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Vajira: a dance of a life

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High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, Gopal Baglay presenting the ‘Padma Shri’ to Vajira flanked by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vajira's eldest daughter Upeka. (Pic credit, Indian High Commission in SL)

Sri Lanka’s prima ballerina, Vajira Chitrasena, 89 now, was conferred the Padma Shri one of India’s highest civilian honours on November 17. The award was in recognition of her unique contributions to enriching Indo-Sri Lanka relations through the promotion of dance and blending the art forms of both countries. On behalf of the Indian President, Vajira was presented the award by the High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, Gopal Baglay at a special Temple Trees ceremony at which Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was present.

Padma Shriin Sanskrit translates into ‘Noble one in Blossom.’

We celebrate the ‘Noble one of Sri Lanka’s dance’ through the eyes of generations of ‘Chitrasena women’ who keep her trailblazing tradition alive.

BY RANDIMA ATTYGALLE

‘Balletomanes who see the second program of the Chitrasena Ballet, which was presented at the Elizabethan Theatre last night will receive a shock, for there they will find the original of their beloved classical-romantic ballet ‘Swan Lake’. The various pas de deux, performed by Vajira as the Chief Swan and Wimal, as the noble King Nala, leave, it must be confessed, our ‘Swan Lake’ sadly lacking in imagination and understanding. This critic has not seen in ‘western’ ballet mime, acting and dancing, capable of evoking in nature and spirit of the swan, to compare with the performance of Vajira in this role,’ wrote Roland Robinson in The Sydney Morning Herald of February 16, 1963.

Be it the swan that connived to bring Nala and Damayanthi together or Maya in Chandalika or exploited Sisi in Karadiya, Vajira Chitrasena stole the show. The thunderous applause she received across the seas was an index that she had arrived earning a trademark for the ‘feminine’ Kandyan dance form.

The 15-year-old Vajira who was enrolled in Chitrasena’s dancing class by her mother would run away only to be dragged back by her mother who used to sew the costumes designed by Somabandu for Chitrasena productions. Vajira would once recollect in an interview with this writer: “I was mischievous and was least interested in pursuing dancing seriously and it was Chitrasena who made me think seriously about being a professional dancer.”

A match made in heaven for the dance, the Chitrasena-Vajira union mutually pushed the golden couple of Sri Lankan dance to greater heights. Since her debut through Pageant of Lanka in 1948 until her swan song Chandalika in 1996, with every step Vajira not only emerged a brand name and a cultural ambassador for Sri Lanka but also opened a career path for Sri Lankan women. Interestingly, many male dancers who have made a name for themselves today were also mentored by her. Although there were dancers such as Chandralekha before her, it was Vajira who broke away from the tradition of women donning the male costume on stage and introduced the fluidity and grace that made the female dance feminine.

Although traditionally a male dance tradition, Kandyan dance still enables liberty to evolve one’s own style, says Upeka Chitrasena, eldest daughter of Vajira. “My mother was never inhibited from jumping as high as my father did in her Kandyan dance performances. Although I danced behind them, (along with sister Anjalika) and later did all roles amma once did, I never copied my mother but evolved my own style to suit my personality. My parents never put us into a mould but gave us independence to carve a niche for ourselves.”

Upeka who is today a much sought teacher herself, candidly admits that although she follows her mother as a hard task master and strict disciplinarian, she cannot match her mother’s patience. “Amma could make anybody dance; such was her spirit. She simply would not give up. I don’t think I have that kind of perseverance,” she smiles.

Transformation came naturally to Vajira. She never had to “strive hard to adapt to new roles,” as she put it. By the time Karadiya hit the boards, Vajira was a seasoned dancer. She was also a teacher of dancing at Methodist College, Colombo by then. Starting with small scale ballets such as Kumudini and Nirasha, Vajira’s repertoire as a choreographer expanded with longer ballets such as Himakumari, Sepalika and Kindurangana. Together with Chitrasena, the couple created Kinkini Kolama for daughter Upeka.

Vajira was avant-garde in every sense. While creating avenues for the female dancer in this country at a time when there were no role models, she played multiple roles of the dancer, the choreographer and guru – passing the baton to her daughters and now her granddaughters. Far from being the traditional wife and mother, Vajira danced everyday along with Chitrasena. Upeka recollects her parents creating, rehearsing and traveling all the time when they were young. “I danced every day of my life and at the same time I was there for my three children. They admired their parents on stage, a unique opportunity for any child, and it is their judgment of what the two of us did that mattered most,” Vajira would once recollect.

