Preserving Sri Lanka’s rich folk culture heritage | Sunday Observer

Preserving Sri Lanka’s rich folk culture heritage

28 June, 2020

The love and respect for traditional Sri Lankan culture, its preservation and development are at the core of the Ranwala Foundation’s vision and mission. Other key elements are to encourage Sri Lankans to learn about their rich and vibrant culture, appreciate and treasure it and showcase Sri Lankan culture in the international arena.

The founder of the Ranwala Foundation was the late Lionel Ranwala, a reputed and revered teacher of music. He so loved the unique culture of his motherland that he made it his passion to study, research, develop and popularise it throughout the island. Today, the matchless legacy left by Lionel Ranwala is kept alive by his son Sahan Ranwala supported by elder brother Chirantha and a dedicated and loyal staff.

After opting for early retirement in 1997 Ranwala Senior devoted his time to fostering his passion, traditional Sri Lankan music, dance and drama. In 2000, he founded the Thaalama Jathika Foundation and held classes at the Jana Kala Kendraya (Ape Gama) in Battaramulla. After Master Guru ,Lionel Ranwala’s death on November 13 , 2002, the Thaalama Founation was renamed as the Ranwala Foundation.

Ranwala Balakaya

Today, the artistes of the Foundation are known as the Ranwala Balakaya. This is in keeping with Lionel Ranawala’s concept that to spread the Sri Lankan culture one has to have a campaign somewhat like a battle plan and the proponents should be warriors of culture. The Ranwala Balakaya in their colourful traditional costumes and their lilting music, rhythmic dancing dramatic artistry is very much in demand among local and foreign audiences.

Traditional Sri Lankan music has two different categories, Gami Gee and Sey Gee. Gami Gee are songs which are closely intertwined with village life, with their experiences and their language and dialects. To this category belong darunalawili (lullabies), keli gee (songs linked to games) and these include onchiiliwaram (swing songs) and the olindakeliya song (sung while playing a game with olinda seeds). Yagagee (songs and incantations of thovil ceremonies and shanthi karma) and mehe gee (songs intertwined with professions) are included in this category. These include nelumkavi, (harvesting songs) and thotigee (songs of boatmen).

Se gee are songs composed by learned people at times focusing on special events. For instance, prashasthi gee or paens of praise to a monarch falls into se gee. An example is a song composed in praise of King Narendrasinghe. Sandesha Kavya (Message poems) also belong to se gee. Examples of this type of songs are the Salalihini Sandeshaya (Starling’s message poem) and Gira (Parrot’s message poem). Welapumge, (lamentations or songs of weeping) and the Vessantara welapilla, Yashodhara welapilla and the Gotaimbara wellapilla are songs of this type.

Foundation activities

The Ranwala Foundation conducts classes in Jana gee (folk songs), the performing arts and drumming. Dancing is incorporated into the curriculum when necessary for the subjects taught. The Foundation’s home is at 420/45, Temple Road, Thalawathugoda.

Their current activities include lectures on folk music and the performing arts, workshops on folk music, folk music and performing arts shows, radio and TV programs and new creations such as, folk music songs. They also have a monthly musical show called ‘ Gayuma’ in collaboration with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. At this show, a small booklet is distributed to the audience so that all could join and enjoy the singing.

The Ranwala Foundation also has an annual musical show on Lionel Ranwala’s birthday which falls on November 27.

The Foundation is involved in research, identification, promotion and revitalization. For Sahan Ranwala and his team what they do is more than a profession- it is a labour of love and their passion.

International award

The Ranwala Balakaya as proud ambassadors of traditional Sri Lankan folk culture has taken our rich heritage to the international arena. They have toured UK (London), Australia, (Sydney) Dubai, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Cyprus, India and China. In India, the Ranwala Balakaya played to an audience of around 20,000 in the State of Maharashtra. One of the Balakaya’s trips to China was to participate in an International Folk Music Festival. Of the fifty participating groups six were selected as ‘Best Folk Music Troupes and the Ranwala Balakaya was one. They really did Sri Lanka proud. The Balakaya also participated in an International Children’s Festival in South Korea.

Puduma Iskoley

Sahan Ranwala is a very creative, out-of- the -box thinker. While watching his young son Seth, he was struck by the fact that as parents the love of children makes adults stifle children. They are not given their space or encouraged to develop independently. Sahan, then thought of Puduma Iskoley or The Magic School. This was in 2008. In PudumaIskoley the children are taught the basics of subjects like music and art and then left to develop by themselves. It is now telecast on Swarnavahini on Saturdays.

Sahan Ranwala and the Foundation have prepared Sri Lanka Rhythm – a ten point road map for 2020- 2030.


The icon of folk culture

Lionel Ranwala is a legend and an icon in the world of Sri Lankan folk culture. He studied oriental music and started his career as a teacher of music. At Arawwala Madhya Vidyalaya, Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya, Royal College and Ananda College, Colombo which benefitted from Ranwalas’s vast knowledge. Meeting W. B.Makuloluwa, another giant in the sphere of traditional Sri Lankan and folk music was a turning point in Lionel Ranwala’s life. Together, they travelled around the country and succeeded in recording over 3,000 folk songs.

Taking early retirement Lionel Ranwala devoted his time to traditional Sri Lankan folk music and culture and founded the Thalama National Foundation which was renamed, the Ranwala Foundation after his demise.

He formed the first oriental music band (hewisi) in 1964 at Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya and the following year, the band won first place in the band section at a musical festival organised by UNESCO in Jaffna. Lionel Ranwala received a State Award at the first State Music Awards Festival for his immense contribution to traditional folk music.

This colossus in Sri Lankan folk music has numerous creations and accolades to his credit. His two sons to carry on his work. Thereby, Lionel Ranwala has ensured his legacy will be enjoyed by future generations.


Fostering traditional culture

Sahan Ranwala was born on July 3, 1978. He had his primary education at Asoka Vidyalaya and secondary education at Ananda Vidayalya, Colombo. His father is renowned musical guru, Lionel Ranwala.

Sahan holds a degree in Business Administration from the University of Colombo and post graduate qualifications in Mass Communication and Buddhist Studies from the Universities of Sri Jayewardenepura and Kelaniya.

He currently functions as the Operations Director of the Ranwala Foundation.

Deeply committed to the fostering of traditional culture both here and abroad Sahan leaves no stone unturned to do so.

Sahan Ranwala is truly a musical and performing arts commander who leads his battalion, the Ranwala Balakaya, from the front. He has presented many concerts including Three, Mey Avurudu Kaley and Yuddeta Avith.

A versatile actor he has several stage, television and films to his credit. Currently two of his teledramas in which Sahan acts are being televised. They are DeveniInima and Hadawathe Kathawa.

He started his cinema career in 2004 acting in Adaraneeya Wassanaya directed by Senesh Dissanaike Bandara. One shot and Utthara are two other films in which Sahan has acted.

Sahan was named the Best Upcoming Actor for his performance in Ranga Madala Samuganee at the 2003 Sumathi Awards.

Sahan’s elder brother Chirantha is an actor and presenter and supports Shan in carrying forward their father the revered Lionel Ranwala’s vision.