Sithara Maduwanthi is the lead drummer of Thurya, an all-female drum ensemble that was formed under the auspices of the University of Visual and Performing Arts. In this interview with Women Talk, Sithara talks about the formative phase of Thurya as a drum ensemble, breaking into the traditionally male-dominated sphere of percussion music in Sri Lanka, how Thurya discovered the unique strengths and rhythms women’s bodies produced as drummers, and their performances and accolades as percussionists.
How did this journey begin for you and how was Thurya formed, as an all-female drum ensemble in Sri Lanka?
When I came to the University of Visual and Performing Arts I came across the Department of Percussion Music. There were no women in that department. But because I liked that subject of percussion music I chose to study it. I became the first female percussion music graduate in the history of the University.
While I was studying, I met my thabla teacher, Sriyan Chandrasekera. I was also doing my special degree on drums. I had a friend named Dilan in the Leo Club, and I got an invitation from him to perform at an international conference of the Leo Club. We did not think big at this time. We gathered some girls who were able to perform drums and formed a collective. Sriyan Sir composed the music for that. We got our instruments from the University. The Head of our Department asked us about why we were taking these instruments. Upon hearing us, he said why not go ahead and continue to performs as a female ensemble.
Then we took over the mission. We had a lot of talented students at the campus. Although they were not in our department, there were students who were studying dancing who were capable of playing drums. Together with them and Sriyan Sir, we initiated Thurya 2015. It was our first show, which was conducted through the University. We practiced for it through 2014. We found about twelve students initially for that. We first performed a body percussion item. Which means we were not using any instruments per say but producing sound with our bodies. Sriyan Sir created that act. It was difficult. So, some gave up, in the process, and those who were committed stayed with us. That is how it started.
What got you interested in drums, as an instrument, and in setting up a female ensemble?
There were lot of women in Sri Lanka who were into dancing. But there was an absence of women playing drums. I also had a specialization in the area, despite the fact that percussion being a male-dominated subject. There were examples from the world outside of Sri Lanka, for instance the all-female drum ensemble Drum Cat. I wanted to initiate a model like Sri Lanka’s Naadro. Naadro included a percussion jam and consisted of a group of male drummers. So, I thought could this not be also done by women?
Even at school, I was the leader of the Eastern Band. So, I had an interest for music since I was a child. That is the reason why I did the percussion music degree. I studied Sri Lankan drums, Indian drums, and the Western drum kit and this led to an interest for drums. Girls who saw me doing this liked what I was doing and they joined me.
‘Share the rhythm of humanity’ is the theme of Thurya. What does this entail for you as musicians?
We had a challenge when we initiated Thurya because women do not have a tradition of playing drums in Sri Lanka. Even with our traditional shanthi karma performances, it is the men who play the drums. There is no space for women to play drums in the society. When we take the drum into our hands everyone is inquisitive about what we are doing. So, we had to create a vision. There is no gender divide for art. Art is equal to everyone. Everyone feels the beat. Anyone will clap for whatever rhythm. It is limitless. What is the sound that the female strength can produce, and if that sound can bring pleasure to a person, that is our intention. That is why we made it our vision to ‘share the rhythm of humanity’. That was a huge blessing for us. We were not doing anything to counter anyone. If we can perform our art and make someone happy, that is our intention.
How was your first showcase Thurya 2015 put together?
The main challenge we had was the selection of the group. We practiced the body percussion item for about two months. It is very difficult to perform as well as to create. It is not known in Sri Lanka. Our performance was called Gothra Naadaya (sounds of the tribes) and was based on African tribal lives. Bringing something like that to a stage as a 15-minute item requires a comprehensive study and a research. Shiryan Sir and I followed this research for a long time.
It was a complex exercise to put the act together and get the students to perform the item from memory. That is how the group was selected, so that we could be ready for anything. When we began it was not like we are now after two years of performing. Everything was difficult for us when we began. We were mostly from the Dancing Faculty. Sriyan Sir has studied at the Music Faculty although he now teaches at the Dancing Faculty. He has a good knowledge of music. But we did not have a good music knowledge back then. The main challenge that Sir faced was to train the students to play the instruments. When we attempted to play instruments we also faced that challenge. So, practice was very challenging.
Then there was the issue of funding. After spending about three months and getting the performance items ready to the level of doing the show, we started searching for funding. We printed stickers and sang in trains. That is an experience I will never forget; five to six girls getting together and singing in the train. We succeeded. We go in the morning around eight and come back to the campus around six in the evening. Then we practice till about midnight. We could not miss the practice. If the practice leaves our bodies, then the show will be a disaster. If we don’t have funding, still the show will be affected. So, we balanced both with a lot of difficulties.
