Pre­serv­ing An­cient Dance

As Sri Lankan tra­di­tional dances rapidly lose their pop­u­lar­ity, re­newed ef­forts are be­ing made to pre­serve the coun­try’s tra­di­tions and cul­ture.

Southasia - - Sri Lanka Culture - By Ruhie Jamshaid Ruhie Jamshaid is a cre­ative writ­ing trainer and free­lances for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions. She is cur­rently based in Is­lam­abad.

Sri Lanka is known for its ex­otic cus­toms and mu­si­cal her­itage. A unique and col­or­ful na­tion, Sri Lanka con­tin­ues to deeply value its cus­toms and cul­ture, which re­mains im­bibed in mu­sic and dance.

The ori­gins of tra­di­tional Sri Lankan dance can be traced back to the 4th cen­tury BC. The dance form was ini­ti­ated with the prac­ti­cal pur­pose of ap­peas­ing the gods to al­le­vi­ate nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and ill­nesses. Dur­ing the pre-Bud­dhism age in Sri Lanka, many be­lieved in deities and de­mons as en­ti­ties that could shower bless­ings or de­prive peo­ple of them. As a re­sult, many rit­u­als and cer­e­monies were in­vented. Th­ese rit­u­als were in­ter­twined with dance to gain the fa­vor of the deities in or­der to at­tract a pos­i­tive fate. Sri Lanka also has a long his­tory as an agri­cul­tural na­tion. There­fore, it has al­ways been a nat­u­ral and cul­tural process to wor­ship the gods to in­voke a good har­vest for the farm­ers.

Three main reper­toires of Sri Lankan tra­di­tional dance form ex­ist. First there is the Kandyan Dance, which is largely re­garded as the coun­try’s na­tional dance. The Kandyan orig­i­nated from an an­cient pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­ual. It is highly en­er­getic and vi­brant and is mostly per­formed in re­li­gious cer­e­monies in honor of the god, Ko­humba. There are two as­pects of the Kandyan dance. One is known as the Vess where dancers dance in a vig­or­ous and rhyth­mic fash­ion. The out­fits are ex­otic with elab­o­rate head­dresses. The barech­ested male dancers are adorned from head to toe. Pre­vi­ously only men per­formed this dance form but to­day, fe­males dance the Vess Kandyan too. This has re­sulted in softer dance moves. An­other form of the Kandyan dance is the Van­nam dance. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing dance form that com­bines dance with po­etry. A story is told through an­i­mal move­ments, which in­clude im­i­tat­ing an elephant, horse, pea­cock as well as many other crea­tures. The Van­nama is a so­phis­ti­cated dance form and from it, many mod­ern forms of dance have emerged.

Sec­ond, there is the Low Coun­try Dance, oth­er­wise known as the “mask” dance. This dance is specif­i­cally per­formed to ap­pease de­mons that cause ill­nesses. Dancers are re­quired to wear elab­o­rate wooden masks of de­mons, rep­tiles and birds. The Low Coun­try dance is mostly per­formed in Colombo and the south­ern part of Sri Lanka. In ad­di­tion to move­ment, it also in­corpo-

The ori­gins of tra­di­tional Sri Lankan dance can be traced back to the 4th cen­tury BC. The dance form was ini­ti­ated with the prac­ti­cal pur­pose of ap­peas­ing the gods to al­le­vi­ate nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and ill­nesses.

rates dra­matic di­a­logue, mime and im­per­son­ations to the beat of the so called “de­mon-drums” which are markedly dif­fer­ent from the drums used in the Kandyan dance.

The third tra­di­tional dance is known as the Sabaraga­muwa. This was specif­i­cally in­vented to chase away de­mons that cause ill­nesses. This dance is specif­i­cally per­formed in rev­er­ence to the god Saran. The Sabaraga­muwa is per­formed on a stage, dec­o­rated with co­conut leaves and clay. It bor­rows move­ments from the Kandyan and Low Coun­try dance.

Tra­di­tional Sri Lankan dance is usu­ally per­formed at rit­u­al­is­tic cer­e­monies or on stage. How­ever, with the recog­ni­tion of the Sri Lankan film in­dus­try, it has also found a place on the sil­ver screen. Fa­mous veteran dancers such as Chan­dana Wickra- mas­inghe are known to per­son­ally chore­o­graph songs that in­volve folk danc­ing in movies. Of course, th­ese dances in­cor­po­rate Bol­ly­wood in­flu­ences to make it more ap­peal­ing to the masses. In any case, af­ter the 15th cen­tury, the pure tra­di­tional Sri Lankan dance was mod­i­fied to in­clude Tamil in­flu­ences from In­dia. With each pass­ing era, mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the dance form are but a nat­u­ral as­pect of evo­lu­tion.

Dance acad­e­mies, renowned tra­di­tional dancers and even in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Goethe In­sti­tute in Sri Lanka, are con­sciously mak­ing ef­forts to cre- ate aware­ness of the dance form and pre­serve it. Pro­fes­sional dancers such as Visha Manohari De Silva and her dance troupe are also ac­tively in­volved in pop­u­lar­iz­ing and pre­serv­ing the an­cient dance forms. Dancers like her help in pro­mot­ing dance form all over the world through their pub­lic per­for­mances.

As veteran dance teacher Niloufer Pieris, who has ded­i­cated decades of her life to train­ing young bal­leri­nas says, “We need to ed­u­cate our young peo­ple and pre­serve this ex­tra­or­di­nary art.” In­deed, tra­di­tional dance is Sri Lanka’s pride and a unique of­fer­ing to the rest of the world!

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