Chitrasena, Art and Politics

Chitrasena, Art and Politics

How can those who tortured and those who were tortured co-exist in the same land? How to heal a country that has been traumatised by repression if the fear to speak out is still omnipresent everywhere? And how do you reach the truth if lying has become a habit? How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner? How do we forget it without risking its repetition in the future? Is it legitimate to sacrifice the truth to ensure peace? And what are the consequences of suppressing that past and the truth it is whispering or howling to us? Are people free to search for justice and equality if the threat of a military intervention haunts them? And given these circumstances, can violence be avoided? And how guilty are we all of what happened to those who suffered most? And perhaps the greatest dilemma of them all: how to confront these issues without destroying the national consensus, which creates democratic stability?

Arial Dorfman, Afterward to the Original Stage Play, Death and the Maiden

The memorial Chitrasena dance performance in Colombo held recently compels us to reflect upon the nature of the man, his art and his legacy in Sri Lanka. I first experienced Chitrasena and Vajira through the memories of my grandmother, who was closely associated with his dance ensemble, along with my mother who danced in Karadiya, in the 60’s. Her stories of Amaradeva, Somabandu, the various dancers, the politics of performance behind the scenes, the travels to India as well as various places in Sri Lanka, the elation at the end of a show are all intertwined with memories of a Chitrasena more human than the deified persona he now is.

Cultural appreciation requires us to balance the art forms of the past with a positive reception of modernity. Appropriation of ancient rhythmic forms to fit the tastes of multicultural modern audiences requires a fine balance between a moral honesty to the past coupled with an imagination that frees form from the shackles of tradition. The act of creating any new art form is fraught with the dangers of a parasitical use of tradition that draws from the ancients without adequate measures of reciprocity that nourish the wellsprings of tradition.

Chitransena’s genius lies not only in the creation of a new language of art, theatre and ballet, but in painting the voices of his gurus into the modernity he created on stage. Transforming folk ritualism into theatre, the complex ragas of drums into fusion that appealed to audiences more familiar with the percussion of the West, transcending the village roots of performance into the settings of the modern stage – Chitrasena’s contribution to Sri Lankan art lies in the seamless transition he engendered between dying and niche art forms to mainstream modern theatrical performance. The politics of modernity required him to grapple with the silent travails of facing criticism of those against such an evolution. With the contest between the past, present and an artists’ vision for the future never settled, they very tension that gives wings to the creative genius is also often appropriated by those with a lesser imagination to denigrate visionaries such as Chitrasena. Every sinew of Chitrasena’s artistry is wrought with the difficulties of having to manage these tensions of tradition and modernity.

Those of us unfortunate to not know Chitrasena in person often see him in a posture of artistic symmetry, the hues of his performance permeating through his early black and white photographs or those more recent, showing the contemplative gaze of a life lived in inspired artistry. Seeing Chitrasena as an avatar of Shiva or Chitrasena as a doyen of Sri Lankan art, a father, a guru, a husband, a teacher, a friend helps us better understand the wholeness of his life and contributions to culture. Deifying Chitrasena and his vision post-mortem requires us also to shoulder the shame of a nation that seems pathologically unable to celebrate the living artist. In life, Chitrasena had to endure the ignominy of his beloved Kalayathanaya razed to the ground, a place my grandmother still speaks of with moist eyes. Beyond the personal, here was the sacred ground which gave birth to our national anthem, now unfortunately a requiem for those such as Chitrasena who gave much to an uncaring nation.

And yet, we do care, in a fashion. Chitrasena’s ability to speak to the urbane hoi poloi, who generally don’t understand the nuances and complexity of artistic creation, but know that to be seen at the Wendt is a vital indication of an appreciation of the arts, is also a marker of his genius. In doing so, Chitrasena makes tradition appealing to audiences used to Western theatrical performance, keeping alive the roots of such tradition with their patronage of his performances.

Dorfman’s pertinent questioning of politics frames our own understanding of Chitrasena’s art. Just as Chitrasena’s own battles with traditionalists who opposed his interpretations of modernity, extreme nationalists today react even more violently and brand as heretics those who interpret history in ways that challenge hagiography and communal myth. Our politics today are coloured by the myriad of issues Chitrasena’s dance asks us to confront. From the hardships of fisherfolk and to issues of caste, religion, gender, love and identity and juxtaposition of hope and despair, 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. Observing Chitrasena’s performances is to understand the creation of democratic stability – the spectrum of voices, the language of silence and movement, the interplays of light and darkness and above all, the complexity of transcendence – these facets colour our appreciation of requisite measures in real life needed to achieve consensus on issues such as peace and reconciliation.

An appreciation of the performance of the night itself is called for. Beginning the repertoire with the sonorous vibrancy of percussion, the resounding strains of the Nirthanjali Orchestra ached to reach out beyond the confines of the Wendt and set the stage for performances that were compelling, emotive and uplifting. Intensely personal and poignant, Upekha’s performance not just in Kinkini Kolama, the gracefully entwined execution low country and Kandyan dance forms in Bera Nada Chalana, the lamentation for remembrances of things past in Guru Maga and the final Theiya, brings to mind a force that cannot be just captured in relation to or in the shadow of Chitrasena himself, but an artistry and stage language that is uniquely one of her own creation. Even seated on a corner chair, Vajira’s sheer presence on stage is incredible – in Guru Maga, we see Chitrasena looking over his living legacy, but also see in Vajira an artistic talent erroneously mentioned in the booklet accompanying the performance as “Chitrasena’s greatest creation”. To understand Vajira thus is unpardonably dismissive of her own contribution to Chitrasena’s legacy which is a symbiosis of two equally eminent artistes. Vilapaya, supposedly “a grandchild’s lamentation for her departed grandfather”, was a powerful exposition of symmetry – the naked torsos combining tradition and modernity in a masterful interpretation of Chitrasena’s own language.

Beyond the blood ties, the performances of all those who took to stage were riveting. From the sonorous drums to the signature styles of each artist on stage, this was an experience of not just ordinary performance, but a theatrical language that caught us all in an intoxicating spell of transcendence and creation.

A word must also be said of Radhika Coomaraswamy’s speech on the last night of the performances. Radhika cogently mapped out the socio-political milieu of Chitrasena’s life, contextualising his art with the politics of Sri Lanka. Referring to the contributions of both Vajira and Upekha to Chitrasena’s legacy, she flagged the important role of women in the interpretation and development of our cultural heritage. She spoke of the defining characteristic of artists of Chitrasena’s generation – a bi-lingualism as well as familiarity with both Western and Eastern theatrical traditions. These characteristics, she noted, helped Chitrasena escape the myopia of pure tradition to create exceptional works of modern theatre.

Dorfman asks us how we should keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner. Chitrasena’s art and life is the answer. We can only hope that the lessons of his art, his life and his legacy will fertilise our own private and communal trysts with reconciling the past to the urgent and necessary construction of a more peaceful Sri Lanka. Written this way, we are all artists, using interplays of social and political relationships to create ways through which we can begin to imagine peace.

The Kalayathanaya’s importance in this regard cannot be underestimated. If its first avatar gave expression to a young nation’s voice in song, the new edifice must give strength to a new generation of artistes desirous of a Sri Lanka that celebrates cultural and artistic production in a context of peace.

This then, is Chitrasena’s lasting legacy that inspires us all – to see in ourselves the creativity to transcend cycles of violence and give birth instead to voices of peace.

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