Tony Donaldson, whose preferred title is “A Time of Celebration and Reflection. Sri Lanka’s 70th Independence Day in Melbourne”
Many Sri Lankans have made the journey to Australia and now call it home and Melbourne continues to be a popular destination with the number of Sri Lankans living in this multicultural city estimated to be approximately 35,000. It is a diverse community and so it was pleasing to see that the emphasis of Sri Lanka’s 70th National Independence Day celebrations held on 4 February 2018 in the Kingston City Hall, Moorabbin, was placed on recognizing the plurality of Sri Lanka as a nation of many ethnic and religious groups. Organized by the Consulate General of Sri Lanka in Melbourne, the celebrations were like a gift of treasures but it was also a time to reflect on the postcolonial history of Sri Lanka and its future.
The evening began with invited guests joining in the auspicious lighting of the lamp on the stage as seven girls dressed in white chanted the victory stanzas of the Jayamangala Gatha to bestow blessings on the celebrations and for the peace and prosperity of Sri Lanka.
The speeches delivered to the audience offered much food for thought. In his message read out to the audience, President Maithripala Sirisena declared 2018 as the “National Food Production Year” designed to achieve food security in the country. Prime Minister Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, a technocrat who has been a part of Sri Lanka’s political life for 40 years, stated in his message: “…a true [and meaningful] independence is only possible when we can unite as one nation, rising above political, religious and ethnic differences.”
Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, His Excellency Mr. S. Skandakumar emphasized in his message the National Unity Government is continuing to address “economic growth together with reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction as a high priority.” Sri Lanka is well-represented in Australia by His Excellency Mr. S. Skandakumar in Canberra and the Consul General Mr. W. G. S. Prasanna in Melbourne. These two exemplary diplomats have served Sri Lanka with outstanding professionalism, extraordinary energy, and are well-respected in diplomatic and political circles in Australia.
Religious observances were also made by representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy. A highlight of the evening was the awards given out to young Sri Lankan VCE high achievers in 2017. 17 young Sri Lankans took to stage to receive their awards.
Aside from the speeches and formalities, the remainder of the evening belonged to the performing arts of Sri Lanka, especially dance. Drawing on a variety of art forms, the performances were at times breathtaking and an absolute delight to watch.
The Rangana and Udumbara Dance Troupe began by performing a dance for the Gods to the accompaniment of vocals, gäta bera, tammättama, and tālampota which concluded with the auspicious sounds of the conch trumpet [hakgediya].
In an intercultural dialogue, twelve dancers from the Ama Dance Academy gave an innovative performance choreographed by Ama Siriwardena using a hybrid language of dance to construct a narrative taken from the traditional Sri Lankan dance repertoire and mixed with “glimpses of First Australian cultural millennia of rhythmic dreaming.”
In Daathata Valalu, a folk dance performed by Vishver Rangayathanaya and choreographed by Rashika Kulasinghe to a popular song with lyrics and music by Cyril de Silva Kulatillake, the dancers acted out a scene of village girls harvesting rice, collecting water from a stream or carrying water pots through the fields, while swaying their hips rhythmically and showing off their necklaces and bangles.
A group of young dancers from the Nrithakshetra School of Indian Classical Dance gave a skillful performance of an item from the Bharatha Natyam dance repertoire titled “Ranjani Mala,” which was choreographed by Srimathy Shanthy Rajendran. The rhythmic movements of the nritta and the expressive abhinaya aspects using eye and hand movements to evoke a narrative were compelling and captivating for the audience.
The Abhina Dance Academy presented a cross-cultural dance fusing Kandyan and Ruhunu dance traditions. The dance was choreographed by Dinesh Epasinghe.
The evening concluded with an art stylized performance of a Kandyan dance item based on the Kohomba Kankariya ritual choreographed by Daminda Hirimuthugoda and performed by the Sri Lankan Cultural Ensemble of Australia. The purpose of the dance was to invoke the blessings of the deities for the wellbeing and prosperity of the Sri Lankan nation and its peoples. Because of contextual changes, which also includes the way the dance is taught, the performance had more to do with art performance which made the cultural significance of the performance difficult to trace.
One intriguing aspect of the dance performances was to see how Sri Lankan choreographers in Melbourne are using innovative approaches and hybridity to reconfigure dance as an expression of national identity. The performances were well above the ordinary and were greatly appreciated by the audience making this 70th Independence Day celebrations a night to remember.