By Meera Srinivasan/The Hindu
Colombo, June 5: The Chitrasena dance school is located on one of Colombo’s busiest roads, but once you enter its premises, all you hear is exuberant drumbeats.
On Saturday morning, the large thatch-roofed hall was brimming with children dressed in red and black. Seated at different spots, three generations of teachers from Sri Lanka’s first family of Kandyan dance — the Chitrasenas — were giving lessons to the students.
“You have to stamp your feet more decisively, like this,” Vajira Chitrasena, the senior-most of them, told her students, gesturing with her palm. The 85-year-old veteran, and her late husband Chitrasena, are Sri Lanka’s pioneer dance duo, who brought the once ritualistic Kandyan dance tradition to the performance stage.
After Chitrasena’s reinterpretation and revival of the form in the 1940s, the ancient dance of the hill-country Sinhalese began drawing global attention, apart from renewing local interest.
As Saturday’s classes ended around 1 p.m., another group of dancers entered the school. Attired in kurtas in shades of orange and red, and sporting big round bindis on their foreheads, they walked up to the senior guru first to receive her blessings.
The visiting group — led by well-known Odissi exponents Surupa Sen and Bijayini Sathyapathi — was from the Bengaluru-based dance school Nrityagram.
Dancers from the two schools have recently revisited their earlier collaborative project, Samhara (braid), first staged in 2012. Five years after its remarkably successful run, including at the prestigious Joyce Theatre in New York, Nrityagram’s Odissi-Kandyan production will be staged in Colombo on Monday and Tuesday, after performances in Bengaluru and London last month. The dancers and their musicians, were at the Chitrasena school for rehearsals.
Combining the highly masculine and earthy Kandyan dance with the distinctly sensual and restrained Odissi, the production drew critical acclaim for its finesse and choreography that critics praised for retaining the essential vocabulary of both forms.
“Getting back to Samhara now, I feel a lot more settled in it. There is a certain ease and fluidity that comes with time, isn’t it,” said Surupa Sen, who conceptualised the production.
“I just wanted to work with them and see how it goes, without targeting a production. They were open enough to agree and contributed a lot,” she said, arching her upper body over her right leg that she was stretching to warm up.
Meeting of styles
The dancers said Ms. Sen’s choreography and the intense interaction for a year stimulated all of them, primarily strengthening an existing friendship and incidentally leading to the production.
“My parents visited Nrityagram in 2003. My father, very impressed, told me “we must exchange” [ideas with them]. In a sense, he planted the seed for this,” said Upeka Chitrasena, daughter of the dancer couple and a renowned artiste herself, who keenly followed Nrityagram founder Protima Bedi’s career.
“She was my idol,” she said, widening her eyes in evident awe. Despite many trips to India, Upeka never met Bedi who passed away in 1998, but has since been a regular at the Bangalore school, beginning a rare friendship across the Palk Bay.
Though the dancers from either side have not performed together in five years, they have met regularly. “The Kandyan style is all about letting go, bursting out in the open as you dance. Odissi is very contained and layered. How we interact on stage, with space and our own bodies has got even better the second time,” says Bijayini Sathpathy.
How did such disparate styles then meet? The learning from that journey is the biggest takeaway for Heshma Wignaraja, eldest granddaughter of the Chitrasenas and artistic director at the company, who assisted Surupa in choreographing the Kandyan dance segments in Samhara. “The experience was a catalyst that pushed me to interpret traditional Kandyan movements in new ways,” Ms. Wignaraja said.
“I think the two styles have blended well,” her grandmother Vajira said approvingly. “The bodies of all the dancers are so well-trained that they are able to readily respond to each other on stage.”