Historical survey of Sri Lankan traditional dance
Source material written by foreign and local scholars is full of
misinterpretations and misinformation, thus making it a formidable task
to elaborate upon a historical survey of Sri Lankan traditional dances.
According to literary sources it is said that the first reference of
dance in Sri Lanka is associated with the episode of Kuveni and Vijaya,
the symbolic representation of the indigenous people of Sri Lanka and
the first Aryan settler.
The great chronicle or Mahawamsa mentions that when Vijaya and his
men were met by the indigenous queen Kuveni they were advised by her to
massacre the indigenous clan in order to establish Vijaya’s Kingdom.
There it says that at night Vijaya inquired from Kuveni about the music
and singing that could be heard. The original text refers to “Geeta
Raava” and “Thuriya Sadda” meaning singing and the sound of musical
instruments. Even during the end of the 19th century when Ven. Hikkaduwe
Sri Sumangala the Principal of the first ever oriental college in Sri
Lanka translates the Pali terms correctly as music and song.
In 1912 when Prof. Wilhelm Geiger the editor in chief of the Sinhala
dictionary translated the Mahawamsa into German, and Mrs. Bode
translated same into English also followed the Pali and Sinhala text
In a more recent translation in 1989, when Prof. Ananda Guruge
translated the Mahawamsa, he too translates the terms as ‘music and the
sound of singing’. Nonetheless in schools and higher educational
institutions the starting point of Sri Lankan dancing is considered
erroneously to be this particular citing in the Mahawamsa.
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, there are several inscriptions
that we come across Nata and Nada meaning actor or dancer, in Sinhala
Prakrit. Sessuruwa, Medagama and Sithul pahuwa inscriptions bear
evidence to this effect. The nature of the dancing that was performed
cannot be envisioned by the present day scholar without authentic visual
representations. For example, say the 9,000 year old Bhimbetka paintings
of Madhya Pradesh and Eqyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures
from circa 3300 BC are clearly discernible in a visual sense. The former
is said to be depicting mainly dances of war or perhaps ritual dances
whereas the latter shows various entertainment, warrior and other
When Vijaya for his consecration ceremony brought down a princess of
indian origin, named Bhadda kaccana and also other consorts for his men,
the Mahawamsa dealing with this event says that they were accompanied by
elephants, horses and chariots befitting a king and craftsmen and a 1000
families of the 18 guilds. With the assistance of the commentary for the
Mahawamsa compiled during the 9th century AD we can safely surmise that
by then whatever the elements of traditional music and dance in this
country assimilated in Sri Lanka with the coming of the Pandhya clans.
This tradition of new dance was accepted by the royal court and it
was included in the agenda of the royal entertainment. King
Pandhukabhaya is said to have enjoyed dancers sitting together with the
leaders of the indigenous clans. With the arrival of Buddhism we can
visualize a better view of the dancing system in Sri Lanka. Drumming was
nurtured by three significant events attached to Buddhism. Namely, the
arrival of the Relics of the Buddha, the arrival of the sacred Bo
sapling and thirdly and the bringing down of the Sacred tooth relic to
Sri Lanka. All these are elaborated upon by the chroniclers as having
been resplendent with dancing and music. Here one could see in these
descriptions a new definition of Pancha Thuriya arise. This is uniquely
different from the four musical elements in India.
During the time of King Dutugemunu during the 2nd Century BC, more
descriptive elements can identified in the chronicles. The war drums and
the war dances in addition to women in the processions. At the time the
dancing sphere had been placed under a minister named Naccaamaccha.
The Sigiriya paintings circa 7th Century AD, is a unique piece of art
where we see the affinities of the hand gestures of the ladies in the
paintings with that of Bharatha Natyam. The Natya Shastra of Bharatha
Muni in discussing the gestures of hands, or hastha mudras mentions
various positions namely Kartharimukha, Aala padma, Kapittha which are
depicted in the paintings.
