Sunday, March 13, 2016

Watching this duo, Chithrasena and Viajra was a treat.


I was never into music and dancing.

Watching this duo, Chithrasena and Viajra was a treat.

I hope somebody write a book on them and their family for posterity.

This is an adaptation by Samson Abeyagunawardena of an article by Marianne Nuernberger, published in The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol 40. Dr Nuernberger did field research for her doctoral thesis (University of Vienna):Dance is the Language of the Gods:the Chitrasena School and the Traditional Roots of Sri Lankan Stage Dance.

Vajira celebrates her 85th birthday next Tuesday – 15 March. Her legacy to the arts and culture of Sri Lanka is her astonishing family dedicated to dance: Kandyan, Low-country, Sabaragamuwa. The family of three generations comprises dancers, musicians, choreographers, dance teachers, costume designers and dance administrators.

As a dancer, Vajira was world class. In 1963 the Perth Festival of the Arts director described her as "a dancer to treasure". The dance critic of Australia’s prestigious national newspaper, The Australian, saw Vajira’s grand-daughter Thajithangani, dance at the Sydney Festival in January 2015 and wrote: If there is a more immediately captivating dancer than Thajithangani, I have yet to meet her/him.

The path to great heights has not been easy..

What was it like in Sri Lanka 65 years ago for a young Sinhala woman, English educated and of the highest caste -goyigama- to go on stage as a professional Kandyan dancer? No other Sinhala woman had done it before. There were hundreds of male ritual dancers performing in the three indigenous styles: Kandyan, Low-country and Sabaragamuwa, but not a single female professional dancer of any of these styles. In the culture of that time, a woman who dared to dance in one of the indigenous styles was believed to be ill, insane and possessed by demons.

Vajira dared.

Vajira was eighteen in 1950 when she married Chitrasena who had founded the Chitrasena Dance Company in 1943. He was pioneering in adapting the traditional dances of the Sinhalese to the modern stage so that theatregoers in Sri Lanka and overseas could enjoy them as sophisticated entertainment.

Chitrasena was handsome, charismatic and on the path to achieving iconic status as a dancer. How did Vajira adapt to be the spouse of such a man? How did she cope with being a professional dancer in a culture where ritual dance was a domain of males only.

After marriage, Vajira worked with Chitrasena to become the "inventor" of a graceful female style– lasya - of Kandyan dance, of modern stage dance training and of children’s ballet. Together they raised the standard of virtuosity for the Kandyan dance and added, with sympathetic understanding , new dimensions to the classical repertoire of movement.

Vajira’s lasya interpretation find its most effective expression in her adaptation of the Gajaga Vannama, a traditional up-country dance of the royal court of Kandy. Her modified choreography of this dance has even been incorporated into the curriculum of the government art colleges. The song texts of the older Vannams include descriptions of various birds and animals, but no interpretations of the texts were originally shown in the dance. The choreographies of the Vannams of the Chitrasena and Vajira School introduced such interpretations. From that time onward, Vajira was given the opportunity to develop her own choreographies at the Chitrasena School; the female parts she created had the lasya quality. All the major ballets of the Chitrasena-Vajira School from 1952 onward were the outcome of the collaboration between Chitrasena and Vajira.

Vajira is an astonishing woman. Age has not deprived her of her intensity, her vitality – an austerely restrained form of tenacious energy – or of her extraordinary courage. Whenever I remember Vajira, I see her as a teacher leading the dance in front of the regular rows of her pupils. I remember her smile, her stringency, the earnestness of her talk when speaking about her longing for a peaceful time and a place to meditate. It was no surprise for me to learn that Vajira’s extraordinary success in the role of the young and beautiful Sisi in Chitrasena’s ballet Karadiya can be viewed as a creation of her own identification with the oppressed and confused state of that tragic character.

There is no suggestion here that Vajira alone broke through the gender barrier to stage dance, that she set the pace for the first Sinhalese female religious specialists and ritualists. Numerous women came before her. Sinhalese historians write about a lost tradition of female ritual dancers who were similar to the devadasis of India. Then there were the female ecstatic priestesses of the Tamil Hindu rituals in Sri Lanka who gained importance through the rise of Kataragama as a religious centre also for the Sinhalese. To a certain degree, women in Sri Lanka have always had some kind of silent power and authority inside their homes. There is no despising of widows, no killing of female babies after birth. A further factor is that in recent times, the social order has opened up to women opportunities to work outside the family.

