18 July 2018

I was not close to Chitrasena, but he was close to me

Amaratunga Arachige Maurice Dias better known as 'Chitrasena' died on the 18th of July 2005. This article was written for the Sunday Island and was published in that newspaper on the 24th of July 24.
I sent a text message to a beautiful friend, Nayana, whose childhood was made of a household visited by and which visited Panibharatha, Chitrasena, Amaradeva and others that defined an age and indeed the rarest kind of cultural blossoming this country has known in recent times. Those encounters, for her, had been unsolicited visitations. These encounters had also been accompanied by factors that did not leave unblemished marks and markers in her memory screens. I just said, "Chitrasena died last night". She replied with a question, "Were you close to him?" I answered, "No. But he was a root."

I never saw him dance. He was, to me, "Chitrasena Maama". He was someone who turned up at our one-room annex down Pedris Road in the early seventies to go sea bathing at Kinross on certain Saturdays with my Appachchi. Years later I learnt that in fact he was a distant uncle of my father's and as such he should have been "Chitrasena Seeya". Appachchi called him "Chitra" so he remained "Maama" to the end, even though he was not a Maama whom I saw frequently.

My next significant memory of him was in 1978 (I believe) when "Ustad" Podiappuhami gave a sitar recital at the Lionel Wendt. This was the second time I attended one of his concerts, the first being in 1977. Appachchi took us. I liked North Indian music, but I always fell asleep. In fact I fall asleep at all classical concerts, perhaps because I didn't really understand what it was all about, even though I found it pleasant to the ear. 

Anyway, at that recital Podiappuhami was bested on the tabla by the late Shelton Perera. Appachchi took aiya and I to the Arts Centre Club where all the artistes had gathered. The "Ustad" was livid and was drunk. Chitrasena Maama was quite high as well and for some reason was angry with the "Ustad" who I believe was staying with him at that time. I remember his sauntering across the tennis courts of Women's International berating the Ustad in the choicest filth. All I knew at that time was that Podiappuhami "did" music and that Chitrasena Maama danced. I didn't see why they should quarrel.

I have never actually talked with him. I have for the most part been just another person in the same room. I never danced. Never really understood dance either. No, I wasn't close to him. I interviewed him on the occasion of his 80th birthday for the Sunday Island during an exhibition of his memorabilia at the National Art Gallery. But the closest I got to him was in the last couple of months when I took him to get some tests done and when I visited him at Durdans Hospital a couple of times. We just talked the things people usually talk in such situations. "How are you feeling today?" I would ask and he would respond honestly enough. He showed irritation but never complained.

The last time I saw him was a few days before he passed away, at his daughter's place in Bambalapitiya, Appachchi made one comment which I believe said all that needs to be said of the man known to all as Chitrasena: "The way he has borne his illness and his suffering tells just one thing: he will not have to go through anything like this throughout sansara." His expression did not change, not the eyes that said he knew much and not the half-smile that placed him several strata above the rest of us in spiritual terms. These were elements that described a condition he must have inhabited for many decades. In fact, from the early seventies to the early 21st century, that was a constant, come to think of it.

I was not close to him. Those who were will know more. Those who also knew his stage presence in its many forms will say much, I am sure. Even those who didn't but know about this country, its history and heritage will have much to say by way of appreciation. My friend Anuruddha Pradeep, lecturer in Political Science and one of the most perceptive readers of the political scene I know, for example, told me, "He was the person who took caste out of the dance equation; he lifted it out of those tight frames and kept it in an exalted place."

But was it just "dance"? I have lived much in the years that followed the incident at the Lionel Wendt, long enough to know at least instinctively that art is without bounds, and that dance and music and even theatre are not separate or separable forms of experience.

Anuruddha recently told me about Nadeeka Guruge who is probably one of the brightest composers of his generation. He had met the man at some workshop and asked him to sing an old Hindi song, the title of which escapes me now. Nadeeka had said, "mama sindu kiyanne nehe; mama vindinnam, umbala kemathinam ahagena hitapang" (I won't sing for you; I will experience it, you may listen if you like), and had proceeded to whistle the tune while strumming his guitar. Anuruddha and the others present had been mesmerized. 

The true artiste, I believe, must play to satisfy himself/herself, for the personal need to discover self in and through experience. Chitrasena, by all accounts, was like that. And it is for this reason that he became who he was, and will continues to be long after the memory of the man is obliterated by time. It is also for this reason that we are "close to him". He did things to figure out "self" and therefore, and therefore alone, he was able to "give".

I was not close to him, but he was indeed close to me, because he was a root in the fullest sense of the word. He drew from the soil in which his feet were firmly planted, he did not distinguish art forms from one another except in their trivialities and in the practicalities of compartmentalisation. 

Watching a re-run of an interview of the man in the program "Uragala" the day after his death, listening to his descriptions and recounting of his work, his philosophy and his time, I realised the depth and the limitlessness of his creativity. I also realised how hollow is what passes for "dance" and "music" and "drama" today. Much of it will not reveal us to ourselves for the simple reason that the exponents are not interested in self-discovery or the pursuit of perfection in the broadest sense possible.

My father, Chitrasena's nephew, friend and companion in the long hours prior to departure, was right. The man had somehow gone beyond our reach, as per our current capabilities. The man was a root, and by this very fact, imparted a simple but profound lesson in terms of what anyone, even one ignorant of dance and music like me, can do to shed mediocrity. Let us lament the passing of a great one. Let me remember always his half-smile and his gaze that looked back into millennia and so could produce for generations to come something that enhances that which we casually and carelessly call "life".