In the later stages in Medawala Raja Maha viharaya in Kandy, Ardha
Soochika mudra is depicted. Various temples and murals therein express
the feelings of Bharatha Natyam origin. There are various bronze statues
during the Polonnaruwa period circa 12-13th centuries AD, of Shiva
Natraj. This god according to the hindu mythology is the creator of
These statues reflect the existence of Hindu mythological deities
amongst the Sri Lankan worshippers, and without any cultural hindrance
Sinhala people too followed the same principles of South Indian dance
systems. This is clearly shown in the Sandesha or message poems written
in the 14th and 15th centuries describing women dancers in the kovils
who were conversant in Indian dancing as opposed to the local dances.
Even the name of Bhartha Muni and some technical terms of Indian dancing
are included in these verses. Therefore, at the end of the 15th century
the dancing scene is an elite dance system which was a combination of
local and Indian tradition.
Traditional Sri Lankan
Apart from this I believe that a folk dancing system evolved from
hill country and low country rituals and to a lesser extent the
The Portuguese brought Baila music to Sri Lanka in the 16th century
which is still in vogue at urban gatherings under the same name. With
Baila there came Chikotti and Kaipiringna. Baila and Kaipiringna were
popularized by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation up to the mid 20th
century. It should be noted that this music was accompanied by a unique
form of dance.
Baila in most Hispanic languages means to dance and possibly had been
a misnomer for music here.
During the British period especially the low country dances or the
demonology along the coastal belt of Sri lanka created a confusion in
the minds of the British missionaries and administrators alike. Not only
Anglicans but also Catholics who wanted to convert the local people into
their religion were amused with the beliefs in ‘Satan’. The Yaka or the
demon is against the good and is believed to have malicious effects on
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Reverend John calloway of the Weslian Methodist mission stationed in
Matara was perturbed by those people who attended church on Sunday and
yet also performed demonic rituals.
In a disturbed state he sent letters regarding this to the head
quarters in London. He learnt Sinhala and translated the literature
associated with true local rituals in the low country area. In 1829
apart from his Yakkun Natanawa and Kolam Natannawa, the two poems on the
ritual of the demon Sanni and Kolam a ritual to propitiate Pattini the
goddess of chastity were published in London.
In the same year Emerson Tennant, an administrator of the British
Government also described the situation in Sri Lanka in his book,
History of Buddhist Doctrine in Ceylon. Calloway and Tennant both
mentioned about the activities of Sir Alexander Johnston the Chief
Justice of the Colony who collected more than 40 Bali figures in his
library. They were interested only in literature and the painting but
not in the techniques of performing.
The Christian missionaries advised the colonial government to debar
drumming at temples, in processions and at demon rituals. This caused a
calamity amongst the Buddhists of the country. Even in the 1930s the
Bhikkus were sued in Courts for this offence. Meanwhile, an antagonism
towards the local dances surfaced in society.
At the end of the 19th century German scholars were interested in
masks of Sri Lanka which are associated with the Kolam and Sanni
Grunwadel published coloured pictures in bookform. O. Pertold a Czech
philologist also collected masks and took them to Prague.
In the folk museum in Munich we still can see the 47 puppets of the
Ehelepola Kolam dance which were taken from here in 1910. There are
nearly 3,000 ola leaf manuscripts collected by Hugh Nevill in the
British Museum on various fields including demonology and dancing in Sri
The dancing systems associated with the Kandyan and Low country were
prevailing among Sinhala Buddhist villages in order to evade the
mellifluous influences of the demons and to invoke blessings of the
deities on the villagers. For this purpose we see the Kohomba Yak
Kankariya of the Hill Country which is the birth place of Kandyan
dancing. There are four main rituals associated with the demonology in
the low country and they are the origins of the Low Country dance
systems. Sabaragamuwa province also has dance systems entitled
Sabaragamuwa. Apart from the demon rituals connected with the three
systems of dancing, the main ritual to propitiate the Goddess of
Chastity is spread throughout the island. After the procession of the
Tooth Relic of Kandy during August, one can witness an array of
community hall or Gam Madu rituals in the cities and villages, in the
name of this goddess.
