The Art of Chithrasena – by Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy

I remember the first time I saw Chitrasena and Vajira dance. I was a student in a western capital and came with my friends to see this wonder from Sri Lanka. When the performance was over I was filled with so much exhilaration and a powerful sense of delight. When I look back at that moment of exhilaration, I sometimes wonder why I was filled with so much joy- what were the elements that went into that moment.

Firstly- there was strong sense of national pride. Today national pride is somewhat complicated. Today, I believe that both Sinhala and Tamil nationalism have become self destructive. Some may also wonder what is national pride when the nation itself is contested and there is so much hatred, bigotry and intolerance on all sides. But those were the days of innocence, and national pride was a simple thing, the joy in seeing the land where you were born and the people that you most identify with producing such talent, such creativity. I recall that moment of national pride with a terrible sense of nostalgia.

The second reason for my exhilaration was the recognition of sheer genius. These were not dancers going through a routine and doing their steps. These were inspired artists. When I see Upekha dance even today, I see that genius:-. the love of music, bodies immersed in the rhythm, the confidant mastery of body movements, the commitment to excellence and a passion for their art form. When they danced everyone reveled in that moment of artistic perfection. These were moments of transcendence, a divine gift to an inspired couple.

To understand the importance of Chitrasena, we must place him in the context of history. Chitrasena belonged to that extraordinary generation of intellectuals and artists whose genius was inspired by a rejection of colonialism and a commitment to national regeneration. Today we take so much of this for granted. When we see a batik garment, do we for a moment thank Ena de Silva for reviving the batik industry? When we see Sinhala theatre, are we grateful to Sarathchandra? When we see Sinhala films, do we always acknowledge Lester James Pieries? When we read the critical analysis of Tamil novels do we remember Professor Kailasapathy, and when we see Kandyan dance performed in a classical manner do we thank Chitrasena.?This generation gave us back our traditions but within the context of a modern nation state.

What were hallmarks of this generation, firstly, they came from bilingual backgrounds. How many of us know that Chitrasena was born Maurice Dias and that his father was more at home with Shakespeare than with the Asian arts?. This bilingualism gave them access to the Sinhala heritage but also to world civilization from which they would draw. Secondly there was a search for authenticity and a commitment to the revival of indigenous tradition. In doing so they crossed class, caste and gender barriers in search of the art form. They felt that our traditions belonged to all of us and were open to all of us to enjoy and perform, much like Rukmini Devi, his counterpart in Tamil Nadu. For this boldness they often received jeers and hard looks because they were crossing feudal practices but they persevered nevertheless. They discovered, regenerated, and filled with new energy, art forms that were quietly dying during the period of colonization. This commitment to revival would have made them great national artists but they went beyond that,

They had a great deal of respect for other traditions both within Sri Lanka and abroad. One part of my family was dedicated to carnatic music and bharata natyam, Chitrasena and Vajira forged close links with them, they would attend each others performance and I would sit back and watch as they engaged in an artistic give and take which to the untalented such as myself was an extraordinary experience. In addition to a respect for other Sri Lankan traditions, they had a strong sense of being South Asian. How many of us know that Chitrasena was once a pupil of the Kathakali dancer Gopinath Guruji, or that he spent time at Shanthiniketan in India and that he took part in the ballet Chandalika opposite Tagore’s granddaughter Nandita Kriplani. When any dancer comes to Sri Lanka from India, you will always find Chitrasena sitting in the front row.,He will be the first to arrive and many of us have enjoyed watching him, Vajira and Upekha enjoying the dance performance sometimes as much as watching the guest artist,

Chitrasena and Vajira also developed into brilliant artists because they were not narrow minded. They were also constantly learning from western ballet and western dance forms. In fact one of the great contributions of Chitrasena and Vajira were that they their choreography transformed what was once a festive and ritual dance form into a modern theatrical performance in the style of the great ballet performances. The music, the lighting, the stage d`E9cor, the costumes were all creative inventions combining the traditional with the contemporary. Nala Damayanthi, Karadiya etc.. were all triumphant but in some sense very modern performances of an age old dance form.

We, who live in an era of globalization have a lot to learn from the life and example of Vajira and Chitrasena. Civilizations can be destroyed in two ways- by imperial conquest and by refusing to grow, adapt and innovate in a modern environment. The latter is a slow death but the end is almost certain.

We have to learn from the rest of the world so that we evolve the best practices suited to our environment. Chitrasena and Vajira showed us that we must be what Gandhi advocated––we must open our windows to the world, with the confidence and the certainty that we will not be blown off our feet.

Though placing Chitrasena in historical context is an interesting intellectual exercise, in the end we must be also guided by our instincts, in knowing that there was something special and timeless about him- he was just a great dancer. He would have been great no matter when he lived. To watch him was to be spellbound, rhythm permeated his body, the strength and flow of his movements captivated even the most cynical among us. His physical presence was formidable and he dominated the stage with his every movement.Watching him reminded us of Keats words “Truth beauty, beauty truth” that is all we need know.

