Photo courtesy of Lukshman Nadaraja

Acclaimed traditional dancer Upeka Chitrasena marked her 70th birthday on May 21.

When did you first realise you wanted to be a dancer?

I have absolutely no idea. I didn’t wake up one day and decide I want to be a dancer. I never had a moment when I thought “this is the path I should take.” I went into it like it was meant to be. I think it was growing up in the environment that I did: watching my parents [Chitrasena and Vajira] dancing and rehearsing; seeing all those amazing productions and talented artists who came to the school; being exposed to dance, music, drama and cinema; having access to all these books about artists. It was all happening right in my home at Colpetty, which was also home to the Kalayathanaya and the Chitrasena Dance Company.

My parents lived for dance, so I also followed that approach. Money-wise it never felt like we had much. But life was rich in other ways. Whatever money my parents had they put it into a production and they never really got anything back monetarily. But they always managed to have food on the table, not just for ourselves. It was open house for anyone visiting the school. And everyone involved in the production ate together. I don’t know how they managed.

I never assumed I would reach this level. Even though I began performing on stage from the age of 7 and I was 13 when I played a lead role in a children’s ballet, Rankikili, I never had the sense that my parents were keeping a space for me in the Company. I had to earn my place, just like everyone else.

I remember seeing Karadiya when it premiered in 1961. Four years later I was dancing in the group scenes, and fourteen years later I played the lead. I think I really learned what it was about to be a dancer during the tour of Western Europe in 1971. Three months in so many different places, we performed 56 times. It was my first tour and it was so exciting to perform somewhere new every day, meeting artists and audience members. It was inspiring just watching my father lead the troupe and I learned so much. That might have been the spark that really made me feel that this was all I wanted to do. I never thought there was any other life, besides dance.

You had several gurus who shared their knowledge of the dance and also influenced your dance in many ways. What would you say was the principal impact that each of your teachers had on your dance?

My parents were my first teachers and also the ones that I learned the longest from. Every weekday at 4 pm they would dance. And I would dance behind them. You always follow your teacher, but I didn’t realise at the time how I was borrowing from them both. I liked the way my mother did some movements and I liked some of my father’s. I think I took more from my father’s style as I felt it better suited to my body. My father used to say deka purudha, aha purudha, kalla purudha [learning through the practice of watching, the practice of listening, the practice of doing] – that is the way to learn. They didn’t instruct me at a class and say “now this is how you do it” but I learned by being around the two of them all the time, not just when they were dancing but also when they were creating and staging productions. Every day, I learned something new.

And of course I got so much from my other gurus. Lapaya Gurunnanase, who was my parents’ guru, who continued teaching us until he died. The respect my parents showed him was a habit and practice that I included in my own life. Piyasara Shilpadhipathi started teaching Kandyan dance to me from the late 1970s and he taught me the syllabus work that he was developing for the schools and university system. But he also added to my style, to be a precise traditional dancer especially with regards to thaal [rhythm patterns].

Most of my knowledge of the Low Country dance I got from my teacher J.D. Gunatunga, an exponent of the Benthara style, to whom I owe what I know of the Low Country technique. I was so lucky to have these traditional dance teachers who also danced on stage and were so generous in their willingness to share their knowledge.  Their willingness to collaborate with my mother to create items for the stage, was key to the success of many solos that were created especially for me.

You played several main roles in the Mudra Natya or Sinhala ballets created by your father and later your mother. What was your favourite role and what about it attracted you to it?

Hmmm… all my roles were very different. The main role in Kinikini Kolama was created for me and it gave me the opportunity to express a whole range of emotions, including what I was going through in my own life. The mad scene is still my all-time favourite. I also enjoyed playing opposite my mother in Chandalika as her daughter on stage. The role of Sati in Shiva Ranga was also special. I did feel like I was dancing in a gandharva world and it was really wonderful to be able to dance to Ravi Shankar’s music.

When I first got to dance the role of Sisi in Karadiya in 1975 the role that was originally created for my mother, I got really nervous because I had to play opposite my father. I always loved watching my mother perform that role. I loved learning it, but I already knew so much of it from just watching it so many times. It changed my life as a dancer. I felt so daunted playing the role of a woman who was an object of his desire. It was like being pushed into the deep-end to swim. After that anything seemed doable.

But my favourite role that I never really got to dance much on stage was the swan in Nala Damayanthi. I had been part of the swan chorus for a while and I also played the other female lead in the mudra natya, Damayanthi, but I was thrilled to play the chief swan because it was physically challenging. The whole body had to transform; it is more difficult than playing a human. I had my mother in my mind when I danced this particular character; it was her favourite role that she played the longest.

