National Museum of Eelam: The Diasporic (Hi)Stories of Everyday Tamil Objects


Which objects constitute the collection of a national museum in exile? How can diasporic stories express more than history books will ever be able to? These questions are beautifully expressed by Jeyavishni Francis Jeyaratnam and Simon-Pierre Coftier’s project National Museum of Eelam in homage to the Tamil diaspora.

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Poster (Paris): Poster plastered on the walls of the 10th arrondissement in Paris in tribute to Thileepan, an emblematic figure of the independent Tamil movement, who died after a hunger strike in 1987.
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Statuettes of Ganesh (La Courneuve): Statuettes of Ganesh given to the guests at the wedding ceremony of Santhia and Viknesh, celebrated on May 17, 2018 at the temple located in La Courneuve.

A plastic statuette made in India, a handful of earth in a packet, a used toy. These are the sorts of objects that make up the collection of the National Museum of Eelam — banal and without any market value. Combined with a brief narrative, each object tells the story of a people torn from their land and scattered in the metropolises of the five continents. A people whose aspirations, memory and identity have been trampled. These people are the Tamils of Sri Lanka. This lost land is Eelam.

I first heard the word Eelam in the 1990s. I had just arrived in France. The country at war that my mother, my brother and I had left, was called Sri Lanka, or Ceylon. I was born in Jaffna in the early 1980s when the youth from the Tamil minority took up arms against the discriminatory policies and the violence perpetrated by the central government. Since the withdrawal of the British in 1948, the Sri Lankan State established itself as a Sinhalese and Buddhist nation, excluding minorities from power. While the Tamil Tigers guerrillas (LTTE) laid the foundations of an independent state in the North and the East, I left my hometown for India and then France. Four years passed between my departure from Jaffna and my arrival at Charles-de-Gaulle airport. Hundreds of thousands of us fled combat zones and the climate of terror. By the end of the conflict, about a third of the Tamil population lived abroad. The National Museum of Eelam explores this vast diaspora’s memory.

After the defeat of the guerrillas in 2009, the three-decade-war ruins are being gradually erased. The Sinhalese power continues its policy of predation and endeavors to eradicate every trace of Eelam, to make the memory of the struggle disappear. Far from the shores of the Indian Ocean, Eelam persists within the diaspora, as if each refugee had taken away a tiny fragment of it in exile. From Paris to Oslo, from Zurich to Toronto, an extremely dense network of associations has been forged in a vast transnational structure. Shops, temples, cinemas, sports clubs and Tamil cultural centers are open in cities where the diaspora lives. Children can learn the language and culture of their elders in schools with unified curricula and examinations. Everywhere, attention is being made in rebuilding a Tamil social and cultural framework.

Though I am part of this diaspora, I grew up on the fringes of this community. As a child, I did not identify myself with the red flag with a tiger. The songs to the glory of our “Uncles the Tigers” did not make me vibrate. And while a climate of suspicion prevailed among refugees in the early 1990s — mistrust fuelled by fratricidal fights between armed groups on the island — my parents limited interactions with other refugees. My attachment to Tamil culture was expressed almost exclusively in the family sphere. It was in 2009, when I took part in the demonstrations against the massacres of civilians perpetrated at the time by the Sri Lankan army, that I became aware that I belonged to a people. We were many to share the same destiny, the same indignation. Placards, slogans and megaphones. Tamil identity confined to my private sphere burst into the public space and asserted itself on a political ground.

This awareness which is at the origin of the National Museum of Eelam, was definitively obvious to me when I returned to my homeland 30 years later. I found my childhood house along with many sensations: the smell of fruits fallen to the ground, the taste of the water from the well, the sound of the temple bells.

But the joy of discovering a world in accordance with my memories was followed by a feeling of uneasiness: what connects me today to that territory? To what extent is that distant land part of my identity? Faced with the desolate landscape of the Jaffna lagoon, I realized that the answers are to be found elsewhere, within the diaspora, in this huge archipelago connected across seas and borders. What we are trying to capture with the project of the National Museum of Eelam is this multiple and evanescent territory.

With its inventory of objects photographed on a black background, in the manner of archaeological or ethnographic treasures, the National Museum of Eelam embraces the form of the museum institution, appropriates its codes, but abandons the exceptional in favor of the ordinary. Thus, it takes the opposing view of the original function of a national museum, an institution at the service of a power seeking to entrench its authority in the distant past, exalting the purity and authenticity of an exclusive cultural heritage. Exploring Tamil diaspora identity, the National Museum of Eelam does not expose a 1,000 year-old tradition or the traces of a glorious past but, rather, the banality of the most trivial everyday gestures. In this way, it stands out from the war-centered representations of Tamil identity that dominate the diaspora public space. Putting to one side military uniforms, martyrs’ cults and flags, it proposes another imagination, nourished by memories, sensations, perfumes, flavors, music; sensitive experiences in which a culture is embodied and lives.

