Preserving Ancient Dance

Written by Ruhie Jamshaid  •  Region  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail


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

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 bare-chested 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 incorporates 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 Wickramasinghe 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 create 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! 

Ruhie Jamshaid is a creative writing trainer and freelances for various publications. She is currently based in Islamabad.

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