The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (known until 1972 as Ceylon) is an island nation in South Asia sharing maritime borders with India to the north-west and the Maldives to the south-west. It was an independent kingdom until the beginning of the 19th century when Great Britain invaded and colonized the country, becoming independent in 1948. Sri Lanka has a diversity of religions, languages and ethnicities: Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers (Portuguese and Dutch), Malays, and the indigenous Vedda. The country’s heritage boasts the earliest known Buddhist writings of Sri Lanka, the Pali Canon, which dates back to the Fourth Buddhist Council in 28 BCE.
The Pali Chronicle of Sri Lanka (post-canonical historical texts written in the Pali language covering the early history of Buddhism, its place in Sri Lanka, and recording the good deeds of the country’s early kings) mentions mechanical representations of gods coming and going with hands joined and mechanical horses that galloped here and there, as well as moving elephants decked with ornaments and adornments. There is also the question of “shadow players” (camma rupa) who were really royal spies. One assumes that the use of mechanical figures preceded manipulated puppets. A leather figure reference proves that shadow theatre was known in the country as early as the 12th century, though it has not continued into the present.
The term for puppet in Sri Lanka is rukada, literally “figure” or “doll”, ordinarily of wood. The representation of humans and animals was in the work of artist specialists, who also made masks, living on the south-east coast of the country. One imagines that some of them started to make whole dolls for entertainments on the road or at other sites. These travelling puppeteers joined with musicians and actors for performances at festivals and fairs. As Buddhists, they chose themes from religion as in India, and these puppets in Sri Lanka became the carriers of moral and religious values. However, puppetry as a dramatic art dates from the beginning of the 20th century when families of craftsmen were recognized as talented sculptors and performers.
The beginning of the puppet drama lies in the genre nadagama that had become very popular in the course of the 19th century. Actors and singers became manipulators. Unlike nadagama by actors, puppetry adapted and survived. The best-known play is Ahalepola nadagama, a historical drama which presents the story of the Ahalepola family who are victims of intrigue during conflicts between local kings and British colonizers.
The traditional marionettes form a small group around the village of Ambalongoda in the south of the island. There are only three or four troupes that are still active and play on demand. The group Sri Anura is among the most notable. The troupe’s director, Gamvari, continues the tradition of his father, who was one of the last master puppeteers. The family provides the performers. The troupe has puppets, scenic elements, lights, and the plays, which are meant for the village audience which gathers in a Buddhist temple or at a school. The sponsor of the event can be an individual, a religious association, or a social organization.
Puppetry has practically disappeared from the highlands where it was previously popular. At Jaffna in the north of the island, where Sri Lankan Tamils mostly live, it is called bhommalatam “dancing doll”, a name that indicates a South Indian influence (see India). The Tamil tradition of nadagama is related with the Ariccandra which consists of a series of plays drawn from the tale of King Hariscandra (Harishchandra), a character in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata.
The traditional puppets – string and rod puppets – are sculpted of local materials and are between 90-120 centimetres in height, but kingly or noble characters are larger and heavier. A troupe can have up to 200 figures. The set is a temporary structure set up by the group, who has brought the curtains, screens, and decorative drops, to the place of the performance.
The repertory is based on the Jatakas, tales of the previous lives (“births”) of the Buddha, or on historical stories. In each play the konangi or bahubhutaya, clown dancers, appear first. Next is a comic scene with a policeman and drunkard. To conclude, the head of the troupe demonstrates his skill with a “dancer”, a female puppet beautifully dressed and artfully manipulated.
The 20th and 21st Centuries
Puppetry was given hardly any recognition in Sri Lanka until the 1950s, but after independence, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Arts Council were established. The government then developed programmes to help traditional artists school and train young talent in workshops. Thus, Sri Anura Company was able to take part in several festivals abroad (Japan, Taiwan and India). At the same time the government encouraged the visits of foreign puppeteers (Czech, American, Australian, and Japanese in particular) to contribute to Sri Lankan artists’ development.
Through its Panel of Puppetry, the Arts Council of Sri Lanka has sought to promote the art of puppetry and maintain the tradition by national festivals, company competitions, prizes for top talents, as well as seminars and workshops held almost yearly.
Artists and troupes are also sensitive to new trends in puppetry. The public and private television channels provide puppet programmes for children or for adults, using political satire or Muppet-style puppets. The first puppetry school in Sri Lanka is that at Thidora Theatre, which is intended to help teachers and disabled as well as train contemporary puppeteers. A puppetry museum in Dehiwala has many examples of masks and puppets.
Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, there are no really long-term stable professional companies. An exception is Lamplight Puppeteers. Since the early 1960s, the Cruz family – Maxie and Yvonne Cruz, and for a time their four children, of Lamplight Puppeteers – have been presenting string puppets for entertainment, performing their shows at a variety of events all over Sri Lanka. In 2008, they were invited to perform at the UNIMA World Puppetry Festival held in Perth, Australia.
Recent collaboration using wayang golek of West Java have allowed intercultural collaboration between young Sri Lankan artists including Sulochana Dissanayake from Power of Play Comapany and Indonesian artists from Sunda (West Java) including dalang Batara Sena Sunandar Sunarya and Arief Nugraha Rawanda. They created performances with new puppet techniques borrowed from Indonesian wayang golek for Ruukada Golek, telling a modern story inspired by a Sri Lankan folk tale, mixing gamelan and Sri Lankan traditional drums (see Wayang). The show was sponsored by the Indonesian Embassy of Colombo. In 2012, with funding from the Goethe-Institut (German Cultural Institute) of Colombo, traditional Sri Lankan marionette artist Premin Ganvari was featured in Re-capturing Premin at the Jaffna Festival.
Puppets are used in AIDS education, corporate training, performances in the schools and other venues. At present there is a revival of contemporary puppetry in education and performance in Sri Lanka. The challenge is to draw the traditional puppeteers into the work since purely traditional work has limited appeal to contemporary audiences.