Monday, December 12, 2016

Premakeerthi de Alwis and the parameters of words

Premakeerthi de Alwis was murdered on July 31, 1989. His assailants were more or less ordinary people, like you or me, fixated on their ideology so much that they disregarded everything which made their victim the man he was. His crime? Announcing at a Gam Udawa concert, the flagship project of a government those who sponsored the murder were hell-bent against. A strange cause for killing someone, but then again politics tends to do strange things to people, turning the innocent into assailant, the celebrated into victim, overnight. No, this is not a political tribute to Premakeerthi. I doubt he had a political life. Most people of his calibre don’t.

We are so entranced by the written word that we rarely affirm simplicity. My grasp of Sinhala, I admit, at best leaves much to be desired: perhaps for that reason, I prefer the spoken to the written word. On the other hand, however, it takes a firm grasp of that written word to make one comfortable and seeped in the spoken dialect. After all, no one can seriously contend that those who wrote, whether as novelists, poets, or playwrights, shrugged off the need to learn the classical aspects to a language just so they could hone in on the colloquial.

The same can be said of lyricists. Most, if not many among them, are so fixated on those classical aspects that they tend to forego on a vast majority of the audience they are attempting to target. In this they are not to be blamed, after all it is a language they are operating in and a language, particularly with regard to those who speak it as their mother tongue, must be known and understood to know and understand a work of art that operates on words.

History is endowed with a horde of artistes who began with the ornate and became simpler: think of the hard to grasp rhetoric of John de Silva’s plays and think of the plays of Sugathapala de Silva, the latter known for their “kitchen sink” dialogues. Think also of the classical poets from Kotte and elsewhere, the splitting of our poetry after the Second World War into two schools (Colombo and Peradeniya), the ideological persuasions that each entertained, and the later transformation of both into simpler, easier to grasp lines, verses, and songs (particularly with the advent of Amaradeva, Sekara, and the likes of Khemadasa and Somadasa Elvitigala).

That is what made Tissa Abeysekara to write, “In the beginning was the melody.” He was correct. In later years that melody would be added to and frilled, only to be returned to its simple, basic essentials again much, much later. Happens everywhere, not just here.

I remember talking once with Premaranjith Tilakaratne, playwright, scriptwriter, lyricist, raconteur, and de-mystifier of myths pertaining to the performing arts, about poets and songwriters. Predictably, we got around talking about Sekara. I argued that his songs represented the peak of the transformation from the classical to the colloquial in our music. He agreed.

I then brought up Premakeerthi de Alwis. He confirmed what I’d been saying all along about poets with his take on the man: “While the likes of Sekara indulged in what can be considered as yuga gee (epochal songs), Premakeerthi opted for less mundane themes in his work.” For me, that represented the essence of the man. He didn’t write yuga gee. He needn’t have. He wrote on simpler, easier to grasp topics. Topics you and I took to at once.

He was born Samaraweerage Don Premakeerthi de Alwis on June 3, 1947. His father Simon worked at the railway, and they lived at Maligakanda, back then (as it is today) a cosmopolitan and crude section of the metropolis. His encounters with his surroundings would have compelled him to write on what can only be called urbanised themes, something his education would have compelled also: first sent to Maligakanda Madya Maha Vidyalaya, he was later educated at Ananda, where he ended up compiling the school magazines (Anandaya and Dhamma Jayanthi). While there he also tried (unsuccessfully) to audition as a singer at Radio Ceylon. He was 14 at the time.

His ambition had been to become a vocalist. After he left school, he took to journalism. In 1966 he joined Visithuru, the film magazine published by Dawasa, under the watchful gaze of its Managing Director D. B. Dhanapala. The following year he joined Radio Ceylon as a freelance announcer. He went up the ranks over time, becoming a full-time announcer in 1971 and, at the time of his murder, an administrator at the News Desk. From 1947, he also became a freelance speaker. Small wonder: his voice, at once gentle, eloquent, and loud, got attention the moment it opened up.

He began his career as a lyricist when he got together with that inimitable vocalist and actor, Freddie Silva. Together with Victor Ratnayake, they gave out some of the bitterest, most acerbic, and yet funniest songs they could have. We remember them even now: “Handa Mama” (a meditation on those who work and those who idle), “Aron Mama” (a parable about those who prattle), “Boru Kakul Karayek” (a reflection on those who walk on stilts, literally and figuratively), and “Gamana Bimana Hari Kadisara” (a warm tribute to the innocence of the kalu kumbiya). These were not epochal songs, yet they enthralled us, simple and witty to a fault as they were.

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...

The words, the melody, the voice: together these deal with a serious if not disturbing subject, infused however with a message that is both timeless and funny. Not many, it must be acknowledged, could have extracted humour from such a theme. Premakeerthi could.

And it wasn’t just with Freddie. Listen to some of his other songs. “Desa Pa Sina” is about the idiocy or naïveté (depending on how you look at it) of youthful romance. “Eda Rae” is about the pain of waiting for love. My two personal favourites, “Oba Dedunna Akasaye” and “Me Nagaraye”, the one joyful and the other poignant, are also on love. “Oba Dedunna Akasaye” in particular has, over the years, gained a currency for itself, in large part owing to what one can consider as the lyricist’s signature: his ability to conjure up an image with his words:

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

“Eda Rae” and “Me Nagaraye”, both of which haunt the listener from the perspective of a pained lover, seem to have come straight out of a poem by Thomas Hardy. To make this comparison is to remember that Hardy, and the English Romantics (Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron), exerted a considerable influence over the Colombo poets, with whom Premakeerthi associated for some time. “Eda Rae”, for instance, has Milton Mallawarachchi speak these lines:

නැසිය මිතුරන් පැමිණිලා
ආසිරි සුබ පැතුම් පැතුවා
ඔබ නාවේ ඇයි මිහිරියේ?

The verse begins with hope and ends with the pain of thwarted expectation, hinging on hopes for relief and requited love: the same themes we encounter in Hardy’s best poems (like the first stanza of “A Broken Appointment”). This is not to say that all Premakeerthi did was transliterate an experience felt by such poets, but the fact that such a comparison can be made in the first place brings up another point of congruence between him and Hardy: the ability to turn the most mundane words into imagery, to infuse them with powerful feelings, a trait that Hardy derived from some of the greatest English poets, including Wordsworth and the Romantics.

Malinda Seneviratne once wrote, “I found that most of my favourite Sinhala songs were penned by this man.” Why the feeling of surprise? Victor Ratnayake quoted a number not too long ago: 5,000. That’s how many songs Premakeerthi wrote. Not an easy number, particularly owing to the unfortunate conflict between quantity and quality artistes usually succumb to. To have sustained interest in what he wrote was a challenge in itself. To have compounded all that with an output that remains virtually unparalleled for an individual lyricist would have been tougher. No wonder Malinda was surprised.

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 a melody, others will conjecture.

For he 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 (think of “Surangeeta Duka Hithuna”). His triumph was that this didn't make them (too) personalised. Not surprisingly, they touched us, almost as though they'd been written for (and 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.

And to a large extent, that is why we can say that anonymity is a curse. Certainly for Premakeerthi and certainly for those countless poets and lyricists whose work transcends those who authored them. Then again though, works of art are like that: they exist without the signature of their authors and, for the most, survive despite the best attempts of some to claim bragging rights over them.

I listened to Premakeerthi de Alwis in his songs, even though I never heard his voice. He was there in them all, despite the fact that he never claimed ownership over them. He made his presence felt. We felt it. So much so that we didn’t need a name under what he penned.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, December 7 2016