It was Java’s idea to follow the post about the kalayathanya with one on The Master and I guess it would be appropriate, if nothing else. For sure it would impossible for me to find anyone else I knew (or know) so well who was/is a legend in his own time to write about.
Most of what I know about Chitra is from personal contact and this would include the stories he would relate concerning stages of his life and work – the childhood memories of his father’s theatrical interests and productions, the ‘western’ influences through movies which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, classical music which his father would play on an old gramophone and, of course Shakespeare, a dominating presence in his father’s life. He would talk of his schooling, earlier in small private schools and later at Wesley College. He spoke of his continued interest in theatre, appearing in his father’s production of Siri Sangabo when he was fifteen years old, of studying Kandyan Dance when it was considered ‘weird’, and being considered even weirder when he left Colombo to live and study with his guru in a village of Potuhera, near Polgahawela. How he left for India to study at the Kerala Kala Mandalam and later at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, where he partnered Tagore’s granddaughter in the production of Chandalika. Returning to Ceylon, he performed at the Regal Theatre for Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, he was also booed by the social-yokels – the culture-vultures of the Colombo elite when he dared to appear on stage with most of his body exposed – a first, I guess – in the 1950’s. He was ‘first’ in many areas of his expertise and if not for him the appreciation of the traditional Sinhala dance forms would not be anywhere close to what it is today. Thanks to him these dance forms have been and are continuing to be appreciated by connoisseurs of Dance all over the world.
Heeey maaan, what bout all dat odder stuff he be talkin bout – all dat interestin sheet bout famous folk an dat stuff? Jus in da teatre-world he talk bout giants like Marcel Marceau, Martha Graham, Doris Humphreys, Paul Taylor and more recently Susanne Linke, the group Pilobilus and the Battery Dance Company – all dese folk visit him in da family home at Colpetty – where de dance school be from da time he start it. Any dancer come to Ceylon, and later, Sri Lanka, dey go see Chitra and Vajira and watch dem dance and hear dem drums – an blow dere minds to know dat such rhythms and movements were comin from sooo far back in time in dis country – unchanged! He be in awe of dis an he go on som heavy philosophical trips when he be in da right mood to illustrate his theories on dis highly advance indigenous cultchure, remember? Den yo remember his anaysis of stagecraft an how he dvelop dose lightin scripts an directions when dey be tourin places like Russia in da 50’s an Australia an all over Europe in da 60’s. An his stories bout his actin in English plays like Otello an Emperor Jones – dose lil ol anecdotes maann, dey be hilarious. I kept tellin him to dictate his memoirs – fuckin best seller if he done it – wit all dose expicit bits included, an maaann did he have some of dose!!! He be lookin soo good, great physique and dancin like a God – dose chicks be fallin all over his ass, an I could see why! He also be tellin us bout how he conceive ‘Karadiya’ when travellin by train from Colombo to Matara to give dancin classes – seein dose fisher-folk pullin on dere nets give him dat idea, an he conceive da music bein influenced by ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ ( he remember it sung by Paul Robeson, he say). Dat Amaradeva be composing his music at dat Colpetty house, maaan, him an Ananda Samarakoon (he be da dude dat wrote dis national anthem in dat house), an Sunil Shantha an Somabandu, Prema Kumar an Lionel Algama – dey all be livin an workin dere in dose early days. Mus have been a hell of a time, huh? All dem artistes, doing dere ting, livin an workin togedder – fuckin great ol time. He say he love every minit of it – dose times, dey never came fo him again.
Java’s right. Chitra had an amazing life and myriad interesting experiences. He really should have done the book of his life’s story. There is a book (now out of print), but that is more of a compilation of articles and reviews and does not touch on the incredible adventures he experienced. He moved among a variety of individuals from a cross-section of society – from the villagers he lived with while studying the dance and who he continued to meet throughout his life, to the highest strata in whatever society he was in and in between as well. And he took it all in his stride – altering his character to suit the occasion, but being genuine to them all. He was above petty politics, had a distinctly low opinion of the practitioners of this profession and was quick to condemn discrimination of any kind. His temper was as volatile as his other emotional responses and he commanded a respect among the members of his troupe that was unmistakable. His love of wine, women, song and anything else that would make him feel great was never concealed and he reveled in it – whatever it was at the time. His sense of humor was also right on and he was quick to pick up on most things by pure and unerring instinct.
There was also that ‘other side’ to him – as there is with most sensitive artistic types. He could be very difficult to be around, particularly for those closest to him and tantrums were not uncommon at his home. He could be completely ‘off the wall’ and the people concerned sometimes wouldn’t even know what he was on about. I guess the Ying-Yang extremes manifested extremely with him in all aspects of his being. Be that as it may – those closest to him, though at times at their wits end, were loyalty personified and no matter how difficult he was, they were always around for him when they were needed. When he was depressed, after he was virtually forced out of his landmark home and school in Colpetty and he moved to Mahara, he had to live alone for most of the week, as Vajira had to live in Colombo to keep the school and classes going. He was a hermit of sorts during this time and enjoyed the solitude – for a while, that is. His urge for the good times would take over and he would meet his few close friends for an evening’s indulging in conversation and good company – with all the trimmings.
He was honoured by many, including the Institute of Aesthetic Studies of the University of Kelaniya, that awarded him a Honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree in Fine Arts and by the Government of France, whose ambassador visited his death-bed to award him the Chevaliers dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres just two days before he passed on. The award is for ‘significant contribution to arts or literature or propagation of these fields’. And among previous recipients are Claudio Arrau (who Chitra knew well), Anthony Burgess, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Redford, which puts him in very good company.
There’s so much more to relate, but the ability is limited – especially for a forum such as this is. However, as Java said, this was something we wanted to put out but the opportunity never came up. So, with the ‘opening the kalayathanya’ post happening, this seemed appropriate.
Chitrasena was surely one of the most unforgettable individuals I have ever known, not just for his accomplishments in the areas of dance, culture and theatre, but more, as an incredible ‘universal’ being.