Dying glory
With little income and even less respect coming their way, the perahera artistes may soon be an extinct breed, and the perahera a relic of a bygone era reports Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Kandy: Pomp and pageantry. Glory and grandeur. Tradition and ritual. This is what the magnificent Esala Perahera of the venerated Sri Dalada Maligawa evokes.

Soon, however, tradition may come to an end, growing extinct like the caparisoned elephants which have played a jumbo role in this pageant. Not only the elephants, but also the dancers, drummers, kasa karayas and pandam holders are becoming harder and harder to find.

"Dalada vahanseta paaramparika rajakariya ishta karanna than enne ne," (They do not come forward to do their duty, handed down from generation to generation, towards the Dalada Relic) says P. Malagammana, the stocky and active 73-year-old Pannikkiya of the Malagammana paramparawa (clan).

It's the final day of the perahera and we are in the beautiful lake city of Kandy with its festive air and crowded streets. We are about to venture on a journey to the time of the kings, to get a glimpse of the rites and rituals followed in the hub of Buddhism in Sri Lanka -the Sri Dalada Maligawa, home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.

From ancient times, four families had been selected by royal decree to do the "Pannikki muraya" (the duties connected to the Maligawa). They were the clans of Malagammana from Ihala Dolos Pattuwa in Kurunegala; Molagoda from Pahala Dolos Pattuwa also in Kurunegala; Ihalawela from Dumbara and Uduwela from Matale. Their obligations were with the Maligawa, and they were honoured to perform its duties. In return, they were under royal patronage. Ninda gam were granted to them so that they were ensured an income. Now they come under the direct guidance of the Diyawadane Nilame.

The Pannikki duraya was also handed down from father to son or brother to brother and never went out of the designated families.

This rajakari kramaya has been there from that day to this without a break, says Malagammana, seated in a tiny room in the Maligawa, where the tools of their art are stored. Seconds before, he had hurried off four youth to the silver-embossed door of the Maligawa's inner sanctum with the words, "Dora ariya lamaine."

What are their duties, performed with clock-work precision day in, day out?

Each day, four people drawn from the Pannikki clans, have to attend to the thevawa of the Maligawa - at 6 and 10 o'clock in the morning and 7 o'clock in the evening.

The four tenderly and lovingly take out the daula, tammettama and geta bera (different types of drums) and horanewa (a trumpet-like instrument) from the two large cupboards near the entrance to the Maligawa, and play them while the rites are carried out and the dane is brought to the inner sanctum.

Routine work apart, as Esala approaches, the Pannikkiyas are summoned by the Diyawadana Nilame and instructed to organise the kasa, gini pandam, gini keli, hewisi and other dancers for the item of most importance on the Maligawa calendar. Dutifully, the Pannikkiyas go back to their villages and mobilise the veteran artistes and also the novices.

"Those days other people couldn't do it. For the Diyawadana Nilame would ask them who they were. They had to prove their Pannikki lineage," explains Malagammana who has been in the service of the Maligawa for 54 years, since 1948. His late brother, Simon Malagammana, a ves dancer of no mean repute, held the sacred designation of Pannikkiya of their clan before him. Now his face adorns the fifty-rupee note.

Now "outside" groups are also taken for the perahera for lack of these people.

In addition to the perahera mangalya in July, the Pannikki families also play a major role during the other three mangalyas. "The aluth sahal mangalya, when the new rice is harvested from the Maligawa's velyaya in Duruth (January), the avurudu mangalya in April and the kaarti mangalya in November," says Malagammana with nostalgia.

The signs, however, are not too good for him now. "There are aches and pains," he says taking out a sili sili bag with pink and white tablets. All this long while, since he was 19 years old, "the Dalada balaya" has kept him going. Dancers, drummers, all and sundry get wet and face an arduous schedule. But they hardly fall ill. Now, of course, age is taking its toll.

What then?

"There's no one to take over. This is a major problem that all pelapath are facing. Pannikki duraya abhavayata yanawa," he laments. His own two sons have not followed in his footsteps. They have taken to other jobs.

His fears are echoed with concern by the young and the old who are still trying to do their service by the Maligawa. During a breather from playing the daula at dawn last Tuesday, Upali Perera, 33, from the Iahalawela pelapatha, concedes that it seems to be a dying art. His brother was in the Maligawa before him.

