The performing arts are very much alive in Sri Lanka. A characteristic feature of Sri Lankan types of performance are the various processions connected to religious festivities with various kinds of performers. The processions often include acrobatics. Some village rituals such as sanni (Sinhalese exorcism ritual) and kolam (traditional dance drama) are still practiced in villages but have also been adapted for the modern stage. Although much has been done to keep dance traditions alive, the fate of some performing arts such as marionette theater seems grim as there are only a handful of puppeteer families striving to keep it alive.

“Kolam”, “Sokaro” and “Nadagam” are words used to describe Sri Lanka’s tradition of theatrical music. This music has its roots is open-air dramas performed at festivals and other gatherings. This tradition has been strongly influenced by the music, dance and drama of both southern and northern India. Before the age of film and television these were the primary forms of entertainment. They are kept a live in contemporary film music and popular music and radio shows and dramas.

Most professional theater productions are performed in a ritual context, although there is also modern, secular theater which is semiprofessional. Sri Lanka has several theaters. There is a national dance troupe and a national theater as well as an interest in Western music, art, and drama. English-language plays are performed by a few amateur groups in Colombo. Concerts of Sri Lankan, Indian Western music also given with some regularity. Colombo has an amateur symphony orchestra. [Sources: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001; “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]


Kolam, Masked Folk Theater

Kolam is a form of dance-drama involving masked dancers retelling stories from myth and legend. Many of the masks depicts demons with bulging eyes and exaggerated noses. Performances have traditionally been held around New Year and have references to Buddhism. “Kolam natima” dramatizes myths about legendary hordes, gods and demons. These dances are believed to have once been used in important rituals with religious meaning but now are performed mainly as a form of entertainment. Kolam masks are used to represent the characters in the drama. The masks themselves are typically made from a light of balsa-style wood called “kadura” that has been smoked dried and carved by hand. Many have a base of yellow paint on which other colors are added. The west coast town of Ambalangoda is famous making masks.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “Kolam is another “low-country” tradition from Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Although it includes elements of ritual and even trance, it may be classified, however, as a form of folk theater. A loose plot binds several stock characters and scenes together. The actual play is usually based on a Buddhist Jataka story. The characters’ lines may be sung by a nearby singer, but they are sometimes also spoken and even sung by the actors themselves. Kolam’s dance technique is clearly related to another low-country tradition, that of sanni. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“One can only speculate on kolam’s origins. The tradition itself gives legendary explanations of its birth. Furthermore, there are theories that the tradition stems from ancient pregnancy rites, while its many animal characters clearly indicate its roots in the animistic, animal spirit rites. It seems that kolam is a fusion of archaic belief systems, of Buddhism as well as later popular culture, which reflects the structure of the society at various phases of the island’s history.”

“Kolam is not a static, crystallised tradition. It allows different kinds of interpretations. Sometimes the narrator or drummers speak or sing the characters’ lines. Sometimes, however, the characters themselves speak or sing. Thus, kolam has also been called a “folk operetta”. It has also been a trend to knit the various characters and scenes together by means of a story. Nowadays kolam dances and scenes are also adapted for the marionette theater as well as being shown separately in shows for tourists.”

Kolam Stories and Performance

One of the of the most famous of these dances, the “Sandakinduru Katava”, is about a king that accidently kills a man-bird that is brought back to life by the Buddha. Another, “Gothayimbala Katava” is about a youth who falls for a beautiful woman and is beheaded by her husband. The demon is able regenerate his head and the husband cuts it off again and again only to have it grow back. The dance ends when a forest spirit comes to help the husband get rid of the demon. once and for all.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: The kolam performance takes place in a round performance arena surrounded on three sides by the audience. At least two drummers provide its accompaniment. The narrator or master of ceremonies directs the performance and introduces the characters. He also sometimes speaks the characters’ lines or enters into a dialogue with them. In earlier times, a kolam performance lasted a whole night, but nowadays from two to three hours. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“A kolam performance starts with the preliminary rituals addressed to various gods and the Buddha. Then follows a description of kolam’s origins. The legend tells us that there was a king and a queen. The queen was pregnant and, as pregnant women often have, the queen also had a strange craving. She yearned to see mask dances.

