Sunday, February 21, 2016

Reflections on the lyrics of Sunil Ariyaratne

About four months ago, I sat down for an interview with Bandula Nanayakkarawasam. We moved on to his life and the various anecdotes that coloured it, including his first trysts with music and poetry. A few minutes later however, we began talking about the true purpose of the lyric, in terms of artistry and social discourse.

I then asked him two questions: “What do you think about the gap between the political and the aesthetic in poetry? Does this gap belittle the political versifiers?”

He gave his answer slowly, but with conviction: “There is a gap, but this doesn’t belittle those who take to the political. If at all, this empowers them.” Inevitably, we began talking about that foremost writer of the political lyric, Professor Sunil Ariyaratne.

Nanayakkarawasam may not have been a political lyricist, but what he said about Ariyaratne and his verses that day offers an antidote to those who view his (Ariyaratne’s) political phase as having been regressive. Nanayakkarawasam drove his point home well: “I may not be able or willing to indulge in the political with what I write, but that doesn’t diminish my respect for him.” Apt.

Sunil Ariyaratne’s achievement, which he sustained right until the end of “Pavana”, was his ability at undermining the popular conception of reality by directly disclosing that reality. As with William Blake’s most mature poetry, his strength came out when he deftly played around with the opposition between what was real and what was popularly perceived, often to the point of irony (and even caricature).

This comes out remarkably well in “Sakura Mal Pipila”, which precedes his political phase. But it is in such apolitical songs like “Perahera Enawa” that he is at his best. I can listen to the opening lyrics to that even now and be moved by how deftly he undresses what’s perceived (as per tradition) to disclose what’s hidden beneath:

පෙරහැර එනවා කස පුපුරනවා
        හෙවිසි හඩ පතුරනවා
        කසකරුවන්ගේ දහඩිය මුගුරින්
        පාවඩ මග අතුරනවා...

The first two lines are pitted directly against the second two: the magnificence of the kasakaraya’s antics is directly at odds with the (silent) exploitation of him during the pageant. There’s irony here alright. But Ariyaratne isn’t content with bringing out his social concern at once: he moves on deftly, dwelling on the elephant and children paraded around the perahera and the nilame who snobbishly ignores the “podi minisun” (the little men) around him, before launching an acerbic attack:

අඹු දරුවන්නේ කුස් පුරවන්නයි
        වන්නම් තාළ වයන්නේ...
        වේල දෙවේලට අත සරුවෙන්නයි
        කොහොඹකලේ නටවන්නේ...

When I listen to “Perahera Enawa”, I am reminded of Blake’s “I Saw a Chapel” – it begins with “I saw a chapel all of gold” and ends with “And laid me down among the swine”, turning from the illusorily mystical to the bitterly real. This is probably what distinguishes Ariyaratne the Social Revolutionary from Ariyaratne the Political Revolutionary, something evident even in his most political verses from “Sathyaye Geethaya”.

I know people who think that these two rubbished tradition rather unforgivably, but to me this reflects a puritanical attitude to what’s traditional and what’s not. That Ariyaratne dwelt on the lesser known aspects of a pageant certainly reveals the fact that those who take part in it do sweat and toil for the sake of a nilame perched atop an elephant (isn’t that what all pageants amount to, anyway?). One can glean this from the introduction to the song that Malini reads out: “This is not a perahera that you and I have been accustomed to seeing.”

Ariyaratne has his champions from this period, but I’m not so sure whether one can say the same of “Pavana”. In “Pavana” he became a political revolutionary, and he turned from Blake’s subtle demystifications to attacking political structures more directly. He wasn’t as concerned about the opposition between reality and illusion as he used to be, hence: for him, what was “out there” and directly perceivable was what counted. This came out forcibly even in his most poignant lyrics, as with “Yadamin Banda Wilangu La”, which explains how he differentiated “Pavana” from his earlier work.

The songs of “Pavana” were dedicated to those affected and killed by the state during the bheeshanaya. The crimes perpetrated against them were “hidden away”, yes. But we didn’t need Sunil Ariyaratne or Nanda Malini to tell us that, because while those crimes may have been belittled by the state, that didn’t conceal the fact that everyone knew what it was committing in the name of erasing dissent.

