Traditional dance in British Ceylon



The traditional dances of Ceylon did not disappear during British rule. They continued to be performed and were an important part of village life. Kohomba Kankariya was performed in certain districts, in the central highlands, such as Matale and Kandy. In 1919 P.B. Nugawela, Diyawadane Nilame, added the Ves dance of the Kohomba Kankariya to the Maligawa section of the Esala Perahera. This gave the Ves dance a second platform and a greater exposure to the public. Sri Jayana (1921-2008) recalled that in the Udarata, there was dancing after bana preaching as well. Two teams of dancers would perform through the night. The first team danced from 10 p.m. to 2 am, and then the other took over. Dancers also performed ‘adavu’ at upasampada ceremonies at the Maligawa. People flocked to see them and threw them money.

Kohomba Kankariya could not have been the only ritual with dance in the Udarata kingdom. There would have been similar rituals in other parts of the Udarata kingdom. In Wanni even today there is the mutti mangalyaya performed after the harvest, to seek the blessings of Aiyanayaka Deiyo,. The anumatirala after addressing the deity dances to the accompaniment of drums. When they return to village, the anumatirala again begins to dance to the accompaniment of chanting and drumming. (D.B.T. Kappagoda. Daily News 28.11.15 p 5)

The natum parampara, who held lands from temples and devales for their services, participated in the rituals and trained the next generation to carry on the tradition. The different schools of Udarata dance continued to preserve and develop their own styles. There were four different vannam traditions as well, Mahanuwara, Satara, Sabaragamuwa and the ‘Rajarata tradition’ of Anuradhapura. It was not all rosy however. In the 1930s, there were dancing and drumming classes all day at the home of Pani Bharatha. The villagers round about complained. A village schoolteacher sent a petition to the Government Agent saying that this noise was disturbing his work. The GA Dedigama came to inspect. He declared that Kiriganitha was engaged in his traditional work and should be allowed to carry on undisturbed. If the teacher did not like this he could live elsewhere. (Pani Bharatha Charitapadanaya p. 29 ).

Ruhunu natum continued to be popular in the south, during British times. In 1905, Colombo residents had called in ritual performers from Matara to invoke blessings on the city. This was done regularly in Colombo whenever calamities or epidemics hit the city, said Tissa Kariyawasam. In the coastal areas, the fishing community performed Gara dances in order to secure a bountiful harvest. The Colombo temples and devales also held their Esala peraheras and gammadu.

Bali and tovil rituals were not confined to Ruhuna. That would have been most unnatural. There is a yak tovil tradition in Kegalle at Salapitamada and Niwatuwa. There are references to Udarata and Nuwarakalaviya bali. There were bali ceremonies in Sabaragamuwa too. Uva province had bali rituals, and after the ceremony, there was ‘adavu natum’ throughout the night. However, every hop, skip and prance is not dance and in my view, the movements in Kolam and Sokari need not be considered a dance style. They are merely movements regulated by the drum.

The British administration recognized Udarata dance as an art form. In 1907, Colonial Secretary, Hugh Clifford asked Leonard Woolf, AGA Kandy to organize a performance of the ‘finest Kandyan dance’ to show a visitor. Woolf ran to the Diyawadene Nilame who organized it for him. In 1932, Amunugama Suramba performed at Buckingham palace. A state sponsored contest for dancers was held in 1940, won by the Algama dancers led by Kiriganitha.

When the British banned the Udarata martial art of angampora, angam practitioners preserved the skill by hiding it in the British approved Udarata dance. One practitioner of angampora said, in a documentary film, that they could spot the angam movements in Udarata dance, though the dancers themselves were unaware of it. Fireball dancer E.D.Tilakaratne said that angampora has been preserved in his family of fireball dancers for generations.’ I have trained many at the Angampora art institute in Ragama’. (Island. 4.8.14 p 5)

Some members of the Udarata elite continued their interest in traditional dance during the British period. District judge A.H.E. Molamure, (Huppy) lived in Kegalle and was a connoisseur of Kandyan and Sabaragamuwa dance forms. He and his maternal uncle the Ven. Rampukpota Bodhiseeha would spend long hours discussing the finer points of Udarata dance and drumming. They were talented drummers and would accompany each other, singing vannam and kavi. Molamure often invited the famed udekki player, the Korale Mahatmaya of Wereke and his students to perform at gatherings of friends and relations.

Some members of the Maha sangha were also interested in traditional dance. Ven. Rambukwelle Siddhartha knew to dance, sing vannam and play the udekki. He composed a new Gajaga vannama. Ven. Rampukpota Bodhiseeha (1906-1980), head priest of Seneviratne Mudalindaramaya, Badulla and later chief Sanghanayake of the Amarapura nikaya in Uva, had encouraged the teaching of Udarata dance in the villages of Uva and Satara korale. Bodhiseeha had studied under Ven. Rambukwelle Siddhartha.

There was also another Nayake thero who had learnt dancing before his ordination. He trained dancers, in the evening and they danced at temple functions. They became very good dancers. Each was asked to train a batch of dancers in his village and in due course ‘dancing became available’ in that region. We do not know the name of the bhikku or the place but the time period appears to be the 1940s. The information was supplied in the 1960s by the Nayake thero of Sri Maha Bodhi. The Sri Maha Bodhi nayake thero had added however, that dancers in Pahata Dumbara, Harispattuwa and some other areas around Kandy were teaching dance but found it difficult to continue without support and patronage.

