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Theatre of Sri Lanka

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Theatre of Sri Lanka

An audience watches a performance at the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre

Theatre of Sri Lanka originated from traditional rituals and folk dramas in the 19th century. Until that period, the art was confined to small villages and didn't have a national presence. Influential dramatist Ediriweera Sarachchandra attributes this to the influence of Theravada Buddhism, which he believes to have "tended more toward solitary contemplation and the attainment of insight than towards congregational practices or participation in community life."


Early forms

Dramas in Sri Lanka began first with ritualist performances of early polytheistic religions. Originating as masked dances interspersed with short comic scenes and improvised dialogues honouring gods and ridding demons, these gradually became free of religion and organised forms of entertainment.

These early dramas were called kolam, and wove together loosely-structured characters from everyday life in a casual fashion. The characters, for the most part, were satirical and figures of amusement, if not in their introductory song or chant, then in the designs of the masks and the miming of the roles. The loose-ness of the dramas allowed for varying characters that could be kept or removed as the performing group wanted.

Popular characters included a king, town crier, various officials like the mudaliyar, clerk, and the King's representative, and policemen; each different play yielded different forms of these roles. Also included were village characters such as the farmer and his wife, the washerman and his wife, and types of gods, demons and animals. Some dramas, after the arrival of Europeans, featured a white male character named Sinho (from Portuguese "senhor") and a white female character named Nona (from Portuguese "dona" or Lady). They would dance together unlike the other characters who performed dances individually, concluding with the Nona getting on to Sinho's back. The first written account of a kolam by Englishman John Calloway in 1829 also describes a scarred white soldier character. Other figures of satire included Andi gura, a guru from India who tricks people into giving him money and a landesi (Dutch) couple.

These plays never grew beyond their initial crudeness, but contributed to the development of Sinhalase theatre.

Modern theater

The Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre was constructed as a major venue for the performing arts

With the arrival of Europeans and urbanisation, the Sinhalese began to view theatre as a serious and secular art. At first, urban dramas were derivative borrowing heavily from English drama, or from Parsi theatre musicals (nurti) and Bombay and South Indian operatic plays (nadagam). These catered to a small audience, and drew the ire of strict Buddhists who considered them worthless. They were further attacked by the development of a "Protestant" Buddhism, a revival of the religion that stressed strict adherence to its law. Therefore, the words kolam and nadagam took a connotation of something ridiculous or nonsense in Sinhala.

It would take until the 1950s for serious Sinhala dramas to develop. With independence of Ceylon from Great Britain and a widespread appreciation of Sinhala culture, Ediriweera Sarachchandra led the movement for serious Sinhala theater. Sarachchandra's work, which brought together elements of the early folk ritual and dance drama tradition with Western theatre methods and stage style, created a new genre of theatre that appealed to all classes.

Major Venues

Major theatres in Sri Lanka include University of Colombo; Navarangahala of the Royal College, Colombo; Elphinstone Theatre and the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre. The Lionel Wendt Art Centre and the Nelung Arts Centre combines live theater and art exhibition, with exhibition galleries and theaters.

Modern theater


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