Many Worlds, One Village: The Sooriya Connection

The Sooriya Village brings together artists and enthusiasts in a unique environment where different forms and genres meet, with a dream of finding a new and global kind of art and entertainment

The Sooriya Village was opened to the public in September 2016, with a vision of becoming a resource and cultural centre for local and international artists in Colombo. With practice rooms, a recording studio, library, restaurant, lecture/tech rooms and equipment from every creative person’s fantasy, ‘the village’ (as it’s fondly called) is filling a gaping hole in Sri Lanka’s creative industries in a way no one else could have done. Dancers, poets, musicians, painters, actors and sculptors all have their niche here, but more importantly, they also discover what happens when their worlds collide.

The driveway into The Sooriya Village, at what used to be the home of the late Attorney-at-Law and apparel industry legend David Thurairajah, is lined with colourful banners on which men and women of music, with instruments for bodies, are painted. These lead the way to the porch, where stencilled verses on the archway invite artists and enthusiasts of any calibre to create with and enjoy their gifts. The lawns of the property and the shade of the trees call out to a small gathering of simple, artsy folk to come and experience a performance on the little wooden stage.

Twenty-something-year-old Sanchitha Wickremesooriya is the founder and director of The Sooriya Village, a resource and cultural centre for local and international artists in Colombo

Inside the sprawling house, the sound of drum kits and keyboards is completely silenced by sound-proofed walls. But a crack in the door of the Marianne David Rehearsal Room reveals musicians jamming in their own funky space.

Further down, in the North-East corner, is what used to be the garage, now transformed into a recording studio. And the library features carefully selected books on topics ranging from sculpture to landscaping, cooking, knitting, music, drama, dance and everything in-between. Soon, there will also be another practice room, with 360-degree mirrors, for dancers.

Somewhere in this maze is a gangling twenty-something-year-old in spectacles, wearing shorts and a distant smile, milling about, making sure everyone is having a good time. Meet the man who runs the house: Sanchitha Wickremesooriya, founder and director of The Sooriya Village. “I hate picking,” Wickremesooriya laughs, explaining the mashed-up “village” concept. “There’s no either, or for me; it’s always everything. And that’s what this place is.”

The concept venue is situated in one of Colombo’s most coveted properties on Skelton Road, and doesn’t come cheap. But the outdoor spaces at the village are most often available free of charge for anyone who wants to express their creative self.

“Don’t come and ask me if you can put on a show. Tell me when you’re doing it, so I can get our sounds and lights out,” Wickremesooriya shrugs. “We want you to make this place your own.”

Don’t come and ask me if you can put on a show. Tell me when you’re doing it, so I can get our sounds and lights out. We want you to make this place your own.
Sanchitha Wickremesooriya

What The Sooriya Village envisages is a creative melting pot, where artists and enthusiasts mingle and learn from each other, utilising the infrastructure and support provided.

“We want to bring in talent, teach, develop and do this on an international scale,” financial advisor-dad Udena Wickremesooriya says. “We want to encourage a new form of art and a new kind of entertainment, and take it global.” The “newness” of such a creation and the “globality” of its appeal work hand in hand for Udena. Entertainment is often thought of first in terms of form (music, painting dance, sculpture, etc.) and then genre, he says. “But each art form and each genre can influence the other,” he points out. “We can’t define what it will become, but it will evolve.”

To drive this process, The Sooriya Village has a number of simple, collaborative performance projects in place.

International artists (most recently from India and Turkey) visit the village every month, performing and conducting workshops, and also find opportunities  to jam and make music with local artists who are recording or rehearsing onsite. On the local front, the village keeps studio booking rates relatively low to encourage more artists to use the space.

The Sooriya Village’s mix of practice rooms (bottom), recording studios, a library (top) and lecture/tech rooms feature equipment from every creative person’s fantasies

They charge Rs600 for the first two hours that an artist books the practice room, and after that the rate drops to Rs500. The recording studio, which can be booked at Rs1,500, comes with a special menu of fried rice, noodles and sharing plates in the range of Rs250-700. The whole project is intentionally not geared for impressive margins.

“If we don’t stay true to our goal of encouraging artists, then we should shut this place down,” Sanchitha shakes his head.

The village claims “no business model”, but the young social entrepreneur is not afraid of the fact that the financial power to differentiate and take a focused approach with The Sooriya Village is his inheritance, and not something he had to work for. “I have the luxury to do it. The fact that I come from a privileged family plays a massive role in all this.”

The property on Skelton Road is family-owned, and the capital injection for infrastructure and equipment also came to Wickremesooriya from his family. Equipment, in this case, translates to musical instruments (including a baby grand piano; keyboards; percussion, electric and acoustic guitars; electric bass; and drum kits) from Yamaha, as well as iMacs and MIDI keyboards for the Vijaya Corea Lecture Room, which seats a class of 12.

Wickremesooriya’s grandfather, Gerald Wickremesooriya, founded the Sooriya Records label, which redefined Sri Lanka’s pop music sphere of the 1970s and beyond, bringing the likes of the Dharmaratne Brothers, Stanley Peiris, The Golden Chimes, Dalrene, Noeline Honter and Milton Mallawarachchi to their fame.

