Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Victor Ratnayake: For the love of music

What do we do when we come across a song? Listen, of course. Subtext usually comes later, while the character as such of the singer, composer, and lyricist figure in even later. Not many would care to jot down the underlying message of a work of art the moment he or she hears, sees, or touches it: that’s saved for dessert (metaphorically speaking). Few, very few in fact, would hence care to converse with the artiste to get his or her side of the story on how works of art were conceived.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times, but the lyric as such has deteriorated here. Tune in to any radio channel today and chances are that you’ll come across songs about love (unrequited or fulfilled). There’s little to nothing timeless about them, except probably the fact that they’re sung and aired more often than not. What little message we receive, and what little spiritual, emotional, and aesthetic upliftment we get from hearing them are lost the moment we realise one perennial point: the next song in line will probably drill the same theme into our heads.

That is the main reason why we must go out and converse with the veterans. No, not to hear them deplore the status quo, but to get their perspectives, to understand why and how we have succumbed to crass commercialism today. They were known then and are cherished today. They are as beloved as they've always been and more importantly, they do not deplore today’s youth. At a time when those same youth tend to rubbish them, be it in their work or in their personal lives, that’s why we need to listen to giants.

Victor Ratnayake stands among those voices. He doesn’t need an introduction and doesn’t need hosannas. He is not easy to meet but that doesn’t make him unapproachable. He speaks frankly and minces no words when getting his points across. He is one of the few voices of sanity in his field. Consequently, he should be listened to.

A few weeks ago I met the man. I spoke with him. He had some things to say and these, I am sure, will leave us room for thought.

To start things off I mumbled about his childhood. He was adamant that we skip all that: “My life story has been written on so many times. It’s pointless delving into that again. I very much prefer to talk about my career.” Not being a fan of the conventional biographical sketch (except of course with people whose biographies have never got written), I agreed to his request and jumped to another chapter: his views on his craft.

Not knowing where to begin, I put across a question I always wanted to ask him: how does he differentiate between his work for radio and for films, given his vast experience in both? Victor was rather measured in his reply: “In films, the most we can be are background composers. We had to accede to the director’s vision. That’s not to say that we were debarred from contributing in our own way, but we worked from the premise that the director was creator and hence, couldn’t be overridden.”

I asked him to explain how he was able to rein in on his creativity in the cinema, and he readily complied: “I worked with Sunil Ariyaratne in Podi Malli and Sarungale. In the former, I based my melodies on the movements of the actors, while in the latter, given its outlook on Tamil culture and people, I went for Carnatic music. That would not have been possible had the directors insisted on what style I should go for and what melodies I should stick to and avoid.”

Creativity, according to Victor, is predicated on collaboration. That explains his stance on film music and his distaste for those who toss out bragging rights. “I have personally come across composers who’d boost themselves by claiming that if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have risen to where I am. That angered me. In this industry, you must first be human. Only then can you be an artiste. That explains why I don’t sing their songs now and why, out of the 1,450 SA concerts I’ve organised, not one single show has featured them.”

SA of course is another story altogether, deserving of not just an article but a whole book to itself, but for now it compels one question: given Victor’s preference for collaboration over authorship, how does he feel about the way things are going in the industry today?

I suspected early on that I’d opened Pandora’s Box. I wasn’t surprised. Victor is temperamentally a nationalist, which probably has won him both friends and enemies. When talking about the industry, therefore, he was firm on his premise: a song is meant to be listened to and absorbed. “What do you get now?” he questioned me, “You get noise. Cacophony. Not surprisingly, there’s no meaning in the songs that come out today.”

According to Victor, this tragedy came out because of what he refers to as our “para gathi.” He clearly does not belong to the esoteric circle that believes in music as a secular art: for him, music reflects the “pibideema” (awakening) of a culture and a people, and if we cut the one from the other, there’s no anchorage for our cultural sensibilities. “People lament the passing of good lyricists and composers, but they are barking up the wrong tree. I can tell you quite authoritatively that there are good writers and musicians. They are not given a proper place. Naturally, they look to greener pastures.”

It’s not just that we’re culturally castrated. We also lack originality. “I’ve always lamented the practice of media stations, in television and over the radio, of promoting and rating youngsters on how well they sing songs performed by the likes of Jothipala, Baig, and Latha Walpola, among others. What are we telling those youngsters? Simply, that you can only attain perfection if you imitate past masters.”

He went on to add that television is to blame for this: “Reality shows are running riot these days. What do they do? They ask participants to imitate Jothipala and if possible, to dance quite awkwardly to his songs. And it’s not just teenagers. I know of a little boy, for instance, who scored points for performing Baig’s songs and continues to do so even today.”

In short, what we lack isn’t talent but a proper channel of venting that talent (or as the man himself quixotically pointed out, “Not how they sing but what they sing!”). To a considerable extent, that’s cut down on our ability to think and unleash creativity.

“Look at India, which is more than 50 times our size. It’s difficult to promote the kind of imitative culture we have here, because it takes time for whatever corrupting element there is to spread there. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is a virtual paradise for the imitator: the moment you release some germ, it becomes contagious at once. That is why we are susceptible to outside forces and why, after all this time, we remain a ‘para gathi’ people.”

Gunadasa Amarasekera once lamented that our reading public and intelligentsia have stopped growing. Victor agreed and argued that our music culture has become redundant to the point of extinction. “Just think back on the pioneers of the Sinhala song: from the melodies of Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha (who were both simple to a fault), to the raghadari tilt brought on by Amaradeva, right down to the Western and symphonic structures introduced by Somadasa Elvitigala and Khemadasa. You don’t get people like that anymore.”

Amarasekera rationalised this redundancy in terms of our habit of blindly aping the West, which Victor again agreed with: “We go for one of two trends: either remixing old songs or copying foreign melodies. Again, that shows how unoriginal we’ve become.”

He singled out politicians for this: “We are living under a system where licenses are granted to TV and radio stations in return for a substantial fee, because of which new channels are able to script in whatever rubbish they want us to listen to. If our politicians were farsighted enough, they would have regulated them to allocate some hours a day for educational, cultural, and religious programs.”

Given that he views a song as a cultural rallying point, what would he say to those who (like me) believe in the political aspect to art? I was surprised to hear the man rebuff it. “Mahagama Sekara was once approached by some Ministers to come up with lyrics to our first Republican Constitution in 1972. He was amused. I don’t blame him.”

I then asked him why he thought so. “How can you politicise a song? I refuse to subscribe to those pundits who turned music into protest slogans. Not because I don’t see any meaning in them, but because a song, by its own right, is supposed to make you understand why you are human. If all you do is pontificate on a political cause, you are sidelining if not isolating audiences who don’t agree with that cause.”

These are reflections. They leave room for thought. As we neared the end of our interview, Victor quoted Kumaratunga Munidasa: “Aluth aluth da nothanana jaathin lova nonagi.” He gave his two cents: “If we can’t think of our own, we can’t arise. There was a habit of aping other cultures in my time. We were responsible for getting that out. I’m sad to say that we’re seeing a return to that habit and what’s more, it’s returned so strongly that whatever we gained is on its way out. For good.

Words to ponder on, no doubt. We should start pondering, hence. Starting now.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, October 16 2016