24 July, 2024

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The Rhythmic Rebel: Austin Munasinghe’s Mark On Sri Lankan Soundscapes

By Tharupathi Munasinghe

Dr. Tharupathi Munasinghe

[This article commemorates Austin Munasinghe’s 82nd birth anniversary]

COLOMBO- From the rhythms and beats that pulsate through the streets of Colombo to the lullabies sung in the distant villages, a revolutionary influence can be discerned. Between 1941 to 1997, a unique figure emerged, transforming the very essence of Sri Lankan music—Austin Munasinghe. But who was he?

The title ‘The Rhythmic Rebel’ doesn’t merely paint Munasinghe as an authority in the music sphere, though his competence is without question. It depicts a man who chose to challenge, disrupt, and rewrite the rules. While many can claim to have left a ‘mark’, Munasinghe’s legacy is etched deeply, not just in songs and compositions but in the very soundscapes of Sri Lanka.

The use of the term “soundscapes” is strategic. It evokes a feeling that his influence is not limited to one genre or style. Instead, Munasinghe’s touch has permeated every corner of the nation’s auditory experience. From the folk songs of the countryside to the modern beats of urban centers, his presence is felt, altering the sounds and rhythms that have come to define Sri Lankan music. 

Austin Munasinghe at Beijing Radio Station

But while his musical influence is profound, it also raises a more general observation about the power of art forms. The written word, for instance, has always been a tool of revolution. It incites, motivates, and drives change, using its explicitness to convey potent messages. Literature, with its words, has stood at the forefront of many societal transformations, resonating deeply with readers and inspiring movements.

However, music, on the other hand, possesses a unique quality. It doesn’t explicitly state its intentions. Instead, it envelopes listeners in melodies and rhythms, evoking emotions and sparking thought. This raises a question: Can music, with its subtlety and depth, capture the revolutionary spirit as effectively as the directness of words? If Munasinghe’s legacy is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Through his work, he demonstrated that music could indeed be a force of change, challenging conventions and setting new standards. Sri Lanka’s soundscape, forever changed by this rhythmic rebel, is testament to that. 

Austin Munasinghe is a significant figure in Sri Lankan music, renowned for his ability to encapsulate the essence of revolution through his compositions. Rather than just creating songs, he masterfully used music to narrate tales of societal changes and passions. While literature directly conveys feelings with words, music uses its intrinsic qualities to express emotions, from the urgency of a revolution with rapid tempos to introspective moments with slow melodies. Munasinghe’s brilliance was in blending modern techniques with traditional Sri Lankan music elements. His works often combined classical Sri Lankan instruments with modern harmonies, representing the balance between the old and the new. Munasinghe expertly employed instrumental dynamics to convey revolutionary feelings in his music. Crescendos represented resistance, whereas diminuendos represented introspection or setbacks. His dissonance, reflecting clashing ideals, would eventually resolve into harmony, depicting post-revolution calm. Munasinghe’s music touches the spirit, while literature describes social changes. He uses old and new elements and strategic dynamics to make listeners comprehend and feel the revolutionary spirit. His work shows that music can transmit revolution’s spirit as well as words.

From Moratuwa’s Rubber Garden Road to Haywood Music College

MORATUWA – Nestled amidst rubber plantations and coconut groves, ‘Rubber Garden Road’ (rubber wättä pãra) winds its scenic path, connecting Devala Road to a picturesque valley. At its heart stands a traditional house crowned with Sinhala tiles, its garden flourishing with colourful blooms and fruit-laden trees. This house, with stories echoing through its corridors, belonged to the Munasinghe clan, with Thomas “Mullegedara” Munasinghe at its helm, a known building contractor in the community. Alongside his wife, Donna Corotta Kerlaine, the couple raised a brood of seven. Born on 4th September 1941, their fifth child, Austin Munasinghe, would go on to carve a name for himself in the annals of Sri Lankan music.

