Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sunil Shantha at 100

A legend was born 100 years ago. He did not pass away 34 years ago. He left behind an imprint which survived and continues to survive death. What that imprint is we can't really measure. Can't really define. It eludes easy capture and yet lives in every Sri Lankan. Rightly.

Not that this is all his legacy congeals into. Still.

His musical legacy has been assessed. His biography has been written. His contribution to film and music has been recorded. That contribution goes under so many names, one notes. It was a search for roots, an attempt to bridge language and melody, and a project to bring to his people a musical idiom which was free of frill and rhetoric. I am not a music critic. This is all I know.

But his melodies and lyrics can't be reduced to this alone, I should think. So what was it, then? What else explains those songs we sing and celebrate even today? What is there in them that can't be analysed or criticised, which goes beyond what has already been written about them?

Is it that they speak to the heart? Maybe, but that's clich├ęd. The more correct answer would be that they are ageless. However young or old you are, they come back to you. The come back whenever you remember their lyrics and go back to a different era. You sing them all and yet don't lose track of where you are. That's the secret to Sunil Shantha. It's not just that they speak from the heart. It's that they survive time. Like he does.

His life invites continuous assessment which isn't without critique. Those who saw something to write about his limited vocal range will harp on about it. They will judge his worth based on that (limited) criterion. They will continue to see him as a rebel whose crusade against North Indian ragas and classical music succeeded only at the cost of a lifeless musical idiom. I don't know. Like I said, I am no music critic.

It doesn't take a music critic to appreciate Sunil Shantha, however. So on this day, let us remember him and all those melodies he conjured up. Let us remember his life, which paled as the years went by and as he became isolated by his own people. Let us remember those songs that lent colour to all those films he took part in. And let us rejoice.