18 November, 2018

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Where Have All The Lyricists Gone?

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The poet is a curious creature. He does not pander to the majority, but his role is that of a public voice. The language he resorts to thus cannot be esoteric or obscurantist, because by definition, being a poet, he cannot obfuscate. So he gets entangled in a strange conundrum: he has to speak to the people, but not in the language of the people. He has to be the voice of an entire collective and identity, yet strike some sort of a balance between the emotions of the majority and the aesthetic sensibilities of a minority. This is as true for Sinhala society as it is for other societies, here and elsewhere, so from the oldest scribe to the youngest radical, it is this challenge which distinguishes the written word from the visual arts. Moreover, what is true here of the poet and his verses is to a large extent also true of the lyricist and his songs. He may be more popular, he may have to tone down his language to appeal to a broader base, but essentially, there cannot be a world of difference between these two people.

In “Modernizing Composition”, Garret Field charts the evolution of the Sinhala song. It is an admirable piece of work, particularly considering that Field, who completed it via a Fulbright-Hays scholarship and two years of extensive research in the country (packed with conversations with various veterans in the field), took the trouble of studying and to an extent mastering Sinhala before embarking on his enterprise. The book deserves more than a sketchy review, and not being a student of music, much less of literature, I am unable to pen down more than a few thoughts. Reviewing it in whatever way, however, is not my intention here. My intention is to ascertain how poetry and literature coincided in the context of the Sinhala song and how this may explain an insidious conclusion I’ve drawn from the many conversations I’ve had with people: that the Sinhala lyricist, as we once knew him or her, is nowhere to be found.

This is not to suggest that the lyricist in Sri Lanka is dead. There are songs, a great many of them, which make the rounds every day on television, radio, and more than both these, the internet. We expect Iraj to come up with a new music video every other month, packed with the requisite level of controversy. His songs make no sense if you read into them (those of the early Iraj did), but that is because we are not meant to read them; we are supposed to be awed by the visuals (which are deep or disgusting, depending on how you view them). On the other hand there are the proponents of popular adolescent music: Sanuka, Nadeemal Perera, Lahiru Perera, and those never-ending boy bands that release covers. On average, a band transits from such covers to original pieces after three or four years, but that is an average, and most bands I know, even after five or six years, still resort to “remakes”. More often than not, they are formed to take part in competitions organised at school level, and if they win, they publicise themselves heavily by taking part in social welfare projects (like donating proceeds of concerts to cancer patients). They are also unknown to each other, which is why they sometimes pick on the same names: I know of two “Syrens”, for instance.

The lyricist does not figure that prominently in this scheme of things. For one thing, covers do not require poets; they are based on works produced elsewhere. For another thing, the level of poetry needed to titillate audiences is based on what the audiences have heard until then, so through ceaseless repetition, the same theme, reworked 10 times or so over, became a staple, a trend to emulate. Sarith and Surith Jayawardena, in 2016, came up with “Ira Wenas Wela”, which was not a “trendsetter” that forayed into that most emulated theme, unfulfilled and unrequited love. But while “Ira Wenas Wela” was different and did contain some reckonable lyrics (not least because they were written by the father of the twins, a teacher acquainted with both language and mass communication), it was a one-sided affair; Sarith and Surith are the only teenage vocalists I’ve talked to who have emphatically stated that they will not perform a song without examining its lyrics first. This attitude is not widely shared. Why, I can’t say.

Field, in his book, makes a rather interesting observation: in Sri Lanka, which has never had a musical tradition of its own, the lyrics to a song have been regarded as a work in itself, a sample of artistic craftsmanship which should “stand on its own as a piece of literature” (as Mahagama Sekara put it in a lecture in 1966). Except for plays, where the script has an autonomous existence that can be reworked and reinterpreted in a hundred different ways if possible, there is no other art form in which this act of “autonomising” one element from every other is possible, and it is certainly not possible in Western societies, where except for literary geniuses like Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, the lyric cannot really stand up “on its own”. Consider a Sinhala song from the sixties, and compare its lyrics with that of a contemporary song, and you can see the difference. The lyricist has lost his footing, he is no longer able to stand on his own, he has become entangled in cheap moneymaking processes, he is a victim of the composer and vocalist, and he has become a second fiddle to them both.