What these two achieved in “Pavana”, therefore, was a twist on what they used to do in “Sathyaye Geethaya”: instead of pitting reality against illusion, they unearthed a reality that everyone knew about and transformed it into poetry. This was the period when Malini refused to sing of love and life, when she and Ariyaratne gave their fiercest, most politically direct work, to their listeners. Those listeners were the people. The oppressed.

The most common criticism made of these songs today isn’t that they were too political, but that they were framed in such a way that they fail to transcend their specificity. In other words, they were framed by the period before and during the bheeshanaya: their relevance, hence, is limited to this period. What this implies (condescendingly) is that they were crafted so directly that they can’t be classed as “timeless”. The most popular counterargument to this is to claim that “timelessness” is a “bourgeois” and elitist conception (as certain Marxist critics are wont to assert at times). But that would be giving into a fallacy and to contort what defines timelessness.

No work of art purports to transcend spatiotemporal constraints as and when it’s created. D. H. Lawrence’s dictum that poetry amounts to “the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment” can probably be said of ANY art-form: the creator/author of the work of art records “the moment” in a form accessible to others. This is as true for Nanda Malini’s “Dedunu Paya” as it is for “Mongoliyanuwane”, never mind that the former was about love and the latter about multiculturalism.

The best works of art aren’t framed with reference to the present, hence. Not all the time. The lyricist crafts his verses (wittingly or not) in a way that their specificity IN ITSELF resists narrow interpretation and becomes “timeless”. We still quote Blake’s “The Tyger” (“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night”), but that doesn’t stop us from considering his more socially conscious poems as relevant for OUR TIME. The way I see it, this is the best defence anyone can make of Sunil Ariyaratne’s political lyrics, the same lyrics which could talk of injustice with these lines:

පොලිසිය උන්ගේ කූඩුව අපෙ උන්ගේ...
        නීතිය උන්ගේ හිරබත අපෙ උන්ගේ...

(The police is theirs, the prison ours
The law is theirs, the prison food ours)

Yes, there’s specificity here, direct and to the point despite the metaphor. But to consider this a reason to rubbish these songs would be stretching things too far. I like Nanda Malini’s earlier phase (when she sang “Me Sinhala Apage Ratai”), but her later disavowal of that phase is reason for commendation, not critique: to have drawn herself away from singing about love was an act of courage. Much of this must be credited to Ariyaratne, of course, because inasmuch as Malini articulated his lyrics with conviction, those lyrics could have only been written by someone of Ariyaratne’s calibre.

What happened after “Pavana” was a little tragic but inevitable. Radicals tend to age and change, most often into reactionaries: Wordsworth deteriorated, for instance, with his poems celebrating the rural way of life and the sonnets on the English Church after becoming a turncoat, while Coleridge faded away a little while later pretty much along the same lines.

But Ariyaratne didn’t become reactionary. He became obscurantist. I know I’m being a little cruel here, but that’s what some of the songs he penned during this time force me to think.

Sometimes, as with “Seegiri Geeyak” (which was lambasted for its “frivolity”), he writes of love and life in nonconformist, provocative ways. Sometimes, as with “Rata Karawanta Nam”, he embraces the satirist who won us with “Sakura Mal Pipila”. And sometimes, as with “Gata Gata Awidin” and “Gumu Gumuwa Wadule”, he dwells on a silliness that borders on nonsense. He lost his grip with the latter kind of these songs. Not hard to see why.

There’s a silly undertone that runs throughout their lyrics, but Ariyaratne’s problem isn’t that. His problem is that he purposely refrains from justifying that silliness, instead letting it overwhelm us.

This is what accounts for the jumbled up quirk that was “Nona”, a song which in all likelihood was an experiment based on how many variations of the “na” sound a singer can play around with: an experiment that (obviously) failed. A music critic once told me that in this period, form outpaced content, and Ariyaratne’s lyrics became little more than exercises in aestheticism. There were songs he wrote which still echo the “Sathyaye Geethaya” period, granted, which mercifully weren’t and aren’t a minority.

I doubt a single article can do justice to Sunil Ariyaratne. What he’ll churn out in the coming years won’t dent his reputation as probably the most unparalleled exponent of the political song in this country, to whom the non-English speaking section of this country owes a large debt. Together with Nanda Malini, he educated my parents’ generation with the truism that a song (or any other work of art, for that matter) needn’t always be preoccupied with the aesthetic, and that what’s illusory can be undermined deftly, not with swords and guns, but with verses and lines.

For that and for all those lyrics, hence, we are grateful. Always were, always will be.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 21 2015