Vajira, a legendary icon of Lankan dance
As a young schoolgirl I remember seeing Chitrasena's ballet Ravana
where a deer darted across the stage. It was so real and effective. That
was none other than Vajira herself. That is how I remember Vajira all
the time. My memory goes back next to another such mesmerising
performance of the swan by Vajira in Nala Damayanthi. She was in it body
Vajira hails from Kalutara. Her mother was a teacher. Her father an
accountant who worked at the Town Council, Kalutara. Vajira's mother
herself had a love for dance but could not pursue it due to the early
demise of her own father. She encouraged Vajira to learn dancing having
observed her special talent for it. Vajira was playful and could not be
disciplined into a regular class.
Chitrasena and Vajira
However, her mother never gave up her effort.Vajira's mother arranged
a dance class to be held in her own home by Chitrasena for a few girls
in the neighbourhood and Vajira's own elder sister. Vajira still could
not be seriously involved. She just ran in and out of the
class.Chitrasena was the son of Seebert Dias who was an actor who
produced the first Shakespearean play in Sri Lanka. His house was a
veritable cultural centre. He encouraged young Chitrasena to go to
villages and master the traditional Kandyan dance. Chitra was an avid
follower of his contemporary Uday Shankar, the celebrated Indian dancer
and choreographer. He was influenced to relate stories through dance.
Having learnt the traditional Kandyan dance Chitrasena went to
Shanthinikethana in India to further his dance talents.
Vajira attended Kalutara Balika Vidyalaya where her mother was a
teacher. The mother convinced the principal of the school to introduce
dance as a subject in the class.
This compelled Vajira to follow dance classes. She learnt under
Ananga Lal Athukorala and Nimal Welgama. She was not yet enjoying dance
that much. But she happened to take part in school concerts.
Her teacher who had so much hope for her suggested for her to send
her to Sripalie, Horana that was run on the model of Shanthinikethana.
But it being Second World War period the parents brought her back home.
She was back in Kalutara Balika and took part in the performance of
Vessanthara performed at the Kalutara Town Hall. She played the role of
Jaliya which made her realise how joyful dancing was.
The experience inspired her greatly to learn dancing.
Chitrasena was quick to realise Vajira's potential. Vajira and her
sister came to Colombo. Staying at Chitrasena's parents' home Vajira
attended Methodist's College and gave up studies after the Junior
Certificate. Earlier she attended Chitrasena's dancing class after
Now she was fully involved. She had all the time to learn dancing.
She was such a relentless student that she was an example for others.
In 1948, Vajira acted as the deer in Chitrasena's Ramayana. That was
her maiden public appearance. Later she danced the role of deer in
Chitrasena's ballet Ravana and the snake maiden in Vidura.
Chitrasena had found his protégé in Vajira and instilled in her
motivation and drive to dance that dance became her life. In Sri Lankan
culture, females were not taking up stage performances. Vajira was the
first. Chitrasena educated her in everything about dancing and how to
conceive a production, stage positioning and stage craft. He encouraged
her to read literature on dance giving her books on renowned dancers
like Anna Pavlova of Russia and Martha Graham of America.
First female dancer
In 1949, was the first Kandyan dance item that broke ground for
female dance to be established in Sri Lanka. It was performed by Vajira.
The late Somabandu Vidyapathi, the famous artiste created a specially
designed Kandyan dance costume for Vajira.
Chitrasena and Vajira worked intensively together in creating refined
beautiful dance and performed around the country that they became
well-known in Sri Lanka. Vajira immersed herself in dancing and her
commitment was spiritual. Working closely together in creating through
the art form they both identified themselves with the natural
development of human feeling.
In 1950, the maestro Chitrasena married his brilliant pupil Vajira.
Vajira's most valuable contribution other than her creations is the
transforming of the masculine Kandyan dance to a very feminine dance
form. She mastered the original style of Kandyan dance from traditional
masters. She realised that elements of femininity came to her dance
naturally. With her grace, elegance, expression of emotions in
performing she made an indelible stamp on the Kandyan female dance
style. It gave a new dimension to the Kandyan dance. Vajira entered the
stage at the correct time when Sri Lankan Society was prepared to
receive dance as a sophisticated performance.
1952 is again memorable for Vajira, when she made her debut as a
soloist in the main role in the ballet Chandalika, produced by
Chitrasena. Also in the same year, her first children's ballet
Himakumariya was produced. To her credit are eleven ballets for children
and seven ballets for adults and three ballets created together with
She enthralled the audience dancing the lead roles in all the ballets
by Chitrasena, enjoying every minor movement of the training.
She was also a dancing instructor in several schools in Colombo, and
a teacher at the Kalayathana for a number of decades to hundreds of
students. She also created a series of exercises and rhythmic movements
to train the formative stages of the dancer's body. This is a most
important contribution to the technique of Kandyan dancing.
