Decorative Masks

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Masks in Sri Lanka are used in traditional dance dramas still performed in rural parts and sometimes even in the urban cities. There are two major types of dance drama in Sri Lanka; the Kolam and Sanni.

The Kolam is a secular entertainment with considerable elements of social satire. It incorporates narrative, mime, dance, and music. A Kolam performance usually has four episodes the precise content of which may vary. These consist of a prelude, detailing the origin of the drama; the arrival of a royal party and dances by characters mythical, human and animal; enactment of a popular story or stories; and a purifying demon dance.

It is said that the Kolam theater originated to appease a pregnant queen's craving to see masked dancers. This drama is a mythological rural opera with three sets of characters enacting a repertoire of skits from Buddhist and other lore. The characters are humans, as royalty and villagers, animals and demons; they enter the stage at night, singing, dancing and reciting verse till dawn. You can find them listed as Theater Masks.

Sanni Masks on the other hand come from another rural tradition, but not related to entertainment rather to the serious business of medicine. As many cultures in the west and the east, before modern medicine became popular it was believed that people got sick because they were possessed by a demon, and the only way to cure a person was to entice the demon out of the body through a ritual, which included a masked dance by the local medicine man who wore a big mask with the various ailments depicted as smaller masks. Today you may still find some people who still believe in this method, but it is becoming less and less popular making it difficult for the mask makers to sustain their livelihood. Thus a new industry of masks makers has emerged who still use the basic 18 "demons" for their art form, but take liberties in the depiction of the demon. You will find them here with the masks with snakes, a symbol of disease. 

You will also find other masks called Spirit Masks for a lack of a better word, since such cultural translations can be difficult. They are called Raksha masks. They are also used for dance dramas, and the most common ones are the Naaga (cobra), Mayura (peacock), Gurula (Eagle), Gini Jala (Fire Water). They refer to the natural world and the Gurula-Naaga dance is a popular one, where the Eagle and Cobra fight and finally the Eagle captures the Cobra.