Monday, June 8, 2009



ChitrasenaWhat does forty years of dancing mean in Sri Lanka ? With a rich and variegated tradition stretching back to several hundreds, if not to over a two thousand years, with a tradition of such antiquity within which whole communities passed down an uncontaminated art from generation to generation, there must have lived many a master of the dance who could look back to his fortieth year of dancing with pride and retrace his rhythmic steps with immense satisfaction to the first day, when he stood at the dandikanda (barre) as a little lad and decided to be a Guru some day. To any dancer, forty years is a remarkable achievement, an occasion for celebration. To the dancer in Sri Lanka, it is even more - a test of exceptional loyalty and dedication to his art, a trial of unrelenting perseverance in the face of poverty and social scorn, a great triumph over the severest odds, a tremendous personal victory.
But with Chitrasena, forty years of dancing is something positively and intensely more significant, more important. Undoubtedly for him too, the completion of this long period carries a sense of personal achievement, bringing memories of struggle and triumph of quest and conquest of bitter and happy days, of lean and prosperous years. But these achievements and trimphs are now no more individual and personal. Here, at the end of these forty years, Chitrasena emerges in our retrospective vision, an important artist in an important epoch - whose forty years are now become an indelible part of a country's cultural history; whose personal achievements are now, inseparable elements in a nation's aesthetic and emotional life. His trimphs have so much composed our present, that his failures too must now be reckoned as inalienable from our national destiny. If ever we as a nation, have the capacity to evaluate our own artists, we have now come to a stage,... or rather, Chitrasena has brought us to a stage, when we shall have to speak of his successes and defeats as ours. Important epochIt was indeed in the middle of an important epoch that Chitrasena emerged, as yet another maker of that age in which we live. The Anagarika Dharmapala had fulfilled his spiritual mission and the first fruits of his life's - work were only being harvested. Ananda Coomaraswamy was rediscovering the indigenous arts and had already addressed his celebrated Letter to the Kandyan Chiefs. In India, Tagore had established his Shantiniketan. His lectures on his visit to Sri Lanka, in 1934 had inspired a revolutionary change in the outlook of many an educated man and woman. The Poet-Sage of re-awakened India had stressed the need for a people to discover its own culture to be able to assimilate fruitfully the best of other cultures. Chitrasena was a school-boy then, and the house of his father, Seebert Dias, a well-known actor of the day had become a veritable cultural centre, in and out of which went the literary and artistic intelligentsia of the time, Seebert Dias, whose acting as Shylock had captivated the English-speaking audiences, now produced the first Sinhala ballet, Sirisangabo 'presented in Kandyan technique'. Chitrasena played the lead role, and people were talking of the boy's talents. Some years before, Pavlova had visited India and taken away Udaya Shankar to Europe where his performances were making a name for all Oriental dancing. Menaka and her Kathak performances and Ram Gopal's Bharata Natyam were acquiring international fame. Some of these famous Indian exponents of the dance had already visited Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka's upper layers the parlour-piano and musical Victoriana were being abandoned in favour of Kandyan dancing, the sitar and the esraj. A new elite was rising which was turning a self-conscious if sentimental eye towards the indigenous arts. While there was a fair amount of romanticism and ostentation in all this, the trend was not altogether without authenticity and conviction, and it was as the movement was gathering momentum that a right intuition sent Chandralekha, the wife of the artist JDA, and Chitrasena to study Indian dancing under the traditional Indian gurus. Their first choice was the Chitrodaya School of Travancore where they were to study Kathakali, the dance drama of Kerala, under the celebrated guru Gopinath who later, at the completion of Chitrasena's training said of him in that typical prophetic style of the Oriental gurus "He will soon become a great dancer, having no rival in the art". Despite this trend the major tide of colonial civilization flowed unabated. A slavishly-imitative elite, half-baked in European manners