I’m conscious that Reading Room hasn’t been living up to the Asia bit of its name of late , so I am putting that right today. Those of you that read me regularly will know that one country I hold dear for many reasons is India, and as a result I know quite a lot about its theatrical life. Not so for its south-eastern neighbour, Sri Lanka, though. So I have been collecting a few bits and pieces that I want to share today.
Sri Lanka has been through years of bloodshed and struggle between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. It’s not surprising therefore that during this time the arts have struggled and many traditions have been hidden. One of the best sources of information I have found is the Active Theatre Movement which has as a goal, building a rich theatre culture for the nation development. The site isn’t very well maintained but there are some real gems on there. One that really interested me is Drama and Theatre Arts among the Tamils of Sri Lanka and is well worth a read, putting theatre in terms of the conflict and the traditions of the Tamil people. Also, much of the writing out there focuses on Sinhalese theatre traditions so this is a good, balancing source.
In common with a lot of asian theatre traditions, Sri Lanka’s is largely dance based underpinned by ancient ritual. Perhaps the one that is best known, is the Kandyan Dance – Uda Rata Natum – that originates from the ancient royal capital, Kandy. According to the legend, the origins of the dance lies in an exorcism ritual. However, today, the genre is considered the classical dance of Sri Lanka. You can read more here.
Another, less formal dance genre, again from an exorcism ritual, is the Salu Paliya or the Shawl Dance. This is a comic dance featuring the spirit Salu Paliya wearing a white shawl. Salu brings the blessings of the goddess Pattini to the patient. The appearance of this spirit in the healing ritual known as the Tovil has a specific significance – although demonic in appearance, Salu acts as a clown and uplifts the spirits of the patient and takes away his fear.
The other notable feature of Sri Lankan theatre tradition is the use of mask, and again this goes back centuries and is rooted in folklore.
More about masks in the articles listed below, especially The Yakun Natima – devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka
On of the best sources I have found is the Sri Lanka Virtual Library. I have taken a number of articles from there, in pdf form: