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Sunday, 31 March 2013





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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 and soul.

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 school.

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 Chitrasena.

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.

Dance company

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 in 2007.

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 Silva.

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 Council.

Cultural ambassador

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 dance:

"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 tutelage.

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 of Chitrasena.

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.



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