14 December 2014

Devánjali: A window unto the permanence within impermanence

Devánjali. A word, a poem, description of a way of being, a dance performance.  This is the latest production put together by the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation, especially choreographed for the Sydney Festival and scheduled to be presented to the Sri Lankan audience at the Lionel Wendt on December 19, 2014. 

On Wednesday, December 11, 2014, the Chitrasena Dance Company had a special show, a preview of sorts.  If this was ‘preview’ and one performed more than a month before the ‘big show’ audiences in Australia are certainly in for a rare treat, so close to perfection did it seem to be, albeit to a ‘lay’ spectator.  It is the first time that the Dance Company has been invited to participate in what is now considered the premier cultural festival in Australia. 

Previously, that is in 1963 and 1972, when the names Chitrasena and Vajira were synonymous with ‘dance’ as it pertained to unique Sri Lankan traditions, the Company had performed at various festivals in that country.  Today, several decades later, it is the third generation of the family and their contemporaries that take stage. 

Upeka, the principal trainer of the dancers now that the legend Chitrasena is no more and his decades long fellow-dancer and fellow-guru Vajira is in virtual retirement, spoke with The Nation about Devánjali, the themes depicted in each dance sequence, the artists, the philosophy that drives the Dance Company and of course the energy and love that produce movement, beat and their union in ways that thrill, delight and prompt deeper self-reflection. 

The word Devánjali is a conjugation that refers to the worship of gods or deities.  Worship in the form of dance of course or more precisely the intricate interweave of drum and dance.  It begins with the age old tradition of seeking the blessings of gods and gurus with the ritual master (kattadiya) summons the Gara Yaka to bless the performance, the performers and the audience. 

There is sequence but there’s a seamlessness to it, for one phase yields to the next with very little pause either in time or in movement.  The next piece is a solo by Thaji in a re-make of an original sequence choreographed by Vajira for her daughter Upeka way back in 1998, ‘bera nada chalana’.  The adjustment is for youth and less experience as well as the younger dancers and drummer who perform with her.    It is principally a mix of Kandyan and Low Country dance and drumming traditions with some movements from the Sabaragamuwa tradition worked into the sequence. 

Next is a celebration of Lord Ganesha, God of Knowledge and Remover of Obstances, derived and re-choreographed for three male dancers from the Ganapathi Vannama by Heshma, who by the way not only choreographed the entire production, but is also the artistic director and lighting director.   This is followed by a dance with revolves around the folk instrument pantheruwa, believed to be anklet of Goddess Pattini, worshipped by Buddhists and well as Hindus.  The pantheru dance is traditionally associated with celebrating victory.  The dance, according to Upekha, is driven by the pantheruwa, its shape and the ideologies behind it. 

The sound and energy that color these segments yield to a more sober performance, ‘Moksha’ where once again Thaji takes center stage.  Perhaps the thinking behind the entire production is best captured in a quote by the maestro himself, read out by way of introduction: ‘Why do you repeat?  To emphasize, to bring home a point.  Why do you hold on?  Because you know it will otherwise change. How can you grasp something which is elusive? This is the beautiful paradox of the dance and of life.  When you know it, you can glimpse the permanence within the impermanence.’  There is violin, flute and female voice.  There is reference to the Buddha.  It is an exercise that seeks to show permanent-impermanent unity.  A challenge which the dancer takes on as something sacred. 

Finally, there is the Kankaari Aara or the way of the Kandyan Ritual where dancers and drummers challenge each other and through this demonstrates the union of drum and dance.  It is at once a celebration of the Kandyan Dance as well as the Chitrasena legacy.

The group, made of 3 female dancers, two of whom (Sandani and Upekha) are performing for the first time, 4 male dancers (Priyanga, Geeth, Dayan and Akhila, the last another first timer), and 4 drummers (the brothers Susantha and Prasanna, Udaya and Varuna). 

Watching the performance one is stunned by the synchronizing where only a trained eye if at all could detect the slightest mis-move.  The slower sequences were exquisite with even the breathing appeared to have been choreographed. 

‘That’s all Heshma,’ Upeka explained. 

‘She makes notes.  She writes down the slightest mistake, even finger movement that is not quite right will be noted.  She is meticulous.  As I said, she is the artistic director and also handles lights.  She designed all the costumes too.’

The hard work put in can only be imagined.  Upeka who is the main trainer (supported by her niece and the lead female dancer Thaji), and who will be accompanying the group, says that they’ve worked hard for almost a year. 

‘We take this work very seriously.  There’s a lot of research that goes into this.  This after all is all we have to say “uniquely ours”.  Nowhere in the world will you find this dance, these drums.  We have taken the essence of that which is ours, given a contemporary touch so that the entire world can enjoy it.  It is not a reproduction of the kankaariya but it certainly contains its signature.’

That it does, clearly.  There’s continuity, change and through it all something that endures.  A fitting tribute to Chitrasena, Vajira and all the traditions that made them who they were and inspired them to create a legacy that continues to inspire, entertain and educate.



h. said...

This is great. So well grasped for a lay person.