THE ART BEHIND THE MASK

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Sri Lanka is a proud owner of a rich culture of performing arts and folk theatre and the tradition of ‘Kolam’, of which the origin runs very far into the history, is one of the prominent masked performances among them. This tradition demonstrates similar features of ‘Sanni’ or ‘Paali’ where people perform dance and rituals wearing masks of various gods and demons. Nonetheless, not like in them, in ‘Kolam’, the dancers wear the masks demonstrating everyday life characters such as messengers, washers, village women and so on.

Origin

The origin of the ‘Kolam’ tradition cannot be deciphered directly as it is hard to find any written or tangible record about them. Yet, there are several stories and believes with similar features, among the folks about the first performance of ‘Kolam’ dance. According to one such story, the pregnant wife of the great king Maha Sammatha has had a ‘dola’ (a desire which has to be fulfilled at any cost, according to the tradition), to watch dance performances. Nevertheless, when no prevailing dance tradition could satisfy her, the God Sakra (the king of Gods according to the Buddhist belief) has advised God Vishvakarma to invent a new tradition of performing arts. It is the tradition of Kolam what was invented by him and finally made the queen contended.

Anyways, the tradition depicts a concoction of archaic belief systems with the ritualistic aspects of Buddhism and Buddhist literature as well as the popular features of comedy. The Kolam performances seem to evolve with the time inculcating various aspects of the contemporary society into it.

Performance

Usually, Kolam are performed in an arena especially prepared for the play by clearing the ground, coating with a layer of white sand and decorating using banana tree trunk, young coconut leaves (gok kola) and parts of the arecanut (puvak) trees.

There are two (or more lately) drummers who play Yak Beraya, a type of drum used in Pahatharata (low-country) dancing traditions. There is a speaker called Sabey Vidaney who sings and introduces the characters as well as narrate the story. He sometimes gets into funny chats with the characters too.

All the characters in Kolam, including the female characters too, are played by men. They wear various ridiculous masks representing various professionals and characters in the society including messengers, washers, housewives, village head mans, kings and queens and policemen etc.The dresses worn by them suit the rank, position and class of each character in their normal life in society. Village life in all its variety and true character is portrayed. The masks are made in a way that they caricaturise the features of the characters and are painted with bright colours. The performance is based on a loose story line, and incorporates poems, monologues and funny dialogues. The plot basically showcases the events prior to the King’s arrival to watch the performances, with a plethora of side stories too.

Motives

This tradition, though it is entertaining as well, is performed as some sort of a ritual to gain the blessings of the gods and goddesses while preventing from the evil eye of the demons and she demons that sicken the humans and do various sorts of harms to them. It is different nowadays however, and Kolam are practiced as a form of performance art for the entertainment purpose for most part.

There is an undercurrent of social criticism in the Kolam too. The characters in the play are, in a sense, a cross-section of the whole mainstream society. Thus, the weaknesses in the characters are exaggerated in a humorous light and criticise them.  So, these performances in a way are social satires which aim to rectify the weaknesses and errors observed in the society.

By Induwara Athapattu