Gerald’s son Udena Wickremesooriya took up the musical legacy in a different vein, playing his own music even as he pursued a high-profile corporate career at Brandix.

Following the tradition of pioneering and innovating in Sri Lanka’s music industry, Sanchitha himself studied Music Business at Berkeley College of Music in the US. He finished his undergraduate degree and came back to Sri Lanka in January 2016. After four months of “just chilling” and ideating, he decided what he would do. “We always wanted to relaunch the label,” he explains how the village began, “But we didn’t know how.”

The first idea was a book, which went through a series of metamorphoses and finally became a travel documentary. “The thing about our family is that when we go for one thing, we come up with about 2,000 other things,” he laughs. “It was the same with this place. There were a lot of ideas, and it made sense for it all to happen in one place.”

The original concept centred on the Sooriya Records label, and was all to do with music. There would be a recording studio and practice rooms, and sound equipment and performance spaces, and libraries and space to chill out, and everything else that had anything to do with music. Then, Sanchitha experienced the Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco. He had learnt about the festival in an undergraduate class, where it was promoted as a music-related event. “But there was dance, drama, poetry, there were painters and sculptors, all brought together by this one theme!” he exclaims.

It was the first time he had travelled alone to a new city, but in the midst of the unfamiliar sounds of French and Arabic speakers, the spirit of the festival communicated to him.

“It really pushed me to think about artists from anywhere around the world coming to one place to do their thing, and anyone else from around the world coming there to appreciate it,” he says. “That’s exactly what [The Sooriya Village] is. You can be an art enthusiast, you can be an artist, it really doesn’t matter.”

We want to bring in talent, teach, develop and do this on an international scale. We want to encourage a new form of art, and a new kind of entertainment, and take it global.
Udena Wickremesooriya

In May 2016, renovation began at 49, Skelton Road, which Udena purchased in 2012. The Sooriya Village would become Sri Lanka’s version of all the festivals of World Sacred Music mashed up into one. Every kind of creative person would be given the space and structure to work with every other kind of creative person, and on the verge of form and genre, innovation would take place. These innovations would then be taken to the world through the original Sooriya Records label. “Originally, the label was primarily focused on music,” Udena says. “But it doesn’t necessarily have to remain so. Whether it is audio or video, written or visual, we won’t limit it.”

Sanchitha nevertheless emphasizes his interest in organic and harmonious growth of the concept, and an almost rebellious commitment to a consistent brand image.

There are a lot of problems with businesses in this country because they start off with a concept, but think [they] are not going to be profitable, and then shift their concept to cater,” he theorizes. “That’s an integrity problem. We hold the stance that this is our intention, and this is our integrity.”

But it isn’t all just heart and rebellious soul.

Financial advisor-dad Udena Wickremesooriya (of Brandix fame) is equally invested in the village, following in the footsteps of his father Gerald Wickremesooriya, who founded Sooriya Records

The lofty hall of the 7,000 square foot house on Skelton Road have been turned into The Village Restaurant, while a major part of the property is taken up by the kitchens at the back. Past the restaurant, towards the side of the property, is a juice bar, with menus (all planned by Koluu) in the shape of vinyl records. “Why we have the restaurant is so we are not just catering to artists, but to art enthusiasts and the general public who want to just come and have a meal,” Sanchitha explains. “It generates money and the money gets divided across [the whole business] to pay off overheads.”

Food is a timeless business, hence the restaurant at the village is meant to generate a profit, while all other payments are structured to just cover costs. But even as the designated profit-generator, the restaurant at The Sooriya Village isn’t particularly pricey. The cheapest dishes on the menu are soups and salads at Rs300, while the most expensive is a roast lamb that costs Rs2,000.

As soon as they have received the necessary licenses, The Sooriya Village will also have a 15-bed dormitory for visiting artists and any likely backpackers. Sanchitha expects to generate more income this way, and also encourage international artists to spend time in Sri Lanka and collaborate with locals. “For any venture to succeed, there has to be a commercial side,” Udena concedes. “But our outlook has always been that if you get the concept right, the commercial side can be sustainably managed.”

On a Friday afternoon, the enclosed space of the restaurant is filled with the clamour of guests at lunch. “People love this place because they say it’s happy,” Sanchitha shouts over the laughter and clinking cutlery. “We already have regulars!”

At the far East end of the property, a cool and quiet room is lined from wall to wall with t-shirts, mugs and little knick-knacks with brightly coloured graphics that mirror those on the banners flying at the front entrance. This is the village store where The Sooriya Village makes a little more dough through its merchandise. Currently, the store also sells some handcrafted ornaments, soaps and jewellery, on most of which he says they keep no commission, strictly because profit is secondary at the village. “That’s not our intention, that’s not our goal,” he says. “A lot of people say here has to be a catch, but there is no catch.”

While they were initially looking at a two-to-three year breakeven period, Sanchitha hazards a guess (based on the first few weeks of being in business) that it is likely to take less. The likes of Billy Fernando and legend Anthony Surendra already regularly book practice rooms at the village, and the overflow from better-known recording studios is also theirs. The village is neither competing nor substituting, Wickremesooriya insists, but rather complementing what already exists. And he is convinced they are on the right path.