Kandyan Stage Dance


8:55 min.

Dancers from Kandy take great pride in their regional identity. Kandy is the English term for Maha Nuvara (great city) and is used to name the city of Kandy, the central mountainous region of Sri Lanka, or the former Kandyan kingdom. The kingdom was the last region of Lanka to be colonized by Europeans and is seen as the heartland of traditional Sinhala Buddhist culture.

The archetypal Kandyan dancer is a male dancer adorned in the spectacular kankariya dress known as the ves costume. The traditional dancers and drummers were primarily from the berava, or drummer caste, the largest of Lanka’s low "service" castes. After dance was first incorporated into the school curriculum in the 1950s, the Kandyan berava dominated the field of dance teaching. Since the 1990s, however, it is high-caste dancers who are increasingly coming to dominate the dance world.

Kandyan dances are modeled on state performances and are conducted primarily for tourist shows. The state supports several troupes that perform for state occasions and tours abroad, including Army, Navy and Police Dance Troupes. Many secondary schools also have troupes, the finest of which are sent abroad to participate in dance festivals and competitions. The state periodically organizes smaller, more informal troupes to represent Sri Lanka abroad at festivals as a means to promote tourism.

Alongside the Sri Lankan lion flag and the Buddhist flag, the Kandyan ves dancer is nowadays one of the most popular national symbols, standing not for ritual knowledge but for "Sinhala" or "Sri Lankan" tradition. The image of the ves dancer is reproduced on postcards, lottery tickets, billboards, currency notes, stamps, and advertisements for businesses.

Recorded in Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1987-89.

Directed by Wilton Martinez / Production: Susan A. Reed and Wilton Martinez

Research: Susan A. Reed / Written & Narrated by Susan A. Reed

Camera & Sound: Susan A. Reed / Editing & DVD Authoring: Wilton Martinez

Funding & support: National Science Foundation, Bucknell University, Society of Dance History Scholars

Distributed by The University of Wisconsin Press

Duration: 32 minutes

This video is recommended for teaching about subjects including:

dance and performance


Sinhala cultural and national identity

Southeast Asian studies

Kandyan dance is one of three regional dance forms identified with the Sinhala majority and is derived from the Kohomba kankariya village ritual practices. It is now recognized as a "national" dance of Sri Lanka, heavily supported by the state, and a required subject in schools and tourist stages, religious and secular rituals. This film includes short selections from three of the most renowned Kandyan stage dances: the Gajaga Vannama, Yuga Natuma and Asadrusa Vannama. (continues below)

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