Monday, July 11, 2016

Bandula Nanayakkarawasam speaks

Lyricists are fascinated by the word. Some are selective in what they write, others aren’t. They grow to appreciate that there’s more to a song than verses. There was a time, though, when I thought they didn’t, when I thought they’d grown so accustomed to words that they were hindered by them. I believed then, as I don’t now, that a work of art was best assessed in terms of its moral content. In a song, for better or worse, this moral content was based on the message its lyrics drove home. The closer that message was to my sympathies (political or otherwise), the more likely I'd rate the song highly.

That was then. Since that time I’ve wondered whether a song really is a series of lines etched by the poet or something else, and I’ve come to realise than even the worst songwriters pay deference to more than just words. Especially when it comes to the Sinhala lyric. Bandula Nanayakkarawasam, I'm willing to bet, would no doubt agree.

He’s considered as a lyricist, among the best we have right now, but that’s not all. He doesn’t just pen words or lyrics. He has a voice, he has indulged in script-writing, he has sung, and he knows life. This is his story, coloured as it is by anecdotes which probably do more justice to him than a simple biographical sketch.

Bandula was born in Galle, about two or three kilometres from town. His childhood was, in his own words, quite fortunate in terms of the aesthetic education he received. His first encounter with music had been a large Mullard radio brought by his uncle, a connoisseur of the arts who apparently had been a collector of rare items and instruments. “I was about three when he died,” Bandula remembers, “and since we lived at a time when not even the richest families in our neighbourhood owned a radio, the Mullard was a big deal for a child my age.”

The contraption had entranced young Bandula in more ways than one. "Back then we had only two local services run by one station, Radio Ceylon. It was on this radio that I first received my education in music. I was also the youngest in my family by a wide margin, my podi akka being eight years older than me. Naturally, I was a bit of a loner in my house, and in my free time, which I never lacked even when I was at school, I used to place my ears on its speakers and listen to every song with unabated interest." He jokingly tells me here that he once believed that the singers and announcers who sang and spoke were hidden in the device: "So when I listened to it during a thunderstorm and my loku akka warned me that if lightning struck it would break apart, I honestly thought people would come out. Obviously they didn't. I was about five at the time."

I ask him here whether he looked for the lyrics in a song then. "Not really. We first hear a tune, then a voice, then a name," he explains, "You must understand that it was in my time that people like Victor Ratnayake and Sanath Nandasiri emerged. Amaradeva was before them. But as a child, I went for Victor aiya's songs because of his voice." I put to him that the likes of Victor emerged as a result of the efforts Amaradeva made, and he agrees. "To be honest, it was after listening to Victor aiya that we realised how complex and poetic Amaradeva's lyrics were. Poetry didn't figure very highly in me then."

His interest in the arts developed beyond music as the years went by. His father (a firm leftist and an avid reader) and would usually give him as much as 100 rupees to buy books. "I used to go to a store owned by a man called Lionel and buy a lot, because back then a book cost about four or five rupees." He would get hooked on to literature, above everything Russian literature, which as he says made him see the world in a different light even through translations. "We also had novels, short story collections, and poetry published by Progress Publishers. Naturally, I indulged in them all."

Young Bandula was sent to Richmond College, where his teachers inculcated in him a wider appreciation of what he'd already grown to love. "One of my English teachers was a man called W. S. Bandara. He introduced me to the English translations of Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. It was then and there that I realised how woefully inadequate our translators were. Of course there were exceptions like K. G. Karunathilaka, but apart from them the others didn't really feel the text they were working on." Musically too he prospered, with various stints at singing in concerts and even some inter-school competitions to his credit.

Apparently the radio figured so much in his life at this point that he couldn't really do without it even when studying. "A man called Jinasena lent me some flexible wires, which I then used on an American speaker which belonged to my uncle. Our house oversaw a wel yaya. When I listened to the radio in my room while studying Arithmetic, that wel yaya was always in my sight. That was the kind of childhood and education I had." As he grew up though, it wasn't just songs that he listened to but other programs as well, among them E. W. Adikaram's "Vidya Dahanaya", Mahinda Ranaweera's "Sithijaya", Lucien Bulathsinghala's "Sandella", H. M. Gunasekera's "Irida Sangrahaya", and Tissa Abeysekara's "Art Magazine". To this date, he says he finds it easy to concentrate on something while listening to a song or radio program.

Curious as to what his musical tastes are, I then ask whether he differentiated between "low" and "high" art in his day. He says he doesn't think so. "That came later. But back then we read and we exchanged newspapers with our neighbours. So we weren't completely ignorant of the divide between high and low art. For instance, I would come across Jayawilal Wilegoda's articles on the cinema. Wilegoda lambasted Sinhala films which imitated Bollywood. The same went for music. People like him were always asking questions like how a popular verse like 'jeevithaye kanthare / thurunu wiyali walle / uthura gala yayi adare' made sense, when they didn't. By the time we'd grown up as schoolboys, we knew about this divide. Not that it deterred us from indulging in everything that came our way, of course."

