Kolam is a kind of dramatic and colorful performance which was considered to be a very popular traditional dance drama in the Sothern and South Western parts of Sri Lanka about three/ four decades ago. According to historical evidence, Kolam drama has existed from the time of 5th century B.C. With regard to some legends, it is said that this genre of drama has a history spanning more than 2500 years.
In the past, Kolam drama was performed in Sri Lanka at least once a year by troupes who lived in cities such as Mirissa, Ambalangoda, Maha Ambalangoda, Olaboduwa, Pokunuwita, Hokandara and Gampaha. Nevertheless, today such performances are conducted by one or two groups and are quite rare. As a result, it is considered to be one of the dying art forms in the country. Since this particular kind of dance drama cannot be found in any other part of the world, a few Sri Lankan artistes have taken steps to preserve this art form for posterity. I have personally collected different types of Kolam masks and costumes and have conducted various workshops on Kolam plays and presented Kolam drama performances islandwide with the intention of reviving this art form.
Regarding the definition of the term Kolam some scholars have argued that the word has its origins in South India. M.D. Raghavan, a well known Indian research scholar has mentioned that the word kolam is epistemologically a Tamil word of wide significance meaning “representation” or "a figure very much out of the ordinary”. In his book titled Sinhala Natum he states that:
It is applied specifically to signify a man wearing a strikingly distinctive costume, a person altogether disguised. This Latter is the extended sense in which the term is applied to the art of Kolam of Ceylon (Raghavan 78)
Another meaning given to the word is found in South India. For the Hindus, Kolam is a type of sand painting that is drawn using white and coloured rice flour by the female members of the family. Every morning millions of South Indian women draw Kolam on the courtyards of their residences using rice flour. The Hindu women in Sri Lanka also engage in this type of activity on Thaipongal day. Moreover, Kolam Thullal, which is one of the ritual dance forms in Kerala, is performed in houses and temple festivals in order to exorcise evil spirits from “possessed” bodies. The word Kolam as it is used in Sri Lanka is specifically used amongst Sri Lankan women. For instance, when they see a person wearing unconventional attire or behaving uncouthly they say “Mona Kolamak dha!” (“oh! What a Kolama”). Moreover, in instances where someone starts to make unnecessary jokes or does something to annoy them, they may say “Maath ekka kolam karanna enna epa!” (Don’t come to do Kolam with me!”). Apart from all the above mentioned definitions of the word, it is also used in Sri Lanka as the name given to a particular traditional folk drama.
The main distinguishing feature of the Kolam play is that the all performers wear masks, except for two of the characters: Kariyakarawanarala [Sabevidane] (the chief narrator) and Sabhapathi (actors who welcome the audience). Yet another notable factor is that all the characters in the plays, including the female roles, are performed by male actors. There are various kinds of masks that are compatible with the different types of character representations. The following is a list of the different types of masks used in the Kolam plays: Masks depicting,
Selection of the masks depends on the particular God in the story that is being represented. For example, there are masks ranging from that of God Sakra to other less awesome gods.
There are various kinds of masks belonging to various categories that range from kings and queens to lay people.
There are many Raksha some of whom are known as Gurulu Naga, Kava, Ginijal, Kutaka, Maru, Gara etc.
Only a very limited number of demon characters can be found in Kolam Drama.
Animal characters are present in some of the stories. Each of these characters has its own features and costumes. Examples of some of these animals are the lion, tiger, bull, cock, jackal, dog, bear etc.
Among the Kolam masks we can find several masks representing mythical creatures and beings found in Indian as well as Sri Lankan myths .j.e. Panchanari Gata, Narilatha, Naga kanya, Surabhavalle, Narasinghe, Avathara, Ananga, Bahirava etc.
Although the above mentioned masks have set features, the dramatists’ varied movements reflect the subtle nuances of the characters. This mobility of expression manifested throughout the performance is testimony to the effective use of the Kolam masks. These masks are crafted using the bark of a particular tree (called Wel Kaduru Stychnos nux vomica) which grows near river banks. This particular wood is used since it is light, easy to carve and durable. In order to paint the masks natural organic material are used. These include: Alliyadu, a mixture of resin powder and oil Stones or fossilized matters
Kolam drama is performed in the courtyard of a house or out in the open. This is called the Ranga Bhumiya or Sabe. The audience gathers around the circular shaped arena. The background of the arena consists of a structure that resembles a cyclorama in the present stage. It is made out of ariconut leaves and is referred to as Wesaththa; all the performers enter the open arena from behind the Wesaththa. At the centre, there is a altar decorated with flowers called the malyahana. This special structure which is created using coconut leaves and strips of banana bark is used as the place in which offerings are made to the Buddha and the Deities.
Around the arena, a string of coconut leaves resembling a chain is used so as to separate the actors from the audience. The audience is seated on the floor beyond this demarcation. The arena is decorated with nuts and fruits such as king coconuts, young coconuts, ariconuts and bananas which are hung on both sides of the wesaththa. Although presently electric lights are used, during ancient times lights called Kitson lights illuminated the performance area. The aile, a special structure, is built on one side of the arena, and this is where the chief priest disguised as the gara yaka (the demon who is supposedly able to ward off evil) performs his ritualistic dance.
The play usually begins at about nine o'clock at night and lasts till dawn. A special drum part is played by two Low-country drummers in order to notify the impending commencement of the performance to the villagers. This is similar to the kelikothtu, a special drum part that is played before the start of the traditional dance drama in Kera called Kathakali.
The subevidane, in other words, the narrator, enters the arena along with the singers, dancers and drummers. Usually, two drummers and a horana player provide the music for some of the songs sung by the narrator and his chorus. Each time the narrator sings a line of verse, the chorus repeats it. These invocatory stanzas written in highly sanskritised diction are sung so as to pay homage to the Buddha, Dhamma, Sanga ( the triple gem) and the gods. Next, the narrator describes how Kolam drama first originated.
