Bharatanatyam in Sri Lankan Sinhalese Films & in Sri Lanka

by Cinema Nrityagharana blog, June 24, 2014

While on a zealous search to see what kinds of dance could be found in the cinema of Sri Lanka, India’s island neighbor to the south, I was completely perplexed when I stumbled onto this Bharatanatyam-based dance in the 1965 Sinhala film Hathara Maha Nidhanaya:

Starts :1:07

My cursory understanding of the history of the ethnic Sinhala-Tamil conflict and civil war in Sri Lanka made the dance unfathomable to me! The film is in Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka, and the staging of the dance is clearly referencing national pride given the image of the Sri Lankan island and national flags (different from today’s style) placed prominently in the background and acknowledged by the dancer (and very reminiscent of many Indian film dances in front of the image of India, such as Vyjayanthimala in Penn). The audience of young, mixed-gender school children indicates a respectable, common setting, and the dancer’s clothing is very Sinhalese in style (according to a Sinhalese acquaintance).

Despite all of this, the dancer is performing choreography inspired by Bharatanatyam, the dance associated with the minority Tamils, along with what appears to be some Kuchipudi influence such as the backwards anchitam movement of the feet on the heels! And to add to the confusion, the jewelry she wears with her Sinhalese dress is the traditional Hindu temple jewelry of a Bharatanatyam dancer (edit: I’ve since learned that the headdress is not exclusive to Tamil culture in Sri Lanka). I would have expected to see Bharatanatyam dance in the less-developed Tamil-language cinema of Sri Lanka, but I certainly would have never imagined seeing it in a Sinhala film and especially not in a scene depicting national pride which by that time was apparently well-equated with the majority Sinhalese Buddhist culture and Kandyan dance. Browsing through the rest of the film, the dancer only seemed to appear in this song and there was no indication she had any context in the film that would explain her dance and its stylistic choices.

My reaction to the film dance was largely informed by Susan Reed’s insightful and clearly-written book on Kandyan dance history, Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and PoliticsShe provides some fascinating nuggets about the history of Bharatanatyam dance in Sri Lanka and about Sinhalese-Tamil relations. Inspired by the “revivalist” movements in India, Sri Lankan Tamils took an early interest in and propagated traditional dance and music long before the Sinhalese. A decade before Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra came into existence, the Parameshwara Academy (now the University of Jaffna) was established in Jaffna, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then) in the 1920s and Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music were taught. Into the 1930s, Bharatanatyam was heavily developed by Tamils in Jaffna and Tamils “often claim[ed] cultural superiority over the more anglicized Sinhala elite.” Meanwhile, Indian dance forms were very popular in the 1930s and 40s with many famous Indian dancers visiting Ceylon and many Sri Lankans traveling to Tagore’s Shantiniketan, and it took some time for the Sinhalese to awaken to and fully accept their artistic traditions. The Sri Lankan dancer Chitrasena was highly-influential and reminds one of Uday Shankar in the way he synthesized elements of Sri Lankan, Indian, and Western dance styles into “oriental ballets,” though he later focused primarily on the adaptation of Kandyan dance to the stage. Slowly Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka became “polarized” and soon “both communities were engaged in cultural revivals” with dance playing a key role in the construction of “traditional” culture and ethnic pride.

Likely Nittawela Guneya (source: Ebay)

It wasn’t until after Sri Lankan independence from the British in 1948 that the Sinhalese elite began seriously pursuing the preservation and construction of traditional Sinhalese dance as an ancient Aryan creation distinct from Tamil culture. Sinhala-Tamil tensions worsened after this time when a Prime Minister was “elected on a platform of promoting Sinhala Buddhist culture” which was upheld by successive leaders and led to discrimination against Tamils who soon protested leading to riots and an eventual long-standing civil war. Kandyan dance was heavily supported by the Sinhala Buddhist government as the country’s national dance, and it played “a critical role in the construction of Sri Lanka as a nation of Sinhalas.” Susan outlines the intriguing way in which Kandyan dance evolved from ritual practice, and the process in many ways echoed how Bharatanatyam was disconnected from its traditional practitioners of low social standing and classicized and institutionalized as a respectable form of “high culture.” Obviously, for a much more nuanced discussion, go read Susan’s book!

