Sunday, July 12, 2015

Preserving Chitrasena

Chitrasena did not pass on 10 years ago. He was not taken out or marginalised after death for the simple reason that he can't be. This is not (only) because people love and continue to love him. Not only because what he left behind sticks to collective memory so brilliantly. This is also because there are those who will continue his journey. Like Vajira, an icon on her own right. Or Upeka, leading the second and third generations.

I spoke with both Upeka and her niece Heshma Wignaraja on Tuesday, June 30. The Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation unveiled what can only be described as a step forward. That step involves a show. The show has a name. Devánjali. It’s set to be unveiled on July 18 and 19. A press conference organised as a preview of sorts was arranged for us. Things seemed promising. And impressive.

The show's name is interesting. Devánjali is about the worship of gods. Since Chitrasena's legacy borrowed from and added to an art-form which (in its purest form) consisted of deity-worship and ritual, the name is spot on. It speaks a lot, not just about the man whose life is being celebrated but about the art he chose to enmesh himself in. As Heshma implied early on, dance is not sterile. It borrows and adds. More than the cinema or music, it is elusive and difficult to define. What makes Chitrasena stand out is in how he managed to bring together tradition and modernity.

The preview lasted two hours. Heshma, meticulous as always to the last detail, explained her grandfather's legacy. She showed us a video.

Chitrasena's life essentially consisted of three chapters. The first of these was his background. Born into a refined and essentially bilingual theatre family, he came from a generation that had seen and would see Devar Surya Sena and Wilmot Perera. Secondly, he pursued his passion by studying his country's traditional base (through his teacher, Bevilgamuwe Lapaya Gurunnanse). Thirdly, he proceeded beyond Sri Lanka, hobnobbing with the likes of Uday Shankar, going to Shantiniketan, and travelling across the globe with his troupe (the peak of which, Heshma tells us, was the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow).

After the event was over, I talked with Upeka regarding the first of these. I told her that while Chitrasena's art was essentially “native”, critical response initially came from the urban, middle-class, and English-speaking audience, i.e. the kind of people who went to Lionel Wendt, where Karadiya was and Devánjali will be shown. She affirmed this rather cautiously. "My father's contribution was appreciated by the English-speaking intelligentsia. But it was the same thing with the vernacular press. That was at a different time, you must remember. We were hailed and encouraged and not just by audiences. Now we can't even get our show sponsored easily."

Upeka continued to talk about Devánjali. She told me that while the entire Chitrasena family from the first to the third generation (and beyond) are involved, there is a force that drives all their willpower. "That is Heshma," she explained. I agree. For all her simplicity and ease, you can see determination etched on Heshma’s face. In what she says, how she explicates matters, and how she answers query, she is as well-informed and thoughtful as an organiser of an event of this sort should be. There's hardly doubt in what she says. She is confident, both in herself and in what she has learnt.

She is also humble. She identified and praised every member of the Chitrasena Family. There was her grandmother Vajira. There were her mother Anjalika and aunt Upeka. There was also Heshma's generation, ready to take the mantle and doing so already. A vast family, you'll admit, so much the better for those who wish to see the Guru's art preserved.

There were two items from the show shown to us. The first of these was the pantheruwa, revolving around the Goddess Pattini and the dance of victory attendant on the end of a war. Pattini is worshipped by Buddhists and Hindus alike. As Heshma informed us, what gets affirmed here is a sense of inclusiveness, undisturbed by self-imposed “Us v Them” demarcations.

The second item ("Moksha") offers a bit of a paradox. "Moksha" means perfection, a state of enlightenment unfettered by secular art. How can dancing invigorate such perfection? That is at the heart of the item's conflict, which as its organisers subtly implied must be resolved by us. The audience.

One thing is clear. Devánjali isn't merely a tribute to a Master. It's a message. A step forward. It seeks to question, resolve, and liberate the Guru's legacy. As the name itself implies, it will try to showcase his contribution at its roots. In other words, it will reinforce the image of Chitrasena at his traditional base: one which involves the worship of gods and obeisance to ritual. A fitting tribute, no doubt.

Naturally enough, the last word should belong to the lives being celebrated. Here's Vajira on dancing: "It is not merely an exercise." Here's Chitrasena's take: "It is a surrendering of ego." If we are to take all tradition-bound restraints as both mere exercise and remnant of ego, no truer words have been spoken about an art-form which remains as easy to love as it is to neglect.