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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

entry arrow12:06 AM | Chronicling a Cultural History

On November 21, a Thursday, we are going to launch the coffee table book, Handulantaw: Celebrating 50 Years of Culture and the Arts in Silliman University, at 5:30 PM at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium Foyer. In attendance will be some of Silliman University’s cultural icons over the years, including theatre actor Junix Inocian, dancer Lucy Jumawan, writers Myrna Pena-Reyes, Lorna Makil, and Cesar Ruiz Aquino, theatre producer Luna Inocian, animator Ramon del Prado, painter Kitty Taniguchi, among others. The event culminates a year of relentless research and writing for many of us in Silliman, under the generous sponsorship of Julio Sy Jr. and the Tao Foundation. It will be a signal for me, at the very least, to finally get some proper sleep.

But I am reminded of what Albert Camus once said: “Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.” It was this clear-eyed perspective of what culture means to society that has kept me going the past year, and kept me sane as I—and editors Warlito Caturay Jr., Sherro Lee Lagrimas, Diomar Abrio, Annabelle Lee-Adriano, Leo Mamicpic, Moses Joshua Atega, Ron Jacob Calumpang, among others—struggled with a project that has consumed us through the best of times and, alas, also through the worst of times.

In 2009, two years before the Cultural Affairs Committee of Silliman University celebrated its golden anniversary, I made an innocent suggestion to the organization that perhaps we needed to take an ambitious step in our commemoration of the 50th anniversary and spearhead a project that would document the rich cultural history of this university.

“Why not make a coffee table?” I said. Alas, in life, the one who speaks out almost always gets the painstaking job of making true what has been hatched in words.

Needless to say, I got the chief editor’s job of compiling, and overseeing, a work of putting together in one volume not just fifty years of the CAC, but also a hundred years of culture and the arts in Silliman. Would I have said anything in 2009 if I had known what it would be actually like to undertake a project like this? Well, if I had only known, I would have quaked in my shoes: but I didn’t know, and for the most part, an ignorance of what was entailed indeed ironically gave birth to this book.

This book, indeed, constitutes a collective act of remembering. As a work of cultural history, it contains significant fragments of the past fifty years and even more—assembling a cultural mosaic of the locale that paints an unfolding story: over all these years, it continues to shape, instruct, and inspire generations of artists and cultural workers in its own being and becoming. This book, in that sense, thus becomes a work that also invites a necessary conversation involving retrospection and looking forward. Hence, we have titled this book Handulantaw—a deliberate connection of the Cebuano words handum/handumanan (“reminisce/keepsake”) and lantaw (“looking forward”). The handum part of that spirit is evident enough in this project. The volume is a work that is devoted, first and foremost, to chronicle two things…

First, we aimed to chart, with the persistence of ferocious researchers and archivists, the vibrant history of culture and the arts in Silliman since its founding by Presbyterian missionaries in 1901, when it was still known as Silliman Institute. This includes the ripples that history has made not only in Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental, but also the Philippines and the world. The undertaking of this task has not been easy, however. Much of the data and artifacts of this specifically local cultural history remains unarchived, uncatalogued, and unresearched, which meant we had to search and sift through hundreds of photographs, programs, memoranda, and so on and so forth that have lain undisturbed and covered with dust in countless rotting photo albums and scrapbooks in many houses as well as in dim storage rooms around campus. A herculean task, indeed—for how to shape all of that which we have gathered into a coherent story of Silliman’s cultural tradition? For the most part, what we have also done is to engage in conversation many of the people who have contributed to that cultural tradition over the course of the last century, their voices constituting a veritable oral history of art and culture in Silliman University. We caught National Artist for Film Eddie Romero in his house in Quezon City early in 2013, for example—just a few short months before he died. His story and the stories of Silliman’s other artists and cultural workers were more than ripe for this project. We felt it was about time to record these before many of the bearers of the cultural narrative, too, passed away.

Second, we have compiled a work (which includes essays, profiles, photographs, and graphic design by some of the best writers and artists working in the university and Dumaguete today) that celebrates the first fifty years of Silliman’s Cultural Affairs Committee, which is otherwise more popularly (and affectionately) referred to by its acronym. The salute to the CAC is fitting: it has shaped much of the university’s artistic history since 1962 into a steadfast platform of culture that has fostered local talents and showcased the best of national and international performing groups—inevitably making Dumaguete arguably the Cultural Center of Southern Philippines.

We finally started work on this book in 2012. The idea sprang from what we had perceived to be a simple need to celebrate, in a lasting way, the golden anniversary of the CAC. Fifty years, after all, is a landmark of admirable persistence for any institution: that meant a continuity of its goals, and an unending belief of what it could achieve to make the arts an integral part of the identity and transformation of the community.

