43 Group

A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka

Neville Weereratne

Chapter XV

A Place For Kandyan Dancing

Guneya and company

The ‘43 Group was deeply intecested in Kandyan dancing and, concerned with preserving its authentic character, gave the best performers within the tradition patronage and opportunity. The first recital under its auspices was given at the King George’s Hall on 22 June 1945, in aid of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund. The dancers and musicians were members of the Madhyama Lanka Nritya Mandala (Kandyan Dance Society) whose principals were Suramba. Ukkuva. Guneya, Prematilaka. Kirihamy, Rajapaksa. Punchi Gura, Jayana, and Sirinelis.

L. P. Goonetilleke writing in the Daily News under the penname of Nadun, pointed to the importance of the show with regard to “the future of Kandyan dancing, especially in the dangers of development on incorrect lines.” He drew attention to a votive dance by Jayana who attempted a choreography drawn from some Indian styles and which was not at all convincing. “It is a pity,” wrote Goonetilleke, “because if this young dancer is allowed first to master the traditional techniques, he would prove a first rate dancer.” This observation vindicated the interest of the Group in this ancient art form which still lives dangerously close to extinction through injudicious innovation. For many on that occasion, the recital was a revelation of the infinite variety intrinsic to the dance. A journalist writing in The Times of Ceylon found that “there are Kandyan dance forms for every mood and almost every occasion. The task is to discover them afresh from a long and distressing desuetude. In twelve items, some serious, a few light and whimsical, and others very ancient and traditional, we were served up a delightful retrospect of Sinhalese history, purely through dance forms and drum music.”


JAYANA. Portrait by Lionel Wendt

Dr Andreas Nell, an avid student of the art and a close friend of the celebrated Pavlova, said the ballerina was “charmed with the postures of the dance and the rhythms of the movements in unison with the songs and drums … she wished to re-visit Kandy just to again see the Kandyan dancing with its perfect rhythm.” But that was by way of a footnote to the recital itself. Apropos of the ‘43 Group presentation he said that the present generation – that of the forties, as one might expect – was fortunate in the preservation of ancient ceremonial and festive dances from the highlands of Sri Lanka. Dr Nell admitted that traditional forms may have been corrupted by new developments. “just as in olden days, the magic ceremonies turned into joyous dances.” Modifications and innovations had been encouraged, but this recital was “not the ashes of the dead past that are revived; to the few remaining glowing embers fuel has been added and a new flame created: it needs to be fed by public appreciation and understanding.” He also observed that the form had made its impact on dancers from elsewhere, other than his “divine Pavlova.” “Ruth St Denis”, Dr Nell wrote, “had her company train under a Kandyan dancer, took photographs at an arranged day performance, bought a costume and expressed great delight at her experience of Kandy. She subsequently brought out in California an eastern ballet. Madame Clara Butt was charmed with the rhythm and had some items repeated for her intense enjoyment.” To which list of celebrities may be added Beryl de Zoete whose book, Dance And Magic Drama In Ceylon (Faber and Faber 1952), is devoted to the considerable adventure and excitement that attended her search for the genuine Kohomba Kankariya; and Kay Ambrose who, in her eulogy to Ram Gopal, devotes a chapter to the form in her Classical Dances and Costumes of India (Charles and Adam Black; London 1950). Dr Nell’s authoritative notes on the Kandyan Dance were published in connection with the first recital organised by the Group. It is a brief essay and worthy of reproduction if only to remind ourselves of some of the conventions of the art. He wrote:


GUNEYA. Portrait by Lionel Wendt

“The traditional form was a union of dance, song and rhythmic music, expressive and joyous. The music was from the cymbals of the conductor, the oboe (horaneva), and three varieties of drums, the invariable accompaniments; the singing and recitative were linked to the dance.