From the 1940s, ever since Chitrasena and Vajira started creating their own genre together, the entire family along with their golayas have been in rehearsal. For them it will continue to be a journey of experimenting and discovering the possibilities of a ‘movement-language’ like no other notwithstanding the pandemic. “These are frustrating times for all of us and this honour from India comes as breath of fresh air and hope,” says Upeka who is overwhelmed by the messages of love and affection that have been pouring in from all corners of the world since the award was announced.

The Chitrasena family is no stranger to India. The connection dates back to patriarch Chitrasena given further impetus by Vajira and later by Upeka (through her association with Nrityagram- India’s first modern Gurukul for Indian classical dances) and now cemented further by the third generation that steers the Chitrasena Dance Company. Samhara where the Chitrasenas collaborated with the Odissi dancers of Nrityagram Dance Ensemble from Bangalore was a critical turning point for the ‘younger dancer company’ led by Vajira’s granddaughter Thaji (Thajithangani Dias- daughter of Anudatta). Samhara as they reflect enabled them to take traditional Kandyan dance to newer heights.

Vajira’s younger daughter Anjalika Chitrasena (Melvani), a dancer and a teacher herself, finds her mother’s indomitable strength as a woman of many roles to be the heartbeat of their dance school to date. “She led by example and whatever she created, she did through her own experiences; she was constantly watching, reading, absorbing and creating new things all the time.” Her brother Anudatta was only three months old when her parents went on their first tour to Russia in 1957, recollects Anjalika. “She was still lactating but she continued to do what she had to do – dance. That was the kind of strong woman she was.”

Creating magic was inevitable with her mother as the choreographer and her father as the Artistic Director, says Anjalika. “My father was a very dominant and difficult person, yet she respected him for all that he was; her Guru, her mentor and partner in crime! My father used to call her the blotting paper absorbing all he said and did – that’s how well she understood him.”

Vajira’s humility is exemplary says her daughter. “She treated all her dancers like her own children, looked after them, fed them and mentored them. My mother gave her life to the arts without expectation and she continues to do that.”

Heshma Wignaraja, Artistic Director of the Chitrasena Dance Company and daughter of Anjalika, is grateful that India has recognized the efforts of her grandmother whose career spanning over 70 years is one that is dedicated purely to the dance. “She learnt from the best and built a lifelong partnership with her Guru, Chitrasena, who initiated and established a very rich connection with India for our dance and our family. It is with his support and blessings that she blazed a new trail for all female dancers in this country- setting world standards in performing, teaching, creating and collaborating. And it must be so satisfying for her to receive this honour at nearly 90-years of age.”

Since the pandemic, a lot has changed for all performing artistes compelling them to deal with a new set of challenges says Heshma. “The ties we have with Nrityagram however, have taken deep roots. So we will somehow find ways to continue working together. We are waiting impatiently for the next meeting.”

Growing up watching her achchi has had the biggest impact on Heshma. An all-rounder, an unassuming prima ballerina, she was like a “magnet of sorts,” Heshma says. “Her approach to creating was the most simple and honest but her work ethic was relentless and therefore everything she did or touched truly turned into gold! I look forward to continue working with her.”

Being born into a family of exceptional artistes who have set high standards, has pushed her to set the bar higher for the next generations to follow, says Thaji. Her grandmother’s discipline both on and off stage inspire the principal dancer of the Company that she is today. Says Thaji: “Be it technique, stage discipline, looking after your costumes, etc. achchi always led by example. Her discipline as a dancer on stage is something I have imbibed but her discipline off stage is something I have to continue to work on and of course even today she as a grandmother continues to have a watchful eye over my off-stage discipline!” she smiles.

Vajira’s attention to detail and ‘never say die’ attitude makes her a wonder says granddaughter Umi (Umadanthi) Dias who administers the Kalayathanaya. “Looking back today, I know that whatever I have grasped from my grandmother unconsciously comes into play spontaneously and helps me immensely to deal with the work I do at the Kalayathanaya.”

Sharing her legendary grandmother’s flipside, Umi says that she is a master seamstress. “Even now at almost 90 years, we still go to achchi with all our alterations. She turns out wonderful clothing for my kids with little pieces of leftover fabric. And of course there is her love for exercise and keeping her body fine tuned. She will never take a break from her daily exercise routine even when we go on holiday.”

Vajira is a blissful great grandmother of four and Umi says that her love for all of them is boundless.

A role model for generations of women, Vajira Chitrasena never clamoured or sought personal glory. In her own words, “it just came my way and I accepted it neutrally.” What success is to this queen of the dance is reflected in the words of the famed Russian dancer Anna Pavlova: ‘to follow without halt, one aim; there is the secret of success. And success? I do not find it in the applause of the theatre. It lies rather in the satisfaction of accomplishment.’

(Photo credit: Chitrasena family archives, Luxshman Nadaraja, Sujatha Jayarathna & Indian High Commission in SL)



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UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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