Sunday, 14 August 2016

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<%on error resume next%> Ecstacy and agony : Kandy’s glorious drummers and dancers fight poverty and caste stigma
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Ecstacy and agony:

Kandy’s glorious drummers and dancers fight poverty and caste stigma

Uttama muni Dalada Wadammana
Mok pura ran nauka – balan saki
Sath samuduru gembare...

[Friend, behold the sacred, noble, tooth relic being brought across the seven seas in celestial golden ships.]
– Dharmadasa Walpola


Peter Surasena with his three sons

Thousand-year-old art forms, today, they are still performed as a service - once feudal - to the great Maligawa, the Palace. They are also an enduring practice of spiritual devotion where you commit yourself unconditionally to the service of the holy – the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha. This is the aura, the identity, of the dancers, drummers and other traditional musicians of the Kandy Esala Perahera.

(Pix: Gamini Ranasinghe)

These artistes, numbering in the hundreds, are immersed in both sacred rite as well as the grandeur and pride of their performance in the annual pageant at this time of the year. And bound by centuries-old custom and training, it is a performance of integrity to the art and to their faith. To all appearances it is a reverential, often spectacular, performance in a magnificent event.

Or, so it seems, until one peeps into the lives of this cohort of artistes to observe the struggle the traditional families go through to maintain a millennia-old commitment but under modern socio-economic circumstances very different from that of the ancient society.

Livelihood

For some, it is, directly, a challenge of income and livelihood. For others, it is the social context that discourages the younger generation from entering the traditional profession of their ancestors. For yet others, it is the lack of assurance that these traditions will survive the next fifty years. Some blame society, some blame the economy, some blame the State for not looking after the traditional performers.

Many of the traditional dancers, drummers and other performers of the Sri Dalada Perahera confidently date back their services to the Maligawa, to the late medieval Dambadeniya Kingdom, the era of King Parakramabahu II.

Four main traditional families are in charge of the drummers who perform at the Perahera. O. P. Karunadasa from Uduwela family, is the drummer who leads the drummers at the Maha Perahera, a job performed by his father and grandfather before him. He says his life is dedicated to the Maligawa, being the Chief Panikkirala, and assumes duties with pride. “It is our duty to accompany the Karanduwa and as long as it is on the roads, we stay close to it.” He explained that even if an elephant starts behaving wild, the only people who are not allowed to run for safety are the four Chief Panikkiralas and the Diyawadana Nilame, whose job is to ensure the safety of the Sacred Tooth of Buddha.

Parading with him is G. A. Molagoda from the Molagoda family, who admitted that their troupes are feeling the financial pressure that their fathers and grandfathers were not subjected to. The Ninda Gam, the villages ancient kings assigned for the traditional families to benefit from their income, are not in use any more. Molagoda said, most of the Ninda Gam are situated in Kurunegala and Matale districts and the dancers and drummers are not in a position, financially and socially, to frequent them. “Once upon a time, their ancestors might have got an income from these lands but the world doesn’t function the same way anymore. Most of these lands are now home to encroachers.”

"We too have committed our lives to the perahera, and we do so with the same pride and honour as our father did...
It has become the most important objective in our lives, and we commit ourselves to it”
– Peter Surasena

The main occupation of these performers when Perahera is not in season, is to sell flowers near the Maligawa. For those who take part in the daily Thewawa, the drumming for the morning and afternoon religious rituals at the Maligawa, are being paid for, but the others have resorted to the flower business for their survival.

Introducing the Diyawadana Nilame to the audience, it is the Kandyan dancers headed by Peter Surasena and his sons. They consider themselves especially blessed for they are the performers that introduce, the Kandyan dancers whose position in the Perahera is placed in between the Karanduwa and the Nilame. Though financially more stable than their fellow performers, Surasena is concerned with what the future might bring to traditional dancers.

Kandyan dancing is not, in theory and practice, a dance that was originally performed for parades. It was first performed as a Shanthikarma, to cure the curse placed on King Vijaya that was transferred to King Panduwasdevu after the death of the former. The traditional Perahera dancers have mastered the techniques of performing for two audiences on either sides while being on the move. Suresena said, his team has the additional task of performing for four audiences; people on either sides, the Diyawadana Nilame behind them and the Karanduwa in front of them. However, it is this techniques the new performers lack, though they are fully equipped with the theoretical knowledge, he added.

