The Sri Lankan president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the Galle Literary Festival 2024. Such highly curated and exclusive events stand in stark contrast to the ground reality of most Sri Lankans, who are still grappling with the ongoing economic crisis. Photo courtesy: Malaka MP Photography / Galle Literary Festival
The Sri Lankan president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the Galle Literary Festival 2024. Such highly curated and exclusive events stand in stark contrast to the ground reality of most Sri Lankans, who are still grappling with the ongoing economic crisis. Photo courtesy: Malaka MP Photography / Galle Literary Festival

State patronage and geopolitics are strange bedfellows for Sri Lanka’s literary and art festivals

Events like the Galle Literary Festival and Matara Festival for the Arts have always been elite playgrounds, but now – to their detriment – they are also increasingly arenas of state power and international politics

Dhanuka Bandara is a lecturer in the Department of English and the Postgraduate Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He holds a PhD in English literature from Miami University in Ohio, in the United States.

In the space of two months – January and February of 2024 – Sri Lanka hosted three major cultural festivals: The Galle Literary Festival, Matara Festival for the Arts and Ceylon Literary Festival (the latter was held in Kandy and Colombo). These were graced by authors and artistes of varying renown, both local and international. The first two festivals received state patronage and were attended by the president of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, presenting to the world a supposedly resurgent Sri Lanka that is dusting off the ashes of the economic and political collapse two years ago and emerging as a cultured and cosmopolitan nation.

Yet such highly curated and exclusive displays of seeming cultural sophistication and urbanity are in stark contrast to the everyday reality of most Sri Lankans, who are barely surviving an ongoing economic crisis that, outside the precincts of delusion, never ended. Attendance at most events of the Galle Literary Festival was priced at over LKR 3000 – roughly USD 10 – putting it well beyond the means of a vast majority of Sri Lankans. To drive home the atmosphere of desperation, consider how tens of thousands of Sri Lankans, if not more, have given up on the country altogether and are looking for ways to migrate abroad. In such a context, organising cultural festivals with the express purpose of attracting more tourists – a goal the festivals and the government proclaimed – seems extraordinarily ironic. 

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