January 26th 2010 was a significant day for Sri Lanka not particularly due to the elections but more so as it was the birth anniversary of a legend; Chitrasena; a pioneer of the modern dance theatre albeit a colossal figure in the dancing hall of fame. ‘His name is synonymous with the birth of the Sinhala ballet and with the setting up of the first professional school of dance, the Chitrasena Kalayatanaya, an institution incorporating the finest traditions of the country.’
Due to the elections his family members were unable to stage a performance during this period unlike the previous years but it is important to remember such a brilliant persona as his contribution to the revival of the indigenous dance for the sake of posterity is unparalleled. It is relatively easy for us born in the late 70’s and thereafter to forget the folks who strived to preserve the sacrosanct aspect of indigenous art forms from the web of colonization and the aftermath of development and urbanization ;post-independence. We have had all this on a platter; our school curriculum included dancing, music (by choice) but we fail to realize that it was not so a few decades ago. The local art forms were relegated to the villagers where it was passed from generation to generation but that too was waning as many youth were seduced by the money and posts offered by the towns. Whilst many townsfolk were ‘lavishly imitating the colonial values and life-styles and anything indigenous was looked upon with snobbish disdain or at best with naïve curiosity,’ Dancing was gradually losing its battle to modernization. Chitrasena timely intervened to amalgamate the traditional dance in relationship to the theatre. It was no mean feat as the following excerpt goes to show the hardships he endured to make his mark . referring to the 1930’s and 1940’s ‘….the concepts of theatre and artiste were wholly dictated to by the West. Intellectually and emotionally they ( townsfolk) were unprepared to accept the idea of the traditional dance in relationship to the thatre. This was the arduous battle I was compelled to wage; to be recognized, to be accepted as an artiste. I was the first professional dancer breaking new groud, an what indignities and insults I had to suffer!……..Ironically the traditional dancers too looked n me as an outsider, for they were the proud custodians of an ancient heritagegoing back to over 3,000 years, so an outcast from the social class to which I belonged and spurned by the traditional dancers, I was for a time a kind of social-pariah!’ His undaunted spirit saw the tide change as he was regarded a great master, pioneer, an ambassador and the ‘Lord of the Dance.”
Browsing through a veritable treasure trove of written material on the maestro brought to light the immense contribution made by him to the sphere of dance, his popularity and his formidable presence which by far is unfathomable. Although he is no more the legendary performer reigns supreme in many dance oriented discussions and articles. Under his tutelage the dance was transferred into a mystical form of expression ‘To say he was and is a colossal figure is the truth as he ventured the extra step in order to uplift the whole outlook of dance in Sri Lanka. The country in itself was emersed in colonization and the native arts were suppressed or relegated to the villagers. Here comes a determined young man who has been made privy to the artistic expertise of the east and the west. Being the son of the imminent thespian Seebert Dias instilled a love for the theatre and dance as the theatreman would get down groups of dancers from the villagers to perform in Colombo, thus instilling an abiding love for the dance. From an early age Chitrasena was taught the traditional dance and by the age of 15 years he made his debut performance as the lead role in ‘Siri Sangabo,’ a dance drama produced and directed by his father. Thereafter he took flight to India to further his studies as a dancer and returned to the island to face a ‘reluctant and disoriented public, unwilling to give him the time of day in his quest for the revival of dance. Unyielding to public opinion and the boorish manner of the populace the born dancer proved his worth, never succumbing and compromising his roots and pride in his heritage. Chitrasena and his troupe were the ambassadors of dance, mesmerizing the world by their performances and showcasing the flamboyance and vitality of our indigenous dance which would have died a natural death if not for him.
Although he is no more the living embodiment of the maestro is his family and his presence is felt in each step and movement taken by his beloved wife Vajira ‘the queen of dance,’ his daughters Upeka, Anjalika, his grand-children Thaji, Heshma and Umi and his great grand- children who display a great affinity towards dancing and the many students who have and continue to learn at the Chitrasena Vajira Kalayathanaya.
As one reflects on his life during this period it is imperative to note that we Sri Lankans are especially indebted to Chitrasena a rare individual who sacrificed a great deal to retain and develop the bona fide dance form of our isle.