17 March 2017

Vajira at 85: a story of inexpressible grace

There’s a little girl.  She’s about 15 years old.  She sits across the table from me.  Her voice is firm and her eyes dance as she speaks about her love.  She’s young enough and old enough to identify true love among passing fancies, infatuation and hero-worship.  There was a time when she would prefer to do other things, as much as she loved this love, but that was before.  That was when she was less than 10 years old.  But now, somewhere in the year 1947, she knew enough to weigh heart and mind, deploy them to obtain the most fruitful engagement with the world around her in its wholeness and with its constituent parts.  
Her name is Vajira.  

Sitting right there in front of me, the little girl became a young woman.  And then a mother.  She became a grandmother and a great grandmother.  And through it all her voice remained firm.  Her eyes continued to dance. 

And with unwavering voice she transcribed memory into words, traced the dance steps from then to now in a choreography that did justice to a life dedicated to uphold the sacredness of the dance.  

Her mother had specific plans for all her children.  She had wanted Vajira’s sister to become a doctor and she did.  The brothers were to study law, but they ended up as engineers.  She wanted Vajira to dance and to learn music.  She was sent for violin classes and also dance classes.  She danced.    

When she was around 8, Vajira’s mother had sent her to Sripalee.  Rabindranath Tagore had helped set up this institution, then dedicated to music and dance.   At the time Vajira had been attending Kalutara Balika Vidyalaya.  Anangala Athukorale, a part time dancer teacher at her school who also taught at Sripalee had played an important role in this decision.  

Her father had been working at the Urban Council and was in charge of letting out the Town Hall for various performances.  He made sure that there was always a row of seats for his family.  And that’s how the iconic Chitrasena had come into their lives.  He had come to perform.  Vajira’s mother had immediately arranged for him to conduct classes at home.  She had got hold of her friends and urged them to send their children for this class.  There had been eight in all, including Vajira and her sister.  

Vajira was interested and talented, but she was a child.  She had other interests as well and did her best to cut these classes.  Chitrasena had visited Kalutara for a while and the two families had become good friends.  Later, when Vajira’s sister needed a place to stay in Colombo since she was attending Medical College, their mother had approached the Chitrasenas who had arranged for her to stay with them as a boarder.

When Vajira was around 11, her mother had decided that she should also go and study in Colombo.  She was duly enrolled at Methodist College, which was located right opposite Chitrasena’s house.  And so she too was boarded there.  That house was all about music and dance.  Vajira went to school in the morning and in the evening would attend Chitrasena’s dance classes and also learn Sitar from Edwin Samaradiwakara.  After she reached 15, it was all about dance and nothing else.

“Naturally, I followed Chitra everywhere.  I went for every show.  I must have started to like him at some point.  I was 18 when we got married.”

By that time she was the lead female dancer of the troupe, but apparently she lacked the physique to play the lead female roles.  In Nala-Damayanthi, for example, she always played the Swan while various dancers played Damayanthi.  When it was first produced, Chitrasena had done the choreography but later, in 1963, when they performed Nala-Damayanthi in Sydney he had let Vajira handle it.  “He probably thought I was by that time capable of handling my own scenes,” Vajira said.  The Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday, February 16 paid glowing tribute to Vajira.

“Balletomanes who see the second program of the Chitrasena Ballet, which was presented at the Elizabethan Theatre last night, will receive a shock, for there they will find the original of their beloved classical-romantic ballet, ‘Swan Lake.’

“The various pas de deux, performed by Vajira, as the Chief Swan, and Wimal, as the noble King Nala, leave, it must be confessed, our ‘Swan Lake’ sadly lacking in imagination and understanding.

“This critic has not seen in ‘Western’ ballet mime, acting and dancing, capable of evoking the nature and spirit of the swan, to compare with the performance of Vajira in this role.”  

“The show must go one,” Chitrasena often said, she recalls.  And so it did.  Her involvement was intense and passionate, even while pregnant she had continued to dance and choreograph although she didn’t perform.  

By and by she came to creating her own ballets.   The first, ‘Kumudini’ was done when she was just 19.  The following year she created ‘Hima Kumariya’ and in 1955, ‘Sepalika’.  By this time she was a part time dance teacher in schools and she experimented with the young children she was teaching.  In 1956 she produced ‘Kindurangana’.  She created 17 children’s ballets in total.

