A brief glimpse of “Kumbi Kathawa” (Ant Story)

“We give you something that is very traditional and something that at the same time is not. This is discipline. You can’t do this without thinking”

Chitrasena, quoted in Bandula Jawayawardhana’s essay “The Meaning of Chitrasena” published in Nŗtya Pūjā: A Tribute to Chitrasena 50 years in the dance

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To witness first and then attempt to write about a production by the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya is a humbling and daunting experience. It is humbling because the writer soon realises the inadequacy of verbal and written expression to capture the exhilaration of dance performed with a vigour and technical precision not often found with such effortless abundance elsewhere. It is daunting because one attempts to capture a movement so mellifluous, rhythmic and disciplined that the rigidity of words necessarily alienates the writer from the performer and the performance. It is with these thoughts in my mind that I pen this short review on my experience with a preview of Kumbi Kathawa, the Kalayanthanaya’s latest production slated to go on the boards at the Bishops College Auditorium from 7 – 9 September 2007.

Kumbi Kathawa is an original production inspired by a Russian children’s story and is a new ballet conceived by Anjalika, the daughter of Vajira and Chitrasena, who also directs the production with Mahesh, a hugely talented graphic and performance artiste responsible for the costume design and stage sets. I was told the production was in development for many years and aims to bring out through an insect story the varied qualities of human nature, from the good and sublime to the bad and ugly.

I made my first entrance into the Kalayathanaya, located adjacent to Apollo Hospital on Baseline Road, with stories recounted by my grandmother and mother on their experiences with Chitrasena, Vajira – his wife, the young Amaradeva, Punchi Gura and the rest of the troupe playing through my mind. Their affection towards the troupe and dance was obvious and it was clear to me, listening to them, that what Vajira and Chitrasena had inspired in the theatre and arts in Sri Lanka was exceptional. The present day Kalayathanaya itself is nothing more than an expansive stage, adorned by two portraits of Chitrasena. There is a small office and two or three rooms that serve as changing areas, storage and space for set-design. The back wall is of an earthen shade, against which a stunning black and white, larger than life photo of Chitrasena seemed an ill fit, yet from the perspective of a dancer was perhaps a source of inspiration during performance. There is a simplicity and economy of architecture and decor as well as a certain air of stoicism, perhaps the result of a perennial struggle for funds to maintain the institution.

I walked in and for a few minutes watched and listened to dozens of dancers gathered in groups, talking animatedly in their colourful costumes about school, their latest crushes, toys and games and the drudgery of exams. Then the rehearsals began, with a few minutes of meditation. From the perspective of an outsider, it was thrilling to see 10 year olds who only moments ago were at play transform into calm, collected performers getting into character. It is an impression that stayed with me throughout – I have never seen, or thought I would see, such a disciplined cast of children and teenagers. Their approach to dance and performance was one of absolute dedication and discipline. Mistakes were made, corrected, steps were fine tuned, movements were re-engineered to seamlessly flow from one to another and expressions honed – all with a seriousness and single-minded pursuit of perfection that I still can scarce believe exists at such a young age.

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Kumbi Kathawa features, in addition to ants a smorgasbord of insects including butterflies, ladybirds, grasshoppers, fireflies and a mosquito. All their costumes are extremely detailed and beautifully made. Standing up close to the performers, I was able to see the meticulous attention to detail in the costumes and to fully appreciate the effort that had gone into designing and sewing them to fit each cast member. At moments the stage was a fusion of colour – a full blown riot of bright orange, luminous blue, green, red, yellow each entwined with the other creating the illusion of a painter’s palette brought alive on stage. The movements of the insects on stage are a delight to see and to the trained eye, an exquisite interpolation of traditional dance steps and movements with those inspired by the movements of insects. The resulting action is at times fast and furious – as in the scene where the insects are battling for their life against a flood – and at times deliberate and measured, yet never laborious or inelegant.