A good troupe should include experts in seven kinds of dance:

  1. naiyandi, narrative with gestures and postures;
  2. kalagedi, with small pots held in the hand, now performed on the floor by men in female attire, formerly performed by women walking to and fro on a tight rope in the Royal Palace;
  3. likaeli, a victory celebration with short sticks. In some districts, instead of rods, the sticks are shaped like short broad-bladed swords and shining white;
  4. udakki dance: the drums are the hour-glass shape small handdrums. In an old palm-leaf manuscript it is narrated that a royal maiden named Malsura was in a trance owing to a charm and a muni (sage) performed the udakki magic rhythms to dispel the spell; this was since elaborated into a dance;
  5. the pantheru dance, originating from the custom of drum and oboe playing and dancers dancing in front of a battle array in defiance of the enemy;
  6. Dha-ata-paeliya, another dance explained by a legend, Prince Vasat, in love with Princess Manikpala of Malabar, had charms used for her which produced evil effects. To rescue her and restore her to health, the sage Oddisa trained Brahmins to perform this magic dance appearing eighteen times in different masks, hence the name of the dance;
  7. the dreaded Ves-sellama, orginally performed at a human sacrifice. Females were not permitted to see it. The dancers on their own shielded (the women) from their gaze by cloths held up in front, on the sides and behind. The head-dress was copied from a Malabar royal head-dress. The ceremony during the centuries became a dance for entertainment but retained prestige and symbolism. When a young dancer has reached great proficiency, his tutor submits him to examination by another; in passing strenuous tests he is permitted to practise the Vessellama, but not in public. He is then admitted into the ranks of Yes dancers after a solemn investiture in a temple ending with the head-dress being placed on his head by two dance-chiefs, his tutor and the examiner … Apart from the above seven classes of dance are the Vannams. There are in Sabaragamuwa 25 or 36, in the Uva Bintenna 22, but in central Kandy are 18 … In certain areas they are more song and recitative than dance; in others the dance predominates, hence they could be placed in a special class as ballet. They represent the movements of birds and beasts.”

(For an excellent description of the Yes-costume and the ceremony of a dancer’s initiation, the Kohomba Kankariya, see A. H. E. Molamure’s article in The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies. Vol I No I. January 1958). R. H. Bassett also offered some notes towards the appreciation of the art. “to elucidate, superficially at least, many of the eccentric steps and figures that otherwise appear.”

Lionel Wendt’s own enjoyment of the dance found expression in many photographs, among them studies of Suramba drumming, Guneya Yakdessa of Nittavela, Pantheru Dancers and the portrait of the youthful Jayana, attired for the dance, to be found in Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon.

Man playing drum.

KANDYAN DRUMMER. Photograph by George Koch

The overwhelming reception to the first performance on a proscenium stage, organised by the Group, led to the second, slightly altered programme, also in the King George’s Hall, on Sunday, 30 September 1945. Among the principal artists were Suramba the drummer, Ukkuva, Guneya and Jayana. The climax to a recital was a perahera enacted by the whole company on stage snaking in and out of the wings until they all gathered together in concert within the limits of the proscenium, choreographed by Arthur van Langenberg. These recitals were widely acclaimed and soon enough led to the creation of a school of dancing in Colombo. It was housed in a great ramshackle mansion known as Caldecott by the sea at Bambalapitiya, and was managed for a while by both Ananda (Carl) Cooke, who, rather incongruously also taught ballroom dancing there, and Arthur van Langenberg. Heen Baba was perhaps the best known member of this institution who lived and worked in Colombo and may have resisted the demand for popular versions of the great tradition.

D. B. Dhanapala who devoted a chapter of his Among Those Present (M. D. Gunasena & Co Ltd, 1962) to Nittavela Guneya described the pure magic with which he mesmerised his audience at the Independence celebrations in Torrington Square in 1946:

“A lone Kandyan dancer clad in the usual costume that changes a normal peasant into a glorious resplendent prince came on the vast open stage and strutted across it in such majesty of step and poise and dignity that a hush fell on the assembly. Then slowly the dance began to the rhythm of a lone drum echoing through the vastness. The dancer as slowly assumed the gait of a somewhat showy horse. He displayed his flanks, strutted and pranced, showing the creature’s noble proportions: head light and moving in majestic rhythm as he confined himself to the top-most part of the three tiered stage. Then we became aware as the dancer proceeded, that the horse had turned to be the rider, proud of his seat on the stallion, controlling the beast and urging it on as and when he pleased completely enchanted with the joy of movement and the power he had over his beast. By turn many times we saw the Dancer becoming the Horse and the Rider as it took his fancy without our being aware at what exact moment one became the other. It was as though we were seeing a centaur of the fabulous age in flesh and blood dancing before us as a split personality of a dancer. And when the dance had run to its climax there was a sudden pause. In a split second the centaur dancer leaped from the top to the lower stage. It was a dramatic moment. Then the dance continued for a few more minutes and it was all over. It was Kala Guru Nittavela Guneya Yakdessa dancing the Thuranga (Horse) Vannama.”

