Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Ajantha Ranasinghe: The late and the lamented

In Ajantha Ranasinghe’s lyrics there is a coming together of the literary and the romantic. This is nothing new, nor was it something Ranasinghe wrought; the truth is that he belonged to a tradition that bred Mahagama Sekera and Premakeerthi de Alwis, Kularatne Ariyawansha, Sunil Ariyaratne, and Rathna Sri Wijesinghe.

If there is a quality of freshness in the work of these men it’s not because they were radically experimenting with, or rebelling against, the accepted conventions of their day, but because they were able, within the confines of those literary conventions, to comment on the social systems they lived in from an individualist, relatable standpoint. The best love songs are those that relate to us the experiences of a single lover, after all, just as the best satirical songs are those that relate to us the misadventures of a misfit (think of “Aron Mama”, “Handa Mama”, “Aluth Kalawak”, all by Premakeerthi). That’s what their package was: their ability to root the social in the individual. And that’s why their work continues to be enjoyed, even today.

Probably the best thing to happen to our poetry was the fact that these men were able to transcribe it to the three-minute song, and probably the best thing to happen to the three-minute song here was the availability of a rich poetic tradition it could take from. But the lyricists who were nourished by our poetry, like the first film composers in Hollywood who were influenced by the symphony (William Walton, Max Steiner, Camille Saint-Saëns), didn’t want to be inhibited by the classical; consequently, even in the choice of themes they went for, they often defied those conventions which had shaped them. Now to defy tradition you need to be steeped in tradition, which is what they understood all too well: they read, they wrote, many of them worked as journalists or broadcasters, before moving into music. They were all literary romantics, who never confused their abilities, their experiences, for their greatness.

Ranasinghe belonged to this literary milieu. His death last year at the age of 75 was significant in that sense, since he was the last of his generation, a generation that would be followed by the more idiosyncratic Sunil Ariyaratne and Wijesinghe. This is not a tribute to him, however. This is a sketch, or rather an attempt thereat.

He was born in Thalammahara in the Kurunegala District to a fairly middle class family. “We revelled in the village and our childhoods,” he remembered for me two years ago, adding, “That was because we were schooled by our experiences, around where we lived. We were at one with our surroundings. In fact most of my songs owe their legitimacy to those experiences and surroundings.” He could have added, as he did, that the lack of such childhood experiences partly explains why songs today seem to be unmoored, cut off, cast away. “Today’s generation are not fortunate,” he observed, “They can’t feel, they can’t write.”

Educated firstly at the local school at Pannala, again in Kurunegala, he was later sent to St John’s College, Nugegoda (where Sunil Ariyaratne studied as well) on account of his family’s decision to have him schooled in English. Given the fidelity that artistes in general exhibit towards such institutions of learning I expected him to be thankful, to be nostalgic. He was thankful, yes, but not nostalgic. “To be honest, I didn’t come across our culture as much as I had in the game iskole. I’m not finding fault with missionary schools, but the truth was that they were established to spread their faith and only then to embrace our way of life. That’s why, apart from the Language and Literature periods, I didn’t encounter Sinhala in Nugegoda.” Perhaps for that reason, he left St John’s after completing his GCE Ordinary Level Exams.

Eventually he found himself among a group of likeminded lovers of literature and the arts led by Sunanda Mahendra. “We would buy books and discuss them. We got to appreciate both Sri Lankan and world literature, and met every fortnight to talk, to debate. It was while purveying our language that I discovered the link between the written word and the articulate lyric. Because we found time to dabble in fruitful conversations over the arts, we knew what to write. You just don’t come across that kind of interest among youngsters today. Forget the fact that they aren’t interested: even if they did, they don’t have the time!”

Ranasinghe began his career in the media, through Radio Ceylon, where he joined the Lama Mandapaya program, and through Lake House, where he started off as a cub reporter and moved up as a local news editor, a short story writer, and eventually a poet. While juggling his work and his interests, 1956 came and went, as the single most significant event to transpire in our cultural sphere in the 20th century.

At Radio Ceylon, working under the formidable Karunaratne Abeysekera, Ranasinghe met one of his most frequent collaborators: H. R. Jothipala. Jothipala, who through his sister had heard of the man, wanted him to write a song. “It was to be about his newborn daughter,” he remembered, “And it had to be, in his own words, the ‘world’s most beautiful lullaby.’ Apparently Mohomad Sali was to direct and compose it, and I had to meet him. I felt helpless at the time. Forget writing what he wanted, how was I to capture and convey what he wanted me to feel, on his behalf?” Eventually, however, he accepted the challenge, went to Sali, talked with him, and came up with a song: “Mage Wasanawam.” It marked the first time the two had got together: they would get together, again and again, for much of what Jothipala is known and popular for today, the translated, sometimes transliterated, Bollywood melody.

