A few months ago, I had an opportunity to witness one of the most spectacular dance forms from Sri Lanka, the Kandyan dance. An endeavour to promote the age-old art forms of Sri Lanka, the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation organised the Guru-Gedara Festival from August 30th – September 2nd 2018 in their cultural ashram in the heart of the city. Guru-Gedara festival is a tribute to the gurus who have kept the art and culture of Sri Lanka alive for generations. This festival celebrates the sacred relationship of a master and his disciple, which is being carried on for many generations with immense discipline and devotion.
The place reverberated with the beating of drums and the chanting of Vannams. As we entered the open-air makeshift theatre lit with oil-lamps, for a minute it seemed like we were part of a temple festival. The loud cheering of the audiences soon drew our attention to the performers in the middle of the theatre. It was the first day of Guru-Gedara Festival in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The four days of Guru-Gedara festival exposed us to the rich and varied cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. Hands on workshops opened up an opportunity for the young students and dance enthusiasts to learn about the traditional arts of making masks, gok craft, drum making, costume making, puppetry etc. The creative partnership and mutual dependence of the dance gurus and the artisans culminated in the successful display of some of the best performances that I have witnessed in my life. With the intricately woven backdrops and stage installations, elaborate costumes and exquisite headgear and jewellery, the dances came alive every evening with the dancers lost in a trance to the rhythmic beats of the drums and chants and the audience completely spellbound with the magnificent display in front of them.
The Kandyan dance, native to Kandy, the central hills region in Sri Lanka, was predominantly performed by male dancers in the earlier times. Over the years it has metamorphosed and customised itself to bring in female dancers into its fold. It was the husband and wife duo Guru Chitrasena and Guru Vajira who were responsible for the revival of art and dance history of Sri Lanka. They were instrumental in transforming village rituals to what you see as a dance form today.
Started in 1944 in Colombo, Chitrasena Kalayathanaya was the seat of cultural history of Ceylon. The legendary Guru Chitrasena and his wife Vajira were the proponents of the school and started it with a handful of dedicated students. Years after the death of Guru Chitrasena, ‘Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation’ stands tall as a beacon for the future generations of dancers. Heshma Wignaraja, the eldest granddaughter of Guru Chitrasena and Guru Vajira, has committed her life to the administrative and cultural responsibility of the school. The principal dancer, Thaji Dias along with her team of dedicated dancers displayed an optimistic picture that the cultural landscape of Sri Lanka is preserved for the next many generations to come.