“This very loose frame for a story enables a theater to stage a cavalcade of various mask dances and mimes. The prologue is a kind of series of short stock scenes involving all layers of traditional Sri Lankan society. Police officers, villagers, a washerman and his wanton wife, low-ranking courtiers, soldiers, and various animal and demon characters have their own, mostly comical scenes.

“Finally the king and the queen enter with their retinue. The king and the queen have huge masks, which are often over a meter tall. Because of their heavy masks the actors must be conducted to their thrones, from where they watch the mask spectacle. In older times, it is believed, the big masks, placed on the thrones, were enough to represent these highest ranks of the characters.

“The actual play itself is often based on Buddhist birth stories or Jataka stories. The performance ends with the dance of the gara demons, which is intended to exorcise negative elements and to spread a positive effect and prosperity among the audience and the performers.

Kolam Natima

The kolam natima is a ritualised mask dance.Pate wrote: Today it is rarely practised and has been gradually losing its importance over the last hundred years. The early twentieth century writer Otaker Pertold commented that, even in his day, much of the original import of the dance had been lost, and that on the few occasions that it was still performed it was undertaken by laymen rather than edura or those specifically versed in ritual dances. Because some forty masked characters are involved in this elaborate drama, with commensurate offerings expected for certain devils and demons, Pertold cites the great expense involved in staging a full kolam natima as responsible for its gradual abbreviation. [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“As a ritual, the kolam natima broadly centers around pregnancy issues. The cravings and desires (dola duka) that often accompany a pregnancy were traditionally viewed with great suspicion, and were believed to be some sort of supernatural possession. The masked dance is thought to have been principally directed against these cravings and to protect the fetus in general.

“The origin story and characters depicted in the kolam natima reflect some of this original intent: The queen of a powerful king was pregnant. As her pregnancy neared term she developed an irresistible craving to see a masked dance performed. So intense was her desire that her health rapidly began to fail. 'She beseeched her husband, the king, to grant her this wish. The king asked his ministers what should be done, but no one knew what a masked dance was. In his desperation the king pleaded to the god Sekkria, asking that he should reveal what must be done. Hearing his plea, Sekkria instructed one of the four guardian gods, the God of Curiosity, to carve masks of sandalwood and place them in the king's garden with a book detailing what must be done. In the morning the gardener found masks distributed throughout the garden, some with the faces of devils, others of animals, and others of noble courtiers and ladies. The gardener rushed to the king and told him the news. He and the ministers gathered in the courtyard, discovered the explanatory text and a masked dance was performed immediately for the benefit of the queen.

“It is assumed that the mask dance did the job, and that she suffered no more dola duka, and that the infant was a healthy one. Near the final stages of the performance, as translated by Calloway in 1829, a pregnant woman enters the scene and after much anguish gives birth to a son, exclaiming: "The beauty of the child I have now got is like a flower. His prattle will be pleasant, and he will like much to chew betel [nut]." Care is urged for her son, and the demons and devils that threaten it are placated with offerings.

“There is very little structure to the dance itself. Following a brief introduction and a retelling of its origins, the ritual consists primarily of a series of dances and walkthroughs by a set of characters; gods, humans, animals, and devils, each successive character being only loosely connected with what preceded. From the introduction at the court, we move out through the village catching glimpses of village life before moving into the woods, where the threats and ferocity of the animals give way to the terror of devils and demons.

