Thursday, April 20, 2017

Premasiri Khemadasa’s lost songs

In his landmark essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, T. S. Eliot made an observation of poets that was taken to promote a separation of the personal and the social in the artiste: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”

When I read Eliot’s essay, I thought of two composers who were opposed to and accommodative of this thesis: respectively, Beethoven and Mozart. The popular image of the former as an erratic genius constrained by physical disability and of the latter as a quiet prodigy has, I believe, confirmed this dichotomy well.

Decades later (in 1986), Regi Siriwardena in an article resorted to another such dichotomy, based on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” in which those two animals were used to make a contrast between artistes who thought of the world as reducible to themselves and artistes who thought of it as irreducible. For Siriwardena, Beethoven was the hedgehog because his middle period (his richest) is filled with rhythms that pulsate with the kind of power he hankered after in his life. Mozart, on the other hand, was the fox, because (echoing Eliot) in his work there’s a separation between the creator and the creation.

That an artist goes through numerous phases in his career isn’t always proof of his being a hedgehog, although that thesis is manifestly valid for Beethoven. They do, however, indicate a soul in search of some meaning in his art. Which brings me to the subject of my piece.

We know Premasiri Khemadasa went through certain chapters in his career. We can extrapolate and contend that, whether or not Eliot, Berlin, and Siriwardena were right, the fact that these “chapters” remain sharply distinct from each other is proof (however untenable) of the musical hedgehog in the man. Which begs the question: what were these chapters in the first place?

Eric Iliyaparachchi’s biography hints at three periods in Khemadasa’s career: the early sixties, the mid-sixties up to the eighties, and the nineties onwards. In the first period, he entered the world of theatre music. When I listen to the songs he composed during this time – like “Sirikatha Ena Maga” – I glean a vague and uneasy disconnect between two musical traditions: the raghadari sampradaya and the Western melody. He had as of yet not resolved this conflict.

The second period saw him enter our film industry through Robin Tampoe. Initially (as with “Samma Sambudu” from Ariyadasa Peiris’ Sobana Sitha) he had been hesitant to break away from the raghadari code. Tampoe’s films – in particular, Sudu Sande Kalu Wala – saw him embrace Western music, while with K. A. W. Perera’s Senasuma Kothanada he made his defection complete. His middle period became his richest for this reason: accentuated as his songs are with energetic rhythms, he almost seems to brag about his defection.

Before getting to his third and final period, however, we must assess what exactly he stood for. To answer that, it’s apt that we compare him to that other giant in his field, Amaradeva.

Amaradeva’s career can’t really be chapterised, unless you count in those early compositions that echo some of Sunil Shantha’s melodies (like "Shantha Me Rae Yame"), qualitatively different to his later work. But then for most, his later work represents THE Amaradeva that matters.

His songs from this period are underscored by a deeply felt, though never flaunted poignancy, at once profound and simple. Coupled with his (for the most) spare use of instrumentation (as with “Palu Anduru”, "Siripa Piyume", and “Ma Mala Pasu”), this confirms what scholars and music lovers alike consider as his single biggest contribution: the sarala gee. In other words, Amaradeva was a simplifier.

Khemadasa, on the other hand, was a flaunter. In the seventies, he went beyond anyone else experimenting in Western musical structures – Somadasa Elvitigala and Shelton Premaratne included – and broke into new territory. While Elvitigala died prematurely and Premaratne was denied the patronage he should have received for his versatility (I remember a prominent playwright from his time telling me, for instance, that he had the ability to move from baila to Beethoven in a matter of seconds), Khemadasa was able to move ahead and become the obverse of Amaradeva.

To list down some of the contrasts between the two, then:

Amaradeva was spare with his instrumentation, while Khemadasa was not. Amaradeva opted for a certain composure and poise, while Khemadasa was deliberately wobbly and colourful. Amaradeva was spontaneous (or at least gave the impression of being so), while Khemadasa was the perfectionist. Amaradeva could work with Mahagama Sekara so much that he became the "mee vitha" to the other’s "gee potha", while Khemadasa after collaborating with him over one main song (“Sara Sonduru Mal Patali” from Hanthane Kathawa) never worked with him again. To sum all these up: Amaradeva was the gradualist, Khemadasa more turbulent.

As with Beethoven, Khemadasa’s works represent the shattering of inherited forms: they dally with the same raghadari tradition he repudiated, only to playfully revert to Western rhythms (this playfulness is evident in such hits as “Mey Gee Eda”). “What is in my heart must come out and so I write it down,” Beethoven is reported to have said, and we can certainly take this to be his principle when it came to rejecting traditional musical forms: he is reputed to have once recorded 17 different attempts at proving that a certain rule of harmony was wrong. That’s where Khemadasa’s opposition to his contemporary comes out: while Amaradeva was the artisan, he was the trapeze artist who used his compositions to project his larger-than-life self.

But even trapeze artists have their moments of doubts, which soon give way to self-reflection and, eventually, self-repudiation. That explains Khemadasa’s decision to purge his craft: an act that was seen as a betrayal by some, a necessity by others.

From the nineties, he diverted his energies to three different musical streams: his collaboration with Jayantha Chandrasiri, his experiments with the three-minute song, and his operas and symphonies. His work with Chandrasiri kept him back from a complete rejection of his earlier phase, though that did not prevent him from rejecting it with the two other streams.

When I listen to middle period Khemadasa – think of “Loke Jeewath Wannata” and “Manamalai Manaharayi” – I sense a search for popular acceptance. By rejecting the forms and structures underpinning these songs, he was in effect trying to get rid of his image as a populist. Compared with his work from that time, not surprisingly, his later compositions (“Sara Gee”, “Suwandai Mal”, and “Wala Athula”) lose out in colour and instrumentation. These are hence what I consider to be his lost songs, remembered only marginally (though celebrated nevertheless) today.

Of his operas and symphonies, while some contend that these were too imitative to merit serious attention, I personally think that the problem goes deeper than such a superficial critique. Opera, after all, unlike the stylised musical theatre which evolved here, was reserved for the top brass of societies that subsisted on class stratifications. There is a kind of aestheticism involved in it, despite its superficial elegance and interplay of music and words, which appeals to those who have the luxury of time and leisure on their hands. This fatal disjuncture – between the kind of acceptance Khemadasa tried to get and the classist constraints of the genre he was working with – explains at least partly why opera never really took off in Sri Lanka.

These are reflections, I admit, and for the time being I am done with them. I will hence conclude.

Beethoven, in his last few years, made peace with himself through compositions that were more graceful than his previous work. Mozart, on the other hand, never felt the need to tone down, because in him we find a confirmation of Eliot’s dichotomy between the creator and the creation, as a composer who never altered his music to become artier or more personal.

To compare Mozart to Amaradeva would be, I admit, a bit remiss. Suffice it to say, then, that in Sri Lanka, as with the Europe of the Romantic Era, we come across two composers who exhibited two different conceptions of their medium. Whether the one triumphed over the other, we can’t tell. There’s no point comparing a fox with a hedgehog, after all. No point comparing an artisan with a trapeze artist. In the end, we can only comment. Since that’s not my task, I will stop here.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 19 2017