The Lankan renaissance

Chitrasena and Vajira are in the thick of fundraising for a new dance school they hope to set up in Colombo . — Photo: K. Gopinathan  

NOT MANY would have heard of Deshamanya Maurice Dias Chitrasena despite his impeccable credentials.

He has been described as the Uday Shankar of Sri Lanka, the spirit behind the island nation's dance drama, and the virtuoso interpreter of its traditional dance forms.

Despite lack of public interest and patronage, Deshamanya set up the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya in Colombo in 1944 and built up a stream of talented, trained dancers.

Later, his acclaimed Chitrasena Dance Company toured Germany, Russia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Bangladesh, India, and the Middle East.

Recently, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) invited the 82-year-old Chitrasena and his wife Vajira, his first pupil and later his lead dancer, to tour India, the fount of his inspiration. As a youth, this living legend trained under the Kathakali guru, Gopinath, at Travancore for three years from 1941. Later, he studied at Santiniketan, where he played the lead in the Tagorean dance drama, Chandalika, opposite the Nobel laureate's granddaughter.

During his visit to Bangalore, Chitrasena, whose name is today synonymous with the renaissance of Sri Lankan dance, with wife Vajira, took time off to visit Nrityagram, and Maya Rao's Kathak school. Earlier, in New Delhi, they interacted closely with dancers such as Sonal Mansingh and Madhavi Mudgal, besides visiting the Kathak Kendra.

Chitrasena has come a long way since he made his stage debut in 1936, at the age of 15, in Siri Sangabo, a dance drama produced by his late father, Seebert Dias, a famed Shakespearean actor.

Today, Chitrasena and Vajira are in the thick of fundraising for a new dance school they hope to set up in Colombo, a dream pursued ever since their original establishment was taken over by property developers.

Before they set out for Thiruvananthapuram, the couple spent a while recollecting interesting moments in their life.

Excerpts from an interview:

How would you describe your initial Indian experiences?

Chitrasena: I did not look to become a Kathakali or Manipuri dancer just to feel the essence of India, the home of classical dance. At Santiniketan, in 1945, I played the lead as Ananda in Chandalika. We were allowed to express ourselves through Tagore's songs no matter what technique we chose for portrayal — the Kandyan dance, for instance. Gurudev had passed away and his daughter-in-law conducted rehearsals in their house, while Shantidev Ghosh directed us. I learnt the art of presenting dance through rasa bhava. Sri Lankan dance forms don't have such narrative techniques. My Indian training helped me produce many dance dramas, including The Story of the Fishing Folk and Nala Damayanti.

At Travancore, the system was more rigid. Freedom comes only after you have mastered the eye exercises, mudras, and dance technique. Kathakali is the only dance that expresses the navarasas. I played Krishna in Guru Gopinath's presentation of Radha Krishna at the local palace before the Maharaja.

Uday Shankar was one of the greatest artistes who took Indian dance to the world. I have never come across anyone else presenting shows in terms of such superb theatre though he lacked dance technique. I even saw him at the Madras studios where he was shooting his last film, Kalpana.

How did you bring your experience into the evolution of dance in Sri Lanka?

Chitrasena: We have the Kandyan dance, the mask dance of the south, and a third in mid-country. I used swabhavik mudra or natural gestures to tell my stories. Our forms did not tell a story, so I created that style. I brought in my Santiniketan experience in teaching dance, and my wife is one among the first to inhere that experience. I gave her the freedom to evolve (laughing). Vajira did not like dancing when very young, say, six or seven. When I went to take a class, she would hide, and say, "The devil is coming!"

What of your beginnings... ?

Chitrasena: At school, I remember we had traditional dance classes. I danced and danced till I could dance no more. My mother was against it because dance belonged to a people of a certain caste who, at that time, were not permitted into our house.

Vajira: My mother wanted someone in the family to take to the arts. After training and performing with Chitrasena, I initially began to choreograph children's ballets. The first was an interpretation of a song on a flower and a bee, written by the composer of the Sri Lankan national anthem. With so many children around us, it seemed natural to create many more.

How did people abroad receive your works?

Vajira: In Russia, the ballet was very well received. Artists had lined up outside with flowers till we completed the performance.

It was very moving. In partitioned Germany, people gave us a standing ovation on both sides of the Wall. In Sri Lanka, we are still struggling to carry on our work and there is a lack of a strong culture of reception.

What hurdles do you face?

Vajira: We are trying to build a new school. We have led a gypsy-like existence ever since our school for the last 45 years on Colombo's Central Galle Road was taken over for "development" five years ago.

Chitrasena: She has done a lot to keep it going because I got fed up.

Vajira: That was my duty to our students. We could not let them down. Besides, Chitrasena has been teaching dance for over 60 years. Both our daughters are dancers. Even our granddaughter in the US is helping with a project proposal to raise funds.

Has it been difficult to interest male dancers?

Vajira: Originally, ours was a dance performed mostly be men. Women took to it much later. (Pausing) I sent an appeal to the newspapers, asking unemployed, male students to take up dance as a career. I offered free training. We have had two sessions so far, with 10 students each.