“Thus the impact of the kolam natima lies not in its great narrative strength but in the pure spectacle of the masks: the Lasquarine soldier who lost his nose in the great battle of Gampelle; the great Virgin of the Snakes with her radiant face surrounded by coiled cobras; the golden faced and seductive woman with five bodies; the greedy moneylender, Hettiya; the haggard old man and old woman dressed in rags looking for support from the young villagers; the innocent bullock attacked by a ferocious tiger and a pack of hungry jackals; cavorting monkeys with shaggy beards and gaping mouths; the awesome devil Nanda Gere with two devil faces on each side, with gnashing teeth and a body caught in his jaws, and Yamma Raksaya, the black-faced devil of death with his long tusks, demon faces flanking his own and coiled naga serpents crowning his head.

Kolam Masks

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: The dozens of different kolam masks that are used in one performance are all but homogenous in style. Most of the masks, except the masks for demons and animals, represent clear character types. Many of them, especially those belonging to the lower strata of society, are naturalistic in style; some are even caricatures. The naturalistic masks include, for example, the washerman and his wife, the wanton village beauty Lenchina, and many other figures belonging to the village context. The masks of some other characters, such as the stupid colonial policemen, can be seen as funny caricatures. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“The noble characters, such as the king and the queen and the numerous other royal persons with their icon-like features, are almost depersonalised. The same applies to many masks of the supernatural beings, particularly to those of higher gods and goddesses.Some masks of the demon characters may, in their rude features, reflect archaic mask practices, while the famous masks of the garuda and naga characters, with their large cobra crowns, are again stylised in a completely different way, as they also belong to the repertoire of the tovil exorcism rites.

Alan Pate wrote: “Although a brisk trade in masks for tourists has developed in the Ambalangoda area of coastal Sri Lanka, the masks used in the various natima ceremonies were traditionally carved by the edura himself, infusing them with a particular power for the upcoming ceremony. While the edura in his normal walk of life might be a fisherman or farmer, rather than coming from an artisan class, the masks themselves often exhibit a great deal of skill and dexterity in their carving. This reflects the long apprenticeship period that has traditionally been required of all edura, studying under an established figure that may often be the father, uncle, or an elder family member. [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“Although some of the masks are quite large and complex in their structure, most of those traditionally used in the various natima ceremonies are considered threequarter masks. Strapped to the face, they extend from the middle of the forehead to just below the mouth. This type of lightweight construction makes it easier for the dancer to wear during the often spastic and exaggerated movements executed during a performance which could last up to twelve hours.

“Three types of wood are listed as common to mask construction that could vaty depending upon the region and the immediate availability of materials; kaddra (strychnox mux vomica) was prized for its durability; eramadu (erythrina india and rukatiana (alsronia scholaris), the latter being considered inferior and known for breaking easily. Divided into blocks, the mask is gradually shaped from the wood. Once the final form is created, the wood is polished using leaves from the mota daliya boodadiya, or korosa trees. Prior to pain g, the polished wood is treated with a t(, clay sealant called allidyu that acts as a gesso and creates a better bonding surface for the pigments to follow.

“Although contemporary masks are often painted with commercial pigments, even some of the older masks when they have been repainted reflect this growing trend, traditional techniques involve the exclusive use of natural organic and mineral-based pigments. White was derived from makulu clay, green from the leaves of the kikirindiya plant, the ranavara tree, or the ma creeper, blue from the ripe fruit of the bovitiya, and yellow from hiriyal orpi ment), or yellow pepper. Black was obtained from charred cotton, and red from cinnabar or a red clay called gurru gal. To protect these pigments the edura would then coat the mask with a lacquer sealant called valicci which was derived from a combination of resins from the hal and dorano trees with beeswax. Hair and beards were simulated through the use of various dyed fibres, elephant hairs, and monkey skins applied directly to the mask.

Rukada, the Marionette Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “Sri Lanka has its own form of marionette theater and its puppets are called rukada or “miniature figures”. Like all marionettes, rukadas are also operated from above by means of strings. The golden age of the marionette theater was in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Nowadays only a few groups perform on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, mainly in the vicinity of the village of Ambalangoda. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“The present form of Sri Lanka’s marionette theater stems from the late 18th century. However, textual sources mention that mechanical puppets had been used as entertainment during religious festivities as early as the 12th century. The present form is believed to have been introduced to Sri Lanka from South India by the ruling Tamil family of Kandy, the last independent kingdom of the island.

