Pioneering dancer who was a universal being

Sri Lanka’s doyen of dance Chitrasena would have been 89 on January 26

Most of what I know about Chitra is from personal contact and this would include the stories he would relate concerning stages of his life and work - the childhood memories of his father’s theatrical interests and productions, the ‘western’ influences through movies which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, classical music which his father would play on an old gramophone and, of course Shakespeare, a dominating presence in his father’s life.

He would talk of his schooling, earlier in small private schools and later at Wesley College. He spoke of his continued interest in theatre, appearing in his father’s production of Siri Sangabo when he was 15 years old, of studying Kandyan dance when it was considered ‘weird’, and being considered even weirder when he left Colombo to live and study with his guru in a village off Potuhera, near Polgahawela. How he left for India to study at the Kerala Kala Mandalam and later at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, where he partnered Tagore’s granddaughter in the production of Chandalika.

Photo by Dominic Sansoni/Three Blind Men

Returning to Ceylon, he performed at the Regal Theatre for Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, and was also booed by the social-yokels – the culture-vultures of the Colombo elite when he dared to appear on stage with most of his body exposed – a first, I guess – in the 1950s. He was ‘first’ in many areas of his expertise and if not for him the appreciation of the traditional Sinhala dance forms would not be anywhere close to what it is today. Thanks to him these dance forms have been and are continuing to be appreciated by connoisseurs of Dance all over the world.

Then there were the memories about the giants like Marcel Marceau, Martha Graham, Doris Humphreys, Paul Taylor and more recently Susanne Linke, the group Pilobilus and the Battery Dance Company that visited the family home at Colpetty – where the original dance school was located from the very beginning. Any dancer that visited Ceylon, and later, Sri Lanka, just had to go see Chitra and Vajira and watch them dance and listen to those drums – and be blown away to realize that such rhythms and movements were coming from so far back in time in this country – unchanged!

He was always in awe of this fact and would often embark on some heavy philosophical monologues when he was in the right mood to illustrate his theories on this highly advanced indigenous culture.

Then there was his analysis of stagecraft and the way he developed lighting scripts and directions for overseas stage managers when his troupe was touring places like Russia in the 50s and Australia and all over Europe in the 60s. He also had lots of anecdotes about his acting in English plays like Othello and Emperor Jones, many of which were hilarious. I kept telling him to dictate his memoirs – which could easily have been a bestseller had he done it – with all the explicit bits included, and he certainly had some of those! He was so good looking, with a great physique and danced like a God – so who could blame the ladies for falling for him?

He also told of how he conceived ‘Karadiya’ when travelling by train from Colombo to Matara to give dancing classes. Seeing those fisher-folk pulling in their nets gave him that idea, and he conceived the music by being influenced by ‘The Song of the Volga Boatmen’ (he remembered it sung by Paul Robeson). He told of how Amaradeva was composing his music at the Colpetty house whilst Ananda Samarakoon wrote the national anthem and Sunil Shantha, Somabandu, Prema Kumar and Lionel Algama were all living and working there in those early days. They must surely have had a wonderful time living and working together. He said he loved every minute of it – those times never came for him again.

Chitra had an amazing life and myriad interesting experiences. He really should have done the book of his life’s story. There is a book (now out of print), but that is more of a compilation of articles and reviews and does not touch on the incredible adventures he experienced.

He moved among a variety of individuals from a cross-section of society – from the villagers he lived with while studying the dance and who he continued to meet throughout his life, to the highest strata in whatever society he was in and in between as well. And he took it all in his stride – altering his character to suit the occasion, but being genuine to them all.

He was above petty politics, had a distinctly low opinion of the practitioners of this profession and was quick to condemn discrimination of any kind. His temper was as volatile as his other emotional responses and he commanded a respect among the members of his troupe that was unmistakable.

His love of wine, women, song and anything else that would make him feel great was never concealed and he revelled in it – whatever it was at the time. His sense of humour was also acute and he was quick to pick up on most other things as well by pure and unerring instinct.

There was also that ‘other side’ to him – as there is with most sensitive artistic types. He could be very difficult to be around, particularly for those closest to him and tantrums were not uncommon at his home. He could be completely ‘off the wall’ and the people concerned sometimes wouldn’t even know what he was on about. I guess the Ying-Yang extremes manifested extremely with him in all aspects of his being. Be that as it may – those closest to him, though at times at their wit’s end, were loyalty personified and no matter how difficult he was, they were always around for him when they were needed. When he was depressed, after he was virtually forced out of his landmark home and school in Colpetty and he moved to Mahara, he had to live alone for most of the week, as Vajira had to live in Colombo to keep the school and classes going. He was a hermit of sorts during this time and enjoyed the solitude – for a while, that is. His urge for the good times would take over and he would meet his few close friends for an evening’s indulging in conversation and good company - with all the trimmings.

He was honoured by many, including the Institute of Aesthetic Studies of the University of Kelaniya, that awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree in Fine Arts and by the government of France, whose ambassador visited his death-bed to award him the Chevaliers dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres just two days before he passed on. The award is for ‘significant contribution to arts or literature or propagation of these fields’. And among previous recipients are Claudio Arrau (whom Chitra knew well), Anthony Burgess, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Redford, which puts him in very good company.

There’s so much more to relate, but the ability is limited – especially for a forum such as this is. However, it is important to remember the man as he was.

Chitrasena was surely one of the most unforgettable individuals I have ever known, not just for his accomplishments in the areas of dance, culture and theatre, but more, as an incredible ‘universal’ being.

Remembered with love and respect

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