and victims of the West's post-industrial commercial culture, still ruled the roost and set the pace, inciting among the nationalist elite a cultural chauvinism equally virulent. Desperate struggleMeanwhile in the villages the traditional masters of the dance held tenaciously to their art in a desperate struggle to preserve it for posterity. But with democratic institutions had come social mobility. Their sons, lured by the glitter and gold of the cities were exercising their new-found freedom and abandoning the hereditary art for the more secure jobs of peons and porters. They were being realistic. They were right. The Sinhala dance was fighting a losing battle in the villages, among the commonfolk. The old social structures which sustained it had given way. The aristocracy had now shifted their interests to the Bridge table of the Planters' Club. Before the advance of modern medicine, the exorcist ritual was dying a natural death. Thus the less-enterprising of the dancer's sons inherited his father's profession only to ensure for the art a mediocre existence. Purity of the dance was secured only through stagnation masquerading as Tradition. Incompetence and dilettantism ensured their own survival by vulgarization whose nadir was reached a few decades ago in the Kandyan Cha-Cha. There was no doubt, patriotism and a pittance could not rescue the Sinhala dance from a sure and gradual death. It was in this context that Chitrasena returned with his training from India. Like any other contemporary artist of Sri Lanka, Chitrasena stood where the road he travelled on seemed to fork out in two directions - the Path of Traditionalism stood counterposed with that of Innovation, Conformity with Rebellion, Nationalism with Internationalism, University with Particularity. In his own field, Chitrasena stood where Martin Wickramasingha stood in the Novel, Keyt in Painting, Sarachchandra in Drama, Lester James Pereis in the film, Amaradeva in music. Chitrasena too accepted the Challenge. The art must grow if it was to be saved from extinction. Thus Chitrasena brought dynamism to the tradition of the dance in Sri Lanka. And he had the deftness of touch and the awareness of the problems to conduct that delicate surgery which could, effect a synthesis of tradition and modernity without sacrilegious results to the art. Excerpts from the book Nurtya Puja which was published to celebrate Chitrasena's 50 years of dance

Chithrasena's first death anniversary falls today:
Rekindling the hope of a legendary dancer
REMEMBERED: The old fashioned single storey building on the lane heading to the Galle Road reverberated with the traditional Sinhala drum beat. The fusion of drum beats and the sound created by rhythmic footsteps that strike against the wooden floor infuses a mysterious passion to the lifeblood of anybody advancing towards the building called the Girls Friendly Society.
At the far end of the hall, a female dancer was passionately performing a Kandyan dance and her students were behind dancing, following her footsteps. Her tall figure, long plaited black hair and well defined features perfectly harmonise with her dancing poise. The elderly woman seated on the side guided and cheered up her daughter and the students. She tapped her feet to the drum beat and her eyes were dancing.
Vajira and Upeka; the wife and the daughter of Chitrasena, were getting ready for the memorial performance of their legendary dancer father, the epitome of Sri Lankan dance theatre and dance drama who ceased to dance on July 18, 2005.
Vajira, his partner on stage and life and Upeka, his daughter, the perfect embodiment of her father's dancing passion and mother's grace took a break to speak of the beloved iconic dancer and his unfulfilled dreams.
Chitrasena undoubtedly is the father of Sinhala ballet (dance drama), who created a significant breakthrough in the traditional ritual dancing to bring it up on stage. He rejuvenated earlier ritual dance traditions like the Kohomba Kankariya, Sokari, Gammadu and Kolam through his own experimental dance dramas, says Vajira, the queen of Sri Lankan ballet.
Chitrasena with wife vajira and daughter Upekha

Chitrasena was a great maestro of Indian and local dancing traditions. "Despite all his learning of Indian and other traditions, the base of the Sri Lankan dance drama is the Kandyan dance. He held local traditions in high esteem," she adds.
Chitrasena went to villages in search of authentic ritual dance traditions and later brought a dancer home to master the traditions. The life he spent as a simple villager and experience earned through extensive travelling are reflected in his creations.
