chitrasena.jpg (6938 bytes)
Pic by Nihal Fernando

Gamini Seneviratne
Maurice Dias Amaratunga made eighty, an age that’s more in the women’s department in our family. In the scale of human life I suppose it would be something like making a double century at cricket, the later years being tough going. Chitrasena’s hung tough. And it’s been a great innings.

The particulars of his achievements on the stage are common knowledge and I do not propose to dwell on them. Suffice it to say that he had the strength of character to take as his vocation - avocation, call it what you will - a form of art, a way of living, associated with the system of rajakariya. Where it still exists, it ‘levels’ everyone to their common human dimension. Despite Chitrasena’s example and ironically, in relation to his work, rajakariya continues to be regarded as being "a matter of caste"; in that derogatory sense, ‘caste’ will be a long time a-dying.

This might not seem to be the occasion for us to examine the apprehensions that are the foundation for what has become a non-debate on such a matter, but the character of Chitrasena’s work cannot be understood without doing so even in the kind of short-hand that I tend to use.

What he’s done, his true achievement, is that he has mastered the rajakariya in its ritual dimension. That is what has made him "one of ‘them’ ". It may have taken him thirty years or more before the masters of the art finally pronounced their judgement "Yes, you have got it! You have understood the dance, you have made it manifest."

I am conscious that the location of such as I who offer to comment on dance must be made clear. I am not given to moving my feet to a rhythm. Such movement along those lines that I’ve attempted has been on what is sometimes called a ballroom or a dance floor. And there I have had to be led by my wife into what they call a waltz. Baila dancing, a corrupt form of the kaffirinha which in our youth was a vibrant presence from Kotahena to Negombo, has been for me a kind of aerobic exercise designed to sweat away an excess of food and drink. On a very merry evening, to the undisguised astonishment of my wife and her partner, a couple of judges decided that my partner and I were the tops; I am sure they had been very merry too.

Around the time of the Christian holidays we had the chikotti music and the kaffirinha dance in our drawing room which was quite large even for those times. Late in the evening, Mr. Paul Perera’s kulla dance pushed aside the tango and the fox trot played on the HMV gramophone. He danced with this kitchen aid, his eyes closed, his John White shoes snappy on the floor, under the adoring gaze of his wife. Everybody else was excited by it but no hand clapping intruded on his dreams. No bras were thrown. He was in is seventies, grey hair middle-parted. The Pereras would have missed the frequent thovil and the occasional gammadu ceremonies in our and surrounding villages - Batagama, Mattumagala, Kereng-apokuna, Walpola, Polpithimukalana, Makavita, Nivandama.

Chitrasena was based in the house on Galle Road, Kollupitiya, that Sir Ernest Fernando had given him for his use. Given also his father’s work in theatre, mostly Shakespearean, the audiences to which he introduced or presented our traditional dance forms, in a package they would recognize, were predominantly of the ‘urban anglicized elite’. This was so in the major towns, especially in Colombo. But people such as the Pereras and ourselves were in the audience too.

Over time, as the Pearl of Great Price, as it came to be oriented towards a metropolis which did not really wish to know them, began to shunt school-children away from the normative range of accommodation that characterised village life and the rituals it sustained in a symbiotic association, Karadiya, Nala Damayanthi, Gini Hora and the medley of folk dance that he came to present on stage were able to bring before them echoes of the familiar in sounds and images from afar. That was made possible because the schooling in dance, conducted for the most part by Vajira and Upekha, that the children of urban homes who came to them for instruction, were taken through, was based on the ancient procedures of instruction and practice.

And it was done in a setting that had been hallowed by the throb of drums and of human feet, especially Chitrasena’s, in dance under the ‘guidance’ of - I cannot find the right word for that phenomenon in this language - of grandmasters of the art. It is no wonder that he was welcomed among them as one of their own. It was a place that vibrated with the kind of creative activity that we associate with an "Art Centre". That the place that’s been given that name down Guildford Crescent did not match the rhythms of the Vajira-Chitrasena extended household / community was to be expected. All art, including Chitrasena’s naturally, is ‘derivative’ - where would we be otherwise? ‘Stage & Set’ at that time focused its energies on reproducing plays that most of its audience had read as school texts.

Dancers, drummers, singers, song-writers and other writers, actors, directors (as in plays and films), musicians - the Kollupitiya place gave them free entry, nourished them all. Among them were Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Shanthi (better known as Sunil Shantha), and Albert Perera a.k.a. Amaradeva. It was also the nursery for such dancers as Khema, Ravibandu and numerous others. An early protŽgŽ of Chitrasena, Ustad Podiappuhamy originally of Kuliyapitiya, himself a grandmaster in the sarod and heir to Alauddin Khan’s school in Gwalior, received there an earful of invective (delivered in English perhaps out of deference to the sensibilities of those present) for treating the occasion too lightly. He responded with a supplication for forgiveness played on the sarod, which I heard as a profound expression of the guru-gola relationship. The place was an oasis in the heart of Colombo, and took to its bosom the street and shanty people of Kollupitiya as well as diplomats of various political hues.