With regard to the origin of the play, the conventional derivation of the art is traced to an ancient myth. The story is that King Mahasammatha's wife, once she became pregnant, had a longing to see a mask dance. Just as women may have various types of cravings while they are with child (which in Sinhala is called dola dukha) the queen's desire was one that had to be met. Despite not having this kind of dance form in his kingdom, the king commanded his ministers to organize such a performance. While the ministers were trying desperately to find some way of staging such a show, God Sakra intervened and with his supernatural powers he made masks appear from out of nowhere. Masked dancers followed and the queen's dola dukha was finally satiated.
Subsequent to the narration of this tale, two unmasked Sabapathi characters enter the scene. This is similar to the prologue found in modern plays. They sing an invocation to Lord Buddha and the gods and also welcome the patron of the show. Afterwards, there is a dialogue between Kariyakarawanarala (the narrator) and the sabapathi with regard to the rest of the proceedings of the show. The Kolam play officially begins after the departure of these characters.
The first group of characters to come on stage is police constables. This scene is known as the Police Kolama and it is performed by five players (as policeman including an Inspector Sergeant) They take necessary action to protect the place and exit. Next appears the Vidane Arachchi (village headman) followed by his attendant who holds a big palm leaf over his head. Vidane Arachchi gives orders to his attendant to count the number of people gathered in the audience and to note it down on an ola leaf.
The next scene is the Andabera Kolam, the item of the village crier, Pannikkala. He plays the role of a drunkard who announces the impending arrival of the king and the queen to the audience. The narrator sings the following verses to introduce Pannikkala :
(With walking stick in hand and the davula hanging over his shoulders he goes to different villages announcing the arrival of the royal couple)
After uttering a lot of gibberish, he falls to the ground in a drunken stupor. At this point his wife, Nonchi akka, enters the arena looking for her husband. She is a very old woman who does not like to be considered as old and ugly. When the narrator calls her a grandmother she scolds him and tries to hit him. When he calls her "sister", she is overwhelmed with joy and rushes to embrace him. Finally, she discovers her husband lying on the ground and calls for her children to come and Finally, Panikkala is dragged out of the arena with the assistance of her children.
The next item is the Hewa Kolama. The narrator sings the following verse to introduce the characters who are to yet enter the arena:
(With a sword in one hand and a walking stick on the other, comes the hewa rala. What point is there of looking at other kolam, come quickly and take part in this kolam)
The soldiers enter the arena from all four directions. Their masked faces appear distorted as a result of the various battles they have faced and leeches are hanging from their faces. They tell the audience that they are brave and have engaged in fierce combat. As a result they have disfigured faces. After demonstrating their skills with the sword they depart.
The stage is next prepared for the Jasa Kolam, i.e. Laundry man. He tells the audience that he comes from the city of Kalinga (Orissa). He talks about his two wives who are very beautiful and helpful. Subsequently, he starts a fight with a villager named Appuhami who is having an affair with one of his wives, Lenchina. They quarrel with each other and the Mudliyar is summoned to solve this problem. Being a womanizer himself, he too starts to flirt with the woman in question. Nevertheless, Mudliyar manages to solve this issue by advising everyone to sort things out in a rational manner.
All the above mentioned Kolam are called the Paniwida Kolam or Messenger Kolam. Soon after these Kolam, the king and the queen make their grand entrance. They get seated on a special platform and are ready to witness the different dances. First in line is the Sinha Kolama followed by Naga Kanya, Naga Raksha, Guru Raksha, Surambha Walli, Narilatha, Panchanarigata, Kava Raksha, Maru Raksha etc. After watching these performances, they leave the arena. Before the commencement of the main story the Karapita Kolama, Kapiri Kolama, and Lansi Kolama are generally played. This is like an interlude to the main event.
Consequently, one of the following stories will be performed on stage: Sandakinduru Kathawa, Gotymbara Kathawa, Chathrapani Kathawa and Maname Kathawa. The Sandakinduru Story is a well known Jataka story known as the Channakinnara Jataka. The Kunduras are mythical beings who are half man/woman and half bird. They live in the Himalaya Mountains. The story revolves around two kinduras and the king of Bambadath.
Another famous story, the Maname Kathawa is about Prince Maname who goes to Thakshila for his studies. Being the best pupil, his guru gives his daughter a hand in marriage to him. On their way home, the prince and his young wife have to pass through the forest. In the middle of the jungle they meet a hunter who falls in love with the prince's wife. Just as Maname lifts his sword to kill the hunter, the woman grabs the sword and hands it over to the enemy. This is because she has been taken over by the masculine physical appearance of the hunter. Finally, the prince dies and Maname Bisawa is abandoned in the forest since the hunter tells her that such a fickle woman like her cannot be trusted as she might do the same thing to him some day.
Once the main story finishes, the Gara Wes Pama takes place. A powerful raksha climbs on to the aisle and performs a ritualistic dance that invokes blessings upon all those who have taken part in the performance. Finally, a special drum beat called pin bera is played to signal the end of the show.
Taking into consideration what has been discussed so far, we can note that the Kolam is a highly complex and rich art form of considerable historical value that consists of dancing, acting, miming, singing, and drumming. In addition, the use of intricately carved colorful masks and vibrant stage decorations are further testimony to this fact.
Indeed such a valuable and unique performing arts tradition has to be preserved and protected so as to prevent it from becoming a dying art form. It should be revived and performances have to be organized not only in Sri Lanka but also in other parts of the world so that it will not only be limited to written descriptions about Kolam drama but to actual live performances.
King "Mahasammatha" & his Queen (taken from a scene of a traditional Kolam play)