Forging a New Chapter in a Legacy: Heshma Wignaraja
By Sharanya Sekaram
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Heshma Wignaraja
Illustration by Devini Jay- email@example.com
It was this spirit, the willingness to try all avenues and to be honest with herself and others that has enabled Heshma to meet all life’s challenges and thrive. She fondly remembers learning at the feet of her grandmother Vajira everything from choreography to costume design. She danced from the time she could walk and trained at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya mainly under the tutelage of her aunt Upeka. Her relationship with her grandfather was a little more fraught, but through her time away in the US, realizing her passion, she began to understand him, an ongoing journey. She shares a card she wrote to him when she was away, words from a granddaughter to a man who was larger than life, and deeply loved. She writes to him, “My life has been a struggle, and I will endure. Every day of my life seems to be simply a process that cultivates and deepens my understanding more and more of you, who you are and how fortunate I am to inherit your blood”. It is accompanied by a photograph of the two of them, reminding Heshma of the foundation on which her life’s work is built — the drive to honor the legacy of a family that has essentially pioneered dance theatre in Sri Lanka, and to build upon it.
Although multi-talented, her passion was to dance. However, her grandparent’s Colpetty home, considered the ‘cultural ashram’ of Sri Lanka, where they lived and worked from for over 40 years was taken over for urban development in 1982. This, coupled with the subsequent spiraling of the country into civil unrest didn’t leave much hope for young Heshma to pursue a career in the arts in Sri Lanka. Heshma’s time away in the US has shaped her in many ways; it tapped into a reserve of strength that she now draws on when meeting the challenges that life throws at her. Starting off at a community college and then later receiving a Theater Arts degree in Dance and a minor in Business Studies at the University of California Berkeley, she has found ways through the impossible to thrive. While living with family friends and sometimes working 5 jobs to make ends meet, she maintained high grades and still managed to produce at least two full productions of her own outside of College; she also collaborated with other artists in the area. Despite juggling the many challenges in the US, she would continue to return every summer to perform with the Company, in one case meeting them in Hong Kong. “I had absolutely no money, you know, I was living from paycheck to paycheck. Every time I went to pay my fees, I would have tears in my eyes thinking this is my last semester here,” she reflects, “I used to always feel like I’m just not going to get past this point so I must make the best of it. And just kept going, I got scholarships including to teach Sri Lankan dance through the Artsbridge program and managed to get through it all”.
The country that Heshma returned to in 2005 was not the one she left in 1996. It was further polarized by years of war and was witnessing incessant violence. The damage from the 2004 tsunami was of course beyond human control. It was hard to tell if people had an appetite for art. But for Heshma, an all-rounder accomplished in academics and sports, and with many career options, nothing but dance made sense. With the loss of her grandfather in the year she returned to the island, she felt an urgent need to do what was necessary to carry on his legacy. The Colpetty House may have no longer been there, but its spirit was strong in her. And she had to find a new home for it. “Somehow, other options didn’t speak to me. I felt I must celebrate his life and my grandparents’ work — honour my country in my own way. And I knew that would take much work and a life-long commitment. I felt ready for both.”
Today she is the Artistic Director of the Chitrasena Dance Company and School, current visionary for the School and the Company leading the way into a new era while ensuring the traditional roots and legacy remain uncompromised through changing times. As a member of the third generation of the family, she is now rearticulating that legacy as she works to preserve and build on the foundation laid by her grandparents. Heshma is far from alone, surrounded by the fierce and close family bonds from which this legacy was born. “Frankly, I find only my family to be eccentric enough to do this the way we do.” She remembers telling her husband when he was proposing, “well, you know you’re not marrying just the individual. You’re marrying an entire school. Not even a family. It’s an entire school of 400 kids who dance. And he said, ``Yeah, I know that”. Heshma and her cousin Umi are, in many ways, the unseen pillars of the Company and School. Meanwhile, Heshma’s younger cousin Thaji, the Company’s Principal Dancer, is its more public face. Grandma Vajira, Aunt Upeka and mum Anjalika are still the gurus who show them the way. It is probably one of the only schools currently having three generations of teachers who have dedicated their entire life to the dance. In a world where the pace is often frenetic, and art is valued only in commercial terms, keeping alive the deep river of tradition that flows through their work can be extremely challenging.
This focus on innovating from within the tradition has earned Heshma the tongue-in-cheek moniker of being neurotic on occasion. This is something she laughingly and freely admits to, with a caveat. “I’m not neurotic unreasonably,” she says, reflecting on the external pressures of being tasked to keep this legacy alive that they as a family often grapple with. “I am a perfectionist. I believe nothing good comes easy and that there are no shortcuts. The work ethic is most important. ‘You don’t ever compromise your art’ this is what I imbibed growing up. So it is not about me and making a name as a choreographer or anything like that, but it is about keeping a certain tradition alive. My grandfather warned me that unless we girls can swim against the tide, let it die a natural death. He never forced us to carry on his work. So for any major decision making or necessity to clear the air amongst the core team, we meet up and discuss matters. It is literally a test of commitment and discipline. If there is any doubt or wavering by anyone, we address it and move on or there’s freedom to let go. The mantra is that we either do it right or we don’t do it at all “. It doesn’t seem likely that this third generation will walk away soon; the passion for preserving and evolving this craft is steeped in their blood and bones.