Our families knew by then that we were doing something difficult. At first, there was opposition. But then they realised that we were doing something good. They came forward to protect us. At first, we did not ask for funding from the university. But we made them aware. After watching our show, we had high recommendations from renowned performers like Ravibandu Vidyapathi, Jananath Warakagoda, Rakitha Ruwan of Naadro, and our Vice Chancellor Prof. Ariyarathne Kaluarachchi. That is when we were able to assess that we were suitable to go out into the art field. After seeing our performance, our Vice Chancellor gave us funding to settle the sound equipment payment for the show. That was a huge strength to us. We had huge support from the University as well as our students to do this show.
You are not only musicians but also performers. It is not just playing drums – there is also performances, where you use your body. How do these two aspects work?
The practice involves our bodies. At the same time, we must engage our brains. Percussion includes producing rhythms. Then we have to practice with our hands. Sometimes our hands crack from the pressure. When you practice for months, at a time, the exhaustion becomes unbearable. But it is necessary to exceed that limit. We did four advanced performances for a one-hour show. An item is about 15 minutes long. Training our bodies to do those performances continuously was a huge challenge.
In the meantime, Sriyan Sir conducted workshops on taal (musical meter). This taal knowledge is very important. Hindustani taala system, the local system, and Western beats were mixed into these taal workshops. Then we trained on body percussion and playing instruments. These were conducted by Sriyan Sir as lessons. So, it was practice based education.
The traditional art of Sri Lankan drumming exists within a male base. What does it mean for a group of girls to become drummers?
What we always tried to do was not to follow the style of male drumming. It was about recognising the type of sound that we could produce as women. Our intention was to socialise a new image of the female percussionist. How can we place the female body in this discourse? The female body is different. We tried to manage that difference in a creative way. Even with the tribal sounds we did, we took in the difference of sounds produced by a female member of the tribe to that of a male member of the tribe. We researched about whether women have the same strength as men. We found out that women have more endurance than men. We found motivation through this. That motivation is very important to work as a team.
What kind of support do you have from the University for your work?
Since our show in 2015, Thurya has performed at every event that the campus had. All our work from finding drums, changing drums, costumes, and sets to makeup are provided by the Drama and Dancing Faculties of the university. The Arts Faculty took our photographs. Music students helped us with playing the music and vocals. The entire university came together with us.
We had two shows. One in the morning and one in the evening. A lot of people came to see our rehearsal to see if we had succeeded or failed. So, we closed off the rehearsal without letting anyone in. But somehow a few people had come in. As a result, the next day, the show was house full because the news had spread that we were doing well.
What are the shows that Thurya performed afterwards and what are some of your current work?
At the end of 2015, we got an opportunity to take part in an Indian tour. It was the Global Female Folkdance Competition. We have a Facebook page for Thurya. After seeing our page, Pawan Kapoor of Charu Castle Foundation contacted us. We had to pay for our travel for this competition and the University assisted us. We found the remaining funds, again, by singing in the train.
Because we were a percussion group the welcoming performance of the festival was given to us. Then we took part in the dancing competition. We also performed at their closing ceremony. We won the first place at their competition. We also got an award for best music for the opening performance. That was the first international award that we brought to Sri Lanka.
After that, we continued to take part in events. In 2016, we worked extensively to do a show outside of the University. We had a show that year at Nelum Pokuna. The Vice Chancellor assisted us in obtaining the hall under educational procedures. That show was also a success. We performed at the International Women’s Day with the SAARC Cultural Centre. We performed at an international conference of the SAARC women’s bureau. We played in many events like that.
How can you be contacted for any performances?
We have a Thurya Facebook page and www.thurya.lk is our website. We have a YouTube channel, Thurya Beat. You can find information about our performances there and contact us. We excel at local drums, foreign drums, Indian drums, African drums, Latin American drums, and many more percussion instruments. We also perform dancing. If anyone is interested, we can be contacted for performances. We play the main four local drums gataberaya, yakberaya, dawula, thammattama. We play the Indian thabla and Indian dhol drums, Cajons, Congas, Djembes, Western drum kit, and Timbales. We also introduced body percussion to Sri Lanka. For that, we don’t use any instruments but we produce sounds by using our bodies.
Who are the team members of Thurya?
I am Sithara Maduwanthi. There is also Nadeeka Suranada, she is from the Rideegama Suranada generation. Chamini Anurudhdhika, Sanduni Chathurangi, Shalini Yashodha, Chethani Rathnayake, Oshin Sachini, and Chathurika Sandaruwani are our team members. Our music director is Lecturer of Thabla at the University of Visual and Performing Arts Sriyan Chandrasekera.
Date of Interview: 20 October 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage