Destined to Dance: Vajira Looks Back | Print edition

By Yomal Senerath-Yapa

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Vajira. Photo by Priyanka Samaraweera

As Vajira Chitrasena (born Vajira Perera, then Vajira Dias) celebrates her 90th birthday on March 15, it’s her life as a legendary dancer, choreographer, teacher and incomparable Kandy artist that we look back on.

We meet Vajira at Kalayathanaya, where she spearheaded the Chitrasena tradition, keeping alive the heritage of dance and mudra natya or Sinhalese ballet.

Born in 1932, Vajira owes a lot to her mother Lilian who seemed to sense the grace flowing through her daughter. In fact, it ran in the family, as Vajira’s sisters, including Vipuli and the older sister (who became a doctor), also danced.

Lilian sent Vajira to Sri Palee in Horana, modeled after Rabindranath Tagore’s famous Santiniketan in India.

Another of Tagore’s “converts” came to dance in Kalutara: Chitrasena who was the son of Seebert Dias who, although a comedian steeped in Shakespeare, had developed a nostalgia for popular culture like Devar Surya Sena and others from its time.

In the Kalutara hall, Chitrasena danced like Shiva in a circle of fire. Vajira would have been impressed, but when the ladies of Kalutara asked Chitrasena to take lessons, she skipped school because she had a decided antipathy for the tall ‘mahasona’.

Yet his talent was always evident. At 16 she danced like a deer at the great ‘Lanka Competition’ held to celebrate the country’s independence in 1948 and at 17 she went to train with Chitrasena boarding at their home in Kollupitiya, a curiously atavistic gesture reminiscent of the time when the acolyte went to live with the guru. Before that, her dance teacher in Kalutara had adorned her with see.

The Kollupitiya house, she recalls, was a hive of artistic effervescence. Vajira entered Methodist College which was nearby. But she wasn’t yet “serious” about dancing, and when Chitrasena pushed her to try even harder, she would throw tantrums and, in anger, “go out and aimlessly take buses until until I calm down”.

The family including Chitrasena’s sister Munirani (his very first partner) and his brother Sarathsena (drummer) were happy to have Vajira as in time she took on the responsibilities of managing the shows.

While in the meantime Lapaya Gurunnanse, Chitrasena’s own guru, took her through the steps of the ancient dance that ran through her veins dancing for the temple and the devale, she married Chitrasena at 18 and married is immersed in the world of dance theatre.

While the mudra natya “telling a story through dance” was Chitrasena’s beloved invention, Vajira went on to chart her own course by designing 17 ballets herself. Their most successful ballet was Karadiya, as exotic as Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and of course more authentic as the producers knew their Ceylon intimately.

With their dramatic costumes, music, lighting, sets, mudra natya were thrilled with Chitrasena’s powerful performances and Vajira’s curvy grace on stage. Who, having seen her as a swan in Nala Damayanthi or as a rustic Sisi in Karadiya, has not been moved by the pure eloquence of her movement?

However, its existence has not always been rosy. From playing Sisi to Karadiya, she told Sunila Abeysekere:

“…The tragedy of this character matched my mood in real life. I was young, in my twenties, unhappy and confused, my days spent in sadness.

However “the role of the swan…was the one that allowed me to move away from myself, to transform myself into an ethereal being”.

As Kandy’s first professional dancer, she is credited with starting the lasya or the feminine style of kandyan dance. With her consummate artistry, she set an example for all the Kandyan dancers to come.

Vajira’s first overseas tour with the Chitrasena Dance Company was in 1957, when she had to hand over her three-month-old son Anudatta to his mother Lilian (“Maman” to the grandchildren) and dance through the capitals of Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other European countries. That was just the beginning, and from then until the late 1990s there would be at least three months of overseas touring every year.

Wherever they went, the Chitrasena Dance Company received rapturous acclaim.

Once in the Kremlin during a rehearsal for Karadiya, she twisted her ankle and for a performance Vipuli had to dance in her place, while Vajira was carried to the balcony to sit with the Prime Minister of his country, Sirimavo Dias Bandaranaike.

Among Vajira’s children’s ballets (a highlight she made her own) were Kumudini, Hapanna, Rankikili and Nil Yakka.

A milestone in her career was Nirthanjali in 1965, a medley consisting of 18 folk and traditional dances; among them the controversy Gajaga vannamapreparing a storm because it vannama imitating the royal elephant has always been considered too masculine for a woman to contemplate.

In 1982, the Chitrasenas had to move from the Kollupitiya household to Nawala, and her daughter Upekha says that was when Vajira’s mettle was really tested.

“Amma had to learn how to drive a car, get around, pick up dancers, make tea, and go from place to place for rehearsals and lessons – if she hadn’t done that, we would have collapsed.”

Vajira adds that they wouldn’t have done it without the “art-loving people of Sri Lanka”. During difficult times with no venue to perform, Kalalaya School generously donated their hall, and they were also able to use the Girls’ Friendly Society hall for practices.

Always innovative, Vajira has also collaborated with Arundathie Sri Renganathan, working with musicians from Karnataka and Bharatanatyam.

The awards and honors have been numerous – most recently in November 2021, the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, given by the Indian government for contribution to dance.

Vajira was a familiar teaching presence at Chitrasena Kalayathanaya in her now permanent home in Elvitigala Mawatha, Colombo 5 until COVID hit. She plans to return once the new building, Guru Gedara, in the Kalayathanaya is finished and maybe “do something new”.

In the meantime, she leads a simple life at her home in Nawala, playing the sitar and meditating from five to six every night, content that Chitrasena’s legacy – and hers – will endure with her family and the generations of students that she taught. .

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