Yazhpanam P.S. Balamurugan had to cancel nearly a dozen performances in India last year, after the pandemic made it impossible to travel from Jaffna, where he lives, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
“I participated in some online events, and in another instance recorded a performance here and shared it with organisers there, but there’s nothing like a live performance in front of an eager audience,” says the nagaswaram artiste, who has a steadily growing fan base in south India.
Those who heard him play Charukesi at a Chennai concert over two years ago have neither forgotten the rendition nor been able to appreciate other Charukesis since, without being reminded of his. The robust sound emanating from his wind instrument, sustained by long, full breaths, brimming with life and emotion, casts a spell on audiences.
For Sri Lankan artistes like him, performing in India defied the usual logistical complications of going abroad. The relatively friendly visa regime, innumerable flight options, and the short travel time — a Colombo-Chennai flight takes less than an hour, and a Jaffna-Chennai flight was introduced in 2019 — made travel fairly simple. “I can’t wait to travel and perform there again once borders open up,” says Balamurugan.
Kandyan dance exponent and guru Upeka Chitrasena has performed across the world, but the audience in India, especially Chennai, is “something else,” she says. “Rows and rows of elderly people and children sit through performances, keeping taal and responding with spontaneous applause when they like something. It is rare to see that sort of engagement and passion.”
Collaboration with Nrityagram
The stronger magnet pulling her, however, is some 370 km away from Chennai. When she says she dearly misses India, she means she misses Nrityagram, the Odissi dance village near Bengaluru that has been second home for the renowned Sri Lankan artiste since 2003. This is the longest she has been away, given that she usually makes five or six trips a year. “I stopped performing in 2011 and only teach now, so seeing dancers at Nrityagram learn and rehearse gives me the energy of my own performance days,” she says.
Artistes from the Colombo-based Chitrasena Dance Company, named after Upeka’s father, Sri Lanka’s pioneering Kandyan dance exponent, and the Nrityagram group have been collaborating for a decade now. Two productions, ‘Samhara’ (2012) and ‘Ahuti’ (2019), bring the two very different but delightfully complementary traditions, Kandyan and Odissi, in conversation. The pandemic meant that the two groups missed some joint performance tours last year, but they have stayed in touch all through. Their long professional and artistic collaboration has birthed precious friendships — like Chitrasena’s with Nrityagram’s artistic director and Odissi exponent Surupa Sen. Several trips across the Palk Strait from both sides, both planned and impromptu, have strengthened these ties.
It was 2019; artistes from the two dance schools were rehearsing for ‘Ahuti’ in Bengaluru. Surupa had casually mentioned to Chitrasena’s artistic director, Heshma Wignaraja, and principal dancer, Thaji Dias [both Chitrasena’s nieces], how lovely it would be to have Upeka Chitrasena for Guru Poornima the next day. “I got a call on a Saturday evening from my nieces about this. And by 5 p.m. on Sunday, I was at Surupa’s doorstep, surprising her. I cannot forget her expression when she saw me there,” says Chitrasena, adding: “So many memorable rehearsals, performances, conversations, and birthdays together — I miss all of those!” Her mother, the senior Kandyan dance exponent, choreographer and guru, Vajira Chitrasena, was chosen for the Padma Shri award in India last year, but the pandemic meant she could not travel to New Delhi to receive the honour.
Colombo-based Bharatanatyam artiste and teacher Thivya Sujen has had different reasons to go Tamil Nadu every year. If she was not taking her Abhinayakshetra School of Dance’s productions there, she was visiting to work on the music score. “It was our honour to collaborate with composers like Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and Rajkumar Bharathi for our productions. I would spend about a fortnight there for the recordings,” she says.
Thivya also took her students who were preparing for their maiden stage performance to Chennai for the photoshoots and to get their costumes done. But what the dancer misses most is visiting her guru, C.V. Chandrasekhar, the veteran Bharatanatyam exponent. She had been especially looking forward to meeting him on his 85th birthday last May, but travel was shut down. She decided to mark the occasion in Sri Lanka by setting up the Global Association of Sri Lankan Bharatanatyam Artistes, a platform bringing together performers and teachers who were forced to leave the country during the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983.
She also organised online lectures with Indian artistes, such as Priyadarsini Govind, and began a virtual ‘Nattuvangam’ course, again periodically roping in Indian artistes. “I believe the relationship between artistes of Sri Lanka and India must continue online until we can meet again in person,” she says.
“No one expected this sort of break,” says ‘Kambavarithy’ Ilankai Jeyaraj, a renowned Tamil scholar, who founded and helms the Kamban Kazhagam in Sri Lanka. Other than frequently travelling to India to participate in literary meets or to deliver lectures — sometimes even five times a month — Jeyaraj has been a prime force bringing senior Indian artistes and scholars to Sri Lanka every year. The Kamban Kazhagam’s ticket-free arts festivals, held in Colombo and Jaffna, are known for the huge crowds they draw. Their last festival was in early 2020, when playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam was honoured.
“We have invited Indian artistes since the mid-1990s, and over the years they have built a special bond with audiences here. They stay in our homes, eat with us, spend time with us… only such strong relationships built over time can brave an unprecedented situation like this pandemic,” says Jeyaraj.
Along with its branch in Australia, the Colombo Kamban Kazhagam held its literary meet online and has also begun sharing videos from its archives on its website. Meanwhile, Jeyaraj is remotely working with musician Bombay Jayashri, a regular and much-loved performer in Colombo and Jaffna, on an album of devotional verses.
Both artistes and audiences are “yearning for interaction,” Jeyaraj says, hoping a physical festival might become possible this year.