Kolam dance, a genre of satirical comedy
Greek and Roman historical annals on literature reveal that comic and
tragic satirical dramas and verse had been used since time immemorial in
exposing the human vices, folly, abuses and other forms of social
injustice. The Greek poet Aristophanes and Roman poets such as Horace
and Juvenal had exploited this genre as comic satire and tragic satire.
A scene from a Kolam
The Sinhala word Kolam is commonly used in the day-to-day parlance
throughout Sri Lanka which connotes some comical, crazy or unusual
behaviour which provides endless entertainment through fun and humour.
The origin of the Kolam dance form is shrouded in mythology but it
could be traced back to the era of mask dances in Sri Lanka. Some
historians are of the opinion that the Kolam dance form originated in
the west and south west coastal belt of Sri Lanka in the beginning of
the 19th century.
There are two traditions of Kolam dance known as the Maha Ambalangoda
School of Kolam and the Nambimulla School of Kolam. Both traditions
flourished in Ambalangoda, a town of cultural significance on the south
coast of Sri Lanka famous for traditional mask dance, arts and crafts. A
master craftsman of masks known as Tukkawadu Oinis Gurunnanase was the
founder of Kolam dance in Ambalangoda. Tukkawadu Oinis Gurunnanase’s son
Tukkawadu Palis Gurunnanse inherited the Kolam dance form from his
Tukkawadu Palis Gurunnanse’s son Tukkawadu Gunadasa Gurunnanse was a
nationally and internationally reputed Kolam dancer from Maha
Ambalangoda. Juwan Wadu Ondiris de Silva Wijesooriya Wadu Arachchi was a
pupil of Oinis Gurunnanse of Maha Ambalangoda. The Nambimulla tradition
of Kolam dance and mask-carving was founded by Juwan Wadu Ondiris de
Silva Wijesooriya and developed separately. According to historical
evidence the founder of mask carving and Kolam dance in Ambalangoda was
Tukkawadu Oinis Gurunnanse.
Tukkawadu Palis Gurunnanse was born in 1856 and his father Tukkawadu
Oinis Gurunnanse who was considered the founder of the Kolam dance
tradition of Ambalangoda could go back to the era of 1800 when Sri Lanka
was under British colonial administration. Tukkawadu Gunadasa Gurunnanse
of Maha Ambalangoda maintained the family tradition and further
developed Mask Carving, Kolam and other forms of mask dances.
He had successfully performed Kolam dance when Queen Elizabeth ii
made a state visit to Sri Lanka in 1954 and on numerous other occasions
whenever distinguished foreign statesman visited Sri Lanka.
Tukkawadu Gunadasa Gurunnanse never commercialised the traditional
Kolam dance or mask carving. He always tried to preserve the pristine
glory of these art forms. To preserve the family traditions he groomed
his son Tukkawadu Harischandra along these principles and with his
guidance a Conservation Centre of Masks and Folk Dance is fast nearing
completion at Maha Ambalangoda.
There is a popular myth related to the origin of Kolam dance. The
consort of the imaginary King Maha Sammatha had been affected by
pregnancy craving to see a mask dance but in that era nobody in his
kingdom had seen or heard anything of mask dances. Day after day the
condition of the Queen became worse. Realising the plight of the Queen,
God Sakra requested God Visvakarma who was considered as the divinity of
arts and crafts to invent masks and the lyrics for the mask dance to
satisfy the desire of Queen Mahasammatha.
The following morning masks and lyrics for Kolam dance form were
found in the royal garden. King Mahasammatha ordered his kingsmen to
study the lyrics and perform the Kolam dance. Queen Mahasammatha was
happy and satisfied after watching the Kolam dance and her pregnancy
cravings disappeared. In Sri Lanka wherever Kolam dances are performed
this mythical origin has been highlighted by the arrival of the pregnant
Queen towards the stage.
All verses used in the Kolam Dance form are full of sarcasm and
punning on words by the characters and the masks worn by them are rich
enough to make the audience hilarious throughout the performance.
Kolam dance performance is comprised of numerous episodes and diverse
characters perform their roles representing the traditional rural
setting of Sri Lanka in addition to their sufferings under the colonial
Members of the traditional hierarchy of Sri Lankan royalty and all
categories of servants appear on the stage where the Kolam dance is
performed. Before the arrival of the King and Queen the Headman,
Arachchi, the Chief of the district, the Mudali, King’s Guard and the
soldiers make suitable arrangements on the stage for the arrival of the
A pregnant woman narrates how she became pregnant in one of the
episodes of Kolam Damce full of humour. Gama Kathawa (Village Story) In
this episode, the Village Headman abusing his powers made amorous
advances towards a married woman known as Ethna Hami. There were two
foolish brothers in the village and the elder brother got married to
Ethna Hamy. In order to get rid of her husband the Village Headman said
that the King had ordered to send the two brothers every night to look
after some far away fields.
One day when they were guarding the fields these two foolish brothers
mistook moonlight as sunlight and came home thinking it was morning.
Ethna Hamy did not open the door at once but first covered her lover the
Village Headman with a cloth. Next she covered herself with the cloth to
cover up her identity. She pretended to be mad and an exorcist who
happened to be a friend of the Village Headman appeared to drive away
the evil spirits. During the ritual the Village Headman appeared
disguised as a demon and frightened the two brothers who ran away from
the scene. Later Ethna Hamy and the Village Headman started dancing
The Village Headman was known as Arachchi who appeared on the stage
to get a count of the exact number of people gathered in the audience to
welcome the royalty. Arachchi assigned the job of counting the number of
people present to his clerk who happened to be a funny character and he
was very keen on embarrassing his master. He kept on counting the unborn
babies in the wombs of the women who were in the audience.
