Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Gunadasa Kapuge’s affirmations

I sincerely believe that to be an artiste, one must first be a human being. Reality, however, is not that stark. Artistes are human beings, yes, but this does not make them perfect. That is why they clash with each other and why critics and writers try to dig out the divine from the imperfect in them. That is also why there are obituaries and those who praise the dead. Moreover, not every human being is a humanist. Not everyone can cross the terrain from the one to the other. In this context, artistes are a veritable bunch. They don’t just house human beings, they house humanists.

Gunadasa Kapuge was not perfect. To be perfect, however, isn’t necessarily to be a humanist. He was certainly the latter. He had his career, his ups and downs and his moments of doubt. Politically he was far away from us, yet so near. To say that he touched our souls would be a clichéd way of putting it, but that is the truth. This is therefore a tribute to Gunadasa Kapuge.

I know of people who say they can’t bear listening to his songs. True. His best work came out, not in his political tracts but in his affirmation of the human spirit. In what he sang and how he sang, he spoke about the resilience of collectives, how they were able to rise up despite the injustice that adorned our society. When people say they can’t bear listening to him, it is not because they dislike him. It is because he awakened that deeply repressed, and yet potent, quality in us: the ability to empathise, to look at those less fortunate than us and be moved. That defined him and in turn defined the way we looked at him.

Ellamulla Kapuge Gunadasa was born on August 7, 1945 in Thanabaddegama, Elpitiya. He was educated at Dharmasoka Vidyalaya, Ambalangoda and later at the Haywood College of Music. This would be followed by a studentship at Bhatkhande Music Institute in Lucknow, after which he returned home and joined Radio Ceylon. He started out as a radio assistant, graduating up the ranks and eventually becoming a program producer (in 1975) and the director in charge of the Rajarata Sevaya (in 1981). It was through the Raja Rata Sevaya that a new breed of politically sensitive performers came up, among them Karunaratne Divulgane.

Kapuge had a voice. It was politically mature but was still able to speak about other, more worldly themes. His first single, “Dasa Nilupul Thema”, persuaded his superiors to mark him as a Grade A vocalist, after which he moved into a solo career, the theatre, and the cinema. While his credits are many and certainly deserve more than a passing reference, nevertheless I am more concerned in this column about the man behind the performer, and the performer behind the work.

What was it about him that entranced us? First and foremost, he came from the South at a time when that part of the country was fermenting revolution and was engaged in an extensive liberation campaign. That campaign would end with two insurrections, the second being the bloodiest such we have ever seen (and hopefully ever will). Being a part-Southerner myself, I know that it is a veritable paradox, housed by both fundamentalists and humanists, by those who pander to extremist tenets and those who reflect on the world quietly and poignantly. I am not sure whether Kapuge belonged to the latter category, but I am sure that his work strongly indicated that he did.

That is why I believe his Kampana was a more successful manifestation of the political song and lyric than Nanda Malini’s Pavana. While Pavana depended on both Malini and Sunil Ariyaratne, Kampana was Kapuge through and through. With it, he gave us his best, delving into themes which were repudiated and even scorned at by the musical establishment of the day. Malinda Seneviratne once referred to them as his lost songs. I agree. They were lost not because we didn’t want to listen to them, but because we couldn’t.

I know of people who say they can’t stand listening to two of his most powerful songs, “Ula Leno” and “Sumano”. Both were written by that other man of the village, Ranbanda Seneviratne, and both delve into death and decay. Of these, “Sumano” is the most difficult to sit through: it is about a husband lamenting his dead wife. “Ula Leno” is not as difficult, but it is deeper and more reflective. I used to think that it was merely a tribute to the ula lena, who is condemned to live a lonely life in the wilderness. But then I heard these lines, and I was startled by how it seemed to relate to us:

හීත හුළං හිරිකඩයි
කැලේ අපට උරුමේ
නුඹට පිහාටුයි
මට පැල්පතයි තියෙන්නේ...

The wind is cold
But the forest is ours
All you have are your wings
And all I have is my hut...

Here Kapuge is not just praising the bird. He is looking at it. He is emboldened by it. He is sharing its loneliness. That is why, when I heard later that Ranbanda was writing of the failed insurrectionists from 1971, and the condemned lives they had to lead later on, I was not in the least surprised. For Kapuge was not the ula lena, but the men, women, and children (enslaved as they were) who could only embrace their cruel fate. In other words, if Nanda Malini and Sunil Ariyaratne taught us to protest, to reject injustice, Kapuge taught us to look at that injustice with open, teary eyes. He didn’t resolve our suffering, but made us dig deeper, opening the crevices we were on and helping us understand why we were the frail, weak humans we were.

He could embrace the overtly political if he wanted to, and he did that in the eighties. In "Uthuru Kone", for instance, he sang of the diversity we were (and are) blessed with, of the Tamil brother and the Sinhala sister we have in one family. Like the songs from Pavana, however, these were too specific, too narrowly defined, and too crassly spouted for them to gain the lease of life his earlier work had in abundance. I’d like to think that this is why the Kapuge of the seventies is more remembered than the Kapuge of the eighties.

The English language is not poetic and raw enough to sum up the quality of his songs, I am sorry to say. If I were asked to comment on his work, I would say that they were unrefined, coarse, sometimes vulgar, and always sincere. I would also say, more pithily, that they were all “dukbara” (brimming with sadness). I believe the latter word sums up not just his songs, but his compositions as well: even in Tharawo Igilethi, and more manifestly in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s Bawa Duka, he unearths the potent, debilitating inevitability of suffering. Tharawo Igilethi I have unfortunately not seen. I have, however, seen Bandaranayake’s film.

Bawa Duka is chock-a-block from beginning to end with Buddhist iconography, symbolising the oppressive nature of tradition and its uneasy cohabitation with the clergy. It needed a composer who could epitomise the harrowing fatalism of history, of the caste stratifications and the structures of power and patriarchy it perpetuated. Bandaranayake’s preferred composer before this had been Khemadasa. But Khemadasa was too colourful, too much the Mozart, to imbibe that kind of worldview. It needed a contemplative man to articulate the sansaric suffering the film depicted. In going for Kapuge, I therefore personally believe Bandaranake made the correct choice.

But then Kapuge was Kapuge. He didn’t sing, he brooded. He didn’t compose, he weaved.

Just the other day I came across a man who had everything to say about Ranbanda Seneviratne. I relented and told him to pour out his feelings to me. Apparently he’d listened to “Landune” and had gone through each and every line, accentuated by Khemadasa’s poignant melody. He’d listened to how Ranbanda asked whether the landune was another Patachara or Kisagothami and why she was condemned to cohabit with men she never met again, infuriating a society that ignored and condoned those same men.

I asked him what happened next. “I wept,” he said. I asked him why. “I don’t know,” he replied. I asked him whether that was possible. “One does not need reasons to cry,” he observed.

Kapuge was like that. He too made us cry, and in the end, when we wiped away our tears, we didn’t know why. All we knew, and all we ever could know, was that we’d cry again when we heard him sing. Fittingly, he left us without giving us reasons. Just like that.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 1 2017