Buttressing this is another interesting, though not unusual, phenomenon: the best young lyricists come from either the village or the fringes of the city. From the last 50 or so years only three lyricists, among the many I’ve come across, can be termed as urban versifiers: Premakeerthi de Alwis, Lucien Bulathsinghala, Saman Athaudahetti. This has nothing to do with their origins (Sunil Ariyaratne lived in Nugegoda, yet I would hardly term him as an urban versifier), rather with the artistic temperament they have projected through their work. Premakeerthi was shaped by the Colombo poets (the idealisations of the female figure in his songs attest to this), Bulathsinghala’s lyrics reflect a wide ranging milieu which goes beyond the village, while Athaudahetti evokes a rural arcadia being “visited” by the metropolis (“Iri Thalunu Wala” is still a favourite among adolescents I know who scandalously profess ignorance of other songs by Amarasiri Peiris). Most other lyricists, even those who settled in Colombo in later years on account of their education or careers, remained at heart poets of the village. “Regardless of historical period, national development begins with the farmer,” wrote Madawala Ratnayake in his preface to Akkara Paha. That farmer came from the village; it was the village that these early lyricists returned to, frequently.

The popular Sinhala song, from the nineties on, is the product mainly (though not jointly) of two lyricists: Nilar N. Cassim and the more flamboyant Wasantha Dukgannarala. I remember Upul Shantha Sannasgala interviewing Dukgannarala once and I remember him prefacing the interview with the following sketch: “‘Duka’ hitapu gaman sindu liyanawa, keti katha liyanawa, ragapanawa, danweem hadanawa, sarama adinawa, thekka wikunanawa, company walata yanawa, bulath wita kanawa, denim adinawa.” That is the best description of the man I’ve come across until now. Born in Anuradhapura, and perhaps more ruralised than the Matara and Rahula College bred Cassim, he is a paradox, the sort that attracts both mystical praise and vituperative condemnation. In 2007, someone posted the following on an online forum: “Wasantha Dukgannaralage sampradaya grameeyada? Nagarikada?” That is a question to which no one, not even (I feel) Cassim, can provide a proper answer. He is of both worlds, yet belongs to neither. It is this curious paradox which found its way to the vocalists and the melody makers of subsequent years: rooted, but in a way also uprooted.

Take three lyricists from the recent past: Manuranga Wijesekara (“Saragaye”), Sanuka (“Mayam Kalawe”), and the lesser heard of Ujitha Warnakulasuriya (“Rathriyak”). “Rathriyak” is the most profound Sri Lankan love song I’ve heard in recent years; it was written for Nadeemal Perera, who is better known for “Mayam Kalawe”. The differences in tone and temperament between these three singles couldn’t be more obvious: both “Saragaye” (“Niyarata… Mawanawa… Apathare… Wu katha…”) and “Mayam Kalawe” (“Mayam Kalawe… Saayam sinase… Payan sande…”) subsist on a fragmented aesthetic (the only rationale I can think of: the adolescent male, to whom both songs are addressed, are so blown away by the prospect of first love he can’t get beyond two or three words a line), “Rathriyak” is the sort of love song which can be read and read into (“Mata maath nomathi digu rathriyak pamani” takes from, and adds to, that other memorable one-liner, “Mata mage nowana magema adarayak thibuna”). Origins go a long way here, I suspect: both Manuranga and Sanuka, while well versed in the aesthetics of poetry, are populists hailing from the metropolis (in particular, Sanuka), while Ujitha, an Economics undergraduate at the Sagaragamuwa University, hails from Ehetuwewa. Where is Ehetuwewa? Not many would know, and not many would be able to point at it on a Sri Lankan map. A tragedy? I should think so.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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  • 5
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    Uditha,

    We are going in two different directions …………. while you are using so many words to convey an idea/message ………. I’m trying to pick up the Japanese poetic form Haiku ……… to express an idea with the least number of words

    Or paint a painting with the least number of brush strokes …………..

