The dying art of puppetry

A perusal of the ancient historical records relevant to anthropology reveals that the origin of puppetry as a form of folk art goes as far back as 3,000 years. Similarly, some anthropologists are of the opinion that the origin of puppetry is contemporaneous with the history of human civilisation.

The puppets made out of terra cotta and ivory unearthed during the excavations carried out in prehistoric graveyards can be cited as one of the undisputed proof of this theory.

Reference to puppetry is also found in the philosophical treatises complied by the Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato.

A puppet show

Ambalangoda in the south coast of Sri Lanka is renowned as a repository of traditional Sri Lankan folk art, folk dramas and ancient rituals passed down from generation to generation. The traditional puppeteers of Ambalangoda are well versed in Nadagam dance forms as well.

Gamvari Podisirina Gurunnanse was the founder of the puppetry tradition which is still in existence around a few suburban villages of Ambalangoda. In 1922, the Prince of Wales visited Sri Lanka and as a mark of honour to Royalty, an exhibition was held at Victoria Park in Colombo.

Podi Sirina Gurunnanse got the rare opportunity to stage a puppet show for the Prince of Wales. The Prince was so pleased with the puppet show, that he felicitated Podisirina Gurunnanse by presenting him a gold medal and Rs. 500 in recognition of his talents.

First puppeteer

Podisirina Gurunnanse was the first puppeteer in Sri Lanka to bring credit to the country on the folk art of puppetry.

Since then, Gate Mudalier Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, Mudalier N. Wickramaratne, Dr. Hewavitharana, F.R. Senanayake, P. de S. Kularatne and Professor G.P. Malalasekara were some of the prominent people who recognised the value of the traditional folk art of puppetry.

They never failed to extend their cooperation to promote puppetry in Sri Lanka. With the participation of an efficient group of puppeteers from Ambalangoda, Podisirina Gurunnanse formed the "Dakshina Lanka Puppeteers." His two sons G. Daniel Gurunnanse and G. Jamis Gurunnanse and several other famous puppeteers of the era joined the group. Aranolis Gurunnanse of Kandegoda, Jayaneris Gurunnanse of Bogahawatta, Saranelis Gurunnanse and Charles Silva Gunasinghe Gurunnanse were the other members who joined the Dakshina Lanka Puppeteers.

Podi Sirina Gurunnanse the pioneer of puppetry in Ambalangoda died in 1936 and since his demise his sons Damiel Gurunnanse and Jamis Gurunnanse maintained their family tradition of puppet play which they inherited from their ancestors. Gamvari Loveneris was another puppeteer of rare talents who lived at Bogahwatta, Ambalangoda.

Loveneris excelled in every aspect of puppetry comprising wood carving, painting, costume, make up, singing, playing musical instruments, in addition to manipulating puppets. The father of Loveneris was Surathan Gurunnanse a puppeteer who passed away when Loveneris was only four years.

Jayaneris Gurunnanse was a well-known puppeteer of the era and Loveneris was groomed to be a full-fledged puppeteer by Jayaneris, Nalin Gamwari, inherited the art form of puppetry from his father since his early childhood. Nalin won a gold medal for novices at the competition of puppet plays held in 1964 sponsored by the Low Country Dancing and Music of the Arts Council.

In 1980 Nalin produced a puppet play on hunger to mark "World Food Day". For the first time in the history of puppetry in Sri Lanka, a puppet show was also done underwater at the Hikkaduwa sea stretch based on a story entitled "Sea Prince".

On the instructions of an organisation in Finland, Nalin carved all the puppets necessary for the under water puppet show. Finnish divers who came to Hikkaduwa video filmed the under water puppet show.

Puppet festival

Nalin Gamwari had toured several countries for performances on puppetry. In 1988 he represented Sri Lanka in the International Puppet Festival in Japan and in 1998 he attended a puppet festival held in Pakistan. In 1975, the Department of Cultural Affairs launched a festival of Puppet Plays on a request made by puppeteers.

Since 1975, the Puppetry Panel of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka affiliated to the Department of Cultural Affairs conducted " the State Festival of Puppetry" with the aim of improving folk art.

Elderly puppeteers born and bred in suburban villages such as Viharagoda, Bogahawatta and Kandegoda in Ambalangoda are no longer engaged in puppetry. All the puppeteers of Sri Lanka belong to the Ambalangoda tradition of Puppeteers. Fred de Silva (80) Panadura, Charles Silva (89) Kandegoda, Ambalangoda, L.P. Gomin (80) Yakkala belong to the Ambalangoda tradition of puppeteers. G. Premin is a reputed puppeteer bringing international fame to Viharagoda, Ambalangoda. He has taken the initiative to protect the traditional folk art of puppetry which originated at Ambalangoda.

Gamvari Podisirina Gurunnanse the founder of puppetry was the grandfather of Premin who had studied the history of puppetry at Ambalangoda. Premin is determined to protect the puppetry of Ambalangoda.

Premin attributes the downward trend and other issues having a negative impact on puppetry as a direct consequence of the removal of the Puppetry Panel of the Art Council affiliated to the Cultural Department. He said there were nearly 200 puppeteers who started their career as professional puppeteers from Ambalangoda, but only 15 of them were really engaged in performances. Puppetry is no longer considered a profitable livelihood and the majority of the artistes have already given it up and resorted to other forms of livelihood. If no immediate action is taken by the authorities, the traditional folk art form of puppetry could fast disappear from Ambalangoda.

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