All dance, especially the higher forms (not my kind of baila) - is structured. It is not a sequence of spontaneous movement. Whether the people who perform this rajakariya - if you were to go there tomorrow you would find it at Embekke Devale - would recognize ‘dance’ in the Bolshoi ballet I do not know. They might see in it the mimicry of dance, the first steps, so to speak, towards the Olympic sports of gymnastics and figure-skating, although that process probably moves in the other direction.

Chitrasena himself was familiar with the form of packaging required at the time. It involved the element of ‘time’, a feature that was relatively open-ended in ritual, and of ‘timing’ as an aid to dramatic presentation. These features were seen as a matter of ‘discipline’. Chitrasena is a professional artiste; discipline and hard work remain as mother’s milk to him even at his present age. He took to his bosom the work of the most gifted theatre people of the last century, studied them, rehearsed with them in mind. When Karan Breckenridge induced him to play in ‘Stage & Set’ productions of Othello and Emperor Jones, he set about his preparation by studying recordings of old productions such as Orson Welles as Othello. He drew on Paul Robeson’s rendering of the Volga Boat Song for the melody of the theme song in Karadiya. Unfortunately, his brother, Sarathsena, permitted himself to be seduced into another kind of society which befuddled him and was drawn down under. He was highly gifted too but evidently he had lacked his brother’s bloody-minded discipline.

Chitrasena brought the entire range of the training in dance that he had taken upon himself, from those of our native rituals to those of Kerala and Shantiniketan, into another task: that of conceptualising an extended drama for presentation through the medium of dance, one that contained a dance-friendly story-line.

Dance, drums, the human voice, other musical instruments too. He put his hand to everything that had emerged from his notion of dance, - what his body wished to do, what other dancers in each action needed to do, the texture of the rhythms and their positioning in congruity with the dancers, the stage effects, the lighting - all those elements that had agitated his mind as it struggled to match his conceptions, rich or austere, to the cloth he had to work with.

Dancing ‘solo’ - I would surmise that such would be a characterisation that does not exist, is impeachable, in our dance, dance in all human culture being always an attempt to reach the act of devotion - he did not need to wrestle with that particular problem. But, dancing say Arjuna, he knew, as did the drummer, that they were engaged in a collective act of worship, that they were constrained by their separate and fraternal thirst for perfection. That thirst was that of Tantalus. The more desperate one’s exertions towards slaking it, the further that longed-for consummation would recede.

Perhaps I should add, be way of explication, that for us in ‘the audience’, us watchers, Arjuna exhibited Chitrasena’s proven best. He danced without a single false step to sounds that did not miss a single note of war. Such a performance, whether it was the Arjuna of legend or not, projected a mastery of a range of skills in which ego is not absent, not sought to be vanquished.

For Chitrasena, too, that came later.

And where does the appellation of ‘ballet’ fit in? Obviously, it has to do with relating a story through movement of the human body to an appropriate music. It does not require words - song. Yes, they also employed melodies, largely drawn from our roots in the culture of Bharat, which is yet pervaded by Buddhism and continues to be charged with her, near enough dominant Mughal heritage, [which has, sadly, passed the Mullahs by]. It is a heritage that is now under threat by the small shop-keepers who have become progressively big as their sense of shame, which ultimately has to do with respect for life, including their own, has declined. If not altogether disappeared in a process of evapo-transpiration, the merits of which were demonstrated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in many other places, over most of this earth.

Many strands in human culture have gone into the fashioning of Chitrasena’s life and work. Central to them all, the acclamation from Delhi to Moscow to London, to Ottawa and down to Sydney, the heart of his work, the epicentre of his explosions that many of us have witnessed or been the target of on stage and off, has to do with his commitment, regardless of all diurnal hazards and loyalties, the pursuit of an empathy of a higher order, that which pervades this particular segment of the universe. Maybe there are more vital things that we should seek to see, but I do not know of them.

When he chose to bring our traditional act of dance on to a stage and to reconstruct it thereby to fit into such constraints as a ‘western’ stage imposes, did he remove from that audience and himself the need for exposure to ‘the real thing’? Where did the ritual go in his stage presentation? In attempting such a maneuver, did he fall between stools?

Purists in each segment of the many skills he used would say, "Yes". That the success was partial, not whole, was a factor also of the illiteracy of our people relative, say, to those in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is the recipient, the partner in the exertions of the artiste, the audience, that can make a performance whole.

But for himself, he never lost his feet. He grounded himself in a tradition that was itself grounded among all human kind, from Lanka to Bharat, to Moscow. (Why have we missed Africa, the Western continent, the one below us?) Glimpses of the work he put together are available in video recordings that were made when such possibilities became half-way real here.

Writers, painters, even composers of music and such could leave ‘hard-copies’ behind. Dancers leave behind a state of elevation that may have brought those who witnessed their work-in-action to the feet of the sublime.