Although you began your career as a Kandyan dancer in the 1980s, you began to be seen as one of the most prominent Low Country dancers on stage. Which of the pieces that you performed would you say is your signature piece and why?

I began learning Low Country quite late in life. I would have been in my late 20s. First and foremost, I wanted to learn Kandyan Dance fully. Once you have mastered one form only then can you learn another. You need the foundation of one dance first—at least that’s what I believe.

We had so many Low Country dancers in our shows, like in Nirthanjali where there were several artists, all from different regional and parampara styles. So I was really fascinated by the form. I used to love to watch Gunatunga and his brother, Siripala Jayasinghe perform. I really loved their technique and style. So I was so thrilled to have him as my teacher.

Nritta Tharanga is my favourite because it was the first Low Country piece that I performed. The beauty of the piece is its simplicity and rhythm patterns. It was created for me by my teacher Gunatunga and my mother. Gunatunga was responsible for setting the drum composition. It was created for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1981, and I performed it at President’s House.

My fans loved my Low Country. I felt freer in this form. Kandyan is very regal and controlled, and you can go mad with Low Country. A little bit like me. I can’t say that one is easier than the other. You need to have a lot of discipline and stamina for both. But when I used to hear the yak bere I could switch completely to the Low Country mode. My mother was very confident that I had mastered both forms when she created Bere Nada Chalana where the piece transitions from Kandyan to Low Country and back to Kandyan.

One of the characteristic elements of your traditional dance performances was the rapport you had with your drummers. Was that something that happened organically or that you choreographed?

It came naturally. I had a real connection with my drummers. I think my father also saw that, so he said “her drummers should be close by her so they can dance with her.” So usually on stage the drummers stand well behind the dancers, but in solos for our Company my father wanted them to flank the dancer. I worked with the same drummers through my career, so I developed deep connection. I was really fortunate to have them play for me for so long.

I really felt supported by my drummers throughout my career. In my later years on stage when I was doing longer items, mid-piece I would feel my strength flagging. But then I would see my drummers and hear them play with even more weight and energy, and I would get re-energised.

The drum is such a distinct part of our dance; it’s like a marriage, one can’t do without the other. The dance hangs on the drum beat. In Bera Nadha Chalana I had 4 drummers. So it was like a conversation, you dance to each one and with each other. So traditional items in my opinion should be performed to live drums as it is the give and take that creates that special magic. I have experienced a lot of drumming in my life. It’s like my heart beat. That’s why I love going to rituals with 10 to 15 drummers. The sound is thrilling and hypnotic. I really do miss the sound and feel of the drum now.

In addition to performing, you also took on the role of leading the Chitrasena Dance Company on international tours from the mid-1980s all the way to 2011. What would you say was your most challenging tour?   

I guess Montpellier for the Indian Ocean Festival directed by Rahul Vohra. My first tour leading the Company was in the 1980s to the Middle East. Over the many tours I got a lot of experience in how to manage a troupe. But Montpellier was challenging because it was nothing quite like I had ever experienced: 50 artists from 5 different countries had to work to become part of a single production and then had to perform every night. Living in one place altogether for so long and performing every day for a month, and on weekends twice a day it was quite something. I led the Sri Lankan troupe of 11 artists. But my sister Anjalika got injured, she fractured her ankle. So I had to rethink and adapt the performance to deal with that. We had to work with people we couldn’t speak with as we had no common language, but yet we got so close. Some of the cast members were experiencing really difficult problems in their lives. We all got together and prayed in a giant circle before each show. It’s like we became one big family.

But I have to say working with Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil, not just once but three times, was a real highlight of my career. Working with an icon like her and the respect with which she treated us, was one of the most enriching experiences in my life.  Up to that point I had never collaborated with any other choreographer apart from my mother. Ariane found a way of creating a story around our dance. It was also a great privilege to work with my fellow dancer and friend, Khema who was also part of these three tours.

Your parents handed down an incredible dance legacy to you and to Sri Lankan culture. How easy or difficult was it to carry on that legacy?   

It was not easy at all but I loved what I was doing. To be compared to them was really tough. I wanted to be recognized in my own right, and not just to be seen as their daughter. Together they created Sri Lankan dance theatre, which was unique and path breaking and standards they set from the very beginning were so high. So sustaining that kind of legacy seemed overwhelming. The future of traditional dance was and still remains threatened. The dance was also becoming very commercial.

