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The gäṭa beraya drumming tradition of Sri Lanka Peiris, Eshantha


This dissertation is a study of the Sri Lankan drum known as the gäṭa beraya and how people have used it to communicate a variety of messages and ideologies to supernatural beings and to other people. It is also an analysis of how the orally transmitted music associated with the gäṭa beraya has been conceptualized and structured by performers throughout history, and of how this music has transformed in tandem with local, regional, and global changes. In tracing these musical transformations through historical analysis and ethnographic research, I show how gäṭa beraya drumming – and its associated dance-form, Kandyan dance – is deeply intertwined with Sinhalese Buddhist ontological worldviews and with forms of analogical knowledge that are embedded in oral poetry. Through musical analysis, I argue that gäṭa beraya drumming in historical ritual contexts has been structured according to principles that extend beyond conceptions of rhythm that depend on isochronous time-units. I also highlight the continuities and ruptures that have characterized the drumming tradition during and beyond Sri Lanka’s encounter with European colonialism. This historical narrative of musical change corresponds with the process whereby the drumming tradition expanded from being a small-scale purely localized practice – rooted in the bodies and beliefs of ritualists who are marginalized today– to becoming a visual and sonic icon that currently represents Sri Lankan cultural heritage on the world stage. This study of gäṭa beraya drumming also serves as a lens through which I historicize social formations of ethnicity, caste, and religion, examining in particular how pre-colonial practices were negotiated in the context of the colonial encounter. Through this discussion I highlight the ways in which the discourses of cultural reform that characterized the anti-colonial and post-colonial nationalist movements of the twentieth century have in turn influenced the ways in which gäṭa beraya drumming is conceptualized today. By making cross-cultural comparisons within the larger region of South Asia, this research aims to contribute toward broader discussions regarding transnational genealogies of thought and the impact of these discourses on social and musical practices. Supplementary material(s): http://hdl.handle.net/2429/77304

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