1961 was a landmark when the first pure ballet Karadiya was produced
by Chitrasena. It was the first time where no verbal rendering was used
to explain the situations in the ballet whereas in the ballets before
songs were used to support certain acts and emotions.
This ballet was created by Chitrasena for Vajira to play the main
female character expressing the feminine aspects of the story.
Chitrasena played the male character opposite her.
Chitrasena encouraged her to create her own movements and to do her
own choreography as the oppressed woman, a lively cast trained by the
Kalayathana. It was received as a magnificent work of art by critics and
audiences. Chitrasena while creating this ballet also taught his group
theatre and stage craft.
She became a mother in 1951 when Upeka, the elder daughter was born.
She did not stop teaching or performing on the stage when bearing
children till a six month period was completed.
Her mother who loved to see her dancing used to bring the little
children and sit at the rehearsals. Because of the tremendous support by
her mother and the sister the children were never a burden.
Two years later, Anjalee the younger daughter and in 1957 Anudatta,
the son were born. Dance became a natural routine of the family.
She excelled in children's ballets. The ballet was supported by her
mother and her sister helped her in bringing up the children.
Vajira's achievements and contribution came on in the form of ballet
she created herself. Ballet Chandalika she created herself where she
played the mother and her daughter, Upeka played the daughter's role was
a feat for the audience.
Vajira who had learnt and mastered the art of choreography at a young
age gained much with Karadiya. She directed and produced Bera Handa in
2001. It was a great success.
Having noticed the dwindling number of male dancers in the country,
Vajira, decided to select 10 adult males and gave them a 2 1/2 year
course of dance with specialised teachers.
Chitrasena and Vajira are responsible for producing the next
generation of professional dancers in Sri Lanka. Upeka continued the
great tradition by being the principal dancer of the Chitrasena Dance
Company. Her younger daughter Anjalika is also an accomplished dancer,
teacher and choreographer and created her first ballet, Koombi Kathawa
Technical Director of the Dance Company for many of the productions.
Daughter-in-law Janaki was a dancer/teacher and dance company manager.
Granddaughters Heshma, Umadanthi and Thaji the third generation continue
the great legacy.
In addition, many students from the Chitrasena Kalaythanaya have
established their own schools and dance companies, broadening the vision
of Chitrasena and Vajira. Key students are Ravibandu and Samanthi
Vidyapathi, Channa Wijewardana, Khema, Tanya de Silva and Visha de
Vajira in her career performed in many countries. Her first overseas
tour was to the USSR in 1957 as a lead dancer in the ballet Samavijaya
(triumph of peace) at the Youth Festival sponsored by World Peace
Vajira was the first cultural ambassador to foreign countries in
Europe, England, Canada, Australia, and many other Asian countries
including India. Kanyan Dance, the heritage of Sri Lanka became known to
the World. She has captivated audiences including Royalty, Presidents,
Prime Ministers other dignitaries with a mastery of art. Here I would
like to quote a few lines from Izvestia 1963, a daily newspaper in the
USSR by Anna Ilupina:
She led the dance company on tours in 1986; "The impossibility of
conveying in words the living charm of the dance is self evident.
"All we can say of Vajira is that the mastery lies beyond praise.
Every gesture of her slender hand every glance of her beautiful oval
eyes, every movement of the slender legs and slim body is full of
inexpressible grace." I like to quote here again the late Karen
Breckenridge in Nritya Pooja 1986, a tribute to Chitrasena's 50 years of
"It may be held that Chitrasena's greatest contribution to the
Sinhala dance is his wife Vajira.
After all Vajira began her life as a dancer as his pupil and has
matured in to Ceylon's outstanding dancer and prima ballerina under his
The matter however would be controversial for we have to consider
Vajira the artist independently. Vajira the present exponent of the
lasya roles is the indefatigable teacher herself subtle choreographer of
children's ballets."Vajira's stage career lasted from 1948 to 2006 for
which she has received many awards.
In addition to the honorary doctorate from the University of
Performing Arts Sri Lanka she was awarded Kalashoory in 1988;
International Women's award in 1998; In 2005, she was awarded
Kalabooshana by the President.
On March 7, 2013 she was felicitated by the Parliament of Sri Lanka.
In 2005, Chitrasena passed away. But his objective and the dream is
being firmly carried on by his beloved wife Vajira and family.
His dedication and sacrifice has not been in vain.
There are four generations of Chitrasena -Vajira family continuing
the tradition.Vajira is the Matriarch guiding and protecting the legacy
She is broadening the commitment of Chitrasena with her own
creativity and independent contribution. Believe it or not she is still
teaching at 81 years.