24 January 2016

They dance, they live!

Pic by Dominic Sansoni
This was written for the Sunday Island by way of tribute to Chitrasena, the father of modern dance in Sri Lanka whose 95th birth anniversary falls on January 26th, 2016..  

There will never be another Shakespeare, this is true. Does it mean however that theatre and literature has remained where it was the day he died in quality, content and style?  We remember, we honour and we are always grateful to the greats that came before.    We learn and re-learn from them.  We revere them even. 

And then we decide that the best tribute is to build on foundations painstakingly laid.  This is how legacy is preserved.   And that is the story of Amaratunga Arachige Maurice Dias, who will always be better known as Chitrasena, who, had he lived, would be 95 years old on the 26thof January.  More than 10 years after he passed on, we need to appreciate this man who not only popularized traditional Sri Lankan dance forms both here in Sri Lanka and abroad, but created a modern version of these forms.  We need to remember him and his work, but as importantly assess what’s happened to what he developed and ‘left behind’. 

As always there are those who are utterly devoted to the particular art form and those who mimic.  There are those who can be said to flirt with art, picking up bits and pieces that could deceive the uninitiated, seek to compensate for the flaws that invariably flow from a lesser commitment to perfection with props that are now in great abundance.  We have them all and all of them, including the mimics and the quick-buck-makers have roles to play in keeping traditions alive, for even the ‘lesser thing’ helps set apart the real deal and thereby strengthen the legacy-edifice that is constantly under construction.   

Chitrasena was an artist and like all true artists he was an inspiration and a teacher.  Thousands have at his feet learnt the rudiments of graceful movement.  That’s what the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya was established for way back in 1944.  More than 70 years later, the dance school is run by the Chitrasena-Vajira  Dance Foundation.  Today there are students of all kinds.  There are courses for the very young who, if interest is sustained and talent is evident will move to different and more strenuous programmes of training.  There are also classes for adults, the logic being that rhythm is resident in everyone and there’s nothing to stop exploration.  

These courses are conducted by the matriarch of the school, Chitrasena’s wife, Vajira, their two daughters Upeka and Anjali, and also his granddaughter Thaji who is now the principal dancer.  Heshma Wignaraja, another granddaughter is the artistic director and choreographer of the Dance Company.  A great grandson and a great granddaughter have also taken to dance and took part in ‘Kumbi Kathava’ (Story of the Ants), the third version of which was performed recently. 

What is important is the loss of Chitrasena has not seen the energy and love and the commitment to what could be terms his watchword, ‘to truly dance is to live’, has not abated.  There have been seven dance productions after Chitrasena’s passing.  The school has close to 300 students.  The training and performances, the energy and discipline, the dedication most of all, constitute the best tribute possible.  And it’s not only about some kind of dancing gene.  There have been many professional dancers and drummers whose contribution to the Company has been invaluable.  

Currently, in addition to Thaji, there’s Nuwan Ranjith Priyanga, Geeth Premachandra,  Dayan Champika, Sandani Sulochani, Akila Palipana and Upekha.  Then there’s also Susantha Rupatilaka (drummer), Udaya Priya Kumara (drummer/teacher), Prasanna Rupatilaka (drummer and rhythm composer)and Waruna Sri Hemachandra (drummer).  They’ve work together for a long time and following Chitrasena’s tradition, have performed out of the country too.  The last major production, Devanjali: Ritual-rites-reflection (‘Dancing for the Gods’), was performed at the Sydney Festival 2015 as well as in other cities in Australia.  Devanjali was also performed in Jaffna. 

The Dance Company also works with CARE International’s youth programme, handling the dance component of the project.  This has seen the Company’s trainers spend time with university students in Jaffna and Batticaloa, conducting workshops.  A collaboration production with these students is next on the cards. 

There’s no Chitrasena today.  When will another come?  That is not even a legitimate question.  All that matters is the task of living.  For those whose hearts are pinned to rhythm and movement, this means ‘to truly dance’.  If they truly dance, then live they will.  In terms of ‘legacy’, then, the task is not to produce another Chitrasena or a Vajira, happy as such an outcome would be.  What’s important is to dance. To learn.  To fall, to rise again, to chase that impossible-to-catch fugitive called ‘perfection’.  The Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Company is all about such pursuit.  The legacy is safe.