But Susan Reed limited her discussion of Bharatanatyam in Sri Lanka to the indigenous Tamil community of the northern Jaffna region and her descriptions led to me believe that the dance form was not practiced or patronized anywhere else. In Susan’s book, Kandyan dance was constructed as the main dance of the Sinhalese which was heavily supported by the state, so it seemed natural that Bharatanatyam would not be something remotely practiced by the Sinhalese especially in an official capacity. So, confusion remained about the Bharatanatyam in the Hathara Maha Nidhanaya film dance above. After all, it was filmed in the mid-1960s by which time Sinhala-Tamil tensions were well-inflamed and Sinhalese communalism was running full steam ahead. What was I missing?

Hints came from a summary of Indian dance scholar Janet O’Shea’s paper “From Temple to Battlefield: Bharatanatyam in Sri Lanka” (site no longer available).  O’Shea writes, “Meanwhile in Colombo, Sinhalese have adopted the form as a marker of respectable female identity. This suggests that Bharatanatyam, refigured in India in the early twentieth century as an emblem of Indian national identity, plays several, conflicting roles in the formation of Sri Lankan national identities.” While I haven’t been able to track down O’Shea’s paper, I noticed the claim of Bharatanatyam’s popularity among the Sinhalese even today was supported by a peek at the website of the pre-eminent University of Visual and Performing Arts in Columbo which offers degrees not only in Sinhalese dance forms but also Bharathanatyam and Kathak, noting “Indian dances, which consist of a large number of dance forms, have become highly popular in Sri Lanka.” But my incredulous reaction remained, especially with no explanation for the “why” and “how” such a thing could happen amidst such tense ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Answers finally came from Ahalya Satkunaratnam’s article “Staging War: Performing Bharata Natyam in Colombo, Sri Lanka” and the 2009 dissertation it was derived from, Moving Bodies, Navigating Conflict: Practicing Bharata Natyam in ColomboSri Lanka. Ahalya writes:

 “The flourishing of Bharata Natyam [in Colombo] was nurtured through the understanding that the new dance “tradition” emerging in India was a tool for demonstrating a rejection of Western influence in Sri Lanka, which was valuable as anticolonial sentiment grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bharata Natyam, predominantly studied and performed by women, became a means for the preservation and promotion of culture and ethnic identity.”

 “Since dance was not a means of fashioning Tamil identity, it did not initially fit within the criteria of Tamil women’s duties and expectations. However, one emerging dance style, Kalakshetra Bharata Natyam, the style taught through the Kalakshetra dance school that was founded by Indian dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale in the early twentieth century, helped to significantly shape Bharata Natyam as a reputable practice in Colombo. In brief, Rukmini Devi’s approach to women’s decorum, her stance against “vulgarity” in dance practice, and her rooting of the tradition in the ancient past all fit well with the gendered and cultural concerns of Navalar’s [Arumuga Navalar’s] social reformation movements and the developing anticolonial movements. Kalakshtetra Bharata Natyam reconstituted as a timeless, untainted, and ancient practice would become a tool against the feared cultural dilution that came with British colonialism”

 Kalakshetra Bharata Natyam’s approach to the dance as constructed in the distant past also was attractive to the diverse community of Colombo. It removed Bharata Natyam from being identified as a local Tamil tradition and positioned the practice instead as a universal Indian tradition, relevant to the subcontinent and the world through its association with Sanskrit and hence with antiquity, which attracted students from outside the religious tradition of Hinduism and the Tamil language. This opened doors for Sri Lankan students of various backgrounds to identify with the dance practice, and even Buddhist Sinhala students took up the form quite early in Bharata Natyam’s emergence. The dance, at its adoption in Sri Lanka in the early twentieth century, was already a multicultural phenomenon.”

