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Vannam

The Vannama is the recital of a poem with a story line interpreted in a certain mood (rasaya) or expression of sentiment Eighteen of these principal Vannams were composed by and old sage named Ganithalankara, with the help of a Buddhist priest from Kandy temple.

This art of Kandyan dance, the Vannam are a body of constituent solo dancers, each expressing a dominant idea. A late development obviously in the story of the Kandyan Dance, the original and later composers of the Vannam have given us in this assorted collection of solo dances, a varied fare drawing sustenance from the material round about the Kandyan country. Covering a wide field of culture and a variety of themes are artistically presented in song and dance.

The naturalism in art characteristic of the Kandyan period was a stimulus to the lyrical impulse, expressed in a whole series of dance compositions, deriving inspiration from nature, from history, legend, folk art, folk religion and the sacred lore.

The Vannama dance tradition has seven components:
  1. ‘thanama’ singing a note of the melody to each syllable.
  2. ‘thitha’ the beat indicated with cymbals giving a rhythmic timing,
  3. ‘kaviya’ the poem vocalized by the dancer
  4. ‘bera-matraya’ rhythm of the drum
  5. ‘kasthirama’ the finale of the first movement of the dance
  6. ‘seeru-maruwa’ the movement in preparation for ‘adawwa’
  7. ‘adawwa’ the finale of rhythmic body and foot movements which is the last establishment.

The Eighteen principal Vannams

Gajaga Vannama
Recital of the Elephant. The first enacts the majestic gait of the elephant of the sacred legends, the Iravana, sporting in the cool waters of the lotus tanks and ponds. The dignified features of the heavenly elephant are delineated in choice diction. Bathing and frolicking about, the strides and movements of the elephants are conventionalized with considerable technical skill. Danced with stately steps, the Gajaga Vannama is among the most spectacular of the series.

Asadrusa Vannama
Recital in praise of The Buddha. “ I pay homage to the lotus feet of Lord Buddha, honoured by kings, Brahmins, Vishnu and other Gods. I adore the Dharma proclaimed by the Great Lord, salute the noble eightfold path. I pay homage to Sariputta Moggallana who renounced the world to follow The Buddha. Praying to all assembled I dance with joy, the delightful Vannama of this” is the singing in praise of the Supreme Being unequalled.

Mayura Vannam
Recital of the Peacock. This is singing in praise of the bird Peacock, the vehicle of God Skanda. The head movements, the vibrant colours, the fan like tail, spotted feathers in glitter all add glamour to the recital. The glorious God with long spear as his weapon is compassionate to his devotees.

Naiyandi (Naga) Vannama
Recital of the Cobra. The background is the Jataka story (previous birth story of the Buddha) embodied in the Bhuridatta Jataka. Bodhisattva (previous birth) was born a princely Naga in the world of Nagas (cobra). Going out in to the world of humans, he betook himself to the banks of river Yamuna to fast on the top of an ant-hill in the guise of a snake. There a snake charmer captured him by means of a magic spell and subjected the Naga prince to dance to his tunes. He ill treated the princely Naga and made a fortune by displaying his dances before the king and the country.

The snake charmer’s art featured in the story nevertheless finds little reflection in the actions of the dancer. In the course of dancing he no doubt displays the cobra hand (hastha mudra) and cobra hood (sarpa seersha) of the Abhinayadarpana used by the Katakali dance technique. The hand gesture is formed by bending the tips of fingers.

Kukkuda (Savula) Vannam
Recital of the Foul. In the long drawn out war with the Devas, the Asuras are discomfited. God Skanda enters the field, and with a sword and spear cuts the Asuras in two, lifting each half. From one half suddenly emerges the Kukkuda, the chanticleer.

Ganapathi Vannama
Recital of the God Ganesha. The recital is in praise of God Ghana. It enjoins men to win the favours of the God, “Graceful in form – with the head of an elephant – tusks half emerged – face pink – gently waving ears like the lotus leaf – eyes coloured with collyrium – forehead spotted with the sapphire – arms hanging loose and Goddesses flanking the sides”. The Vannama is attributed to the great Rishis in invocation of the Gods.

