‘An honour not only for my grandmother’ - Thaji | Sunday Observer
Vajira Chitrasena presented with Padma Shri:

‘An honour not only for my grandmother’ - Thaji

Vajira Chitrasena
Vajira Chitrasena

Bestowed by the Government of India, Padma Shri is the fourth highest civilian award in the country. This year, the revered Dr Vajira Chitrasena and the late Prof Indra Dassanayake have been honoured individually with this award for their revolutionary work. Addressing the magnitude of this accolade and her grandmother’s intriguing life of dance, Thaji, granddaughter of Guru Vajira Chitrasena shares her thoughts.

“It is an extremely special award, especially, for my grandmother. Thanks to my grandfather we have had strong ties with India. He studied at Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, where he studied dance, drama, and Kathakali at the Kerala Kalamandalam. He returned to Sri Lanka and introduced a genre called ‘Oriental Ballet’ where movement and expression are used to tell a story”.

Explaining in detail about the sanctity of the bond between India and the progression of the Chitrasena dance style, she continues, “Our dance form has grown from a village ritual to suit the modern stage. As a third generation of the Chitrasena lineage we preserve that connection through our collaboration between Nrityagram, an Indian dance group of Odissi with their choreographer and artistic director Surupa Sen. Therefore, it is an honour not only for my grandmother but for the entire family.”

Generously providing a behind the scene view, Thaji verbally paints a picture. “We were asked to send her resume in November last year to the Indian High Commission. The former High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka Mr. Taranjit Singh initiated it, while the past director of the Indian Cultural Centre, Rajashree Behera facilitated its prestigious conclusion, and to these two personalities, we are most grateful. The former High Commissioner messaged my grandmother and said that she might be a recipient for the award. However, it was officially announced on Republic Day in India, January 26.” The family received the official letter recently, confirming the status.

Tracing the pioneer’s past, she says, “My grandmother was born in Kalutara and was a student at the Kalutara Balika Vidyalaya when she met my grandfather. My grandfather went to Kalutara to perform with another lovely dancer Chandralekha”. Admiring Vajira’s late mother, Thaji continues with a smile, “My great grandmother wanted my grandmother to be a dancer. You see, my great grandmother had this incredible plan for her children. She had four daughters and three sons and she had a plan for each of them! One had to be a doctor, one a lawyer… etc. My mother had to be a dancer… and so it happened!”

Vajira Chitrasena was boarded at Chitrasena’s dance school at the age of 11. “My grandmother was one of the few people at that time whose formal study and training in a particular discipline was completely from her own country” observes Thaji.

Recalling the icon’s prolific career, Thaji thoughtfully imparts useful facts, “Her first stage appearance was in 1948. When we got independence, J.D.A Perera organised a celebration. It was called ‘Pageant of Lanka.’ In that my grandfather had to perform Ramayana and The Landing of Vijaya. Iranganie Serasinghe was also dancing in it as Sita! My grandmother played the role of a deer. It was her first appearance on stage as part of the Chitrasena Dance Company”.

A multifaceted artiste, Vajira expanded her range of skills from dancer to choreographer. “In 1952, she created her first ballet - Kumudini. I think she was around twenty at that time. After that she never stopped creating. She created many dance dramas. Thereafter my grandfather took a break and would guide her. He would let her create in great detail”. Accordingly, Vajira’s motivator, Guru Chitrasena was always looking at the bigger picture - the evolution of his work.

The unpredictable nature of life is unbiased and spares none when it wishes to educate. Reflecting on this, Thaji resumes, “There was a period when the family truly struggled. My grandmother kept the Company and the school going. Of course, another great supportive force for my grandmother was nan-na!” Thaji here refers to her beloved aunt Upeka, the eldest daughter of Vajira and Chitrasena. Upeka, similar to her parents is a phenomenally gifted dancer who has now taken to teaching full time at the school. “Nan-na’s devotion is an instrumental part of our journey” she adds.

Highlighting her grandmother’s remarkable knowledge, Thaji says, “I learnt from her. She pays a lot of attention to detail. When she was learning, the performance technique was transitioning from village ritual. She provided clarity for the technique our dance form required, and designed a special syllabus.”

Prior to learning traditional dancing, a student must go through a rigorous foundation program at the Academy. “This covers several aspects of movement from floor to kneeling to balancing…. She developed all these exercises to strengthen the core. It’s amazing! None of us could figure out how she did this. I believe it is with experience and her study from her visits to dance schools abroad. She also reads a lot.”

The commitment expected from a pupil is understandably justifiable. She adds “This helps with stage performance. We go through training for at least 5 years or until your guru says you are of a standard to perform. Right now as a teacher, I feel, in this day and age the training is difficult for people to handle. They want to dance on stage tomorrow! They want quick fixes. My grandparents’ greatest wish is to share their gift with students who take it with their heart and soul”

“Even today my grandmother teaches. She is an example to us. It’s wonderful. On a Saturday we have four different classes. The teachers watch each other, learn from each other. It’s very inspiring, with a great amount of energy.”

Underneath her grandmother’s poised demeanour, is an inexplicable tenderness. Thaji sadly describes “After the passing away of my grandfather, she also lost a part of her soul. My grandfather passed away in 2005. Then the tribute performance we did for my grandfather – The Art of Chitrasena was in January 2006. The whole family performed together at the Lionel Wendt, one of the few venues in the country where my grandfather loved to perform. At the end of it, we were all literally crying on stage”.

Lighting up the sombre mood, Thaji narrates with a laugh “At the age of 11, my grandmother did not want to be a dancer. She says she used to hate being in my grandfather’s class. She used to call him yaka. But then eventually she fell in love with this yaka and was married to him at the young age of 18”.

The day Guru Vajira Chitrasena was informed about her award, the first thing she had said was “I wish he was here”. Her husband the legend Chitrasena was her teacher, mentor, friend, dance partner, and even sparring partner. “She told me once that she when they used to practise movements of elevation, she would jump as high as him or even higher than him. She will never let him jump higher than her!” Thaji said with a smile.

Cherishing her grandmother’s spirited personality, Thaji conveys with love that she is their most important source of inspiration “We call our grandmother ‘The living fire in our lives’.”