The dancer who breathes rhythms of a drum | Sunday Observer

The dancer who breathes rhythms of a drum

1 July, 2018

“Jengjengtirikita, jengtakata taka… jengjengtarikitajeng…” the Sabaragamuwe ‘Daul Beraya’ and other drums are often heard from his house. As he spoke to me, his body moved with the rhythms and actions of dance, his voice rising and falling in tune, sometimes in ‘kavi’ and ’sloka’.

“I am rich in culture and art and have received many honours, even though I may be poor in a material sense,” he said with pride.

At 68, the graceful and energetic dancer and exorcist, Veda Guruge Aagiris or Subasena Gurunnanse is not in the limelight, though he holds vast experience of traditional low country and Sabaragamuwa ritualistic dance.

Several years ago, a Veda Guruge Silpaa Gurunnanse lived in Delgahagodella in Panukerapitiya, Ratnapura and loved his community more than himself. He hoped for the true upliftment of his people through dance and baliyaga shanthikarma (blessing/sanctification).

Many of us may not know him, but he is a legend in Sabaragamuwa, the hub of traditional dance and where he performed for more than 40 years. Till he passed away in the late 70s, he had entertained people with dances in Peraheras (processions), especially, at the Maha Saman Devale, Ratnapura where he performed rhythmic dance, popular among people of the region. Moreover, he was a veteran in the Ambimbaliyaga shanthikarma, in Sabaragamuwa.

A search for his house in Delgahagodella led us to his son Subasena Gurunnanse. This elderly dancer took us through the narrow road which lies across a shaded canopy. He lives on the extreme fringe of the hillock surrounded by beautiful paddy fields, in a brick house with low, tiled roofing.

On a plastic chair, Subasena Gurunnanse, in his late 60s, reclined, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a towel. My son and I sat with him in the clean verandah of his old ancestral home.

Subasena Gurunnanse’s is a fascinating story. Hailing from the ‘Silpaa Parapura’ (generation) – the eight generations of traditional dancers from Kuruwita Korale, he had big names in his family circle- his grandfather, Sangeethabali Adura, his father Silpaa Gurunnanse and his uncle, N. Sedharaman, reputed drummer and Subasena Gurunnanse was to carve a name for himself just like his father.

Born on February 24, 1950, his father was keen to make the young Subasena an academic, and he was sent to Batuhena Primary School in Ratnapura. But, visiting his father’s dance troupe which was due to perform, and exorcise rituals performed by them changed Subasena’s entire lifestyle. He was so thrilled watching his father dance that he decided to give up learning and take to dancing. “I knew it was in my blood,” he recollects. From the age of nineteen, he became his father’s pupil and learnt the entire gamut of dancing and drumming.

When Subasena was a small boy, he used to visit baliyaga shanthikarma, devolmadu and gammadu rituals which his father performed. “My father was a dancer and expert on balishanthikarma, and he engaged in dancing rituals in many parts in the country and many exorcists and dancers came to my house at Delgahagodalla to take my father for dancing rituals. Being the only son, I went everywhere with my father.”

And so began 68-year-old Subasena as he reminisced his childhood days in the 1950s. He talks about life those days comparing it to the present. “My father died in his early 50s when I was 22. I was studying in Batuhena Primary School, but had to drop out. Instead of taking up higher studies, I joined my father’s dancing, and got interested in dance and exorcism. Those days, dance and shanthikarma were all considered as divine blessing.

“I was usually invited to act as dancer for various shanthikarma programmes, Sabaragamuwa ritualistic dance and low country dance which I excelled in. I also practise exorcism such as, baliyaga shanthikarma which I learnt from my father, and by reading his old books and memorising”. Now no one would care about these shanthikarmas; they are vanishing from society…,” he muses.

“Soon, I began performing dance forms such as, Sabaragamuwa and low country in Peraheras and various shanthikarmas. I am able to perform ‘three-in-one’ time, Daull Beraya, Thanmattama and flute in one”, he emphasises.

“In 1960, when former Premier Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka won the election in the Horana electorate, a massive welcoming ceremony had been organised by his supporters in Horana and our dance group. Danni and Simon drummers from Mivanapalana and I performed low country dance to welcome him.

Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike also participated in this ceremony”, Subasena Gurunnanse reminisced.

He also performs shanthikarma such as, balishanthikarma, Ginisisila, Maru Sanniya Amba Vidima and Gara Yak Netuma despite his age. He says after his father’s demise, he was supported by T. N. Thabanchi Gurunnanse, a prominent exorcist. In 1973, he married N. Kamalawathi from Handapangoda and has four children.

“Just like in the South, in Sabaragamuwa, we perform various shanthikarma. This can be categorized into three groups, such as, yak thovil, deva thovil and grahabaliyaga. The Yak thovil is a ritualistic exorcism performed to ‘appease various demons. They have their place in the belief and superstitions of the folk religion of the country”, he says.

Since the dance is spiritual in nature, the costumes are designed in white and red which had been predominant colours used for costumes of sacred performances, taking place at dusk and continuing late into the night.

During our conversation, he showed his eyes which were red, and said, it was due to the vast quantities of dummala powder used in thovils, to which the face is exposed to at exorcism rituals, commonly used to drive away evil spirits who may invade a victim and cause illness.

According to Subasena, rituals such as, mahason samayama, gopalu samayama, kumara samayama, and the suniyamyagaya, are some of the other yak thovil which are part of the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition. These dances are performed to appease the panchayaksha, or the five terrifying demons called ririyaka, kaluyaka, abimanayaka, thoteyaka and mahasona.

“Grahabaliyagha are performed to alleviate misfortune, said to befall certain individuals when celestial bodies such as the sun, the moon and the planets do not move in their favour. The main rituals include the mal bali, thirabali, prathimabali and the balagrahabali. My father excelled in creating prathimabali”, says Subasena.

The Gurunnanse later dressed himself in his dancing costume and wore his head gear for a photograph. I captured him in various moods of dance in his spacious compound. He showed how he excelled in gokkola (tender coconut leaves) a decoration which forms a major part in exorcism rituals. He still keeps a picture of his father and a knife and a small bell that his father used as a tribute and in gratitude.

“Unfortunately, today’s dancers are not well-versed in the subject due to their lack of association with veteran dancers. However, a group of academics and traditional dancers try to preserve the methods and techniques of the tradition of dance forms”.

“Now, there is no demand for traditional dance rituals and exorcism which are sadly declining in the present society. I’m growing old, and none in my family will carry-forward my traditional practice of eight generations. My sons have no interest in this,” he smiles.

“Despite all this, making ends meet is a struggle for me, daily. I still perform at Peraheras and shanthikarma whenever people ask me. My family relies on me,” says Subasena Gurunnanse. In the silence that falls, we realise it is time for us to leave.He looks pensive for a second, then bids goodbye and vanishes into his room.