    • 3
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      Uditha,

      Now that I have a little time …….. to add to what I wrote……

      It’s not too late to catch up on your mother tongue ……. there are many more tools available for self-study now than ever before

      Strangely enough, my parents who couldn’t read or write Sinhala (like many Lankans of yore with a “colonial education”) wanted me to study Sinhala big time ……. not just Sinhala but Sinhalese Literature!

      Sinhalese Literature wasn’t taught at my school and I didn’t sit for any exams ……….. but was taught privately by a Buddhist monk; no less

      SL is a small place ……. everyone knows someone who knows someone ……… so my parents were put on to this young Sinhala scholar of a Buddhist monk who used to come home and teach me when I was back for holidays…….. he knew his languages ……. Pali, Sanskrit …….. back to front ……..

      He was a good laugh and a real cool guy ……….. only thing, I couldn’t wear any footwear around him

      The books I studied ………. Salalihini Sandesheya, Guttila Kavaya, and another book; the name, I’ve forgotten now but can still remember the opening …….. Goda Mada dekama saru saraya ( both the land and the paddy-fields are fertile and bountiful )

      All the books were in verse …….. although he could have just read them to me; he insisted on singing ……. not from a few feet away but 6″ from my ear ………. and the bastard couldn’t sing to save his life!

      • 2
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        ” and the bastard couldn’t sing to save his life!”
        Please, Venerable bastard, ok?

        • 0
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          When the most undeserving ……… are called venerable, holy, revered, Excellency ………. in my vocabulary “bastard” is a term of endearment; highest respect …….. not handed out easily :))

          I know it might come out sounding the wrong way.

          I judge people first and foremost as human ……… all else is secondary; fluff

          That Buddhist priest is one of the nicest people I’ve met; principled to the core …………. only thang, he just couldn’t sing …….. and no one had the heart to tell him :))

    • 2
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      continued

      What his singing has left in me is an enduring aversion to Lankan musical aristocracy …….. Ameredeva et al ……… that nasal-drawl ……… the hair at the back of my head stands up ……. there is a Pink Panther movie where the villain kidnaps the daughter of the professor who invents the Doomsday Machine ……… and to get the machine from the prof ………. tortures her by scraping a blackboard wearing an iron-glove ……. Ameredeva has that effect on me ……. give me the guttural Baila voice of Anton Jones ……. any day

      Other than that there was no child-abuse ……… anyway I was over 6 feet by 12/13 that kept me safe and others threatened ………. but alas not from gals; they had their devious means ……… ol’ Lacille was lucky …… but better late than never

      Jimi Hendrix was a genius ……. not just the guitar virtuosity ……. but how he put all the riffs and licks together; the sequence, how riffs/licks were stopped and moved onto others without overplaying ……. in comparison all others sound mechanical and premeditated …….. in musical terms if you want to encounter near-Einstein ……… listen to “Love Supreme” (John Coltrane)

      Another great lyricist and “soundscape artist” ………. Tom Waits ……… “How can the angels go to sleep When the devil leaves the porch light on” …… and at times somewhat underrated ……… Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne

      • 1
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        Nimal Fernando, The condition you are suffering from is verbal diarrhea. You might also be suffering from frivolous exhibitionism.

        Both these conditions can be cured if you keep out of computers and emails.

        • 2
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          Gotcha ya! :)))))

          Hurt your feeling old guy …… who has to come with a new name? :))

          Get used to it …….. all what we do here is exhibit!

          Some who have nothing to exhibit ………. have to resort to frivolous exhibitionism of their green eyed monster.

