Collections: Susan Reed - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Kohomba Kankariya and Kandyan Dance in Sri Lanka (1987-1989)

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Kandyan dancer Peter Surasena adorned in full ritual costume, performing to the rhythms of the Kandyan drum, played by I.G. Sirisoma (center) and Rattota Sirisena (right), Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1987. Image © Susan A. Reed.

This collection documents the ritual of the Kohomba kankariya and Kandyan dance of Sri Lanka. The first set consists of five hours of footage from the Kohomba kankariya, an elaborate village ritual of the mountainous Kandyan region. The second set of five hours consists of training and performances of Kandyan dance in a variety of settings.

Kohomba Kankariya
The Kohomba kankariya was once the most important ritual of the Kandyan region, the last region of Sri Lanka to come under colonial rule. The ceremony is performed to ensure well-being and prosperity for the land and its inhabitants. Traditionally performed over the course of several days, the kankariya consists of more than thirty discrete acts and includes lengthy segments of dancing, drumming, chanting, and dramas. The performers of the ritual are known as yakdessas: hereditary dancer-priests of the berava drummer caste. The Kohomba kankariya is an unparalleled source of information on Kandyan and Sinhala Buddhist society, history, politics, religion, dance and music.

Though the kankariya had died out in most areas of the Kandyan region by the mid-1950s, a few ritual masters still performed the ceremony in the 1980s. The ritual documented here was sponsored by the anthropologist and performed in July 1988 in Kandy. This kankariya features one of the most esteemed ritual masters of the twentieth century, Tittapajjala Yakdessalage Suramba. The footage includes the building of the ritual hall and altars, competitive and group drumming, solo and group dancing, ritual chanting, and excerpts from comic dramas.

Kandyan Dance
Kandyan dance is the national dance of Sri Lanka, heavily supported by the state and included in the government school curriculum. Derived largely from the ritual dances of the Kohomba kankariya, Kandyan dances for the stage were developed in the twentieth century. Though Kandyan dance is related to other south Asian dance forms, it is unique, distinguished by an elegant and energetic style, and incorporating lively displays of acrobatics and agility. Though "traditional" Kandyan dance is performed as nrtta, or pure, abstract dance, "modern" stage dances include expressive and mimetic movements and gestures.

The footage of Kandyan dance in this collection includes performances of an array of Kandyan dances by men and women in both the traditional and modern styles; demonstration of a complete set of dance exercises; training techniques and teacher-student interaction. The footage was filmed in a range of contexts: a village dance school, a national troupe rehearsal, a private all-night performance, and tourist performances. The footage features some of the finest Kandyan dancers and drummers of the late twentieth century, and is a rich source of information on aesthetic transformation, demonstrating changes in the form and style of the dance as it has shifted from ritual to stage and as it has been adapted for girl and women dancers.

This collection is currently in production and is not yet available to the public.

Image © W.C. Reed

Susan Reed is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of dance and performance, gender, ethnicity and nationalism, religion and ritual, and South Asia. She lived for several years in Sri Lanka, where she conducted field research on dance, religion, and politics. She is the author of a book and DVD, Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming) and a number of articles, including "The Politics and Poetics of Dance" (Annual Review of Anthropology 1998) and "Performing Respectability: The Berava, Middle-Class Nationalism, and the Classicization of Kandyan Dance in Sri Lanka" (Cultural Anthropology 2002). She teaches anthropology and women’s and gender studies and is the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender at Bucknell University.

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