Sunday, March 12, 2017

Chanuka Moragoda: Singer, dancer, boxer, aspirer

Chanuka Moragoda has been described as a paradox. He can sing, he can write, he can dance. He can also box, he has achieved considerably at badminton, and he can rap. Such people are usually short on words, not because they can’t talk but because they prefer to let their work speak for them. Needless to say, I got to meet him through his work. The minutes passed, the evening drew to a close, and he warmed up. He had a story to tell, I recorded it, and to the best of my ability, I will recount it to you.

Chanuka first came to my notice a month ago, when a random visit to Facebook and WhatsApp brought me to a music video. The video (“Mayamkari”) had to do with a boy cautioning his friends against being entrapped by grasping, overbearing lovers. To say the least, I was impressed. It was judiciously edited, the message was apt, and the choice of location, actors, and story seemed to have been spot on.

Now music videos, as anyone with a smattering of knowledge in music will tell you, are not MP3 files. There is effort that needs to be expended on editing and the editor as such must be endowed with a keen, observant eye. Because all music boils down to the melody and the lyric, though, I inferred that Chanuka began his journey with singing. I was wrong.

His first love had apparently been dancing. He had nurtured that at school and outside it, eventually getting to study it under that great veteran himself, Ravibandu Vidyapathi. His tutelage as such, however, had been for only three months, after which Chanuka had sustained his interest in it while pursuing his studies at his school, Ananda College. Not that this put a stop to his flair for it, of course: among other things (which I will write on shortly), he had been through a Ves Mangalya at the age of 14.

Because I am more interested in his interest in singing and poetry, however, I ask him as to whether he faced the same fate when indulging in those two streams. He says that he did not. I ask him to explain.

Apparently he’d started singing at his daham pasala, the Susilaramaya, in his hometown Malabe, where he was influenced and shaped by our jana gee tradition. This was supplemented by his joining the Ranwala Balakaya.

What he practised, nurtured, and perfected during this time, moreover, had come out at a concert organised to unearth latent talent among lower grades at Ananda. The concert, Pipena Kekula, revealed his many abilities, which compelled him to choose dancing in Grade Six and continue with that subject into his O Level and A Level years.

From then on, one achievement followed another. In 2011, when he was in Grade Nine, he had come first in the pahatha rata solo category at an island-wide contest called Sarala Kavi Thala. He had naturally selected dancing for his O Levels, opting for the Arts stream for his A Levels. When he was made the President of the Dancing Circle at Ananda (for 2014 and 2015), he not only resuscitated its showcase concert Anada Pratibha, but also moved it from being a once-every-other-year event to an annual rite. This could not have been achieved alone, true, but then again without him at the helm, it probably wouldn’t have been achieved at all.

People like Chanuka are never dormant. They are always alert to other art-forms and other ways of venting out their creative sensibilities. It is probably this that got him hooked into music videos. Long before he left Ananda, he had decided (vaguely) to come up with a video of his own, putting his ability to sing, to write, and if possible, to dance to the test. Right after he wrote his exams, in September last year to be specific, he hence ended up with a bunch of friends for his first enterprise, "Anapu Tokka".

"Anapu Tokka", however, was an experiment, and like all experiments it wasn’t meant to be a phenomenal success. Chanuka was taken in to basically do everything. “It took two weeks for me to compose and write the song. We shot the video in Negombo and took one month to edit it. Because I wasn’t too aware of what went into editing, I won’t say that I completely achieved what my friends wanted.”

Nevertheless, by trial, by error, and by his previous encounters with Photoshop and graphic designing, he managed to fuse it together for a mildly received and (I daresay) overlooked project. This would be followed by "Ma Ena Thura", which wasn’t a video but which he (again) composed and wrote.

"Mayamkari" was his third venture, processed through Oculus Studios (housed by a set of former Anandians). The story in it, however, had been fermenting in his mind even before "Anapu Tokka": it had taken root in him in July, one month before his A Levels. I suspect that owing to this, he had been prepared for a veritable music video, which would have meant hours, days, weeks, and months of assessing, adding, and cutting with respect to his original concept. “The ideas just kept on coming,” he explains, adding as an example that the bera vaadanaya in the video was not there when he first sketched it out.

How successful was it? Consider this: from September 2016 to February 2017, his YouTube channel had accumulated 60 subscribers. On February 17, he released the video. Within two to three days, it not only collected more than 10,000 views, it got in 300 more subscribers. Now do the math: within a few weeks, he’d got five times the number of subscribers he’d taken in through six months. If that isn’t a solo hit, particularly for a person his age, I don’t know what can be.

To this end, I ask him as to what compels him to create and to perform. I ask whether that is because he likes to write, to dance, and to sing, and he replies that while he takes to all three unconditionally, it is not just a desire to perform that motivates him. “I want to create a name for myself. I want to go independent in the future, so that I can create my own work without relying on outside patronage.” Apparently he has “been” to other artistes, all of whom have professed an interest in his work but at the same time have demanded that he “broadcast” it through their channels. I am sure that Chanuka is in the right as he tells me that he has refused these offers.

I can neither sing nor can I perform for an audience, not even to save my soul, so I am impressed enough with Chanuka to expect him to gain a sizeable audience in the years to come. The main point about him, which I like, is that he’s not just an artiste. As I pointed out before, he is what one can consider as a paradox. I therefore ask him to lay down his other interests, and he readily does so.

“I was a boxer at Ananda. I also played cricket and badminton, ending up in the National Team (in 2007) and clinching the Under 10 team Captaincy and Under 12 team Vice-Captaincy with the latter. I also played at the SLT, Fingara, and SSC Championships and was an Under 15 and Under 18 Champion, which helped me earn colours from my school and become the disciplinarian I needed to be to in turn become a Prefect.”

All in all, a set of impressive achievements. Whether he goes ahead with these is a question that can best be answered elsewhere, so for the time being, I will close this sketch on him with some reflections.

This column got me in contact with a horde of reckonable young artistes. I began with Nandun Dissanayake and have so far gone until Sarith and Surith Jayawardena (all three of whom, call it a coincidence, have come from Chanuka’s school). They are talented. Alert. Never dormant. Always open. And yet, with what they do, and despite the praise they get, it is my contention that they are not blessed with the kind of fame they should be getting. I am of course not referring to that notorious 15-minute-fame which lesser artistes and performers encounter. I am talking about the long term. The future. What will be.

Which is where I get to my point. Chanuka Moragoda, who can box, play badminton and cricket, play the drum, write about love and ex-lovers, rap, dance, edit, design, in one word create, has what one can consider as raw, unrefined talent. It takes a mentor and patron to refine that talent. The aspiring artiste lives on such a figure. Unfortunately for him (and for us), such a figure is not to be found that easily in Sri Lanka. While music entrepreneurship here is certainly better than it used to be a few years ago, I admit that it is not enough. If it were enough, a friend of mine aptly put it, Nandun would be winning his own Oscars and Chanuka, if he got the kind of mentor that Justin Bieber found in Usher, his own Grammies.

We can jump to conclusions from this. That, however, is not my task. My task is to end on this note: I am glad I got to know Chanuka and I am glad that I am his friend. For me and for now at least, that is enough.

Written for: The Island YOUth, March 12 2017