Shawl Dance

A part of the rich traditions of southern Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is home to many rich cultural traditions of dance, which have been intrinsically woven into the fabric of the lives of the villagers.

The people of ancient Sri Lanka regarded dance as being the best way by which to appease the gods, and used many ritualistic dances to save themselves from natural adversities like sickness. The dances of the South are one such case in point. Popularly known as Ruhuna or Low Country dances, they differ significantly from the dance forms of other parts of the country, and are ritualistic in character and associated with folk religious beliefs. Exorcism plays an important role in the folk medical belief system of the deep South and the southern coastal belt of Sri Lanka.

All dancers wear wooden masks on their faces, some comic, others demonic. Mask and drum are inseparable in low-country dance. An example of a comic dance is the salu paliya, or Shawl Dance, which is a ritual exorcism and dance drama intrinsic to the South.

It is dynamic and energetic, performed by a dancer wearing a colourful yakka wesmuhuna or devil mask made of light wood, who engages the audience with comic action performed to the rhythmic beat of drums.

The funny character, complete with pot belly – very similar to the pantomime characters of the West- makes jokes that evoke much laughter. Needless to say, this is a dance that appeals widely to all audiences, both young and old.

The salu paliya is one of 18 healing rituals or sanni yakuna, based on the belief that certain sicknesses of body and mind are due to the malevolent influences of demons and can be cured by driving out the demon responsible for such affliction, through ritualistic dancing. The salu paliya is one of twelve palis or dance themes that herald the ritual for the exorcist's arrival.

Each dance pali uses some object in the ritual, from which its name is derived: in the case of the salu paliya it is the white scarf or salu draped about the shoulders of the dancer that which he weaves skillfully and gracefully through the air as he dances to the beat of the drums, in the glow of coconut oil lamps. The entire scene has a mesmeric effect. Performances commence after nightfall and continue until the early hours of morning.

Many traditional dance forms survive as entertainment along the littoral belt of the South to this date. Folk craft is one means by which traditional art forms have been preserved.

The colourful masks used in dance have become an integral part of the country's rich and ancient folk traditions, and have led to the evolution of a tradition of rural handicrafts in mask carving on the Southern coastal belt. In the traditions of the South, the exorcist was a folk artisan, a good dancer, drummer as well as adept in mask carving.

These dances, once confined to the rural areas of Sri Lanka have now won international recognition and acclaim, and are being performed on stages the world over.

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