21 July 2014

Chitrasena's Gift: to be preserved and nurtured to perfection

A giant did not fall on the 18th of July, 2005.  A giant went his way, left stage as gracefully as he always had, left a signature as formidable in its absence as in its presence.  That was Chitrasena; Deshamanya Chitrasena, the honorific probably not one which he would care much for today if he were a live considering the kind of people it has been conferred upon.  

Nine years is a short period in the time-scales of tradition, but glitter and frill, the subterfuge of costume and other trappings readily available for the camouflaging of sloth and mediocrity has certainly done its destructive work.  This is a world of short cuts and get-by-as-we-cans.  Chitrasena probably saw it coming, but like all true students of art forms to that which he held sacrosanct he was devoted and so too the more gifted of his students, ‘gifted’ not only in the exercise but in the ability to comprehend the sacred embedded in the art. 

Not many among those present today would have heard of Maurice Dias Amaratunga.  Some still know the name Chitrasena.   Few, though.  He was described as follows a short while before he died: ‘Chitrasena was the teacher of teachers. The guru of Arjuna of the Mahabharatha; in fact one of Chitrasena’s most memorable performances was of Arjuna; a great teacher who use(d) a variety of languages, all of them, where appropriate, subsumed in dance.’ 

Chitrasena as Othello
In the end, however, an artist’s remains, if any, are not found only in territories of recall but in traditions preserved, ethics endorsed and fidelity to the notion of seeking perfection.  That’s what the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation is all about; a commitment to elevate Sri Lankan traditional dance to a globally recognized classical art form.  And like all projects of that nature endowed with sobriety, the current custodians so to speak of the Chitrasena legacy are focused on the fundamentals, work, hard work, practice, practice, practice and an endless pursuit of greater refinement in step and movement. 

Today there are some 350-400 students attending classes at the appropriately quaint kalayathanaya on the corner of Park Road and Elvitigala Mawatha, Monday through Saturday.  The classes begin at 9 in the morning and end at 6 in the evening except when there’s a performance in line, in which case time is not a factor. 

Upekha, Chitrasena’s daughter, and Janaki, his daughter-in-law, who spoke with The Nation have no illusions about young students staying on and on and on until they are possessed by the dance to a point it becomes part of their everyday.  Typically, children or rather their parents try out this and that at that age.  Some stay, some move to other ‘interests’.  While they are here, though, they have fun and they interact with children from all kinds of social, cultural and religious backgrounds. 

Then there are students who are at the O/L and A/L stages in their formal education.  At school they learn a lot of theory but for obvious reasons cannot spend as much time on ‘practicals’.   

On the other hand, there are about 15-18 students who are different in terms of life goals, dance goals and the commitment of time, resources and energy.  They are all scholarship holders, courtesy HSBC.  The majority of them are university students.  It is a continuation of a tradition in a sense for the great guru also had students he didn’t charge.  He could not give them an allowance. Times have changed, but to the credit of the current custodians of his legacy, these students, many of whom are from places far away from Colombo, do not have to worry about food and other expenses. 

‘It is about performance and it is about teaching,’ Janaki said.  When Chitrasena was in his prime there weren’t many dance troupes, but they started mushrooming in the eighties, she said.  Quantity in these things has an inverse relationship with quality, it seems.  The Foundation will not take short cuts, though.  This is why they want to focus on both performance and teaching.  The objective is to develop a critical mass of accomplished dancers and a set of teachers who can pass on the knowledge from one generation to the next.  All this is captured in the twin notions ‘Gift of Dance’ and ‘Preserve the Dance’, the former being the scholarship program mentioned above and the latter a program to ensure that professional dancers and teacher are assured of a decent livelihood.

To this end, they plan to develop the Centre.  The Master Plan, once implemented, would see better facilities including rehearsal rooms, a mini theater and hostels.

It is no easy task and yet, watching the family, the students and teachers go about their work, it seems that these goals do not weigh any of them down, not the matriarch, Vajira, not Upekha or the obvious heiress apparent to the legacy, Thaji. 

It is almost fashionable to say at the passing of great personalities that there will not come such another.  The stature of Chitrasena is such that few would find fault with that kind of prediction.  Indeed, this is perhaps why they have not even toyed with the idea of performing Karadiya.  There was Vajira and then Upekha and now her niece Thaji to do just to the female portrayal, but both Upekha and Janaki freely admit that they are still struggling to develop a strong male character.  They have no doubt of course about the abundance of dancing talent.  It’s the commitment over which there are question marks. 

No one can tell when another Chitrasena will grace this earth.  But it is the nature of reincarnations to seek fertile birthing ground.  The Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation is putting things in place.  The rhythm, grace of movement and ambience certainly make a habitable home for such a resurrection.  In time, as value accrues to the gift of dance and when dance itself is preserved to a point that it cannot be robbed of divine grace, there will be a rebirthing of excellence, one feels.  Others, the slothful and mediocre included, will naturally profit.