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Amaradeva at 85: Giving tongue to a nation’s soul

by Ajith Samaranayake

Maestro W.D.Amaradeva

(December 5th 2012 is the 85th birthday of Maestro W.D.Amaradeva. This article by Ajith Samaranayake appearing in the “Sunday Observer” of January 10th 1999 was written to celebrate the Doyen of Sinhala music receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Peradeniya on December 29th 1998. It is reproduced here as a birthday tribute to the man who gave tongue to a nation’s soul)

Last year ended on a note of epiphany at the University of Peradeniya. December 29 as the day of the general convocation, for the graduates the highpoint of their academic life. There were also three eminent men who received honorary doctorates that evening in the sylvan groves of academe.

Among them was W. D. Amaradeva, the nation’s leading musician who wrapped in an ermine cloak lit the oil lamp to inaugurate the festivities. Later after dinner at the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge the hills of Hantane resounded and resonated to his songs as the dons and their spouses gave voice to his melodies while the maestro watched in silent wonder.

Of all the accolades and encomiums showered on him during the last so many decades Amaradeva confesses to being most greatly touched with this degree of Doctor of Letters (Honoris Causa) since coming from Sri Lanka’s first and still leading university it seals his place not merely as Sri Lanka’s leading composer and vocalist but also recognises the intellectual richness and depth of his musical knowledge and how deftly he has applied this to produce a vast corpus of semi-classical light music which has been outstandingly popular without ever being vulgar of meretricious.

As the Dean of the Faculty of Arts Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa said presenting the musician to the Chancellor, ‘In the field of contemporary music there is one person who has earned the rare distinction of being admired by artist, connoisseur and ordinary rasika alike for his dynamic influence on the creation of a national tradition and for his incomparable virtuosity and creative genius. I refer, Chancellor, to Pandit W. D Amaradeva who as the trail-blazer of a distinctively Sri Lankan musical tradition had as a comproser, conductor, violinist and singer over a period of more than half a century immensely enriched life in our country.’

Classical academic tradition

More than any other musician in Sri Lanka, past or present, Amaradeva has consistently sought to synthesise the classical academic tradition with the best features of contemporary culture.

This he has done without showing either any misplaced reverence or awe towards high culture or populist deference to mass culture. He has discovered the golden mean between the two and without breaching the walls of high culture so that the popular hordes would trample through the garden has nevertheless been able to open up the enclosed garden so that the ordinary rasika can taste the sweetest fruits plucked from its trees.

This Wannakawattawaduge Don Amaradeva has been able to accomplish perhaps because of the peculiarly fortunate position he has been occupying as a musician. Amaradeva like many others did not emerge as a musician after a fully-blown academic education.

On the contrary his formal education at the Bhathkande Institute of Music in Lucknow came after many years of actual experience in the field as a violinist, director of music for films and vocalist. Because of this unique apprenticeship and early conditioning Amaradeva was singularly equipped to reconcile within himself both the theoretical and the practical, both the high and the popular strands of contemporary music.

Amaradeva was born 72 years ago in Moratuwa, which was heavily influenced both by Catholicism and a consequent cosmopolitan way of life. It is the most popular seat of baila in Sri Lanka. The baila which is a genre of music borrowed from the Portuguese who were Sri Lanka’s first colonial invaders, is still the favourite mode of music at middle-class parties.

Amaradeva has no highbrow hang-ups about the baila. He concedes that it has its valid place in the natural order of things. In fact he had composed the music for the song ‘Pipi Pipi Renu Natana’ using baila melody, he says. Talking to me he hums that most popular Moratuwa baila, ‘Pun Sanda Paya Moratuwa Dilenna’.

But the baila was not all. Even as a schoolboy Amaradeva was quite a skilful violinist. The violin also showed the way forward for Amaradeva’s music has always and above all else been clean, purifying and soul-enriching. Even when as the assistant director to Mohamed Ghouse he was composing the music for and singing such songs as ‘Eli Kale Yameku Ale’ in ‘Asokamala’ there was nothing gaudy in Amaradeva’s songs unlike that of most of the early Sinhala films with their heavy South Indian influence.

