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Five decades of dance

a year ago

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By Jennifer Anandanayagam  When there’s passion coursing through your veins, it’s probably hard to sit still. This was what was going through my mind as I sat across from Sri Lanka’s dancing maestros Channa Wijewardena and Ravibandhu Vidyapathy. The duo, who’ve been dance friends for around 50 years (and ‘non-dance’ friends for even longer), are rapt in conversation with me as much as they are with each other as we discuss the significance of this year – 2022 – when they both celebrate 50 years in dance. [caption id="attachment_187564" align="alignright" width="311"] Photo credits: SUDARSHA KANNANGARA[/caption] Looking around the home in Dehiwala, which also houses the Channa-Upuli Performing Arts Foundation, it is easy to establish that you’re in the home of an artiste. Sculptures depicting cultural dancing poses sit on tabletops and vibrant paintings portraying the traditional Sri Lankan art form, along with pictures of past performances, adorn the wall. Quiet-footed students move about the house in their dancewear; they are very much a part of the family. The noise upstairs where the dance classes take place comes to a halt when Channa calls out once to his students. The Channa-Upuli Dance ensemble, a product of the Foundation which is run by Channa and his equally-famous dancer wife Upuli Panibharatha, has brought international recognition to Sri Lanka. Channa specialises in all forms of traditional and creative dancing – namely, Kandyan, Sabaragamuwa, and his own creative modern ballet. Both he and Ravi learned traditional Sri Lankan dance under Guru Chitrasena and Guru Vajira at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya, Sri Lanka’s premier centre for arts and culture. He later studied other forms of dance in India and classical ballet in France. His movements during our conversation, as he tells his story, are earnest, while Ravi sits beside him, adding well-thought-out responses to what I pose.  [caption id="attachment_187563" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Channa and Ravi[/caption] Ravi, who also studied Classical Kandyan dance under the legendary dancers Guru Chitrasena and Guru Vajira, has a quiet sense of resolve to him. He learned traditional drumming under the renowned percussionists Guru Piyasara Shilpadhipathi and Guru Punchiguru. Also an acclaimed Kathakali actor-dancer, Ravi studied at the Kerala Kala Mandalam in India, and studied Hindustani music under the guidance of Ustad David Podiappuhamy of Maihar, India, and Shri P.V. Nandasiri of Sri Lanka. He has also studied painting, sculpture, costume, and stage décor design from his father, Somabandhu Vidyapathy. The Chitrasena Kalayathanaya: A cornerstone in their lives [caption id="attachment_187571" align="alignright" width="319"] Channa and Upuli on stage[/caption] Both of them are deeply grateful to the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya for what they’ve learned about dance and life. “The Chitrasena Kalayathanaya has played an important role in moulding us. It’s changed our thinking patterns as well. It was always Guru Vajira’s role to teach us in class, while Guru Chitrasena used to talk to us. He spoke to us about life, arts, and philosophy,” detailed Ravi. “My father was a good friend of Dr. Chitrasena,” shared Channa. He recalled how he was first enamoured by the world of dance: “Every day, after rugger practice, I used to go to the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya to pick up my sister. There’s a lovely open-air theatre there and I’d watch them dancing.” One day, he was invited by Guru Vajira to help with some souvenirs for a festival the school was having. “That’s when I saw Dr. Chitrasena on stage like a marble statue. That marvellous athletic figure is not something anyone can match.”  It was at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya that Channa met Ravi whom he fondly called “this handsome guy”. He went on to add that Ravi is from Thurstan College and he is from Isipathana College: “So we meet at the Isipathana-Thurstan Big Match as well.” Their friendship blossomed out of mutual admiration for dance and deep respect for each other’s individual styles and technique. Today, as they sat beside each other telling their story, the years of fondness and good-natured banter between the two of them are evident. They spent most of their lives – after school in the morning – at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya, learning at first, and then practising for various productions.  Channa, nostalgic as he speaks, shared: “The doors opened for us were very artistic doors. We met artistes – film stars, Indian stars, singers, and other great artistes, because they all came to the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya. We saw painters, singers, musicians, actors, and dancers.” Ravi, agreeing, said: “I think we actually lived in the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya. The Chitrasena school was perhaps Sri Lanka’s only cultural centre of that nature, where it was open to all artistes from different disciplines – dramatists, actors, musicians, writers, and dancers. Every time a foreign artiste visited Sri Lanka, all the embassies made it a point to bring them to the Chitrasena school as it was situated in Colombo. Every day the duo – Guru Chitrasena and Guru Vajira – danced, from Monday to Friday at four in the evening. After we were initiated and we were taught the basics, Vajira Aunty, as we used to call her, invited us to dance behind them. On Saturdays of course, the whole place was full of students aged seven to adults, elders even. It is a guru gedara. Sundays were dedicated to rehearsals of all the productions or shows coming up. So all seven days of the week, we were in the dance school, either dancing or watching.”  A beautiful symmetry  I can’t help but be swept into their world – a world of passion for dance. Channa is careful to distinguish that it is passion for what someone does that makes their professions enjoyable and not stressful. It’s been many years since the duo has performed, both together and individually, on stage, and they’re now gracefully into the next stage of their careers – training students of dance, but the fire within them hasn’t died. With intelligence and experience twinkling in their eyes, Channa and Ravi have wealth – which they fondly term ‘cultural riches’ – to offer to dancers and nondancers alike. My first introduction to these masters of dance came when I was a teenager and I witnessed them on stage. True to how they both describe their individual sense of style even today, Channa’s gentle and lyrical type of dancing was always complemented by Ravi’s more dramatic and compelling stance. “Channa and I have always played the hero and the villain, in many productions,” laughed Ravi. “I was the antagonist and he was the protagonist. That’s mainly because of his handsome looks and his very gentle and lyrical type of dancing; on the contrary, mine was more dramatic.”  “I could never match Ravi,” shared Channa, while Ravi interjected: “Nor could I him.”  Channa, who was drawn to sports – athletics, rugger, and basketball – as a youngster, brought that technique into his dance, which soon became his signature style that was talked about by fans. “I always wanted to break out of the box. Fortunately, I had done something else with my body, which was sports, and I created this piece where all the movements came out of sports — javelin throw, disc throw, and the rugger pass. I incorporated all of that into our kasthirams and other poses in a different manner. It was pretty difficult for others to do it because they can’t get the feel of the basketball jump or the rugger pass.” There was criticism too for Channa’s innovation, which he welcomed. To him, if you’re not criticised, you’re doing something wrong. Commenting on negativity and criticism, which fortunately wasn’t a factor in his life, Ravi shared that unlike negativity from the outside world, “if you get negative thoughts within yourself, then you become weak and you can’t go forward”. Faith in yourself and in what you do is important, he affirmed. “If we’ve gone somewhere in our lives, it is that faith and trust in ourselves and our art that have gotten us there.” [caption id="attachment_187570" align="alignright" width="348"] Traditional dance of Ravibandhu[/caption] Five decades in dance is a big feat, yet there’s a sense of grounding and humility that permeates from within the two. They still consider themselves students – of life and dance. “I think our students are much better than us,” shared Channa, adding: “Once you reach what you think is the top, you suddenly realise you don’t know anything. There’s so much to learn.” Ravi, recalling something Indian sitarist and composer Pandit Ravi Shankar was asked – ‘How did you achieve all this greatness in your life?’ – was inspired by his response: ‘I’m a student’. “I think that is the best lesson. Our students see a different world that we did not see,” he said.  Listening to them speak about how they transitioned from performers to teachers, it’s hard to miss the almost spiritual essence of it all. They both effuse a sense of empathy and understanding for their students, especially given the current times, being acutely aware of the many challenges today’s society faces. Channa explained: “We cannot train the dancers the way we were trained because their thoughts are different. The tsunami has changed them. I have students who have no parents. The war has affected them heavily. So I have to tackle them very carefully. They come to dance class not only to dance but for the pleasure and fun of it. So you have to think of who they are and where they come from. Dance is when we give them an idea and get the movement out of them.”  The transition from performer to teacher, according to Ravi, is a natural process, anywhere in the world. “All great dancers – whether ballet contemporary dancers or modern dancers – dance up until their mid-30s and then they go into character appearances, cameo roles in films, etc., and eventually limit what they do. With age, you realise your body. Dance is the one way in which you can intensely and carefully study your body and realise your body’s ageing and you change your role. Psychologically too, we become mature with age, and that gives us opportunities to train artistes.”  Speaking on the importance of creating, Ravi explained that if artistes like them didn’t create, art would not survive.  Five decades later  The interview wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t ask them what 50 years in dance had taught them about dance, life, their students, and the younger generation. They are eager to share. “Respect your teacher, respect your students, respect your friends,” shared Channa, adding that he believes that we have a problem in society today. “We do not teach students to listen. A lot of children don’t know how to listen. Even with a piece of music, they don’t know how to listen.”  [caption id="attachment_187569" align="alignleft" width="337"] Photo credits: SUDARSHA KANNANGARA[/caption] Ravi, in agreement, said: “Hearing and listening are two different things and listening is an art. When I teach, I tell my students, ‘see music and hear the dance’. I always repeat this.” Adding to this, Channa said: “The best diet is to eat as if you’re drinking and drink as if you’re eating. Eat liquid, drink solid.” While acknowledging the need for technology and social media, the duo highlighted the many perils that come with it. From youngsters being glued to their phones and thereby missing out on life and what’s happening around them and seeking validation from social media likes and views, and the resulting isolation that occurs, there is, no doubt, cause for concern. If they could change a few things about society today, a responsibility they both admit is on their shoulders and is largely up to them, they’d work towards using social media and technology in the right way. Channa shared: “Technology was made for the right purpose but now it’s gone bad. We need to shift that.”  He also spoke about movement and how important it is in our daily lives. “Back in the day, movement was a big part of our lives – whether it was chopping wood, washing clothes, walking, or climbing trees. Now all of that is gone.” Added Ravi: “Technology has made humans lazier.” Continuing, he spoke about the importance of being patient until you come to the right moment in life to do something. Speaking specifically concerning the arts, he said: “You must feel that you are not ripe enough to do something. Be patient.” According to Channa, it is also important to watch more productions and read things. “Without seeing or reading, you won’t know where you stand.” Finally, both of them shared the importance of slowing down. While the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us this in various ways, it has also taught us the value of family, home-cooked meals, and taking life at a slower and simpler pace. “The best food is what we make at home. The best cup of tea is from home. The best bed to sleep in is at home,” smiled Channa. Bidding goodbye to them was challenging as the hours spent in their company seemed to have gone by in a flash. Both these greats in the dance world of Sri Lanka have a wealth of experience to share with the world, not just about dance and what it entails, but about the importance of being grounded as people, the value of spirituality, family, and traditions, and being cultural and social ambassadors for our country no matter where we go.   

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