The cast itself is an interesting mix of age, culture and ethnicity. Two Chilean dancers, students of dance at the Kalayathanaya, delight us with their rendition of grasshoppers and importantly remind us of the Kalayathanaya’s abiding international reputation and appeal. With the language of instruction and the lingua franca of the production being Sinhala, it was interesting to see the many varied English accents I heard earlier in the day respond and converse in Sinhalese during rehearsals – an interesting study on the interplay of culture and language within the Kalayathanaya’s unique history and dance lexicon ripe for an anthropologist’s own argot. There is also the significant variance in age – the youngest, who when asked stated with great confidence that she was exactly 9+, to those over 30. Age however is no determinant of competency – all those on stage are hugely talented performers. Though technique and training is more visibly evident in the older dancers, the younger display a remarkable aptitude to meld the traditional footsteps and techniques with the movements of the insect they play – no mean feat. But if all the dancers are equally talented, Thaji – who plays the mosquito – is primus inter pares. I first saw her perform at the Chitrasena Memorial Production in 2006. Seeing her again reminded me of the Indian Shantala Shivalingappa, one of the most beautiful and greatest living exponents of Kuchipudi, who I had the great fortune to see on stage in India. Thaji’s movement epitomises the lasting legacy of Vajira, that of combining the lasya, an effortless grace and presence on stage with the strength, precision and vigour of movement of the tandava. Indeed, Thaji’s sublime rendition of a mosquito is to stage what Ralph Gleason (the co-founder of Rolling Stone) once said of Frank Sinatra’s music – an artiste able to take something banal and ordinary and make it live and breathe and communicate emotion.

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Chitrasena’s acute grasp of choreography finds, as expected, ample expression in Kumbi Kathawa – “The choreographer must have a profound knowledge of his medium of expression together with a sound understanding of music, lighting, decor and costume, for it is what he conceives and envisions as a whole that brings together the parts into a total experience of dance into Natya or dramatic element, Nritta or pure dance and Nrithya, sentiment and mood” (“Choreography and the Traditional Dance of Sri Lanka” in Nŗtya Pūjā: A Tribute to Chitrasena 50 years in the dance). Mahesh, a prodigy in digitally visualising set design and costumes and bringing them to life coupled with the choreography gene embedded into the DNA of Anjalika guarantee a production that not just brings insects to life on stage as never before but is a step closer in what Chitrasena once said was the “elusive goal of perfection” to which he dedicated all his work.

Speaking with Heshma, the daughter of Anjalika and Rukshana, a senior dancer of the Kalayathanaya after the run through of the production, what struck me and not for the first time was how difficult it was to promote and sustain good art and theatre in Sri Lanka. Chitrasena himself was no stranger to the lack of funding to support his work – he had to borrow 3,000 rupees from his servant to produce Karadiya in 1961. However, what is dispiriting and indeed bizarre today is that the abundance of sponsorship and funding for the mediocre and banal and on the other, a near complete lack of funding for productions that are original, innovative and what is more, rooted in and develop Sri Lanka’s own rich traditions of dance and theatre. That the Kalayathanaya had to withdraw money from fixed deposits to stage Kumbi Kathawa is a sombre and damning indictment of the state of theatre in Sri Lanka today.

At the end of the day, Kumbi Kathawa is largely a production by children, for children. I remember, as a child, seeing Srilal Kodikara’s Manasa Vila (The Lake of the Mind) rendered as an opera by Premesiri Khemadasa. I can’t remember in detail the plot or action, but what I do acutely remember is the lights, the colour, the music and how much I was enthralled by the spectacle and overall performance on stage. Children are deeply influenced by the arts and delight in good performance. There is something magical about good theatre, as Marsh Dodanwala delightfully reminded us recently. If you, like I, would like to see more of the same, buy a ticket for Kumbi Kathawa today.

Editors note: Tickets are priced at Rs. 400 (downstairs, open seating) and Rs. 150 (balcony). Those who purchase four downstairs tickets will receive an edditional ticket for free as a bonus. Special rates are also available for groups of over 20 people. Tickets are available at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya, 590 Elvitigala Mawatha, Colombo 5 (next to Apollo Hospital). Phone Inquiries: 0602150570

Please listen to a podcast with Heshma (grand-daughter of Chitrasena and Vajira and Rukshana, a senior dancer at the Kalayathanaya on VOR Radio here.

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