Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reflections on Premakeerthi de Alwis

There are certain things we look out for in a song. For better or worse however, the melody and the voice tend to predominate. Few would, I'm willing to bet, look for the lyricist. Not that he or she is marginalised and in other ways skewed of course, but when a song's worth is being assessed, it's what pleases the ears (more than just words) that crop up at once. Consequently then, identity is ascribed to that which wins immediate attention, a truism which applies to any work of art and not just music. I can think of a few good reasons why this happens. Now's not the time, though.

Lyricists display their worth in ways which scholarship can't really do much justice to at times. Some would argue that this is especially true when it comes to lyricists who wrote simply and to the point. I would agree. Such writers tend to know the simplest mode of expression. Among them, Premakeerthi de Alwis, who would have been 69 this year and 70 the next. Had he lived.

Premakeerthi had a way with words. He wrote cogently. He wrote prodigiously. So prodigiously that no one can contend he didn't write enough. He wasn't selective in the themes he chose to write on, moreover: some of his best songs were in fact rooted in personal experience. His triumph was that this didn't make them (too) personalised. Not surprisingly, they touched us. Almost as though they'd been written for us.

On the other hand, it wasn't just experience he turned to words. He could be didactic. He turned the world we lived in, looked at our collective hypocrisy, and called a spade a spade, giving his words to the one person who could and did retain satire in them all, Freddie Silva.

Here, for instance, are the opening lines to "Handa Mama"

හඳ මාමා උඩින් යතේ
අපෙ මාමා බිමින් යතේ...

In the course of that song, Freddie and Premakeerthi talk of accomplishment and failure, of those who strive and those who choose to idle.

දියුණු වන්න වේලාවක් නැති විය
අපෙ මාමා තව පහළ ගියා
රාජකාරි හරි අකුරට ඉටුකළ 
හඳ මාමා තව ඉහළ ගියා...

And yet, there's humour. Enough and more to make us laugh at ourselves, a feat both singer and lyricist achieve in their other work. Even in "Boru Kakul Karaya", which begins with a conversation between a son and father over some men on stilts and then meanders to social discourse, that can be seen:

බොරු අහංකාරකම්
කෙනෙකුගෙ නැතිවුණොත් හිතේ
එයා උඩින් නොවෙයි බිමින්
ගියත් වැරැද්දක් නැතේ
බොරුකකුල් මෙයා වාගෙ
බැඳල නැති නමුත් පුතේ...
ඔය වාගෙ උඩින් යන ඈයෝ
හුඟක් ලොව ඇතේ...

He was not political. Just didactic. That's how we got his message.

What else did he do? In these songs (as with his later work), Premakeerthi toyed around with metaphor and imagery and brought the two together. He was never one to abandon the one for the other, never one to favour abstraction over simplicity. In the phase that followed, he cultivated and honed in on this ability of his so much that he matured. Which was why, in the two songs most associated with Mervyn Perera today ("Obe Dedunna Akasaye" and "Mey Nagaraye"), the imagery seemed to flow off the words and voice almost effortlessly:

සුළඟේ නළවා
පෙර සේ එනවා
ඔබ මා කළඹා
කිමදෝ යන්නෙ නොරැඳී ගලා...

I'm no poet and my knowledge of Sinhala is at best limited, but when I listen to these lyrics today I can only conclude that the man visualised and imagined (and not just penned) what he wrote. How else, one can legitimately wonder, could he adapt the vocal texture of his language to another in "Kundumani", where Freddie Silva triumphed with Premakeerthi (and also Victor Ratnayake, the composer) and did as a singer what Gamini Fonseka did as an actor (in the film “Sarungale”): articulate Sinhala as a Tamil would so starkly that it was hard to spot the difference?

But if all this was true, why was this man forgotten? Why was he haunted by anonymity? And why do we still "discover" his work?

Because he wrote for the vocalist, some will reply. Because he wrote for the image and that image dissolved into melody, others will conjecture. Either way, no one can concede (as they can with other lyricists, even those celebrated today) that he didn't write enough. If they can, it goes to show that he shouldn't have been robbed from us, that he should have survived and continued to live with us. He was overwhelmed with so many requests to write by those who doted on him. They would have continued pestering and requesting him to write more had he lived, I'm sure.

On July 31, 1989, he was gunned down. He'd announced (for he had a voice and he could speak) at a Gam Udawa ceremony a few days earlier. That was a crime for his assailants in terms of political preferences and rhetoric, a crime punishable only by death. A strange line of thinking, but then again politics (and ideology) does strange things to human beings. Sure, people have been killed for lesser crimes. But with Premakeerthi that wasn't just murder. That was theft. A theft so serious that upon his erasure, we lost not just a lyricist but a resident of this country we would have been proud to call "One of us!"

That is why we celebrate his life today. We celebrate it not merely because he wrote so well but because he wrote for us and in turn ABOUT us. For we were those who walk on stilts, who idle and celebrate idleness even as they admonish other idlers, and who feel the pain of love as intimately as he might have. He derived authenticity from us. In the end, we gave him as much as we took (and learnt) from him. The best tribute to such an artiste, I'm sure, would be remembrance. Not frill. And certainly not anonymity.

Portrait by: Gamini Abeykoon

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, July 24 2016