 “In Colombo, Bharata Natyam grew in popularity after the establishment of the two dance academies founded by the two premier Tamil women’s cultural organizations. In 1945, Saiva Mangaiyar Kalaham established the School of Music and Dance, and in 1948, The Ceylon Tamil Women’s Union established the Kalalaya School of Music and Dance. Both schools taught the Kalakshetra Bharata Natyam style of the dance form. Soon after in November 1950, Bharata Natyam, along with other dances, was presented on a national platform at the first “All-Ceylon Dance Festival.” 

 “While Kalakshetra emerged strongly in Colombo, in other parts of the Sri Lanka, specifically Jaffna, Vazhavoor Ramiah Pillai’s style was prevalent in the early years of the island-nation’s Bharata Natyam practice. Vazhavoor style emerged in the largely Tamil community through the influx of Bharata Natyam movies, starring the beautiful and renowned Baby Kamala and Vijayanthi Mala Bali. The interest in Bharata Natyam through Tamil films was limited to a Tamil community, but Kalakshetra Bharata Natyam, through its universal, Sanskritic approach appealed to a diverse community in Colombo.”

Ahalya goes on to explain that while Kalakshetra put forth a very specific way of understanding and contextualizing Bharatanatyam, in Sri Lanka, “a range of understandings of the dance form circulated, complicating the accepted origins of the form and its cultural significance” and “the dance practice was assigned meanings and identities that resonated with ethnic and political significances.” At the 1950 All-Ceylon Dance Festival, Bharatanatyam was featured along with other Indian dance forms in the “Oriental” dance category alongside two other categories, “Western” and “Kandyan.” A second way of referring to Bharatanatyam dance was “Indian.” This was utilized by the press in writing about the festival but also by politicians as a way to infer “foreign” and “not Sri Lankan” amidst a movement to make “Indian Tamils” (brought to Sri Lanka as laborers during the British colonial period, distinct from “Sri Lankan Tamils” who were there before colonialism) leave the country. A third way of referring to Bharatanatyam was “Indigenous” as utilized by the Sri Lankan government when it set aside funding for the “advancement of indigenous dancing” of which Bharatanatyam was a part. This usage implied that Bharatanatyam was “part of Sri Lankan heritage accessed through Tamil traditions.” It seems that the discourse about Bharatanatyam in Sri Lanka shifted after the civil war. Ahalya notes that, “Tamil practitioners’ experiences of the riots and in life in Colombo after the official start of the war in the early 1980s inscribed the dance form with significance as a Tamil cultural practice, reflective of the Tamil people, their contribution to the state and their survival in difficult circumstances.”
Speaking of the difficulty in writing about Sri Lanka’s history and politics, Ahalya writes, “…sectarian politics pervade the country’s history and daily life experiences in Colombo. Similarly, the history of the island and the experiences of people on it are as contested as the warring parties that are presently fighting.” And I would say that, clearly, the history of Bharatanatyam in Sri Lanka and its varied discourses show how it is similarly contested and complex and remains so today. 
A Search for Identity…

Rangana Ariyadasa

So who was the mystery woman dancing in Hathara Maha Nidhanaya? While I came up empty handed in trying to answer that question, my research provided a lot of interesting information that compliments the points in Ahalya’s research.

The uploader of the Hathara Maha Nidhanaya dance identifies the dancer as Rangana Ariyadasa, but that is certainly a mistake. Rangana Nawodini Ariyadasa (Udayakumara) currently teaches Bharatanatyam at the eminent University of the Visual and Performing Arts in Columbo, but judging from her picture she is obviously much too young to be the dancer in Hathara Maha Nidhanaya—she was probably not even born in 1965! Rangana learned Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra and unlike some other Sinhalese dancers she says that “Bharatha dance is a Tamil art form…I won’t adapt it to to suit the Sinhala culture” (source article at no longer available).

