By Arjuna Ranawana
For those of us old enough to remember there was one Kandyan dance performance that used to stand above all else; Vajira Chitrasena performing the Gajaga Vannama.
There are many “firsts” about Vajira. She was the first woman Kandyan dancer to turn professional, she was the first woman choreographer in Sri Lanka and was among the first to produce a full-length traditional dance-drama.
But by attempting the Gajaga Vannama, a piece usually danced exclusively by men, she really broke new ground.
The Gajaga Vannama depicts the movements of the principle Elephant in the Dalada Perehera as it carries the holy of holies the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha through the streets of Kandy.
The opening portion of the Vannama depicts the gravitas of the Elephant as it shows it understands the importance of its position as the animal entrusted with bearing the holy relic.
That was the part that usually had dance masters and choreographers shaking their heads at the thought of a woman dancing the Vannama. But the slim, elfin like Vajira used to transform herself and get into the Vannama until the audience is drawn in and bewitched.
Apart from the sheer artistry of a very talented woman Vajira also had an incredible chemistry with her drummers. True they were often her students and Kandyan drummers are expected to watch the dancer and pick up the pace of the performer, but with Vajira this relationship was magical. With the mere movement of a finger she could change the tempo and signal that she was moving to the next part of the piece.
Vajira took to the professional stage at the age of 16 when she performed in the Pageant of Lanka, at the celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. She performed as the deer in Chitrasena’s interpretation of the Ramayana.
Two years later she married her Guru Chitrasena and they have three children, all of whom are deeply involved with the school of dance they founded.
Today Vajira, and her husband’s legacy is a large number of schools which actively teach the traditional forms of Sri Lankan dance and folk music. At the top of the Pyramid is the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya run now by her daughter Upeka.
Tens of thousands of girls and boys now adorn stages around the country and the traditions are alive and well.
Most of all Vajira’s breakthrough in becoming a woman professional dancer has ensured that many women followed in her footsteps.
On Friday this icon of Sri Lankan art and culture turned 87.
Happy birthday Vajira!