“By mid-20th century full-length puppet performances became rare and different kinds of variety shows, consisting mainly of short stock numbers, gained popularity. The marionette theater is still alive in this form. Shows can sometimes be seen during temple fairs and other religious festivities but the performances are mostly aimed at tourists. Lack of public support has put the marionette theater in great danger of becoming extinct.

Rukada Natya: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Rukada Natya, traditional string puppet drama in Sri Lanka, was inscribed in 2018 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: Rukada Natya is a type of drama performed using string puppets, traditionally to provide light entertainment and convey moral lessons to village communities. Rukada Natya is performed by family groups who belong to, or are connected with, the lineage known as Gamwari, living around the southern coastal towns of Ambalangoda, Balapitiya and Mirissa. The themes are chosen from folktales, Buddhist stories, ancient literature, historical narratives and trivia with humorous anecdotes from contemporary life or nadagam, an extinct form of ‘folk opera’. [Source: UNESCO]

Puppeteers make their own wooden puppets and prepare handwritten scripts with dialogues and songs, which they recite while manipulating the puppets. A small band provides a musical accompaniment, and performances are community events. Through the medium of puppet drama, worldviews and core values essential for peaceful communal co-existence come alive for young people to easily comprehend; the practice is therefore an effective way of conveying messages crucial for maintaining cohesiveness among community members. It also allows community members to laugh and have fun together, helping them socialize. Museums play a key role in contributing to the dissemination of related knowledge, as does the traditional practice of holding performances during festive times in May and June at temple premises, traditional community centers in Sri Lankan culture.

Rukada Repertoire

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “Like most forms of Indian puppetry, the marionette theater of Sri Lanka also imitates forms of live theater. The first form it imitated was nadagama, a South Indian form of recited folk theater with fantastic semi-historical plots. The next form was nurthi, a spoken Parsi folk theater tradition from Bombay (Mumbai). The former was performed without any stage décor while the latter used painted backdrops. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“Many of the early rukada plays were set in faraway, exotic European countries. Later, Buddhist Jataka stories were also adapted for the marionette stage. Historical themes concerning the history of Kandy also became popular. The most important example of these historical plays is the Ahalepola nadagama, published by Pilippu Singho in 1870. It deals with the tragic end of one of Kandy’s ruling families, the Ahalepolas.

“After the decline of the nadagama tradition puppet theater adapted characters and dances from theater forms that were still living, such as kolam, sanni and the Kandyan dances. Nowadays full-length puppet plays are very rare and the shows consist of short stock numbers, such as the opening dance of a Tamil danseuse, derived from nadagama theater, and short dances of a jester and sanni demons, as well as scenes with comical kolam figures.

Rukada Stage and the Puppets

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “During the golden age of the marionette theater, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, there existed permanent theater halls for the marionette theater. The stage could be as wide as ten meters and several puppeteers were needed to manipulate the numerous puppet characters. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“Today small permanent stages can be found in some of tourist spots in the Amabalangoda region as well as in the houses of the few still active puppeteer families. Otherwise, marionettes now perform mainly on small movable stages constructed of bamboo, wood, and curtains. The puppeteers manipulate the marionettes from behind a curtain or a backdrop, which hangs at the back of the stage.

“In former times, when large permanent puppet stages were in existence, the puppets could be over one meter tall. Later, when the marionette theater has been performed mainly on smaller temporary or portable stages, the puppets have been made to a smaller scale. They are mainly from 30 to 50 centimeters tall.

“The heads, bodies and arms of the puppets are carved of light wood. Their costumes resemble those of live actors. In earlier times, when the Portuguese and, later, British influence was apparent, the puppets had an almost European touch. Later, when the marionette theater adapted themes from local dances and kolam and sanni theater, the style of the puppets has increasingly imitated the costumes, masks, and general aesthetics of these, mainly indigenous, traditions.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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