Some of these she remembers on account of them being landmark creations of a kind.  “Rankikili,” a children’s ballet, for example is remembered because her daughter Upekha was by that time big enough to perform the lead role of the Kikili.  Her other daughter Anjali played the role of the old lady who keep the fire going, but what was most significant about this ballet, first performed in 1968, was that it was the first time that a ballet was performed without any  words or songs, just music and dance.  It was, Vajira recalls, was artistically of a very high standard. 

“Nil Yaka,” was based on a story by the most accomplished writer of children’s stories, Sybil Wettasinghe.  Sybil incidentally and done the decor and created the set. 

Seventy years is a long time.  Time enough to be afflicted with selective memory, time enough to even forget and be forgiven for it.  But Vajira rememebers the Chitrasena’s first student, Somabandu, usually handled the decor and constumes.  “Samaradivakara and Titus Nonis were both music teachers  and had created the melodies for the children’s ballet ‘Hapana’ in 1979.  Victor Perera, she recalled, had composed all the melodies for “Andaberaya” in 1976.  As for her, she claims that she had mostly drawn inspiration from something she had read.  

Vajira remembers ‘Kinkini Kolama,’ a story about how the nilames or the lords responded to a man who falls in love with a low-caste girl.  “It was Chitrasena’s concept.  I added the dance and we drew from the nadagam style.  This was Upekha’s first in a lead role.  In a way it was the show which introduced her as the lead female dancer of the troupe.”

There had been hiccups of course.  In the beginning they didn’t have a permanent place to rehearse until E.P.A. Fernando, a friend of Chitrasena’s father, had let him conduct his work at his place.  In a more here-and-now incident, Vajira had sprained her ankle on the opening night of a Moscow performance, just as she was to enter.  Immediately her sister Vipuli had taken over.  It was a seamless transition and apparently no one had known, except of course the troupe.  On another occasion, when they had gone for a performance in Australia, the drums had been quarantined causing much anxiety.  Vajira remembers Chitrasena eventually emerging with the drums, all smiles.

That’s how it has been.  It’s about continuity.  It’s about the show going on. There is Vajira and then there was Upekkha.  And now there’s Thaji, Vajira’s granddaughter.  Passion, dedication, endless striving for perfection and the grace in mind and body that inevitably results.  Sacred is the word that Chitrasena used.

The Kalayathanaya produced many, many ballets.  Vajira created the dances, did the choreography and taught the dancers, always under the watchful eyes of Chitrasena, she says.  

The names go together: Chitrasena-Vajira.  It is had to say what one would have been without the other, but for Vajira it’s easily resolved.

“It was always under his guidance and with his permissions.  I had to get the production ready.  He handled the direction and was in charge of the presentation.  He was the inspiration.  He was our strength.  Part of my confidence in all this can be attributed to him being there, always watching and always ready to put things right in case something went wrong.  His blessings were always there.  He taught us so much and what he has taught we pass on to our students.  He is always present in the work we do.”   

And yet, she said there are times she misses his physical presence. That’s how it is with those who are ahead of their times and who tower over the present on account of vision and its realization.  

It was not just Chitrasena though.  Vajira is ever grateful to her mother and of course Chitrasena’s mother and his unmarried sisters who took care of everything so that all she had to do was dance.  

And teach.  After sometime Chitrasena had given up teaching and thereafter Vajira had to be in charge of instruction, creation and continuity.  Those responsibilities have now been handed over to Upekha.

“I never stopped teaching, though.  I created the syllabus and that’s what is still being used.  I created special exercises that made it easier to learn traditional movements.  Now I don’t demonstrate, however.  I use a good student for this.”

In 1963 Anna Ilupina wrote in ‘Izvestia’ about Vajira:

“Every gesture in her slender hands, every glance from her beautiful oval eyes, every movement  is full of inexpressible grace.”  

She might as well have been writing about Vajira today.  

There’s a young girl sitting across the table from me.  Her voice is firm and her eyes dance as she speaks about her love.  She’s young enough and old enough to identify true love among passing fancies, infatuation and hero-worship.  And she knows that it is sacred.  She is 85 years old.  says “I am happy to have contributed to the dance — in my young days, and even now, and until I die.”    

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene



Anonymous said...

Beautiful tribute . I realized when going through the article words too can dance beautifully .My blessings for dancers and the writer.

Wickrema Perera said...

Maestro Chitrasena's house was located a little beyond the Colpetty Post Office before Sea View Avenue. I was boarded in the house behind his house which was occupied by Loyala Diaz and family.