The 1960s marked a turning point. An application form from the “Haywood” Institute (which would later evolve into the University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo) found its way to the Munasinghe household, brought in by Austin’s elder sister. Primarily known for courses in sewing and fine arts, the institute also had a music curriculum, which caught Austin’s eye. Following a successful practical examination, Austin immersed himself in a six-year degree, refining his musical prowess.

By 1962, Austin’s talents caught the attention of the esteemed stage play producer, Henry Jayasena. Their association, which began with the musical production of “Janēlaya,” with compositions by Somadasa Alvitigala, birthed other collaborative masterpieces such as “Kuvēni,” “Thavath Udesanak,” “Manaranjana Wedawarjana,” and “Hunuwatayē Kathãwa.”

Post his Haywood graduation in 1967, Austin’s thirst for knowledge led him to Lucknow, India, where he delved deeper into advanced musical studies. His return to Sri Lanka saw him join the esteemed Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) Orchestra, embarking on a new chapter of composition. Tailoring musical designs to theatrical narratives, Austin showcased his multifaceted artistic talents. Collaborating with lyricists and theatre directors, he breathed life into narratives with his compositions and rhythmic orchestrations, crafting an ambiance unique to each theatrical performance. Austin Munasinghe’s journey, from the lush landscapes of Moratuwa to the prestigious hallways of Haywood and beyond, showcases a tale of passion, dedication, and an undying love for music.

Rhythmic Maestro Bridging Tradition and Innovation

Music aficionados of Sri Lanka are no strangers to the rhythmic ingenuity of Austin Munasinghe. His compositions have not only touched souls but have uniquely unified intricate rhythmic undercurrents with sweeping melodies. Delving into the roots of Munasinghe’s love affair with rhythm, two critical influences emerge – his profound music education and his vivid childhood memories. In his early days, Munasinghe’s musical academia at the Heywood Institute directed him towards the Tabla, an emblem of rhythmic grandeur in classical Indian compositions. The Tabla’s heart lies in its ‘tãlas‘ – a symphony of beats, a testament to the intricacy of rhythm. Immersing himself in the world of talas, Munasinghe emerged not merely as a proficient Tabla player, but as an artist whose very understanding of rhythm was forever transformed. This paradigm shift in perception was evident as he crafted compositions resplendent in rhythmic diversity.

A quintessential illustration of Munasinghe’s craft is “Nangita Bendapu Mal viyanai,” sung by Senanayaka Weraliyadda for the tele-drama “Vana Sarana,” directed by the Dr. Tissa Abeysekara. In a Harmonic Revelation, Austin Munasinghe Introduces Senanayaka Weraliyadda’s Distinctive Voice to the Sri Lankan Musical Tapestry with the Melodic Nangita Bendapu Mal viyanai song. On the surface, the song gracefully traverses a 4/4-time signature, yet what mesmerizes is Munasinghe’s infusion of a 3/4 rhythmic cycle within. This ingenious overlay creates a rhythmic tapestry that captivates, occasionally mystifying listeners. But Munasinghe’s genius didn’t just stop at rhythmic innovation. He anchored “Nangita Bendapu Mal viyanai” in Sri Lanka’s heritage, drawing inspiration from the ‘kiri Koraha‘ dance of the Vedda indigenous people. A dance not merely for entertainment, but a spiritual conduit for blessings from revered deities. Through this song, Munasinghe wasn’t just orchestrating notes, but weaving a narrative, reviving a tradition, and connecting listeners to a cultural lineage.

However, it wasn’t just his formal education that shaped Munasinghe’s musical journey. His childhood, set against the backdrop of a gods’ temple (dēvala), serenaded him with the rhythms of traditional drumming, particularly from the low country. These rhythms weren’t just beats to young Munasinghe; they were an intricate part of the cultural mosaic of Sri Lanka. His affinity went beyond mere listening; he revealed in the act of performing, soaking in the rhythms that would later form the bedrock of his compositions.

Austin Munasinghe’s music embodies a symbiosis of the archaic and the contemporary, a testament to his prowess in seamlessly merging his learned skills with his cherished memories. In his compositions, Sri Lanka finds a melody that resonates with its past and dances with the possibilities of the future.

A Musical Luminary Bridging Tradition and Modernity

Every era of music has its magnum opus, a composition that seamlessly converges tradition with innovation. For Sri Lanka in the era of Austin Munasinghe, it was unmistakably Pun Sanda Rēta. This iconic number stands as a monumental testament to Munasinghe’s prodigious aptitude for interlacing traditional elements within modern musical matrices.

The song dances on a 4/4-time signature – a backbone to many a contemporary melody. Yet, where many might hear just another familiar beat, Munasinghe saw an opportunity. He interpolated this familiar rhythm with a cycle echoing traditional drumbeats: ‘regun gundang gath regath gatha gu don‘. This masterstroke rendered the song with an unparalleled rhythmic identity, ensuring it didn’t merely fit in but stood out.

While the brilliance of the song’s rhythm is evident, the choice of instrumentation amplifies its resonance. Munasinghe eschewed the direct inclusion of the low-country drum. Instead, he orchestrated an auditory panorama that conjured the spirit of this age-old tradition using a selective palette of instruments. The banjo’s signature resonance coupled with the profound depths of the bass guitar replicates the fervour of traditional drumbeats. The tabla, particularly its treble facet, lends a dimension of complexity, while the flute waltzes in with a melodic grace. Binding these diverse elements is the harmonious strumming of the acoustic guitar and the atmospheric expanse of the keyboard, painting a comprehensive musical tableau.

Riding atop this symphonic landscape is Nirosha Virajini’s voice, an embodiment of power and poignancy, articulating Rathnasree Wijesinghe’s poignant lyrics. Her vocal prowess not only elevates the song but stands as a testament to Munasinghe’s eye (or rather ear) for talent. It was, after all, he who propelled Virajini, a vocalist of unparalleled depth, to the limelight of Sri Lanka’s music realm.

In Pun Sanda Rēta, Austin Munasinghe didn’t just gift Sri Lanka a song; he provided a melodic bridge between the past and present, tradition and modernity, a legacy that continues to resonate with every strum, beat, and note. Munasinghe’s musical tapestry, especially evident in the composition of Pun Sanda Rēta, unfurls as an eloquent testament to the art of nuanced creation. Eschewing the direct implementation of traditional instruments, he masterfully evokes their spirit, producing an opus that’s at once evocative of yesteryears and refreshingly avant-garde. His melodies, enriched with intricate rhythmic tapestries, emerge as harmonious syntheses of his scholarly pursuits and deep-rooted passions. Each note he penned emanates a rich confluence of the tabla’s classical precision and the emotive pulse of Sri Lanka’s traditional drums. 

While many musical virtuosos are venerated for a singular iconic creation, Munasinghe, on the other hand, was a maestro of myriad melodies. He revitalized Sinhala music, skilfully interweaving its folkloric roots with contemporary stage flair. Anthems such as Rangahala dan Etha Ada Andure, Aalaya Wan Manaram, Dam Patin La Sanda Besa Yanawa, and Ma Ekkala Amanapawa bear witness to his expansive musical dexterity. Each composition, timeless in its appeal, melds tuneful charm with profound emotive depth, securing its spot as an evergreen classic across epochs.

Venturing beyond mainstream cadences, Munasinghe etched significant marks in Sinhalese theatre music. He magnified the narratives of acclaimed Sri Lankan plays, infusing them with his distinct musical signature. Landmark productions like Lucian Bulathsinghala Rathu Hettakari, Chandrasena Dassanayake’s Mage Rankanda, and Bandula Jayawardana’s “Bera Handa” were graced by his melodious touch. By ingeniously blending age-old Sri Lankan musical nuances with contemporary trends, Munasinghe ensured these theatrical ventures deeply resonated with their audience. His exemplary tracks, including Yasa Isuru, Deekiri Deekiri, Hanika Warewe Kollane, and Ha Ha Lande, elevated theatre from mere drama to an immersive experience, establishing many of these plays as iconic benchmarks in the arts.

