Project: Lanka Project

The House that Thatha Built
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By the time I touched down at Bandaranaike International Airport, mother in tow, I had no idea what to expect.


The House that Thatha Built
by Sumugan Sivanesan


I entered Sri Lanka for the first time over December with my mother who was last there in 1973. We hoped to visit the house my grandfather built in a village near Jaffna in the 1940s. It was one in a series of distinct houses built by ‘Malaysian Returns’ – Jaffna Tamils that had left to work in Malaysia but returned later to re-settle.

My mother, who was born in Singapore, lived in this house for only one year yet still bears strong childhood memories of her time there. As a family accustomed to the city life of Malaysia they had trouble adjusting to the ways of the village. Thatha eventually acquiesced to the family will and they returned to Malaysia, leaving the house to care takers.

My parents moved to Sydney soon after my sister and I were born, extending the family network. I can recall an incident from my childhood when a group of young men came to our house to solicit donations for ‘the movement’. My father sent them away firmly stating that we were Malaysian Tamils with no interest in their cause.

Years later, during the ceasefire I developed my own interest in the island, but family friends advised against visiting. ‘You look Tamil, but you only speak English – it will only cause you trouble!’

My interested was again piqued after the 2004 Tsunami. Then in 2009 diaspora politics suddenly nose dived into my activist concerns, as boats full of Tamil refugees arrived in Australia in the aftermath of war. My investigations around this issue lead to a lesser known history of South Asians at sea; of ship borne anti-colonialism and dockside activism that had real effects in Australia, as well as travelling further abroad. My own engagement with this history took its course from a tattoo–performance in a Sydney gallery, to find an absurd connection with an anti-authoritarian T-shirt maker in Guadalajara, Mexico, and eventually prompted speaking engagements in Toronto, Canada.


Jump Ship with WT Nobert, Gaffa Gallery Sydney, 11 February 2010

I was circling around the international diaspora, but had yet to arrive at Jaffna. Upon reflection it was a process of negotiation across politics, family and traditions that I had spent most of my life questioning and departing from. By the time I touched down at Bandaranaike International Airport, mother in tow, I had no idea what to expect.

From Colombo it was an overlong haul in a clumsy minibus that delivered us to Jaffna sometime after midnight. After a day to recoup and sight see, we finally arrived – on Christmas day – at the house that Thatha built. Once wide and grand, it was now in a state of disrepair, having passed through several hands since my grandfather packed up his family and left.  It is currently home to a large family of fisher folk forced to relocate by the fighting several years ago.  Having arrived unannounced, they cheerfully allowed us to poke around.

A question of race

Conversations with family and friends revealed not only a sense of relief that the war had ended, but also some trepidation regarding the momentum of re-nationalisation, and with it the urge to forge an all encompassing national identity in an effort to alleviate the issue of race in post-war politics.

As discussions in the media  and elsewhere indicate, there are concerns that establishing an overly patriotic code of national identity will invariably lead to defining a standard by which the national may exclude or discriminate – potentially stifling the political representation of not only Tamils, but also Muslims, Burghers and other ethnicities identified on the island.

My praxis over recent years has engaged with processes of dis-identifiaction and de-nationalisation – problematising aspects of my Tamil identity and Australian citizenship – with the intent of opening a space for (trans)cultural practice that operates beyond the allure of race and the agenda of nationalism. As a critical practice, it is most often placed in Australia within a discourse of Asian orientated multiculturalism, which I complicate by linking it to a history of anti-colonialism.

At the conclusion of my trip I was interviewed for the program “Connections“: on Young Asia Television that, as the title suggests, connects Sri Lankans around the world. When asked about my Sri Lankan identity I replied that I had a very tenuous connection to Sri Lanka, but a problematised affiliation with the Tamil diaspora. I was quickly advised that in Sri Lanka the word ‘diaspora’ carries connotations of internationalised support for anti-state terror.

Dinner with an NGO

What then is the role of the diaspora now that the dream of Tamil Eelam has been quashed? Before leaving Colombo I had dinner with a friend of a friend from Toronto now working for a non-government organization (NGO) that designs and implements basic education and food programs with communities devastated by the war.

The competing and contradictory narratives as to what occurred during the final stages of the war and its effects on civilians are well known, so naturally I probed him for information on interment camps which are still operational, displaced people that might never return to their homes and areas developed with World Bank initiatives that are now completely flattened.

Speaking carefully he talked of a generation that has known nothing but the trauma of war, who have lived through circumstances that his organisation have neither the resources or qualifications to deal with. Projects such as counseling are not only difficult to implement, but may also be politically discouraged for establishing some  sort of account that contradicts the Government narrative. Instead their NGO focuses on rebuilding, educating and designing pathways for development with the communities concerned.  He appeals to the diaspora, as those with a long serving interest in the region and its people to help establish long term rehabilitation projects and to encourage translocal connections with people limited in the extreme, regardless of their race or ethnicity – encouraging a globalised circuit that effects de-nationalised change.


