Upekha Chitrasena: fifty years on stage:
Where traditions meet modernity
Upeka Chitrasena matured on stage following the path defined by her
legendary parents Chitrasena and Vajira. Deriving inspiration from her
parents her teachers and assimilating characteristics of dancing, she
has grown up to be an accomplished dancer, with her own style.
Being an object lesson to her students, Upeka's role as a teacher is
remarkable both as curator of traditional dances and as a person who
merges tradition with modernity. On stage, she demonstrates the sheer
ecstasy of dancing, exploiting every curve of the body as a vehicle of
emotion and zest. It is not merely a demonstration of dance on stage but
an innovative conversation she carries on with her drummers and of
course with the audience that gives an authentic flavour to her dance.
Although the institutionalisation of Art in Sri Lanka opened the
doors to a large number of Art students, Upeka is of the view that the
methodology adopted in integration traditions into the system was
Q: Having debuted as a soloist in 1978 in 'Kinkini Kolama'
which your father Maestro Chitrasena produced and directed for you, how
do you perceive developments in Sri Lankan theatre over the years as you
celebrate your fifty years on stage?
A: Having made my debut on stage in "Vanaja" in 1958 which was
a children's ballet produced by Vajira Chitrasena, at the age of seven,
I did not remember anything but the excitement of being on stage. It was
Vajira Chitrasena, my mother, who instilled discipline in us (my sister
and I) and encouraged us to take part in dancing sessions. Up to the
point I was privileged, for the first time to play the lead role in the
Children's ballet 'Rankikili' in 1965 at the age of thirteen. The period
spent in the house where we stayed upstairs while dancing sessions were
conducted downstairs, was an exciting period. My sense of being a mature
dancer emerged when I played the lead role in "Kinkini Kolama" in 1978,
a ballet especially created by Chitrasena and Vajira, my parents, for
It was a colourful career during which I participated in almost all
the productions by the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya. Considering the
development of dance drama and ballet in the country, the initial
development took place in the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya; Vajira
Chitrasena produced many children's ballets and ballets like Ginihora in
1967, Chandalika in 1996 and Bera Handa in 2001. Since then on, the
development of ballets in school has been successful and the school has
been high standards as with our last production which was Kumbi Kathawa.
Other than ballets produced by the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya and by
Ravibandhu Vidyapathy (for example Macbeth, a full length ballet), there
has been no ballets which came even close to the standard of Karadiya ,
Nala Damayanthi and Kinkini Kolama . Ravibandhu was a past student of
Q: It is also ironic that traditional ritualistic dance forms
so painstakingly uplifted by your father to the standard of modern dance
, have now, become victims of sweeping commercialism. How do you analyse
this wave of commercialism and what are the steps that genuine artistes
should take in order to foster and preserve traditional art forms?
A: Commercialisation is a phenomenon which is found everywhere
in the world even in India. It is because of financial difficulties
artistes have to face. However, still there are artistes in Bollywood,
in India who do not commercialise art and stick to practising classical
forms of Arts. With numerous hardships, we did not go commercial
eventhough we were conferred with many lucrative offers. A few artistes
will stick to original arts without being swept off by commercialism as
we have been in Sri Lanka.
Q: As the finest exponent of Kandyan dance in Sri Lanka and as
a person who respects not only traditions but also customs associated
with them, how do you develop this quality of respecting tradition?
A: Respecting tradition is respecting drummers, the teachers
and Art which I learnt from teachers. I enjoyed every moment of being on
stage during the fifty years of my career in dancing. I respect drummers
a lot because I firmly believe that dance and the drum cannot be
Q: Hailing from a family immersed in dancing, how were you
inspired by your parents Chitrasena and Vajira? What are the exact
characteristics you derived from your father and from your mother?
A: I inherited a strong will to fight against what I do not
believe in from Chitrasena, my father and discipline from Vajira, my
mother. I also inherited strength of character and creativity from my
father. I am really fortunate to be born into such a family.
Q: Recollecting your childhood and the artistic background in
which you grew up, how do you look back on those eventful years, your
parents and the experiences you gathered over the years?
A: We grew up in an environment full of arts. Most leading
artistes both local and foreign visited us. We had the opportunity to
immerse ourselves in both Western and Eastern classical music. I matured
through the association of and being in the presence of great artistes
of the day. Like any other activity in life, Art is a part of my life.
Q: Chitrasena Kalayathanaya was an ashram for artistes of the
day and perhaps, you have come across leading artistes, writers,
musicians and journalists. How do you perceive this background which
moulded your career in dancing?
A: It was an Ashram where Dr. W.D. Ameradeva, Ananda
Samarakoon, Samaradiwakara, R.L. Wimaladharma, Shelton Premaratne and
Lionel Algama lived. It was also a focal point of many foreign artistes
who visited Sri Lanka; film stars from India, dancers like Martha
Graham, Paul Tailor, Bulrashkhani, Nurtan and Marcel Marceau from France
and Ravi Shankar visited us several times. Until we had to vacate the
house in 1982, my parents used to conduct dance sessions at 4.00 p.m. on
a daily basis. Dramatists like Henry Jayasena, Ernest Macintyre
conducted rehearsals in the House. Since 1982 rehearsals were held at
all schools in Colombo until a land was given to the Kalayathanaya by
former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 2006. Even
without a permanent place, the Kalayathanaya made major productions like
'Shivaranga' (Dance of Shiva).
Q: What is the pivotal role that teachers including your
parents played in your career in dancing and in making you what you are
A: Parents were my first teachers. Thereafter, l learnt from
Piyasara Shipadhipathy and J.D. Gunatunga who still teaches me
low-country dancing. Though I am an accomplished up-country dancer, I
terribly wanted to learn low-country dancing. By watching my parents'
dancing, I used to acquire certain characteristics of dancing and
evolved my own style.
Q: You are not only a dancer or a performer but also a
teacher. As a teacher. What have you gathered from your teachers, what
exactly did they expect from you? What do you, as a teacher, expect from
A: I always try to teach what I have learnt from my teachers.
I am a performing teacher and in order to keep my body in shape, I
exercise at the gymnasium on a daily basis. As a teacher, I have made
lots of sacrifice. I do not want every student to be a professional
dancer but to be confident in the profession they take up in future.
Q: In ancient times, the traditional relationship between Guru
and student was rather an aloof one where the student was obliged to
respect the teacher and even serve him. How do you perceive this
teacher-student relationship in the modern context?
A: The ancient system of teaching had its own pros and cons,
especially in the relationship between Guru and student. When Chitrasena
learnt dancing from Lapaya Gurunanse, he did it in the ancient way.
However, it is not appropriate for modern society. I prefer students to
be argumentative and ask questions. In our Institution, students still
respect teachers even in public. It is something that the teacher should
Q: In retrospect, how do you see the roles you played in
ballets such as Nala Damayanthi, 'Gini Hora', 'Kinikini Kolama', 'Karadiya',
'Nrithanjali', 'Rashomon', 'Chandalika' and 'The Dance of Shiva',and
particularly which were previously played by your mother.
A: I have played almost all the lead roles in all productions
of the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya including in Nala Damayanthi, Gini Hora
and Kinkini Kolama. When I played a role which was previously played by
my mother Vajira, the real challenge was to play the same role in my own
way. I was so scared when I had to dance with my father Chitrasena, for
the first time, on stage for Karadiya. Critic Roshan Peiris wrote a
review in which she stated that I perform excellently in the scene I
played with my father.