Sri Lanka Post | SLPost Stamps | Philatelic Bureau

Sri Lanka

24 February 2020

S.Panibharatha, Dancer Birth Centenary

Sri Lanka: S.Panibharatha Birth Centenary, 24 February 2020. Images from eBay.

Technical Specifications:

Bulletin # 982
Date of Issue: 2020-02-24
Denomination: LKR 15.00
Dimension: 41mm x 30mm
Sheet Composition: 20
Last Date of Sale: 2023-03-31
Print Color: Four process colours
Shape: Horizontal
Print Quantity: 300000

Pani Bharatha (1920-2005) was born in Algama, a village in Kegalle district. He was named Panis, shortened to Pani. He belonged to the Alagama paramparawa of dancers, drummers and exorcists. This paramparawa produced three outstanding performers, in the 20th century, Sithrachariya Nekathige Siriya known as Algama Siriya, Siriya’s son Kiriganitha and grandson Pani Bharatha. Pani was Kiriganitha’s elder brother’s son.

Pani learnt his letters at Algama Madegama pansala. He studied there till he was about 12 years. He learnt gathas and slokas and read books such as Ganadevi Hella. His talent for drumming showed very early. At the age of seven, he performed as a drummer at a function at the Keenadeniya Vidyalaya, Gampaha. The audience was very impressed with his performance. He was selected to play the first ever opening magul bera theme of Radio Ceylon in 1928. He was eight years old. From around ten years, Pani was participating in drum displays and contests at temples and walauwas. He said later that he learnt much from these events. At 15 years Pani was performing in the Esala perahera with Algama Kiriganitha, Rangama Gunamala, Alotuwe and Ambulpura.

Pani’s father did not want Pani to become a dancer or drummer. He sent Pani to Ven. Thibbotuwe Gunananda, a respected physician in Ratnapura, to study ayurveda. But Pani after seeing dancing at Saman devale, when his brother was performing, decided to give up medicine and take to dancing. He first studied dance under his grandfather, Siriya then his uncle, Kiriganitha. Pani’s Kala Eli mangalyaya was in 1940. The Mahanuwara and Sabaragamuwa parampara also recognised him after that and performers from Botale, Ambepussa, and Hathnagoda came to learn from him.

Pani continued his drum training under a wide range of teachers including Hithgoda and Thiyambarahena gurukula and Honpale and Muddanawa gurus. He learnt davul from Tibbotuwawe Panikki, tammattama from Tibbotuwawe Seemanchi. He went to Elamaldeniya parampara for hewisi. He also learnt Sabaragamuwa dance from Puswelle kapumahatmaya and Parangiwatte Punchi mahatmaya.

Pani had seen a kolama in his youth and was attracted to low country dance. His mother sent him to her relative, Welgama Ginthoris to learn Ruhunu dance. Villagers said ‘hatara korale koluwa hondata natanawa’ and gave him gifts. He also learnt low country dancing from Melegama Marthenis. He used to train till dawn. He went to tovils with Mangalathiriye Sidoris guru and learnt tovil drumming from him. He went to Niwatuwa, Tumbiliyadda and Kadigamuwa parampara for yanthra manthra and gurukam and to Siriya’s relative, Ratnagala Seema guru for Bali yaga.

The dancer Chandralekha was looking for a competent drummer to accompany her dance. When news reached them of a skilful drummer in Algama, they got him down to Colombo and employed him. He stayed in their house from 1937. When Chandralekha went to Trivandrum, Kerala in 1938 to learn Kathakali from Sri Gopinath, Pani accompanied her . Pani learned to play the drum ‘Kathakali style’ and also the mrdangam. Gopinath was making innovations in Kathakali dance and Pani was able to observe Gopinath’s choreography and method of training dancers.

Chandralekha and Pani returned to Sri Lanka in 1942. Chandralekha’s husband J. D. A. Perera arranged for Pani to learn English at Lorensz College where J.D.A’s brother was principal. He got him into Vidyalankara Pirivena as well. It is likely that Pani’s lessons in music and singing under Kotahene Sardiris master, father of Shelton Premaratne, took place at this time. Sardiris was teaching at Vaishakya Vidyalaya, Wellawatte.

Pani won a government scholarship to Santiniketan in 1944. At Santiniketan Pani studied Manipuri, Kathakali, Kathak and Bharatha natyam, tabla, dhol, maddala, mrdangam and other Indian instruments, also painting and sculpture. He learnt the Tagore style of dance and took the lead role in Tagore’s play Chitrangada. Tagore was dead by then, but his dance-dramas were regularly staged.

He excelled at Santiniketan and was considered outstanding. He won medals and prizes. His performances of Udarata dance were applauded. He led the Santiniketan dance troupe to the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. Later students were told of Pani. At Santiniketan Pani learned how to create new dance forms without disturbing the traditional form. He also learnt staging, costumes, lighting and sound. He met Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal and saw the new style started by Uday Shankar. His friend O.S .Bose later became the principal at Santiniketan. Pani then went to Kerala Kala Mandalam and learnt kathakali under Sri Gopinath. He returned to Ceylon in 1948 and took the name Pani Bharatha, on the suggestion, we are told, of S.L.B. Kapukotuwa, G.P. Malalasekera, and D.B. Dhanapala.