In addition, Sri Lankans strongly believe in the time of birth and in
astrology for the most part. Accordingly the nine planets which govern
the life of person throughout the life span and influence his day to day
life, are propitiated in Bali ceremonies. Life-sized effigies of these
planetary gods are erected at the ceremonial grounds and non-aggressive
dance styles are adopted.
Doors were opened for the Kohomba Kankariya and the masked dances of
Sri Lanka, in 1880s in the European countries under the patronage of
wealthy entrepreneurs. After a performance in Haymarket, London these
dancers were left stranded by the organisers. Now I come to the second
part of my deliberations which start from 1900.
It is quite clear that the Colombo city dwellers and others during
the new year invite dancers from Matara to invoke blessings from the
deities in 1905. This system was followed throughout Colombo when
calamities of epidemics hit the city. All the famous temples and Devalas
performed the Esela peraharas and at the conclusion they performed
Pattini madu dances.
At the beginning of the inter monsoon season the fisher folk perform
Gara dances at the shore in order to secure a bountiful harvest.
This system is still carried out in Ambalangoda and Weligama. In 1919
P.B. Nugawela, the diyawadana nilame at the Temple of the Tooth added
the Ves dances into the procession and the land tenure system which
prevailed in the Kandyan area facilitated the dancers to continue dance
When the Sinhala drama was confronted with the expansion of silent
films in Colombo, dramatists introduced dancing, Kandyan and Low country
both into the performances. John de Silva in his Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe
included Kandyan Dances in 1922 in addition to Parakramabahu. Vidura
Jatakaya had Arabic and Egyptian dances which had no parallel during the
time. Vijaya Raja Charitaya had Devol dances.
In the third decade the University College Sinhala Society was
interested in the Kandyan dancing due to the teachings of Rambukwelle
Siddharta thera. In 1932, even five students were not present to
complete the quorum and the meetings were cancelled. Rambukwelle
Siddharta the first ever monk to get a BA degree in English, with the
assistance of Urapola Kiri banda used to sing Wannamas playing the
udekki. Siddharta thera was a clever singer and dancer too. HE was the
composer of the new gajaga wannama.
Prof. Malalasekera after watching the activities of the said society
wanted to initiate practical classes in Kandyan dancing but this never
materialized. Batugedera Basnayake Gunasekara Rate mahattaya of the
Mahasaman Devala and E.A. Delgoda inspired Sabaragamuwa dancers to
establish a Sabaragamuwa dance school in the area.
1929 Enakshi Ram Rao (Bhavnani) a Brahmin lady performing Indian
dancing was well received in Sri Lanka. After that Maneka, Tara
Choudhary and Sri Gopinath visited Sri Lanka for performances. In 1933
when Romeo and Juliet was produced by Seebert Dias, he invited Ram Pyari
and Indian actress to take on the role of Juliet.
Meanwhile, to react to the influx of the Indian women dancers in
local stage, Percy Perera and Sarala Bai innovated a new system of
dancing called Bombay dance. They were imitating the dancers of the
Indian cinema and later their dances were included in the Kolam
performances too in the Olabooduwa, Horana area. The most significant
role played by the Indian women dancers was to bring about the
modernization of the local dance arena.
Dancing their cares
Kohomba Kankariya and the demon rituals, in addition to the pattini
rituals, were performed in the open air for ordinary villagers. The
dancers were focusing on dancing, drumming and the ritualistic
observances only. The costumes were never varied. The lights were dim
with only the torches and tapers being lit in the open arena. For the
first time Indian dancers performed on a stage with all the techniques
of lighting and a variety of costumes to display. They were expressing
‘bhavas’ using the body. Especially the Sattvika Bhava or facial
expressions. When masks are worn, this aspect was eclipsed in our local
dances. Indian dancers were experts in the usage of the stage and
directly involved with the audience. This was not necessary in the local
ritualistic dance scene because the performances were aimed at religious
purification or personal gains. For the local dances the audience is a
mediocre one. The educated and the clergy had no interest in it but for
Maneka, Choudhary and others the audience was an elite one.
