Vajira Chitrasena

Vajira Chitrasena, Cover Personality of ARTRA’s Iconic Women 2020, is of historical significance to the landscape of performance art in Sri Lanka. A living legend of foremost skilled splendour, she is one of the first professional female artists of Traditional Kandyan Dance whose dance style is revered even today as the epitome of female grace within a technique that is predominantly masculine in strength and energy. She copiously contributed to the advancement of the dance training and played a critical pedagogical role in the development of a syllabus to train traditional dancers for the stage. From debuting as a performer with The Chitrasena Dance Company in the production presented at the Sri Lankan Independence Day Celebrations in 1948 to receiving the prestigious Padma Shri Award conferred by the Government of India in 2020, Vajira Chitrasena’s monumental role in the sphere of performance art has influenced generations of dancers across nations. In conversation with the artist at the Dance School of Chitrasena-Vajira in Colombo five, ARTRA unravels her story of timeless legacy.

“My parents introduced me to the arts when I was a little girl” she began in reflection of her artistic voyage surpassing eight decades. At the age of 88, she now heads the Chitrasena-Vajira Dance Foundation and is also the Principal of the Dance School. The School has nurtured the legacy of Chitrasena & Vajira with deep love and respect. Reputed for being the pioneers and revolutionists in the dance sphere in Sri Lanka – the Dance Company continues to experiment without compromise through traditional dance language and form to create cutting-edge contemporary dance theatre. Vajira is enigmatic, and age has not curtailed her facial magnificence and spirited form. Her smile, her austere composure and her earnesty in talking about performance as a spiritual vocation raptured our hearts. To date, Vajira contributes to the livelihood of many stage dancers and teachers through her art of teaching the Traditional Kandyan Dance and also her body conditioning training methods based on research material from India, Russia, America and Europe. Significantly, Vajira remains to date as one of the best interpreters of the ‘Laasya’ form of the Kandyan technique. Through her desire for perfection and excellence in artistry, always leading by example, she has inspired countless number of women to take up performance professionally.

Vajira, who was born on the 15th of March in 1932 took part in her first solo performance in 1943 on stage at the Kalutara Town Hall and appeared in Anangal Athukorale’s Dance Drama ‘Wessanthara’ in 1944. In addition, she learned music, singing, and to play the Dilruba and Sitar and thereafter attended Methodist College, Colombo. ”My mother encouraged me to pursue dance, so she took me to a lot of plays and performances during which I saw Chitrasena perform” shared Vajira in conversation, with a mischievous grin. “I started performing on stage after I met Chitrasena who was first my Guru, and thereafter became my husband. He helped me reach very high standards. And that was my beginning to performance”. In 1948, she performed in Chitrasena’s Dance Drama ‘Ravana’, which was a part of the Pageant of Lanka, a production to celebrate the independence of the country. Already an established Kandyan dancer himself, Chitrasena eventually took Vajira under his wing and together, the duo took on the world of traditional dance and redefined its existence with a shared conscience that the ‘dance is sacred’. “Of course being recognized by your teacher gives you a lot of strength. I was always admired for many things. Not only did my dancing rapture him, but also the way I looked into costumes to everything else that came with the execution of performance. He gave me the chance to teach students and from that I got the confidence to do whatever I wanted to do. Having somebody behind me to say “that’s okay carry on” was great and Chitrasena gave me that confidence and guidance.”

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6th April, 2020 Performance Art