Critical Thinking and “Value” of University Education – The Island


By Uditha Devapriya

The form of the dancer figures prominently in Sinhala art and sculpture. Among the ruins of Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of sculptures of dwarves, beasts and artists. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dot a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance to Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining Ridi Vihare. Contrasting with the sculptures of men sporting swords and spears, they immediately catch the eye.

A motif of medieval Sinhala art, these were influenced by the hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of temples in southern India. They attest to the role that Sinhalese society gave to women, a role that faded over time, to such an extent that in the 20th century, Sinhalese women no longer had the right to wear the ves thattuwa. Long held back, many of these women then began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020, the Indian government chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not only of their contribution to their fields, but also of their efforts to strengthen ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally awarded to their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received this honor on her behalf in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and also active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. As modest as it may be, the award seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our best representatives of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to adopt traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to make it a full-time, lifelong profession, absorbing the sources of her past, transcending gender and class barriers, and bringing it to the young. Dancing didn’t really come to mind; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been and was being transformed around the world: in 1921, the year of the birth of her husband, Isadora Duncan and Ruth. St Denis had paved the way and laid the foundations for the modernization of the media. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka, traditional dance had long since turned away from its ritual past, to occupy the stage, then school and university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role history had ordered her to do, a role she was only too willing to throw herself into.

In dance, as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. First associated with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, and even of the governors themselves, helped free it from the grip of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later allow what Susan Reed in her account of the dance in Sri Lanka calls for the bureaucratization of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on kohomba kankariya also.

But that did not imply a total break with the past: then as today, in Sri Lanka as in India, dance calls for the renewal of conventions: namaskaraya, adherence to Buddhist principles and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves. Faced with the task of saving a dying art, they breathed new life into it by learning it, preserving it and reforming it.

Although neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began to approach traditional art forms with a zest and vigor that determined their post-independence trajectory. . Bringing together patrons, teachers, students and dance specialists, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes themselves teachers.

Newton Gunasinghe observed how British officials found it appropriate to patronize feudal elites after a series of rebellions that threatened to overthrow the colonial order. Yet even before that, these officials had sponsored cultural practices that were once the preserve of these elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural renewal that Westernized elites in the Netherlands moved away from conventional careers, such as law and medicine, to embark on the arduous task of reviving the past.

First coming up against the opposition of their paterfamilias, the descendants of the elite ended up finding their calling. “[I]n despite their disappointment that I shattered their hopes for a successful legal and political career, ”wrote Charles Jacob Peiris, later known as Devar Surya Sena, in recollection of his parents’ reaction at a concert he had organized at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night”.

If the sons were to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the highest price. Yet, as with sons, daughters too possessed a power that emboldened them not only to dance, but also to participate in rituals reserved for men.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress which for centuries had been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, seeing them as essential to the flourishing of the arts; no less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give an example, saw Chandralekha’s act positively and praised her.

These developments sparked a crucial cultural renaissance across the country. Although the women of the high country remain excluded from these developments, there is no doubt that the bursting of taboos in the low country have helped to keep the art of dance alive, for tutors, students and academics. As Mirak Raheem wrote in an article for Ground views, we still have to appreciate the role played by the dancers of the beginning of the 20th century in all of this.

The contribution of Vajira Chitrasena exceeds that of the girls of the colonial elite who dare to dance. If it would be wrong to regard their interest as a passing fad, a whim, these women have not made dancing a profession for life. Vajira not only engaged in the medium in a way that they had not done, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in accordance with the methods and practices that she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem pointed out in her tribute, she tapped into her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a program that breaks down the medium into “a series of exercises … which could be used to train dancers. “. In doing so, she designed very original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or llama mudra natya, a genre she launched in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way, she has crossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not bestowed on most other women of her rank. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard was her ability to adapt male dance forms to female sequences. She was able to do so without radically altering their essence; which has undoubtedly been most felt in the field of Kandyan dance, which is addressed to the masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a female form of country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; he embodied a radical transformation of art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artists have kept women away from oudarata natum. This is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This does not mean that the gurunanns kept their knowledge apart from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught it under conditions and restrictions which revealed their reluctance to pass their knowledge on to women.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstacles is a tribute to her courage and perseverance. Yet, as Mirak Raheem suggests in her excellent essay, would we be doing her a disservice by simply valuing her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be simply to congratulate her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them and how hard she struggled to overcome them. transcend? We praise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning the height of that ceiling in the first place. A more sober assessment of Vajira Chitrasena would ask this question. But such an assessment has not yet been published. One can only hope that this will be the case soon.

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