04 January 2012

The Chitrasena Magic

This morning I read a piece about 'the new face of the Chitrasena tradition', i.e. the late great dancer's granddaughter.  Made me want to share something I wrote for the Sunday Island almost 8 years ago, on the occasion of the maestro's eightieth birthday. Here goes.

Chitrasena is a national icon. So is Vajira. The people of this country knew this long before the conferring of state honours. For me, Chitrasena was just "Chitrasena Mama", a man with the kindest eyes I have ever seen, who would on certain Saturdays come home to go to Kinross beach with my father. At that time I didn’t know the meaning of the word "icon". I couldn’t for the simple reason that I had never heard the word.

I knew however, even as a child, that Chitrasena Mama was not just someone who visited us now and then.

I distinctly remember my father launch on one of his historical narratives one day at the Kurunegala Railway Station, after I showed him a Ceylon Tourist Board poster depicting the country’s most famous dancing couple. Until then I didn’t know that Chitrasena Mama was a dancer. It took me many years to understand that that too was a paltry description for no single word can capture the versatility of the man.

When I went to the National Art Gallery on Thursday, I thought I knew who Chitrasena was. Although "dance" was never my thing, I was always intrigued by it and, like anyone who insists that the future has to be built on our cultural past, I’ve been a faithful student of art forms, artistes and their histories. Entering the Art Gallery was like walking into another time. The walls, carrying thousands of artifacts that recorded Chitrasena’s determined, dedicated and fulsome embrace with the traditional and ritualistic dance forms of Sri Lanka and of course the creativity he unleashed to drive these in new directions, spoke of two things to me: character and history.

At the age of 80
Each tiny snippet laid out among thousands of other snippets, cried out for more attention than time could ever permit. Each, I thought, spoke not just about Chitrasena, but was an invaluable fragment of our collective search of origin and our relentless challenge to deal with the present. When a person’s work etches itself to history’s multi-coloured, multi-textual tapestry, then alone he or she becomes historical. Like all true artistes, however, Chitrasena never sought that kind of immortality. All he wanted, I imagine, was to dance and to strive for perfection in dance, which I suppose is another kind of immortality.

Hanging on the walls, there is a ves thattuwa, made of silver. It had been gifted to Chitrasena by his teacher, Bevilgamuwe Lapaya Gurunnanse. Lapaya Gurunnanse, following tradition, offered this niyatha vivaranaya of sorts to Chitrasena, his best student, and not to any of his sons, who were also dancers. In Chitrasena’s case, there was also a genetic factor. His father, Seebert Dias, had been a leading Shakespearean actor, producer and director. It was he who, recognising young Chitrasena’s potential, had sent him to India. The Kathakali, the Tagorean dance drama in Shanthinikethan, the art of Uday Shankar, are among the styles Chitrasena danced through before developing his own style and launching "a dance odessey" in Sri Lanka.

As I said, "dance" is foreign to me. Those who know it have this to say about Chitrasena: "Recognising the vast potentials of traditional dance forms, he experimented with form, sound and colour, steering the dance along uncharted paths. Ironically, the old and the new never appeared to his as two separate or distinct entities. The new was but an extension of the old. In essence, two contributions of Chitrasena are undisputed. First, the infusion of the idea of Theatre, the Stage, the world of audience confrontation and entertainment to the Sinhala Dance; and secondly, the actual work proceeding from this conception, transferring our folk dances into gems for modern theatre. From this transformation he created a vehicle of artistic expression for the Sinhala Dance - the Ballet.

One could probably "trace" the contours that he danced along with his troupe, by visiting each and every ballet he produced, Nala Damayanthi, Karadiya, Kinkini Kolama etc. That is not possible in this space. It requires a meticulous biographer to capture all that Chitrasena has done to enhance our cultural sensibilities and refashion our humanity in more gentle ways through his art. The exhibition itself is a biography of sorts.

Only, "reading" it is not within the parameters of the possible. Perhaps the one way to ensure as complete a reading as possible, would be to preserve all the material and make it available for the general public. For Chitrasena does not belong only to those who conferred honours on him. He belongs to the people not least of all because he embraced this land in the most tender way possible: he drew his strength each time his foot touched the earth and he stole nothing when he lifted it, elegantly, of course.

The organisers of the exhibition hope that it will generate funds to complete Chitrasena’s dream project, that of establishing a new Chitrasena Kalayathanaya on land granted to the Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Foundation. It will take more than an exhibition to do this. We would not be a grateful people if we don’t do something about this. For this is no longer "Chitrasena’s Project". It is, it has to be, a National Project, as or more important than the many projects that "win" the "National" label.

What is heartening to know is what Upekha, Chitrasena’s daughter told me. "My niece Heshma has returned after doing a Theatre Arts Degree in the University of California, Berkeley. She can handle all this. Thajithangani, my other niece, is also a dancer. They will carry the tradition forward."

This is the traditional way. It is easy to be thankful. In this case, we ought to do more. I am convinced that we can be patriotic enough to accept the challenge of ensuring that the tradition lives, by helping build the Kalayathanaya.

It is the least we, as a nation, can do by way of saying "thank you" to a human being who did much more than merely dance.