16 March 2018

Thaji on Vajira: The granddaughter’s gaze

It’s just past noon on a Saturday.  I am leaning against a half wall at one end of a long hall.  At the other end, on the wall, hangs a portrait. On the floor there are around 75 students. All eager to learn how to dance or in some case the finer points of the art.  There are four teachers and a couple of assistants, probably senior students or members of the dance company. Two of the teachers have drums. There’s that drumming and the drumming of feet. Admonishment and encouragement. 

i let my eyes stroll from one end of the dance hall to the other and it’s a blur of red and black that I see. The play of drum and feet, the synchrony (more or less) of sets of students following instructions all fade out and I focus on the teachers.

At one end Upekha with a drum, unforgiving, looking out for the slightest misstep or sign of negligence or sloth; she’s training the senior students, those who had the potential to join the Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Company.

In the next section of the hall Thaji, her niece and the principal dancer of the Company, is handling 7-8 year old kids. She’s strict too but kind. Maybe she wants them to love dancing and is teaching them that there are no shortcuts to love.  

Then there’s Anjalika, Upekha’s sister.  There’s a group of older kids, 13-15 years of age. Yes, she’s firm too. They all seem to be. Maybe they have to be.  

All three are totally focused. Their commitment to the matter of nurturing, teaching and perfecting is absolute. I can’t see what’s happening at the other end of the hall, so i walk around the building so I can get a better view. 

And there she was. Vajira. She was overseeing the scholarship students of the Academy. They had to go through what was obviously a grueling set of exercises. She didn’t speak much. She watched. It was as though gaze was voice enough.  [Read also: Vajira: a story of inexpressible grace]

She was sitting on a bench against the wall. Above her hung the portrait of her late husband, the legendary Chitrasena. At first glance it’s as if he’s looking askance, almost ignoring what’s happening just below in that long dance hall. I felt, though, that he was looking beyond it all, at places he’s been or is at or where those below should one day go.

By and by the sound of drums and feet abates.  The classes are done. Most of the kids are taken away by their parents, some of the senior students remain for the afternoon session. The teachers have a meeting, the students have lunch. 

Vajira is not feeling too well, so she’s quiet. She talked enough. Done enough. The dance company is celebrating its 75th year right now and the dance school will reach that mark next year. They have lots of plans for the year. 

In April there will be a special performance by students under seven years of age. In June, there will be a grand three-day exposure, ‘Guru Gedara’.  The name refers of course to a residential facility to be built in the premises of the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya. The event will showcase all arts and crafts associated with dance. It would be a one-stop affair where visitors would get a flavor of everything that comes together to produce the splendid performances that the company is known to produce. It will all culminate in performances by the company and the students. A treat to look forward to, certainly.  This special year is to culminate in the production of one of Chitrasena’s ballets.

Vajira, who will turn 86 on the 15th of March, will be a part of it all.  And rightly so. After all, she’s been a part of that history. Long enough, one might say, but she would probably disagree. The dance never stops and therefore the work never stops.

Every Saturday she takes two classes. There’s one for adult students who began in January and another fitness/dance program for 20-15 students who are beneficiaries of scholarships granted by the Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Foundation. There are over 250 students altogether, but obviously she doesn’t handle all of them.  However, she has a fitness class every Monday which is open to anyone.

“It’s a seven-class program that’s based on Kandyan dancing,” her granddaughter Thaji explained.

“This is a set of exercises she developed in the early 1990s. It was actually something she developed for herself because it helped her in her dancing. It is a complete workout, from head to toes and between these the eyes, jaws, face, arms, hands, fingers, stomach etc.”

Thaji has seen it all. She practically grew up with Vajira and learned at her feet, literally and metaphorically, and not just about dance.

“She lived with us and took care of us.  She would want to feed me, but I was a poor eater. I gave her a really hard time, making her run around the table.”

And of course, like everyone in the clan, she taught Thaji how to dance. 

“I learned from her only when I was about seven. She taught me Kandyan dancing. Later my aunts Anjalika and Upekkha taught me. Archchi was very strict. In fact we were terrified of her. She is still strict, she hasn’t changed much! 

“I remember would make us dance the same step for half an hour.  We had to do it until we got it right. We were just 7-8 year olds in that class. We were naturally playful. I didn’t mind. The other kids in the class were going ‘oh god…!’ but I loved it. I was fully engrossed in it all from the age of 6 or so.”

For her, Vajira was and is the loving, caring and nurturing grandmother.  Vajira, being who she is as teacher and grandmother, taught her much.  

“I’ve learned so much from her. If I were to pin it down to one single thing, it’s discipline. She’s disciplined in everything she does, when it comes to dance and when it comes to day to day things; the way she keeps everything neat and tidy, the way she folds and keeps her clothes, takes care of her belongings.  Not just her personal belongings, but how she preserves even the costumes. We still have costumes from the 1940s simply because of the way Archchi stored, preserved and took care of them.

“She’s always been very particular about her eating habits. She is conscious of such things. She never overeats, but she loves her sweets. There’s always a chocolat kaella after meals, but then again, it’s always in moderation.”

Thaji believes that she gets her discipline from her grandmother.  Discipline when it comes to dancing and teaching, that is.  

“Order is something I would love to have in my daily life, but it is very difficult, but when it comes to dancing and teaching I don’t compromise,” she said. 

And determination, she adds. Maybe that’s part of the discipline, the no-compromise, no-shortcuts kind of attitude, the resolve to treat the vicissitudes of life with equanimity, to treat the art with devotion and pay tribute in the form of relentless and unforgiving training that is as much part of the dance as the performance itself. These Thaji has learned, mostly from Vajira, one feels. 

And now? 

Thaji smiles. 

“I want to give as much as possible to her what she gave to me. I want to take care of her to the best I can. It’s as if the roles have reversed.”

She smiles again. It’s quiet in the dance hall. A young woman who is grandchild and standard-bearer of a rich tradition has, in a few words, has just finished talking about a grandmother she adores and respects.  

The interview is done. I’ve taken down my notes. As I leave, people and images get erased, there’s no memory of drums and feet. There were colors but they are not important. All I remember are the words that Thaji said at the end of the class, words duly repeated by her students: ‘apa guru deguru niduk vethva, nirogi vethva, suvapath vethva…(may our parents and teachers be free of sorrow, may they be healthy and at peace).

What a blessing it is to be thus blessed almost everyday of the year by so many and especially a granddaughter who with love and veneration walks the path you’ve made simply by dancing and dancing and dancing. 

Vajira turns 86. There must be fulfillment. And peace.