Dancers / Teachers / The Sunday Times

Thaji: Dancing into the Spotlight

From a framed photograph on the wall, a benevolent Chitrasena looks on as his legacy is given new life. On either side mirrors reflect two lines of dancers clad in unrelieved black. Foremost among them is Chitrasena’s daughter Upeka, who in recent decades has been the company’s prized soloist. Just behind her, waiting in the wings, dances her niece. At a tender 22, Thajithanjani has the look of her grandmother – reed thin and exquisite – but her slender form is deceptive. On stage, she is a “firebrand” says Upeka. As one of the youngest members of the dance dynasty founded by Vajira and Chitrasena, Thaji shows incredible promise. Will she be the new face of the company?

Belying her celebrity, Thaji in person comes across as unaffected and rather shy. It is difficult to imagine this smiling girl in complete command of an auditorium but to those who have seen her perform Thaji is indisputably a star. “I think she is one of those people who was born to dance,” says Heshma, Thaji’s first cousin and the choreographer of many of the school’s recent productions. “She doesn’t talk very much…but when it comes to dance, I think that is the best language she speaks.”

Memories of Vajira and Chitrasena: Thaji on stage in a Kandyan dance with Kushan.

On stage, the demure Thaji affects a complete metamorphosis – from a villainous mosquito to virtuous devotee – her versatility remains among her greatest strengths. She is also capable of being wonderfully unrestrained – whirling and leaping with an abandoned, almost preternatural strength. “Thaji has no inhibitions. She loves it and she’s not afraid to say what she wants through dance,” says Heshma.

The daughters of Anudatta (Chitrasena’s son) and Janaki Dias, Thaji and her sister Umadanthi are devoted to the school their grandparents founded – and to preserving a vanishing tradition. Thaji herself says she has no interest in straying from the classical forms she loves – “what is lacking in our country is the traditional work. If we don’t preserve it, nobody else will…it really comes down to that.” If it is unusual to find such an appreciation for tradition in one so young, it is equally surprising to uncover the kind of dogged commitment that Thaji displays.

Since she was five, Thaji has been fascinated by Kandyan dancing. As a child she remembers eating with Chitrasena’s troupe and falling asleep in the corner of the dance hall as her mother rehearsed for a performance. Most of all, she remembers eagerly waiting for one of the dancers to be absent – an empty spot was an excuse to fill in and practise with the grownups. Her grandfather, stern and intimidating, would often chase her away, but Thaji was persistent.

She was ten by the time she recognized the uniqueness of her circumstances. “It was then I started to realise what kind of family I was born into,” says Thaji. By the time she was 12, she had her own solo in a performance choreographed by her grandmother, the indomitable Vajira. By this time she had also begun dancing with her aunt Anjalika – whom she says she continues to have a great deal in common with. Together, the two often teach the younger students. In fact fresh out of Bishop’s College, Thaji chose to pursue a two year Montessori course and hopes to begin teaching formally soon. As a choreographer, it’s likely that her debut will be with a performance early next year featuring her “little battas.”

Having learnt under a succession of stern teachers with high standards, Thaji is something of a perfectionist. She is also, to put it inelegantly, a workhorse. In the run- up to the recent show ‘Dancing for the Gods’ Thaji and the troupe spent several hours every day in rehearsal. Despite all the practice, the young dancer says she still finds each performance nerve wracking and admits to sometimes performing better during rehearsals.

This last confession is made in a small office attached to the dance hall. Thaji has just finished with her first class since last week’s concert. Coated in sweat, she absently pats the latest addition to their kalayathanaya – a demanding kitten called Checkers. Despite her exertions, Thaji seems far from tired. Her body is now a finely tuned instrument, quite up to withstanding the punishment she inflicts on it on a daily basis.

“I make her do all the things I couldn’t do, all the warming up and warming down,” says Upeka, who was herself stretched out on the floor moments ago. “We all had very short careers because we didn’t know these things.” Unsurprisingly, Thaji is keenly aware of the rigours a dancer’s body must withstand. Though she is careless about her diet, she rarely misses an exercise class. “Sometimes I can’t help thinking that in another five years I won’t be able to do this,” she says wincing at the thought of creaking joints and a painful back. But if her aunt is anything to go by, Thaji needn’t be worried.

“I started very late in my life. I was past 30 before I became a soloist,” says Upeka, explaining that she danced behind her parents for many years. “I’ll be sixty next year…and though I will never stop dancing for my students, I don’t know if I want to be on stage anymore. Thaji can carry on now…she’s powerful enough to carry the whole show on her shoulders.” Where Upeka imbues her every gesture with significance, Thaji simply flows. “She has her own style. There’s passion and it comes from here,” says Upeka placing a palm over her heart. “She’ll dance till she falls down, that’s the kind of spirit she has.”

Thaji echoes the gesture when she talks about what she most loves about performing – “the sound of the drums, it hits right here, into your heart,” she says, “That is why I love doing what I’m doing.” Inspired by the incredible women in her family, Thaji says she hopes one day to tackle the roles that made her grandmother and aunt so famous – the swan in ‘Nala Damayanthi’ and the Nilame’s daughter in ‘Kinkini Kolama’. She knows the roles demand exceptional technique and that it may be a while before she’s ready. “I don’t think I am a strong dancer but that’s what I hope to achieve,” she says with characteristic modesty.

For Upeka, Thaji is one of the reasons she sees a “great future” for the company. Along with Heshma and Umi, Thaji has been introducing a few modern elements into the performance. Upeka describes their ambition to draw in more young people and produce shows that are “very short, very quick and very slick.” Prefaced with an introduction to each piece, she hopes such events will bring new audiences to a greater appreciation of classical Kandyan dance. In the end, however, her ace in the pack is Thaji herself – the very embodiment of Chitrasena’s and Vajira’s legacy.

Published in The Sunday Times on September 12, 2010, Sri Lanka. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

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