When I was planning a trip to Kandy in Sri Lanka, a quick read of various travel blogs assured me that one of the things I had to do whilst in the city was go for a show that has its origin, and lends its name to this unique form of dance – Kandyan dance.
I’ll be honest, I’ve got two left feet and dancing isn’t my favourite part of spending an evening. However, when it comes to watching it, I don’t mind doing so, occasionally.
Every region in the world, from towns and villages, cities and states, have their own unique form of dance that makes it synonymous with the region. However, there are some dance forms, that over the years, have become a tourist magnet. Call it aggressive marketing or smart thinking, they draw crowds by the busloads.
No visit to Kerala is complete without watching a performance by their famed Kathakali dancers. And should you find yourself in Barcelona, what better way to end the evening than watching a performance by flamenco dancers. On the outskirts of Cairo, a belly dancer brings alive the guests with her undulating moves. A visit to New York City during the winter season must include a show of the Rockettes at Radio City. So, when I reached Kandy in Sri Lanka, of course I was going to do the ‘touristy’ thing.
Origins of Kandyan dance
Its origin lies in a dance ritual, known as Kohomba Kankariya. It was widely practiced in the Kandy region much before the 5th century, even before Buddhism became a way of life.
Like all things in life, this form of dance also has a legend to it. The king of Kandy had a sleep problem. Specifically, he would have a recurring nightmare which ensured that he had had plenty of sleepless nights. In desperation, Indian witchdoctors were ordered from across the ocean and asked to perform a special dance for him. Sure enough, after the dance performance, he was able to get back to a good night’s sleep. In appreciation, he let the dance form flourish.
Kandyan dance is more of a modern interpretation of this traditional form of dancing, performed during festivals, weddings and special occasions that call for a celebration. While it has elements of the original Kohomba Kankariya, what is performed today is a simpler affair.
Traditionally, the dances were performed by an all-male troupe. However, over the years, with the popularity of the dance form spreading throughout the country, women performers have become part of the troupe, performing several dance sequences.
While purists remain divided on whether Kandyan dance in its current form has been watered down, let that debate not stop you from enjoying a show when you visit Kandy.
A Kandyan dance in Kandy
There are three venues where nightly performances are held in Kandy – Kandy Kandy Lake Club, Mahanuwara YMBA and Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre.
I ended up at Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre, simply because it is within walking distance of the Royal Complex. It also fitted in well with my day plan of seeing the sights around the area for that day. And ending it with a viewing of Kandyan dance seems like a perfect way to end the day.
Ignoring the many touts hovering around, I went ahead and handed over LKR 1,000 and collected my ticket, along with a laminated A4 sheet. On the one side, in large typeface, it simply said ‘RESERVED’ and details of some of the dance forms. The reverse was devoted to the rest of the dance forms for the show. Sure, it puzzled me, but I let it be.
Walking into the auditorium, I realised that I still had plenty of time as the hall was empty, save for a few rows of seats in the front cordoned off. A few behind had the same A4 sheet that I was carrying, placed on seats with the best possible views. Still wondering, that is when of the touts came along and explained that I needed to leave it on my chosen seat. That way, I could always step out and come back when the show was about to begin.
The show started a little after 5:30 and what followed was an hour-long affair full of vibrant colours, loud beat of drums and raw energy – from spectacular somersaults and fire eating, to spinning round and round that is enough to get even a viewer like me dizzy. The women performers added grace and poise in their bright colourful costumes. All this as the drummers kept pounding tribal rhythms. The highlight, for me, was the Devil dance. It was fun when he kept encouraging the audience to participate with catcalls and gestures that didn’t leave much to the imagination. It all comes to a resounding end with the troupe inviting the audience to join them for a walk on fire.
Was it worth it? Absolutely! Every single rupee for the 10 different dances that they performed. Just ignore the many touts floating around.