Since the beginning of the 1980s Sinhalese female ritual dancers could for the first time be seen to practice as exorcists and dance priestesses. In the same way that men of groups other than the traditional Berava caste took over the ritualistic dance-art, women now appeared on the scene to get their share of the activities of the new ritualist.

There is no suggestion here that Vajira’s modern dance-art solely caused this change. Rather, I believe that as the traditional dance-art had socio-religious significance, modern stage-dance and school-dance gave considerable impetus to the opening-up of religious and ritual functions to women. Modern non-ritual dance has astoundingly managed to close the gap between castes and sexes on the terrain

of its rituals. It has become a social bridge to the new ritual forms. It has also contributed to new female professions in this field. And Vajira was the first Sinhala woman who made dance in the Kandyan style her full-time profession. Is it too much then to say that her life’s contribution reaches far beyond the sphere of stage dance?

Vajira is no ritual dancer. She was a stage dancer for 50 years. Now she is principal of the Chitrasena-Vajira Dance School, where she also teaches. It is difficult even today for a Sri Lankan woman to become a professional dancer and stay on for the rest of her working life. Most women who learn to dance go on to teach and do not devote themselves to dancing on stage. However, Vajira’s pioneering work has ensured that a number of teachers and stage dancers earn a steady income. She is an artist who has spent months perfecting the choreographies of the Ballets of Chitrasena. She is a pedagogue who has researched dance teaching methods in India, Russia, the US and Europe. And she is a mother, grandmother and great grand-mother.

Vajira has choreographed 26 productions, of which eleven are children’s ballets and the rest adult’s ballets. Her numerous performances in Sri Lanka include several one-and two-week festivals celebrated every year from 1965 on. During the celebrations at the Lionel Wendt Theatre in 1996 commemorating her 50 years of dancing, she announced her last appearance on stage. Alas, there have been no more Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Festivals since then.

The third generation has now taken over management of the Chitrasena-Vajira School of Dance and of the Dance Company. Vajira’s mantle as principal dancer of the Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Company passed on to her elder daughter, Upeka and then in 2011 on to her grand-daughter Thajithangani. Grand-daughters Heshma and Umadanthi, are the company’s artistic director and administration manager respectively. The company does not have a principal male dancer. It has been unsuccessful in attracting personable young males to go through the six years of rigorous training required before they can come into serious contention for selection as principal male dancer.

What of the future?

The Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Foundation (CVDF) aspires to create a self-sustaining Centre for the dance that includes:

- a healthy pool of new talent drawn from all parts of Sri Lanka;

- a growing base of trained teachers across the country;

- a professional dance company that provides opportunities for artists to meet, collaborate and commit to the dance;

- and a program of outreach, education and marketing to increase the base of knowledgeable and discerning audience at national and international level.

The CVDF has an approved plan for the construction of a cultural centre, designed by a renowned architect, on the site of its present temporary premises at Elvitigala Mawatha, Colombo -5.The plan includes a hall for teaching classes, a studio in which to conduct rehearsals, a studio for creative work, an apartment for the resident principal, a library, dormitories for males and females, toilets, kitchen, dining room and storage room.

-The dormitories are for students who travel from distant outstations and have to stay overnight.

lArun Abey, a Sri Lankan expatriate long settled in Australia, is patron of the CVDF. At a Kalayathanaya event in February 2014 he, on behalf of the three generations of the Samson and Annapurni Abeyagunawardena family settled in Australia, pledged $(A) 100,000 (about eleven million Sri Lanka rupees) to the CVDC Endowment Fund and invited others to chip-in.

Vajira hopes, more than anything else, that many Sri Lankans, expatriates and well-wishers would chip-in so that the Chitrasena-Vajira Cultural Centre she dreams of would be built in her lifetime. Please chip-in when you wish Vajira a happy birthday next Tuesday – 15 March.

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