Palihakkara was born in the village of Ruppagoda, in Kadawatte of the Gampaha district. He attended the St. Benedict's College in Kotahena and St. Joseph's College in Colombo. At the age of 14, Palihakkara witnessed the Sinhala dancer Chitrasena perform in the Vidura ballet and was inspired to be a dancer.
Palihakkara left school without getting his Senior School Certificate in his late teens, and went to India to train at Shanthi Nikethan. He stayed at the school for two years focusing on dance along with painting and sculpting. Palihakkara then enrolled at the Institute of Kala Kshethra in South India majoring in dance.
After finishing his studies, he returned to Sri Lanka in 1948 and took part in a national pageant organized in celebration of the country's recent independence. Later with the help of Dr. P.R. Anthonis and K.D.A. Perera, Palihakkara briefly started a dance school in Borella. He left for England in 1949 to join the Indian dancer Ramgopal's travelling ballet troupe, which performed in various venues in Europe.
Work in film
Shesha Palihakkara with Clarice de Silva in the film Mathalang On his return to Sri Lanka, Palihakkara was asked to choreograph movies like Ahankara Isthri and Puduma Leli. He got his first starring role in Matalang and travelled to Madras, India to film the movie in 1953. Palihakkara played a cruel king and his rogue bandit son; the film was a huge success and made Palihakkara a heart throb in Sri Lanka.
He next appeared in Rekava as an astrologer and stilt walker. The film wasn't a box office hit, but was critically praised and is considered a landmark in Sri Lankan cinema. In 1954, Palihakkara worked in the makeup department of the United States film Bridge on the River Kwai which was filmed in Sri Lanka.
After the film was made, Palihakkara travelled to London to rejoin his friend Ramgopal and his dancing troupe. Ten months later he became a member of the Asian Music Society. In 1959 he was stricken with asthma and returned to Sri Lanka.
Innovation and retirement
With the help of director Mike Wilson and Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Palihakkara developed the first Sinhala colour film Ran Moothu Doowa in 1960 for his production group Serendib Productions. It was also the first Sinhala film to feature under water scenes of the ocean surrounding Sri Lanka. His second production Getawarayo was directed by Mike Wilson and Thissa Liyanasooriya and won several awards at the 1966 Sarasaviya Awards. His last production Sarawita was made the following year.
Palihakkara abandoned his film career after Sarawita and pursued business in the plantation industry. He returned to film in the 2000s with a role in Chandran Ratnam's Romeo and Juliet.
In 2007, Palihakkara was honored with a Ranathisara award at the Sarasaviya Festival for his contributions to cinema.
Shesha died on July 12, 2009.