Nov 10, 2016

Pundit Amaradeva & Sinhala Song ; A different perspective

"Maestro Amaradeva belonged to the generation of pioneers, whose quest was the Sri Lankan identity and the indigenous character. The country is indebted to him for the exceptional service he rendered to us by exploring the roots of local music to enrich it to an unprecedented high. Maestro Amaradeva reached the pinnacle of Sinhala music and brought fame to our nation."

Above is a quote from the official message of condolence by HE the President, Maithripala Sirisena on the sorrowful demise of Pundit Amaradeva. Reading through many such appreciations by many distinguished personalities, one would see the core message and reason to mourn Amaradeva's final parting, is no different to that by President Sirisena. The accepted and unchallenged common narrative thus remains, "Amaradeva was the Sri Lankan identity in music with an indigenous character. He reached the pinnacle of Sinhala music and with that he brought fame to our nation. Therefore the whole country is indebted to him.”

All of it contains heavy contradictions from beginning to end. All of it brings to discussion, what the Sinhala perception of "the country" and the "nation" is. What a 'Sri Lankan' identity is with an indigenous character.

To begin with, let me say that Amaradeva was no musical demigod. He was an exceptionally talented human being with an unusually emotive voice. With that he grew to fame born into a Catholic-Christian society in Koralawella, Moratuwa and then determinedly walked through an evolving Sinhala socio political culture to be accepted by its politics as a "pioneer" in Sinhala music who could be identified with the Sinhala Buddhist culture that evolved.

The Sinhala culture, though projected as the "most noble country" in this world (ලෝකෙන් උතුම් රට), lacked any musical tradition all through its history. While all round in every culture, there are folk music traditions with folk songs, Sinhala society that grew influenced by Theravada Buddhism is perhaps the only one that has nothing more than its Pali stanzas (පිරිත්) sung by monks in a rhythmic style and few folk poems, all of very primitive musical patterns. Lionel Ranwala and Rohana Baddage, two among a few others tried to bring those melodies out in creative form to impress upon society that there was a Sinhala musical tradition. Yet, were not rich enough to be moulded into a strong genre to survive.

Sinhala music and song grew within about a hundred years or so and not more. It grew influenced by Christian and Catholic choir singing and Baila after the advent of Portuguese and the Dutch. It grew therefore first in the Maritime Provinces and not within the rural Sinhala society. Thereafter Sinhala song was what the old Tower Hall theatre provided through John de Silva's South Indian borrowed melodies. The long absence of a musical life in Sinhala Buddhist culture and the influence of the Catholic-Christian church alng with borrowed South Indian melodies, was reason for all early singers to be non Buddhists and often non Sinhala too. Names like M.K Vincent, H.W. Rupasinghe, Lakshmi Bhai, A.R.M Ibrahim, Rajalakshmi to later Ananda Samarakoon (George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon), Sunil Santha (Don Joseph John), Rukmani Devi (Daisy Rasammah Daniels), Mohideen Baig, Latha Walpola, Vincent de Paul Pieris to C.T. Fernando and early musicians like M.K. Rocksami, Mohammad Gauss and R. Muttusamy prove this beyond doubt.

It was in mid 1930's the search for an established musical tradition for Sinhala song began with the anti Colonial sentiments becoming a factor in the search for a "Sinhala" identity. Dharmapala's Sinhala campaigns and the coming of the Sinhala Maha Sabha perhaps had their impacts too in that. The Sinhala reach therefore was towards the Hindustani or Uttara Bharathiya tradition of music and not the Dravidian Karnataka musical tradition. Uttara Bharathiya musical tradition that was Hindustani and representing a society that was anti British too, went well and better than Karnataka musical tradition with Sinhala sentiments.

Emergence of Kumaranatunge Munidasa's "Hela" language did influence Ananda Samarakoon in deviating him from the chosen Uttara Bharathiya musical tradition to seek musical training in the Tagore tradition at Santhinikethan. His influence from both Hela and Tagore music made him different to the more popular Sinhala songs of the time in both lyrics and melody. His contemporary Sunil Santha also trained in music at Santhinikethan travelled further with his Kumaranatunge influence in Hela language and his affinity to Bengali musical traditions as well. Sunil Santha's command of the Hela language is seen in lyrics that was simple and often about life in rural Sinhala society. His lyrical style fitted well into his melodies both in rhythm and their metre that helped create a new popular genre in music and Sinhala song in the 50's.