Chitrasena was also a warm hearted, hospitable man who was a great raconteur. When I was first introduced to him I was convinced that he would never remember me- after all I was anything but a great artist. And yet the next time I met him, he greeted me warmly and inquired after my interests. Ajit Samaranayake writes, “he was a man of big stature and a large heart`85(his) passing evokes a feeling of epochal loss”

No tribute to Chitrasena is complete without a tribute to Vajira. Chitrasena was a great artist, but formed the greatest dance troupe because of Vajira. Vajira was a pioneer, the second female Kandyan dancer in history. She developed the feminine form of Kandyan dancing and if you count the numbers today it is now fast becoming the dominant form. Her beauty, her elegance, her talent is unsurpassed. Her contribution to choreography, her innovation, her sense of discipline and generosity kept the troupe steadfast in its commitment to excellence and experimentation. Together they mentored and tutored all the great kandyan dancers of the next generation whether it was Upekha, Channa, Khema, Ravibandhu etc`85

As for Upekha, my friend. She too fills me with pride by constantly reminding me that the best years of our lives are the forties and fifties and that we only reach full maturity of mind and body during those years. Though young artist are beautiful to watch, to watch Upekha is to move beyond beauty, to capture something that is transcendent, that is very spiritual and eternal with her signature stamped all over it. It is our duty to strengthen the legacy that lives in her being by giving it our support and encouragement.

So, in that sense, Chitrasena and Vajira are not only great dancers and artists, they are legend and they are a tradition. Sri Lankans are an extraordinary lot. We speak a lot, often hysterically about preserving our national traditions, but it is really rhetoric because in real life we do little about it. We do not make the financial contributions that are necessary, we do not build the institutions that house them, and we do not invest in the human resources. Infact there was a time when Chitrasena and Vajira were thrown out of their home by a mysterious fire. Their home which was a gathering place for artists was razed to the ground. Such indignity would never have been imagined or tolerated in any place that truly venerated the artist. So we have the situation today where the school that Chitrasena and Vajira started is struggling to survive. That school is in need of resources so that it can develop into a premier institution. It is time to move beyond rhetoric. It is time as the Americans say to put our money where our mouth is and to make a commitment to ensure that this national treasure survives, grows and continues to mentor a next generation. I appeal to all of you to assist us in this regard. I believe it is a national obligation and I am sure you will respond.

[Text of the speech delivered by Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy at “The Art of Chitrasena” memorial pogramme.]

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  1. Radhika’s comments indeed made me proud to be a Srilankan! As a past student of Chitrsena and Vajira ,reading this moved me to tears and brought back the wonderful memories of the school’s hay day at Colpetty.
    We Srilankans should be proud to have interlectuals of the callibre of Radhika…is it surprising that she was slected to the UN system?
    We should be releived that we have Heshma and Thaji to carry the Chitrasena tradition to the next millenium.

  2. I being a Sri Lankan and a student of the Chitrasena dance school for a short time fully agree to the comments Dr. Coomaraswamy had made about the duo late Chitrasena and Vajira. I think we all should support the school they are trying to build to carry the tradition for the years to come.

  3. I too being a Sri Lankan and being one of the first male students of Chitrasena-Vajira Dance School moved me to tears and brought back the wonderful memories of the days at Colpetty. I joined them in my teen years and learned under their guidance for 12 years or more. It was not just learning to dance I was taught to be a strong person with values that made me into a beautiful Sri Lankan. I was not just a student but part of the family where “they” are like my parents. Having growing up with Anji, Upeka, Anu, and then Tanya, Channa, Ravibandhu & others we were taught not just dancing but developed human values and to bring out the pride & beauty of a Sri Lankan to the public.
    Chitrasena-Vajira Dance School is the glue that binds our crumbling nation into a “Strong-Proud-One-Nation”. They represent the best of Nation and Culture. Therefore helping them is like helping to build & preserve our Nation with due respect to our culture and pride.

  4. I read the article, The Art of Chithrasena, by Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy with awe. It is a very insightful article and it also brings up a point – the national pride – that is bitter-sweet. Bitter, as Dr. Radhika says, its present condition and sweet, what it used to be in those good old days, the days of innocence. We should all work together with commitment to bring our national pride back to its authentic state transcending race, caste and gender. It may be difficult but not impossible.

    Dr. Radhika, thank you very much for this enlightening article.

  5. I was very happy and proud as a Sri Lankan to read Dr Coomaraswamy’s article about our national form of dance, and about the culture of our mother land. I am e-mailing this article to many of my friends. Incidently on April 2nd, Channa & Upekha are performing in Vancouver, Canada. Since it is about a 5 hour drive from Portland, I was initially not planning on attending. Now after reading this wonderful article, I have decided to attend this performance and show our support both financially and by our presence.
    Thank you again Dr Coomaraswamy for the shining example of a truly Sri Lankan native that you are.

  6. Great proudness of being a Sri Lankan filled the heart to see how these great sons and daughers of mother Lanka, Dr. Radhika, Chithrasena and Vajira. Congradulations again Dr. Radhka for you making our motherland so proud by representing the world

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