- Vajira turns 85 today
- The first ballet ‘Kumudini’ was done when she was only 19
- The Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday, February 16, 1963 paid glowing tribute to Vajira
- She created 17 children’s ballets in total
There is a little girl. About 15 years old. She sits across the table from me. Her voice is firm and her eyes dance as she speaks about her love. She is young enough and old enough to identify true love among passing fancies, infatuation and hero-worship. There was a time when she would prefer to do other things, as much as she adored this love, but that was before. That was when she was less than 10 years old. But now, somewhere in 1947, she knew enough to weigh heart and mind, direct them to acquire the most fruitful engagement with the world around her in its wholeness and constituent parts.
Her name is Vajira
Sitting right in front of me, the little girl became a young woman, and then a mother. She became a grandmother and a great grandmother too. And through it all, her voice remained firm. Her eyes continued to dance. And with an unwavering voice, she transcribed memories into words, traced the dance steps from then to now in a choreography that did justice to a life dedicated to uphold the sacredness of the dance.
Her mother had specific plans for all her children. She had wanted Vajira’s sister to become a doctor, and she did. The brothers were to study law, but they ended up as engineers. She wanted Vajira to dance and learn music. She was sent for Violin classes and dance classes too. She danced.
When she was about eight, Vajira’s mother had sent her to Sripalee. Rabindranath Tagore had helped set up this institution, then dedicated to music and dance. At the time, Vajira had been attending Kalutara Balika Vidyalaya. Anangala Athukorale, a part-time dancer teacher at her school who also taught at Sripalee, had played a pivotal role in this decision.
Her father, employed at the Urban Council, was in charge of letting out the Town Hall for various performances. He ensured there was always a row of seats for his family, and that is how the iconic Chitrasena had come into their lives. He had come to perform. Vajira’s mother had immediately arranged for him to conduct classes at home. She had got hold of her friends and urged them to send their children for this class. There had been eight in all, including Vajira and her sister.
Vajira was interested and talented, but she was still a child. She had other interests as well and did her best to bunk these classes. Chitrasena had visited Kalutara for a while and the two families had become good friends. Later, when Vajira’s sister needed a place to stay in Colombo as she was attending Medical College, their mother had approached the Chitrasenas who had arranged for her to stay with them as a boarder.
When Vajira was around 11, her mother had decided that she should study in Colombo. She was duly enrolled at Methodist College, which was located right opposite
And so, she too was boarded there. That house was all about music and dance. Vajira went to school in the morning and in the evening, would attend Chitrasena’s dance classes and also learn Sitar from Edwin Samaradiwakara. Once she reached 15, it was all about dance and nothing else.
“Naturally, I followed Chitra everywhere. I went for every show. I must have started to like him at some point. I was 18 when we got married.”
By that time, she was the lead female dancer of the troupe, but apparently she lacked the physique to play the lead female roles. In Nala-Damayanthi, for instance, she always played the Swan while various dancers played Damayanthi. When it was first produced, Chitrasena had done the choreography. But later in 1963, when they performed Nala-Damayanthi in Sydney, he had let Vajira handle it. “He probably thought I was, by that time, capable of handling my own scenes,” Vajira said. The Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday, February 16 paid glowing tribute to Vajira.
“Balletomanes who see the second programme of the Chitrasena Ballet, which was presented at the Elizabethan Theatre last night, will receive a shock, for there they will find the original of their beloved classical-romantic ballet, ‘Swan Lake.’
“The various pas de deux, performed by Vajira, as the Chief Swan, and Wimal, as the noble King Nala, leave, it must be confessed, our ‘Swan Lake’ sadly lacking in imagination and understanding.
“This critic has not seen in ‘Western’ ballet mime, acting and dancing, capable of evoking the nature and spirit of the swan, to compare with the performance of Vajira in this role.”
“The show must go one,” Chitrasena often said, she recalls. And so it did. Her involvement was intense and passionate, even while pregnant she had continued to dance and choreograph although she didn’t perform.
By and by she came to creating her own ballets. The first, ‘Kumudini’ was done when she was only 19. The following year she created ‘Hima Kumariya’ and in 1955, ‘Sepalika.’ By this time she was a part-time dance teacher in schools and she experimented with her young students. In 1956, she produced ‘Kindurangana.’ She created 17 children’s ballets in total.
