The connection between the arts and social change is not a new one. For centuries, artists have used protest songs, visual arts and theatre to stoke activism and create awareness on oppression and issues of social inequality in society. Such music is a radical and critical form of contemporary mass culture which addresses the popular imaginary and public history to call for social change.

In Sri Lanka, music which calls for social change has not gained much prominence and exists in isolated pockets, accessible only to certain groups of people. The communities do not label the art form as ‘protest’ but see art as a means of indirectly voicing concerns against injustice. Furthermore, such music is also mostly exclusive to the region of origin. For example, socially conscious music in Jaffna, the Up-country and among the Muslim community stays within the respective district and is not known to communities from other parts of the country.

This gallery primarily contains material from ‘Sangeetham’ a music festival aimed at exploring the topic. The festival wished to initiate a cross sharing across regions, ethnicities and generations on how music questions and subverts the status quo, socio-political issues (gender, caste, ethnicity, land, disability, and globalization) and institutional forms of oppression. In addition, it also hopes to provide an insight into how cultures of musical movements for social change emerge and evolve and their impact on artistes and society at large. An encompassing thematic focus would be the role of music as repositories of memories associated with personal experiences, collective societal struggles, particular social movements and politico-historical events.

‘Samathai’ is a group of feminists from the Batticalao District who use the Parai, a controversial and caste-oriented instrument, to drum for justice. The performance starts with a slow, steady beat which gradually quickens and then breaks off. The performance is interspersed with slogans of the vision and mission of the group – “We are drumming for justice,” “We play for equality.”

This performance by three artistes from the Centre for Performing Arts in Jaffna intersperses music, lyrics and performance to dramatize the terror and agony of war. The performance is not only an example of the genre of protest music in the North, but also of the power of music to transcend linguistic and cultural differences.

This performance is by Mr. Vimalanathan, an artiste from Bandarawela who is well versed in the folklore of the Up-country Tamils.  He presents the traditional music of the community as a form of lamentation and a platform to share struggle. The songs are about loneliness, alienation, economic and emotional challenges which particularly feature the struggles faced by women.