In May 1934 Dr. Ravindranath Tagore and his troupe visited with his
dance drama entitled ‘The Redemption’ in aid of Vishva Bharathi at
Shantiniketan. There were a few Sri Lankan students even then at that
In 1928 Udakendawala Saranankara, a Buddhist monk and Maheshwara devi
a Tamil lady were studying at Shantiniketan. Tagore, with his friend
Wilmot A. Perera established a national institution called Sri Pali in
Horana. He was able to watch dances by Kandyan exponents and questioned
as to why the students from Sri Lanka should come to Shantiniketan
without studying their local dances.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike wrote a commendable review on the dance drama.
It is interesting to note here that Bandaranaike was angry at the
misconduct of the audience when presenting a great classic of this
nature. This shows the inability to appreciate the disciplined art of
dance by the audience at the time.
Bandaranaike said he was nearly hurt when somebody stamped on his
foot while the show was on. Members of the audience were running here
and there disturbing others. In 1935 despite these reactions Uday
Shankar, brother of Ravi Shankar, visited Sri Lanka with his troupe and
performed at the Regal Colombo and in Kandy in April 1935. They were
received by Malalasekera at the University of Ceylon.
He met Nittawela Gunaya and Suramba Rajapaksha too. Beryl de Zoeter,
a friend of Uday Shankar, also came to Sri Lanka. She attended a show
which was presented by Gopi Nath and Ragini Devi. The latter once in
London’s Albert Hall danced with Sri lankan dancer Sederaman.
In the field of education the Gandharva Sabha was established,
conducted its classes and held examinations, first in music and later in
dancing. After passing the examinations the potentials were able to join
the Department of Education as teachers. They followed the traditional
pattern of the dance forms seen in the villages.
A group of young blood realizing this situation in the country after
going through rigorous practical education in India came to Sri lanka
and started their educational institutes. A Morris Dias (Chitrasena), S.
Panibharatha, S. T. Molligoda, Premakumara Epitawela and Vasantha Kumar
Depp belong to this group.
Chitrasena before leaving for India trained in dance and drama both.
Panibharatha was a traditional dancer and drummer. Vasantha Kumar was a
student of Candralekha Perera the first woman to be initiated as a Ves
dancer. The dances of this new group were known as oriental dancing as
against traditional dancing.
In 1948, Devar Suriyasena with a group of nationalists formed a
society called National Dancing Society and to celebrate the first
Independence Day in February that year performed Pageant of lanka with
14 episodes. Seebert Dias and Chitrasena performed two of the episodes.
Some producers were not dancers. This pageant dealt with the history of
Ram Gopal and tara Chaudhary performed in Sri lanka in the same year.
There was a proposal to establish a college of dancing in Colombo in
1948. Unfortunately, it took five years to open the college. This
college was meant for pure Kandyan dancing only. By 1962 low country
dancing was also a subject in the curriculum. It took another 15 years
to introduce Sabaragamuwa and Indian dancing to the college curriculum.
This shows the animosity and the struggle between the traditional dances
and the cultured oriental dances.
In 1952 when the Arts Council was founded it comprised two panels,
one for Kandyan dancing and the other for Oriental Dancing. Thus, it
created two parallel streams of dancing. In a way the traditional one is
attached so much to the Guru Kula tradition of the country passing from
the teacher to student. No innovations could be done there. It seems
that the system became static.
The oriental dances were creative, taking elements from ballet,
eastern dancing and western techniques to rouse the emotions of the
(The text of a speech entitled ‘Tradition and Development delivered
at a forum organised by the Goethe Institute, Colombo.)