The Sinhala nationalists in Colombo tried to encourage Udarata dance. In 1922 John de Silva included Udarata dance in his play ‘Sri Wickreme Rajasinghe’ and Devol dance in’ Vijaya charitaya’. In the 1930s Seebert Dias father of Chitrasena, had got down dancers from the villages to perform in Colombo. In 1943, the firm of William Pedris sponsored a presentation of Kandyan, Sabaragamuwa and Ruhunu dance at Royal College as a benefit for Musaeus College, Colombo. In 1932 Ven. Rambukwelle Siddhartha and G.P.Malalasekera presented a performance of Udarata dance, including vannam and udekki to an enthusiastic audience at University College. Ven. Rambukwelle Siddhartha taught Pali at University College, Colombo at the time. He was a respected scholar monk, who inculcated in his pupils a love for indigenous culture. University College Sinhala Society became interested in Kandyan dancing due to Ven. Siddhartha, said Tissa Kariyawasam.

Some members of the westernized elite of Colombo, Sinhala and Burgher, saw the high quality of the traditional dance and set out to support it.

They wanted to preserve its authentic character and therefore concentrated on entrenching Udarata dance In the Udarata itself. Weeraratne recalled that Harold and Peggy Peiris organized many performances in their spacious house in Kandy,’ bringing the dance to a wider audience and to greater appreciation’.

This group actively supported the dancers who they thought would help further Kandyan dance. Harold Pieris, Lionel Wendt and George Keyt helped set up the Kandyan dance school started in the 1920s by Amunugama Suramba in Sirimalwatte, Gunnepane. Harold Pieris (1904-1988) was a landed proprietor, Lionel Wendt was a noted photographer and pianist and George Keyt was the well known artist. Suramba’s London trip of 1932 was paid for by the painter Harry Pieris of Colombo. Harry Pieris was also a wealthy landed proprietor, interested in the indigenous arts.

Lionel Wendt helped the dancer Sri Jayana at two critical points in Jayana’s career. Wendt provided the money for Jayana to obtain a Ves tattuva for his graduation. Wendt thereafter helped him financially to go to India for training in Indian dancing. Harold Peries also gave money for this. My guess is that when Jayana started his school at Amunugama in 1949, he would have been helped financially by Rev Lakdasa de Mel and Sylvester de Soysa of Kandy, another landed proprietor, though this is not recorded anywhere. Harold Pieris, Lakdasa de Mel, Harry Pieris and Sylvester de Soysa are descendants of the Moratuwa philanthropist, Charles Henry de Soysa, whose statue can be seen at De Soysa Circus, Colombo, near the Eye Hospital.

The Colombo group also arranged dance performances in Colombo, hoping to get the high society of Colombo interested in traditional dance. Harold Pieris had got the Kohomba Kankariya performed all night in his house in Maharagama, Colombo, with the assistance of Jayana and Suramba, in the 1940s. Shelagh Jansen, (b. 1935) later Goonewardene, recalls going there to see this when she was a schoolgirl.

The biggest hit, however, was the dance performance sponsored by the 43 Group. The '43 Group was a Colombo based group of painters who favored European painting of the modern school. The 43 Group was led by Lionel Wendt. Harold Peiris and George Keyt were influential members. The 43 Group sponsored two recitals of dance in 1945, by the dancers of Madhyama Lanka Nritya Mandala, whose principals included Suramba, Ukkuwa, Gunaya, Punchi Gura and Jayana.

The progamme note describing Udarata dance was written by Andreas Nell. The first performance was so successful that they followed it up with a second where the finale was a perahera, choreographed by Arthur van Langenberg, with the performers snaking in and out of the wings and on to the stage. These two recitals were ‘widely acclaimed’. According to Neville Weeraratne, these two performances led to the creation of a school of traditional dance in Colombo. The school was housed in a ‘great ramshackle mansion by the sea’ at Bambalapitiya, known as Caldecott, recalled Weeraratne. It was next to the present day Colombo Swimming Club. Heen Baba Dharmasiri had taught there.

Udarata dance was way ahead of Indian dance. Indian dance was ‘hanging by a thread’ during British rule. Anna Pavlova and Ruth St Denis toured South Asia in the 1920s, separately. Both Pavlova and St. Denis did not like the dances they saw in India. When they arrived in Ceylon, they were taken to Kandy to see special performances of Udarata dance. They were most impressed. Pavlova wished to see them again and St Denis wanted her troupe given a quick training in Udarata dance.

By the 1940s Udarata dance had also acquired a reputation in India. Kathakali dancer Shantha Rao (1925-2007) came to Sri Lanka in the 1940s to learn Udarata dance and Gunaya taught her Naga Vannama and Iradi Vannama. In the mid 1940s dancers from the dismantled Udaya Shankar group were sent to Kandy, by George Keyt, then in Bombay, to learn Udarata dance from Jayana. Both Shanta Rao and the Bombay group were planning to incorporate Udarata dance into the dance ‘mallung’ they were concocting in India.

The Udarata dancers and drummer who went to India in the 1940s to study at Santiniketan excelled in India. Chitrasena was chosen out of more than 2000 pupils to join the 15 member dance group at Santiniketan. Chitrasena’s dance solo in the Kandyan style to a song of Tagore, at the All India Dance Festival In 1946 was a hit. Pani Bharatha was also considered outstanding at Santiniketan. He won medals and prizes. His performances of Udarata dance were applauded. He led the Santiniketan dance troupe to the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. Jayana taught and danced in Bombay. He was one of the stars of the 1947 Indian ballet ‘Discovery of India’.

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