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​The 13th Intergovernmental Committee meeting of the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, at the moment that Sri Lankan traditional string puppet drama was added to the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (Images courtesy B.D. Nandadeva.)

In December 2018, Class of 1998 ARTC doctoral alumnus B.D. Nandadeva travelled to Mauritius (small island to the east of Madagascar island) to attend the 13th Intergovernmental Committee meeting of the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.  In early 2016, Sri Lanka submitted a nomination to include traditional string puppet drama in UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nandadeva prepared the nomination dossier with the assistance of a small committee. The nomination was accepted by the Evaluation Body and then adopted by UNESCO.  Nandadeva and an administrative officer from the Sri Lankan Cultural Ministry served as subject experts to the official delegation. Below is a description of Sri Lankan traditional string puppet drama, adapted from a presentation following UNESCO’s official recognition of this important form of intangible heritage.


Traditional String Puppet Drama of Sri Lanka (Sinh. Rūkada Nātya)

Traditional String Puppet Drama of Sri Lanka, known as Rūkada Nātya in the native language Sinhala, had been a popular form of theatre for many decades.  Although its origins are uncertain, it is believed that the technique was introduced to Sri Lanka by migrants from the coastal areas of Southern India several centuries ago.  During the course of time, it evolved as a fully naturalized art form displaying a Sri Lankan character, ethos, and identity to become an important element of the country's intangible cultural heritage.  Perhaps due to the arrival of the television and other electronic entertainment media since late-1970s, traditional puppet drama has begun to lose its popularity.

Rūkada Nātya is performed by familial groups who belong to, or are connected with, the lineage known as Gamwari, living around the southern coastal towns of Ambalangoda, Balapitiya, and Mirissa.  In addition to the artists of the Gamwari lineage, there are also other groups who are connected to those of Gamwari lineage through marital relationships and have internally migrated to other parts of the island and practice the art. There are other groups of puppeteers too who have learnt the art from the Gamwari masters but not related to them, and practicing the art in the districts of Colombo, Kalutara, and Gampaha in the Western Province.

​Left: Puppets are carved out of light and soft types of wood from locally available trees. Rituals are performed prior to felling of a tree appealing any deity residing on the tree to kindly leave it, and also to invoke  blessings of all deities for the art and the artists. Center: A master puppeteer carves, polishes,  paints, and joins body parts of the puppet. Right: The family's female members help with sewing costumes, dressing the puppets, and doing make-up. (Images courtesy B.D. Nandadeva.)

The aim of Rūkada Nātya is to provide innocuous entertainment and to convey moral messages to village communities.  Themes were borrowed from folktales, Buddhist stories, ancient literature, historical narratives, and humorous trivia and anecdotes from contemporary life.  Some themes have been borrowed from nādagam, an extinct form of 'folk opera'. Puppeteers prepare their own hand-written scripts with dialogs and songs, and recite them, while manipulating the puppets.

Puppets are carved out of soft and light-weight kinds of wood by puppeteers themselves.  They are made either as 'static roles' with fewer movable joints and of near life-size; or as 'active roles' with many movable joints and of 3.5' to 4.5' in height. Puppets are dressed with colourful costumes that are made mostly by female members of the family. Puppeteers, standing on an elevated horizontal platform and leaned onto a horizontal bar that is fixed across the stage about their shoulder-height, manipulate the puppets using strings tied to single short bars or two crossed-bars held by hand.  A small band of musicians, mostly consist of members of the family or of close relatives, provide accompaniment using a hand-pumped harmonium, a violin, and a drum. 

Performances are held as community events at public spaces suitable for community gathering, mostly during festive times in the months of May and June, while special shows are held at schools and college campuses on request. Makeshift stages made of wooden frames are covered with black curtains on all sides to camouflage the strings.  Performances are held in evenings in a well-covered space under dim light to enhance the illusion.

​Left: Puppeteer, standing on an elevated platform and leaned onto a horizontal bar of shoulder-height, manipulates puppets using strings attached to single short bars or two crossed-bars held by hand. Center: To please the audience,  traditionally a puppet show opens with dancing clowns, a popular stock character found also in 'nadagam', an extinct form of 'folk opera.' Right: Cobra-mask dance: borrowed from the popular exorcist mask dance form that prevail in the same locale. Borrowing ideas from other art forms has immensely enriched the repertoire of puppet drama. (Images courtesy B.D. Nandadeva.)

Temple premises or other easily accessible public spaces are chosen for Rūkada Nātya performances. Stories with didactic messages, enveloped in full of rustic but innocent humour, allow the community members laugh together and relax together, thus helping them socialize and connect with each other, share their experiences, strengthen social bonds, and build new relationships.

Using narratives from religious texts, classical literature and folklore as themes, puppet dramas convey to the communities of today the traditional knowledge and ancient wisdom engendered through generations of use, renewal, and recreation. Communicated through the medium of puppet drama, the world views and core values that are essential for peaceful communal co-existence such as ethical standards and norms about the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, justice and injustice etc. that are embedded within traditional knowledge and ancient wisdom becomes alive for children and the youth to comprehend easily. With a strong 'connectedness' with the viewer, puppet drama serves as a more effective and efficient mode of conveyance of messages of morality and ethical behaviour that are crucial for the process of 'en-culturing' the society and maintain harmony and cohesiveness among its members.

— B.D. Nandadeva

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Sri Lankan puppet drama is now on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. ARTC doctoral alumnus B.D. Nandadeva was part of that campaign.

​Sri Lankan puppet drama is now on UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. ARTC doctoral alumnus B.D. Nandadeva was part of that campaign.

12/16/2018
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