Monday, February 8, 2016

Dinesh Subasinghe in the USA

Dinesh Subasinghe is a man with a mission, of this I’m certain. He knows his stuff and has nurtured his innate sensibilities to near-perfection. Ordinarily this would leave room for complacency, but in Subasinghe’s case (thankfully) it’s merely provided reason to broaden horizon and quench thirst. He is eager as always, courteous, friendly, and down to earth. If he has much to talk about his career that’s because he’s sustained a career which no amount of words can do justice to.

I met him for the first time about three years back, with the first interview I conducted of an artiste. He was suave, he knew his stuff, and he seemed to appreciate all what he had done quietly, with assuredness. He laughed and smiled and coloured memory with anecdote, and recounted what he had gone through with intense passion. And last year, when I heard that he had gone to the United States to learn American folk music from a reputed violinist, fiddler, and teacher, I wasn’t the least bit amazed. Dinesh still has potential. He deserves opportunity, obviously. And he gets it, little by little.

To me, not surprisingly, this was news. I wanted coverage and I wanted to pursue the matter. We didn’t “meet”, but I asked him to tell me all about his visit to the USA. Over the phone. He obliged. He told me everything.

Dinesh had studied under A. R. Rahman in India. After that brief stint, he had savoured a thirst to visit the entire world, to absorb whatever music he could and take it back home. Along the way, he had nurtured relationships. Contacts. One thing led to the other, and in the end, he found himself in Turtle Bay, New York, learning about folk music and mastering the violin in a summer school under the tutelage of the famed violinist and proponent of folk music, Mark O’Connor. “He was and is a legend,” Dinesh describes him, adding that O’Connor had been a hero even during his childhood. “In 1998 I bought a cassette tape of his music. I researched on him well before I even dreamt of meeting him.”

There’s a thread that runs through Dinesh’s life. A motif. He’s had his heroes, those he admires from his field, and slowly, eventually, but surely, he has met up and learnt from them all. He admired Father Marcelline Jayakody, Premasiri Khemadasa, Stanley Peiris, L. Subramaniam, Latha Mangeshkar, and of course Rahman. Needless to say, he met them all. Same case with Mark O’Connor. But I’m getting a little too ahead of myself here.

O’Connor’s summer camps (which are conducted between May and August, across the country) had designated and reserved spots for talented students from several countries. Dinesh had been the only Sri Lankan to be selected at the time, though not the only Asian. Apparently about 80% of the camp had been inhabited by Americans (as is the case), but there had been Japanese students as well. Both Mark and his wife Maggie, along with the likes of Hillary Castle (violinist) and Joe Smart (guitarist), had taught them.

Not that the Camp’s all study and no play. Every evening, students have to deliver a series of recitals, something they can conjure up. Not surprisingly, Dinesh had opted for his favourite instrument, the “Ravanahatha”, alleged to have been played during (yes) King Ravana’s time. Of course there were assignments to do, lessons to catch up on, and aptitude tests to assess and measure performance. But these are incidental, as Dinesh implies, to what the Camp offered (and offers) as the “real deal”.

“Without assignments, you study at the Camp for about a week. I stayed there for 40 days, and planned to stay for much longer.” Dinesh regularly visits the USA. His schedule must be tiring, but he doesn’t show it. “The Summer Camp is over when you’ve got what they’re trying to impart to you, which is the O’Connor Method.” I ask him to elaborate on this, and he happily complies.

“Mark O’Connor has devised eight principles to master the violin: Listening, Practice, Progression, Exercise, Performance, Relevance, Creativity, and Expression. This method presupposes that music can be learnt and played according to the player’s interpretation, which to be honest is a novel approach to learning about the violin. In fact this has been prescribed in five books written by O’Connor. Once you read, understand, and imbibe what’s in them, you get a certificate as testimony to your skill.” He hopes (like us, I might add) that he will be able to complete this course by the next three years.

I am not musically inclined, and I believe Dinesh should be quoted in full to get the gist of what he’s saying in one go. Music is spontaneous, probably the most spontaneous of all art-forms, and from what I can gather, that’s what O’Connor is affirming in his method. Learning to master instrument and theory is all fine and well, but without creativity, music may well congeal into pedantry at the end. To be entertaining and not merely pedantic: THAT’S what Subasinghe has demonstrated, and what O’Connor has reminded him to demonstrate over and over again.

Dinesh talks about how he was received in the USA at this point, and (again) characteristically he dishes out gratitude with no reservation. He rattles off a list here: “The Sri Lankan community in Washington welcomed me with open arms. There were four musicians from here, who’re domiciled there, who were more than ready to help me out when I was giving a performance for our expats: Himaransi Ranasinghe, Ranjith Lokubalasooriya, Ajantha Peiris, and Kalpitha Palawatta.”

Apparently he had wound up collaborating with the Washington expat community over a music program at a Buddhist temple (he credits two names here, Maharagama Dhammasiri Thero and Saddhaloka Thero), and he had been helped financially in this regard as well. And of course, he remembers Athuraliye Rathana Thero, with quiet nostalgia. “He was there for me, he helped me out tremendously, and we keep in touch with each other. I am grateful.”

I mentioned at the beginning that Dinesh has an innate sensibility, a natural flair for observation and perception. He has a knack for grabbing the essence of any musical form and adapting it to suit his temperament. Like all creative artists, I must add. Which is why I’m not surprised when he tells me that he could play Scottish, Chinese, and American folk music almost effortlessly. “There’s music inside me,” he explains to me. I believe him.

As is usually the case with such men, he never hesitates to add to and elaborate on what he’s saying, always ready to source and provide reference points for whatever anecdote he recounts. From the looks of it, he has a long way to go. He has until now been credited for in over 60 tele-dramas and 10 films. His soundtrack for “Ho Gana Pokuna” was released at a modest but well attended ceremony last week, I’m told. His contribution to the Duwa Passion Play hasn’t gone unnoticed, and as for upcoming developments, Dinesh tells me that he’s collaborating with Mahesh Denipitiya, whom he regards with admiration.

What more can one ask, I wonder. “Plenty more!” he may reply. And he is correct. There’s more he’s trying to reach. I’m sure that he’ll achieve what he wants. And I’m sure that the entire country wishes that he will.

His journey hasn’t ended in Turtle Bay, hence. Not by a long shot.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 7 2016