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Sunday, 15 March 2009

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Recollections of a contented past

Vajira seventy-seven today:

Vajira Chithrasena

Garayakuma which is a part of the low-country dance ritual was performed at the Chithrasena-Vajira Dance Academy yesterday with the participation of its students. The performance which was mainly a gesture of honour to the legendary female dancer Chithrasena was also an attempt to enable younger generation to witness those dying traditions, said Ms. Upekha Chithresena of the Chithrasena - Vajira Dance Academy.

An encounter with such a pleasant interviewee should be the wish of every journalist! A smiling Vajira Chithrasena, Sri Lanka’s legendary female dancer who has always been able to keep her audience spellbound with her enchanting performances for several decades is right in front of me ready to share her lifetime achievements on the eve of her seventy seventh birthday!

Together with her late husband Chithrasena, Vajira could develop a strand of theatre that was stamped with local identity, but still with universal appeal.

Recalling her past, the first professional female dancer of the country says that though women had already entered the field of dance at the time she did, none of them had pursued it professionally.

“Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha were two dancers who adorned the male costume and performed on stage before me.” It was for Vajira that the first female costume for the traditional Kandyan dance was designed by Somabandu for the opening pooja sequence for the ballet `Ravana’ in 1949.

Even as a child Vajira had always been quite sociable, had freely mingled with crowds. She had also worked as a dance teacher at various schools. “But it was Chithrasena who moulded me into what I am today.”

She asserted. She admits that as a child she never aspired to become a dancer though it was her mother’s wish to see her as a dancer in future. “The interest developed only after I met Chithrasena. As I became a pupil of his and started working with him my innate ability sprang to light.”

The Kalayathana which later came to be known as Chithrasena-Vajira Dance academy was established in 1944. Prior to that Chithrasena had conducted dance classes at various places.

Vajira with her ‘grandmotherly’ touch at the Kalayathana  Pix by Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

From the very early days she had got engaged in all the creations of Chithrasena. The experience she gained through engaging in stage work laid the foundation for her future successes.

Initially Chithrasena being the first professional dancer himself had to face lots of stumbling blocks in persuading the society to think positively about professional dancing. “By then dance was an accepted vocation in India and also in most of the countries.”

Vajira recalled how her late husband legendary dancer Chithrasena used to visit India frequently during the period 1944-1946 collecting necessary material and meeting prominent people like Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru at the Shanthinikethana.

Awards

1985 - Zonta International - Women of Achievement in Fine Arts

1988 - International Women’s Day Contribution to the dance of Sri Lanka

1988 - Presidential Award Kalasuri from President J.R. Jayewardene

1997 - Cultural Exhibition Award Viharamahadevi Balika Vidyalaya, Kiribathgoda

1998 - International Women’s Day from The President H.E. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga for the Service to the Dance

1999 - Praise to the teachers who led us, Princess of Wales College Union

1999 - Vishishta Prathiba award Contribution with dedication to the Arts, Dharmaraja College Annual Cultural Exhibition.

1999 - Yuganthaya New Millennium Award Independent Television Networks for the Contribution to the Dance of Sri Lanka Vinodhan Ninaivalayam Cultural Award `Sinhala Ballet

2001 - International Women’s Day, Sharma Shakthi Union Award, Contribution to the dance

But When Vajira started her career in 1946, the society had undergone many changes. “Dancing was not viewed with scorn any longer. Public had begun to accept it as a profession and it was also added as a subject in school curriculum.

In fact the elite in Colombo too had started paying attention to the subject. It became a fashion at that time to learn the national dance. “Following her marriage to her Guru Chithrasena in 1950 it became more of a team work. They started performing together.

Vajira and Chithrasena

“Whatever we created it was based on traditional dance. Chithrasena is the only one who had always maintained the tradition in the background. It was Chithrasena who pioneered the creation of stage dramas.

Also it was he who made women to take up to dancing. Earlier performances like Kohomba Kankariya and Gammaduwa were performed overnight. It was Chithrasena who brought those traditions to the stage making them a refined art.

“There was a story behind all his creations. Earlier it was just a dance. It was Chithrasena who mooted the idea of developing a dance with a story behind. But he was always very careful not to violate any of the traditions.

Adding another feather to her cap Vajira became a choreographer at the age of 20 by producing the first children’s ballet named “Kumudini” in 1951. “Children never participated in ballets before that. The story which was written by Ananda Samarakoon revolved around a flower and a bee! In fact it was a dialogue between “Kumudini and bees” she smiles.

As I put to her the most frequently asked question- of her ability to assimilate modern techniques into Sri Lankan traditional dancing, she tells me that there is `no such thing called modern dancing.’ With time and experience choreography becomes more stylised.

As we practise dance for a long time we get the opportunity to find more ways of interpreting it. “All that depends on one’s creativity. You can make any traditional dance look different and novel if you are creative enough. You can do that without violating traditional rules.”

She adds that such creativity is a must. Then it is easier to express your ideas to the audience . Unlike in Indian dances `hand gestures’ are not used in Kandyan dance, So it becomes necessary to make use of many artistes for our performances.

She says that moulding the art the way dancer wants is his or her talent. “Karadiaya” was a fine example of such creativity.

Vajira in the mid forties

It was Vajira who introduced feminine touch to Kandyan dancing. “I always imitated Chithrasena in all what he did. But when I displayed it to the public I did it in a `feminine’ way. Not that I changed any steps or style. It became graceful because it was done by a woman. “As she says male aspect was more stronger.

We all agree with what Bandula Jayawardena had said about Vajira’s dancing in 1986.” I think vajira mainly as the artiste through whose dance of Gajaga Vannama I came to know the meaning of grace in Sinhala dance. I believe it was she who created out of this traditional thandava dance lyric a lasya dance of delicate beauty.

The Gajaga vannama was originally danced by men. The majesty of the elephant they were expected to reflect was essentially masculine. Vajira, taking nothing away from that, added to the dance-poem a feminine grace and refinement that transformed it into a piece of presentable on the international stage. She took an unpolished gem and presented it as a perfect jewel.”

Vajira, a contented mother of three and a grandmother is still the Chairman of Chithrasena-Vajira Dance Academy. Both her daughters Upekha and Analika have followed the footsteps of their legendary parents.

It is Upekha who heads the Academy now. “My granddaughter is also involved with the administration of the Kalayathana”. I see her eyes lighting up as she speaks of her granddaughter. A contented life. Her story is a legend, would set an example to women of all calibre. We wish her health, wealth and more happiness in the coming years!

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