July 2010

Gangaramaya Cultural Show: an evening of dance
July 2010

The conch shell is blown to signify the beginning of the show

They swirl and they whirl. Their elaborate costumes twirl. As the beat of the drums rise and reach a throbbing crescendo, they swivel like tops set in motion. A treat for the eye and the ear, Gangaramaya Cultural Show is a perfect medley of truly Sri Lankan dances and a unique way to spend a Tuesday evening in laidback Colombo.

Words: Thilini Kahandawaarachchi | Photography: Menaka Aravinda

The sun has just sunk into the sea and the city lights are gradually coming on. The colourful reflections are doubled like twins on the gentle ripples of Beira Lake. At the Gangaramaya Seema Malakaya, a small islet on Beira Lake, you can only hear the soft whisper of the wind...and then, as the evening progresses, the beat of the drums and the clink of anklets at every step of the dancers. Clad in traditional white and red costumes, glimmering headdresses and intricately designed breast plates, the Kandyan dancers put their hands together and greet each other. The show is about to start.

The conch shell is blown with a reverberating boom. The dance starts with a slow beat. Their hands and feet gracefully move to the rhythm of traditional Sri Lankan drums and cymbals. Each and every step of the dancer is synchronised with the other to perfection and it seems as if they are mere reflections of each other. The expressions on their faces are almost haughty; their steps ever so graceful, with the rising tempo their feet movements also quicken. The costumes twirl. The dancers swiftly swirl. They jump in quick rhythm. They somersault in moves that almost defy gravity, regain equilibrium and resume the dance with equal charm. By this time you suddenly realise that you are so enthralled by the dance that you are also keeping the beat with your fingers or your feet.

In Sri Lanka there are three main types of traditional dancing, namely Kandyan (up country), low country and Sabaragamuwa dancing. What is performed at the cultural show at the Seema Malakaya is a fusion of both up country and low country dance. Though the sequence of the dances may vary, every week they perform a graceful combination of these traditional dances.

Kandyan dancing has its roots in being an ancient ritualistic dance known as Kohomba Kankariya, which was performed to cure a King who was suffering from a mysterious illness. Thus, it is considered that their shimmering headdresses belong to deity Kohomba. For a dancer, wearing it for the first time is an event that requires ritualistic purity and is almost akin to being coronated.

Followed by the Kandyan dancing, performers dressed in colourful costumes and masks take on the floor to perform a low country dance known as Gurulu Netuma. This dance has its origins in the Ambalangoda area, which is also well known for carving masks that are similar to those that are worn by the dancers. More than merely a dance, low country dances are performed to appease evil spirits that cause sickness. If you pay close attention you would also notice that the dance actually depicts the killing of Gurula (a bird) by a cobra.

Speaking of the cultural show, the guru of this dancing troupe Sirisena Payagala says that this cultural show is the brainchild of Ven. Galaboda Gnanissara Thero, the Chief Incumbent of Gangaramaya Temple. "It is performed purely to showcase the culture and dances of Sri Lanka and to preserve these traditions and dancing," he adds.

Thelme is the name of the final dance act for the evening. Dressed in bright orange, yellow and white the dancers take on the floor by storm. Their hand movements are so precise and spelt out that you wish that you had more than just two eyes to keep track of all their acrobatics. And then towards the end of the slow rhythmic dance, the tempo rises and one dancer starts twirling, then he is joined by another, and then another. Soon they are swivelling so fast that all you see is a blur of colour.

The evening's entertainment reaches a climax with the fire eater. Very much a part of traditional dancing unique to Sri Lanka, the fire eater holds two flaming torches that he swings above his head, runs over his arms and finally almost eats...it is indeed a stunt worth watching.
With all the colours, moves and beats, the sights and sounds of the Gangaramaya Cultural Show is truly a Sri Lankan treat.

Gangaramaya Cultural Show takes place every Tuesday from 7.00 - 8.00 pm at the Gangaramaya Seema Malakaya. Entrance is free.