Thoughts on ‘Dancing for the Gods’ by the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation

“I strive to preserve the pure traditional styles, and to evolve new national dance forms based on the Kandyan technique, so that in the fullness of time a truly national ballet may emerge out of our humble efforts.” - Chitrasena

I recently asked the illustrious Bijayini Satpathy, Director of the Odissi Gurukul at Nrityagram how she negotiated the contest between tradition and modernity in her interpretation of Odissi dance – the oldest surviving dance form of India, but only revived less than a century ago. It is in fact a broader question concerning the arts – the perennial contest, not always civil or progressive, between what is acceptable to the old guard and creative reinterpretation, between the fight to retain the ‘essential’ and countervailing tendencies of artistes to attempt answers to and be shaped by the zeitgeist. The best artistes reside – with varying degrees of success and comfort – on the knife-edge of this contest, courting controversy by redefining their art and at the same time, demonstrating fidelity to form and tradition that undergirds a deft expression. Bijayini’s answer to my question was that innovation in form and expression occurs in two ways – through choreography and the expansion of what she called the vocabulary of dance.

‘Dancing for the Gods’, the recent production of the Chitrasena and Vajira Kalayathanaya staged at the Lionel Wendt reminded us that this contest is alive in Sri Lanka as well, and fully embraces both aspects Bijayini flags. Justifiably, reviews in the mainstream media have captured the nature of this performance in superlatives. The totality of the production placed both the dance form and the dance academy on a pedestal well above the theatrical dross usually staged at the Wendt. One of a few to have seen the performance during rehearsals, the final production was not so much new as it was refreshing, to see again through new sinew and light the same Promethean drive that animated Vajira and Chitrasena to reinvent dance.

And it is here that this production marks a break for the Kalayathanaya as well. As a small child, I was first told of Vajira’s and Chitrasena’s prowess (and the off-stage antics of greats like Amaradeva and Punchi Gura) by my grand-mother and mother, part of their dance ensemble decades ago. These received memories were anchored to strict tradition and rigour. Only much later was I to learn, as I read more into the history of dance championed by both Vajira and Chitrasena, that the forms they co-created were in fact reinterpretations of local ritual and dance traditions, interestingly accentuated through western influences. Though Chitrasena is often primarily identified with this creativity, Vajira too played a vital role. As Chitrasena himself noted in an interview,

“Vajira arrived at a distinctive landmark in her career with the production of Gini Hora in 1968. The conception and execution of this ballet were entirely hers. It was very modern in concept, no doubt influenced by the contemporary Western ballet. Her bold departure in the almost futuristic dance movements, the imaginative and sometimes startling use of lights combined to make it an electrifying experience.”

Here, over four decades ago, is a cogent example of the combination of choreography with the expansion of dance form contributing to an elevated production. It is precisely this spirit that resonates so vividly in the dance of Thajithanjani (Thaji). She is, simply put, the future of this dance company. This is not just because she is a very good dancer. It is also because she is young, and brings to stage a raw sensuality now largely missing from the older generation of dancers. This is necessary and inevitable. If the Chitrasena and Vajira Kalayathanaya wants to evolve beyond the reputations of its founders, Thaji is the keystone. In and through her is ritual pegged to history straining creatively with a vitality driven by youth, resulting in performances such as those in ‘Dancing for the Gods’ that are as technically precise as they are refreshingly ingenious.

This was evident in the performance of Kuveni, played by Upeka. The enactment of Kuveni’s inner turmoil was symbolic, for it is Thaji who animates Upeka’s feelings, an age difference of nearly forty years erased, nay complemented in a performance that so perfectly balanced what is already undeniably good about the Foundation with what will be great. And in this greatness also lies the rub. The Kalayathanaya’s fetish of family must not shy away from seeking and nurturing of talent beyond it. If Vajira and Chitrasena respectively embodied, in their heyday, the epitome of male and female form in dance, their dance company today is bereft of a male lead who is Thaji’s equal. This lacuna will deeply affect the nature of future productions.

Mitigating this to the extent possible will Heshma – Thaji’s first cousin. ‘Dancing for the Gods’ was Heshma’s vision. It is a compelling one – modern, invigorating, anchored to ritual and yet no hostage to it. Herself an accomplished dancer, the ability to bring to life a production through light, sound and staging that Heshma is gifted with has invariably elevated recent performances of the Kalayathanaya. She also realises that choreography on par with the best is vital to capture and retain the interest of contemporary audiences, who will appreciate technical precision and professionalism, but not necessarily connect with or know the rich history of the Kalayathanaya.

In Chitrasena, Art and Politics, an essay I wrote a few years ago I noted that,

“Chitrasena’s art probes our milieu and explores the most tenacious issues we are faced with in our construction of nation and State. We seek escape in his dance, but are acutely aware that through his art, the concerns he addresses are those with which we grapple with every day. There is no easy resolution in his performances to the issues he confronts.”

Upeka’s and Thaji’s performance of Kuveni in ‘Dancing for the Gods’ reminded me of these lines again. Here, the Kalayathanaya is able to define the essentially political through aesthetics that one can enjoy even though it portrays, if we care to look closely enough, an enduring anguish over the divide between promises made and delivered. Kuveni’s curse is very much alive in polity and society in Sri Lanka today, and also why the Kalayathanaya needs to engage more with the contemporary. This does not mean productions more overtly political or partisan, but the continuation and indeed, sustenance of revival and revision central to both Vajira’s and Chitrasena’s notion of dance – which run counter to dominant narratives today that seek to purge all ‘foreign’ influences from our cultures and performance spaces. This facile censoriousness, championed by the incumbents in power, also has a pernicious bent, suggesting that it is only some (fictional) ‘purity’ of yore, invariably seen through a Sinhala Buddhist lens, to which all art and cultural practices must also unquestioningly yield. It is, quite simply, inimical to that which Chitrasena and Vajira devoted their lives to.

Mana sankalanayak’ is an expression in Sinhala that captures well the Kalayathanaya’s contributions and approach to dance over the years – an amalgam of, inter alia, ancient ritual, western ballet, mime and Kandyan dance to the musical score of drummers no less varied or accomplished. After a dance recital in 1970, the French newspaper Dernieres Nouvelles d’Alsace noted that,

“Two hours of astounding geometry described in space by the bodies of the dancers – geometry of an infinite grace, of an extraordinary force, of an overwhelming charm, and of a harmony as subtle as it is perfect.”

Thaji and Heshma, both individually and together, represent a new chapter of this sublime dance company.

Much then is expected from them.

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