I don’t think my father really expected the Company to go on, as it is not something that one person can do alone. Maintaining that standard of production, discipline among the artists, ensuring that the work ethic remains, is a huge responsibility. It was a very tough period after we lost the Colpetty property in 1982. We didn’t even have a place to continue our school that had over 500 students at the time, leave alone rehearse, and the riots and the war also made things even more difficult. We didn’t have money as a Company. The daily practice my parents depended on couldn’t happen anymore. It was also becoming harder for my parents to perform or lead tours. I could see their frustration.

Between my parents retiring and the next generation of Heshma, Umi and Thaji taking up the work of the Company and school there was a gap of over a decade. I had to lead the Company and the tours, and to keep it going. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the help I got from my husband Cedric, my sister Anjalika and my sister-in-law Janaki. Cedric really supported me so that I could continue to dance and tour. But it was still hard. Heshma who was studying in the US kept telling me “hold on, I’m coming back soon.”

What do you think makes a good dancer?

Self-discipline is critical. You need to practice, practice, practice; repeat and repeat and repeat. You need to dedicate your entire being to working hard to keep your body tuned like an instrument. You have to be careful about your diet, get rest, so that you are healthy to be able to dance. You need to discipline your mind and body. You need to respect what you are doing and you must love it fully.

When you are dancing it’s like a meditation. The choreography is not written somewhere; it is all in your mind. The importance of being constantly aware of what you are doing in the moment is key. That’s why when I would get ready to perform, from the moment I start doing my make-up, I get into my zone. There are a few seconds before entering that stage you need to take time to calm yourself down, because even when you are in the changing room there is so much going on, so many people changing and talking, and you need to get ready fast. Once you are on stage you need to still your mind, get beyond the technique, and get into character, you need to live that role in that moment, and forget yourself. I was so fortunate to be able to dance in so many productions. I just wanted to dance.

Stamina is also key for a dancer. When you do traditional dance you need a lot of stamina, so you need to build that up through practice. As you get older it gets more difficult to keep up that level of energy. So even if you are completely in the piece, in your mind and soul, your body can’t give you what you want. That’s why I chose to retire when I did; when I could still perform everything I loved, rather than do what I could just physically manage. I wanted to retire when I was at my best.

Just over thirty years as a soloist and professional dancer may seem a short time but in the dance world that’s a good performance career. My first lead role as an adult was when I was 24 and then retired at 60. During my career I got to perform many character roles, some which were created especially for me and I had over six traditional solo items choreographed for me.

You have been teaching since you were in your late teens, initially young children and more recently, the company classes for the senior dancers. What would you say is the most significant change in your approach to teaching over that period?

I didn’t like teaching at the beginning, but my mother insisted that I must do it. Compared to the earlier style of teaching where you watch and follow your teacher, I think I talk a lot more to my students now. I used to get angry when they didn’t have focus in my class. Now I try to talk with and engage them. I didn’t develop a teaching approach overnight. It’s been my teaching that also made me who I am. I am a tough teacher because I am very tough on myself; I will keep on repeating until I get it right. Sometimes I used to even dream of the movement sequence and the bera pada [drum beat].

That is also another reason I wanted to change from performing to teaching as I wanted to focus on training the dance company. When you are a performer you train and strengthen your body, and the focus is on what you are doing and going to do. I felt I needed to dedicate the time to the younger dancers. I also got to see how hard it was for my mother: she was the lead dancer and teacher, but she was also touring, packing, taking care of costumes, organizing the programme for a performance. When I gave up the stage I was sure I wanted to give time to the dance company.

What is it about dance that continues to inspire you?

Watching dance, being a spectator, keeps me inspired.  Since retiring, I have never thought “oh I wish I could be back on stage.” At the time I gave up dancing in 2011, Heshma had taken up the role of choreographer, and the Company was staging productions and was going on tour, and that’s how things have continued. To be a part of all that has been exciting. And thank God for Nrityagram. In my retirement I have been truly lucky to spend so much time there:  seeing and living the real gurukul system, watching Surupa [Sen] teaching and creating, and watching them perform. I feel very bored when I don’t have the opportunity to see dance. So Covid has been horrible. I’m so thankful I’m not a performer. Online teaching, I find so hard. I do feel like I have lost two precious years of teaching. With no live performances or classes, I compensate by watching dance videos, sometimes the same things over and over again.Seeing the dance and hearing the drums, teaching, sitting in on rehearsals and being involved in the process of production is what I miss, and physically being at the Kalayathanaya. I really can’t think of a life without dance.

Mirak Raheem is a researcher and activist who is currently working on a book on Chitrasena that will be published later this year.  

Photos courtesy of CVDF Archives, Studio Times, Christopher Rebert and Lukshman Nadaraja

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