Naga Vannam dance of the Cobra
Sri Lankan dance, be it the rhythmic and acrobatic prowess of the Kandyan Ves dance or the supple grace of the harvest dancers, or even the controlled movements of the Bharatha Natyam, are all the more memorable for their vibrant costumes. These costumes are an intrinsic part of the overall dance forms, and have their own rich heritage and traditions.
Words: Manori Wijesekera
Almost all dance forms originating in Sri Lanka can trace their origins to an elaborate ritualistic dance called the "Kohomba Kankariya" which recalls the mythical tale of healing provided to King Panduvasdev. This is danced only by male dancers, and there is a close affinity between the dance and the beat of the drums. The elaborate and secretive rituals and traditions that surround the Kohomba Kankariya have carried over to the costumes and accessories as well.
There are four distinct types of the Kandyan dance: the Ves (commonly thought of as the only form of Kandyan dance), the Naiyandi, the Pantheru and the Udekki. Of these, the most ritualistic is the Ves dance.
The costume of the male dancer is called Su-seta abharana, or 64 ornaments, and is said to be a replica of that worn by the Kohomba God. The most striking feature of the costume is the elaborate head gear - a crown-like ornament that is made up of a silver tiara, a forehead plate and seven stylised silver spokes shaped like rays. A long ribbon, 45 inches long, trails from the conical top knot of this headgear. The Ves dance is so rich with tradition that there are even rituals associated with the process of draping the pleated white cloth that drapes the lower half of the dancer's body. Together with the todu pati, the mango-shaped ornaments covering the dancer's ear, the cobra shaped sheaths over the arms and the avul hera, the ornamental ivory and bead chains which decorate the chest, the Ves dancer is an awe-inspiring sight even before he dances his first step.
The Ves dancer's costume is considered so sacred that traditionally, he is not allowed to keep it at his home, but rather in a separate shrine room or in the village temple. The headgear and all ornaments are stored in a specially woven square box with double lids, called the Ves pettiya, which is always covered with a white cloth when taken out in public. These are handed down from generation to generation, again in ritual-rich ceremonies.
The other Kandyan dance costumes are less elaborate, but are yet distinctive and eye catching. The Naiyandi and Udekki dancers sport a simple white turban, with the Udekki dancer's turban having trailing ends, one longer than the other. The Naiyandi dancer wears a multi-tiered flounced skirt-like pleated cloth with a red edging, while elaborate chest ornaments and a richly decorated neck cloth add colour and elegance to this simple costume. The Udekki dancer, who dances while playing the small hour-glass shaped Udekki drum, wears a white pleated cloth edged in red and an elaborate beaded jacket, along with the usual armlets, earrings and waist ornaments. The Pantheru dancer, using the tambourine-like instrument as part of his dance, has a simple form of dress, with a similar pleated cloth, but without the adornment of the beaded jacket and with a simple white handkerchief tied at the waist.
The strong rhythmic dance movements are accentuated by the jingle and jangle of bells that are heard with each dancer's step. These brass anklets are attached to the second toe of each foot and the dancer's movements are designed to provide a rhythmic and firm striking of the foot on the floor to bring out the musical jingle of bells.
There are 18 classical Kandyan Vannam dances, stories inspired from mythical legends, nature, history or religious tales of the Jathaka stories. These solo performances are accompanied by singing, and the dancer's costumes depict elements from the story. In the Naga Vannama, for example, the dancer will be dressed like a cobra, with the entire costume, head gear and accessories accentuating the features and characteristics of the cobra.
A much more relaxed and carefree approach to dance is found in the Sabaragmuwa dances, originating from the central region of Sri Lanka. The costumes are likewise simple, with a cloth worn at the waist, jingles at the feet and headgear made of tender coconut leaves.
The folk dances of Sri Lanka are colourful, uplifting and graceful. Many of these depict aspects of an agrarian life, whether it is collecting water at the well (kala gedi netuma) or the harvest dances which portray the harvesting of rice. Unlike the all-male dances of the Kandyan classical form, these folk dances allow women to take the lead role. The dances are often performed in the open air, in celebration of a community event. The female dancers are usually clad in the traditional cloth and short jacket, in bright prints and colours, with their hair caught up in a bun and often adorned by fresh flowers. Simple jewellery of bead chains and glass bangles complete this costume.
The Tamil community has its own distinctive dance forms, derived from Indian forms of dance. The most popular are the Bharatha Natyam and the Kathakali dances. Bharatha Natyam, a classical South Indian dance is inspired by the sculptures found in the temple of Chidambaram and is now performed primarily by women. Dressed in elaborately pleated, brightly hued silk saris with gold embroidered borders, worn in the sari style or the pyjama style with the legs fully covered by the sari, the dance steps are designed to showcase the costume in all its beauty. Heavy jewellery, called Temple jewellery, is worn with the sari together with ankle bells, called Salangai.
With its menacing masks, leaps and twirls and the loud beating of drums and chanting, the Devil dances, found predominantly in the South of the country, are considered more a healing ritual than a form of entertainment. Each of the devil dances (performed only by men) has a variation of the costume, with its own carved wooden demon mask, colourful embroidered long-sleeved jacket and pleated, swirling skirt. In some dances, the dancer is bare-bodied with a simple white cloth skirt and embroidered neck cloth alone forming the costume.
The Kolam dances on the other hand, also featuring masks, are a pure form of entertainment created to derive the biggest laughs. Performed in open air community settings, the Kolam dances are often based on folk tales. The dancers wear colourful, every-day attire as costumes, complemented by carved masks with the most bizarre or ridiculous expressions and features.
As you may have already realised, Sri Lanka's dance forms are as diverse and varied as her people. And the costumes that enhance these dances - with their bright colours, dramatic designs, elaborate and intricate adornments and jewellery - serve only to highlight the vibrancy and dynamism of each dance form. So the next time you watch a Sri Lankan dance performance, be prepared to be captivated not only by the dance movements and the music, but also by the striking costumes and adornments.
Photograph courtesy: University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo