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The meaning of Chitrasena

Reproduced below are extracts from the book on Chitrasena, Nrtya Puja (A tribute to Chitrasena 50 years in the dance 1936 - 1986) published by Chitrasena - Vajira Dance Foundation in 1987

 Chitrasena as ‘Purnaka’ in ‘Vidura’ ballet - 1946

What does forty years of dancing mean in Sri Lanka? With a rich and variegated tradition stretching back to several hundreds, if not to over a two thousand years, with a tradition of such antiquity within which whole communities passed down an uncontaminated art from generation to generation, there must have lived many a master of the dance who could look back to his fortieth year of dancing with pride and retrace his rhythmic steps with immense satisfaction to the first day, when he stood at the dandikanda (barre) as a little lad and decided to be a Guru some day.

To any dancer, forty years is a remarkable achievement, an occasion for celebration. To the dancer in Sri Lanka, it is even more - a test of exceptional loyalty and dedication to his art, a trial of unrelenting perseverance in the face of poverty and social scorn, a great triumph over the severest odds, a tremendous personal victory.

But with Chitrasena, forty of dancing years is something positively and intensely more significant, more important. Undoubtedly for him too, the completion of this long period carried a sense of personal achievement, bringing memories of struggle and triumph of quest and conquest of bitter and happy days, of lean and prosperous years.

But these achievements and triumphs are now no more individual and personal. Here, at the end of these forty years, Chitrasena emerges in our retrospective vision, an important artist in an important epoch - whose forty years are now become an indelible part of a country's cultural history; whose personal achievements are now inseparable elements in a nation's aesthetic and emotional life.

His triumphs have so much composed our present, that his failures too must now be reckoned as inalienable from our national destiny. If ever we as a nation, have the capacity to evaluate our own artists, we have now come to a stage... or rather, Chitrasena has brought us to a stage, when we shall have to speak of his successes and defeats as ours.

It was indeed in the middle of an important epoch that Chitrasena emerged, as yet another maker of that age in which we live. The Anagarika Dharmapala had fulfilled his spiritual mission and the first fruits of his life's - work were only being harvested.

Ananda Coomaraswamy was rediscovering the indigenous arts and had already addressed his celebrated 'Letter to the Kandyan Chiefs'.

In India, Tagore had established his Shantiniketan. His lectures on his visit to Sri Lanka, in 1934 had inspired a revolutionary change in the outlook of many an educated man and woman. The poet-sage of re-awakened India had stressed the need for a people to discover its own culture to be able to assimilate fruitfully the best of other cultures.

Chitrasena was a schoolboy then, and the house of his father, Seebert Dias, a well-known actor of the day had become a veritable cultural centre, in and out of which went the literary and artistic intelligentsia of the time.

Seebert Dias, whose acting as Shylock had captivated the English-speaking audiences, now produced the first Sinhala ballet, Sirisangabo 'presented in Kandyan technique'.

Chitrasena played the lead role, and people were talking of the boy's talents. Some years before, Pavlova had visited India and taken away Udaya Shankar to Europe where his performances were making a name for all Oriental dancing. Menaka and her Kathak performances and Ram Gopal's Bharata Natyam were acquiring international fame.

Some of these famous Indian exponents of the dance had already visited Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka's upper layers the parlour-piano and musical Victoriana were being abandoned in favour of Kandyan dancing, the sitar and the esraj.

A new elite was rising which was turning as self-conscious if sentimental eye towards the indigenous arts.

While there was a fair amount of romanticism and ostentation in all this, the trend was not altogether without authenticity and conviction, and it was as the movement was gathering momentum that a right intuition sent Chandralekha, the wife of the artist JDA, and Chitrasena to study Indian dancing under the traditional Indian gurus.

 Vajira and Sena Walawe in the ‘dream sequence’ - Karadiya

Their first choice was the Chitrodaya School of Travancore where they were to study Kathakali, the dance drama of Kerala, under the celebrated guru Gopinath who later, at the completion of Chitrasena's training said of him in that typical prophetic style of the Oriental gurus "He will soon become a great dancer, having no rival in the art."

Despite this trend the major tide of colonial civilisation flowed unabated. A slavishly-imitative elite, half-baked in European manners and victims of the West's post-industrial commercial culture, still ruled the roost and set the pace, inciting among the nationalist elite a cultural chauvinism equally virulent.

Meanwhile in the villages the traditional masters of the dance held tenaciously to their art in a desperate struggle to preserve it for posterity. But with democratic institutions had come social mobility. Their sons, lured by the glitter and gold of the cities were exercising their new-found freedom and abandoning the hereditary art for the more secure jobs of peons and porters.

