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Chitrasena and Vajira: the patriarch and the matriarch of modern Sri Lankan dance

by Jagath Asoka


(February 17, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) During the last twenty-five years, I have visited Sri Lanka only once. So, to quench my indescribable desire to stay in touch with my own culture, I listen to Sri Lankan music and watch Sri Lankan dance. Sri Lankan music is ubiquitous; I can listen to Jothipala or Amaradeva whether I live in Colombo or Timbuktu. But when it comes to Sri Lankan dance, unfortunately, my choices are somewhat limited.

We all know that both Chitrasena and Vajira—the patriarch and the matriarch of modern Sri Lankan dance—danced, danced, and danced to preserve the traditional Sri Lankan dancing styles, hoping that one day a truly national ballet would emerge out of their humble efforts. What is the outcome of their dedication, hard work, personal sacrifices, and humble effort? What is their legacy? Who are the benefactors and losers of this pioneering work? Well, I don’t know the answers to all these questions, but I have noticed one thing: dance is very popular and more ubiquitous than ever. Dancers are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka.

Whenever I watch Sri Lankan TV on the Web, I often see dancing shows that are designed for commercial success. The “primitive man” in me is always eager to see the body movements of voluptuous women of these performances designed for commercial success. But after sometime, I hear the echoes of a more mature voice saying, “This cannot be the best in traditional Sri Lankan dancing, can it?” Who is responsible for denying me this wonderful opportunity of watching our “best traditional Sri Lankan dancing?” Is it our traditions or the commercial success of mediocre dancers?

I want to make five general comments about our Sri Lankan artists, including Sri Lankan dancers. These comments are based on what I have seen on TV. I do not live in Sri Lanka anymore, so my access to day-to-day life in Sri Lanka is somewhat limited.

My first comment is that “commercial success” has become such a derogatory phrase among the artists who think of themselves as “high caliber artists who are dedicated to preserving our traditional forms of art.” From now on, for simplicity, I am going to refer to them as traditional artists. I have often listened to artists who boast about preserving our best traditions, yet they moan about not making enough money to make a decent living. If you are a commercially successful, high caliber artist, then you have the best of both worlds. I am not a competent authority who knows how to measure success in art. I am going to leave it for each individual to define his or her own success. As far as commercialization is concerned, whether we like it or not, there is only one market place, and all groups have to participate in this battle of traditional versus commercial art, unless a chosen group of artists are supported by the Sri Lankan government. Like everything else, the “evil market place” will decide the winners of this recurring battle of traditional versus commercial dancing groups. I sincerely believe that both groups can survive because the so-called majority that craves commercial dancing will never reject the pure forms of traditional dancing. On the contrary, the so-called not-very-sophisticated general public craves after something “pure, traditional, high caliber, and good.” In music, Jothipala and Amaradeva are good examples of this battle. Personally, I like both of them, but I adore Amaradeva, and that is my personal choice. I also know there are millions who adore Jothipala. I know one thing for a fact: those who adore Jothipala do not hate Amaradeva; on the contrary, they revere Amaradeva.

My second comment is that a form of art that is not supported by the general public will eventually perish. I think Chitrasena and Vajira were aware of this fact. I do not believe that Chitrasena and Vajira wanted to perform only for the diplomats, foreigners, and Colombo-elite. When Chitrasena and Vajira were becoming famous in Sri Lanka, they were probably the only group of that caliber, and TVs were not ubiquitous, let alone available in Sri Lanka. Now we are in a different world. There are many talented artists, and a few appearances on TV can make a big difference in an artist’s career, whether that artist belongs to the group of so-called commercial or traditional artists. If a young, talented artist is not exposed through TV, radio, and other commercial media, that artist is doomed to fail because there are so many others—both talented and mediocre artists—who are vying for success. Exposure through TV is essential, especially for a young talented artist, to build an ever growing fan base. If I were a Sri Lankan, living in a remote village like Harankawa or Hirimbure, I would not get an opportunity to see shows in a theater like Lionel Wendt. Even if these artists were to perform in my own village, I would not be able to afford to buy a ticket to see them because, like more than fifty percent of Sri Lankans, all I have is just two hundred rupees a day to support myself and my family of two children. But, nowadays, even Sri Lankan villagers have access to TVs. So, those artists who are regularly on TV have a better chance of becoming successful. Those who vehemently resist modernism and make unreasonable demands of respect and recognition will become obsolete: Those who are enthusiastic about their own art, capable of entertaining the public (humble, and blessed with magnetism) will thrive and survive. Like everything else, art must evolve. Preserving our traditions does not mean petrifaction. I also think artists who have something good to offer should do everything in their power to share that with the general public. Those who do not share what they have to offer through TV, radio, and other commercial media not only create their own demise but also deny the general public an opportunity see them. Imagine for a moment, if a chemist discovered a cure for cancer, and refused to sell and share this medicine with others, simply because he or she was unhappy with commercialization, (e.g. TV stations and radio personnel), what would happen to those who suffer from cancer?

My third comment is that when you deviate from firmly established traditions, you will be ridiculed and criticized. When Chitrasena was struggling as a young pioneer, the traditional dancers—the proud custodians of an ancient tradition of 3,000 years—probably ridiculed Chitrasena, and perhaps his performances elicited derision from the audience. When Chitrasena was struggling as a young dancer, there were situations where he was ridiculed by some hecklers in the audience. Chitrasena and Vajira did not become the patriarch and the matriarch of modern Sri Lankan dance overnight. Both Chitrasena and Vajira created their shows by borrowing from other traditions, particularly from our local ritual and dance traditions. You can choose words such as fusion and synthesis to describe what they did, but they created by borrowing, which is essential in any creation. You cannot create something new out of nothing.

My fourth comment is that most artists boast openly. It is true that all of us always talk about ourselves. Even when scientists present empirical data, they talk about themselves. If you have to boast, be sophisticated and subtle about it. When artists openly boast how talented they are it is such a turn off. Instead of boasting about your talents, reveal your art, and allow people to fall in love with you. Imagine Luciano Pavarotti talking about his vocal chords, or Mikhail Baryshnikov taking about his calf muscles.

My final comment is that in a highly commercialized world, talent, art, and artists are not limited to a particular tribe, caste, or family. Chitrasena and Vijira were performing as individuals before they got married, and they did not come from the traditional families who were the custodians of Sri Lankan dance.

Before I stop writing this article let me tell you about a game that I played recently while thinking of Chitrasena and Vajira. I played one of my favorite word games: word-association. When it comes to the phrase “high caliber Sri Lankan traditional dancers” I associate it with “Chitrasena and Vajira.” If I were to play this same word-association game with Sri Lankans of my generation, and asked them to say the names of the persons associated with “high caliber Sri Lankan traditional dance,” I think, most of them would say “Chitrasena and Vajira.” Well, this is my hypothesis, not a theory.

I am just curious about the future: In ten years, if I were to play this same word-association game with the next generation of Sri Lankans, and asked them to say the names of the persons associated with “high caliber Sri Lankan traditional dancers,” what would their answers be?

As far as custodians of traditional art forms are concerned, the survival of what artists bequeath probably depends on perseverance, talent, creativity, and humbleness of their children and grandchildren.

As always, I am just expressing my thoughts, both rational and irrational, and did not write this article out of malice, but out of the love that I have for Sri Lankan art which lines the walls of my soul.

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