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The Classical Dance of Sri Lanka 

Manori Wijesekera joins Sicille Kotelawala on a fascinating journey into the world of Kandyan Dance...

The Classical Dance of Sri Lanka - Kandyan Dance by Sicille P.C. Kotelawala was launched in early September, and I had the privilege of meeting the author on the day she got her first copy of the book – ‘hot off the press’. But as we got talking, it soon became obvious to me that while the book was indeed a labour of love which merits its own accolades, here was a personality whose every expression, every gesture, every nuance and inflection spoke of her great love for Kandyan Dance, for the tradition and the heritage she is dedicated to preserving. And so I allowed Sicille to take me on a journey of reminiscences.

She was only five years old when she was first introduced to Kandyan Dance. She had one of the most respected grand masters of the dance to teach her — Nittawela Gunaya Gurunanse. The tutelage was taken over by Heen Baba, the master’s nephew, when Sicille was seven years old. But her love at that time was dance, both western ballet and the traditional Kandyan Dance. However, she eventually decided that she would focus her talents in mastering the traditional dance of her motherland.

And she certainly made the right decision. Her love and fascination for this most traditional and ritualistic dance form grew as she made it the centre of her dance studies. She travelled to London for further studies in Economics in the early 1960s, and while there, she was a founder member of the Sinhala Institute of Culture, a group of students who gave performances and demonstrations on Lankan culture. Sicille soon became an indispensable member of this group,38b.jpg (25710 bytes) giving regular performances of Kandyan Dance. During this time in London as a young student, she danced solo at the Commonwealth Institute, St. James’ Palace, Oxford University and the Ceylon Tea Centre in London.

On her return to the island, she began teaching dance at her Alma-Mater Bishop’s College. She soon saw the keen interest of her students to learn the authentic Kandyan Dance techniques and established a dance academy in her own home in Colombo 4. She also joined the group of artistes who were encouraging the revival of Sri Lankan dance, drama and art in this post-independence era. She played the role of Kuveni in Mrs T. L. Perera’s Kandyan Ballet of the same name which was held under the patronage of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Sicille also took part in numerous performances of Kandyan Dance on stage. 

But the highlight of her career was yet to begin, a 22 city, coast-to coast tour of the United States in 1974 at the invitation of Mrs Beate Gordon, Director of Performing Arts Program, Asia Society (NY). Having made a brief trip to the USA in 1973 to organise the publicity campaign together with the sponsors of the tour, the Asia Society (NY), Sicille organised a group of Kandyan Dance master’s, led by her guru Heen Baba. The Heen Baba Ensemble comprising five members, with Sicille as the sole female dancer, took the US cities by storm. They performed to standing ovations at Carnegie Hall, Smithsonian Institute and University of California (UCLA) to mention a few. The tour lasted six weeks and the almost daily performances included excerpts from the Kohomba Kankariya, Vannam, Bera Manthras and other traditional dances. The Kohomba Kankariya, for instance was performed for the first time ever on a US stage. It still remains a very ritualistic, seldom seen part of the Kandyan Dancer’s repertoire. Another feature of these performances was that their authenticity was preserved in every detail — even the stage decorations. Sicille took Kehelbada and Gokkala from Sri Lanka for the building of altars and other stage decor.

"We even had demonstrations of the complex Ves dancers costume, and how it is put on, piece by piece. A demonstration such as this, was performed for the first time in history anywhere in the world. The chanting and singing enthralled the crowds. It was a truly memorable experience." A publicity poster published by the Ceylon Tourist Board, featuring Heen Baba in full Ves regalia, was placed first at the International Official Union of Travel Organisations in New York in 1975, photographed by D. C. Amarasinghe. 38c.jpg (22664 bytes)Sicille’s successful tour in 1974 led to a second invitation from the Asia Society (NY) and in 1978 she took a troupe of ‘thovil’ dancers from the low-country who performed the rituals of exorcism and other dance traditions from Southern Sri Lanka. 

Sicille has always tried to preserve the traditional form of Kandyan Dance, without any of the dilution which is so common in today’s performances. "I was privileged to learn from the great masters themselves, so I learnt Kandyan Dance as it is danced in the authentic rituals and I, in turn, tried to teach my students this pure form of Kandyan Dance. In all my performances, if not entirely traditional, the rudiments of the dances were always the traditional techniques," explained Sicille. "In Kandyan Dance, the mood has to come through the dance technique, not through the feathers in a costume. The Kandyan dancer’s costume doesn’t change with each dance, and so the method of communication is not overt. It’s more subtle."

