The beautiful island of Sri Lanka lost most of the last quarter of the twentieth century to a bloody civil war, and tourism took a big hit. The island nation’s cultural diversity is believed to be more than two thousand years old. The picturesque area of Kande Ude Rata (Central Hill region) was popularly referred to by the British as Kandy region. Kandy was home to the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. It is also popular for the magnificent Temple of the Tooth Relic, which is one of most revered Buddhist sites. Dances in Sri Lanka have been nurtured by the indigenous habitants for many centuries. The dance of the Kandy region acquired the patronage of the erstwhile Lankan rulers. There are three main styles of Classical dances in Sri Lanka - the Pahatha Rata Natum, which is known as the Classical dance of the Southern plains of Lanka; the Sabaragamuwa Natum; and the Uda Rata Natum - which is translated as the dance of the Central hilly regions. Uda Rata Natum is popularly known as the Kandyan dance. Though originating from the Central regions, it has now spread all over the island country. The costumes worn by the dancers, the instruments played and the style of facial and body movements make this Dance unique.
The growing popularity of Kandyan dance in the latter half of the twentieth century was due to the efforts of the legendary Chitrasena Dias, who modified its movements. Chitrasena’s efforts broke through the caste barrier. The Kandyan dance had earlier, in feudal times, been performed only by men of a particular caste. The deep-rooted tribal connect of the Dance made it accessible only to men. Unfortunately, this Dance was driven to extinction by the British. After the independence of Sri Lanka (also known as Ceylon) from the British, the political set-up attempted to institutionalise and re-assert the Island’s past culture. Of the different stories attributed to the origin of Kandyan dance, two of them point towards India. It is believed that there was a ritual known as Kohomba (named after a Goddess of the same name), and that a king from a place called Malaya Rata (believed to be in India) brought this dance to Lanka. Another story speaks of three shamans who came to Sri Lanka from India, to cure a king who had been suffering from a dream of a violent leopard that had been let loose by the black magic of a queen. After the performance of the Kohomba Kankariya ceremony, the king was cured permanently. That made the local people of Kandy believe that the Dance was divine.
Kandyan dance is also linked to temple worship. It is a key element of the Esala Perahera festival of Sri Lanka. There are also many variations of the Kandyan dance. The Ves dance, a sacred dance devoted to Goddess Kohomba, is marked by its show of athleticism and acrobatics, which can be compared with the whirling of Sufi dervishes or the pirouettes of Kathak dancers. The ‘Ves’ (male) dancers wear a sacred headgear, which is supposed to be the property of Goddess Kohomba. The Ves dancers perform regularly at the Kankariya temple. The Naiyandi and Uddekki are more ceremonial in nature. The Naiyandi dance is performed on ceremonial occasions in temples – like the lighting of daily lamps and the preparation of ceremonial food. The dancers are dressed in white clothes, beads, turbans, silver chains and anklets. Uddekki is a dance that symbolises the hand drum of the Gods, and the dancer plays this drum and sings. The Pantheru dance, though a victory dance, has subdued and subtle movements. It is performed to a tambourine and cymbals, and invokes a Goddess. Vannams, or songs of praise, have been adopted into the Kandyan dance. There are eighteen classical Vannam that have been attributed to an old saint, Ganithalankara. With the encouragement of an erstwhile ruler, King Sri Weeraparakrama Narendrasingha, Vannams became an integral part of the Kandyan dance. The Vannams are based on nature and animal life. The Hanumana Vannama and Gajaga Vannama, which depict the monkey and the elephant, are the most popular Vannam variations. The drumming in all the Kandyan styles is rhythmic and the drummers are dressed in traditional costumes and colourful turbans. The instruments used in Kandyan Dance are the Geta Beraya (drum), Thalampota (cymbals) and twin drums called Tammethama. The costumes of the Kandyan dance are unique, with the chest covered by a beautiful net. The dancers also wear anklets, beads, bangles and colourful costumes. The Ves costume’s sacred metallic headdress is supposed to be worn only after a religious ceremony (if one does not wish to fall ill).
Over the past few decades the Kandyan dance has been embraced by women and new costumes have been designed for them. Consequently, the Dance now has more variety in its themes, choreography and music. The Kandyan dance could well become one of the most recognised Classical dances in South Asia.
The writer is a renowned Kuchipudi danseuse and choreographer