Chitrasena — Dancing to the setting sun


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Chitrasena with Vajira and Upekha

by Manik Sandrasagra
Once upon a time, in civilized Ceylon, there was a watering hole in Colombo that attracted the high and low. In the beginning there was Harold and Peggy Peries; Arthur Vanlangenberg, Len Vangeyzel and Pat Siedle; Bevis Bawa, Aimee Helen, Shielah Vanlangenberg and Neville Weeraratne; Manjusri and Honey, Kirthi Sri Karunaratne, Lucian de Zoysa, Winston and Irangani Serasinghe, Ernest MacIntyre, Barbara Sansoni and of course Chitrasena.

This was the Art Center Club I remember then an integral part of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Foundation. There was also a Photographic Society downstairs and Nihal Fernando and Pat Deckker would occasionally grace the Club with their presence. Peaceful Ceylon was then suddenly re-named Sri Lanka by our politicians and the Club also entered a new phase with Nihal Ratnaike, Ediriweera Sarachandra, Dhamma Jagoda, Joe Abeywickrema, Ravindra Randeniya, and Swarna Mallawaratchi becoming regulars.

Then came a revival in English theatre, which had nose-dived with the departure of Arthur Vanlangenberg and Ernest MacIntyre. Thus this third wave in the seventies brought enthusiasm back with the entree of Richard de Zoysa, Rohan Ponniah and Christine Tambimuttu. With the spread of television however, the demise of the English and Sinhala theatre began. The club was soon transformed into just a bar - and that too for people who knew nothing about the rationale behind the establishment of the foundation and who had little or no interest in theatre. Today the Art Center Club is closed - another loss to the age of confrontation and intolerance. The Trustees of the Lionel Wendt ejected the club from its premises after years of argument between them and a membership who had long ago laid to rest the spirit of its founders. As Michael Mack who witnessed the evolution of the Lionel Wendt from its inception told me the other day, "It was not constitutions but spirit that kept it alive."

It was in the golden age of the Lionel Wendt, when the Theatre and the Club were one, was I introduced to it, as its youngest member, by Arthur van Langenberg, the man who was the catalyst behind the dream. It was here that in 1962, while rehearsing for Cole Porter’s "Kiss me Kate" directed by the American Bert Stimmel that I met and became friends with this wonderful diversity of genuine local freaks also called artists. Very few of this original gang are still in the land of the living, but on January 26, 2001 we celebrated the eightieth birthday of one of the last of the brigands - Chitrasena - father, husband, actor, devil-dancer, mother worshipper, philosopher, storyteller and kalyana mithra or good friend.

Another star, who would sometimes grace the club, who is still in the land of the living, is Lester James Peries, whose most ambitious film "The God King" I co-produced in 1973 with Dimitri de Grunwald. Lester at the age of 82 has just completed the marathon undertaking of directing yet another Sinhala feature film.

When real stars celebrate their birthdays it is always special. A star does not need to steal someone else’s credits and indulge in hype. In their lives reality is always more interesting than fiction. A Chitrasena birthday for example brings back splendid memories. I remember seeing the Yakdessa Budduwatte Punchi Gura, the revered doyen of Kandyan dancers, participate in the ritual Khomba Kamkariya performed at the Chitrasena Dance Academy on Galle Road to celebrate his birthday in 1973. That was many many years ago, when the Galle Road reverberated to the sounds of native drums rather than karaoke bars and bombs.

I remember, Sesha Pallihakara telling me how he sought out Chitrasena having seen a poster of a magnificent dancer at the Maradana junction. He located the poster designer Somabandu, who directed him to the dancer, who according to Sesha was easily the "greatest" that modern Lanka had produced. Sesha joined Chitra and became part of an entourage that eventually made it to Shantinekatan. Rabindranath Tagore and the indigenous revival among India’s Bengali elite inspired several of our local artistes to drop their Portuguese influenced names and adopt oriental labels. Amaradeva, Sarachandra and Chitrasena were among those who adopted an oriental non-de plume. However at eighty, Chitrasena has danced on the stage of life to such an extent that this "devil-dance" far exceeds any theatrical contribution. Besides spearheading the revival of indigenous dance forms, Chitra also made his stage debut as "Othello" in a MacIntyre production and as "Emperor Jones" in a Breckenridge production. However his very life has been theatre - both on and off stage, perhaps the influence of his father Seebert Dias of Tower Hall fame.