Sicille’s research into Kandyan Dance, begun when she was still a student of the dance, became extensive and comprehensive as she visited masters of dance and learnt from them. Her meticulous research came into use when she was invited to write a monograph on the subject by the Asia Society (NY) in 1974. This monograph provides the basis for her new book. Sicille was also invited to contribute four articles on Kandyan Dance, to the International Encyclopaedia on Dance published in April 1998 by Oxford University Press, NY. This Encyclopaedia of six volumes contains four articles by Sicille on Kandyan Dance, Kohomba Kankariya, Ves Dance and Costume, Kandy Perahera and six illustrations of her troupes.

There is always a final, poignant performance for every dance artist, and Sicille’s Swansong was a performance given at the BMICH in 1979. "My father and Heen Baba passed away within months of each other in 1978, and this changed my life. They were my inspiration, and with them gone, there was little inspiration to go on dancing. My father made three requests of me before he died: to publish my research on Kandyan Dance in a book, to teach Kandyan Dance and inspire another generation, and to take care of the Nittawela and other families of traditional dancers and drummers who had taught me so much and are the cultural heritage of our country. So this book is a fulfilment of my father’s wishes, and while being an informative publication on Kandyan Dance, it is also a recording of the great masters of this dance form and their work."

A woman with versatile talents and commitments, it is an achievement that Sicille found the time and patience to complete this wonderful book. As a Director in the Ceylinco Group of Companies, she is actively involved in the corporate world. In April this year she was appointed Counsellor for International Trade for the Kingdom of Belgium by decree of His Majesty Albert II, King of the Belgians. She has also been presented with the Colombo Art Circle Award in felicitation of International Women’s Day in 1998 and the Zonta International Award of Outstanding Recognition in June 1998.39a.jpg (17141 bytes) Indeed, 1998 has been a year of achievements, not least the publication of this book. "I am so happy that this book came out in the 50th anniversary year of our independence" said Sicille.

As a danseuse who has contributed much to her own craft, enriching and bringing it to the world’s attention, Sicille has come a long way from the young woman who dabbled in dance, art and drama, looking for the perfect outlet for her creativity. But the facts which drew her to Kandyan Dance as a student remain unchanged. "There is so much spirituality in this dance form. Take the Kohomba Kankariya for instance, there is an important spiritual dimension to these ritualistic dances that form a great part of the essence of the dances. This ancient dance form, performed for so long, is so much a part of our heritage as a nation".

"Kandyan Dance has touched the very depths of my soul." This then is the fundamental base of her book, as she attempts to convey this depth of feeling and pride both as a creative artist and as a Sri Lankan. l

A Brief Look at the Book:

Comprehensive material on Kandyan Dance, in the English language is indeed scarce, and Kandyan Dance seeks to fill this void. The message by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike introduces the author as "an ambassadress of our culture, dancing the beautiful and refined forms of Kandyan Dance, overseas, many a time. By taking highly professional dance troupes abroad, Sicille has contributed to the promotion of Sri Lanka and its cultural tradition overseas"

Giving a brief glimpse into the history and background to Kandyan Dance in the first three chapters, an entire chapter is then devoted to the Kohomba Kankariya. Here Sicille’s extensive research is seen as she clearly and distinctly spells out the spiritual facet of this ritual,40.jpg (19713 bytes) it’s beginnings and the individual features of the Kankariya. A History of the Dance and Music and the Kandy Esala Perahera follow, preceding an interesting chapter on the Making of a Traditional Kandyan Dance which includes the Pa Saramba and Goda Saramba (basic steps) and the Bera Pada (drum beat) which accompanies it and the 12 basic hand positions in Kandyan Dance accompanied by individual colour photographs of each hand position. However, the two final chapters will prove to be the most valuable to a student of dance or an interested amateur — the Ves Costume explains each item of the complete ensemble in detail. The chapter on Vannam Bera gives in-depth information on the types of drums used and the other musical instruments which accompany the Kandyan Dance.

This book is very informative and definitely a collectors item for the connoisseurs and anyone interested in this rich dance form of our ancestors. A limited edition has been printed, retaining its exclusivity and value. Indeed, it is expected that the book will prove a valuable source of information for students of dance and culture, and it is expected to be quickly snatched off the shelves by universities and colleges.