Pani Bharatha had earlier taught Kandyan dance at Lorensz College in 1942. President Premadasa had been a student of his. On his return from India he taught dance in various schools and training colleges, including Royal College, Nalanda College, Minuwangoda, Mirigama maha vidyalaya and the teacher training colleges at Mirigama, Maharagama and Balapitiya. Pani was the dance adviser for Kinigama, Nadungamuwa, Buthpitiya and Kimbulgoda schools in Gampaha district. He created ballets for these schools. He was treated with respect by the principals. When Udarata dance became a subject in schools, Pani Bharatha helped the authorities with the syllabus. When UNESCO organized an interschool dance contest, they turned to Pani.

Pani Bharatha made a significant contribution to traditional dance and drumming. Ravibandu says the drum orchestra, which is so popular today, was created by Pani Bharatha . Drums which were till then limited to rituals, perahera, and pinkam were for the first time, presented on stage in pleasing drum ensembles, featuring both Low County and Kandyan drums. Each drum was given a beat that suited it for its solo. The performance started with the hewisi beat for aluyam duraya. Pani always finished his concerts with this drum ensemble.

Pani Bharatha formed his own dance troupe, probably in 1950. For many years Pani Bharatha dance troupe functioned as the state dance ensemble, said D.C.Ranatunge. The tall and majestic figure of Pani Bharatha was a familiar sight leading his troupe, whenever there was a ceremonial occasion or indeed any occasion demanding a dance performance. If any organization needed a dance and drum performance for a function they also turned to Pani. He provided customised presentations, including one for Gampaha Wickramarachchi agricultural campaign.

Pani Bharatha’s troupe also performed abroad. The first trip was in 1953 to West Germany. They also performed in Canada, Czechoslovakia. India, Hong Kong, Japan, Pakistan, Russia and UK. He observed much on these trips and adopted whatever he thought suitable for Sri Lanka. We are also told that Pani had taken along to India, the Ruhunu dancer Sauris Silva. Pani Bharatha choreographed and presented ballets, such as ‘Ditta Mangalika’ and ‘Graha apalaya’. Stage décor and costumes for his ballets were designed by him. He choreographed the dances for ‘Hasthi Kantha manthare’, ‘Sikuru tharuwa’ and ‘Kurulu bedda’. The Goyam Kapeema dance performed before Queen Elizabeth in 1952 was also his creation. Pani got to know Ananda Samarakoon when they were both living in Kolonnawa. Pani had done the dance sequence for Samarakoon’s ‘akke akke ara balanna’ and other songs.

In 1952, Udarata dance and drumming became a subject in the Government College of Fine Arts. Pani became the head of this new department .Thanks to him, the venture was successful. Pani Bharatha had the difficult task of transforming the guru gedera style of training, which started at the age of eight and went on for ten years, into a six year course with a certificate. He developed syllabuses and constantly revised them. Hewisi syllabus was revised in 1955. Udarata dance was expanded to include udekki and panteru. He recruited the best traditional dancers as teachers and had paid them out of his personal funds, when necessary. He succeeded in attracting promising students, after an initial hesitation. He produced ballets with them, such as ‘Hath Pattini ‘.

In 1956, the College was transferred to the Ministry of Education, and renamed twice as ‘National Institute of Arts’ and then as ‘Institute of Aesthetic Studies’. In 1979 it became a faculty of the University of Kelaniya, awarding the degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts. Pani was appointed as the Head at the University of Kelaniya in 1979. Pani encouraged undergraduates to participate in festivals and processions and helped graduates obtain employment as professional dancers and artistes. The Institute/faculty eventually taught all three dance styles, Ruhunu from 1962 and Sabaragamuwa from 1980. In 2005, the faculty left Kelaniya and became the Faculty of Dance in the University of Visual and Performing Arts. Pani Bharatha remained head of the department throughout this process, till he retired in 1983.

Pani Bharatha functioned as the head of this faculty, the premier national institute for dance, for an unbroken period of 30 years. Under his leadership, the department progressed from Technical College level to University level. This is an important national contribution to dance. It should have been recognized as such and Pani Bharatha feted. Instead, Pani Bharatha did not get a permanent appointment for a long time and therefore when he left the University, he did not get much money from his provident fund.

Pani Bharatha was Chairman of the Arts Council for many years and was an advisor on cultural matters and policy making. When the state dance troupe was created in 1970 Pani Bharatha became its director and trainer. His recommendation that Radio Ceylon should have a permanent drum troupe, instead of making performers bring their own drummers was accepted and a Radio Ceylon drum troupe was established in 1970.

The state conferred on Pani Bharatha the title of “Kalasuri’ and Sabaragamuwa University made him a Doctor of Letters. Two theatres are named after him, one at Sabaragamuwa University and the other at University of Visual and Performing arts, Colombo. But I agree with Tissa Kariyawasam that Pani Bharatha’s contribution has not been sufficiently appreciated and he has not got the recognition he deserved.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.