Eulogising Chitrasena

by Carlo Fonseka
While preparing my 10 - minute eulogy of Deshamanya Dr. Chitrasena I realised what exactly Bernard Shaw must have meant when he once said that he was writing someone a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one! Believe me, this lame and impotent eulogy took me 10 hours to compose.

If I had one hour I would have effortlessly rhapsodized about Dr. Chitrasena:

• the fons et origo, the source and origin of modern Sinhala dance;

• the undisputed master of the techniques of modern Sinhala dance;

• the classic exponent of modern Sinhala dance;

• the revered doyen of modern Sinhala dance;

• the Husband of the Mother of modern Sinhala dance - the graceful Vajira - the great woman behind this great man.

As Bandula Jayawardhana perceptively judged in 1986, Chitrasena is to Dance in our culture what

• Martin Wickramasinghe was to Literature;

• Ediriweera Sarathchandra to Drama;

• George Keyt to Painting;

• Lester James Peiris to Film; and

• Amaradeva to Music.

To do comprehensive eulogistic justice to the phenomenon called Chitrasena in 10 minutes is totally beyond my power; but certainty of failure will not deter me from pressing on.

Dr. Chitrasena once declared that to him "dance and life are inseparable". This implies that for him dance is life; to dance is to live. His declaration brings to mind the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, the radical doubter, who began to philosophize by doubting everything including his own existence. He thought deeply about the matter and finally deduced the certainty of his existence from the very fact that he was thinking about his existence. He formulated his conclusion in what is perhaps the most famous sentence in Western philosophy: "Cogito, ergo, sum". Which means, "I am thinking, therefore, I exist". Dr. Chitrasena’s equivalent aphorism would be: "I am dancing, therefore, I live".

Dr. Chitrasena says that he was born to dance. He certainly lived to dance. He manifestly loved to dance. He has danced through the world. To list the countries alphabetically, he has danced in Australia, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Holland, India, Japan - you name the country, he has danced in it! He has danced his way into the hearts of tens of thousands, possibly millions of people all over the world.

When he danced in Sydney, Australia in 1963, the Sydney newspaper called the "Daily Herald" said that Chitrasena is "one of the most virile dancers of any nation we have seen on a Sydney stage". When he danced in Sydney nearly 10 years later in 1972, the "Sydney Morning Herald" said the same thing in the same words. His virility has visibly survived to this day.

Chitrasena’s high-voltage, magnetic stage presence is, indeed, his greatest asset. When he comes on the stage, the audience just rivets their attention on him, like so many rabbits fascinated by a single snake. His consummate art is the product of technical perfection and inexhaustible creativity. The technical perfection was acquired by imbibing the best from acknowledged masters - Sri Gopinath, Uday Shankar, Lapaya Gurunnanse, among others.

Chitrasena’s philosophy of dance is that ‘in ancient times we danced to please gods’ today we dance to please human beings’. Among the multitude of human beings Chitrasena’s dancing has delighted have been kings, queens, princes, dukes, presidents, prime ministers, governors, connoisseurs of dance and assorted scholars.

Born in 1921, Chitrasena came on the stage at age 15 and at age 82, he is still on the stage. Of the 33 productions of the Chitrasena School of Dance, the creation I love most is Karadiya. In this ballet Chitrasena unforgettably depicts the main character, an awesome man "drunk with liquor and lust" - as one critic put it.

Chitrasena is not just another superb dancer. He has a cosmic overview of dance as an art form. He has an intimate sense of its history. He has brought to bear on universal dance, insights he has derived from the 2500 year old culture into which he was born. In truth, virtually single handed, he redeemed the traditional dance of his culture, from neglect, contempt and even possible extinction at the height of Western imperial power in our country.

The Chitrasena - Vajira Dance Foundation was established in 1981 to perpetuate their art. As it happened, many years ago a schoolgirl called Chandrika Bandaranaike went to the Chitrasena School of Dance to learn dance. In due course this schoolgirl grew up and became the President of the country under the name of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. As President, she graciously granted to the Chitrasena - Vajira Foundation a block of land in Colombo on which to build the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya.

For my part, I hope to live to see the day when the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya will materialize. Deshamanya Dr. Chitrasena will, of course, see that day. He cannot die. For he is immortal!

(Text of speech delivered at the felicitation on his 82nd birthday)