She celebrated her 75th birthday yesterday. Vajira, inarguably Sri Lanka’s first Prima Ballerina – if one were to apply the title to the foremost exponent of the traditional Kandyan dance whose choreography, together with her mentor and husband, extended the original traditional movements to play her part in the evolution of the  Sinhala ballet or dance-drama.

The celebration was at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya – the first ever ‘public performance’ to be held at the new venue. The invitees were limited to close friends of the school, loyal students that have been supportive throughout the years and the extended family – perhaps around a hundred folk. The setting was picturesque, with the guests playing ‘audience’, seated outside and facing the Kalayathanaya that was converted into a stage for the entertainment part of the evening. Pandans (flaming torches) lined the periphery of the compound and other traditional decorations made of banana tree-trunks and young coconut fronds with lamps embedded in them enhanced the ambience. The evening had threatened rain and as the light drizzle intensified, the guests made their way to the canopies that had been set up – just in case! Soon, however, the light rain abated and the word was that it was a ‘mal vessa’, traditionally known as an auspicious sign signifying a blessing from the Gods. The chairs were re-aligned, the guests got back in place and just before the performance especially conceived for the occasion, the rain returned. This time a harder shower that threatened to intensify, but fortunately only lasted around fifteen minutes. Anyway, to make a long story shorter, everything quickly fell into place and the show began with a drum item. Twelve of the finest exponents of the art got the show on the road and had the audience, all fans anyway, enthralled and into the mood for more. A special item choreographed by Heshma (Vajira’s grand-daughter) that combined modern dance moves with the traditional, and set to a very avant-garde piece of music informed the audience of the evolution of the tradition in the manner that Chitrasena had, in his time, begun. A few more pieces followed and the climax was the ‘Theiya’ (described below), where Upeka, eldest daughter and heir to the legacy of her parents, and Ravibandu, led the leading dancers of the school in a series of segments of traditional dance. And finally, in what was to be the highlight of the evening, the dancers went up to Vajira and brought her on stage, where, to everyone’s surprise, she joined her students in a few segments. Ever graceful, but with reduced vigour, Vajira captured the audience yet again – perhaps for the final time.

At her peak, Vajira enthralled audiences all around the globe, from Australia and Tasmania in the southern hemisphere to Moscow and Leningrad in the north and several countries in Europe and Asia in between. Command performances for royalty and presidents included such dignitaries as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, Prince Akihito of Japan, King Birendra of Nepal, Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev (with Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike) at the Kremlin Theatre in Moscow and many others. The roles that Chitrasena conceived for her and that they created together in their classical repertoire of ballets that included Chandalika, Karadiya and Nala Damayanthi, she made her own. Those who had the good fortune to witness her artistry during this period have never forgotten the grace, technique and finesse she brought to those characterizations.

An extract of a piece by Bandula Jayawardhana (Vajira and the Ballet-Art) gives an indication of how the public saw her in the 1960s:

Out of the ferment of an experimental phase emerged Sri Lanka’s most accomplished ballerina, Vajira, with her natural talents and her ideally balletic figure bursting into the foreground of Sri Lanka’s theatre world, like the dancer in Degas’ famous painting, as essentially local product.

From those early experimental days when she danced as Chitrasena’s pupil, right through the floodlit international stages echoing with repeated applause at her curtain call appearances, even up to the celebration of Chitrasena’s forty years of dancing, in January 1978, Vajira illumined her husband’s career and shared his efforts to speak as Sri Lanka’s ambassador of the dance, the most universal language of the arts. For Vajira, each year of performance has shown not the signs of age, but rather a steady maturation as an artiste and a gradual refinement of essentially individual grace. She has flowered into a modern ballerina with a wide emotional range so ably demonstrated in her role as the oppressed but militant fisher-girl in Karadiya and a beautiful fluidity of movement, a sense of style and a rare musicality in her oriental Swan Lake  role in the classical Nala Damayanthi . And then there is her transformation, or rather, transmutation of the original masculine Gajaga Vannama into a thing of unrivalled feminine grace without losing anything of the beauty of this treasure of the traditional Kandyan dance.

Vajira’s development into a choreographer was more intuitive than propelled by any result of academic pursuit and was inspired by Chitrasena’s concepts and guidance. Like water and oil, they had a hard time merging (their ideas), but out of this energy the spark of creativity ignited the process that resulted in those wondrous creations for the stage. And as she matured, Vajira insisted on creating her own productions – an expression of ego that was difficult for Chitrasena to accept at first, but then being the epitome of a Guru, he did accept that Vajira ‘had arrived’ and the rest just flowed from there. Hapana, a children’s ballet about fish, was a major accomplishment and a big hit. Chandalika and Bera Handa followed and it was apparent that Vajira’s initial solo efforts at creating ballets was no flash in the pan and even Chitrasena gave his somewhat grudging approval – and for those that knew the man, this was to reach the pinnacle.

Not only was Vajira a dancer and choreographer par excellence, she was also the mother of three and had to administer the Chitrasena Dance School together with Chitrasena – no mean feat, considering the implications! In the halcyon days of the Chitrasena School, when it was located in that beautiful old building in Colpetty, classes would be conducted on Saturdays and on some days of the week, but rain or shine, dancing continued every evening with the Chitrasena family and the senior members of the troupe gathering for the evening’s dance sessions. The highlight of this gathering would be at the end of the session – the incredibly energizing Theiya, an informal showcasing of the Kandyan dance technique in which the dancers displayed their virtuoso movements in interpreting the particular segment, with the most advanced among them switching roles as the lead dancer, that blasted whoever was fortunate to be present, away – just by the embodiment of sheer joy, energy, movement and the synchronicity of it all. Chitrasena’s guru Lapaya Gurunanse would make the bus journey from Potuhera to Colpetty each Tuesday evening for special classes. This journey was also special in that his relationship with his special sishaya, Chitrasena and his sishaya’s sishaya, Vajira, was akin to a parent – reciprocated accordingly. Little, if any, of these special guru – sishaya relationships exist any longer in today’s Sri Lanka and even Vajira, who must have hundreds of ‘sishayas’ will never have a relationship with a student similar to that which she had with her guru’s guru ever again.

And now, well past the twilight of her dancing career, a great-grandmother to boot, Vajira is still teaching at her beloved Chitrasena Kalayathanaya, now at its new home by Elvitigala Mawatha in Narahenpita. Stepping out of the spotlight is never easy for anyone who has commanded so much love and respect – particularly for an artiste exposed to so much public adulation and fame. Vajira, however, has now stepped out of the limelight and has passed on the legacy of the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya to the next generation.

She is the last of her breed – much like the role she made her very own – the dying swan – and Sri Lanka must surely be proud of her amazing accomplishments in the world of Dance.