Thuranga Vannama
Recital of Khantaka, the steed of Prince Siddhartha. The Prince mounts the horse led by Channa. The three march along jovially until they come to a halt by river Anoma. Standing musing, Khantaka leaps across the Prince on its back and Channa clinging to the tail. Noble born, high minded and of form beautiful, Prince Siddhartha blesses these recitals, composed to the lasting glory of the good steed Khantaka.

Sinharaja Vannama
Recital of the Lion King. A folk tale has been based on this Vannama. The cunning device of a tortoise to lure the lion to a deep well leads him to fall and perish. That a similar destiny would await all who act without forethought is the moral of this Vannama.

Ukusa Vannama
Recital of the Hawk. Two hawks flying leisurely float in air like two tender buds growing out of the same seed. Soaring high with the current wind they swoop down like an arrow and carry off pray. This is the flight of the hawk.

Gahaka (Sakra) Vannama

Recital of the Conch Shell. Eulogy of Sakra, the King of celestial World, is presented in the medium of divine orchestra in which Brahma, Visvakarma and Iswara blow the horn and play the lute. Iswara blows the conch before the king of the Universe.

Kirala Vannama
Recital of the bird Red-wattled lapwing. This is an Imitation of the notes of the bird ‘Kirala’. In his search for food the bird with black and red band wound his neck, hops from tree to tree. The bird, it is said, hatches its eggs lying on its back so that it may catch the sky should it fall.

Surapathi Vannama

Recital in praise of Goddess Surapthy. God Iswara is worried not finding Uma (Surapathy), his female companion. He in disguise goes in search of her until he finds her. Overjoyed, he dances the triumphant steps.

Vairodi Vannama
Recital of the Emerald. Worthy of the subject and admirable in composition, this pictures the palace of God Iswara, vibrant like the Emerald. It concludes with the moral “the wicked make false boasts and are detestable – the learned are always triumphant”.

Uranga Vannama
Recital of the crawling animals. A day in the life of serpents is depicted in the dance. The serpent with body brightly speckled prays on frogs and even on other serpents. It crawls everywhere. The cobra, the king of serpents, emerges out of the hole and with the hood raised assumes various forms.

Eeradi (Bandula) Vanama
Recital of the Arrow. An episode in heroism follows dramatizing the exploits of Bandula, the warrior. To the din of the clash of swords, shields, spears and clubs, the army marches on. Bandula’s shafts fly with deadly effects. Eeradi Vannama is more masculine and action full.

Mussaladi Vannama
Recital of the Hare. The Hare hops about, crouching and trembling with fear, scared it runs zig zag; tired, it takes rest as the moon beams up.

Uduhara Vannama
Recital of the Royalty. Adorned with the sixty four ornaments, the king strolls through streets of the city riding on an elephant accompanied by his retinue of foot soldiers. The procession goes in all stateliness and pomp. The music of the fivefold instrument rends the air. People pay homage and the city is jubilant. The king thus idolized by the people, is presumed to be King Narendrasinghe, the last of the kings of Kandy of Sinhala descent.

Hanuma Vannama
Recital of the Monkey. This is the imitation of actions of monkey. The Hanuman masquerade has been a dance of mimics in parts of South Travancore where the Pandaram or the wondering mendicant was in the habit of going on his rounds with the mask of Hanuman, the Monkey God. As he approaches a house he puts on the mask and performs the antics of Hanuman, enacting scenes from the epic Ramayana. In the actions of Hanuma Vannama, the monkey jumps and sways from tree to tree. With wrinkled face and eyes sticking out, it scrutinizes passers by. Alternating with frightened look, it covers its face with twigs and leaves. The Hanuma Vannama is rarely or never played at present times.

In the recent times, at least three other Vannams have been added to above principal Vannams. They are

SAMANALA (butterfly) Vannama,
BO (in praise of the sacred bodhi tree in Anuradhapura) Vannama,
HANSA (swan) Vannama.
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