Dance of the Sri Lankan Kaffirs

Review of a performance at the John De Silva Memorial Theatre by M.D. (Tony) Saldin

They had come all the way from the village of Sirambiady in Puttalam to perform their traditional dance the “kaffiringa” and songs in Portuguese Creole - a mix of Portuguese and Swahili. The troupe comprising around 20 Kaffir men, women and children, three of them disabled, were led by their Chief, Peter Louis.

Two drums (dolak), a tambourine, two sets of metal spoons, a pair of coconut shells placed on a wooden box and an empty bottle with two coins completed their ensemble.

It was an exciting moment for me to see my first performance of “Kaffir Sthrella with Butterflies” at the John de Silva Memorial Theatre on April 5. The show was organized by THIDORA (Theatre Institute for Disability Oriented Research and Advocacy), an NGO whose mission is to enable the differently-abled by using performing arts to express themselves. The show was sponsored by CEPA (Centre for Poverty Analysis).

The show began with a song and dance performance called ‘Ro Ro Rowenka” of a group of men and women arriving in a boat and landing on our shores to the rhythmic beat of the coconut shells, followed by songs, City of Chalina, St. Anthony’s, Irandemy Irandemy, Arabic, John John, Madura etc. The song City of Chalina was especially moving, since the singers were yearning for a long lost mythical city of Chalina, possibly in distant Africa.

Their maiden music album “Kaffir Maanja of Sirambiady” was also launched and Ramani Damayanthi must be congratulated for her brilliant choreography. The music and artistic directors were Janaka Fonseka and Rohana Deva.

Distinctly evident in the older artists were the typical African features - the short curly hair, thick lips, broad noses and high cheekbones of the Negroid race. However, the younger generation whilst retaining certain elements of their forefathers, were more akin to Sinhalese, the reason being the gradual assimilation of the Kaffirs with the Sinhalese population of Puttalam. The reasons for assimilation is that in their former state, they were at a disadvantage and were marginalised in regard to jobs, schooling etc.

Originally believed to be professing the Islamic faith, the Kaffirs were brought to Ceylon by the Portuguese from Mozambique off Southern Africa, via Goa, around 500 years ago to assist in the building of forts and for their military campaigns. This practice was followed by the Dutch and the British colonialists as well. Not to be outdone, the Sinhalese kings also recruited Kaffirs to serve as bodyguards, palace guards and mercenary soldiers.

Numbering around 25 families in Sirambiady they are concentrated in Puttalam, Batticaloa and Trincomalee and are Catholics.

The Kaffirs of Puttalam now speak Sinhalese whereas those in Batticaloa and Trincomalee speak Tamil. When I asked their Chief Peter Louis as to how their race is stated in official documents he said “Lanka Caffres” or “Lanka Kapiri”.

The Sri Lankan Kaffirs numbering around 3000 definitely face extinction unless the state intervenes and affords them some form of protection, like the descendants of the Portuguese in Malacca. At the “Deyata Kirula” Exhibition held in December 2009 at the BMICH, the Kaffirs proudly displayed a photograph of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in their stall to affirm that they are citizens of Sri Lanka by descent.

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