Kolam Masks

Kolam is another “low-country” tradition from Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Although it includes elements of ritual and even trance, it may be classified, however, as a form of folk theatre. A loose plot binds several stock characters and scenes together. The actual play is usually based on a Buddhist Jataka story.

The characters’ lines may be sung by a nearby singer, but they are sometimes also spoken and even sung by the actors themselves. Kolam’s dance technique is clearly related to another low-country tradition, that of sanni.

One can only speculate on kolam’s origins. The tradition itself gives legendary explanations of its birth. Furthermore, there are theories that the tradition stems from ancient pregnancy rites, while its many animal characters clearly indicate its roots in the animistic, animal spirit rites. It seems that kolam is a fusion of archaic belief systems, of Buddhism as well as later popular culture, which reflects the structure of the society at various phases of the island’s history.

The kolam performance takes place in a round performance arena surrounded on three sides by the audience. At least two drummers provide its accompaniment. The narrator or master of ceremonies directs the performance and introduces the characters. He also sometimes speaks the characters’ lines or enters into a dialogue with them. In earlier times, a kolam performance lasted a whole night, but nowadays from two to three hours.