Although many years my senior Chitrasena became my good friend as a result of us both glimpsing the last vestige of a great lineage. Although it was the Art Center Club that brought us together in the early sixties, it was after my return to Sri Lanka in the early seventies that we re-established our friendship, mainly because of our common bond with the irrepressible Swami Gauribala. This made us real friends and fellow travelers.

Swami on his infrequent visits to Colombo, in the early seventies, would accompany Chitrasena, Mahen Vaithianathan and me to the Club and there he would take over one small corner of it, turning reality into fantasy and fantasy into reality. He was the ultimate showman. He would chuckle at Ajit Samaranayake’s reference to me in the press as the "showman transmogrified into a godman" saying "God was the original showman." To see Swami dance with Chitrasena intoxicated with the divine, with a little help from the ‘mother’ was in itself an unforgettable experience. Dancing like swirling dervishes they would move to the rhythm sometimes freezing in mid-dance facing each other like the boxers in Crete. An unspoken language, the mystery of rhythm, myth and metaphor were the only props. The performance would often continue for days switching between the Club and Charles Circus where Mahen held court having assigned himself the role of the "chief clown." It was on one such day which also happened to be Mahen’s birthday that both Chitra and I were refused service at two prominent Colombo Clubs that had been taken over by nouveau-riche trousered louts. The reason for this refusal was that we were dressed in oriental garb! Naturally we made the press both here and abroad.

Once it was proposed that we reciprocate and visit Swami in his ashram in Jaffna. The tour party included Mike Wilson, who had taken to calling himself Siva Kalki hoping that someone would mistake him for the last avatar of Vishnu, my wife Anne and daughter Koshika, Chitrasena, Upekha and her husband Cedric, and of course our tour guide Mahen. We were all given a long lecture by Mahen prior to our departure, who insisted that he was not going to rush but savour the flavour of every cultural site that we were to pass. We were stopping for lunch at Anuradhapura on our journey and Mahen had made a long list of the places we had to visit. However as always, by the time we got to the sacred city, Mahen was ready for a siesta, having succumbed to the charm of Johnny Walker. It was left to us lesser mortals to continue with our pilgrimage. By now we all knew that to travel with Mahen he had to be humored unless we wanted a barrage of abuse. He had an obsession with long departed ancestors who would crop up in every conversation as "temple builders" as opposed to us "shudras." We "shudras" however proceeded to drink, eat and make merry while listening to the sometimes brilliant and sometimes-nonsensical monologue of our guide also called the "fisher mudalali" by Swami Gauribala due to his outrageous moustache.

Travelling with this band was like being at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Our circus travelled in two vehicles. Mahen in his proverbial Ford Consul had Mike and Chitra for company, while the rest of us went with Cedric in his Volkswagen van. We were the so-called "puppies" in this band of crazies. As we moved deeper into the Wanni the refrain in the Ford Consul got louder. Naturally it was a drinking song.

Drink puppy, drink,

Let every puppy, drink,

That is old enough to lap and to swallow.

Here’s to the Fox and here’s to the Hound

And here’s to the chase that we follow.

We finally reached the temple town of Selvachchanithi where Swami had his ashram. Mike disappeared to a nearby cemetery to emulate Shiva, only to be accused by a resident swami of hiding in the bush and smoking a chillum. This resulted in the sunburnt Mike screaming at the top of his voice calling on all the gods to curse those who had defamed a "Rishi." The local swamis however, preoccupied with moksha and the notion of emptiness, were quite used to all types, especially foreigners in saffron, claiming to be avatars. There was much laughter and hilarity and our stay in Jaffna was a memorable experience devoid of modern sentiments based on ethnicity. The words "Sinhala" and "Tamil" never entered our vocabulary since we were all a part of Murugan’s Circus and Hindu Jaffna was quite prepared for this little band of pilgrims influenced by Swami Gauribala and the Tantric Siddhas of Tamilnadu who were his preceptors. Seafood, palmyrah toddy and of course "cool" - the Jaffna specialty, a gourmet’s delight, was what we feasted on.