Some of these she remembers on account of them being landmark creations of a kind. For example, “Rankikili,” a children’s ballet, is remembered because her daughter Upekha was by that time big enough to perform the lead role of the Kikili. Her other daughter Anjali played the role of the old lady who kept
the fire going.
But what was most significant about this ballet, first performed in 1968, was that it was the first time a ballet was performed without any words or songs, just melody and dance. It was artistically of a very high standard, Vajira recalls.
“Nil Yaka,” was based on a story by the most accomplished writer of children’s stories, Sybil Wettasinghe. Sybil incidentally had done the decor and created the set.
Seventy years is a long time. Time enough to be afflicted with selective memory, time enough to even forget and be forgiven for it. But Vajira remembers that Chitrasena’s first student, Somabandu, usually handled the decor and costumes. Samaradivakara and Titus Nonis were both music teachers and had created the melodies for the children’s ballet ‘Hapana’ in 1979. Victor Perera had composed all the melodies for “Andaberaya” in 1976. As for her, she claims she had mostly drawn inspiration from something she had read.
Vajira remembers ‘Kinkini Kolama,’ a story about how the nilames or the lords responded to a man who fell in love with a low-caste girl. “It was Chitrasena’s concept. I added the dance and we drew from the nadagam style. This was Upekha’s first in a lead role. In a way, it was the show which introduced her as the lead female dancer
of the troupe.”
There had been hiccups of course. In the beginning, they did not have a permanent place to rehearse until E.P.A. Fernando, a friend of Chitrasena’s father, had let him conduct his work at his place. In a more here-and-now incident, Vajira had sprained her ankle on the opening night of a Moscow performance, just as she was to enter. Immediately, her sister Vipuli had taken over. It was a seamless transition and apparently no one had known, except the troupe of course. On another occasion, when they had gone for a performance in Australia, the drums had been quarantined causing much anxiety. Vajira remembers Chitrasena eventually emerging with the drums, all smiles.
That is how it has been. It is about continuity. It is about the show going on. There is Vajira and then there was Upekkha. And now there is Thaji, Vajira’s granddaughter. Passion, dedication, endless striving for perfection and the grace in mind and body that inevitably results. Sacred is the word Chitrasena used. The Kalayathanaya produced many, many ballets. Vajira created the dances, did the choreography and taught the dancers, always under the watchful eyes of Chitrasena, she says.
The names go together: Chitrasena-Vajira. It is hard to say what one would have been without the other, but for Vajira it is easily resolved.
“It was always under his guidance and permission that I had to get the production ready. He handled the direction and was in charge of the presentation. He was the inspiration. He was our strength. Part of my confidence in all this can be attributed to him being there, always watching and ready to put things right in case anything went wrong. His blessings were always there. He taught us so much and what we learnt we pass on to our students. He is always present in the work we do.”
And yet, she said there were times she missed his physical presence. That is how it is with those who are ahead of their times and who tower over the present on account of vision and realisation.
It was not just Chitrasena though. Vajira is ever grateful to her mother, Chitrasena’s mother and his unmarried sisters who took care of everything so that all she had to do was dance, and teach. After sometime, Chitrasena had given up teaching and thereafter Vajira had to be in charge of instruction, creation and continuity. Those responsibilities have now been handed over to Upekha.
“I never stopped teaching. I created the syllabus and it is still being used. I created special exercises that made it easier to learn traditional movements. Now, I don’t demonstrate. I use a good student for this.”
In 1963, Anna Ilupina wrote in ‘Izvestia’: “Every gesture in her slender hands, every glance from her beautiful oval eyes, every movement is full of inexpressible grace.” She might as well have been writing about Vajira today.
There is a young girl sitting across the table from me. Her voice is firm and her eyes dance as she speaks about her love. She is young enough and old enough to identify true love among passing fancies, infatuation and hero-worship. And she knows that it is sacred. She is 85 years old. She says “I am happy to have contributed to the dance — in my young days, and even now, and until I die.”
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who writes a weekly column titled ‘Subterranean Transcripts’ for the . His articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com. His poetry: www.malindapoetry.blogspot.com