Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fusing Drum and Dance

Chandana Wickramasinghe is certainly no stranger when it comes to dancing here. He knows tradition and respects it to the extent where he understands that without revision and redefinition there can be no progress. Perhaps it is because dance is the least easy to preserve art, indeed because it can't be preserved at all, that it must be passed from one generation to the next. But it can't be passed on its own. Something must animate the dancer. Something must give life to rhythm and make its absence as conspicuous as its presence. There must be a coming-to-life that makes this handover memorable.

On the 27th of this month, Chandana will present an event that will oversee such a transfer and handover. "Drums and Dance - NAADRO & Chandana Live In Concert" will premiere at Bishop's College Auditorium to those who will appreciate what they see and remember what it leaves behind. I spoke with Chandana and founder of NAADRO, Rakitha Wickramarathne. They had much to say.

Concerts usually last for more than two hours and very often tend to totter along. Rakitha claims that their show won't go beyond the one hour mark and for a good reason. It's timed to be precise, to the dot, and free of frill. The event is supposed to evoke and awaken, and for this reason Chandana and NAADRO want to keep it short. Fitting 12 individual and two combined items within 60 minutes isn't easy. Still.

NAADRO is about percussion. It's about fusion and keeping up with the times. There are six senior members: Rakitha, Gayan Manokumara, Nalinda Dilupama, Ranga Nuwantha, Uthpala Iroshan, and Nupathi Nilambara. All of them are determined. They have purpose. It is purpose that has brought them together with Chandana. "We challenge ourselves," Chandana tells me by way of explaining how respectful they are towards each other despite the age-gap.

Chandana Wickramasinghe and his guild have performed in more than 60 countries. NAADRO has performed in nearly every continent. They've seen much, taken it all in, and adapted. What differentiates them from the rest, however, is that they are willing to stick to roots. Others aren't. While they don't believe that art can be free of accretion, they do believe that our traditional dance culture is being prostituted. That's true.

No art form can survive without assistance from another. This is reflected in the show's title. "Drums and Dance" isn't just a fusion of culture, it's a fusion of form as well. It's more about conjugation than about fusion, moreover. More about dancers complementing drummers and vice versa. With no excess. Perhaps that explains the absence of more-than-needed rhythm or twist in the event. Chandana highlights this when he says that they aim at a synthesis of "shabda" and "chalana". Movement gives rhythm. Sound animates rhythm. The two go together.

Chandana and Rakitha further tell me that no initiative has been taken so far to hand over our dance tradition to the next generation. What began with Chitrasena and went through Channa Wijewardena may well stop, Chandana explains, unless this step is taken. Without any hesitation, he claims that "Drums and Dance" will take it.

He also argues that while our dance tradition has been "reserved" (and "preserved") in its highest form for Colombo 7 society and in particular Lionel Wendt, he wants to see it reach nearly every area in the country. The show will be featured in other parts of the country as time goes by. So far, while no plans have been made for an around-the-country tour, he says that they have targeted other areas, including Jaffna.

Rakitha explains here that dancing groups and percussion bands don't usually get together. If that is so this makes the NAADRO-Chandana combine unique and in-your-face. What adds a personal touch to this is the lack of any major financial sponsor. It's financed by those who are organising it. As risky and unsustainable as that may be (a point conceded by Chandana), it shows just how involved both groups are. Doesn't mean there won't be any sponsor, but going by how far they've gone together, it's safe to say that their show will have a personal feel and flavour. Commendably.

In any case, it says much about the man behind all this effort. Chandana Wickramasinghe is unique in that he believes that whatever benefit derived from culture-innovation must trickle down. "We work and we innovate. We innovate and we earn. Those involved with us have a right to what is earned. They must be appreciated. That is why we try to aid them wherever we are. How can we develop if we don't?" Aptly put, I should think.

Rhythm flows from the moment we are born. It flows in our blood and compels us to move according to form and style, sound and melody. That is why we are rhythm-bound. As Sri Lankans and human beings. Put music and dance together and you get a fusion, hence. An ultimate rhythm.

"Drums and Dance" isn't showy. It's not saturated. Nor is it desaturated and colour-stripped. Nothing is over-the-top or superfluous. Nothing is modern-only here. There's room for verve and for self-reflection. Besides, none of the items planned for the event is new. They are all there according to custom and ritual. Balance is hard, yes. But it's maintained.

I can probably write more. But that would be revealing too much. All I can say is that the show will be attention-grabbing but not ostentatious. There'll be pomp but not too much. There'll be a fusion as well, but not to the extent where every culture-base is cast aside. A fitting tribute to the past gone by and the future to come. A triumph also, I am sure.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 22 2015