          Sad no ? :))

          • 1
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            Gotcha ya!

            You are so………. bloody American and Kult?

            • 2
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              Bingo! ……… I’ve no self-imposed cultural constrains/boundaries …….. :))

              “You are so………. bloody American and Kult?”

              Why? Is that a problem for you? :)))))

      • 1
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        Thanks, Nimal,
        .
        You’ve had the courage to say what didn’t dare to – not recently, anyway . I’m very much a Sinhalese, and a villager to boot. In fact I’ve been pulled down many times because I don’t want to be doing anything because of roles imposed on me because of my identity.
        .
        I don’t mind hearing some oriental music, but what appeals to me is stuff that is quite different. Why can’t we be allowed to be ourselves, without conforming to stereotypes imposed on us?
        .
        Uditha is a guy who can and must contribute much to our society; but if his personal favourite music is the Brahms violin concerto, why must he make us perform these huge intellectual feats, and learn all about the Sinhalese music maestros?
        .
        Make no mistake, I would be even harsher on guys trying to impose supposedly “Western ways” on us in villages. I admire polyglots and the like. In fact my neighbour in my village is one such. However, I’m sure that he has a special talent for languages (the word is aptitude, isn’t it?). He has (near) first language command of about six. The word in parenthesis was inserted only because the statement would otherwise oxymoronic.
        .
        Anyway, keep writing, Uditha. You are still young. But please don’t expect me to digest all this in the little time that I have left on this earth. I don’t expect any life after I depart either (I know that I’ve just made a politically incorrect statement).

        • 2
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          SM,

          “I don’t want to be doing anything because of roles imposed on me because of my identity.”

          “Man is CONDEMNED to be free”

          We start life with a blank canvas ………. we paint our own painting ………. we define ourselves; not others

          life is an adventure and should be lived as such

          The “smallness” of man is vast :)) ……. the smallness …… insecurities …….. feelings of inadequacy …….. others feel, they will try to get you to pay for it; Lankans are the masters of this dark-art ……. it’s a learned skill how you sidestep :))

          Lankans have no control over me …….. I don’t live among them ……… and for some Lankans that’s frustrating ……… that they can’t drag me into their nightmare and constrain in their “smallness”

          Learn to be “free” …….. it’s not that difficult

  • 2
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    Oh, no! there are plenty of lyricists around.

    But the problem is they go around complaining about their ‘abysmal knowledge of Sinhala’, probably thinking that is going to make them look and sound ‘posh’.

    Bloody idiots. Should hang them by their underware.

  • 6
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    Nuts!
    This article should be written in Sinhala as its about Sinhala poets …but the author has admitted to his poor grasp of the language and has admitted to be born in to a language not of his choice.

  • 1
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    Sinhale in the past is a country which wrote hundreds books. But, now Sri lankan people want western writers ro explain sri lanka. How do we know that they understood and represented Sri lanka. There are excellent Lyricists in Sri lanka. Only thing is audience is not alert and vigilent. I will be sllfish if I quote the songs of just one Singer. Read, any classical novel or even Martin wickrmasinghe or TB elangarathne. How many times we had to go to the dictionary in order to read their books. Why was that ?

    • 3
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      Jimmy,
      “Sinhale in the past is a country which wrote hundreds books”
      You hit the nail on the head! This is indeed the problem. We wrote only hundreds of books in 2000 years, mostly about Buddhism. Other countries wrote millions of books.

      • 0
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        RAMAN: that was mostly about Hinduism and others were stolen from Ancient /Sinhale.

        • 3
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          JD, when did Sinhalese write books. Concept of books came only after Chinese invented paper and printing.Sinhalese wrote on ola leaves, that too the art being copied from Tamils. After all Sinhala script is only 1300 years old being copied from Malayalam. So do not crow about your copied culture.

  • 9
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    What do we make of the world ? It depends on intellect of the observer.
    When deficient in this department all we see is confusion. I think all the lyricists are hiding because Devapriya is writing about them .Many more will want to hide .

  • 4
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    Jegging is the order of the day with girls in every nook and corner of the country and you seldom
    see boys without Denim and T shirt.This tells more than half of the story of modern Srilanka.Urban
    Lifestyle is switched to even more sophistication like Pizza, McDonald,Capucino and all kinds of
    instant foods.All politicians are madly dreaming to make the country a Singapore and already
    tirelessly overborrowing to make it come true.All I know is you need to work hard to build your life
    and not borrow for your dreams.I put it in few words.We are a country that imitate to live and living
    to imitate.

    • 4
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      Whywhy: on ‘Imitation’
      While the Countries like Singapore and the West, are taking up the Real Dhamma of the Buddha, We are trying our Level Best to destroy the Buddha’s Dhamma, and install our own Version of Hindu/Buddhism, instead!

  • 0
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    RAMAN: that was mostly about Hinduism and others were stolen from Ancient /Sinhale. Rememer Hindians burned down Ancient Sinhale. did not they take anything or loot the country ? HIndian are like that even to date.

    • 0
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      “did not they take anything or loot the country “
      Why would they want to take anything? Their country was the richest in the world. Go to India and see what they had.

  • 1
    0

    If there was a man who didn’t think twice to turn everything to his survival
    strategy that was Mahinda . Artists of all walks were in all hues of politics
    but Mahinda had no limits.East and West camps of politics used the film and
    music industry towards these two lines . While weeping ,wailing sighing
    grumbles of sufferings was the works of the East camp films and music , the
    West camp took up on entertainment based films and music and SLBC was
    the tool for both camps to promote their respective goals . Artists and their
    products were put on sale not according to their talents but to their politics.
    One more important issue here between the past and present about music
    is that the music that was heard on radio is now completely personal . Not
    anymore the choice of one public organization . You hear what you like
    when you like . What’s called “theoretical ” songs are heard less now and love
    songs in all forms are the ones that sell. Even in India music has undergone
    radical changes but the difference is , they still maintain their identity .

  • 0
    0

    “Where Have All The Lyricists Gone?”

    they have gone to the graveyard just like the soldiers.When will they ever learn.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VseETz8C48c

  • 2
    1

    When we went away from the soul of our being, and sent all our musicians to North India to learn boring non-tunes, we naturally dumbed down our natural musical and lyrical IQ . We have to go with what our genes are truly about – i.e. the south Indian Carnatic music genes! Ok, ok., I know that we can’t align ourselves too much with Tamil Nadu with it’s disgraceful caste system (and also that they are Tamils), and the majority of Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. Yet, even Buddhist Sinhalese must admit that a large part of their genes and soul is Dravidian! Trying to be too much of North Indian has crippled our aesthetic sense. This Carnatic music is so profound and belonged to the ancient time before the caste-system was forced upon India by the barbarians. (Once Tamil Nadu loses its caste system in a 1,000 years’ time, we can amalgamate with them a bit more- till then, we will interact only musically, but thus far and no further).

    • 0
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      Like this. OMG! well…….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJO3ZJhfrwc

    • 0
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      Now you talk sense, RTF.
      .
      And thanks for the Youtube. But how do you imagine that I can spend two hours on that.
      .
      Besides I’m poor. Can’t use up data on those valuable things that don’t immediately appeal to me.
      .
      I have miles to go before I sleep.

      • 0
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        Careful, Sinhala Man,
        “Now you talk sense, RTF.” This RTF has a different Gravatar. Is the disease spreading?

        • 0
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          OC, you can’t analyze between the lines, dhe?……getting a bit senile, ne …..anyways, CT is very careful with their gravitas. I complained once or twice to them because someone else was using my name (or parts of), and they removed them. Thank you CT.

