Guru Gedara: Where ‘the new is an extension of the old’ | Sunday Observer

Guru Gedara: Where ‘the new is an extension of the old’

Practice sessions at the Chitrasena School of Dance Pix: Chinthaka Kumarasinghe
Practice sessions at the Chitrasena School of Dance Pix: Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

With hands placed on a wooden post and their feet spread apart, aligned for the mandya-position three boys are busy practising the basics of Sri Lankan traditional dance as another youth, much older than the three boys, walks in with his head held high and followed by a group of youths around the same age.

The youth sits on a low stool next to a mud tacked hut, and the group sits on the mats that are laid on the ground. They start to communicate not very audibly, when a female voice much louder and clearer declare that their voices ‘cannot be heard!’

This was the scene we were greeted to, as we entered the Chitrasena School of Dance in Narahenpita. The female voice belonged to Heshma Wignaraja, creative director of the festival and first granddaughter of none other than legendary Guru Chitrasena himself, and she was directing a play the boys will be performing for ‘Guru Gedara Festival, The First Immersive Traditional Arts Experience’, that kickstarted the day after (30) they were seen thus rehearsing.

Dance Company’s leading female dancer, Thaji Dias

The whole group were recreating an ordinary day of a traditional dance guru and his protégés as they embarked on a unique voyage where the guru enlighten and nourish the disciples, while they served him by tending to work at his home the ‘guru gedara’ in return.

This is how it used to be centuries ago, we are told by Thaji Dias, principal dancer of the Chitrasena Dance Company and the youngest granddaughter of Guru Chitrasena. “It was not about making money back then. The relationship between guru and his students was like the relationship between humans and nature. What you give, you get in return,” she says elaborating that these students took refuge in the guru’s home till they mastered the art.

This was the same atmosphere Guru Chitrasena also grew up in. He was taken under the wing of Bevilgamuwe Lapaya Gurunnanse and later by Algama Kiriganitha Gurunnanse in the Central Province who taught him traditional dancing and rituals as he stayed in their homes.

The Guru Gedara Festival held from August 30- September 2 at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya (dance school) was a successful attempt to revive the life of Guru Chitrasena who established the Chitrasena Dance Company 75 years ago.

“It was Heshma’s idea to recreate and show the people how art was passed from one generation to the next as it was done during our grandfather’s time, while celebrating the company’s memorable journey of 75 years,” Dias says. And the ‘Guru Gedara’ is where all of this happened.

Around 40 artists from across Sri Lanka and representing various art forms such as mask making, puppetry, costuming and drum making took part in the four-day festival. They showcased their work in small ‘cuttis’ built in Chitrasena Dance School, and participants were taken on guided walks to these huts and also given the opportunity to interact with the artists.

Other sessions included ‘Dressing the Dancer for the Stage’ that was an illustrative presentation on stage costumes and one to help understand the ideas and inspiration that goes into the creation of the earliest traditional dance costumes for the stage through an exploration of Guru Somabandu Vidyapathi’s work, the illustration of the journey of renowned puppeteer- Gamwari Premin titled ‘Animating the Inanimate’, a discussion by fellow artists, teachers and friends on how pioneers Chitrasena and Vajira took traditional arts to the stage, and a workshop where participants got first hand experience on puppetry, wooden mask painting, gok crafting and papier-mâché mask making.

These were followed by a presentation on folk music, ‘Guru Pranaamaya’ where students of Chitrasena Dance School paid obeisance to their gurus, a conversation with artistic director and choreographer of Nrityagram- Surupa Sen from India, a discussion by ritual masters on the plight of healing rituals, an opportunity for the audience to learn a signature movement of art through different generations from the experiences of guru Vajira, guru Upeka and Thaji, and a drumming session to pay tribute to guru Piyasara Shilpadipathi.

Life at the original Guru Gedara in Colpetty where Guru Chitrasena built his legacy in was no different to this week’s session.

“This house was like a cultural hub. Gurus from all parts of the country gathered there and were even boarded there when they came to Colombo,” Dias relates. The rented house had a garden where rituals were performed, the ground floor was used to teach aspiring student, while gurus Chitrasena and Vajira brought up their family in the upper floor, until they had to leave the place after its owner passed away.

Dias was not there to experience the life at this Guru Gedara but she recalls how life was after the gurus had to shift after 40 years there.

“It was like a gypsy’s life. My grandparents went from place to place. They rented halls in places like Mahara, Kadawatha and even held classes in the garage of my parents’ house in Nawala,” she says, adding that they would go from place to place in a van. “All of us went in this van. Grandparents, aunts, my mother, and even some students would get into the van packed with drums and go from place to place,” she adds.

After about 25 years of this it ended in a good note for the first family of traditional dance when then president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga gifted the land in Narahenpita, where the dance school proudly sits, in 1988. However, it was much later- in 2007- the Guru family collected enough funds to erect the dance hall where the lessons are held today.

Dias shared they are planning to expand the building and even make a hostel so that students can stay as they take up lessons.

“Like how it was in the olden days, you know, where students lived with their gurus,” Dias says, “It is Heshma’s idea to have our grandmother (Guru Vajira, 86) housed here too so that she can live in an atmosphere she holds dear to her heart.”

She said that she hopes that at least one person, who visited the Guru Gedara Festival sessions, has changed his or her perspective of traditional art. “Now people look at traditional dance as a thing that is for weddings or openings. It does not hold the same values as it did before. Traditional dance was a performance for gods,” she explains, adding that they are hoping to instill the respect this art form deserves.

“My grandfather always said that ‘new is only an extension of the old’ and this whole festival was based on that,” she said.