Preserving Art for Future Generations

By Lasantha Silva | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 17 2020
Mosaic Preserving Art for Future Generations

By Lasantha Silva

Daisuke Haishi’s camera was busy capturing the rhythmic and deep expressions of the veteran dancers who were absorbed in showcasing what they were gifted from generation to generation, at the open-air theatre on the upper floor of the great dancer Peter Soorasena’s house.

Coming from the land of cherry blossoms, this photographer is a lover of oriental arts. What prompted him to come to Sri Lanka was the excitement followed by the desire to know more he felt after partially reading about the traditional Kandyan dancing. Accompanied by Aki Haishi who is a Yogi and Ayurvedic Practitioner, Daisuke came to Sri Lanka, recently. That night, the Japanese couple’s heartbeat was accelerated by seeing the performances of these great dancers under flickering lights of torches.

Origin of the Kohomba Kankariya

There are several stories about the origin of Kandyan dance. According to some, war drills and special moves are hidden in this dance which suggests a close connection between the dancing art and traditional martial artists during the times of foreign invaders. However, the traditional dancers are in the opinion that their heritage is from the Malay King.  The curse of Kuveni who was betrayed by King Vijaya’s cruelty, affected not Vijaya himself but his successor king Panduvasudewa. According to legends, the Malay King came to Sri Lanka to perform Kohomba Kankariya to lift the curse off King Panduvasudewa.  

This performance which lifted the curse and erased all the bad luck surrounding the King was then handed over to a group of people who were privileged and worthy of performing the dance at Dividosagala. 

From then on, the worthy living in Dividosgala, took over the task of preserving the great art with many other dances and orchestras, ornaments and musical instruments. Even today Kandyan dancers consider the art of dancing as a divine gift. The supreme Kandy Perahera is their priority. It shows the inextricable link between the art of dance and the sacred Tooth Relic. This bond, the correlation is   important to any scholar who is studying Kandyan Dance.

“We see Kandyan dance as a divine task. This dance is our way of worshipping the great Tooth Relic,” Susantha, a veteran dancer who has showed talents on international stages explained. He said that when white people ruled the country this dance was called ‘Devil Dance’.

“That might be because Kandyan dance contains elements of Shanthikarma (traditional blessing ritual). Kandyan dance has a close bond with the art of healing. Bali Yaga which is a part of Kandyan dance is one particular element of Kandyan dance that needs to be studied thoroughly. From generation to generation, the art of dance was passed down. I inherited this art from my father, Master Peter Soorasena,” he said. 

“Although today, it is commonly referred to as ‘Kandyan’ dance it is not limited just to Kandy. Although a task-specific family name such as Suraba (specific to dances) cannot be found in ancient kingdoms such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, these artists must have taken this art around the country during periods of invasions to the kingdom. When the sacred Tooth Relic was taken from place to place dancers too must have followed it as the most important part of their lives was performing dances for the sacred Tooth Relic. So it was connected with the places where the Tooth Relic was kept. Doing research will help finding the roots of these families,” he noted. 

However, artists from various parts of the country finally settled in the Kingdom of Kandy by choice with old manuscripts written on ola leaves and musical instruments of theirs or they had to do so by royal decree. 

In the end, Kandy was the safe house for all those great artists (yakdesso) and hence the city became the home of the art of dancing. This dance, also known as Ceylon Dance at that time, started being called Kandian Dance by the British thereafter, Susantha explained.

Dance which attracted foreign eyes

Kandyan dance became world-famous when foreigners started to visit Sri Lanka. Great teachers such as Niththawela Gunaya, Thiththapajjala Suramba and Peter Soorasena showed their talents in overseas. They were offered the chance to dance in foreign castles as well. Foreigners wrote books about an art which had remained in a little country. Foreigners who read such books visited Sri Lanka, sometimes just to watch Kandyan dances. The artists who danced to the beats of traditional drums communicate a great story through each movement of them. There is a story, even in their costumes. Those things were magical and fascinating. That was why Daisuke and Aki also fell in love with Kandyan dance. This love inspired them to visit Sri Lanka seven to eight occasions. They had decided to find out the roots of the Kandyan dance. Although, their encounter with the Master Soorasena was a coincidental one, that meeting planted the seed for a greater task. Soorasena, the veteran dancer, accepted Daisuke’s proposal whole-heartedly. As a result, the upper floor of Master Soorasena’s home became Peter Soorasena Outdoor Theatre.

From Gandhrava Yamaya to Dividosgala

The trio Daisuke, Aki and Soorasena decided to give all the dance and orchestra artists a space on their stage.  They started a dancing concert named ‘Gandharva Yamaya’ and invited artists of all the old generations to show their miracles on that stage once a month. Retired artists along with their youngsters showed their proud heritage on that stage. Daisuke, Aki and Soorasena always respected those artists and their traditions. 

Artists from Niththawela, Thiththapajjala, Amunugama, Hapugoda, Lahamba, Pilawala, Raththota, Eramudugolla, Yakawela, Thalgahagoda, Ihalawela, Wegiriya.Malagammana, Yakawela, Uduwela, Molagoda, Mamudawila, Aththaragama, Palipala and Mudannawa were honoured during Gandharva Yamaya. All of these generations danced in Kandy Perahera. Actually, dancing in Kandy Perahera was the greatest honour they for them. Gandharva Yamaya was able to protect at least a photograph of such great generations to the nation so future generations could remember and learn. Gandharva Yamaya lit up Soorasena Outdoor Theatre for a year.

Finally, Gandharva Yamaya completes its journey of one year with a book titled Dividosgala Urumakkarayo (Heirs of Dividosagala). Authored by Asela Kuruluwansa, a journalist based in Kandy, this book brings us the great Kandyan dancers who were belonged to the proud generations mentioned above. This book would be a great reference for everyone who study Kandyan Dance and for the dancing teachers as well. Dividosgala Urumakkarayo was ceremonially launched yesterday at the Temple of the Tooth, under the aegis of Diyawadana Nilame Nilanga Dela. Although they couldn’t physically be there Daisuke and Aki must be feeling happy to have initiated a programme that ultimately resulted in the publishing of the book. 

By Lasantha Silva | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 17 2020

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