Rebel against ballet | Daily News


Rebel against ballet

Vajira Chitrasena

Vajira Chitrasena was not the first woman to take up dance in Sri Lanka, but she was the first to take up what her predecessors had bequeathed to her, transcend gender and class barriers, and teach the art meticulously. Dancing didn’t come to her; it was the other way around. She entered the scene when it had transformed considerably, and not just in the country: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the groundwork for the modernisation of the art, a project continued by Martha Graham.

If in the latter part of the 19th century the Western world, particularly America, rebelled against ballet and modernised dance, in Ceylon at around the same time dance was becoming classicised: not uprooted from without, but transformed from within. A key part of this process was the theatricalisation of dance: in just 20 years, it would move from the ritual parlour to the Lionel Wendt, and from there to the school and the university.

Classicisation, as the word implies, involves a paradigm shift not only in the way an art form is conceived, but more importantly in the way it’s taught. For an art to be classicised, it must be de-ritualised: it must serve secular ends, without pandering to myths and superstitions. But then even in this transformation tradition must be kept alive, and customs which belong to the past should be revived: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, the contemplation of mystical beauty. In Sri Lanka, as in India, dance was and is still a performing art that calls for the revival of tradition and custom. There cannot be a shattering of form, and if there is or should be such a shattering, it must happen from within. Classicisation doesn’t mark a break from the past, but a continuation from it; dance, that most difficult of all the arts to preserve, can thus only survive through reform.

Culture and literacy

One of the most important themes that Ananda Coomaraswamy visits in his essays and books is the distinction between culture and literacy. In countries where what is spoken, and what is performed, takes primacy over what is written, and what is verbalised, modernity becomes an intrusion. The distinction eventually withers away, but only at the cost of a transmogrification of art into an object of study. Western interest in the Orient, a phenomenon that goes back to the Renaissance, and rebounded in the late 18th century, blossomed when colonial officials became not just sponsors but also patrons of dancers, drummers, poets, and performers. Their interest in local culture – “We want to see the real India,” Adela Quested and Mrs Moore tell us in Forster’s A Passage to India – turned local art forms into objects of study, which they studied and wrote on. They were succeeded by the local bourgeoisie, of whom many gave up Western customs and took to the arts: “... in spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, reminisced about his parents’ response to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

Among the local elite who took to dancing, two of the most prominent were women: Miriam Pieris, later de Saram, and Hilda Karunatilake, later Chandralekha. When they put on the ves tattuwa and incurred the wrath of traditionalists, they broke new ground. To date, the debate over whether women can go through the ves mangalya remains unresolved, and while I have my opinions regarding that debate, now is not the time to dwell on them.

What is important to note is that it was against this backdrop that Vajira Chitrasena emerged: when the arts had been classicised; when Kandyan (Miriam de Saram) and Burgher (Andreas Nell) elites were turning dance into a cultural artefact, to be studied; and when women broke through not just gender but also, as with Miriam, caste barriers – the bourgeoisie who took to dance by and large came from the govigama elite – and paved the way for collaborations between male gurunnanses and female performers. Initially collaborations of this kind almost never took place – Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, is said to have taught her very little, “since she was a woman” – but they picked up when an entirely new generation of male dancers welcomed the advent of the female dancer.

Neither Chitrasena nor Vajira hailed from the elite of their time. Vajira was the daughter of a rather modest landowning family: her father worked at the local government administration, while her mother taught at the Kalutara Boys’ School. (One of her students was W. Albert Perera, the great Amaradeva.) It was at the Kalutara Town Hall that she saw Chitrasena perform for the first time, on March 27, 1941. Two years later, Vajira made her debut there, and from 1944 to 1945 she studied not just dance but also music, singing, and the dilruba and sitar at Sri Pali. In 1946, she became a student of Chitrasena, starting with one lesson a week at home and later moving to Chitrasena’s Studio in Kollupitiya, where she made her mark as the most talented female performer. In 1948, at an Independence Day pageant, she performed with him in public for the first time; she was not quite 17, and he was over 25.

Song and dance

The “Pageant of Lanka”, as it was named, put the history of Sri Lanka to song and dance, and it was here that Vajira’s talent attracted the attention of the press. Chitrasena was given the legend of Ravana and Sita, and he obviously took on Ravana’s role. Irangani Serasinghe was Sita, and Vajira a deer. Serasinghe later remembered Vajira: “... Chitrasena was very hard on her. She used to get mad with him when he whacked her and she would go off saying that she would not come back.” Irangani, like Chitrasena, saw something in “little Vajira”: “I think he realised very early that she was a born dancer.” A year later, Chitrasena took Vajira again for a ballet of his, Vidura, in which she played the role of a naga. Her breakthrough role in Nala Damayanthi came about that year too: it was there, for the first time, that she performed with her teacher as his partner, and it was there, for the first time, that she created the lasya: what Marianne Nürnberger described as the feminine form of up-country dance. The little deer-girl had graduated from dancer to choreographer, and she hadn’t even hit 20.

Vajira’s most important contribution was, undoubtedly, her adaptation of masculine forms of dancing to feminine moods and movements without altering the essence of the original dance. She modified the costumes – which had proved to be cumbersome on both males and females – making them easier to not just wear, but also change into behind the curtains. She then went on to pioneer another genre, the children’s ballet, with 1952’s Kumudini.

Two years later, she danced for Queen Elizabeth, followed by Martha Graham in 1956, Chou En-Lai in 1957, and audiences behind the Iron Curtain throughout the 1960s and 1970s. By the mid-1970s she had got control of the Chitrasena Studio, which she and her children had to move to Kadawatha in the 1980s after being forced to vacate their premises in Kollupitiya, and which returned in 2004 to Narahenpita in Colombo. The pioneer she always has been, her lessons and preparatory exercises at the Kala Ayathanaya were designed to promote ease and flexibility while inculcating in the student an appreciation of the past: she even transformed the namaskaraya into a homage for Christian angels. Her greatest talent as a teacher came out in her lessons for six to 10 year olds: they made use of their expressivity, and were designed to get rid of stage fright. I’ve seen teachers struggle with children that age, and I’ve been told of how easily they took to Vajira; in that sense, we’ve all gone a little back.

Dwight Macdonald, in his Masscult and Midcult, argues that the industrial revolution created the masses which produced the “culture of the masses” we see everywhere: in the bus tune, in the baila medley, in the cha-cha and the twist. Modern dance was no doubt borne from this mass culture, but the techniques which it pioneered – the use of space, the encouragement of expressiveness, and the increasingly prominent role of improvisation – found their way to the old traditional, minority culture. We see this process continue today, but the extent to which it has broken through all customs, all traditions, defying not just the past, but also the relevance of the past to the present, is open to debate. Again, I won’t dwell on it, though I will say this: as far as dance, the most difficult of all the arts to conquer, preserve, and teach, is concerned, Vajira Chitrasena remains an icon, a monument. This we knew long before the world decided to confer honours on her. Let us then not let it slip from our minds.

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