How Tagore shaped Sri Lankan dance drama

How Tagore shaped Sri Lankan dance drama

By, Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/

The Sri Palee campus (the Western campus of Colombo University) is located in Kalutara district at Wewala in Horana. The spacious main entrance of the campus gradually slopes towards the administrative unit, the cafeteria and the Registrar’s Office. Lined by tall trees all along, the road winds its way to the top of a hill. The view all through the path is breath-taking with hills and valleys surrounding the campus. A long ride to the campus from the city of Colombo seems worthwhile as one enters the main entrance and reaches the top of the hill.

A small cottage with slanting roof stands at the very top. It has a significant position in the history of the region. The cottage was the venue of discussions on setting up the Faculty of Performing Arts of the University of Colombo. It initiated a series of attempts which helped recreate and breathe a new perspective into the art of dance-drama and dance-theatre in Sri Lanka.

It is this cottage that discussions were held between the late Wilmot A. Perera and Rabindranath Tagore. Wilmot Perera was a veteran politician and well-known philanthropist who had also donated the lands and buildings to the university. And  Tagore was a Nobel Laureate in Literature for his work “Gitanjali”. The discussions took place during Tagore’s first visit to Sri Lanka. He was to visit Sri Palee a number of times between 1933 and 1935.

The discussions between Perera and Tagore inspired the initiation of the Arts and Aesthetics Department of Colombo University. The curricula of the Sri Palee campus were the same as those in Tagore’s Shantiniketan in West Bengal (India). Perera had visited Shantiniketan in 1933 and was inspired by the curricula there.

The cottage is now an arts class

Today, this quaint cottage is used as a Fine Arts classroom and is teeming with students  most  of the day. The cottage has two rooms and a wide encircling outer veranda. All the four walls of the veranda have spacious windows and a wide door   opens up to the outside.

Tagore’s visits to Sri Lanka have been well documented in news reports and research papers. However, little has been written about his influence on the aesthetic aspects and on the socio-cultural ethos of Sri Lanka.

The renowned percussionist, musician and choreographer Ravibandhu Vidyapathi says:  “The visit of Tagore in 1934, followed by Uday Shankar’s in 1935, had a great impact on Sri Lankan dance drama.”

Rabindra Nirtya Natya’ was introduced to Sri Lanka. A team of 34 dancers and musicians from Shantiniketan arrived during one of Tagore’s visits. The team also included the world renowned artist Nandalal Bose. The team performed the famous Rabindra Nirtya Natya – ‘Shap Mochan’ at the Regal Theatre in Colombo- one of the oldest still existing single-screen theatres in the city.

Vidyapathi further says that the majority of the audience at the performance consisted of the urban elite. And in the audience was SWRD Bandaranaike, who later became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Bandaranaike wrote his impressions in a review published in the Ceylon Daily News in May 1934.

He said: “The curtain went up. My first impression was one of aesthetic satisfaction at the setting and the grouping which had simplicity and the beauty, which Greek drama alone had been able to achieve”.

According to Vidyapathi, what caught the attention of the audience was the refined rendering of song and music, the artistic execution of the dance movements, the subtle abhinaya of the dancers and the simplicity of production that revealed its depth.

Quoting from The Statesman (India) in 1939, Vidyapathi says: “The dialog was converted into song with the actors symbolically interpreting the characters through  dance”.

Apart from Indian dance forms, including folk dances, Tagore had incorporated many dance movements from across South and South-east Asia,  including Javanese (Indonesian) and Kandyan (Sri Lankan) dance forms.

Many Sri Lankan dancers got inspired by Tagore, got trained in Shantiniketan, learned Kathakali and Manipuri as well as folk dances of India. Many were fortunate to even be part of dance drama productions at Shantiniketan. They later incorporated the Tagore dance drama into their indigenous forms.

Chitrasena, Panibharatha, Nimal Welgama, Premakumara, Wasantha Kumara, Shesha Palihakkara, Anagalal Athukorala and Soorya Shankar Mollligoda were among those who incorporated the Tagore style in their compositions. Thus evolved the Mudra Natya of Sri Lanka.

In 1936, Shantidev Ghosh from Shantiniketan stayed at the Sri Palee campus to train students in Tagore’s dance drama, Rabindra Sangeet, and Javanese and Manipuri dance movements. To this, Shantidev Ghosh added Kandyan dance movements since he liked them  when he saw them during his earlier visit in 1934.

Shantidev Ghosh learnt Kandyan dance from the traditional guru James Dammannagoda and Kandyan drummer Subanchi Lal. Four dance dramas were performed by the students of Sri Palee under the guidance of Shantidev Ghosh and these were Seethaharana-1936, Urvashi Jayam-1936, Manohara Bandanam-1937, and Chad Danta Dayam-1938.

The verdant pathway leading to the campus buildings

These were all fascinating blends of Manipuri, Kathakali and Kandyan dance forms. It is also interesting to note that instead of the traditional Indian percussion instruments like the tabla or the khol,  traditional Kandyan drums were used, along with esraj, jala tarang and manjira.

Over time, more progressive dance forms evolved. 1936 saw yet another attempt to tell a story in dance and song. That was the Sirisangabo dance-drama mounted by Seebert Dias, veteran dramatist and actor and father of Chitrasena.

Dias was also inspired by Tagore’s theory of “Theatre as Dance”. He too utilised traditional Sri Lankan drums like the getabera, daula, and thammettama for the music of his ballets.

Sri Palee campus theater now

Later dance dramas included more Kandyan movements but this too was led by the many famous Sri Lankan artists who got trained at Shantiniketan in their earlier years. In their compositions, poetry and songs were minimised and dance and music took centre stage. This was the “corps de ballet” that Tagore and his daughter-in-law, Protima Devi, had introduced after seeing Western ballet and modern dance.

This also became an important part of Sri Lankan dance-drama. Nevertheless, the traditional touch of Tagore remained, as reflected in works like Chitrasena’s Karadiya and Naladamayanti.

(The featured image at the top is the cottage where Tagore and Wilmot Perera planned the setting of the Arts and Aesthetics Department. Pictures, except the last, are by the author, Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai ,who is a visual and cultural anthropologist with special interest in South Asia)