Vajira - The First Professional Female Dancer of the Sinhalese Style

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This article analyses the historical role of Vajira, the first professional female dancer of the "classical" Sinhalese style - the Kandyan dance. The focus is on how her life's work in training and presenting women on theatre stage in
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  BIOGR PHIC L NOTE Vajira - The First Professional Female ancer ofthe Sinhalese Style   Abstract Marianne Niirnberger University a/Vienna Austria This article analyses the historical role of Vajira, the first professional female dancer of the classical Sinhalese style - the Kandyan dance. The focus is on how her life's work in training and presenting women on theatre stage in dances choreographed by her has largely influenced the modern culture of Sri Lanka. Vajira's extraordinary career is described, and her most important ballets, tours, and awards are named. The article describes in some detail some of her numerous contributions to modern dance training and highlights her role as teacher in the development of children s dance training techniques and children s ballet. Finally, it briefly presents the vision of the Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Foundation in 2014. Vajira, the Inventor ofthe Female Style of Kandyan ance How does it feel to be the spouse of an icon? What does it mean to dance side-by-side with one of the most famous, interesting, and beautiful men of Sri Lanka on the stage? How does it feel to do so in Sinhalese culture, at a period in which stage dance is just being invented? In a culture that has many thousands of male ritual dancers of three indigenous styles, up-country, low-country and Sabaragamuwa, but not a single professional female dancer of any of these styles? A culture that in too many respects does not accept women as equal to men? Where women are said to be unable to attain the highest religious goal of enlightenment? Where ritual dance was a domain of males only? Where women dancing in Sinhalese style were believed to be ill insane and possessed by demons? Vajira 2 is that woman. While revising this article in 2014, she is 82 years old. Chitrasena 3 was her husband, and the most celebrated dancer of his country. He is said to be the inventor of the modern Sinhalese story-telling stage dance. Without doubt he is the foremost pioneer of Sinhalese stage dance. In 1943 he founded the 99  NURN ERGER Chitrasena Dance Company, which became his vehicle for expression both in traditional dance forms and contemporary dance, which set standards and transformed dance theatre in Sri Lanka. In 1944 he founded the Chitrasena Kalayanthanaya (Chitrasena School of Art). Vajira soon worked at his side and became the inventor of a graceful female style of Kandyan dance; of modern stage dance training, and of Sinhalese children s ballet. Both have placed their indelible stamp on Sinhalese choreography. They have raised the standard of virtuosity for the traditional Kandyan or up-country dance, and they have added, with sympathetic understanding, new dimensions to the classical repertoire of movement . Fig 1 Vajira (1996) Vajira is a truly astonishing woman . Age has not deprived her of her intensity, her vitality-an austerely-restrained form of tenacious energy-, or of her extraordinary courage. She is the mother of a 100  SRI L NK JOURN L OF THE HUM NITIES VOLUME 4 son and of two beautiful daughters. Although she has taken care of them rather to the verge of spoiling them, this has never hindered her from leading the entire inner organization of the school with strict discipline. Whenever I remember Vajira, I see her as a teacher leading the dance in front of the regular rows of her pupils. I remember her smile, her stringency, the earnestness of her talk when speaking about her longing for a peaceful time and a place to meditate, her experiences with Buddhist meditation, vipassana, or her vegetarianism. It was no surprise for me to learn that Vajira's extraordinary success in her twenties, in the role of the young and beautiful Sisi in Chitrasena's ballet Karadiya 5, can be viewed as a result of her own identification with the sad fate and oppressed and confused state ofthattragic character CITY 13). In Sri Lanka, as in many other countries, women have restricted economic opportunities and they cannot easily find entry into some important social fields. Dance is a technique to get into tune with the universe to such an extent that the threads of destiny can be woven anew . This is in essence what Chitrasena has taught me, although he may have used other words . And this is the reason that dance is believed to be a spiritual vocation. Some of the traditional social and religious concepts discriminate against women vis-a-vis men . Their ability to attain enlightenment as Buddhists is even today questioned by male Sri Lankan Buddhists. Kapferer certainly quotes the opinion of many male Sri Lankan Buddhists, but of fewer Sri Lankan women, whom he unfortunately neglected to mention, when he writes men are ideally seen as less attached to the matters of this world 105) . It is believed in Sri Lanka as well as in many other cultures that women are more given to emotions than men. Today in Europe many people tend to believe that women are more competent than men to make decisions, which require social or pedagogical insights. So there is some collective agreement that cognition of emotions is a skill that is more easily learned by females than by males, due to evolution and socialization. Thus female sensitivity to emotion is at least sometimes understood as a strength. In Sinhalese culture, emotions are more predominantly understood as destabilizing and threatening. They contradict the cultural ideal of equanimity and peace of mind. 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