Another life

"It is our duty to accompany the Karanduwa and as long as it is on the roads, we stay close to it.” He explained that even if an elephant starts behaving wild, the only people who are not allowed to run for safety are the four Chief Panikkiralas and the Diyawadana Nilame.
– O.P. Karunadasa

Susantha and Janaka Surasena are the two elder sons of Peter Surasena, who have taken up the task of leading their troupe at the Perahera. Born to such a family, living their lives around the excitement the season brings, the duo claim they never knew another life, or wanted to seek riches elsewhere. “We too have committed our lives to the perahera, and we do so with the same pride and honour as our father did,” Janaka said. The younger generation however, has realised that though they value the life of a dancer, it will not be enough to live a comfortable life. Janaka is an employee of the Nestle Company who, he said, have been supportive of his performances, especially, during this season. Susantha, who lives in Japan, visits Sri Lanka every year, to take part in his family tradition.

“It has become the most important objective in our lives, and we commit ourselves to it,” Susantha admitted.

Though the Surasenas are financially stable, they admit that many dancers find survival difficult in the open economy and said better support from the state would be welcomed.

As a society, the traditional dancers are not respected, though during the days of the kings, they were treated with reverence, their performances appreciated as well as their commitment to maintain this centuries old tradition. Today’s society doesn’t give any assurance that this art will prevail in the years to come, he said. Janaka’s son, Suchira Nayanaja is one of the youngest dancers at the Perahera.

The 11 year old has been performing in the Perahera for three years and has the same sense of pride his father and grandfather cherish about their traditional lives. However, Janaka admitted that he is not sure whether his son will be compelled to give up performing due to financial reasons, when it is his time to settle down and start a family.

There are many government servants who apply for leave to perform in the Perahera. Galagedara Samansiri is a graduate from the University of Performing and Visual Arts and a teacher who preferred his traditional family name, Kondadeniye Saman, as opposed to the village name given to him instead.

Agreeing with Surasena, he admitted that what he learnt at the university is no match for the knowledge he gained from his father and grandfather and that’s the knowledge and practice he uses when performing for the Perahera. “Here, about to perform in the Perahera, I’m not better than anybody else, because I have a degree. Everyone is equal with the traditional knowledge passed on to them.”

As a teacher, he earns a monthly salary, and knows his future is secure with a pension after retirement, but he is sympathetic towards his fellow dancers who do not have that luxury. “My main drummer doesn’t have a proper house to live in, but has spent his whole life performing this great art. These economic constraints have discouraged many traditional dancers.”

"Once upon a time, their ancestors might have got an income from these lands but the world doesn’t function the same way anymore. Most of these lands are now home to encroachers.”
– G.A. Molagoda

The perahera tradition is such that, after the Maha Perahera done by the Maligawa, the four devala peraheras take to the roads, with their respective Nilames.The Chief Panikkirala of Vishnu Devalaya is 21 year old A. G. Saman Priyantha, who has, from an early stage in life, committed himself to the traditions of his forefathers. However, his father B. Piyadasa claimed, though happy, it was not his intention that his son follow in his footsteps. Therefore, he took precautions to protect him from the social stigma he might suffer due to his caste. The ancient drummer caste, being positioned low in the oppressive caste structure of the feudal social system, brings with the caste name, even today, a most discouraging social stigma. So Piyadasa took the precaution of giving his son a different family name.

“I was not sure what he would decide to do in his life, so I didn’t want to give him my name, in case it’ll be a hindrance to advancements in his life. I gave him the name of our village instead.” According to Piyadasa, the social stigma is strong enough to forego the family name in the generations to come. However, Saman is proud to be part of the family of B. Piyasada, B. Kiri Ukkuwa and Balaya, his father, grandfather and great grandfather. Piyasada only hopes that this tradition would survive after his son.

Financially, he said, they are not well off. There are lands assigned for them, but they hardly generate any income. The ancient payment methods do not work in the modern days, and said they are thankful that the administration of the Vishnu Devalaya has allowed them to run a small shop, just outside the main entrance to the Devalaya, from which they gain a daily income.

Meanwhile, Sri Dalada Maligawa assured that they do look after the performers. Jayampathy Weddagala, the Cultural Secretary of Sri Dalada Maligawa said, all the performers get a payment of Rs. 1,000 – 1,200 per day during the season, together with accommodation close to the Maligawa. He added that medical facilities are available for the performers during this period.With a large number of performers taking part, the leaders of each team is given the money, which they distribute among themselves. “They are given special monetary gifts too, after the Perahera season. Individually, they may have problems, but it is impossible to address them. We do everything in our power to take care of them.”

 B. Piyasada with his son A. G. Saman Priyantha Kondadeniye Saman Janaka Surasena with his son Suchira

He said, the recent initiative to start a dancing academy for the young boys and girls from traditional families is one of them. The new academy would provide a good platform for the youngsters to learn the art of traditional dancing and they can study up to degree level at the Academy.

The Ninda Gam are not bringing any income, Weddagala said. One reason for it is the dancers stopped visiting those lands, and cultivating them. “Without putting an effort, it is difficult to expect an income,” he added.

The Ministry of Cultural Affairs was not available for comment despite several attempts to reach them.


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