No one to gayanne, vayanne, natanne
Chosen the best dancer of the perahera since 1986, Peter Surasena, who has moved with royalty, rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty but also danced on the streets of Kandy for the humble men, women and children of Sri Lanka, is an unhappy, disillusioned man.

Surrounded by pictures of his glory days, in his cosy home up a steep flight of steps in the Dumbara Valley, he sorrowfully looks at the bare skeleton of a building where he is attempting to set up his ayathanaya to propagate Uda-rata natum.

The rich traditions of the Kandyan art form may die out, if nothing is done urgently, stresses Surasena after winning three prestigious prizes for excellence in performance at the perahera just concluded. His son, Janaka too had won the prize for "The best young upcoming ves dancer".

"Even this tradition, giving recognition to the best in the perahera was not carried out fairly. Newcomers got awards, but some of the older proponents, who have performed on the world stage have been ignored. Many older artistes may drop out of next year's perahera," warned Surasena.

"Society looks at us with squint eyes. There is no place for the Kandyan dancer. The Diyawadana Nilame looks after us, but the state is doing absolutely nothing for our welfare," he says, adding that as a retired teacher he has his pension and a plot of land to cultivate but most others have nothing.

Dancing since the tender age of seven, Surasena, an expert in the ves dance form is critical of "robot dancers" especially in Colombo, who have commercialised ves and forgotten sirith virith. They have no talent, no creativity. Only your gurunnase after many, many years of learning and practice decided that you were suitable to don ves. (It is the dress and head dress, ritually put on you when your teacher decided that you were competent). Now they are doing it in schools and over the counter. Even some girls have been given ves. "Ves cannot be danced by women. That has been the tradition and it is not good to break it," says Surasena angrily.

The good paramparika artistes cannot live. Tell society our grievances. It's a case of "Colombata kiri, apita kekiri", he says. "We are like the rampe and karapincha which flavour a curry. We are used and then discarded. When this generation dies out, there will be no others to gayanne, vayanne and nattane."

What is Surasena's remedy?

* The compilation of a list of all upcountry dancers and their needs

* A central location and building for veterans to train young artistes in the Uda-rata dance form

* A system to look after the older artistes.

Gaunt and gnarled Raththaranan who not only blows the horanewa but can put his hand to most of the instruments learnt the art as a boy by just looking at others playing. From the Uduwela pelapatha, he is now 72 and hardly able to walk but the boyhood "asawa" still keeps him going. He is a happy man because, Sagara, his grandson is in the "trade", unlike the other youth who have left this glorious tradition for proper jobs with salaries.

"Sasthare egene ganne kemathi ne," he says, as we ask him why?

We get the answer from his grandson Sagara. "We are treated badly by society. People look down on us. Most young men are embarrassed to carry the bere because we get insulting looks from others. They use us, then discard us," he says.

Will he continue? He thinks he will carry on the proud tradition of his forefathers, but he is not sure. Just 21, he will have to wait and see.

Upali goes a step further and gives an example of how the feudal system still exists in Lankan society. "Several dancers and drummers were invited to a function at a posh house in Kandy. They were given a corner to stay in, worn pieces of mats to sit and sleep on and nothing to eat. How can you expect young people to take up this important work when we are treated like this? Even bus conductors don't allow us on their buses and drivers accelerate when they see the bere slung over our shoulder."

The bere has become a symbol of humiliation and lowly status.

Adds Malagammana, "Adyamak ne, padiyak ne, nadiyak ne." (We don't have an income, no pay, no way of surviving.) The ninda gam given to our forefathers have been divided and divided, coming down the generations. So no income comes from these either. At present, the Diyawadane Nilame looks after our needs very well. But we are ostracised by society. This has to change. This honour of doing our duty to the Maligawa, we have inherited at birth."

His guess is that in five years, this legacy would die a natural death, for the simple reason that there would be no takers.

"A system should be brought in to pay a permanent salary to those who do their duty by the Maligawa. A regular income, with a little respect is a must to foster this system."

Otherwise, our children's children may have to see the famous Esala Perahera not on the streets of Kandy but from photographs or videos, as a relic of the glory of a bygone era.

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