Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana, in Sunday Times, 24 August 2019 …. with pictorial illustrations due to Moran Perera
When the annual Sri Lanka Day was celebrated in the historic city of Pasadena this year, Sri Lanka took its rightful place among the ethnic festivals held in America. The featured event of the day was the ‘Pageant of Lanka’, a miniature Kandy Perahera. It took the breath away of the onlookers who filed along the historic route of the annual New Year’s Day Rose Parade, the most prestigious parade in America.
The United States is a nation of immigrants with many religions and ethnic groups. Many of these groups have festival days, holy days, or unique customs related to their faith or their society of origin. New ethnic groups arriving in recent times from all over the world have brought with them a diversity of languages, religious practices, food, craft traditions, music, styles of dress and decoration, and unique ways of capturing the spirit of their motherlands. During ethnic celebrations, immigrants display and enjoy many of their native cultural traditions while joining with others from their homelands.
Among the well-known ethnic celebrations are Saint Patrick’s Day the Irish immigrants celebrate with a grand parade in New York; the Cinco de Mayo (“Fifth of May”) the annual festivity that honours the Mexican heritage; and traditional Chinese New Year’s celebrations held with feasts, parades, and fireworks in the Chinatown sections of New York and San Francisco. These big public celebrations are elaborate and intended to expose the Americans to the migrant culture and tradition.
Los Angeles is the most diverse county in the U.S., and many cultures have large enough communities to hold one or more cultural festivals each year. It is the home for the largest Sri Lankan community in the US. Naturally, it is the centre where the biggest Sri Lankan celebration, the ‘Sri Lanka Day,’ takes place.
Sri Lanka Day celebrations are sponsored and organised by the Sri Lanka Foundation, a brainchild of Dr. Walter Jayasinghe, a leading expatriate physician who came to the US in the early 1960s. In 2003, he established the Foundation to promote Sri Lankan cultural activities in the US and expose the American public to the many facets of the historical heritage and culture of Sri Lanka.
The Foundation’s premier event is the annual Sri Lanka Day celebration. It is a day when the sights and sounds and the unique taste of Sri Lanka come alive in Pasadena, one of Southern California’s glamorous cities.
The Festival held on the sprawling promenade of the historic Pasadena Town Hall, attracts tens of thousands of visitors. It features Sri Lankan traditional products, clothing, art, artefacts, foods, music, dances, art, and theatre. Visitors are treated to a tour de force of Sri Lankan fashionable clothing jewelry, sweets, spices, and a taste of the famous Sri Lankan tea.
The food stalls featuring Sri Lankan delicacies are the favourite congregating spots for all visitors who are treated to the unique taste of Sri Lankan hoppers, kotthu roti, rice and curry, patties, cutlets, and a variety of other authentic food.
Mesmerising dance and music performances are staged throughout the day from ten to ten to captive audiences. Keeping the crowds entranced are traditional Kandyan and low country dances featuring vibrant costumes, and ornate jewellery; Raban Pada, Hela Gee Rangana, Thaala Nada, and other Sri Lankan classical and popular songs accompanied by well-choreographed dances with breathtaking spin movements and pulsating drumming.
The performances are interspersed with a cultural fashion show with Sri Lankan models showcasing Sri Lankan costumes on the catwalk. As the sun goes down, the stage is transformed to accommodate the big bands that play Sinhala, Hindi and English songs popular in Sri Lanka culminating in a Baila session that brings the audience to the floor to dance the evening away.
The highlight of the day is the ‘Pageant of Lanka’ that winds its way along the famous Colorado Boulevard which is cordoned off for traffic — a courtesy only accorded to the famed annual Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. The ‘Pageant of Lanka’ is a mini sample of the iconic Kandy Esala Perahera and features a procession of ceremonial musicians, drummers, dancers, singers, stilt walkers, whip crackers, flag bearers, sword carriers, Sesath Carriers, led by elegantly dressed Nilames and various other performers accompanied by several elaborately adorned elephants, including the casket carrier mounted on wheels parading the streets in celebration.
Following the traditions of the host country, the procession is augmented with several elaborately decorated floats mounted on truck beds depicting historical and religious themes from Sri Lanka. They are painstakingly decorated over many days by the sponsoring temples in the area, past pupil associations of schools in Sri Lanka and commercial establishments operated by Sri Lankans.
Staging the Sri Lanka Day event is a gigantic task. Each year, as soon as the day ends, the planning and preparation for the following year begin. More than 500 volunteers work to make it happen.
With the elaborate events that were well planned and presented this year, Sri Lanka Day came of age to take its place beside the other more established ethnic celebrations in the US. According to some accounts, the Sri Lanka Day celebrations this year exceeded the standards set by long-established ethnic events. It should be a matter of pride to every Sri Lankan that their countrymen can stand side by side with other nations wherever they may be.
This reviewer concludes by wishing the Sri Lanka Day celebrations greater success in the years ahead. Chiran Jayatu!
The writer is Former Deputy Director General, United Nations, Director, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and President Emeritus, International Institute of Space Law & Policy