Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Chitrasena troupe resurrects the 'child within'

When Chitrasena staged Kidurangana in 1956 and Karadiya five years later, "dance" was still new here. Largely ritualistic, it never congealed into ballet or other forms accessible in the West and East. What the guru did therefore was to interweave tradition and modernity by liberating it from confine, and for this he had three key strengths: he knew tradition, modernity, and how to wed the two as one.

So from Karadiya, he moved on. He and his wife Vajira not only invested energy in productions that demanded much but went for lighthearted plays that caught heart and eye. What was special about these latter productions was the audience they were aimed for. They were "for children", which is to say they were for children and those who grew up but never really "evaded" childhood.

Those productions gained appeal. Wildly. Naturally enough, the route they went through continued. And continues. To date.

From the 21st to the 24th of October, the Chitrasena Dance Company will stage Kumbi Kathawa at Bishops College Auditorium. It has been staged before, in 2007 and 2009. That's what makes the restaging all the more nostalgic, particularly for those who lived through the first two productions. On Tuesday, September 29, Heshma Wignaraja spoke and briefed on how the "play" was born.

She credited her mother Anjalika, who had conceived the story. Conceiving it hadn't been easy. What they hadn't reckoned with was the problems they'd face at the outset, beginning with the costumes. Kumbi Kathawa, after all, is about a tug-of-war between a colony of friendly ants and a mosquito, while the drama there comes up not through words (there are no dialogues) but through movement.

"Which is where we faced problems," Heshma said, "Beginning with this: costumes constrict movement."

Fortunately for them, Mahesh Umagiliya, their "designer", had approached the issue rationally. Having studied insect-anatomy and having factored in how costume would clash with movement in a play which demanded plenty of both, he found a solution. It was, Heshma explained, both pragmatic and ideal, because Mahesh adapted insect-anatomy to costume without constraining the human body. A compromise, if you will.

Then came the cast. Here's what Heshma had to say: "My mother loves children. She loves teaching them. That's largely how she opted for Tatiana Makarova's Brave Ant and how she exerted so much energy and time into rehearsals. The Chitrasena Dance Company itself enrols kids aged seven and above, and even for those younger we have a special class called 'Punchi Pada'.

"The problem with Kumbi Kathawa was that while we performed in September 2007, we started long before. Five years, to be specific. We tried keeping up with time but time never kept a tab on us. Naturally, our kids grew up. As did our crew. There were those inevitable challenges we had to face, particularly since we had to take in more kids and ensure that when we staged it, none of those same challenges 'showed'."

This had apparently been compounded by other issues. "Like I said, times change. When my cousins and I, and my aunt Upeka and my mother danced, we didn't busy ourselves elsewhere. We had 'other lives', yes. But we never neglected dancing. That's how we developed. How we sustained our art. We embraced dance as it was: raw and unrefined. Do we see that with kids or adults today? I'm not sure."

She elaborated. Children, she observed, used to go to school and engage in other interests afterwards. They had plenty of time for art. That's how Chitrasena's legacy grew with generations that fell under its gaze. On the other hand, children today not only deal with "after-school" that robs time and energy but also have to develop their interests within schools in an unnecessarily competitive framework.

"When we organised musical shows in our time," she remembered, "We brought our own props. We went on with the idea that art should be embraced and never used. Not so now. Kids today don't have to bring as much as a tea-set, because all that is demanded from and given by the administration! Meanwhile, they have one main motive: to compete with other schools. Did it intrude on our practices and rehearsals? Well, it didn't exactly clash with our vision, but I'd say it had an impact, however small that was."

Heshma talked for the most and for good reason. She's directing Kumbi Kathawa. Reflecting on 2007 and 2009, she became more optimistic. She was happier when she commented on the production itself.

The kids had grown up with the play. Those who'd played the ants of the story were now into other roles (while one of the ants, Heshma's son and Chitrasena's great-grandson Avi, wasn't even born during its first production). Kumbi Kathawa represents a "leap" from two-dimensional puppetry to a three-dimensional costumery. It also delves into what's missing in our dance tradition: facial expression. Dance here was about "svabavika mudra", and what the guru did with his children's productions (with their emphasis on movement and emotion) was a virtual act of defiance.

That's not all. A brief video shown by way of introduction to the play's story offered comment on ant-life. It reflected not only the themes of the production but more relevantly the traits that'll set the ants from the rest of the insects. Aptly.

Like humans, ants specialise. They don't multitask. Unlike (most of) us, they (like to) coexist. While these will be reflected in the "ants" who'll adorn Bishops College Auditorium, they will also affirm what Heshma implied earlier: that in a world which never seems to pay attention to values that make up who we are, time will nevertheless embrace and secure posterity for them.

Kumbi Kathawa isn't just for kids, hence. It's for everyone. Even those whose childhood left long ago but whose "child within" yearns for resurrection. Especially now.

Photo courtesy of Luxmanan Nadaraja

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, October 10 2015