Sunday, March 6, 2016

For Ajantha Ranasinghe

I confess that my knowledge of poetry is a little abysmal. I like reading poetry, I like extracting whatever experience there is embedded in it, but beyond that I am, for the lack of a better word, a dunderhead. Now lyrics are different, as in they happen to be poetry strung up and tuned to a melody. But even there, for some inexplicable reason, I tend to forget the lyric and get fixated on melody and tempo.

There was a time when I considered songs which were otherwise rubbish as monumental purely because of their rhythm, but that was way back. Even now though, I am pretty much an ignoramus when it comes to reviewing a poem or lyric.

In the late nineties, when I began responding to music and lyrics a little spontaneously, there were two lyricists from here I usually went for. This wasn’t because of any bias or prejudice on my part, but because these two wrote songs which seemed to be aired whenever I turned on the radio. They were Sunil Ariyaratne and Ajantha Ranasinghe. Ariyaratne’s lyrics tended to veer into satire and even nonsense a tad too much after some time. Ranasinghe’s lyrics were easier and more spontaneous. I liked Ranasinghe more.

And how couldn’t I? Ranasinghe was the lyricist who gave us (and could give us) “Indunil Gangulal” and “Sili Sili Seethala Alle”, who could write of love and of his country’s heritage just like that. He was “rooted” in the truest sense of that word. That showed. All the way. It took some time for me to realise just how integral he had been to my cultural sensibilities, for my knowledge of Sinhala remains at best passable and consequently I didn’t (or couldn’t) respond to Sinhala lyricists the way I could to, say, English poets.

“Integral” is a powerful word, I know. But that’s what he was to me. Always.

Ajantha Ranasinghe came to me with those film songs he wrote. That is how I first “met” him. Listen to these songs today, and you will realise how he transforms the simplest metaphor into a substantive reality. This was him at his best, and this strength was what he kept with him for the most, for instance in “Bodha Meedum”

     බොඳ මීදුම් කඳු රැල්ලේ
     සුරංගනා රජ දහනේ
     ඔබේ සිනා කඳුළු බිඳත්
     හෙටත් වාසනා
     හෙටත් වාසනා...

There was nothing obscurantist about Ranasinghe. He came to us simply and directly. He could write about love in a hundred different ways, I’m willing to bet, and be able to establish the commonalities that bound them together in one go. That this was complemented by his rootedness, that he never removed himself from the bonds which tied him to his humble background, everyone knew. Which was how he entranced us with his pen, particularly with those songs that celebrated love so minimally and yet intensely:

     මාල ගිරා ගෙල
     මාල පොටක් බඳු
     ගෝමර පෙති මාලේ...

     පාට සරුංගල්
     පාට නෙලාගෙන
     රුව දිලෙනා ලීලේ...

He neither simplified nor elaborated beyond what was necessary to evoke fragrance. Like the best among his contemporaries he knew how to evoke spontaneous reaction, to arouse memory and that by distilling what his verses were trying to get at throughout his songs. Even when he wasn’t writing about love and dwelt on other more mundane matters, he showed this pretty well. As with “Indunil Gangulal”, which like the above quoted lyrics moves over its themes in fragments before distilling them in one go:

     සිව් මහා නදී ගලා බැසලා
     රත්තරන් ගොයම් කරල් පැසීලා
     ජාතිකානුරාගයෙන් නැගිලා
     සදා ජීවිතෙන් පුදා රකිව් ලංකා...

I wrote before that I met him firstly through his film songs. I met him again, this time personally for an interview and a biographical sketch. He spoke slowly, with conviction, and went through each and every facet to his career. Ranasinghe hailed from Thalammahara, in Pannala. He drove his point about his upbringing well in that interview, I remember. Only someone who could move with the village, he told me, could have written “Mala Gira”, with those lines and verses celebrating those little, little details that never escape the eyes of those whose bonds with birthplace were unbreakable.

We talked for well more than an hour. Not enough, I should think. Not by a long shot.

He wasn’t a pedant, however. He wrote of love, true. He could appear austere and was rarely ostentatious, true. But he wrote other songs, most of which are marginalised today but which showed his versatility well. The lyrics he wrote for Jothipala, for instance, are sung by everyone. They found their way into our films and those in turn made them even more popular. I am willing to bet, though, that when people sing them they think of Jothipala firstly and whoever composed them secondly. Inevitable, a little tragic, but also a little comforting, since Ranasinghe is remembered more (I’d like to think) for those paeans of love and life where he articulated his rootedness well.

Ajantha Ranasinghe died on February 27. He was 75, I read. A loss certainly, and one which will be felt even more in the coming years. Our cultural firmament had a place for the likes of him. My bet is he’ll continue to occupy our collective unconscious, our unyielding cultural tastes. There’s a reason for this, of course. Ranasinghe wasn’t a pedant. Nor was he a populist. He liked to be a moderate.

I think the last word should be his: “We need to move. We need to progress. We can’t be singing ‘Gal Lena Bindala’ forever. But at the same time, we need to be mindful of form. If we can fine-tune content to that basic form, while keeping in mind that almost everything in culture is evanescent, we cannot flounder.”

Aptly put, I’d like to believe. A pity he left us so quickly.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, March 6 2016