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Sunday, 4 January 2009





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Upekha Chitrasena: fifty years on stage:

Where traditions meet modernity

Upeka Chitrasena matured on stage following the path defined by her legendary parents Chitrasena and Vajira. Deriving inspiration from her parents her teachers and assimilating characteristics of dancing, she has grown up to be an accomplished dancer, with her own style.

Upeka Chitrasena

Being an object lesson to her students, Upeka's role as a teacher is remarkable both as curator of traditional dances and as a person who merges tradition with modernity. On stage, she demonstrates the sheer ecstasy of dancing, exploiting every curve of the body as a vehicle of emotion and zest. It is not merely a demonstration of dance on stage but an innovative conversation she carries on with her drummers and of course with the audience that gives an authentic flavour to her dance.

Although the institutionalisation of Art in Sri Lanka opened the doors to a large number of Art students, Upeka is of the view that the methodology adopted in integration traditions into the system was flawed.

Q: Having debuted as a soloist in 1978 in 'Kinkini Kolama' which your father Maestro Chitrasena produced and directed for you, how do you perceive developments in Sri Lankan theatre over the years as you celebrate your fifty years on stage?

A: Having made my debut on stage in "Vanaja" in 1958 which was a children's ballet produced by Vajira Chitrasena, at the age of seven, I did not remember anything but the excitement of being on stage. It was Vajira Chitrasena, my mother, who instilled discipline in us (my sister and I) and encouraged us to take part in dancing sessions. Up to the point I was privileged, for the first time to play the lead role in the Children's ballet 'Rankikili' in 1965 at the age of thirteen. The period spent in the house where we stayed upstairs while dancing sessions were conducted downstairs, was an exciting period. My sense of being a mature dancer emerged when I played the lead role in "Kinkini Kolama" in 1978, a ballet especially created by Chitrasena and Vajira, my parents, for me.

It was a colourful career during which I participated in almost all the productions by the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya. Considering the development of dance drama and ballet in the country, the initial development took place in the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya; Vajira Chitrasena produced many children's ballets and ballets like Ginihora in 1967, Chandalika in 1996 and Bera Handa in 2001. Since then on, the development of ballets in school has been successful and the school has been high standards as with our last production which was Kumbi Kathawa. Other than ballets produced by the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya and by Ravibandhu Vidyapathy (for example Macbeth, a full length ballet), there has been no ballets which came even close to the standard of Karadiya , Nala Damayanthi and Kinkini Kolama . Ravibandhu was a past student of the Kalayathanaya.

Q: It is also ironic that traditional ritualistic dance forms so painstakingly uplifted by your father to the standard of modern dance , have now, become victims of sweeping commercialism. How do you analyse this wave of commercialism and what are the steps that genuine artistes should take in order to foster and preserve traditional art forms?

A: Commercialisation is a phenomenon which is found everywhere in the world even in India. It is because of financial difficulties artistes have to face. However, still there are artistes in Bollywood, in India who do not commercialise art and stick to practising classical forms of Arts. With numerous hardships, we did not go commercial eventhough we were conferred with many lucrative offers. A few artistes will stick to original arts without being swept off by commercialism as we have been in Sri Lanka.

Q: As the finest exponent of Kandyan dance in Sri Lanka and as a person who respects not only traditions but also customs associated with them, how do you develop this quality of respecting tradition?

A: Respecting tradition is respecting drummers, the teachers and Art which I learnt from teachers. I enjoyed every moment of being on stage during the fifty years of my career in dancing. I respect drummers a lot because I firmly believe that dance and the drum cannot be separated.

Q: Hailing from a family immersed in dancing, how were you inspired by your parents Chitrasena and Vajira? What are the exact characteristics you derived from your father and from your mother?

A: I inherited a strong will to fight against what I do not believe in from Chitrasena, my father and discipline from Vajira, my mother. I also inherited strength of character and creativity from my father. I am really fortunate to be born into such a family.

Q: Recollecting your childhood and the artistic background in which you grew up, how do you look back on those eventful years, your parents and the experiences you gathered over the years?

A: We grew up in an environment full of arts. Most leading artistes both local and foreign visited us. We had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in both Western and Eastern classical music. I matured through the association of and being in the presence of great artistes of the day. Like any other activity in life, Art is a part of my life.

Q: Chitrasena Kalayathanaya was an ashram for artistes of the day and perhaps, you have come across leading artistes, writers, musicians and journalists. How do you perceive this background which moulded your career in dancing?

A: It was an Ashram where Dr. W.D. Ameradeva, Ananda Samarakoon, Samaradiwakara, R.L. Wimaladharma, Shelton Premaratne and Lionel Algama lived. It was also a focal point of many foreign artistes who visited Sri Lanka; film stars from India, dancers like Martha Graham, Paul Tailor, Bulrashkhani, Nurtan and Marcel Marceau from France and Ravi Shankar visited us several times. Until we had to vacate the house in 1982, my parents used to conduct dance sessions at 4.00 p.m. on a daily basis. Dramatists like Henry Jayasena, Ernest Macintyre conducted rehearsals in the House. Since 1982 rehearsals were held at all schools in Colombo until a land was given to the Kalayathanaya by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 2006. Even without a permanent place, the Kalayathanaya made major productions like 'Shivaranga' (Dance of Shiva).

Q: What is the pivotal role that teachers including your parents played in your career in dancing and in making you what you are today?

A: Parents were my first teachers. Thereafter, l learnt from Piyasara Shipadhipathy and J.D. Gunatunga who still teaches me low-country dancing. Though I am an accomplished up-country dancer, I terribly wanted to learn low-country dancing. By watching my parents' dancing, I used to acquire certain characteristics of dancing and evolved my own style.

Q: You are not only a dancer or a performer but also a teacher. As a teacher. What have you gathered from your teachers, what exactly did they expect from you? What do you, as a teacher, expect from your students?

A: I always try to teach what I have learnt from my teachers. I am a performing teacher and in order to keep my body in shape, I exercise at the gymnasium on a daily basis. As a teacher, I have made lots of sacrifice. I do not want every student to be a professional dancer but to be confident in the profession they take up in future.

Q: In ancient times, the traditional relationship between Guru and student was rather an aloof one where the student was obliged to respect the teacher and even serve him. How do you perceive this teacher-student relationship in the modern context?

A: The ancient system of teaching had its own pros and cons, especially in the relationship between Guru and student. When Chitrasena learnt dancing from Lapaya Gurunanse, he did it in the ancient way. However, it is not appropriate for modern society. I prefer students to be argumentative and ask questions. In our Institution, students still respect teachers even in public. It is something that the teacher should earn.

Q: In retrospect, how do you see the roles you played in ballets such as Nala Damayanthi, 'Gini Hora', 'Kinikini Kolama', 'Karadiya', 'Nrithanjali', 'Rashomon', 'Chandalika' and 'The Dance of Shiva',and particularly which were previously played by your mother.

A: I have played almost all the lead roles in all productions of the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya including in Nala Damayanthi, Gini Hora and Kinkini Kolama. When I played a role which was previously played by my mother Vajira, the real challenge was to play the same role in my own way. I was so scared when I had to dance with my father Chitrasena, for the first time, on stage for Karadiya. Critic Roshan Peiris wrote a review in which she stated that I perform excellently in the scene I played with my father.


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