The mask-makers of Ambalangoda

The southern costal town of Ambalangoda is famous for its mask and puppet making. The Pearl crew decided to learn more about this rather fascinating trade and proceeded to Ambalangoda. We visited a couple of leading mask makers in town, namely Lanka Masks and Ariyapala and Sons.

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Masks are made in Sri Lanka for certain traditional dance rituals that have existed since medieval times. ‘Kolams’ are stories mocking Sri Lankan colonial life, and their masks reflect the peculiar humour of these dances. ‘Sannis’ are more ancient devil dancing masks (as depicted in the first photo above, called Daha Ata Sanniya – 18 ailments), used in a type of exorcism ceremony (now seen rather rarely), to heal people of persisting illnesses believed to be inflicted by demons. ‘Raksha’ masks, which are again “devils”, are used in festivals and processions.

The workshop at Lanka Masks was closed that day, but we were able to speak to the proprietor (Mr. R.M. Palitha) and he kindly showed us around the small showroom, which was adorned with some beautiful masks and puppets, like the ones above. We noticed that many of the masks incorporated animals prominent in Lankan folklore, like the cobra or the peacock (see below).

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We thereafter proceeded to Ariyapala and Sons, where the curator of their famous “Mask Museum”, Ms. Kanchanana Wijesooriya, told us her story, which was so fascinating and moving that we thought we’d share it with our readers, along with some images of the exhibits.

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“The mask making business was started by my grandfather Ariyapala gurunanse (maestro) in Hirewatte, Ambalangoda. My father Bandu Wijesooriya was his eldest son. Today we see that many artists have problems in making a livelihood while engaged in their form of Art. It seems that Arts and Livelihood are in conflict with each other most of the time, and this has been witnessed all across the world”.

“About 25 years ago a German scholar by the name of Prof. Wolfgang Mey came to Sri Lanka to study the folk tradition of Kolam. After researching in various parts of the country, he came to meet my grandfather. That is how Professor Wolfgang got to know my father who was a Mask maker and a businessman at the time. My father had witnessed the changes in society and the decline of the Kolam art was a very painful experience to him. One day professor Mey came to our home to meet my father to talk about the tradition. They were so engrossed that they took the entire day and continued into the early hours of the next morning as well. By the time the discussion was over, a transformation had taken place, and my father had made up his mind to dedicate himself solely to the art of Kolam. He had long feared that the tradition would die away if nothing was done about it. Giving an opportunity to the world to see and learn this tradition was the only way to keep it alive. Professor Mey also pledged his support and with the help of the former West Germany, the museum was started in 1987. To help sustain the museum, the Bandu Wijesooriya School of Dancing was also established. We teach traditional forms of Sri Lankan dancing such as Kolam, Kandian and Sabaragamu dances there”.

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“I believe that this was the milestone in the revival of the Art of Kolam in Sri Lanka. My father encouraged my sister and I to follow the same art, and naturally we too were very much attracted by it.  My father’s work resulted in much discussion about this art in Sri Lanka, and some debate as well, particularly as my father encouraged his two daughters to perform in Kolam. For the Kolam tradition has never involved females before, and this was a drastic change made in order to keep the very Art alive. The research of Professor Wolfgang helped trigger past memories of what my grandfather had taught him (my father). He delved deep into the subject to share his knowledge. Carving each a mask involves a deep meaning or story behind it. It is interesting to see how the buddhist culture and lifestyle has been intermingled in those messages carried to society. But the real beauty is the way social issues were ‘voiced’ through the art of Kolam”.

“Most Kolam  dances were satyrical accounts of various social issues brought out by the colonial culture. It was a refined medium for raising these issues in a powerful way, as opposed to brute force. “Jasa – Lenchina” is such an example, among many others. In the olden days the village was like a large family. Children used to call neighbours “nandey” (aunty) or “mamey” (uncle). Now you see a culture based on status, position, lifestyle or job. In the traditional village even the washer people were an important link in the chain of activities and were treated with dignity. It seems to me that our society absorbed more negative elements brought out by colonial rulers, leaving many of the good elements out.  Kolam brings out powerful messages through very simple, and often humorous dialogue. That is the most outstanding aspect of Kolam. In the past, when a Kolam dance was performed, people from all walks of life took part. These included the noble as well as the ordinary. VIPs did not need special invitation, as it is done today. Yet they took a keen interest and enjoyed the event thoroughly. It was a very effective way of passing the message to all sections of society and to make a deep impression in their minds, and to influence their way of thinking”.

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“Kolam dances were held every year in the past.  Nowadays people don’t seem have much leisure time to take part in traditional events. Theatres were not available with lighting and sound systems, so folks used only the available resources. In the inner parts of the country the “kamatha” (a flat earth-mound within a paddy field used to extract and filter paddy) was used as the platform. Here in the coast is was the beach. A “wes aththa” (a canopy and backdrop for the dance made out of various leaves)  was constructed. The dancers would dress themselves behind this backdrop, which took the place of the curtains in modern theatres. The audience would just walk in from all around and stand or sit in front to watch the dance proceeding. But I feel that we also have to change with the times and adapt ourselves for the survival of the art itself. So I introduced the Kolam dance into the theatre a few years ago. As a symbol of the past, I made the backdrop to portray the beach. There were subtle changes to the folk songs and tunes whilst preserving the past traditions within them. I think it was well accepted. A part of it can be viewed on Youtube - http://youtu.be/QULRW6fAdMk.”

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“I run the museum and my sister who is a qualified dancing teacher runs the Bandu Wijesooriya School of Dancing now. There are other partners in this institution. We are happy to be a part in carrying the legacy forward and as women we find it easy enough to do while our husbands are involved in their own work to support our families. The business helps us to keep the art alive. We conduct  Kolam and traditional dancing classes for our livelihood and it is sufficient for us. Although the typical dancing course takes a year or so, short courses are available for foreigners as well.”

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Ms. Wijesooriya didn’t forget to show us around the mask factory, where all the hard work was being done by a group of extremely talented artisans.

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Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photography | Ruwan Rajapakse (Daha Ata Sanniya, Rajasinghe Puppets, Peacock Mask, Wall of Masks), Danushka Senadheera (Mask of King in blue background, Museum photos of King and Queen with Devils, the Kolum dancer, the red puppet, Nilu & Ms. Wijesooriya), Nilu Rajapakse (The Mask Factory at work)

1 Comment

  • can you make punch and Judy puppets for us we can send photos. we got some from sri lanLanka many years ago. thank you john

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