My next outing with Chitrasena was in 1975. A "long walk" from Pottuvil to Kataragama through the Yala East National Park. Swami had invited us both to walk with him on his twenty-fifth anniversary pilgrimage from Jaffna to Kataragama. Chitra and I travelled by train to link up with the pilgrimage on the East Coast of Lanka. Neither of us was prepared for the ordeal of this walk, however we joined it and commenced walking from Pottuvil. Chitra and I must have looked a comic site carrying a pole on our respective shoulders with our earthly belongings hanging from it like Huckleberry Finn. At one stage I heard a passing villager mention that the black man will make it and the short man will die! This was enough to propel me to keep pace with the other pilgrims. Chitra was fit due to his dancing, but living in America drinking coffee and Coca-Cola had hardly prepared me for this walk of the penitents. A week later we made it to Kataragama half-dead but elated since we had participated in a magic journey somewhat like in "Canterbury Tales" which would have a lasting impression on both of us. Tyronne Fernando came to Kataragama to rescue us since I was busy making "Colomba Sanniya" for him at the time and there was some paranoia that I would also cast aside my identity and become a holy-mess.

Is it the singer or the song? Or is it the dancer and not the dance? We had witnessed Swami singing and dancing giving us that final lesson in bliss or "ananda" - a lesson that could only be transmitted in silence. In the still point where the dancer and the dance merge there is only the dance - and the dance is bliss. This was the teaching of the Siddhas. "There is nothing to renounce, since nothing belongs to us," shouted Swami in mid dance and the words of Yogaswami, his Guru, reverberated through our minds. "I bid you to be silent, in deed, in word, in thought; I bid you but to be, I bid you to be nobody, I bid you but be naught."

Chitrasena had long ago realized that it was the dance and not the dancer. He got so engrossed with the dance that he lost himself in it, and sometimes "Janus" emerged much to the horror of those around him. As "Janus" he could be the "devil" himself. Vajira knew this best, in as much as their love, based on a "Guru-Sishya" relationship, was truly consummated only in the dance. One day it would be Chitra who responded to the drum, and on another day, Vajira would tie him up in knots. Shiva and Shakthi moving, changing, alternating with each other to keep the rhythm flowing. For years Chitrasena and Vajira have preserved the rhythm and the dance as a living tradition, and prevented it from ending up in some museum. Through innovation and dedication they have succeeded in making girls dance male fertility dances better than the men!

Upekha, is their finest production. This then is a perfect reflection of the Kali Yuga in which we live, where everything is back to front or upside down. Chitrasena then is the dance master who kept the flame lit so that the drums of the Gods could be heard once more in the City of Colombo. Not just as ritual only but as sound mantra - a dimension that cannot be erased since it transcends time.

Chitra at eighty is a part of our post-colonial heritage. Like Lester, Amaradeva and yes, I would also include in this list another eighty-year-old. the Englishman Arthur C.Clarke who made Lanka his home in the fifties. All these heroes have had a dream. All of them have lived out their dream. As they grow older, we who are younger, have much to be grateful to them. Their dream made them transcend boundaries of race and space and like icons they have become the cultural property of "Planet Earth." However every dreamer is always alone though surrounded by a crowd. It is this loneliness that forces a mind immersed in the muse into action. In truth it is love alone that motivates the real artist - the joy of sharing with others the discovery of the inner being.

Chitra the pilgrim has walked alone cried alone and danced alone. I have been privileged to witness this sacrificial offering of a man who gave his life to dance. Shiva, the Lord of the Dance, has blessed his favored disciple, with eighty long years of merit. As Chitra enters that last phase of dancing with the divine, it is in the "heart-chakra" that the muse now resides. It was another legendary dancer, Ram Gopal, who dedicated his performance to the setting sun. All of us, who thanks to longevity have entered that phase of witnessing the dance of the setting sun, have wisdom born of experience. May I then be permitted to end my tribute to my beloved friend with a quote from "Alice in Wonderland" - a line that can easily be attributed to Chitrasena himself?

"Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?"