Tharanga Goonetilleke Q&A
YOU’VE OBVIOUSLY EXPERIENCED A GREAT DEAL OF SUCCESS IN YOUR LIFE. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT, AND WHY?
When I look back in my life, what I really feel is that, as a child growing up in Sri Lanka, people would ask what you want to be when you grow older, hoping that your answer would be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, I would say doctor because that’s what was expected. However, deep inside, I always knew that I was some kind of an artist. So, when I think about my greatest accomplishment, I grew out of what was expected of me to be true to myself. I had a list in my mind about what I really wanted to accomplish —it was so complex because I wanted to be a musician and an artist, and I also knew that I wanted to be a writer and a mother. So out of these four things, three things have happened to me, and that just fills me with joy. I am working on the 4th, perhaps I will eventually have what it takes to publish some of my writing as well.
LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, LIFE IS NOT ALWAYS SMOOTH. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT A SETBACK OR TRAGEDY YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED, HOW YOU DEALT WITH IT, AND THE IMPACT IT HAS HAD ON YOU?
Yes, I can put that in two contexts —one in my younger years as a child through teenager, and the other in my adult years. I was born and raised with a war – – there was a war in my country the whole time I was a child, and being in that environment, you are exposed to so much that you should not be exposed to as a child. Our whole generation referred to us as “war babies.” We are a bit insensitive to things. I am not ashamed of this, it’s a reality. When other people are going through difficulties, you always think that you have seen worse. So, I went through this very long phase of being an insensitive person, not being rude or cruel to others, but that I had seen worse. Now that I have children of my own, I would never want them to go through anything like that. Also, having had time to heal with music and art as tools, I have become a lot more sensitive individual that is comfortable with putting my guard down. Prior to that, the only place I could put my guard down was (and still is) the stage, where I REALLY feel alive.
In 2014 and 2015, I had a couple setbacks. In 2014, I was supposed to be in Rio for a performance and my first Ted Talk, I fell and broke my leg in three places, resulting in cancellations. It took me almost six months to be able to walk again. Because I had missed a lot and had to cancel work, I did not have enough engagements, causing me to feel quite low. My husband and I realized that it would be a good time to have the second child we always wanted and soon I was expecting our son. Suddenly, while working on a project in Canada, I realized that something was going wrong with my body, and I was unable to finish the project. I returned home and learned that, because of my previous accident, one side of my body was causing some strain, resulting in immediate bed rest.
So, for almost two years of my life, I struggled with health issues that kept me from all the things I was hoping to do both personally and professionally. But that’s where I started to draw and paint in order to get my mind off the situation and stop being depressed and unpleasant to those around me. By the time my child was born, I had hundreds of works of art. During that time, there was a flood in Sri Lanka, and because I was unable to perform, I decided to sell my art at a fundraiser and dedicate the proceeds to my country. The best part is when someone buys your art, it is an amazing feeling that someone wants to take a little part of you home. It is a weird exhilarating feeling, and I feel very grateful for that.
DO YOU SET ASIDE “ME-TIME” IN YOUR CALENDAR, AND WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME TO RELAX?
I find what I do – – my work- – quite relaxing. I never feel that I am working when I am in my element while painting or singing. When you are doing what you love, it’s as if relaxation is built into it. Of course, I do set aside time because I have two little children, ages 6 and 3, and I love playing with them and spend quality time with them, that is on type of me-time too. Being around my kids is inspiring and motivates me to better myself.
I do feel it’s important to set aside time for myself (alone time) to do absolutely nothing. I feel that the best creative energy actually happens when you are willing to do nothing because I believe that boredom leads to creativity. I consciously make an effort to be alone at certain times, even if it’s for 20 minutes.
WHAT’S THE MOST MAGICAL PLACE YOU’VE DISCOVERED WHERE YOU CAN GO TO CHILL OUT?
I love the beach, even walking on the sand, alone or with others. It gives me a grounded feeling, almost like time stops. I think it’s because when I was a child, Sri Lanka was an island culture and it reminds me of those times.
DOES PHILANTHROPY PLAY A ROLE IN YOUR LIFE, TO WHAT EXTENT AND HOW?
As I stated earlier, I have enjoyed selling my art and dedicating the proceeds to charity or humanitarian causes.
Whenever there is an opportunity to have a fundraising concert for different causes, I enjoy doing that. For example, last year, I went to Uganda to perform at a place called Luzira, a maximum-security prison, where I sang for 3,000 inmates. It was one of the very best audiences I ever had —they had never heard classical music before. It broke stereotypes of all kinds where it was the last thing they expected. This visit was in conjunction with Alexander McLean and the African Prisons Project (which will be the subject of an upcoming article). We did some workshops and singing, and it was a wonderful experience.
This year, I performed for the Sunera Foundation on one of their fundraisers for kids who are differently able.
Currently, I am working on exploring possibilities through performing and selling art to raise funds for Shanti Bhavan in India which has captured my attention.
WHO IS ON THE GUEST LIST FOR YOUR IDEAL DINNER PARTY, PRESENT OR PAST?
In the world of opera, there are two people I always wanted to meet but I never did —Kiri Te Kanawa, the very first soprano voice that I ever heard, I would have loved to be able to meet her; and Jesse Norman, the wonderful and amazing singer. The others are Frida Kahlo, the artist, the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg, Chris Anderson, who is actually the head of the TED, whom I have met several times but is a very interesting man, and Zubin Mehta, the conductor, because I feel like his journey would be most inspiring to me.
CAN YOU OFFER ANY WORDS OF WISDOM FOR OUR READERS?
For people who are uncertain of what their passion is, allow yourself to be bored and you will run into things you want to do, something is going to click, and once you find this you should never put it on hold. If you are like me, and you have several interests, pick one and run. The other interests don’t disappear; their time will come. Just keep working- the rest will follow.
Cover Photo Credit: Erica Moffit from Naki studios