Bandula's reference to films isn't arbitrary: apparently even the cinema had entranced him. "I fell in love with movies at an early age. Back then I was regularly taken to the theatre by my sisters. They considered me a nuisance because of how I'd emotionally react to what they watched. I still remember, for instance, how I cried at Dommie Jayawardena 'singing' Milton Perera's 'Umba Kiya Kiya' in Hathara Maha Nidhanaya. When I saw those scenes of cattle awaiting their death at the hands of butchers, I inadvertently remembered the cattle that roamed near our home. I even had names for them, so when I saw a cow that bore some resemblance to one of them I broke into tears. My sisters weren't in the least happy," he remembers with a smile.

In his later years, as the Sinhala cinema matured and as film halls became receptive to better selections from world cinema, Bandula would expand his horizons. "The first film I saw was Suhada Sohoyuro, back when I was in Grade Four or Five, although the only thing about it which struck me at once was the scene of Asoka Ponnamperuma crying alone in an ambalama. Considering how I'd been thinking that grownup men didn't cry, this was an unprecendented sight for me," he laughs. Apparently he had also patronised the Russian Cultural Centre and the British Council, visits to which broadened his mind and opened him to the rest of the world. He watched and studied the French New Wave, the Eastern European renaissance, and the American counter-cultural revolt.

He also entertained the idea of being a scriptwriter at one point, even getting into the Sri Lanka Television Training Institute (SLTTI) along with the likes of Sumitra Rahubadda, K. B. Herath, and Douglas Siriwardena. "I was taught by Tissa Abeysekara," he remembers. I urge him on.

Abeysekara had been more than just a guru, and as Bandula confesses he would become almost a hero to him. "The way he took us through the history of the cinema, from Eisenstein and his Odessa steps to the American blockbuster, was incomparable. In later years we associated with each other very closely. Once when he had to leave the country while leaving a documentary of his unfinished, he insisted that the only person who could narrate it other from himself was me. I'm glad I knew him." Notwithstanding his stints at the SLTTI, though, he didn't get to become a full-time scriptwriter, apart from a television adaptation of T. B. Ilangaratne's 'Vilambita' directed by Lakshman Wijesekara and broadcast on Swarnavahini, and various other one-episode teledramas.

Getting back to his musical career, I ask him whether he has taken a side in the divide between the aesthetic (saundarya) and the political in lyrics. There's a name that obviously crops up here, and needless to say it does crop up.

"Sunil Ariyaratne wrote 'Sakura Mal Pipila' when I was in Grade Four. That was what first made me realise how abstract music was. In later years, as he and Nanda Malini went on to endeavours like 'Sathyaye Geethaya' and 'Pavana', I matured. Even now, when you listen to 'Perahera Enawa', you feel nothing but admiration for a man who rebelled against tradition and order in what he wrote. The two of them felt injustice and spoke against it. They taught me about the potential of a song or for that matter any work of art. I can't really write about the things they explored with such vigour, but that doesn't take away my admiration for them." He adds that his encounters with Russian novelists left a deep impression in this regard. "To this date, I prefer the poetry of Pushkin to that of Wordsworth. That's not to say that Wordsworth doesn't have merit, but the Russians were incomparable in how they observed life and reality."

What about the present? Bandula is noticeably glum here. According to him, the Sinhala lyric is progressively deteriorating in quality. I ask him whether this is because our generation isn't as receptive to the abstract in art as his had been, and he says he doesn't think so. "We've commercialised art, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but then we're confused about what a popular song is. Forget songs, we don't even know how to rate radio programs! That's something I realised when I was doing 'Rae Ira Pana.' It won awards and was popular but didn't show up as popular as per surveys conducted by ratings agencies. The way these agencies conduct such surveys is quite questionable. And this applies to the kind of songs we have conditioned ourselves to listen to today. I mean, think of it this way: when was the last time you heard a proper, meaningful song when you were travelling by bus?"

I suggest here that things would certainly have been better in his time, but he agrees only half-halfheartedly. "You implied earlier that we've de-sensitised ourselves so much that we can't appreciate the abstract in art. This isn't something new. In my day, to give you an example, there was a singer called Piyasiri Wijeratne. He isn't remembered today because his output wasn't prodigious. But what little he sang, we sing and celebrate, songs like 'Bedda Pura' and 'Ratak Vatina'. The problem was that we had a habit of putting down talent even then, an unfortunate trait in us which persists to this date. In later years, Tissa Abeysekara would publicly observe that Piyasiri had among the best voices in this country. But did we recognise him then?" I see his point at once: blaming some imaginary malaise for the "cultural desert" we seem to find everywhere today, to an extent at least, blinds us to the fact that in each and every epoch our music "industry" as such has faced a huge deficit.

Yes, these are reflections. Opinions. Time has proved them. That shouldn't really bother us though, at least not those among us who've grown to love the kind of music that Bandula has. Speaking superficially about his lyrics, I can say this much as a final note: whether he's writing about injustice ("Rae Wada Muraya") or love ("Ahasai Oba Mata") or childhood ("Mal Pipeyi"), he has realised how simplicity can inject relevance to an otherwise overused message. Which brings me to my first point: no matter how potent that message is, a lyricist isn't or rather shouldn't be entranced by words alone. Bandula Nanayakkarawasam no doubt can testify to this. Amply.

Written for: Night Owls, July 11 2016