In the short space of just over one hour, the Chitrasena Dance Company, brought to the Lionel Wendt Theatre and a 21st Century audience, excerpts from a 2500 year old Kandyan dance ritual, the Kohomba Kankariya.
In its original form, the Kohomba Kankariya, had little or no choreography in the modern sense of the word. It was, a sequence of dance movements, to set drum rhythms, interspersed with vocal invocations and incantations. It was performed as a ritual, to invoke the intervention of the Gods, to cure physical and mental ailments and ward off evil afflictions. Sound, rhythm, movement, and prayerful verses combined to impress and mesmerize, both Gods and men.
Over two millennia, the dance movements of the Kankariya slowly evolved. Form and line, became more precise and controlled, with conscious use of the body for maximum visual and emotional effect.
|Keeping tradition alive: Upekha and Thaji.
At the performance, this ancient ritual –the Kankariya, reached its artistic climax as a recognised dance form. Most of the credit for this success unreservedly goes to Heshma, as grand daughter, thus a third generation inheritor of the creative and theatrical vision of Chitrasena. She conceived, created, and very skilfully choreographed excerpts from the ritual using modern stage craft, and imaginative lighting to dramatic effect The simple, age old Gokkola lamps associated with traditional healing rituals, were the only stage sets. They were very effective in immediately creating the necessary atmosphere, to place the dance excerpts in the correct context.While retaining the dance steps, drum rhythms and music of the Kohomba Kankariya as a base, Heshma creatively used the dancers to weave interesting and intricate patterns of fluid movement.
Her vision was brought to life by the well disciplined ensemble of men and women, ably led by another grand daughter of Chitrasena, Thaji. She, is the third generation inheritor of the dancing talents of both her grandparents. In her I see glimpses of both Chitrasena and Vajira, but Thaji I am happy to say has developed her own subtle, distinctive style, which to me has a fleeting Odissi influence. I feel, this has enriched rather than detracted from her interpretation of the Kandyan style, and I hope no one tries to change that. (Nrityagram, should take credit for this).
Thaji’s invocation to the Gods, in the opening item “Prayer” was indeed just that. It was an offering of her body, lithe and graceful, in a series of sinuous yet statuesque movements, which combined with ethereal lighting effects, and the music of Pradeep Ratnayake took one from the “commonplace to the rare” and that indeed was its success.
Following this was the “Hath Padaya” where offerings of incense, betel leaves, coconuts and cloth were made to the Gods with appropriate verses, inviting them to come down to earth. Here again modern choreography gave it a new and interesting dimension, although the smiles on the faces of the dancers were inappropriate to the mood of the item.
Prima Ballerina Upekha, fulfilled a long cherished dream to dance the role of Kuveni. In Kandyan Dance there is no traditional use of Abhinaya or facial expression to express emotion.
The verses sung in this excerpt from the Kankariya are full of the emotional trauma of the abandoned Kuveni. Heartbroken and betrayed she cries out in anguish, then curses her lover and husband who has forsaken her for a wife of noble birth. Upekha in a distinct break with tradition uses abhinaya to portray the emotional struggle of Kuveni, while Thaji, in the human form of her spirit, echoes Kuveni’s innermost thoughts, in movement and mime.
Kuveni wears the black of mourning and Thaji as Kuveni’s inner reflection is clad in white. Although Thaji’s costume was well designed, the lines of Upekha’s costume distracted me from the strength of her portrayal. The haunting, plaintive singing of the ancient lyrics made its own valuable contribution to the mood.
Most enjoyable and exciting, was the Yak Thunpadaya, the dialogue between dancers and drummers. Although a familiar item in the Kandyan tradition, the excellence of the drummers and dancers and their sheer enjoyment, took both performers and audience to a plane beyond the auditorium.
Finally, “Celebration”, portrayed the evolution of the Kandyan dance tradition from the all-male Ves, through the introduction of the female dancer, when Vajira partnered Chitrasena, to modern innovative dance. Thaji and Priyanga’s re-enactment of the roles of Chitrasena and Vajira, using their own interpretation, was different, yet excellent.
The completely contemporary new work, although based very much on traditional technique was a delight in innovation and sheer creativity, giving an insight into a very exciting and healthy future for serious dance in Sri Lanka.
Congratulations to Heshma, and the ensemble. Thank you to Nrityagram for inspiration, apparent throughout the programme.
Thank you to HSBC for helping to keep alive a vital part of Sri Lankan culture.