of the masks
'Ves' in Sinhala means to disguise. We talk of 'ves marukaranawa'
to indicate disguise. 'Ves gannawa', means to dress up and we often
refer to a person changing his attitude in terms of 'ves peralenawa'.
The 'ves natuma' is a form of Kandyan dancing and the 'ves muhuna'
is a mask which is worn over the face of a dancer or an actor.
idea in wearing a mask is to hide your real identity. You then project
a different character or personality. The mask is used in ritual
or dance drama to transform the wearer into a specific character.
It sends out a multi-faceted effect visually, theatrically and symbolically.
are used extensively in ritualistic performances. 'Thovil' is a
common form of ritual dancing in rural Sri Lanka performed mainly
to seek redress from illnesses or to ward off evil spirits.
is the common belief that certain ailments are caused by unseen
hands and that they should be chased away for the patient to get
cured. If an individual or a family is not doing well, the village-folk
believe that it's because that person or the family is being harassed
by unseen hands. A 'thovil' ceremony is the answer.
'thovil' can be a simple ritualistic ceremony at home restricted
to family and immediate neighbours or involving the whole village
like the 'gam-maduva' or the 'devol-maduva' which is closely linked
to the worship of gods. Masked dancers take part in at least two
of the well-known 'thovil' ceremonies referred to as the 'Maha Sohon
Samayama' and the 'Gara Yakuma'. The mention of 'Moha Sohona' frightens
the people since he is believed to be the demon of the graveyards.
performer disguises himself as a bear and wears a mask and a dress
to resemble one. Often the 'thovil' involves the 'sanni' dances
where all the dancers wear masks. The 'daha ata sanniya' refers
to sixteen ailments with a demon being responsible for each one
wearing masks take part in processions while at certain ceremonies,
masks are used to depict different characters. Of later origin are
the masks worn by children and teenagers at street performances
during Vesak. Popularly known as 'olu bakko' for the simple reason
that oversize masks are worn, these performances keep the younger-folk,
in particular, entertained.
there are the dance-dramas which have developed in their own style
in different parts of the country. The use of masks is common in
these, particularly in the 'kolam', the popular dance-drama tradition
in the South of Sri Lanka. Referring to 'kolam' as 'masked plays',
which survive to this day chiefly in the coastal townships like
Mirissa, Ambalangoda and Bentara, Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra
has written that they are chiefly distinguished by the fact that
the actors wear masks that are elaborately carved out of some kind
of light wood and painted in bright colours.
Sarachchandra lists over fifty characters in his 'Folk Drama on
Ceylon' who are presented in a 'kolam'. Starting from the crier
(anabera kolama), the soldier (heva rala), the aratchi (aratchi
kolama) and the mudaliyar (mudali kolama) the list proceeds in the
order the characters are presented. These characters are identified
by the masks they wear.
his in-depth study of masks, Professor M. H. Goonatilleka says that
Kolam masks represent character types or specific personalities
whose distinctive features are portrayed or exaggerated by means
of carving and painting of characterizing details and iconographic
elements. According to him, the mask is not a static object or an
immobile, three-dimensional representation. It is always in movement
and is only fully meaningful in the dynamic context of the dance
and the dance-drama.
the kolam masks into three, Prof. Goonatilleka categorises them
as human, supernatural and animal. Human masks may either be straightforward
or caricatures. Masks of gods, goddesses and other mythological
figures belong to the category of supernatural masks which include
demon masks as well. Animal masks are basically straightforward.
masks include the royal masks as well as officials like the ministers,
the mudliyar, the village headman and the policeman. Then there
are a host of others like the chettiar (trader), the Tamil man,
the laundry-man, the drummer and his wife Nonchi, and Lenchina,
Jasaya's wife in the popular folk tale, bringing a touch of humour
to the story.
masks which are made from light wood like 'kaduru' or 'ruk attana'
to ensure that they are not heavy at all, are designed to bring
out the facial features of the different characters. The mudali
and the headman, for example, are proud officials who like to show
their authority. They belong to a higher caste and the villages
are scared of them.
masks worn by these characters would display features that indicate
their positions of authority. In contrast, there would be the 'gama
raala' and the 'gama mahage', simple village folk who would wear
masks to suit their characters. Beards, moustaches and side burns
indicate the social status of the different characters.
supernatural masks belong to two categories – legendary figures
of a basically human type and those of demons. These masks are much
more elaborate than the human masks, particularly those of female
characters. The 'nari-lata', for example, is a very ornate-looking
mask with a floral creeper headdress. A bare-breasted figure emerges
from the foliage which also forms her skirt. The demonic masks too
have elaborate headdresses and large ear-pieces. Cobras in different
patterns and positions are a marked feature in these.
masks, particularly the bear and the leopard, are used in ritual
ceremonies to represent demonic characters. The lion, the crocodile,
the fox and the bull are among the other animal masks.
is a folk dance form confined to the hill country performed on the
'kamata' (threshing floor). Sarachchandra says that the play serves
no purpose except that of entertainment.
actors use masks which are much smaller and less elaborate than
kolam masks. These are traditionally made from the leaf of the 'kolon'
tree or the leaf sheath of the arecanut palm.
mask is an artistic creation used to portray characters –
both realistic and mythical. They are very much part of Sri Lankan
heritage and should be preserved for the future.