Photographer:Ghadah Alrawi
Continent: North America
Country: United States
Project Title: The Vanishing Dance
Project Continent: Asia
Project Country: Sri Lanka
Nominated By: Ioannis Galanopoulos Papavasileiou
Seconded By: Selaru Ovidiu,

Deep in the forest on the outskirts of Kandy, Sri Lanka, drumbeats echo through the trees in the early morning just as they have for centuries. The beats come from the home of Sumanaveera Guruunnanse and Samaraveera Guruunnanse, known as the Thiththapajjala brothers, who practice the traditional Kandyan dance ritual known as Kohomba Kankariya. Kandyan dance infiltrates all parts of Sri Lankan life—it is taught in classrooms, practiced in dance schools, and performed during weddings and religious ceremonies. In recent years, the dance has also become commercialized, with a number of performances at venues frequented by tourists. But Kohomba Kankariya, which originated in the region and predates Buddhism is at the risk of disappearing.

The dance form that exists today is a modern creation born from original elements of the dance which became simplified in the early to mid-twentieth century. Only certain sequences of the Kohomba Kankariya are performed today, losing the essence and original intent of the art. It’s traditionally a healing dance ritual, but today is performed to bring peace and bountifulness, often as all-night events that typically begin in the evening and last until dawn. Despite their dedication, most of the modern dancers have day jobs, are homemakers, or university students, and adopt dancing only as a hobby.

The Thiththapajjala brothers are descendants of more than seven generations of master dancers and drummers. These masters have dedicated their lifetime to their craft and pass on sacred knowledge of the art to their sons. A dancer will tell you he first learned the rhythms of drum and dance in the womb and then spends years in highly personalized training to earn the right to wear the ves costume and become a true master, a symbol of a dancer’s skill and status as a performer.

Fewer and fewer men pursue the family tradition and opt to take up professions that offer a better chance at supporting their families. For nearly a century, the family has been teaching weekly classes to 400 students who get to learn the traditional Kandyan dance from the experts—free of charge. The Thiththapajjala brothers say they bear the responsibility to uphold ancestral traditions and teach kankariya to their sons.

Sumanaveera Guruunnanse’s two eldest sons, Madhawa and Muditha, plan to continue learning the dance, but only for a limited time. They will eventually return to their day jobs as an Ayurvedic doctor and an engineer. Pabasara is the youngest son in the Thiththapajjala family and will dedicate his life to the art of the dance and drum, with his two cousins by his side. Together, they represent the next generation of dancers and the ones who are being tasked with upholding the legacy of their forefathers.

The Thiththapajjala brothers are a rare example of courage and tenacity, holding a significant responsibility to preserving a historical piece of art and culture that is essential to their society as a whole. Creating this story honors them and their legacy, and it was an honor and privilege to be invited into their home and gain access to their traditions, teachings, and lives.

Thiththapajjala Sumanaveera Guruunnanse a Master Kandyan dancer at his home He s the seventh generation of an ancient lineage of dancers and drummers

Thiththapajjala Samaraveera Guruunnanse rehearsing traditional Kandyan dance moves of the Kohomba Kankiriya with his nephew Muditha and other family members

Muditha 26 following the beat of his uncle the Master drummer Thiththapajjala Samaraveera Guruunnanse Thiththapajjala Samaraveera is teaching his nephews and sons the rhythms of drumming passed down through generations of drummers in the family The quality and essence of traditional Kandyan dance and drumming is in jeopardy of vanishing if the traditions are not upheld and learned by younger generations

Students rehearsing traditional Kandyan dance at the Thiththapajjala home Thiththapajjala Samaraveera Guruunnanse walks through the group and checks student s technique For nearly a century the Thiththapajjala family has been teaching traditional Kandyan dance to 400 students every Saturday free of charge

Ruth center and her friends taking a break from learning traditional Kandyan dance at the Amunugama Dancing School one of the the first dancing schools in Sri Lanka that opened in 1943 under British rule

Sujeewa a mom and housewife getting ready to go on stage at the Young Men s Buddhist Association She and her fellow dancers choose to do the nightly show merely as a hobby and to keep cultural dance relevant in modern day Sri Lanka

Panchanada far left age 80 and other male dancers and drummers changing costumes backstage during the nightly performance of Sri Lankan cultural dance at the Young Men s Buddhist Association YMBA To appeal to tourism in Kandy the YMBA puts on a daily evening show of traditional low country and hill country Sri Lankan dance Sri Lankan cultural dance and drumming draw in huge crowds and revenue and in the process have lost much of their original intent

A traditional Kandyan drummer waiting backstage before the show begins at the Kandy Lake Club To appeal to tourism in Kandy the Kandy Lake Club puts on a daily evening show of traditional low country and high country Sri Lankan dance

Kristi on flute and Marasingha on drums play music before the daily offering to Buddha Lankathilaka is an ancient Buddhist temple built in the 14th century

Thiththapajjala Samaraveera Guruunnanse fully dressed in his traditional Ves costume worn during the Kohomba Kankariya The Ves costume particularly the headgear is considered sacred and believed to belong to the deity Kohomba Only the fully trained Masters of the Kohomba Kankariya are allowed to wear the headgear If a student who has not undergone rigorous training and mastered the ritual dance wears it then it is believed he will be cursed