Rangana’s mother, Padmini Dahanayake (Ariyadasa), was not only the first Srilankan Sinhalese to graduate in Bharatanatyam from Kalakshetra but also an actress and dancer in Sri Lankan films in the 1950s and 60s starting with a dance sequence in the 1955 film Sadasulang filmed in Chennai while she was studying at Kalakshetra at age 12. And she also choreographed a number of film dance sequences! But alas, once I looked at the photos of her and her film dance below, it was clear that the distinctively-nosed Padmini Dahanayake was not the same as the mystery dancer:

Here are a couple photos of Padmini Dahanyake in comparison to the mystery film dancer:

Top: Unknown film dancer
Bottom: Padmini Dahanayake

Padmini Dahanayake

Researching Padmini Dahanayake’s film dances led to another rare find—a second example of some Bharatanatyam-inspired filmi moves in the film Daruwa Kageda (Sinhala, 1961) released four years before Hathara Maha Nidhanaya. The fast footwork at the beginning and the adavu-inspirations at 1:50 and 2:23 are clearly taken from Bharatanatyam. But Padmini Dahanayake’s distinctive nose at certain angles makes it clear that she is not the same woman as the mystery film dancer.


Miranda Hemalatha

Miranda Hemalatha seemed another promising match at first. She was, like Padmini Dahanayake, a Sri Lankan Sinhalese woman who learned Bharatanatyam first at Rukmini Devi’s institution Kalakshetra, which she recalls as a negative experience, and then under Guru Adyar Lakshman. Miranda then returned to Sri Lanka in 1966 and became a very important governmental figure in dance education advancing to become the first Director of Aesthetic Education in 1984. According to an article at The New Indian Express, it is Miranda’s doing that, “in Sri Lanka today, Bharatanatyam is almost as “Sinhalese” as it is “Tamil”, and is as popular among Sinhalese girls as it is among the Tamils.” But a quick look at a photo of her revealed another disappointment in my search to identify the mystery film dancer.

Leela Samson recalls a number of Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans who studied at Kalakshetra from the 1940s to the 1960s. Speaking of Miranda, Leela remarked that she “has stood out not only for her devotion to tradition, but for her courageous and consistent efforts to add a Buddhist and Sinhalese flavour to an art form thought to be inextricably tied to Hindu religion and to the Tamil and Sanskrit languages. Her success is evident not just in the number of Sinhalese girls, who have taken to the art form, but in the use of Sinhala songs and Sinhala-Buddhist themes in their performances these days” (interview “Giving Bharatanatyam a Sinhalese Flavor” no longer available at

In the interview, Miranda describes the changes the changes she made to Bharatanatyam dance: “…I found that Sinhalese audiences at Bharatanatyam performances got bored, because they could not understand the songs and gestures. The Sinhalese identify themselves with the North Indian culture, and are far removed from Tamil culture and the Tamil language. I concluded that if I was to make any headway as a Bharatanatyam teacher in Sri Lanka, I had to make the art form relevant for the Sinhalese. I decided to introduce Sinhala songs and choreograph movements, while being within the set Bharatanatyam format.” It is interesting to compare this view with a teacher like Rangana Ariyadasa who feels that any alteration to the dance form is unacceptable.

Kamala Johnpillai 1950 - 1980 JohnpulleA distant possibility for the identity of the mystery dancer was Kamala Johnpillai (aka Johnpulle) “who was the first Sri Lankan who entered the Kalashethra in India, in 1945 and returned to Sri Lanka after four years training” (Daily News). According to Ahalya, Kamala Johnpillai was a Tamil Christian which explains Padmini Dahanayake’s claim to be the first Sri Lankan Sinhalese to graduate from Kalakshetra. I was extremely delighted to find at the online archive a scan of the 1998 Golden Jubilee Souvenir of the Kalalaya School of Music and Dance which revealed not only that Kamala Johnpillai was an eminent teacher there, especially in the 1950s, but also featured lots of old rare photographs and listed many names of dance students, teachers, and other important women. It’s a great resource for those studying the history of the Sri Lanka Tamil Women’s Union and Tamil women and Bharatanatyam dance in Sri Lanka. But the picture of Kamala Johnpillai did not look like a match.

