By Prof. Susirith Mendis
I have been reading many commentaries and opinions on the above matter in the press, blogs, facebook and other media. There has been a plethora of views and opinions expressed. So I thought adding my few cents worth will not cause any further serious harm than already caused.
I am of the view that the human voice, as expressed in harmonious and melodious song, is the greatest of human gifts. It is a capability – or call it creative talent if you like – that can be naturally expressed without any other artificial aid. Painting and art require paints, brushes, paper, canvas and easels; other musical talents require instruments; authors need ink, paper and vocabulary. But the singer needs absolutely no aid; just only the sound created from the air expelled from one’s lungs beautifully and sonorously percolated through nature’s finest musical instrument, the human larynx. The other, to my mind, a lesser natural unaided talent is dancing. But that is another matter.
I believe that the operatic voice from soprano to baritone or bass (or even the much maligned castrato), developed by the European musical tradition to be the supreme form of the human voice.Therefore, you would not be surprised when I say that if I had the good fortune to have a genie trapped in a bottle, I would ask as my first wish prior to releasing ‘it’ (him?) that I be given the best singing voice ever! So that I may have the supreme satisfaction of beating Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and even that incomparable black velvet of a baritone Paul Robeson into a cocked hat!
But forget the genie, if I was given even the option of being either a first-rate doctor (which I am not), or to be a third-rated singer, being able just to sing to tune, I would have opted for the latter. That is the extent of my admiration for the absolute wonder of a good singing voice. I have said so several times to my students, much to their surprise – particularly during my failed attempt (with the help of my revered teacher, Prof. Carlo Fonseka) to establish a course in ‘Medical Humanities’ at the Faculty of Medicine, Galle. But I must have struck a chord sometime.
One of my students became a ‘Sirasa Superstar’ – Pradeep Rangana. He used to talk to me while he was in competition that year. I gave him moral support and he came to meet me once he had won – with cash and car to boot. He took one year off his medical studies to pursue singing in his reigning year. I gave him a CD of the ‘Three tenors’ to listen to in the hope that he will extend his voice into another realm and another repertoire. But I told him to forget what I had told them of my own desire and continue his medical career. He came back, finished his exams and is now a doctor.
OK. I digressed. But that was just to illustrate the extent to which I admire Kishani’s voice. Back to Kishani and ‘Danno Budunge’. I have heard Kishani singing. I went to one of her recitals at the Lionel Wendt somewhere in 2014. It was an inspiring wonderful experience. I marveled all over again at the indescribable beauty of the human voice. I felt proud as a Sri Lankan that she had scaled the heights of the world of opera and succeeded. I exalted that Kishani had transcended the parochial boundaries of her own culture and reached the heights of supreme natural talent.
But what happened on 4th February 2016 ? Leave aside the supposed German origins of the music. Leave aside the fact that it was a song sung by three men in a John de Silva play ‘Siri Sangabo’. ‘Danno Budunge’ today, in the minds of most Sinhalese is a song revered almost as a ‘Bathi Gee’. Exceedingly associated with Buddhism. The symbolism and metaphor of Anuradhapura – the golden age of Buddhism in Sri Lanka – as being synonymous with Buddhism is unmistakable. “Anuradha nagaraya, dan penena se..” evokes a sense of worship in any average Buddhist – “Saadu Saadu”. It epitomized the ‘indigenousness’ of the Sinhala people. Hence, the singing of it would have been accepted as most appropriate on Independence Day (whether it should be actually commemorated as our ‘Independence’ Day, I will discuss another day). So what went wrong? For this aggressive ‘gut reaction’ to erupt?
To answer this question, one must get into the intricacies of anthropology and mass psychology. I don’t intend to do that here; neither am I competent to do so. But to put it a bit simply, a conglomeration of related events may be cited. Whether one agrees with some posits I present or not is a matter of one’s political inclinations.
Here are some of the expressed (overt) and subconscious factors that contributed to the reaction:
(i) A mode of singing alien to the average Sri Lankan;
(ii) a mode that is recognisably Western/European;
(iii) by a singer trained in an alien Western musical tradition;
(iv) giving a western, alien ‘sound’ to a much revered song steeped in Sinhala culture;
(v) sung at an event of National ‘Independence’ from colonial (Western) rule;
(vi) where the predominant Sinhala Buddhist Tradition should have been given pride of place;
(vii) at a time in our history when there is a strong perception that national pride, integrity and sovereignty is imperiled;
(viii) with a blatantly pro-western and politically neo-liberal PM at the helm of government;
(ix) when nationalist forces are being encircled and threatened by US-Western backed Sri Lankan politicians, International agencies and UN instruments.
Take all of the above together and you end up with the expected reaction – or put in other words, a reaction that should have been expected. I sympathise with Kishani. She didn’t, in her political naivety, see the above conglomeration of perceptions that would have been falling into place in the mind of the average Buddhist Sinhalese steeped in our cultural traditions. Maybe her or (and according to some reports) her husband’s expressed political projects could have blinded her to the possible fallout.
On the other hand, her husband’s participation in the ‘Yahapalana’ project in the recent past may have biased the critics against her – not for aesthetic reasons, but purely on political grounds. I strongly believe, though it is now hypothetical, that if she sang ‘Danno Budunge’ at an Independence Day cultural event during the Rajapakse years, the reaction, if at all, would have been muted.
I surmise that it would be so, not because the critics of her rendering are MR supporters or racists or blinded extremist, but because there would not have been a tangible or perceived threat to our culture or national sovereignty then and our existence as a nation with self-respect would not have been in doubt or questioned. And a Westernised rendition of an almost ‘sacred’ song would not have been seen as a symbol of a political ‘Faustian Bargain’.
Furthermore, I believe, that if she sang it on any other stage other than the Independence Day stage, she would hardly have drawn any serious criticism or comment. Let me add – that if Kishani sang any other popular classic that had no deep spiritual connotations – a popular song by CT Fernando or Clarence Wijewardene, for instance, at the Independence Day celebrations on 4th February 2016, there would have hardly been a hum.
The critics used Kishani’s rendering of ‘Danno Budunge’ in operatic style as a metaphor for the predicaments of our present times – the blatant genuflection of the Yahapalana government at the altar of US-European neo-liberalist and neo-colonialist enterprise. That is the reason for this exaggerated ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. (An exaggerated knee-jerk’ neurologically is due to a disassociation between the higher brain centres and the lower nerves.
Some critics did ‘lose their marbles’ in the manner in which they over-reacted). But what was most unexpected and surprising was the manner in which Ranil Wickremesinghe used the criticism of Kishani to launch dire threats at the anti-UNP, anti-RW media; threatening Derana with depriving them of their broadcasting licence which resulted in depriving a journalist of his job. Poor Kishani ! She is not to be blamed for most of it. Her fault is stated below in conclusion.
Therefore, I believe that it was extremely unfortunate that Kishani sang the wrong song in the wrong style in the wrong place at the wrong time.