COLONIAL CHOREOGRAPHY: STAGING SRI LANKAN DANCERS UNDER BRITISH COLONIAL RULE FROM THE 1870s – 1930s
Madamperum Arachchilage, Sudesh Mantillake
Lee, Esther K
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In textbooks the terms “Kandyan dance” and its equivalent in the Sinhala language “udarata nätuma” are used to describe the dance tradition that was predominantly practiced in the Kandyan region of Sri Lanka. Nationalist histories portray Kandyan dance as a continuation of a pristine tradition that was passed down from ancient Sinhala kingdoms. As the Sinhala nationalist discourse glorified Kandyan dance vis à vis its Tamil counterpart, it obscured the British colonial encounter with Kandyan dancers by leaving out a part of the rich history of dance. As I demonstrate in this dissertation, colonialism transformed to a significant extent the Kandyan dancescape of the British colonial period, particularly between the 1870s and 1930s. Therefore, this dissertation re-examines the history of the so-called tradition of Kandyan dance with the focus on the British colonial encounter with performers of the Kandyan region. As a Sri Lankan dancer, I try to trace and interpret the histories of dancers that were ignored or shrouded in silence in colonial and Sinhala national histories. As a historian, I interpret archival materials through textual and visual analysis while as a dancer, I interpret archival materials through my embodied knowledge of Kandyan dance. I examine: How did the Sinhalese devil dance become a showpiece during the British colonial period, setting the ground for it to be elevated with the new name of “Kandyan dance”? Who defined its aesthetic parameters and repertoire? How did the performers respond to their colonial experience? I argue that, with the help of the native elites, the colonizers displaced, mobilized, manipulated, staged, and displayed performers of the Kandyan region for the benefit of colonial audiences through processions organized for British royal dignitaries, colonial exhibitions, photographs, and travel films. I call this process “colonial choreography”, which defined the aesthetic parameters and repertoire of Kandyan dance. However, the dancers were not just the victims of colonial choreography but also contributors to colonial choreography through their creativity and resistance. Therefore, I also argue that while collaborating with the colonizers, the dancers responded creatively to their experience and covertly resisted the colonial masters.