Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka

By Weidman, Amanda | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka


Weidman, Amanda, Anthropological Quarterly


Susan Reed, Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, 328 pp.

In many places in the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, practices formerly associated with ritual have been secularized, severed from their ritual contexts, and transformed into performances of "cultural" heritage. This transformation, whether described as folklorization, aestheticization, cultural objectification, or the invention of tradition, always involves assimilation to new values as the newly conceived performances are inserted into new contexts and new hierarchies of power. Susan Reed's historical ethnography of Kandyan dance clearly illustrates this process, documenting how a local ritual-based dance form was transformed into a symbol of Sinhala ethnicity and Sri Lankan national culture. The anthropological importance of the book lies in its consideration of the effects of this transformation on the community of traditional dancers and on new groups of performers, particularly women. The book is based on the author's extensive field research, conducted for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including her own study of Kandyan dance with teachers from the traditional dancing community and stage performers. The book is accompanied by a DVD with extensive footage of a traditional kohomba kankariya ritual and demonstrations of Kandyan dance technique and performance.

What is today known as Kandyan dance is derived from the kohomba kankariya, traditionally a post-harvest ritual performed to propitiate the local deities of the Kandyan region of Sri Lanka. As a ritual complex, the kankariya included not only dance, but singing, prose recitation, drumming, drama, and comedy, all based loosely on the central origin myth of the Sinhala people. The first chapter of Dance and the Nation details the kohomba kankariya ritual and the dances that traditionally took place as part of it. The second chapter describes the traditional community of dancers, the Beravas, who were one among a group of service castes, and their relationship to their traditional patrons, the Kandyan elites.

The third chapter situates transformations of Kandyan dance in the political and cultural context of Sri Lanka in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, with particular regard to British colonialism and the cultural renaissance in Colombo, both of which began the process of defining and recontextualizing Kandyan dance apart from the ritual. The fourth chapter focuses on the history of the dance in Sri Lanka's post-independence period, when rising Sinhala nationalism spurred the redefinition of Kandyan dance as a specifically Sinhalese tradition, opposed to Tamil dance traditions. During this period, the state directly intervened in the transformation of the dance, becoming the most powerful patron and sponsoring the establishment of numerous dance schools.

The last three chapters of the book consider the new contexts of the dance and their effects on groups of performers and the meaning of the dance itself. The fifth chapter considers the plight of the traditional Berava dancers in the new context of dance schools, cultural heritage performances, and international tours-contexts which are defined around middle-class values of respectability. Ironically, while Beravas have been recognized as bearers of "national" tradition, that recognition, by both Sri Lanka's middle classes and by the state, comes at a price: Berava dancers must conform to middle-class notions of respectability or risk being marginalized or forgotten. …

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