it as an adaptation. The name that I gave it was Thaththa wage kenek (Someone like father). What comes as children’s literature in Sri Lanka and this story is vastly different. The child in this story is very realistic. The way that child faces various incidents in life and the love for parents are not stereotypical. In Sri Lanka, the concept of a good child is based on someone who obeys everything that the mother and father say – a passive child. The child in Aleksin’s story is not like that. When the parents of this child has an argument the child wants to react to it. The child takes the initiative to bring them back together. What the child does is runaway from home in order to bring the parents into a common cause of finding their child. While this was written in the 1980s, it still feels new and relevant. Currently, I am in the course of translating a Russian fairy-tale into Sinhala. It is quite a dense book. It is a story about a magician. I am captivated by the imagination in that story. I haven’t seen children’s literature in Sri Lanka that engages so well to develop the imagination of the reader. I am thankful to Gunasena Vithana of Kurulu Poth for giving me this opportunity as well as for publishing my previous book.
When you do a translation, how do you keep the liveliness of the story without letting it get lost in translation?
I think it is essential that we first recognise the style of the author as well as the language. We have to study that. I like to do more of an adaptation than a direct translation. For instance, in that story about the magician there is a cat. To say that the cat is embarrassed the author compares the eyes of the cat to pancakes – to indicate that the eyes are plain, without any shine. This is something that I haven’t read anywhere else before. I think new phrases and metaphors come into our Sinhala language through such literature. Usually, we use a set of similar things to describe. When I translate, I am mindful not to kill the original idea. It is a challenging but very interesting process.
It was filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage who related this idea to me in 2009. He had seen in Chennai, in a book store, where an author had been reading from his work throughout the day. Anyone who wished could stop and listen to the author, ask questions, get autographs etc. This is vital to creating a reading culture. Prasanna asked me why something like that could not be done here. He introduced me to H D Premasiri, proprietor of the Sarasavi Bookshop. So, I got together with my friends and colleagues who were working in literary and reading circles, and we held author reading sessions at the Sarasavi Bookshop. The author comes and reads from the book – that is the main focus. Mr Premasiri assisted us a lot with organising this. We conducted about ten sessions there and it became very popular.
Now, at The Sooriya Village, Udena Wickramasooriya and Sanchitha Wickramasooriya are very committed to creating an art and cultural hub at the premises. They invited me to initiate art projects there. I suggested the idea of the Talking Library to them and they warmly welcomed it. In June 2017, we began the series, as a monthly session held every final Saturday of the month. We select a book and the author of the book reads from it to a gathering. Those who participate can also read from the book, sections they like. They can ask questions, express ideas, and carry out a critical dialogue with the author. Reading, listening, and discussion is the main focus of the event, because all three aspects are vital not only in terms of literature but also in terms of our lives. We are very eager to communicate our ideas but we don’t really listen. Talking Library gives an opportunity to read as well as listen. We have a very good response for the event. We have had authors like Nadie Wasalamudaliarachchi, Eric Illeyaparachchi, Liyanage Amarakeerthi, and we had our first-ever book launch of the poet Kanchana Amilani recently. There is very good participation by literature enthusiasts. Besides The Talking Library, I do curate art projects at The Sooriya Village, which I really enjoy doing.
Could you elaborate on your interest in sculpting, where recently you exhibited your work at the J D A Perera Gallery in Colombo?
I was involved in a collaboration with a group of women artists called Atii Art Net. In August 2017, an exhibition was held at the J D A Perera Gallery. I did a sculpture for that exhibition. It was a very personal expression to me. I named it ‘My androgynous eyes’. It was my very first conceptual artwork I created mixing two old kitchen equipment (stone grinders), which my grandmother and later my mother used at the kitchen to prepare meals. This kitchen equipment became isolated after the tragic death of my mother when I was very young. There onwards my father happens to be my single parent and his male perspective became the only window of the house through that I saw the outside world. ‘My androgynous eyes’ is a window I created to explore my inner-self, the connection I have with my father’s perspective and knowledge, which was the base of creating my perspective of life with the absence of a female gaze. I developed this concept based on the visual structure of Shiva Lingam and also the idea of ‘androgynous’ character described by God Shiva and Goddess Parvati.
You were also the Production Manager in Dennis Perera’s Gotaimbara Kolama, which was an experimental play, well-received by its audiences in the recent past. And you were involved in the production process from its start. Could you elaborate on your experience, working in this unique drama?
It was Dennis Perera’s most recent production. It’s not hyperbole to say Gotaimbara Kolama was a ground-breaking theatrical endeavour that happened in Sri Lanka in the recent past. The drama captures a multi-layer of themes. It discussed femininity, the upcoming era, the current political situation, and it was also a well entertaining play. When you say theatre in Sri Lanka it is mainly productions done in a proscenium stage. How Dennis interprets this is that until Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Maname, Sri Lankan theatre consisted of kolam and nadagam traditions. Sarachchandra brought theatre into stage but eliminated the rough and coarse nature of the kolam to create a more intellectual Sinhala theatre experience. Gotaimbara Kolama reversed this to a certain extent, removing it from the stage and bringing it into an outdoor space while bringing back the psychedelic elements into it, which was eliminated by Prof. Sarachchandra.
The structure of the play was based on thovil culture but the play was not done merely in a ritual form rather it was more of a refined art form. Because I came from a more instituionalised structure from working at organisations and Dennis took a more alternative approach to management, there were many conflicts. But I think I was able to bring together my communication and PR skills into the production of this drama. Dennis worked on the script for about one year. We had to do a lot of work to secure funding for the production. I was committed to getting this production out and establishing it. I must remind Sunethra Bandaranaike for merely reading the script of this young artist and without anyone’s recommendations agreeing to fund the production. A lot of others like Asoka Handagama, Amal Alvis, and November Production helped us. Throughout 2016, we showed Gotaimbara Kolama in many locations across Sri Lanka. Top tier critics in Sri Lanka discussed this production. Gotaimbara Kolama could grab the limelight and came to the central position within the Sri Lankan art discourse. It was because that the drama offered rich insights. The audience was able to engage with the production in a novel way at every show. We hope to find ways to take it further.
Date of Interview: August 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage
Location: The Sooriya Village, Colombo