Performer prepares | Daily News


Performer prepares

University of Visual and Performing Arts, Graduate Studies Faculty Dean, Professor Saumya Liyanage. Picture by Sarath Peries
University of Visual and Performing Arts, Graduate Studies Faculty Dean, Professor Saumya Liyanage. Picture by Sarath Peries

Political and social science were unheard of before the industrial revolution took place. Back then, only natural sciences were considered academic. However, things took a different shape at the turn of the 19th century. The man was no longer happy with himself as a subject objectifying nature. He began to search and research himself and his surroundings. Thus was born sociology and allied subject areas.

But it took a little longer for the world to delve further into the human psyche. As a result, aesthetic subjects had to wait until it earned some academic recognition. That phenomenon explains why Institute of Aesthetic Studies, solely dedicated to exquisite subjects, gained university status only in 2005 as University of the Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA).

Heena Hoyana Samanallu

The Daily News meets with Professor Saumya Liyanage, Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies, to ascertain the UVPA’s challenges, drawbacks and limitations as well as the way to overcome the same.

The rigour and the vigour of the University of Visual and Performing Arts is yet to blossom in full. But the university has been earning the recognition as a reputed seat of learning since it was elevated into the incumbent status. Under the tenure of its immediate former Vice Chancellor Professor Sarath Chandrajeewa, the university sped up its academic course of action.

“The consensus is that art scholars or artistes are jokers. But Professor Chandrajeewa proved that it is quite otherwise for the first time in the university’s history. His contribution as an administrator as well as a scholar is remarkable. He worked rigorously and with vigour. He wanted to apply constructive modifications to the established system,” Prof. Liyanage observed.

Saumya Liyanage is lesser known as an academic cum administrator than his role as a performer in theatre and screen. With 25 years and still counting, Liyanage began to reflect his role as a performer.

“I decided to leave my performer’s cap for a while and went abroad to pursue doctoral studies. What I wanted to do was reflect and look back what I have done. As an actor, how do I reflect my own work within an academic framework? It is not just telling my story. But theorise and conceptualise how an actor perceives and knows the craft to work in the theatre. This was my test,” Liyanage recalled how he gradually contemplated on switching between the careers.

Well before taking up the doctoral path, Saumya was well-read in the literature related to phenomenology studies.

“Knowingly as well as unknowingly I was much into philosophy and performance. They are different genres. Phenomenology as a philosophical genre was very much attracted to me. Then I started thinking through phenomenology. And I wanted to explore how the body of the actor perceives and knows how to perform. It was much of a philosophical explanation of my thesis. It is a combination between acting and phenomenology,” Prof. Liyanage explained the nitty-gritty of his doctoral venture.

It is a switch from a practical actor to a theorist and vice versa, Prof. Liyanage claimed.


“I was previously a doer. You are a doer when you act. In the first instance, acting is something you do. Thinking comes afterwards. But traditionally we think otherwise: thinking comes before we act. But that is vice versa. The actor is a kind of a doer. The doing ignites your thinking. It’s a kind of cycle; a reflective cycle.”

Saumya Liyanage is perhaps the first Sri Lankan with a PhD on performance practice. He is approached by ‘interrogators’ expressing surprise over obtaining a PhD on acting.

“They don’t understand that performance possesses such depths. I have worked very hard to earn my PhD. I think I can claim competence and the vigour to stand by as a scholar. On the global platform, I have encounters with leading theatre and performing studies scholars. I am offering that knowledge to the university as much as I can,” Prof. Liyanage said.

As Prof. Saumya Liyanage elaborated, the former Vice Chancellor gave a facelift to the university with his experience of having worked in foreign seats of learning. A notable change is his attempt to instil research culture, which is generally easier said and done in an institute where aesthetic subjects are pursued.

The University held its first international symposium in 2018 with the participation of scholars from several reputed institutes of India, Australia and home. Representatives from the South Asian region were in attendance. The result is clear. The undergraduates had the opportunity to experience a different kind of exposure. Prof. Liyanage credits it to the former Vice Chancellor.

However, the University of Visual and Performing Arts face quite a few concerns. As it was previously an institute that taught aesthetic subjects, the natural question is whether it could gain the standard sense of university definition.

“To some extent, we have to accept that most academics at the UVPA have no academic background. Compared to other universities, we have been experiencing several drawbacks in terms of academic research. How many research papers have we published? We are lagging there.”

Prof. Liyanage himself brought the remedy. The Faculty of Graduate Studies published the first journal of aesthetic studies: Journal of visual and performing arts. The journal completed in English is a peer-reviewed journal. The second publication will be published in 2019. The University has opened gates for prospective postgraduate candidates with special reference to writing skills. UVPA is among the few universities that offer facilitation for PhD candidates. Yet, most scholars would leave the shores for an overseas qualification.

“After many years of observing our university sector, the authorities have concluded that most of our academics have not been exposed to foreign education. That is a problem. At the same time, when you compare our university structure with other countries, we are far behind. This situation is predominant among the humanities and social sciences students.”

Prof. Liyanage points out that the local academics are not keen to pursue PhDs despite opportunities and scholarships available. For instance, Prof. Liyanage completed his PhD at the LaTrobe University with the funds from the Australian government. A few years back, funding was available at the Higher Education Ministry with the sponsorship of the World Bank.

“The biggest drawback is the attitude that our universities are not up to the standard. There is some truth to it. We need to accept that. Our university system is five or six decades old. But still, we are far behind in the region even compared to a university like Jawaharlal Nehru in India. Such universities are way ahead of us. Why? There are many reasons. Our universities are government-run, hence limited funding. We cannot have a large number of students enrolled. How many students get a chance to get into the university? The budget allocation is quite low.”

Prof. Liyanage added that the university dons carried out a campaign to get the budgetary allocation percentage increased to enhance the education sector. Such an expansion will invite more students to the university set up.

“They have a right to earn degrees. But because of the funding and poverty, we miss that. We need to have more faculties. Come and get a degree. It is right for them. That problem was here for the long term.”

In order to address this problem, several worthy projects came to be funded by the World Bank implemented through the University Grants Commission. The primary purpose was to increase research and quality in the university sector by providing financial support.

“For the young academics who have not been able to get their postgraduate work done, the ministry provides a grant per one person to go somewhere abroad and get qualified. You need to apply and get selected. If you get selected, you get the grant. You have to come back and work. But that grant is not given for local studies. But still, most young academics are not keen to make use of it.”

You need to go somewhere and see the research and academic culture, Prof. Liyanage emphasises. Otherwise, the improvement of quality in the seats of learning would continue to be a tough task.

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