On the 8th of September, 2011, a young Sri Lankan, a medical student studying in China, had visited Zhangjiajie. On his t-shirt was a Sri Lankan flag. It was not the first time he had worn this t-shirt in China but it was the first time it was noticed. In fact, wherever he went, there were people wanting to photograph him and be photographed with him. He did not understand for it had never happened before.
Then he met Sahan Ranwala.
Sahan Ranwala was in that city for a week, from September 10th to the 16th, attending an International Folk Music Festival. The troupe he led, that of the Lionel Ranwala Foundation, was one of 29 teams from 28 countries, not counting 21 Chinese groups that were participating.
All the teams had to perform twice a day for an entire week. Most had come ready with one or two programmes. The Sri Lankan troupe performed 15 different items. They had in fact stamped the Sri Lankan signature on the entire festival from day one, theirs being the best item of the opening ceremony.
Of the fifty groups, 6 were adjudged as the top performers. Sri Lanka’s flag fluttered proudly among these winners, the rest of the elite group comprising the United States of America, Russia, France, Georgia and South Africa.
Ten young people well versed in all aspect of Sri Lankan folk music stood out from the rest on account of their versatility. Sahan told The Nation that they were focused on expressing in their performances the amazing diversity of the Sinhala folk song. The audiences were treated to a fine mix of traditional music, with the troupe having put together pieces that were representative of the three main traditions, Udarata, Pahatharata and Sabaragamua. There had been nelum gayana, raban gayana and the songs associated with shanthikarma.
‘We received accolades from all quarters, but almost everyone praised our performances for being able to give the message of the lyrics in dance and music,’ Sahan said. He mentioned especially the ‘Vessanthara Velapuma’ which had moved many to tears. The explanation was simple: ‘The melody and performance would give them the idea of the item and they recognized that each item contained a central and profound concept with which they could identify’.
More than presenting new material at each performance, they were unique in that they were able to get the audience involved as well.
‘It was a very proud moment for us to see the Lion Flag among the flags of bigger and better known nations. We sang deshabhimanee gee (patriotic songs) all the way from the hall to the hotel. When we arrived in the city, no one knew us or about us; few indeed knew of Sri Lanka. By the time we were ready to leave, there was no country bigger than Sri Lanka.’
It was bound to happen, though. On the first night, i.e. after the opening ceremony, there had been a function. Everyone had brought their drums. Everyone played. After some time we tried out the traditional drums of our fellow participants from other countries. They were all surprised that the Sri Lankans could play their drums. All they did was to watch and then try their hand at these instruments they had never touched before. The Israeli troupe was made of all drummers. Their leader had tried to play the traditional Sinhala drums but hadn’t been able to demonstrate the kind of mastery that Sahan’s team had shown playing their (the Israeli) drums. Whatever dance they saw, they watched carefully and danced themselves. Needless to say they were noticed, applauded and highly appreciated.
Their versatility, freshness and unique ability to transcend language barriers and touch hearts of people from vastly different cultures had endeared the Ranwala Foundation troupe to everyone.
Sahan said that they did not expect anyone in Sri Lanka to have heard about their exploits and that they were pleasantly surprised when a special felicitation was organized for the troupe at the BMICH and when they also received a special award from the Buddhist Congress.
The troupe representing the Lionel Ranwala Foundation and the nation were sponsored by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Sahan expressed gratitude to the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Hon. T.B. Ekanayaka, the Secretary, Mr. Bimal Rubasinghe, the Director of Cultural Affairs, Mr. Vijith Kanugala and Prasanna Batiks who provided the costumes.
A few weeks ago, the citizens of Zhangjiajie did not know about Sri Lanka. Today, few would not know about Sri Lanka. That’s the secret of everyone wanting to take a picture with that random Sri Lankan medical student wearing a T-shirt with a Sri Lankan flag. The people of Zhangjiajie know the Lion Flag. They know the rhythms of Sri Lanka. They have heard the traditional drums. They have heard folk songs born in the Udarata, Pahatharata and Sabaragamuwa.
Maybe there’s a lot we can give the world. Maybe all it takes is to be ourselves. In all the glory, all the giving, all the erros and tragedies. If this country has a culture, it must have a rhythm. It’s good to know that we have something unique. Something that people of other cultures can related to, admire and applaud.
More power, therefore, to the Sahans of our land.
by MALINDA SENEVIRATNE