By Vishwamithra1984 –
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” ~John Keats
It was the early nineteen seventies, 1971 to be precise. I had just turned twenty and vigorous and full of energy as one could be in his early twenties. We had travelled to the South of Sri Lanka, the sleeping city of Galle as Norah Roberts described it in her book ‘Galle as Quiet as Asleep’. After helping ourselves to a delectable lunch of yellow rice, fish ambulthiyal, black pork curry and vegetables grown in the garden of the host, we attended a special event organized by the school students in Galle district. We came back to the abode of our host after finishing my speaking engagement in a nearby community hall that was rented to us for the purpose of a Student Seminar. The village is Kataluwa, some miles inside Galle, a typical rural setting, occupied by lush green paddy fields, all promising a harvest yet to be reaped in a month’s time. We decided to go for a bath to a spout located nearby. Refreshed with a cool spout-bath, bare-bodied and in our local sarongs we plodded our way back to the home of the host.
Pundit W.D. Amaradeva [Photo courtesy Sandra Mack]
We were fascinated by the surrounding green foliage of the village and a slow gentle breeze caressed our bodies at the most absorbing time of the day, twilight. In the short distance we had to travel back home, an even more enchanting and sweeping voice captivated the spirit and soul of all of us. It was the song of Nala Damayanthi, depicting the eternal love between Nala and Damayanthi, a story in the epic Mahabharata. Chithrasena and Vajira of the local fame, pioneers of Sinhala Mudranatya gifted the Sinhala arts with a most momentous scene. The amalgam of Chithrasena’s subtlest rendition of local opera, Mahagama Sekera’s heart-wrenching lyrics and Amaradeva’s divine voice echoed in our ears. Some literary critics still say the song ‘Eatha Kandukara’ sung by Amaradeva is arguably the greatest of all Sinhala songs in our music catalogues. The genius of the blend of Chithrasena, Sekera and Amaradeva for short four to five minutes of the local stage in Nala Damayanthi drama in its own way produced a stunning depiction of love, drama and poetry, all in one scene. This kind of originality and stubborn adherence to classical richness of art provoked the local artists to unshackle the binding grip of South Indian influence on our cinema, dramas and music.
The voice of Amaradeva and his unrelenting pursuit of perfection in music and singing is indeed a gift to our culture that has not yet been surpassed by any pretender or disciple. The production of the radio program Madhuvanthi with Mahagama Sekera, Chandraratne Manawasinghe and Madawala Ratnayake in the late fifties and early sixties was an unmatched treat in which most Sri Lankan followers of the art of music and song indulged. A new tradition of Sinhala music and song was born and the wasting influence of South Indian music which included, among others, Sinhala songs sung by South Indian artists, occupied a back seat on the local music stage.
In the mid nineteen fifties a national upheaval was in the offing. In a relatively economic boom-period, when the prices at the international markets for tea, rubber and coconut were at their peak, the Korean War having generated an unprecedented market for our natural rubber, a nation that was trying to clear the fuzzy cobwebs of imperialism, mercantilism and caste-ridden societal viruses, a cultural rejuvenation was knocking at the door. The year 1956 did not usher in just a political transformation; what emerged was not just a societal change pregnant with the new and ambitious, it was all that and much more. The lightning strikes of a cultural resurgence were visible on the western horizon of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called. Sinhala song found its source; it discovered the depths of the spirit of a nation and dogged stoicism of our rural richness; it serenaded the village damsel while paying righteous tribute to the Master- Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Sekera’s words on the Great Teacher so richly embodied in the great Avukana Buddha Statue “Ese Mathuwana Kandulu Bindu Gena Obe Siripa Dowannam”, were rendered in the echoing voice of Amaradeva; Madawala Ratnayake serenaded a village damsel, Ruwanmalee, who was taken away from life by the village stream, in the most haunting words: ‘Totamuna Bada Siti Ruwanmalee’ and Amaradeva’s vocal tribute was a pure work of art; Manawasinghe’s hypnotizing words of “Weli Tala Athare Himihita Basina” and Amaradeva’s lilting singing gives the listener utter joy of a spiritual odyssey.
The four elements that combine to create a great song- lyrics, melody, music and voice- produced an amalgam of extraordinary nature. Amaradeva, Sri Lanka’s maestro of Sinhala song and music was not merely a product of the age; nor was he just a personification of an era; he was not merely the voice of the change that awaited bigger transformation. He represented all of that, and more. He was a cultural icon beyond compare, a spirit of an age beyond the reaches of mere mortals. Among a galaxy of men and women of arts at the time, amongst whom were Martin Wickremasinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Mahagama Sekera, Chithrasena and Vajira and Lester James Peiris, Amaradeva stood along with them on the same podium.
Men of extraordinary gift and talent are not confined to the geographical boundaries within which they were born; such men and women transcend the very confines that encircle them and break open new doors to new paths and journeys. Amaradeva was such a pioneer; he was a man of supremely poetic voice, the timber of the tone reverberated the surrounding glass and steel; a voice that changed its genre and the nuanced vocal strains generated the precise feel and sensation the stanzas intended to express. His peers at the time Amaradeva launched himself into the glamor and splendor of local music and song were Sunil Santha and Ananda Samarakoon. While Sunil Santha’s contribution to Sinhala music was unique in that his voice that rang like a bell blended with the simplicity of the melody and lyrical ease, Samarakoon rendered the field with rustic ripeness and enriched it with mesmerizing simplicity. But Amaradeva was different. His drama with the life of local culture and tradition transcended all frontiers of simplicity and plainness. That is why he lasted more than one half of a century in the same field and hypnotized many a listener to a hazy world of utter calmness and unadulterated joy.
The same era produced giants like Dharmadasa Walpola, H R Jothipala and Milton Perera. They too were appreciated and adored by hundreds of thousands of fans. While Jothipala and Milton Perera sang songs of South Indian and Hindi genre, Amaradeva’s originality was a fresh breeze sweeping across an entire nation of fans. H R Jothipala who possessed a charismatic voice and disciplined art of singing, in my opinion, was the best singer of Sri Lanka who did not sing a single ‘good’ song. It may sound as a paradox, yet I hold, it’s true.
The next generation of Sinhala vocalists that includes talents of the caliber of Latha Walpola, Victor Ratnayake, Sanath Nandasiri, Sunil Edirisinghe, Edward Jayakody, Amarasiri Peiris and Nanda Malini and Neela Wickremasinghe most admirably contributed to the richness of the field of music and song. Theirs is a path that spread before each future musician and singer needs to follow with determination and perseverance, for failure to do so would be a cultural sin of national proportions. The greatest tribute one can pay to a cultural colossus like Amaradeva lies in one’s dedication and the same willingness and readiness to reward an eager listening mass of people with the same sophistication and class that Amaradeva personified throughout his personal life. An extremely simple man, Amaradeva was not one of those celebrities who showed arrogance and cockiness with which most of our current crop of celebrities are associated. Until his death at the ripe old age of eighty nine, Amaradeva was a man of unrivaled integrity and apolitical disposition in all his dealings with a world prone to corrupt and contaminating political dynamics.
Words fail me in this humble tribute to a great soul. A soul that enchanted generations, a soul that ripened with each song he sang and each musical presentation, either in cinema or drama, the voice will continue to echo in the wide rustic fields of our rural cultural land and in the sophisticated corridors of Colombo.
John Keats, English Romantic poet of the second generation of Romantic poets wrote his famous ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:
“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown”
Amaradeva’s voice will surely echo around our surroundings, without a break.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org