Sunday, November 6, 2016

Amaradeva: the Voice of the Nation for the Nation

His songs roll off the tongue easily, as though their lyrics were stuck in our throats and needed his melodies to be unleashed. They are addressed to us, the collective “we”, the entire country, in ways few singers have or ever will.

There must be a secret to this, and I don’t deny that, but the truth of the matter is that he has tapped into the collective unconscious of the nation remarkably well. Wherever he has been and whatever he has contributed has been etched across our minds forever. He is immortal, in whatever he has sung and whatever he has written.

He is Amaradeva.

I remember arguing once with a music lover over the “ultimate” aim of a song. He put to me that music (and indeed art) will be vindicated only when it runs parallel with the “truth”.

I asked him to elaborate on this. He obliged. Truth, he contended, was political and hence defied the “saundarya” (aesthetic) quality music is filled with. He argued that songs would “dig” into us only as long as they drifted away from what he called the “indifference of the aesthete.”

I begged to differ, needless to say. I told him that as long as songs made us reflect, and as long as songs which talked about political realities were aesthetically crafted, they would gain popular appeal. Otherwise, they would be so specific to the time and place they were made in that they would lose popularity as time passed. I brought up some singers. He brought up some singers. We argued, and heavily so.

Then we got to Amaradeva. The man quietened down rather quickly, and stopped arguing. I tried to bring him back to the debate, but he hemmed and hawed and left. No, I didn’t even have to go on to prove what I was saying. And yet, just like that, I won that day. How?

I wish I knew.

There are some songs which remain alive in our memory no matter what. There’s a reason for this, obviously. Perhaps they dig deep into the reserves of our minds in a way no political song ever can. And so, those who criticise them as being too indifferent, too aesthetically crafted, are not telling the whole story. They are partial. What they say and think, hence, cannot last. Not for long.

Amaradeva’s songs cut across any divide, real or imagined. They at once beckon what we secretly nurture in ourselves. “Sasara Wasana Thuru”, for example, reflects our collective wish to be born in this country, frail and fragile though it is, over and over again. It is our “pathuma”, our wish, that we are brought up on this soil and return to it even when our remains disappear. Yes, it’s a collective wish. The same kind of wish Amaradeva sings about in countless other songs, penned by him or by other illustrious lyricists, prime among them Mahagama Sekara.

It’s not just songs of course. The true worth of the man, I feel, is to be seen in how he has imbibed different styles and idioms to present a truly “Sri Lankan” music.

Take those films he has scored, for instance. I remember the first theme of his I listened to. It was from Gamperaliya. I remember the opening sequence of that film, the music tuned perfectly to a potter ambling his way along the Koggala coast. There came a point in that film when its theme took on a life of its own and exemplified a nostalgic attitude to the way of life it was portraying, something the critic Philip Cooray noted when he wrote just how dirge-like the score was.

There were other films, other scores. There was Delovak Athara, a world away from Gamperaliya in terms of mood, scored completely by a Western orchestra. Amaradeva’s theme for that film was unique and for its time, unsurpassable. In its orchestration, its mood and texture, I realised at once how eclectic, how flexible, the man was in his ability to weave together different musical traditions. This and nothing more accounted for my love for his music. And songs.

He didn’t do it all alone, by the way. There were songwriters, as I pointed out before. There were also filmmakers, whose vision he would perhaps absorb when scoring their works. I haven’t come across very many Sinhala films to identify what would constitute the best musical score, but Thunman Handiya came very close to it. There was that same nostalgia, that same bittersweet dirge, which went in line with the film’s story. I wasn’t surprised by the fact that Mahagama Sekara had directed it. Yes, Sekara. The “gee potha” (“book of verse”) to Amaradeva’s “mee vitha” (“glass of wine”).

I haven’t met him personally, however. Still, I have come to terms with the fact that one does not need to meet him to savour him. His attitude to music is at once recognisable in any of his songs. To him, and I’m pretty sure of this, music cannot be defined. It cannot be put down in words, as a novel or poem can, and it cannot be replaced by textbooks or academic treatises. He has written of how he has made communicating his innermost feelings through music his “jeevana pranidhana” (life mission). Nothing could be truer. I have heard the man more than I have read him. He is music exemplified. He doesn’t need a biographer. His voice and melodies are his life.

This isn’t all. At a time when trends change and change fast, his is the voice of sanity that prevails. I’ve talked with friends of all races, of all religions, be they Muslim, Tamil, or Burgher. They all love him. They have made it a point to sing one of his songs whenever chance permits, the most popular being “Ratna Deepa Janma Bhumi” (for some reason). They have all committed his lyrics to memory, probably more so than those of any other artist dead or alive. I can’t think of any other singer who has inspired my countrymen this much. Maybe Sunil Shantha, or even C. T. Fernando. I don’t know.

Each of his songs pithily embodies a human condition. “Nim Him Sewwa” speaks to the lover in us, hoping that one day she who is sought will return to us, forever. “Ran Dahadiya” is about the sweat and toil, the dignity, of the goviya who sustains us in a way we will never be able to pay back. “Sannaliyane” is about the inevitable vicissitudes faced by a weaver who weaves for the living and the dead. “Siripa Piyume” tunes in perfectly with the pilgrim’s progress to the Holy Peak of Samanalakanda (Adam’s Peak). They are timeless, true, but are also ingrained with a Sinhala Buddhist ethos which at once cuts across to every community in our land.

He’s much more than a singer or composer. I don’t need to write down his CV for you. It’s there for everyone to see. He was there when Queen Elizabeth wanted a national anthem for the Maldives. He was there in the Philippines when he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award. He was there, with his beloved wife adding to what he said and sang by his side, more than one month ago (October 2014), at the BMICH, performing for and with the Music Circle of Ananda College. He was there, everywhere. We saw him, and when we did, a kind of hush came over us. That hush I’m yet to see with another singer or artist, whether from here or elsewhere.

The truth is, and this I’m sure of, that he is a national force. He remains alive in us and in the memory of those who cherish him. If it’s about bringing together different communities, be it on either side of the racial or religious divide, no greater unifying force can be found. For he has touched what academic theses cannot, that timeless, space-less wish which resides in every human being: the wish to capture emotion and give it to the world (as he put it once) with no antipathies to any community. He is a communicator, a tool for harmony, and wherever he may be, he exudes that charm and humility which immediately draw us, whoever we are, to him.

He is Amaradeva. The Voice of the Nation, for the Nation. He turns 87 today. May we all put our hands together. May we all wish him: “Chiran Jayathu!”

This was published in the now defunct ESCAPE magazine on December 5, 2014. He had just turned 87 then. He would have been 89 next month.