  • 0
    0

    “Where Have All The Lyricists Gone” –
    I agree same old baila songs

  • 2
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    When they claimed the Tamil is a classical language, they said there are 50,000 old stanzas to exist. The unique ones are Sangam Period. Kamil Zvelebil said it was a style nowhere in the world existed that time. Once the Jainism & Buddhism spread, their value faded as they over indulged people life. Even singers and dancers were reduced to beggars and prostitutes without recognition or income (Temple girls). But he said, from that day pundits to current Kanadasan, Tamils style of telling it “deeply nested & hidden” way is still continuing.
    So, after 2000 years, same thing we hear from Vali, Pattukottai, Kanadasan….in their film tracks. I am not a critic, but I believe it is Bharathiar, who revived it by composing Kannan and Kannama Paddu.
    Here is a film track lyrics written about 2000 years ago. The plot is: A wealthy young lady was spoiled by parents; from washing her clothes up to spoon feeding food was done by foster mother (or nanny). It was the fault of her blind age that she fell in love with a poor boy. Father ruled out of any consent, but mother was convulsing. The girl picked up one or two her favorite silk saris and ran away (eloped) with the boy. Father ordered “nobody visit that girl from this house!”. Mother’s heart was weeping. Nanny pitied for the mother while she too missed her pet. She told “She is not here: What is the point of I hang around here anymore? I am going my home” and left. She did not go home but went the house the girl was living and was peeping though the window secretly. Next morning she came back and waited until the gentleman left on his work. Then she told the yesterday’s story to the mother.

  • 0
    0

    முளிதயிர் பிசைந்த காந்தள் மெல்விரல்
    கழுவுறு கலிங்கம் கழாஅது உடீஇக்
    குவளை உண்கண் குய்ப்புகை கமழத்
    தான் துழந்து அட்ட தீம்புளிப் பாகர்
    இனிது எனக் கணவன் உண்டலின்
    நுண்ணிதின் மகிழ்ந்தன்று ஒண்ணுதல் முகனே
    [குறுந். 167, கூடலூர் கிழார்]
    Mushing the yogurt reddened Glory lily fingers,
    Sprouting sauté smoke dazzled blue lily eyes,
    Yogurt dripping hand settled the slipping silk sari,
    Suffered, Stymied, still stirred the sizzling Kulampu,
    Soon that over, her sweetheart showed up home,
    Tasted the cookout and gazed at her eyes,
    “Hey Sugar, this is sweet, you made?” he adored,
    No answer; but distraught face brightened at once.
    {Krunthokai 167 Koodaloor Kilar}

    My translation is not in order. Awkward, but I need to add some explanation words to readers to understand the poem:
    The poet took an extra mile on every line. He starts as her hands were reddening by mushing yogurt (Amazing, extra soft Barbie doll). The girl wasn’t trained in cooking to evade smoke during frying. So, just one simple job of a housewife was a big deal for our heroin. Then, she was cooking with expensive cloths (her boy may not have bought her home cloths yet) and adjusting that with food stained hand when it was slipping. It may be slipping because the foster mother was not there to wear it for her properly. She abandoned the luxury life the father provided and entered into her boy’s little hut and was trying to make his life happy by join him instead of demanding from him. Poet is beautifully bridging, the mountain she cruised with her father and the valley she is trying to swim across now with her husband, by “Love of the hearts”.
    Recently I head a song “ My dear darling innu Malika koopidura” . (A junkie boy was bragging to his friends “Hey man Malika called as ‘Darling”, Yeeaah!”.) Is there a taste or no?
    Lyricist did not go anywhere. It is true, the commercialization playing a temporary, partial black out. But I am sure they will be back.

  • 1
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    this guy is writing about sinhala literature, this same guy in 2 articles before said his sinhala is abysiminial. I am complexed.

    • 0
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      Iroshan ,
      There you are, this is what you call the” typical Srilankan character.”

  • 2
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    This Uditha guy is a Sinhala scholor, yet he states he does know little Sinhala. What a joke?

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