Perusing his subsequent career, I was struck by the names of two other collaborators: K. A. W. Perera (whose films introduced Ranasinghe to popular audiences) and Premasiri Khemadasa (who composed the music for them in the seventies). Ranasinghe’s first film song, “Pokuru Pokuru Mal Sanakeli”, in Perera’s Wasana, would be followed by several others, as renowned: “Mey Gee Eda” from Janaka saha Manju”; “Manamalayi Manaharayi”, “Kanata Arungal”, and “Mata Asai Hinahenna” from the phenomenally successful Hingana Kolla; and the quaint, almost unheard of “Suba Gamane” from Wathura Karaththaya. When Perera opted for Greshan Ananda in the eighties, he left Perera to follow the man who had composed all these hits. That is why, after Sekera and Amaradeva, I believe Ranasinghe and Khemadasa to have made up the most prolific lyricist-composer relationship to ferment our music.

Consider the following sample: “La Nil Lassana” (T. M. Jayaratne); “Sudu Rosa Malak” (Jothipala and Malini Bulathsinhala); “Rathu Rosa Pokurin”, “Wikasitha Pem”, and “Pemwathune” (Amaradeva); “Mage Lowata” (Neela Wickramasinghe); “Ra Hande Henakin” (Amaradeva and Niranjala Balasuriya); and my personal favourite, “Paloswaka Sanda” (Amaradeva and Neela). Like the best poetry of Thomas Hardy and Sekera, these are punctured by the poignancy of expectation, the intermittent sorrow at the lack of fulfilment, and the final anguish of failed hopes:

අදත් එදා මෙන් බලා හිදී
මගේ ලොවට ඔබ වඩින තුරා වඩින තුරා

Ranasinghe’s most prodigious period was the eighties, just as Sekera’s had been the sixties. Here his earlier optimistic conception of love is superseded by a more philosophic, stoic outlook: the lovers in these songs do not have their dreams realised, but wait for the day that they will be, even with a chance encounter:

කියා ගන්න බැරුවා
සිතු දේ තොල් අතරේ රැඳුනා
මනාපදෝ මන්දා
මා සිත ආදර මල් පිපුණා

And sometimes, it’s those chance encounters that give them some sense of happiness:

ඔබ සැමරුම් රැඳි කවුළුව මානේ
කඳුලක පැල්ලම් ඉරි ඇඳුනා
අළුත් මලින් පිරි වනෝද්‍යානේ
සැඳෑ ‍බොල් හුළ‍ඟේ
මට තනියක් දැනුණා

That last song (“Tharu Arundathi”) was written after he saw a girl, unnamed and unknowable, across the street; he never got to know her, and neither does his narrator. It’s experiences like this that colour his best songs, remembered as much today as what I consider to be the ultimate blend of young love and silliness in a Sinhala lyric, “Sili Sili Seethala Alle”, where he’s the incurable romantic he’d been earlier:

මිහිදුම් සළුවේ දැවටී නැළවී,
ලා දළු තේ පඳුරේ...
හිමිදිරි සීතල කඳුකරයේ,
හමුවෙමු අපි දෙන්නා...

In the nineties he moved on to other themes, more mundane, less personal.

මේ පොලෝ තලේ එදා උන්නූ
රාජ රාජ සිංහයන් වන් වූ
දූ පුතුන් ලෙයින් තෙදින් නැං වූ
මගේ...
පුජනීය භුමියයී ලංකා

The then and the now of the Sinhala lyric has been expounded on so much by others that I won’t bother dwelling on it beyond a few cursory reflections. The fact is, and this is something Ranasinghe accorded with when I pointed it out to him, that if during his time the lyricist was able to root the social in the personal, today we tend to dilute the social in the personal: manifestly different, manifestly deplorable.

Without being either a puritan or a philistine, therefore, what I will say here is that the great ability of our greatest songwriters was in making us aware of the world around them, and us, through unnamed narrators, lovers, and aspirers. In Ajantha Ranasinghe we come across one such songwriter, who could speak for all our poignant, unrealised hopes in a way that no one, after him, could. Perhaps that’s why his loss, reported rather scantily by our media, is truly and deeply a loss. We don’t have anyone to follow him, and if we do, they are hidden away in other fields, other careers.

Written for: Daily Mirror, September 19 2017