Traditional dances of Sabaragamuwa | Sunday Observer

Traditional dances of Sabaragamuwa

They stood in the morning sunlight - young and innocent yet regal in the regalia of the traditional Sabaragamuwa dancers and drummers – this unique dance form, their heritage from their forefathers. Pradeep, Harshani and Navin Chathuranga are all members of the award winning dance troupe of the Kuruvita Madhya Maha Vidyalaya. The awards have been for Kandyan dancing as it is the most popular dance form while the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition is still in its fledgling stage among schools. Kuruvita Madhya Maha Vidyalaya is a pioneer in fostering and promoting the Sabaragamuwa dance which is a part of the unique culture of historic Sabaragamuwa.

Pradeep is proud to be an exponent of a dance form he has inherited from his forefathers. Born and bred in Sabaragamuwa he learnt his first steps at the Kumudu and Saraswathi Kalayathanayas and participates in the annual Ratnapura Saman Devale Perehera. Pradeep has recently started participating in the Shanthikarma, an essential part of the Sabaragamuwa dance.

He is offering dance as a subject for his A/L exam, aspiring to enter the University . After obtaining his degree he wishes to teach dancing with a focus on the traditional dances of Sri Lanka to keep them alive among the future generations of the country. He is keen on the Sabaragamuwa dances as they are still not widely known. His family is known as the Kokkowita family of Sabaragamuwa dancers.

Navin Chathuranga is a drummer and plays the Sabaragamuwa Dawla, the accompanying drum for the Sabaragamuwa dance. It is a little larger than the Udarata or upcountry dawula.

This instrument is played with a short, uneven stick called the Kaddippuwa and the hand. Navin Chathuranga played his first, throbbing Dawla rhythms when he was in Grade 5 and has never looked back since. This is quite natural as the Sabaragamuwa tradition is in his genes coming down from his ancestors.

Udara Harshani is still new to the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition. This dance form was limited to males and it is not very long ago that females were allowed to dance. But it was obvious that this girl has the grace and rhythm to do justice to this unique traditional dance. Sri Lanka has three traditional dance forms, the uda rata ( Kandyan or upcountry) pahatha rata (low country) and the Sabaragamuwa dance styles. According to Theshaal Krishantha, dance master at the Kuruvita Madhya Maha Vidyalaya , the ancient Sandesha Kavya (epic poems) and Vansha Katha (ancient chronicles) mention the Sabaragamuwa dance and it has a longer history than the uda rata dance.

Unlike the Kandyan Kingdom which suffered foreign invasions many a time, Sabaragamuwa managed to keep their independent identity for a long time. So, the culture of Sabaragamuwa became very rich, lovingly nurtured by those who dwelled there. Galukagama Heen Nilame Guruthuma and Siribohamy Guruthuma stand out among the exponents of the Sabaragamuwa dancers and have nurtured many dancers according to Theshaal Krishantha.

Named after the province it originates from the Sabaragamuwa style and is basically performed to worship God Saman, the guardian deity of Sri Lanka and incorporates elements of both the Kandyan (up country) and Pahatha Rata (low country) dances. According to a lecturer at the Department of Sabaragamuwa Dance, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, there are four territorial areas for this dance, Ratnapura, Kalawana, Balangoda and Badulla. Ratnapura has always been the focal point of this dance while each area has a slightly varied form of this iconic dance.

The manner in which the Sabaragamuwa dancers position themselves is a distinct feature of the dance. Their hands are never raised above their heads but are extended backwards at an angle to their bodies. The Mandiya dance form is commonly used in all three dance traditions.

He says the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition has its own vannams or dance forms and among them are the Kovula vannama, Gajaga vannama, Ata guru gahaka vannama, Chiradi vannama and the Anila vannama. The Sabaragamuwa dance is used in many Shanthikramas to banish evil and bring blessings and is used in bali and thovil too. Gods such as Kataragama, Dedimunda and Goddess Pattini, are invoked in these traditional rituals.

God Saman is worshipped in the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition and the dancers wear a costume similar to that of God Saman.

It is a beaded costume with its own distinct features such as the Karathalla (a broad neckfiller) and the Neththmalaya (an elaborate head dress). The colours are mainly white to denote purity and red to symbolize the worship of the Gods. The training for the Sabaragamuwa dance is quite rigorous and novices have to learn dance forms such as the mandipada, hasthapada and dovina pada.

Today, there is much interest in reviving and preserving the traditional and iconic Sabaragamuwa dance.