The great tradition goes back to prehistory. Legend associated with it is narrated in an account recorded in a Sinhala manuscript. It is reproduced here from the programme of the first recital organised by the ‘43 Group in 1945:

Men playing drums.

KANDYAN DANCERS. Photograph by George Koch

“It is said in our ancient books that in the beginning it pleased the great God Brahma to give the Three Vedas to the Rishis. A portion thereof was the Science of Dance and Song, for the five-fold music of which the five musical instruments were necessary. They were the Getabera (long drum), the Daula (large drum), the Tommettama (double drum), the Talam-pata (cymbals), and the Horeneva (small oboe). The science of music became renowned throughout the world. The great Rishis who came into being, as we see, only a short while after the creation of the world – went by means of their supernormal power to Brahma’s abode and said: ‘In the heavenly worlds there is long life and perfect health and security. How is it that in the human world there is no long life beyond ninety-eight years?’ And Brahma replied: ‘The people of the human world are full of lust and hatred and stupidity, and in consequence there is short life and disease and insecurity and the twenty-five kinds of fear. Out of sympathy, therefore, I shall declare the Three Vedas in an allpervading voice: And he created the Three Vedas. The Rishis who were authoritative in all the sciences increased the Vedas to four. From which the sixty-four industrial sciences sprang up. After twenty-eight universal monarchs succeeding Maha Sammata had reigned in turn, the people of the world began to understand the use of the sciences. But celestial Gandharvas, and not human beings, danced and sang to these twenty-eight rulers. It was due to king Chettiya afterwards, who committed an injustice, that the celestial dancers departed. So that the Brahman minister of the king made the five musical instruments and entertained the king with dancing and singing in the manner of the celestial beings whom he had seen performing. The king honoured the Brahman with the title of Athodiya Vadveya, the minister of musical entertainment. It was an inhabitant of that town, the Rishi Bharata, who composed the Bharata Natya Rasa. And dancers studying that book carried on the tradition. A hundred years afterwards, in the reign of king Bhoja, the ancient art of dancing and singing was revised, and the Gita Sangraha resulted. Some time afterwards the king of Vagu was Sinha Bahu, and his son Vijaya took ship and sailed to Tammana, with seven hundred followers and seized Ceylon. It is recorded in the Story of Vijaya that among the seven hundred followers there were those who could give musical entertainment when the king wished to see dancing. In Ceylon, in the year 1512, the king, Bhuvaneka Bahu, had the Brahman pandit Chandra Bharata brought from India and took him before a learned priest in Totagamuva who noted down from him the Graham Sastra and the Sangita Sastra, memorising and translating the books into Sinhala. This is recorded in the Graha Santi Nidhana. Further, in the reigns of the Sinhalese kings Parakrama Bahu. Saddha Tissa. Rajadhi Raja Sinha. Vimala Dharma, and Sri Vikrama Raja Sinha, this ancient art of dance and song was in a flourishing condition as so many varying records show.”

Sometime in 1965 Arthur van Langenberg and I gathered together these same masters of the dance for an abridged performance of the Kohomba Kankariya on an open stage at the Industrial Exhibition held on what had been the Colombo Race Course. The company included Ukkuva. Guneya. Jayana and Heen Baba and a host of more than twenty dancers together with a chorus of drums. Towards the climactic end to the evening, which they were loath to see approach, the dancers all carrying sheafs of coconut flowers whipped them in the air, then scooped the buds off the stems letting them fly in the air like millions of golden nuggets. The drumming, the dazzling costumes, the fervour with which the ensemble performed brought tears to Ukkuva’s eyes, now aging but still full of fire. Guneya proudly strutted in his exclusive plumage but could not eclipse the beauty of the others.