Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sanath Nandasiri speaks

I first heard of Sanath Nandasiri through Sunil Sarath Perera. Much of the work that brought them together – including “Mage Ratata Dalada Himi Saranayi” and “Sanda Kaluwara” – were buttressed by a poignant attitude to the world outside, which appealed to me. These were discernibly different to, say, a song like “Premathura Hangum” (Ajantha Ranasinghe). The man’s voice stood out, yes, but I felt that with each lyricist, he adapted. The same went for his work with H. M. Jayawardena and with Clarence Wijewardena. Before I go further, however, I will sketch out Nandasiri the man.

Professor Carlo Fonseka, writing on Victor Ratnayake several years ago, asked a question: “After Amaradeva, who?” The answer, quite obviously, was Victor Ratnayake. He did not ask that predictable follow-up question: “After Victor, who?” There probably are a dozen correct answers to that, each as qualitatively different to the other, but for me, the successor to both these inimitable giants, based on their ability to not just perform but to write and compose as well, has to be the subject of this week’s article. And yet, perusing his life and career, I come across those subtle details which separate him from the other two and instil some individuality into him. I will get to these now.

Sanath Nandasiri was born on February 15, 1942 in the village of Gothatuwa near Kotikawatta. His father, William Perera, was a businessman who indulged in music. Young Nandasiri was sent to two schools: Gothatuwa Madya Maha Vidyalaya and St Matthew’s College in Dematagoda. When I interviewed him and asked him as to whether he harboured any serious inclination for music as a child, he answered in the negative: “Music to me, as it was to my father, was a pastime. I never intended to turn it to a career.”

Nevertheless, by the time he turned 13 he was performing for the SLBC. In 1960, he left for India after being taught to play the tabla by D. R. Peiris. India brought him into contact with Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa Khan, under whom he matured as a tabla player, and G. N. Nattu, who taught him to sing. “I didn’t just learn in India, I also performed,” he remembers, “In fact I ended up composing music at Radio Lucknow.” This would precipitate an academic career in Sri Lanka: upon his return in 1974, he was appointed to the University of Kelaniya and served as the Head of the Music Faculty there from 1988 to 1992, returning to India to pursue his postgraduate studies and eventually obtaining First Class Honours at his Sangeeth Nipun examination.

Through all these years, he did not let go of the performer in him. His output resists easy categorisation and hence can’t be listed out that easily, but suffice it to say that it hasn’t been limited to radio work alone. To be honest, I have heard the man more on film than over the SLBC, which probably is an indication of his range of interests. The directors he encountered – from Sugathapala Senarath Yapa (Hanthane Kathawa) to K. A. W. Perera (Duleeka) to Dharmasena Pathiraja (Ahas Gawwa) to even H. D. Premaratne (Mangala Thagga, where he makes a cameo appearance with “Wasana Wewa”) – have, I like to believe, made extensive use of him.

Which is where I get to his musical collaborators. I begin this part of the interview by asking Nandasiri to lay down his favourite composer (apart from himself, of course). Nandasiri replies by saying that while he can’t think of a favourite as such, he has worked extensively with Clarence and Khemadasa, followed by H. M. Jayawardena and Amaradeva and Victor, in that order. I ask him then to lay down the intricate qualities which separate one from the other, and he readily complies. “I came across populists and conservatives in those I collaborated with. Clarence structured his work in a way which took in mass audiences. Khemadasa was at the opposite pole: both ‘Seetha Rae Yame’ and ‘Sanda Pem Yahanin’ contain rich, complex musical structures.”

Performers and veterans have their perspectives. I therefore ask Nandasiri for a comment on the music industry here at present. He replies by saying that while he is not completely qualified to offer an indictment, nevertheless he feels that on two fronts, the industry is being or rather has been taken over by instant entertainment. “The first front is quite obviously the vocalist,” he elaborates, “Nowadays the trend is to imitate the past. Forget the ethics entailed there. Where will our youngsters be headed to if they continue to subscribe to this trend? More often than not, they also feel the urge to both sing and dance in a way which gives the discerning audience only superficial aesthetic enjoyment. The rasikaya, in other words, is being alienated. Badly.”

What of the second front? “That is the lyricist,” he says, “Which is I think as pathetic and which leaves much to be desired, again. I am alright with people relaxing grammar and syntax for the melody, but there is a limit to everything. What do lyricists engage in today? More often than not, they completely or almost completely do away with the base of the language for the sake of entertainment.” Being a teacher himself, Sanath no doubt professes concern at this deterioration not just in the music industry, but in language standards as well, which leads him to his very next comment: “This industry will not be resuscitated until those who head our TV and radio stations realise that entertainment must be coterminous with quality.”

Where is Sanath Nandasiri the man today? Today he lives a rather comfortable life in Mirihana, with his peaceable wife Malkanthi and his amiable daughter Anuradha. My interview with him was, rather regretfully I should say, short, which I realised even more as I perused the many photos and awards adorning his sitting room.

To list all these awards, of course, is quite beyond my task. Suffice it to say then, that Sanath Nandasiri, whether he is crooning about unrequited lovers or articulating the wishes, the aspirations, and the dreams of the Buddhists of this land, has found in himself the most able successor to the two giants we have and had in our industry: Victor and Amaradeva. Had Professor Fonseka quizzed us on that, I am willing to wager that Nandasiri would be his answer. Aptly.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 5 2017