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Sunday, September 6, 2009


What does forty years of dancing mean in Sri Lanka ? With a rich and variegated tradition stretching back to several hundreds, if not to over a two thousand years, with a tradition of such antiquity within which whole communities passed down an uncontaminated art from generation to generation, there must have lived many a master of the dance who could look back to his fortieth year of dancing with pride and retrace his rhythmic steps with immense satisfaction to the first day, when he stood at the dandikanda (barre) as a little lad and decided to be a Guru some day.

To any dancer, forty years is a remarkable achievement, an occasion for celebration. To the dancer in Sri Lanka, it is even more - a test of exceptional loyalty and dedication to his art, a trial of unrelenting perseverance in the face of poverty and social scorn, a great triumph over the severest odds, a tremendous personal victory.

But with Chitrasena, forty of dancing years is something positively and intensely more significant, more important. Undoubtedly for him too, the completion of this long period carries a sense of personal achievement, bringing memories of struggle and triumph of quest and conquest of bitter and happy days, of lean and prosperous years.

But these achievements and triumphs are now no more individual and personal. Here, at the end of these forty years, Chitrasena emerges in our retrospective vision, an important artist in an important epoch - whose forty years are now become an indelible part of a country's cultural history; whose personal achievements are now, inseparable elements in a nation's aesthetic and emotional life. His triumphs have so much composed our present, that his failures too must now be reckoned as inalienable from our national destiny. If ever we as a nation, have the capacity to evaluate our own artists, we have now come to a stage,... or rather, Chitrasena has brought us to a stage, when we shall have to speak of his successes and defeats as ours.
Important epoch

It was indeed in the middle of an important epoch that Chitrasena emerged, as yet another maker of that age in which we live. The Anagarika Dharmapala had fulfilled his spiritual mission and the first fruits of his life's - work were only being harvested. Ananda Coomaraswamy was rediscovering the indigenous arts and had already addressed his celebrated Letter to the Kandyan Chiefs. In India, Tagore had established his Shantiniketan. His lectures on his visit to Sri Lanka, in 1934 had inspired a revolutionary change in the outlook of many an educated man and woman. The Poet-Sage of re-awakened India had stressed the need for a people to discover its own culture to be able to assimilate fruitfully the best of other cultures.
Chitrasena was a school-boy then, and the house of his father, Seebert Dias, a well-known actor of the day had become a veritable cultural centre, in and out of which went the literary and artistic intelligentsia of the time, Seebert Dias, whose acting as Shylock had captivated the English-speaking audiences, now produced the first Sinhala ballet, Sirisangabo 'presented in Kandyan technique'. Chitrasena played the lead role, and people were talking of the boy's talents.
Some years before, Pavlova had visited India and taken away Udaya Shankar to Europe where his performances were making a name for all Oriental dancing. Menaka and her Kathak performances and Ram Gopal's Bharata Natyam were acquiring international fame. Some of these famous Indian exponents of the dance had already visited Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka's upper layers the parlour-piano and musical Victoriana were being abandoned in favour of Kandyan dancing, the sitar and the esraj. A new elite was rising which was turning a self-conscious if sentimental eye towards the indigenous arts. While there was a fair amount of romanticism and ostentation in all this, the trend was not altogether without authenticity and conviction, and it was as the movement was gathering momentum that a right intuition sent Chandralekha, the wife of the artist JDA, and Chitrasena to study Indian dancing under the traditional Indian gurus.

Their first choice was the Chitrodaya School of Travancore where they were to study Kathakali, the dance drama of Kerala, under the celebrated guru Gopinath who later, at the completion of Chitrasena's training said of him in that typical prophetic style of the Oriental gurus "He will soon become a great dancer, having no rival in the art".

Despite this trend the major tide of colonial civilization flowed unabated. A slavishly-imitative elite, half-baked in European manners and victims of the West's post-industrial commercial culture, still ruled the roost and set the pace, inciting among the nationalist elite a cultural chauvinism equally virulent.

Desperate struggle
Meanwhile in the villages the traditional masters of the dance held tenaciously to their art in a desperate struggle to preserve it for posterity. But with democratic institutions had come social mobility. Their sons, lured by the glitter and gold of the cities were exercising their new-found freedom and abandoning the hereditary art for the more secure jobs of peons and porters.
They were being realistic. They were right. The Sinhala dance was fighting a losing battle in the villages, among the commonfolk. The old social structures which sustained it had given way. The aristocracy had now shifted their interests to the Bridge table of the Planters' Club. Before the advance of modern medicine, the exorcist ritual was dying a natural death. Thus the less-enterprising of the dancer's sons inherited his father's profession only to ensure for the art a mediocre existence. Purity of the dance was secured only through stagnation masquerading as Tradition. Incompetence and dilettantism ensured their own survival by vulgarization whose nadir was reached a few decades ago in the Kandyan Cha-Cha. There was no doubt, patriotism and a pittance could not rescue the Sinhala dance from a sure and gradual death.

It was in this context that Chitrasena returned with his training from India. Like any other contemporary artist of Sri Lanka, Chitrasena stood where the road he travelled on seemed to fork out in two directions - the Path of Traditionalism stood counterposed with that of Innovation, Conformity with Rebellion, Nationalism with Internationalism, University with Particularity. In his own field, Chitrasena stood where Martin Wickramasingha stood in the Novel, Keyt in Painting, Sarachchandra in Drama, Lester James Pereis in the film, Amaradeva in music. Chitrasena too accepted the Challenge. The art must grow if it was to be saved from extinction. Thus Chitrasena brought dynamism to the tradition of the dance in Sri Lanka. And he had the deftness of touch and the awareness of the problems to conduct that delicate surgery which could, effect a synthesis of tradition and modernity without sacrilegious results to the art.

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