Sumugan Sivanesan

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Thank you to everyone who came along to a magical premiere season of The Other Journey – and congratulations to everyone at Parramasala for a brilliant festival.

Thank you to everyone who came along to a magical premiere season of The Other Journey – and congratulations to the team at Parramasala for a brilliant festival.

Below are some gorgeous images by Guido Gonzalez from Matta Media of our preview night with the community and the CuriousWorks team.

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CuriousWorks and The Other Journey in the Media
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The Other Journey has had a few media mentions lately as one of the highlights of Parramasala 2011. Here are some snapshots from our press and links to the full ...

The Other Journey has had a few media mentions lately as one of the highlights of Parramasala 2011. Here are some snapshots from our press and links to the full articles.

Stories spice up Parramatta festival
Jo Litson
The Sunday Telegraph


Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: The Daily Telegraph

“Parramatta will come alive with the sights, sounds and spicy smells of South East Asia when Parramasala starts next Sunday. Now in its second year, the Australian Festival of South East Asian Arts - focused around Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres and city precinct at Town Hall and St John’s Cathedral Square – will feature film, theatre, dance, music, contemporary art, daily markets and free yoga classes. One of the highlights is the immersive, multi-media performance piece The Other Journey, which will be staged on a stretch of the Parramatta River.”

“Usually people who flee as refugees get turned into statistics. I do feel they are either scorned or pitied – but I guess if any of us were in those situations we’d probably do the same.”

Full article:

The Other Journey developed by CuriousWorks for Parramasala
Chris Hook
The Daily Telegraph


Picture: Katrina Tepper Source: The Daily Telegraph

“Part theatre, part film, part art installation, The Other Journey appears an awesome trip for Parramasala patrons.“ 

“It’s not something you could say on stage. This is a way to use music and MP3 players to get across these most intimate thoughts.”

Full article:

The Other Journey
Angela Bennetts
Alternative Media Group

“The Parramatta River has witnessed countless tides of displacement and settlement. For this year’s Parramasala (Australia’s Festival of South Asian Arts) it will set the stage for a retelling of one such story, told in a way few will have seen before. Shakthi Sivanathan, of CuriousWorks explains further. 

“The Other Journey is my attempt to give these lives a simple dignity and a familiarity. The way they tell their stories in the work, it’s very informal, intimate, reflective… it’s like being in someone’s living room for a night and going through a bottle of whiskey with them as you swap life stories. For the show we couldn’t include the whiskey bit of course, there would probably be some OH&S problems with that.”

Full article:

And we even scored the front cover of the Parramatta Advertiser!

The Other Journey: A very special new Curious Work premiering at Parramasala this October
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This is an excerpt from the Parramasala website. Book tickets and learn about the rest of the Festival Programme via . Sydney’s remarkable CuriousWorks is renowned for its innovative ...

This is an excerpt from the Parramasala website. Book tickets and learn about the rest of the Festival Programme via .

Sydney’s remarkable CuriousWorks is renowned for its innovative approach to creating art across many forms. The Other Journey is a theatre work presenting intimate stories by three very different people who fled from Sri Lanka to Australia.


Commissioned by Parramasala and presented outdoors on a stretch of the Parramatta River, this exciting project combines large scale outdoor video art, moving storytelling, guided tours and luscious music which mixes Eastern and Western influences.

The flowing water and banks around the Lennox Bridge will provide the canvas for a stunning art installation which maps the many individual journeys from Sri Lanka to Australia. Animated light projections, lanterns and short films will bring the river to life.


Against this ever-changing backdrop, The Other Journey will be presented at scheduled times each evening to small pre-booked groups. Audience members will take part in two different experiences. Leaving Lanka is presented to the audience while sitting on the riverbank. Through headphones and mp3 players, intimate stories will be told by people who decided to flee from Sri Lanka to Australia. Becoming A Battler revisits the same people, this time telling the story of how they settled into Sydney and became Australians. For this experience, the audience is seated in a boat which gently travels up and down the river.


Every audience member will take something special away with them, and leave something personal behind.

Passers-by can simply view the unfolding visual story each night from the Lennox Bridge.

CuriousWorks’ The Other Journey will be one of the unmissable events of the festival and sessions are expected to sell out quickly.

Book your tickets here.

(See the documentary film produced by CuriousWorks , The Migrant Project at 1pm Friday 4 November as part of the free Lunch Hour Documentaries series).

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Some find ways to adjust to life with war.

3 beautiful video portraits documenting everyday life in Jaffna, North Sri Lanka.

These videos are made by Kannan Arunasalam, who was born in Jaffna, grew up in London, and returned to Sri Lanka in 2005, where he now lives and works. They form part of the Moving Images project by Groundviews.

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