They were being realistic. They were right. The Sinhala dance was fighting a losing battle in the villages, among the commonfolk. The old social structures which sustained it had given way.

The aristocracy had now shifted their interests to the bridge-table of the Planters' Club. Before the advance of modern medicine, the exorcist ritual was dying a natural death. Thus the less-enterprising of the dancer's sons inherited his father's profession only to ensure for the art, a mediocre existence.

Purity of the dance was secured only through stagnation masquerading as tradition. Incompetence and dilettantism ensured their own survival by vulgarisation whose nadir was reached a few decades ago in the Kandyan cha-cha. There was no doubt, patriotism and a pittance could not rescue the Sinhala dance from a sure and gradual death.

It was in this context that Chitrasena returned with his training from India. Like any other contemporary artist of Sri Lanka, Chitrasena stood where the road he travelled on, seemed to fork out in two directions - the Path of Traditionalism stood counterposed with that of Innovation, Conformity with Rebellion, Nationalism with Internationalism, Conformity with Rebellion, Nationalism with Internationalism, Universality with Particularity.

Chitrasena, Vajira and Dance Company in London 1971.

In his own field, Chitrasena stood where Martin Wickramasingha stood in the Novel, Keyt in Painting, Sarathchandra in Drama, Lester James Peries in the film, Amaradeva in music. Chitrasena too accepted the Challenge.

The art must grow if it was to be saved from extinction. Thus Chitrasena brought dynamism to the tradition of the dance in Sri Lanka. And he had the deftness of touch and the awareness of the problems to conduct that delicate surgery which could, effect a synthesis of traditions and modernity without sacrilegious results to the art.

In 1941, the year of her most untimely death, Chandralekha danced at the Regal Theatre. It was from all reviews, a sensation. The programme itself combined, like the Lorenz College one, both Sinhala and Indian dances. There was yet to come a blend of the two.

Dance was still in concert style; item after item - with a great deal of 'authenticity'. The word choreography was unknown. What you had was 'art and stage' work on the one hand and 'dance composition' on the other.

All this fervour, and yet apparently disorganised effort and unchannelled enthusiasm was harnessed into one colossal undertaking with the Independence of Ceylon. The Pageant of Lanka, on February 16th, 17th, 19th and 21st, 1948, was the first great venture in the staging of a spectacle.

It brought together what had already been achieved by way of the drama and the dance. It was also a superb example of collaboration between the masters of the traditional and the 'new theatre' people.

It had in it the beginnings of what was really possible as a theatrical art in the future. But is also had in it the magnetism of spectacle and pageant which, to the present time, acts as a baneful influence on those who are still involved with the dance, but cannot translate it into a meaningful theatrical medium of expression and entertainment.

In 1893 it was decided to teach art as one of the subjects at the then flourishing Ceylon Technical College. Later on, weaving and pottery were introduced and we had and arts and crafts department.

The absence of the dance from this curriculum amply illustrates the inferior position to which it was relegated. It was only early in 1952 that music and dancing were introduced. It took a special committee in 1957 to recommend the teaching of the Sabaragamuwa, the low-country and ballet.

The great changes and development of the dance as theatre and as a form of entertainment, have been brought about by men like Chitrasena, Prema Kumar and Vasantha Kumar, Sesha Pallihakhara, Ganganath and Basil Mihiripenna.

Some through their own schools, and others in collaboration and sometimes with the help of pupils from the dance school and past pupils who are invariably dance instructors in schools, have kept up a tradition of dance sufficiently inspired by the ancient art as well as the contemporary.

But above all they have been dour enough to bring to the dance an attitude of contemporary theatrical professionalism, in spite of severe odds, which could be their greatest contribution towards saving the dance in Ceylon from an ever-present danger of becoming once again something you saw on a picture postcard, the delight of a tourist paradise.

To Chitrasena, the Ballet Maestro, the world of Ceylon Theatre owes almost everything, not merely for his pioneering work in bringing the Dance to the stage, but for his contributions, both as a dancer and choreographer of Sinhala Ballet, in which field he remains more than just "Primus Interpares".