The objects from the National Museum of Eelam bear the imprint of a unique story […]. Straddled between two worlds, the object bears witness to a torn fate between here and there, a back-and-forth between past and present.

The objects from the National Museum of Eelam bear the imprint of a unique story: traces of wear, patina of time, imperfections. Fragments of life seem to have clustered there. Straddled between two worlds, the object bears witness to a torn fate between here and there, a back-and-forth between past and present. Along with a brief account, it tells a personal story. Therefore, the National Museum presents the collective identity through the prism of the individual, of the subject in its singularity. The mosaic of objects renders a reality that transcends the encompassing categories of community or migrants, general terms that reduce the multiplicity of experiences to a homogeneous entity, which assign men and women to an identity that is external to them. Behind exotic representations, beyond otherness, the pictures and the short narratives bear witness to subjective experiences that everyone can easily identify with. ■

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Flag (Le Blanc-Mesnil): Reka’s parents always talked about guerrilla warfare tacitly. They spoke of the “movement” of “boys,” as if mentioning LTTE openly was taboo. When the militants rang the doorbell, her mother would make them tea and hand them an envelope. Her uncle disapproved of this support, though he never did so openly. In Spring 2009, when Tamil diasporas were demonstrating worldwide, Reka joined the huge crowd waving the red and yellow flags in Paris. Now the support for the struggle was on display. The diaspora showed its unity while facing the atrocities against Tamils in Sri Lanka.
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Mathematical Drawing Instruments (Stains): When she was a student, Rakshika had been invited by her friend Pauline for a weekend at her parents’ house in Normandy. Discovering her friend’s childhood room, the toys, the posters, and the countless objects full of memories, Rakshika realized that she had nothing left of her childhood in Jaffna. The few items taken in the flight had been lost during the trip to Europe or in successive moves. Today, the only object she keeps from her past is a small metal box containing geometry instruments. A gift from her grandfather for her seventh birthday.
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Virgin Mary Plastic Bottles (Dusseldorf): Mrs. Jeyasekaran has displayed a small altar in her wardrobe. In the half-light of the cupboard one can distinguish statuettes of Ganesh and Krishna, a collection of popular frames portraying other deities. Among all these ritual objects, Mrs. Jeyasekaran placed two plastic figurines of Mary containing water from Lourdes. In the absence of a Hindu pilgrimage site in Europe, the pious woman attached to tradition got into the habit of making a journey with her family to Lourdes every summer.
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Indian Music Cassette (Pontoise): “My dear, when I do not see you, my heart is wavering like a kite.” This sweet refrain is etched in Anusha’s memory. This Indian song is closely linked to her childhood memory. As soon as she hears the first notes, she sees herself on the way to school, sitting on the luggage rack of her grandfather’s old bicycle. She remembers the feel of the warm wind on her face and the music from the mechanic’s shop that echoed all over the street. Years later, Anusha found the tape in a Parisian Indian store. She loved listening to this song on her walkman on the bus on her way to high school.
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Idiyappa Ural (Bondy): Mrs. Sivaranjan prepares the best idiyappams in the outskirts of Paris. Everybody no longer calls her by her first name, Jeyaranee, but Idiyapparanee: the queen of idiyapam. People order idiyappams for a birthday dinner or a party. On Saturday mornings, she goes down to the kitchen in the basement of her house to prepare her inimitable steamed flour noodles. Whenever she is asked the secret of her recipe, she prefers to talk about the traditional manual press inherited from her mother.
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Soil from home (Rheinfelden): Kasthuri left her country as a child. When she first returned in 2018, she went to her family home. Strolling through the empty rooms, she tried to remember the location of her bed, the living room shelf, or the recess in the wall where the altar used to be. Despite her efforts, she failed to recollect. When she left the house, she took some soil from the garden for her mother who had stayed in Switzerland, the refugee status preventing her from any possibility of return.
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Touristic Map of Sri Lanka (Bordeaux): After her marriage, Nathusa decided to travel to her country of origin, which she had left 25 years earlier. When she was consulting a French travel guide, she found that her region and her hometown, the second largest in the country, did not exist on the map. Materialized by a white spot, the heart of the Tamil country is like a terra incognita. After three decades of war, discriminations and persecutions, the Tamil presence on the island is symbolically denied. The Northern Province, occupied by the government army, is made invisible to foreign tourists.
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Mrs. Selvaratnam’s gloves (Bobigny): Mrs. Selvaratnam taught literature near Trincomalee. She left her country in 1995 as combats intensified in the East. As a refugee in France, she had to accept a job below her qualifications in order to reimburse the debts she had borrowed for the trip and pay the rent of the small family apartment in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. Deeply affected by this social downgrading, she was taking steps to return home six months after her arrival. She eventually stayed in France and now lives in the suburbs of Paris.