By Dimithri Wijesinghe
“Padma Shri” is the fourth highest civilian recognition award in India, the other three being (in the lower to higher order) Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, and Bharat Ratna. The honour is awarded by the Government of India for one’s distinguished contributions in various spheres of activity including the arts, education, industry, literature, science, sports, medicine, social service, and public affairs. It had been awarded to non-Indians over the years for contributions they’ve made to India in their field of work.
In 2020, two prominent Sri Lankan women have been named recipients of the Padma Shri award: Veteran Kandyan dance advocate and teacher Vajira Chitrasena and linguist and Hindi language professor Indra Dassanayake.
The Indian High Commission has taken the initiative to recognise them and their roles in strengthening India-Sri Lanka ties.
Prof. Dassanayake, an alumnus of the University of Lucknow in India and a recipient of the Dr. George Grierson Award from former President Pratibha Patil, will be honoured posthumously as she sadly passed away last year. However, we were able to speak with Chitrasena, who made time to share her story despite having suffered a bad fall recently and still being in recovery.
Chitrasena is a well-known pioneer of her time for having pursued a form of art traditionally and exclusively performed by men. She shared with us how the fates aligned for her in such a way that dance brought most things in her life to fruition. Having met her late husband Deshamanya Chitrasena as her dance guru, despite not being taken with the art form as it was introduced, she said that she took a liking to it as she soon realised she had a natural affiliation to it and exhibited a given talent.
In her lifetime as a renowned dancer and choreographer, since her maiden production of Kumudini, she has choreographed several acclaimed productions and has been teaching scores of students over the past six decades.
The Chitrasena couple have a special bond with India, having travelled often from 1959 to 1998 and collaborated with artistes from different genres. The duo had done much in terms of strengthening ties with India in the field of arts and in 2012, together with the Nrityagram dance ensemble, Chitrasena and her dance company put together a combined performance of the East Indian style of Odissi and Sri Lankan Kandyan dancing.
Chitrasena even conducted numerous programmes with non-governmental organisations where she combined Tamil and Kandyan styles of dancing and held performances in Jaffna and Batticaloa to strengthen cultural ties within the island.
Currently the matriarch of the Chitrasena Dance Company, which she founded with her late husband, she has handed over the reins to her children to carry on the Chitrasena legacy. Despite handing over control, however, as per her and her late husband’s request, the company refrains from performing to commercial Hindi music and at popular hotels.
Speaking about the honour afforded to her, Chitrasena stated that she is elated and most thankful to the Indian High Commission for recognising her work. She said the last time the Government of India honoured a Sri Lankan national with the honour was in 2002 in recognition of one of our island’s national treasures, Ramon Magsaysay Award winner late W.D. Amaradeva, and she said it is a great honour to be considered in the category of such great personalities.
When asked if at all there are others who she believes to be deserving of such a prestigious award, while being reluctant to name them, she expressed that Sri Lanka is abundant with talent and one need only give them your attention.
Photos Eshan Dasanayaka