Cultural renaissance

Amaradeva was also fortunate to be very much part of the cultural renaissance of this time expressed mostly through music and dance. As a schoolboy he had met Munidasa Kumaratunge from the adjacent town of Panadura, a scholar whose poetry has been overshadowed by his literary puritanism. Amaradeva’s song ‘Handapane Welithala’ is based on a poem by him.

Amaradeva also associated with the other giants of the time such as Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Shantha, Vasantha Kumara, Premakumara, Panibharatha and Sesha Palihakkara while Chitrasena’s studio at Kollupitiya often provided them with a meeting place, a kind of cultural ashram later demolished by unthinking officialdom with monumental callousness.

The highpoint of Amaradeva’s achievements during this period is considered the music he composed for Premakumara Epitawela’s ‘Selalihini Sandesaya’ where he was able to offer a new interpretation to the traditional ‘samudragosha’ metre in which much of classical Sinhala poetry has been written and also a new style in poetry recitation.

It was with all these achievements behind him that Amaradeva proceeded to India for his formal musical education on an initiative taken by D.B. Dhanapala, then the editor of the ‘Lankadeepa’ and Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra who had already discovered his potential and introduced him to the Peradeniya University environment.

As Prof. Dharmadasa was to say in his presentation: ‘It was at this stage that Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra introduced Amaradeva to the university environs, thus marking not only the commencement of his association with this university, an association which has now lasted for more than fifty years, but also the abiding friendship between Sarachchandra and Amaradeva, which as some of us has the good fortune to observe, was highly productive, and was marked by deep mutual respect and affection.

We should recall that from about the early 1950’s, Amaradeva has been visiting our university, and through lucid lecture-demonstrations of the type which he alone could present, provided us glimpses into the world of raghadari sangita. University audiences have also had, from time to time, the enchanting experience of his music recitals’.

The rest is the stuff of recent history steadily developing into legend. Armed with both practical training and formal education Amaradeva was now in a position to explore the whole spectrum of music, both local and foreign, for new and innovative methods of expression.

He drew his melodies both from the folk as well as the North Indian classical tradition. He did not make a fetish of folk music but drew inspiration from it as it suited him. On the other hand, he drew from the Indian ragas for some of his best melodies while at times creatively combining as in ‘Pile Padura’ the folk ‘seepada’ with an Indian folk raga. For his Buddhist devotional songs of which John Ross Carter has written extensively in his monograph ‘On understanding Buddhists: Essays on the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka’ he was inspired by Buddhist gathas and the manner in which they are rendered.

As a pure musician too he is in a class of his own. The music compositions he did for Chitrasena’s ballet ‘Karadiya’ are justly famous not only in Sri Lanka but wherever this masterpiece has been staged.

Amaradeva therefore stands today at the bridgehead of modern Sinhala music. He is without doubt the father of contemporary Sinhala music at its best. He has rescued Sinhala music from the crudities of the early film music. He has built on the works of Ananda Samarakoon, Suryashankar Molligoda and Sunil Shantha whose one ambition was to develop a clean and wholesome indigenous musical tradition.

That ambition it was left to Amaradeva to bring to fruition. Here he was well-served by his lyric writers chief among them being Mahagama Sekera (their partnership was particularly fruitful), Madawala S. Ratnayake and Dalton de Alwis all of them now dead. Of the contemporary lyricists W. A. Abeysinghe, Sunil Sarath Perera and of late Ratnasiri Wijesinghe have done some inspired work for him.

Parricide being a pastime of some in all ages there are those who would like to slay the sacred cow. Marxists and modernists alike sometimes charge Amaradeva with living in a golden past, of invoking a dead village and being trapped in petrified feudal social relations. But there is nothing mawkishly sentimental or saccharin about Amaradeva’s village unlike the romantically-blinkered vision of the Colombo poets.

The village he invokes is healthy and wholesome and embodies values which are salutary antidote to the contemporary rat race, the scramble for office, position, wealth and privilege. Anyway who are we to question the vision of the poet? Certainly it would be comic to demand that poetry and music should at all times be necessarily socially relevant.

We can only be thankful to Providence that we have Amaradeva amidst us to give tongue to the soul of a newly-awakened people. courtesy: Sunday Observer