Portions of an interview of Kamala’s as excerpted in Ahalya’s dissertation provide a personal perspective on Ahalya’s assertion that “Kalakshetra Bharata Natyam’s pan-Indic and Sanskritic approach was attractive to the diverse ethnic population in Colombo.” “My dancing career has taught me,” said Kamala, “that all religions teach us all to love God. The praises sung to the divine are all the same. I worship the Thipam with devotion at a dance recital. It is all an expression of devotion to the Divine. Classical Dancing and I believe all art forms cut through adroitly all barriers such as creed, race and caste and makes us all one in our devotion to the art forms and our devotion to God.”

Tirupurasundari Yoganantham

Looking into the background of another possible match for the mystery dancer, Tirupurasundari Yoganantham (aka Thiripurasundari Yoganantham), revealed some fascinating information and photos about the Vazhuvoor style of Bharatanatyam that flourished in the Jaffna region. Tirupurasundari learned Bharatanatyam under Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, the eminent guru of the great Kamala! She then became the principal and chief Bharatanatyam instructor of the school Kalaimanram established in 1958 in Jaffna by her father and inaugurated by Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai himself. The school shifted to Colombo in 1987. (sources: Daily, article at no longer available). The Kalaimanram website has some rare photos of Vazhuvoorar (as he was called) in Sri Lanka as well as Tirupurasundari that I’ve included here (source webpage no longer available but archived here)—once again, it is clear that she is not the mystery dancer! While that is a let down once again, the photos and descriptions suggest that Vazhuvoorar spent quite a bit of time in Sri Lanka, something I’ve not heard much about previously. I would love to know more about this and how Kamala was involved!

Master & Tiru from Kalaimanram website

Tirupurasundari Yoganantham from Kalaimanram website

Still searching for an identity match, I wondered if the mystery film dancer was perhaps one of the film actresses that Padmini Dahanayake was said to have trained, but a comparison of their photos quickly ruled out all but one. Jeewarani (nope), Clarice De Silva (nope), Sabitha Perera (likely not, seems to be a 1980s actress), late Sandya Kumari (nope) and Vigitha Mallika.” Vigitha (aka Vijitha) Mallika is listed as the main actress for Hathara Maha Nidhanaya, but this photo (and watching her in the film) makes it clear she is not the mystery dancer.  Another article referenced a Girly Gunawardane who had a dance sequence in the film Prema Tharangaya in 1953 and acted in a number of Sinhala films including Hathara Maha Nidhanaya, but this picture rules out that possibility yet again! So…I gave up on my search for now. If anyone knows who the mystery dancer might be I am all ears!

Nautch girls Ceylon postcardAs I wrote this post I realized that Sri Lanka is another place and archive search term that can yield rare “Indian” and diasporic dance finds. For example, that well-known image on the left was actually taken in Sri Lanka not India as it has sometimes been mistakenly labeled. Think of all the students who learned Bharatanatyam in the Jaffna region starting in the 1920s and images or film recordings that might have been taken. Quite a few photographs of Ceylonese nautch dancers from the colonial period are available, but I wonder what other finds out there await!


Further reading:

Related Posts:

The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in Utah! – Discussion about their performance with the Chitrasena Dance Company.
Indian Dances in Western Films About India: Part 3 (Orientalism) – Includes a nondescript “Oriental” dance by Miriam Pieris who was also known as Miriam de Saram and was apparently the “first Ceylonese woman to study, master, and perform publicly, both Kandyan and South Indian dancing.”
Film Dances/Appearances of Ram Gopal and Extant Dance Footage – Features a Kandyan dance in a Hollywood film choreographed by Ram Gopal

Comments are disabled on this page.