However, amidst the symphonies, accolades, and admiration, Austin Munasinghe’s true magnum opus lies in the indelible imprint he’s etched on the soul of Sinhala music, ensuring his legacy echoes through time and continues to inspire generations to come.

The Maestro of Leftist Nuances in Sri Lankan Music

Austin Munasinghe’s indelible mark on the musical canvas of Sri Lanka stems from his knack for harmonizing traditional tones with socio-political narratives. To truly appreciate his foray into leftist music, it’s pivotal to understand how nationalistic and leftist music genres serve as a conduit for potent socio-political expressions. Nationalistic compositions often emerge as sonic tapestries that mirror a composer’s convictions and the prevailing socio-political milieu. Beyond the overt emotional overlays, the subtle aspects, ranging from key signatures to orchestration, unfurl deeper political narratives. For instance, a poignant minor key may embody introspection or despair, while dominant rhythmic patterns can underscore defiance. Music, thus, becomes more than mere sound—it morphs into a poignant voice for national sentiments.

Evidently, Munasinghe’s work finds its soul in the leftist genre. By adopting a minimalist instrumental approach, he accentuated poignant themes like social disparities and the rights of the labour class.

Vijitha Gunarathne’s ‘Dethi Kiyatha’ (Austin Munasinghe provided musical direction while leading the chorus

His musical prowess, infused with deep-rooted emotions, taps into the leftist genre’s penchant for simple yet profound storytelling. Munasinghe’s affinity for folk inspirations ensured that his music, replete with its pared-back instrumentation, was perfect for collective singing, resonating with the masses and evoking action.

Munasinghe’s magnum opus collaboration with Nanda Malini on “Pavana” during the tumultuous era of 1988-1989 stands out. Positioned against the backdrop of socio-political unrest, this masterpiece transcended the realm of mere music to become a poignant societal critique. His unmistakable stamp graces songs like Sadhu Jana Gana Mana, Mongoliyanuwane and Seethala Polowama, and his integral role in shaping Pavana underscores his unmatched musical acumen.

LSSP 43rd Anniversary celebration

Although not an official member of the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party), Munasinghe’s synergy with the party was evident. Not only did he create melodies for the party’s landmark anniversaries, but his presence also became synonymous with their annual galas.

In the theatrical realm, his contributions shone brightly. Collaborations like Vijitha Gunarathne’s “Dethi Kiyatha” and his interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera,” reimagined as Pensa Thune Kathawa, exhibit his genius in adapting global theatre music sensibilities to the Sri Lankan ethos. His rendition of Brecht’s iconic pieces, embedded with Sri Lankan musical flavours, made them accessible to the local populace without diluting the original’s essence.

Conclusion

Austin Munasinghe wasn’t just another composer; he was Sri Lankan music’s luminous beacon. By melding folkloric motifs with contemporary cadences, he sculpted Sinhala music’s future trajectory. His symphonies, an interplay of nationalistic overtones with leftist philosophies, have become timeless chronicles of his epoch’s socio-political tapestry. With roots embedded in traditional folk yet having a distinctly modern flair, Munasinghe’s sonic creations struck a chord with his compatriots. His unparalleled aptitude in encapsulating Sri Lanka’s ethos and advocating for progressive tenets solidifies his esteemed place in the annals of Sri Lankan music. 

I am overjoyed and incredibly proud to be the offspring of the renowned composer Austin Munasinghe.

*Dr Tharupathi Munasinghe – Deakin University

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    Beautifully written, and so lovely to read about these wonderful songs of A. Munashighe. Listened to some of them on Youtube. Nangita Bendapu Mal viyanai and Pun Sanda Rata were especially mesmerizing! Gave age-old throwbacks to Lankan own unique rhythms and melodies from Vedda times. Very deep and exhilarating. Certainly lifts up the Lankan intellect and collective National consciousness. More than ever do we need such rhythmic and melodic evocations to grant realization to the Lankan polity to preserve their own identity over other countries buying us up. More than ever do we need to incorporate our commercial and business consciousness into our cultural musical heritage.

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