Finally, Arachchi orders all those who were in the audience to behave
well as the royalty was about to arrive.
Anabera Kolama. The drummer known as Pannikakkala who is drunk
appears on stage accompanied by his children. He starts vomiting and his
children could be seen beating him on his back. A dialogue that ensued
between the narrator or the Kariyakarawana Rala and Nonchi Akka the wife
of the drummer was full of pun on words. Sometimes words having
different meanings were been used as a strategy to bring in humour to
Nonchi Akka: “I went to Moratuwa to collect some green leaves.”
Kariyakaravana Rala : “You went to Moratuwa to collect green leaves?”
“No, went to the koratuwa to collect green leaves.”
A craftsman at work
Nochchi Akka: “The paula (family) which was hung on the horn was not
Kariyakarawana Rala: “How can you hang a paula on a horn? ”
It must be the daula (drum)
”Nochchi Akka: “Yes, yes, the Kadipuka (the back side of Black Ant)
was not there.
Kariyakarawana Rala: “You are talking nonsense. How can you beat a
drum with a kadipuka? It must be Kadippu (drum stick) and not kadipuka.
Nochchi Akka: “When all these items are missing the reeds caught
Kariyakarawana Rala:“It was not reeds that caught fire (pangas asse
gini gattha) You have felt that your whole body was burning.
(Panchaskanda gini gatta.)
In Kolam dance form, Nochchi Akka is a very popular character mostly
due to the traditional costumes and the mask worn giving a very old
appearance to the actor who performs the role of a typical old woman in
the rural sector of Sri Lanka.
Many preparations had been done before the arrival of royalty. It is
the duty of the soldiers and the King’s Guard to ensure that the roads
are clean and tidy. There were many wounds on the faces of these
soldiers. Kariyakaravana Rala (narrator) questioned them on what
happened to their faces. The soldiers replied that they had to fight
with the British soldiers at Gampola. The soldiers revealed that they
used their faces as shields. Later they soaked their heads in the Kandy
Lake to get some relief. The leeches found in the lake had attacked
their faces enlarging the wounds.
Just after the narrator raised questions about their faces the
soldiers looked at each others’ face and started laughing. They demanded
toddy and food from the people and left the stage. Pedi Kolama
(Washerman cleans the white cloth, a carpet for the King):
An elderly washerman called Jasaya who is by nature a lazy person
appeared on the stage accompanied by his assistant and started his duty
but the Kariyakarawana Rala found his inefficiency and requested to get
down his wife for assistance. Mudali who was the Chief of the district
was fond of pretty women At first sight, he was interested to have an
intimate chat with the pretty young wife of Jasaya. Jasaya’s wife who
did not like him made numerous complaints against him .
She said Jasya was in the habit of drinking. Jasaya said his wife had
several lovers and one of them happened to be the attendant of Mudali.
Later it was Jasaya who was punished instead of Mudali’s attendant. He
was thoroughly beaten by the attendant.
A pregnant woman appears on the stage crying and complaining of
pregnancy pains. Kariyakaravana (narrator) asked her to stop her crying.
She responded saying that all men in the audience were responsible for
They promised to give her clothes and jewellery wishing to marry her
but they never kept to their promises. Kariyakarawana Rala (narrator)
admitted that she had been cheated by the men and her suffering was also
due to their misbehavior.
Arrangements were made to get down a midwife who helped her to give
birth to a child. She appeared once again on stage this time with the
new born baby in hand.
Two men wearing masks depicting the face of lions appeared on the
stage and they performed a beautiful dance to the satisfaction of the
Queen. Raja Kolama (The arrival of the King and the Queen):
The King and the Queen arrived on the stage with one of the
Ministers. Kariyakarawana Rala (narrator) joined them. The Royal couple
was ushered in to their seats.
Raksha Kolama (Dance of the Rakshas):
The Rakshas wearing a mask- (Naga Raksha) comprised cobras who
appeared on the stage and performed a dance to please the Royalty. These
Rakshas appear as the followers of King Wesamuni.
Gurulu Raksha Kolama
This dance is performed wearing a mask depicting an eagle. The mask
carries a cobra in his beak. Gurulu Mask Dance is believed to have
dispelled fear and all poisonous serpents in Sri Lanka had been
destroyed. Usually, a Kolam Dance comprises 24 Raksha Dance
performances. Kolam Dancers perform their dances wearing a series of
masks depicting the pantheon of Rakshas. The ghastly appearance of these
Rakshas and their dancing add fear and terror to Kolam Dance
Suramba Vallia and Somiguna Kolama:
This dance is performed wearing a mask depicting a Makara. It
highlights the qualities of the fisher folk living on the coastal belt.
The Kolam Dance form is didactic and a moral lesson is taught through
a Buddhist Jataka Story. Danuddhara Jataka story has been enacted
depicting a tragical end of Prince Maname. Prince Maname was killed by
the Vedda King due to his unfaithful wife.
Gara Yaka Kolama
Gara Yaka appears on the stage to dispel the effects of evil mouth,
evil eyes and thus end the Kolam Dance performance.
All the episodes of Kolam Dance were performed to the tune of the
beatings of drums and the recitations of verses. The intermittent
dialogue between the narrator and the characters of the episodes of
Kolam Dance comprised of humorous expressions and punning on words.
In the past, Kolam Dances were performed mostly in the rural sector
and this genre of dance form was exploited to highlight the shortcomings
of the British colonial administration and the common social evils such
as the abuse of power by those who are in the higher echelons.