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28-member Sri Lankan troupe from ‘Chandana Wickramasinghe and the Dancers Guild’
Sri Lankan dance, music depict its heritage Wickramasinghe and his troupe mesmerise Kuwait

For those who are not very conversant with the art and culture of the small island nation referred to as ‘paradise’ by Chekov and  “the pearl of the Indian Ocean” by the Indian poet philosopher Tagore, which has shared centuries of trade relations with the Gulf  particularly Kuwait, its beautiful waters providing a rich harvest of pearls and fish to Kuwaiti sailors, should avail of the opportunity afforded by the Sri Cultural Week, to take a look at the varied music and dance forms of Sri Lanka. Caught unawares by my ignorance, I was treated to a spectacle featuring fabulous costumes, skillful choreography and an innate sense of drama. As dancers of the  Chandana Wickramasinghe Dance Guild from Sri Lanka swayed to the beat of fusion music in their glistening costumes, statuesque like  the temple carvings of South Asia, they formed a colourful tableau in the darkened auditorium.

If there is one word that applies to Wickramasinghe, the dance guru from Sri Lanka, it is flamboyance. It is there in the costumes, in the composition, in the choreography and in the execution. Deeply influenced by India, and inspired by his love for the ancient heritage of his home country Sri Lanka, Wickramasinghe has combined dance forms and styles to create a style of his own.

His ingenuity, imagination, talent and skill were visible in the  performance whether in the graceful movements of the peacock which according to mythology is the bird associated with  Skanda, the War-God of Ceylon, worshipped by Buddhists and Hindus alike, or in the cheerful movement of the flying kites or in the depiction of the frolicking mermaids in the waters of Sri Lanka. “ Our history shows that poetry and dancing has always been a part of our life. In the past, dancing was also associated with the healing process.

 When people fell sick and the ailment could not be detected, people turned to the Gods, offered their prayers and performed certain rituals in which dance played an important part,” explained Sarath Dissanayake, the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Kuwait. The week long Sri Lankan Cultural Week  (April 26 - May 2) will showcase the best of Sri Lanka and help build a bridge between cultures.
The origins of dance in Sri Lanka can be traced back thousands of years to the 4th century BC when dance formed an important part of rituals and ceremonies observed by ordinary folk in their day to day living. “There are three principal forms of dance in Sri Lanka depending on the region. There is Kandyan from Kandy, Pahatarata from low country and   Sabaragamuwa dance from Central Province,” noted Wickramasinghe.
“Each style differs in costume, songs, the use of percussion instrument and in the movement of hands, legs and fingers.” The  ‘Kandyan’ form of dancing imitates the movement of the elephant and the peacock by dancers who dress in colorful costumes in white, red and yellow. They have a unique formal attire featuring spectacular head gear and intricate silver ornaments. The ‘Sabaragamuwa’ dances are associated with rituals calling for good harvest or warding off evil. The ‘Pahatarata’ too has its roots embedded in rituals, at times used to exorcise various forms of diseases.

The influence of India on the dance forms of Sri Lanka was palpable as costumes, rhythm and compositions spoke of a shared culture going back thousands of centuries. This is not surprising considering the fact that the Palk Strait between the two countries is less than 100 kms. “We have been deeply influenced by India,” shared Wickramasinghe, who studied  Kathakali and Manipuri at Tagore’s Shantiniketan.
“Kathakali is very close to our own classical dance form. There are no mudras in Sri Lankan dance forms, there are only hand movements. There are songs according to which we tell the story. It is to learn the ‘navarasa’ or the art of ‘abhinaya’ that many senior Sri Lankan artists studied dance in India. And in fact it was Tagore’s visit to Sri Lanka that changed the style of dancing in my country.”A fusion choreographer Wickramasinghe is a symbol of the close cooperation between Sri Lanka and India in terms of art and culture.
Among the Indians to exert an influence on Sri Lankan culture was Rabindranath Tagore, the poet Laureate and the quintessential Indian. During his visit to Sri Lanka in 1934, he staged his dance dramas and inspired the young Sinhalese with his dance style which was simple and graceful. “Our new dance history started after Tagore’s visit to Sri Lanka. Many senior artists went to Shantiniketan to learn ‘ravindranritya’, the dance style created by him.”

Chitrasena( 1921-2005), a pioneering dancer from Sri Lanka, credited with establishing a modern Sri Lankan tradition of dance and popularizing traditional Sri Lankan dance forms worldwide, was inspired by  Tagore’s insistence on rediscovering one’s roots and assimilating the  best of other cultures. Chitrasena studied dance in Shantiniketan and played the leading role in several of Tagore’s dance dramas.
 He was a  contemporary of the legendary Uday Shankar, whose adaptation of Western theatrical techniques and ballet popularized the ancient Indian  art form in the West. Shankar inspired Chitrasena to break out of the traditional dancing ‘parampara’ and incorporate dance styles such as Bharatanatyam and Kathakali in his choreographic productions producing a varied and rich dance vocabulary.
Chandana Wickramasinghe has applied his varied inheritance and created his own style traditional, folk, creative and modern dancing based on Kandyan, Low country (Sri Lankan Style) Indian dance and free style dance. He has participated in several dance festivals around the world as a dancer and choreographer and performed at  the renowned Saddler’s Wells theatre in London  in1990. His dance guild has toured several countries including Holland, UK, Malaysia, Pakistan, Belgium, Maldives, Singapore, Nepal, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Jordan, Japan, India, Qatar, South Korea, Taiwan, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Germany. “I use a lot of Kathakali steps when I do any dance because it is a very vigorous dance form similar to our Kandyan dance style. The dances in Sri Lanka focus mainly on the steps. There is no ‘bhav’ or facial expressions or ‘Abhinaya’.

That is why I went to India to learn ‘satvik abhinahaya’ for my ballets.” The costumes worn by the dancers of the Chandana Wickramasinghe guild particularly the male dancers show the powerful influence of Uday Shankar. “Sri Lankan dance which is dynamic, colourful and powerful,  is a very popular art form. I have more than a 1000 students in my own school where I teach pure classical, traditional Sri Lankan and fusion dance.”  The happy amalgamation of various influences is there to see in the techniques, improvisation, costume design, make up, expressive movements, sense of colour and  the relationship of dance to drama which goes to make an impressive spectacle.

By: Chaitali B. Roy

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