Trained in Uttara Bharatiya tradition, Amaradeva grew within this new experimental process of finding a "Sinhala" identity not only in music and song but in film, drama and literature as well. These initial experimental efforts begin with less influence from Kumaranatunge. The 50's, thus bring very creative pioneering personalities like Chitrasena, Sarachchandra, Lester James Pieris, Martin Wickramasinghe and Pani Bharatha in to mainstream Sinhala culture. Though in a very isolated way, this was also a period that saw some Catholic priests wanting to position themselves within the Sinhala culture and Father Marcelline Jayakody's entry as a lyricist records that effort. It was also a period that lessened the influence of Kumaranatunge Munidasa and left more space for an oriental Sinhala path.

This was when in 1956, the Bandaranayake politics made "Sinhala" the official identity of Ceylon, ideologically closing its culture to the outside world. The tagline to this introvert Sinhala politics was "All things local provides all the joy" (සිය රට දේ සිරි සැප දේ). Thus it left Tamil culture deprived of the Colombo centric political patronage the Sinhala cultural activities were privileged with. Though Tamil was also a medium of education, over the years with Sinhala as the official language, the State evolved into a Sinhala State leaving Tamil culture marginalised within its domain of political patronage. The social ideology that dominated planning, designing and deciding all things "national" became the Sinhala mind-set of the State. This eventually made the Sinhala constituency to believe and to act on their belief, as the single "nation" in the country called and known as "Sri Lanka".

That thinking gave a new and a dominating fillip to Sinhala art and literature, pro 1956. The "Radio Ceylon" carried educative programmes for both children and adults. Classical Raagadhari music was introduced regularly through its programmes for Sinhala listeners. Radio Ceyon was also the place where persons like C, de S Kulathilake and W.B. Makuloluwa had State patronage to experiment in creating a Sinhala musical tradition. Radio being the most penetrative communicating media then, its influence across the country was more than the print media. Radio Ceylon from mid '50s employed very selective literary personalities like Madawala S. Ratnayake, Dunstan de Silva and P. Welikala to improve the quality of its Sinhala service. The traditional mainstream Sinhala print media also introduced Sinhala literature of good quality for readers.

It was in such a dominating Sinhala cultural milieu that Amaradeva reaches the classical realm of Sinhala culture. His creative ability, his emotive voice and his command of the Sanskritised Sinhala language, provided him the advantage of stamping his footprint in classical Sinhala music very much on a Raagadhari niche, the elitist platform in Sinhala music and song. The more popular platform generally outside film songs and defined by Radio Ceylon as "Sarala Gie" ('Simple Songs', akin to the Western identification of 'light music') being occupied by singers like Rukmani Devi, Sidney Attygalla, C.T. Fernando, Chitra and P.L.A Somapala, Latha and Dharmadasa Walpola, Indrani and Sisira Senaratne and then H.R.Jothipala, Milton Perera to name a few. This popular platform became more cosmopolitan with Spanish and Calypso influence in early 60's beginning with "Los Caballeros" and Neville Fernando provoking a string of musical groups singing simple lyrics in harmony.

Amaradeva thus retained his prestigious position as the "Guru" in Sinhala classical music and song in the company of another less spoken of a maestro, Somadasa Elvitigala. Having worked with renowned lyricists like Madawala S. Ratnayake and Dalton Alwis, he thereafter had the advantage of having Mahagama Sekera as his companion on a journey in finding a new path in Sinhala lyrics and song. The 60's and 70's thus became Amaradeva's golden era. Most songs that were aired by radio and TV channels after his demise were songs written by Sekara. Songs like "Rathnadeepa Janmabhoomi, Wakkada langa, Piley pedura, Sannaliyane, Irata muvawen, Aetha Kandukara Himau Araney, Mala Ira basina" that lift Amaradeva above the ordinary into the legend he is in Sinhala music and song, were all written by Sekara.

His voice lent a Sinhala flavour to all the songs he sang. His melodies touched a chord in the Sinhala urban and rural middle class that allowed them to feel "Sinhala" in their musical taste. Thus the importance of Pundit Amaradeva is that he co-pioneered a soul searching musical life the Sinhala people lacked from their ancestry. A void the Sinhala people now feel have been filled by Amaradeva. But to call him the Sri Lankan identity in music with an indigenous character and that he brought fame to our nation for which the whole country is indebted to him is beyond Tamil perception. It is also unfair to ask them to accept Amaradeva in such context, even if they enjoy Amaradeva songs. For the Tamil and the Tamil speaking people in this country was not in the process in which Amaradeva grew to be the icon of Sinhala music and there was nothing inclusive in it.

- Kusal Perera