Sri Lanka's first female drum ensemble Thuryaa broke onto the event scene in Colombo four years ago. Their hypnotic, often pulsating brand of percussion is marked by the use of traditional drums once reserved for male performers. Their audience remains fixated by the mastery and intricacy of the playing; no small feat when the drums can weigh 15-20kg.
The 20 band members are riding a wave of success, due in large part to their dedication, perseverance and support from family and professors. Their rise to prominence has been greeted in their homeland as a significant moment for gender equality and women's empowerment. Now, they're taking the world by storm. Since making a name for themselves in Sri Lanka, Thuryaa have performed in India, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. During their performance at a Plan International/UNFAPA event in Bangkok late last year, they entertained the audience with a fusion of traditional and modern pieces, perfectly choreographed as they danced and played like seasoned performers.
When asked about their rise from a little-known act performing at university auditoriums to an internationally recognised ensemble in the span of just four years, 28-year-old band leader Sithara Maduwanthi admitted that it felt surreal: "It is my belief that if we solely marketed our band as female, we would have attracted an even larger audience. Becoming known as artists is of pivotal importance to us, and that is why our performances are put together to raise awareness, be it political or social. Of course, there is an element of entertainment mixed into the act to make it appealing to the masses."
Maduwanthi recalls when starting out that, as traditional drumming had always been strictly limited to men in Sri Lanka, she was told to expect fierce resistance. Luckily, her family and tabla professor at the time, Sriyan Chandrasekara, remained supportive. Indeed, it was they who first encouraged her to find like-minded peers and form an all-female band.
Band leader Sithara Maduwanthi wants to be a good role model. Photos: Patrick Kaplin
It was in 2015 when the group began challenging gender norms, when she and a group of undergraduates from Sri Lanka's University of Visual and Performing Arts got together and put on a performance as an all-female drum ensemble. This made history as a first in the country. The band Thuryaa (which means "drums" in Sinhalese) was born.
It's been a meteoric rise for Maduwanthi. Just four years ago, she was still an undergraduate -- the only female studying percussion.
"I was training under my tabla teacher back then, whose guidance is with us to this day," she recalled. "After finding several other people for the band, we gave our first performance at the university's auditorium. We received our share of negative publicity from people who did not believe we would amount to anything, and that this was just a passing phase. Fortunately, we were also noticed by our department heads and the university vice-chancellor, who backed us by offering his recommendations."
Believing in their talent, the academic staff not only offered them a glowing review, they also guided them on how to move forward and develop. Maduwanthi, who describes Thuryaa as a close-knit family, laughs as she recalls how the band promoted itself and raised funds. The girls had to juggle lectures, fund-raising and intense practice sessions, which sometimes went on into the wee hours of the morning.
"We used to perform in trains and have a hat collection going around, which helped to get us started," she said. "While it was a blessing that I had a pool of talent to pick from, we had to find our way when it came to financing our dream. It was through blood, sweat and tears that we began to get noticed. We began to get noticed because we had a message to share. This was a chance to demonstrate what women are capable of accomplishing. Women's empowerment is required today for the advancement and progress of societies."
Thuryaa continue to practise diligently every day. Maduwanthi, as both an elder sister and band leader, stresses the importance of regular training. The body, she explains, has to be one with the rhythm; if that bond is broken, it impacts on the performance.
While they are like an extended family, she admits that being an all-girl band has its share of challenges: "Women can be bitchy, overly sensitive and jealous, so I have to keep the peace when things sometimes get heated up. These types of issues can happen in any family. On the positive side, the girls love me as their own, so all's well that ends well. What takes us from strength to strength is not just our love for art but for each other."
Maduwanthi summarises the formula for Thuryaa's success thus: "Apart from having a practical plan, it is imperative to analyse and execute it to the best of your ability. Be dedicated and motivate your team. Learn to face the obstacles with a positive mindset. At the end of the day, hard work always pays."