Upeka as ‘Sati’ in the ballet ‘The Dance of Shiva’

However, two contributions of Chitrasena there are, which go undisputed. Firstly, the infusion of the idea of Theatre, the Stage, the world of audience confrontation and entertainment to the Sinhala Dance; and secondly, the actual work proceeding from this conception, transferring our folk dances into gems for modern theatre and from this transformation creating a vehicle of artistic expression for the Sinhala Dance - the Ballet. From the earlier experiments in a ballet like Vidura Chitrasena moved to the capture of the sensuous world of ballet in the artistically indulgent creation of Nala Damayanthi - the love story of Nala and Damanaythi and the swans. And then came Karadiya (sea water), the artistic creation of a wholesome poem of those who go down to the sea.

Here, the various techniques seemingly played about in Nala Damayanti received an economic vetting, geared to the central purpose of a tale told in dance, giving the ballet an equilibrium and steadiness missing in Nala Damayanthi.

Somewhere between these two ballets, and in some ways on a tangent to the completeness of their cycle, come the creations of Vasantha Kumar - Kumburu Panatha (The Paddy Lands Bill) and Hiroshima - together with Prema Kumar's Thiththa Batha (Bitter Rice).

They are socio-political essays given a ballet form by men to whom the dance comes naturally. Their creations add a dimension to the Dance as modern theatre, which is vital.

The art of ballet in Ceylon would not have been possible without the creative efforts of talented musicians. Chitrasena relied a great deal on Amaradeva and Lionel Algama, Two other names come easily-Shelton Premaratne, the son of the great Master Sadris Silva, and Khemadasa.

To men like Algama, Premaratne and Khemadasa, symphonic combinations come easily. It is yet to be seen whether they will compose ballet suites themselves, to be used by our choreographers.

Khemadasa did attempt something in his Ira Udawa (Rising Sun), but he is no choreographer. The music had great possibilities, the choreography was a failure.

Today, the Dance of Ceylon has grown in stature. It has travelled abroad widely and been acclaimed from Australia to America through India, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, China, Britain, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. It has come a long way from the time when only Peraheras (processions) indicated that it was alive.


The Chitrasena Ballet

The theme of the romantic Nala Damayanti ballet is taken from the ancient Mahabharatha legend of the same name. It is the story of how Prince Nala and Princess Damayanti come to fall in love with each other through the intermediary of a flock of swans, how the evil demon Kali brings about their ruin, and how, after many vicissitudes, the swans once again intercede to bring about a happy ending.

Chitrasena's ballet, to put it simply, is the development in line and content of the dance forms that existed. He has made linear extensions, for instance to the restricted movement in the Kandyan dance.

And he has made the point that these particular movements lend themselves quite logically to this extension. In making these extensions Chitrasena has a greater purpose than the original purity of the dance demanded. But even in extension, he has preserved the original vibrancy, brevity and firm-footedness of the dance.

Chitrasena considers an early work, a ballet he called Vidura (1945), to be the important break-through in his experimenting with the new medium. Later, after he had judged the effect of this new thing on the audience, he moved with full confidence into his sensuous creation, Nala Damayanti.

It was an artistically indulgent creation. After that came Karadiya. Here Chitrasena emerged as the master.


The Chitrasena Dance Company from Ceylon gave a brilliant program of dance and music last night at the Playhouse.

The two leading dancers, the physically magnificent Chitrasena himself and his exquisite leading dancer and wife Vajira, supremely embodied this contrast.

There was also a strong feeling of sheer delight about the entire performance last night, which is an attitude to the life the dancers themselves celebrate.

Hope Hewitt, Canberra News - 7 April 1972.


I thoroughly enjoyed Chitrasena's recital and particularly Vajira's performance in the first Swan Dance in the Ballet and Chitrasena's performance in Arjuna's Dance. I sincerely hope that Chitrasena will continue to develop his remarkable talent for the Ballet and for Choreography.

HE Lord Soulbury, Governor General, Colombo - 29 November 1949.


Mr. Chitrasena, director of the troupe, is a talented producer, remarkable dancer and musician. He seeks to develop traditions of the national theatre, born in ancient times, and create miniatures on its basis.

'Izvestiya' Moscow, October 27th, 1963.


Gentleness of movements perfected gestures, expressive and intelligible mimicry, closely connected with the character of a hero of a dance and, finally, real musicality - this is what distinguishes every participant of the show, which the Leningraders can see now on the stage of the Summer theatre in the Graden of Rest.

As to the performers, one is willing to comment, first of all, on Mr. Chitrasena himself. He wins the hearts of the spectators by his plastic and statuesque arms, Miss Vajira, company's prima-ballerina, is always lively and graceful, and full of deep understanding of the sense of a dance.

B. Metlitsky, 'Leningradskaya Pravda', Leningrad, October 25, 1963.


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.

(France) Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace - 1970


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