The Traditional Culture of Ceylon and its Present Position

One of the effects of colonialism in Ceylon was the creation of a new upper class who adopted the English language as its home language, took English names, and followed English manners to as nice a degree of perfection as they were capable of, and in every possible way, tried not to identify themselves with the people of the country. They patterned their lives and their interests on those of their rulers, and would know about the latest happenings in English in the field of art or music or literature. The upper classes (including the higher stratum of the middle class) constituted, therefore, a cultural and linguistic group forming a minority within the wider group of the Sinhalese people with whom they were related only by blood. The cultural situation in Ceylon within the past fifty odd years could be best understood in the light of this social phenomenon.

The extent of the rift between the upper classes and the rest of the people appears to have been greater in Ceylon than in any Asian country including those that came under the rule of Western powers. In India the upper classes still had their roots in the traditional culture although they learned the English language, read English literature, and became aware of new values and new ideals of life and art through their contact with the West. Particularly in Bengal, the contact with Western culture proved a stimulus to the native culture and produced a flowering of it, and the leadership came from the upper and middle classes who, not being so cut off from their traditional roots as the Sinhalese upper classes, were able to incorporate whatever they wished of Western culture into the pattern of the indigenous culture so as to make it more vital in the context of present day industrial civilization and make it more acceptable to the modern mind. As a result of this rift, literature and art lost its patronage in Ceylon. The new upper classes, constituting the big businessmen, owners of tea, rubber and coconut plantations and the professional people with higher incomes had no interest whatsoever in the literature or the arts of Ceylon. Hence, although there has been a revival in literature, drama and music, brought about by contact with the West and by new contacts with India made possible by modern methods of communication, this revival had for its patrons only those of the lower middle class and part of the city working class, and people of the upper classes have remained completely unaware of the fact that around them there is being created a new literature, a new music and a new drama which is striving to take place in the national life. In fact, the revival often had as its theme, the satirizing of the upper classes for their wholesale imitation of the English.

The above remarks apply mostly to Colombo and the coastal suburbs. The village culture continued to some extent, in those villages, particularly where there was a fairly wealthy landed class who had not adopted Western taste, and in those suburban towns like Ambalangoda, Matara and certain parts of Galle, where the wealthy small businessmen arose in place of the landed gentry of the village. In the Kandyan province, the survival of the feudal aristocracy and the retention by some of the big temples of the old system of service tenure of annual ceremonies like pereharas, gave the arts continued patronage, and hence arts like Kandyan dancing still possess something of their old vitality. Although the Kandyan aristocracy became as anglicized as the upper class of Colombo, their official position as chieftains made it necessary to retain something of the traditional culture, at least for ceremonial purposes, and hence they have preserved their dresses, and a few of their customs and continued to patronize dancers and musicians for festive occasions.

Of the dances and varieties of drama now surviving among the people (some of these are on a higher level of sophistication than arts that would fall under the category of “folk arts” ) may be mentioned the following:

1. Kolam, the mask dance and drama of the Southern coastal regions

2. Nadagam, the traditional stylized operatic play which survives still, mainly in Southern parts of Ceylon, with its own system of music and dance.

3. Sandakinduru, Maname and such folk plays which survive now in the Kandyan provinces, around Peradeniya and Kandy, but which appears to have originated in the South from Kolam.

4. Sokari, a village play confined to the Kandyan provinces, truly rustic or “folk” in character.

5. The Kandyan dance.

6. Several extremely interesting folk dances, like the sword dance, the pot dance and pole dance of which no proper survey of record has yet been made.

Sarachchandra, Ediriwira. Tradition, Values and Modernization: An Asian Perspective. S.Godage, 1995