In 2012, perhaps Heshma’s most significant learning experience, far beyond any university or formal training she had at this point, came when worked on the critically acclaimed collaboration “Samhara’’ with Nrityagram, India’s celebrated Dance Ensemble, which opened up new vistas for how she could present our traditional dance forms to contemporary audiences, She describes this as her most pivotal work experience, culminating in a much celebrated and riveting piece of art. The relationship between the two groups goes back many years, and through Samhara, Heshma’s skill as a choreographer was elevated under the guidance of Surupa Sen, Artistic Director of Nrityagram. Her technical skills in lighting classical dance also developed, as she watched and learnt from Lynne Fernandez, the Technical and Managing Director of Nrityagram. The bond between the two groups runs deep, and for Heshma with Nrityagram, she found a home that echoed the lost “Colpetty House ‘’ the place where her grandparents built the Company. “It was very similar. They lived there. Artists gathered there. We ate, slept, drank, and danced there, but that is no more. So, when we went to Nrityagram, it was almost like rediscovering that feeling and being guided at the same time,” she explains. “The minute I sat near Surupadi to work with her, I was transported to another time and space, watching and observing the way she was working; it reminded me of my grandfather because she is so in tune with every aspect, not just technique and dance. Beyond the dance”.
Heshma is also profoundly concerned with perpetuating the arts through its people — and her indomitable spirit continues to find ways to do this. In 2018 she led the Company to spearhead the Guru Gedara Festival, described as “Sri Lanka’s first immersive traditional Arts Festival.” For four days in the grounds of the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya, traditional artists from the dance and allied arts gathered to practice and showcase the process of their work as it has been done for centuries. Heshma describes what fired her to create this Festival, “To me, it’s my language. The dance is the way we speak and communicate. And I want to be able to share that as best as possible with the world. So, I did the Guru Gedara Festival because it is important to understand the layers of the traditional arts. I find that in this fast-moving world, even our own people need to be reminded and given a chance to connect with their past, to understand who they are in one sense. One of the things my grandfather always insisted is that if you lose the root, you will lose the spirit “.
Even today, Heshma is deeply committed to pursuing her vision for the Company and what it represents. As a young woman, she had once wanted to study architecture under the legendary Anjalendran. Today she works with him as he creates the “Guru Gedara,” the permanent home for the Guru to live and guide their work the way it had always been done. A space that was traditionally occupied by males will be for Gurus Vajira and Upeka. Heshma’s brainchild and her most challenging project, however, is the scholarship program that she started nearly 10 years ago. This allows dancers to practice their art fully, in the traditional sense — dance, drums, allied arts, theatre craft and other life skills without the struggle for survival. She explains, “I want to recreate the spirit of the Colpetty House, where people live to dance. A place where others can experience that and fall in love with our dance. It will offer a home to support daring dreamers — to live, learn, create and share their passion”. There is a constant search for patrons who will support this vision so that these artists can hone their traditional stagecraft without compromise, and without resorting to fusion and digitization, something Heshma views warily at best. She believes in the art of the body, saying firmly, “for me, it is very, very important that the traditional dances remain as living art forms. As my grandfather once said, ‘living art forms can’t be preserved like museum pieces.’ So, it is up to each generation. We must all keep alive the rituals and also celebrate them as unique stage art forms. For this constant practice with undivided attention, allows for freedom in finding natural developments and conscientious growth. Understanding its purpose and spirit is imperative.”
(Sharanya Sekaram is the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka and identifies (for now) as a Sri Lankan feminist activist, researcher, and writer — working as a consultant in the gender space. She is currently reading for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colombo and you can find her on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”)
The F Word with Smriti Daniel | Heshma Wignaraja and Thaji Dias, Pulse Sri Lanka, 3rd January 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKGlwsK58hg
Heshma Wignaraja: Thoughts on dance and choreography, Groundviews ,https://groundviews.org/2011/01/26/heshma-wignaraja-thoughts-on-dance-and-choreography/
The Guru Gedara Festival: Rekindling forgotten glory, life Online, 28th August 2018 http://www.life.lk/article/lifestyle/The-Guru-Gedara-Festival:-Rekindling-forgotten-glory/45/18157
Colombo Dance Platform: Heshma Wignaraja — Pantheru Matha, https://vimeo.com/111918688
Two Forms in Conversation, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/24/arts/dance/speaking-in-dance-nrityagram-samhara-revisited.html
Samhara: Interview with Heshma Wignaraja, Bijayini Satpathy, and Surupa Sen, https://vimeo.com/41850906
Two Dance Forms, And A Story of Friendship Across the Palk Strait, The Hindu, 5th June 2017 https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/two-dance-forms-and-a-story-of-friendship-across-the-palk-strait/article18718439.ece