By Jeevani Pereira
Looking at the master’s face, the lines etched across it along with the furrowed brow and classic hairline, one sees them as marks of years of determination and dedication he put towards dance , his true passion, which has earned him the graces of a legend.
Spanning over two decades, Amaratunga Arachchige Maurice Dias alias Chitrasena’s work, has inspired generations to recognize the true value of local dance and made society realize the pride we as Sri Lankans should be holding for something we can call our own.
Nearing the completion of a month after his demise his wife Vajira spoke about her beloved ‘Chitra’ as someone who polished to perfection the diamond of traditional dance and brought it to stage making it available to and appreciated by all.“Traditional dance was mainly part of village rituals during the early part of the 20th century,” she said, adding that the dancers were mostly farmers who moved to the beat of the drum while a few people sang out the story. “The story was never interpreted through dance and Chitra brought a change to all that.”
Born on January 26, 1921, at Kelaniya, Chitrasena’s greatest influence was his father Seebert Dias who was a well known actor and producer during the 1920s and 1930s as well as a founder of the Colombo Dramatic Club. According to Vajira, Chitrasena virtually lived in the audience from his childhood and his talent for dancing was made evident to the world with his debut at 15 in the role of Siri Sangabo, the first Sinhala ballet produced and directed by his father.
During Chitrasena’s school days, Rabindranath Tagore’s visits to Sri Lanka and his ideas of the need for people to discover their own culture in order to better understand other cultures, came as a great breath of inspiration to his mode of thinking. Having mastered the Kandyan dance technique his Ves Bendeema ceremony of graduation took place in 1940 and the young Chitrasena performed in the following year one of the first dance recitals of its kind at the Regal Theatre. Chandralekha, one of the first women, to break into the field also took part in the performance along with her troupe.
Then in 1943 he formed the Chitrasena Dance Company with which he travelled to the provinces along with his brother Sarathsena and sister Munirani. The Chitrasena Kalayathanaya soon followed and was set up in Kollupitiya in 1944. Beginning with a small group of teachers and drummers it slowly grew into a landmark for dance enthusiasts and connoisseurs of the arts.
“The Kalayathanaya in the beginning was just part of his house. He began in the garage with a few teachers and a drummer,” reminisced Vajira who said that during the early period of his life he had a few dance teachers or dance drummers living in with him. Through this he had even managed to eliminate much of the shackles that were part of dance at the time. “He always tried to prove equal status in dance without the caste system that was a strong part of it. While Kandyan dancing was considered the Brahmin counterpart of the Low Country and Sabaragamuwa dances, Chitra constantly proved the equality of it all,” she said.
In 1945, Chitrasena went to Bengal where he studied at Tagore’s Shantiniketan and had the distinction of dancing in the lead role of Tagore’s dance drama ‘Chandalika’.
All this recognition did not come easily for Chitrasena, for he was attempting to introduce something to a society highly influenced by the West and by India at the time. “Society needed change and what Chitra did was monumental when it came to making this same society recognize and respect our own dance enriched with a 2500 year old history,” said Vajira. “He never tried to copy or follow other forms of dance but was only dedicated to bringing traditional dance to a higher level.
He went on developing it for stage and saw to every detail including the presentation and choreography, entrances, exits and lighting,” Vajira said.
Chitrasena often got ‘booed’ off stage with his breaking of new ground and took him many years to be recognized as an artist among those who looked down on him because he did not belong to a specific dancing ‘parampara’ and some accused him of ‘tampering’ with tradition.
In 1951 he married Vajira who was at the time one of his students. “He used to hold classes in my home town Kalutara at one time and that is how my family got to know him,” Vajira said. “And after my family had to move to Colombo I was boarded at his house to go to school and that is where the love affair began.”
Towards the end of this period with growing recognition for his work, the world began to open its eyes and notice the brilliance of Chitrasena and his dance productions which included greats like Ravana, Nala Damayanthi, Kinkini Kolama and Vidura. Their tours took them to Russia (1957), India (1959, 1991, 1998), Australia (1963), Canada (1967), West Germany (1970), England (1971) and Denmark (1974). Among their distinguished audiences have been Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike, Prime Minister Chou En Lai of China, President of India V V Giri, Queen Elizabeth 2, and the Duke of Edinbourgh, King Birendra of Nepal and Prime Minister Nikita Krushev of USSR.
Chitrasena has been awarded cultural awards of Deshamanya, Vishva Prasadinee, Kala Bushana and Kala Keerthi and Kala Suri First Class for his extraordinary contribution made to the development of dance.
According to Chitrasena, tradition was a kaleidoscope within which a vast variety of forms could be created and not endless. His aim was to develop and extend Sinhala dance forms and to look for ‘possibilities of emotional expression within the existent idioms.’
“His legacy is continued through his children and grandchildren,” said Vajira talking about her daughters Upeka, Anjalike and son Anudattha along with her grand daughters Heshma, Thaji and Umi.
“We are trying to hold a week of ballet in January next year to commemorate Chitrasena’s birthday,” said Vajira adding that an exhibition of photographs were hoping to be held too
(The 90th birth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s dance maestro Chitrasena falls on January 26. Published here is a tribute penned by the late Henry Jayasena, on Chitrasena’s death in 2005.)
He was the rock
The test of time,
The sun, the wind and the rain.
He was the mountain peak
That surveyed his domain below
In regal dignity
To us lesser folk
He was God
He was Brahma
He was Indra
When he strode the stage
Like a colossus
Yet so supple and light
We in the audience
Shivered with awe
As he strung his mighty bow
When he drew it taut
And unleashed an unerring shower of arrows
Pulverizing to naught
His pretentious opponents
We shivered in delight
In pulverized awe of this mighty man!
He was God
He was Brahma
He was Indra
This mighty mortal man!
The mighty Chitrasena, the regal Chitrasena,
The insuperable Chitrasena has left a void in
Our world of the stage that a hundred generations
Will be unable to fill.
So great was his stature.
So unsurpassable was his talent. So indomitable was his spirit.