Kandyan dancing and drumming is Sri Lanka’s iconic performing art, and you’re unlikely to spend long in the city without seeing a troupe of performers going about their (rather noisy) business, clad in elaborate traditional costumes, with dancers twirling, stamping and gyrating to a pulsating accompaniment of massed drumming. The art form originated as part of an all-night ceremony in honour of the god Kohomba, an elaborate ritual featuring some fifty dancers and ten drummers. This ceremony flourished under the patronage of the kings of Kandy and reached such heights of sophistication that it was eventually adopted into local religious ceremonies, becoming a key element in the great Esala Perahera festival. Many temples in the Kandyan area even have a special columned pavilion, or digge, designed specifically for performances and rehearsals by resident dancers and drummers.
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There are five main types of Kandyan dance. The four principal genres are the ves, pantheru, udekki and naiyandi, all featuring troupes of flamboyantly attired male dancers clad in sumptuous chest plates, waistbands and various other neck, arm and leg ornaments which jangle as the dancers move about. The most famous is the ves dance, which is considered sacred to the god Kohomba. It’s at once highly mannered and hugely athletic, combining carefully stylized hand and head gestures with acrobatic manoeuvres including spectacular backflips, huge high-kicking leaps and dervish-like whirling pirouettes. In the more sedate pantheru dance, the turbaned performers play small tambourines, while during the udekki dance they beat tiny hourglass-shaped drums.
The fifth and final style of Kandyan classical dance is the vannam. This began life as songs, before evolving into stylized dances, each of which describes a certain emotion or object from nature, history or legend – the most popular are the various animal-derived vannams, including those inspired by the movements of the peacock (mayura), elephant (gajaga), lion (sinharaja) and cobra (naga). Vannams are usually performed by just one or two dancers (and sometimes by women), unlike other Kandyan dances, which are ensemble dances featuring four or five performers, always men.
As well as the traditional Kandyan dances, the city’s cultural shows usually include examples of a few characteristic southern dances such as the kulu (harvest dance) and the ever-popular raban dance – for more on which, For more information, see Low-country dancing.
All genres of dance are accompanied by drumming, which can reach extraordinary heights of virtuosity – even if the finer points pass you by, the headlong onslaught of a Kandyan drum ensemble in full flight leaves few people unmoved,. The archetypal Sri Lankan drum is the geta bera (literally “boss drum”), a double-headed instrument carried on a strap around the drummer’s waist and played with the hands. Geta bera are made to a fixed length of 67cm, with different types of skins (monkey and cow, for example) at either end of the drum to produce contrasting sounds. The double-headed daule drum is shorter but thicker, and is played with a stick in one hand and the palm of the other. The tammettana bera is a pair of tiny drums (a bit like bongos) which are tied together and played with a pair of sticks. A horanava (a kind of Sri Lankan oboe) is sometimes added to the ensemble, providing a simple melodic accompaniment.
Like the dancers they accompany, Kandyan drummers perform in traditional costume, dressed in a large sarong, a huge red cummerbund and a white tasselled turban – significant musical points are marked by a toss of the head, sending the tassel flying through the air in a delicate accompanying flourish.