The Living Legacy of Chitrasena

To commemorate Chitrasena’s 88th Birthday, India’s Nrityagram Dance Ensemble presented special Dance Programmes in Colombo on 17th and 18th of January. The Ensemble, established in a rural setting near Bangalore, has interpreted religious and devotional concepts and traditional folk dances for presentation to modern audiences. The Washington Post called the Ensemble "the best Indian classical company (to perform in Washington)…in a long time. It’s cutting edge. It’s a winner"

Chitrasena passed away in July 2005. I last met him, wise-cracking away in hospital that April, when I made a promise I could not keep – to arrange a tour for his Kalayathanaya in China where I was then serving.

His abiding example in Sri Lankan dance-drama continues inspiring succeeding generations to develop new forms, in the manner that Martin Wickremasinghe’s literature, Ediriweera.Sarachchandra’s drama and George Keyt’s paintings, respectively, still do.

From 1944 to the mid 1980s, the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya located near the Kollupitiya junction, was a vibrant creative centre for the arts including for Ananda Samarakoon who composed our National Anthem; Sunil Shantha the musician; Somabandu the mural painter; Karan Breckenridge ("Breck") who directed O’Neil’s "Emperor Jones" with Chitrasena in the title role and many others. I joined "Breck" sometimes, always regretting, when seeing/hearing/feeling the Kalayathanaya activity, my own mediocre performance as a student of Kandyan Dance Master Nittewala Gunaya. Abruptly evicted from the building, Chitrasena and family moved to Mahara where the Kalayathanaya continued even "hosting" a Kohomba Kankariya.

Our Foreign Ministry helped arrange an Indian tour for the Chitrasena Group in 1998 which was preceeded by a Dance Recital in Colombo where former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga presented the title-deed to the plot in Elvitigala Mawatha on which the current Kalayathanaya was to be built. Chitrasena did not live to see the Centre when it eventually began functioning in 2006.

The Kalayathanaya is now managed by Chitrasena’s wife, Vajira and daughters Upeka and Anjali. The Centre conducts classes in Kandyan and Low Country dance and drumming, singing and yoga. It currently has around 150 students, some as young as 5 years of age.

Many influences helped shape Chitrasena’s vision and approach. His father, Seebert Dias, producer, inter alia, of Shakespearan drama, was devoted to developing traditional Sri Lankan dance forms. He guided the young Chitrasena who first performed on stage in 1936 at age 15 in Siri Sangabo. He was trained in Kandyan dance by Algama Kiriganithaya Gurunanse and other masters, being awarded the graduation head-dress, Ves Thattuwe, in 1940. Thereafter he was a student at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in West Bengal and at other Indian dance centres including in Kerala under Kathakali masters.

Returning to Sri Lanka, Chitrasena worked to present on theatre stages some of the traditional dances which have been for centuries an integral part of religious, devotional and ceremonial rituals of the people in situations such as the invocation and propitiation of deities, exorcizing of evil influences, seeking bountiful harvests or curing physical and mental ailments. His early efforts to bring on stage such ritualistic dance forms (what Breckenridge called Chitrasena’s " Great Leap Forward") were treated with public hostility at first, due perhaps to his not being a member of a hereditary dance group or caste. He persisted nevertheless and, in fact, eventually helped sustain some dance traditions which were slowly losing their social relevance, even fading away. Given the deep understanding acquired by Chitrasena of the vital essence of these dance forms: their spirit, technique and social participatory context, the on-stage presentation of the dance rituals, in ballet-mode, was accomplished without debasing or denigrating the nature of their origins, performers or participants.

In Kinkini Kolama (1978), Chitrasena presented a vivid variety of Sri Lankan up-country and low-country traditional dance forms and drum rhythms. A dancer returning to his village, is greeted by a Perahera which comes on stage passing through the audience. A village fair provides space for different types of dances - a colourful revue, like a condensed Nirthanjali (Dance Offering). Apart from dancers, the fair features kavi-kola karayas, snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, and as I recall, an "executive" collecting what pick-pockets stole.

Karadiya (Sea/salt Water) which premiered in 1961, utilized modern stage décor and lighting, special effects, pre-recorded theme music, dramatic lyrics , make-up and costumes. The Chitrasena team at the Kollupitiya Centre contributed richly. Somabandu, the mural painter designed the sets. Amaradeva composed the musical score.

Significant also was the socio-political content in Karadiya. Chitrasena traveled to Matara often and was conscious of the rough volatile natural environment and other threats including commercial exploitation endured by the fisher community. The characters in Karadiya include the fisher community, a pair of lovers, and the unscrupulous Mudalali who exploited the community and made unwelcome advances on the heroine. The socio-political aspect was skillfully woven into this tragic dance drama.

Working in association with Chitrasena, Vajira and their extended faculty, and the on-stage experience thereby gained, has inspired many students to develop their own individual techniques and styles. Continuity is part of the evolving creative legacy of the Chitrasena paramparava. Chitrasena’s daughter Upeka celebrated 50 years of dance last year displaying her own unique creative concepts and dance techniques at a commemorative evening.

Master of drum rhythms Piyasara Shilpadhipathi has been on the teaching staff of the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya and of major Universities. The signature drum-beats associated with individual characters in Kinkini Kolama were worked out by him. Upeka referred to his magnificent drum symphony, engaging and blending around a hundred drummers, many arrayed amidst the audience when celebrating the Guru’s 60th birthday. Ravibandu Vidyapathi, developing his own independent thematic approaches, last year presented his musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s political tragedy "Macbeth". Channa Wijewardene has evolved his own popular dance format utilized by Sri Lanka’s tourism industry in different foreign capitals.

Chitrasena and Vajira have thus established a unique paramparava, neither exclusivist nor bound by hierarchy. It has spawned three generations and more of artistes devoted to dance, deeply rooted to Sri Lankan traditional forms even when drawing from other traditions encountered abroad. Some of the very young, in the punchi-padha (little feet) programme now enthusiastically flocking to classes at the Kalayathanaya in Elvitigala Mawatha, with fond parents in tow, could well become eventually part of it all. The recent Koombi Kathava (the Ant Story) with its predominantly child cast, choreographed by Anjali, illustrated the care and creative inclusiveness of the Kalayathanaya’s living tradition and its eye to the future

My own first encounter of the close kind with Chitrasena and Vajira was in 1972 when they lodged in our household in Canberra while performing in the capital during an Australian tour. Chitrasena greeted journalists interviewing him with our traditional "Ayubowan". One drama critic wrote that Sri Lankans had a unique greeting, "Are You Born" assuming its similarity to the friendly Aussie greeting/query "How are you doing Mate?" but maybe also assuming the greeting sought a near-metaphysical clarification! Perhaps "Are you born?" could now signify that the late great Guru’s contribution comes alive, re-born, each time his pupils, or his pupils’ pupils perform in his grand tradition. His legacy will live on.

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