"He experienced before creating. He went to the seashore and observed the life struggle of fishermen and their battle with the sea for days before creating Karadiya, his dance drama masterpiece," Upeka reminiscences.
Chitrasena's father Seebert Dias was an accountant and an ardent lover of arts. He produced Shakespeare in English and Sinhala and Chitrasena was immensely inspired by his father and his creations.
His first influence of dance drama was Tagore, who came to Sri Lanka in 1934 with his dance troupe. Tagorian Dance drama and Udaya Shankar created a huge artistic impact on Chitrasena towards initiating Sri Lankan dance drama tradition.
Dance Drama is a theatre tradition that depicts a story in dance without words and songs. However, in the Western tradition ballets include songs. Chitrasena who followed this tradition initially included one song in his ballets but later departed from that and built a unique form by narrating the whole story through gestures and movement.
"He introduced stage lighting, stage backdrops, props, curtains and costumes to dancing and converted the dance into a total theatrical experience," Vajira recalls proudly.
Chitrasena produced a number of dance dramas with masterpieces like Karadiya, Naladamayanti, Berahanda and Kolam. However, his wife Vajira is his greatest creation on stage.
"I am a pure Sri Lankan product. I never went out of the country to learn dancing. I mastered authentic Sri Lankan traditions," she says with pride.
Vajira does not perform due to a leg injury but her passion for dancing has not diminished. "Its only that I don't come up on stage, but I guide my students and compose."
He opened up the stage for women who were initially excluded in the sacred ritual art. "He bridged the gender gap on stage," Vajira - the perfect example of Chitrasena's perception of gender equality - remarks.
Chitrasena shattered caste discrimination too. Drummers who were considered to be low caste were equally treated by him. "He believed that such barriers hinder good performances," she observes.
"Father firmly believed that values and culture are the foundation of the tradition. No tradition can thrive in the absence of humility and respect for the art and the guru. That's why our culture is unique and art and culture are inseparable," Upeka commented when her students came to touch her feet to take blessings before they perform. "That was his dream.
To see the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya rebuilt as the National Dance Academy of Sri Lanka like the Shanti Niketan in India, an ashram which teaches the art as well as inculcate values. But it is yet a dream, unfulfilled due to lack of funds," she says in a serious tone.
The Chithrasena Kalayathanaya which began in 1944 was the cultural epicentre for hundreds of Sri Lankan dancers. E.P.A. Fernando, a patron and a lover of the arts who owned the building leased the property to Chitrasena for a nominal fee.
But Fernando's death resulted in the land changing ownership several times and finally it was sold and demolished along with the hopes of the students. Since then the art family conducted classes and rehearsals at over 15 locations. In 1998, then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who was also a past student of Chitrasena-Vajira gifted a piece of land to rebuild the Kalayathanaya.
"Still we could not proceed beyond a temporary structure since we have no adequate funds," Upeka laments.
"But we will not fall back. My sole ambition is to fulfil his dream by rebuilding the Kalayatanaya to save his priceless art and to pass it on to the future generation," she says.
Therefore, the Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Foundation has initiated a concerted effort to raise funds to turn the late artiste's dream into reality.
The memorial performance due to be held from July 21 to 23 at the Lionel Wendt in view of his first death anniversary is sponsored by Sri Lanka Telecom. An art exhibition displaying the pictures and portraits of the great artiste will also be held at the Harold Peiris Gallery.
The dancer wife, daughter, grand daughters and hundreds of students are engaged in an ambitious dance to keep the maestro's dance traditions alive.
The Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Foundation invites generous fellow citizens and ardent art lovers enthralled by the creative performance of the late colossus to lend a helping hand to fulfil his dream.

CHITRASENA AND VAJIRA (1928- AND 1932- ) As the pioneer of the Sinhala ballet,Chitrasena laid the foundations of the modem dance theatre in Sri Lanka. In his wife and dance partner, Vajira, Chitrasena is well matched - because Vajira is a genius in her own right.