Two prominent Sri Lankan women have been named as recipients of the Padma Shri awards for their respective contribution to the arts and language teaching, and strengthening ties with India, the High Commission here said.
Veteran Kandyan dance exponent and guru Vajira Chitrasena, and linguist Indra Dassanayake, a well-known professor of Hindi who passed away last year, will receive one of the highest civilian honours in India, for their “pioneering contributions in their individual fields of work and for strengthening India-Sri Lanka ties”, a statement from the mission here said.
Ms. Vajira, 87, is the first Sri Lankan woman to take up Kandyan dance — traditionally performed by men — as her full-time profession. In addition to performing world over with her late husband Chitrasena, her teacher and a pioneer in the field, she has choreographed several acclaimed productions and has been teaching scores of students over the past six decades, emphasising the rigour and distinct aesthetic that the Chitrasena Dance Company is known for.
The Chitrasena couple have a special bond with India, where they travelled often from 1959 to 1998 and collaborated with artistes from different genres. “It was a dream for my husband Chitrasena to receive this honour, as he studied at Tagore’s Shantiniketan and with Guru Gopinath at Kalamandalam in Kerala. He was greatly inspired by Tagore and Udaya Shankar Ji. India is like home to us,” Ms. Vajira said, responding to the recognition. The longstanding friendship they forged decades ago with fellow artistes across the Palk Strait culminated in ‘Samhara’, when the Colomb-based dance company collaborated with Bangalore-based Odissi school Nrityagram.
Guru Chitrasena — whose 99th birth anniversary was observed on Sunday — ‘polished’ Kandyan dance techniques, bringing it to the modern stage from the village ritual, Ms. Vajira noted, adding that it was “good fortune” to have been his partner and to create a professional path for female dancers.
Indra Dassanayake was a renowned Professor of Hindi at the Kelaniya University, near Colombo. An alumnus of the University of Lucknow, Prof. Dassanayake is considered a pioneer in teaching the language in Sri Lanka, especially for her efforts in re-establishing the Department at the university in 1995 that is the largest centre of Hindi studies in the island. Thanks to her initiative, the language is taught in over 80 Sri Lankan institutions and schools and six universities. Her contribution to promoting the language also won her the ‘Dr. George Grierson Hindi Sevi Samman for 2005’ at the World Hindi Conference in New Delhi, the Indian mission said in a media release.
The last time that the government of India honoured a Sri Lankan national with the honour was in 2002, recognising musician and Magsaysay award winner W.D. Amaradeva with the Padma Shri.