Handulantaw was conceived to address an absence since much of the cultural history of this country has involved telling the story mostly from the point-of-view of Manila, the national capital. It is a narrative that paints, if unintentionally, a mute canvas of the cultural wellsprings that exist elsewhere in the country. The way our popular media and our monographs constitute the story of national art, it seems as if almost every artist and artistic production has to be located in the jungles of the capital to matter, or to make a dent in the story. Within that context, Dumaguete City becomes an interesting case study of culture in the Philippines. A small city outside of the economic league of bigger provincial cities like Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Iloilo, Naga, Cagayan de Oro, and Baguio, it has nevertheless become an unlikely center of culture in the Philippines, helping to shape in definitive ways the literary, musical, and theatrical landscapes of the nation. What other city of its kind could boast of producing two National Artists—Romero for film and Edith Lopez Tiempo for literature? What is it about Dumaguete that makes it a geographic cultural wonder despite neglect—or perhaps just mere cultural mismanagement—by the local government? The answers are unclear, but culture thrives in Dumaguete City anyway. In 2010, the young Dumaguete filmmaker Carmen del Prado sought answers in her documentary, Dumaguete: An Artists’ Haven, and comes up with one: as a university town of a very specific geographic location (situated in a tropical bosom within the combined embrace of mountain—the Cuernos de Negros—and sea—Tañon Strait) with a very specific temperament (slow, reflexive), the place has become a “place of nurture” for those with artistic sensibilities. The academic environment unique to the place, of course, provides a solid framework for cultural growth, or least sustenance. Thus, to tell the story of culture in Dumaguete, we also have to tell the story of Silliman University. One is intrinsically intertwined with the other.

But it is ultimately the people that make the place for what it is, and in Handulantaw, we have come to an understanding that the dynamics of art and culture in Silliman and Dumaguete cannot be told fully without considering the individual personal stories behind the development of each artistic field. What is local theater, for example, without Amiel Leonardia or Ephraim Bejar? What is local literature without Edilberto and Edith Tiempo? What is local film without Eddie Romero and Ramon del Prado? What is local music without the generational efforts of the Dimaya and Vista families? This book, thus, attempts to tell the story of local culture through the prism of the lives of selected cultural movers. There are hundreds of them, of course, as is only fitting for a university that has withstood the test of time for more than a hundred years. Our choice of fifty is both arbitrary and specific: the first because all lists must eventually cap its number or risk the chaos of a flood of names without end, and the second because fifty is a good round number that coincides with this book’s celebration of the CAC’s golden anniversary. This list of “Cultural Movers” is a selection of people whom the editors have deemed to be prime movers of culture and the arts in Silliman, culled from a painstaking process that lasted almost a year, with patient consultation with various cultural stakeholders in the community.

In the final analysis, taking note of the general history of culture and the arts in Silliman University and Dumaguete City, as well as the individual stories of our Cultural Movers, we have come to understand, foremost, the passions of the artist and the lengths they go to shape that passion, to see it embodied as an artwork. Often that meant doing battle with forces, subtle or unsubtle, that hinders full expression of that consuming artistry. To paraphrase the observation of a fictional character in a popular animated film, the world is often unkind to artists. The work of culture is often both frustrating and rewarding. And sometimes, the frustration can start to break our spirits—if only temporarily. Once, while doing an Arts Month event in Dumaguete with theater actress Dessa Quesada-Palm, I turned to her with what must have been despair in my voice: “Why do we do this? Cultural work can be such a thankless job.” But she turned to me and said, “Because despite everything else, we love what we do—and we cannot help but share it with everybody else.” She is right, and this book is a chronicle of that imperative.

I am particularly happy that I work with kindred spirits in the Cultural Affairs Committee of Silliman University. Under Diomar Abrio’s savvy leadership as the University Cultural Officer, and with keen support from University President Ben S. Malayang III, the CAC has worked hard in recent years to put structure and balance to the cultural life of the university and the city. This book celebrates that striving for cultural structure and balance in CAC’s first fifty years. Those years have indeed shown remarkable consistency and unflagging faith even as the sands of time continue to shift under our feet, which is perhaps a testament to the Silliman Spirit.

In the end, the legacy of Silliman in Philippine arts and culture cannot be denied. Handulantaw is our touchstone. This is our occasion to remember and to commemorate. This is our chance to understand what immortality, especially in the arts, really means in our transient world.

But this is nevertheless an incomplete story, as any such project will always be. This story will always remain an unfolding one. But such is the grace of a rich history. The challenge is in the putting together and in the making sense of its parts, and what may seem so disparate, belonging to distant contexts of time and space, are brought together here in a narrative that becomes accessible, real, and meaningful to the present.

This is what we are celebrating: that intractable yearning in each of us to sustain life and creativity come what may. It is, indeed it is, a powerful and irresistible covenant with the Divine. (This article is slightly modified from the preface for Handulantaw.)

The entire editorial staff of Handulantaw at the Luce Auditorium.

The art and research staff of Handulantaw at the Luce Auditorium.

The writing staff of Handulantaw at the Luce Auditorium.

The members of the Cultural Affairs Committee at the Luce Auditorium.

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