Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I encountered Victor Ratnayake in Nugegoda

For Iraj and for Victor. For you and for me.

Three years ago, when I was happily unemployed, I was a joyful drifter, aimlessly wandering here and there. I had some money of my own (freelancing does pay, though it doesn’t pay much), enough for me to roam around and look for ways of earning some more. I remember the month. December. I remember the day. Tuesday. And I remember the appointment. A conversation with Malinda Seneviratne, at his office in Maradana. I was late, though: I needed to get a gift for someone who was to celebrate his birthday soon. Leaving Malinda, I got on the 176 bus to Nugegoda, left Maradana, and waited for my ride to end. It was about 10 in the morning.

The 176, like the 155, is one of those bus routes in this country which seem longer than they actually are. It’s also one of those buses in which the act of sitting, curiously enough, is as taxing as the act of standing. (The Rajagiriya flyover bridge, then as now, was not complete, so the strenuous and demanding ride was made even strenuous and demanding.) One journey is enough; two journeys are too much; and three, if one is to make through them, are so terrible that the only refreshing fact about the end of the third is the hope that one never wades through a fourth. This was the first time, in a long time, I had been on the 176. When I got down near the Nugegoda Station, I was hit with so much silence that I wondered where I was.

We happy unemployed drifters have a prerogative you unhappy workaholics do not: that of experiencing and encountering a neighbourhood, a community, even an entire city when it’s least busy outside, when the yuppies are at their offices and the only people walking on the road are drifters, children, housewives, and beggars. Station Lane, which is where the 176 I was in stopped, opened to one such city. Apart from a few shops and a few lottery ticket booths, the entire area from the lane to the station was empty. The perfect getaway for the happy drifter, I thought to myself.

And then, as I was revelling in the fact that I was unemployed and still studying for my law degree, the fact that being alive meant being free of any responsibility towards seniors and co-workers, the loudspeakers along Station Lane blared. At that time of day my ears are accustomed to hearing Sangeeth Wijesuriya (because drifters like me love Sangeeth: he has a voice which reminds you of greasy garages and sweaty palms in the hottest afternoons and the most humid evenings, a voice which has gone by unrecognised, even by those who enjoy it). This time around, however, it was a different vocalist. Victor Ratnayake. And a different song. “Paawe Wala”. When that different song and that different vocalist blared out of those loudspeakers, the ticket-booth owners and the drifters and the women, in a scene that would have made Robert Wise proud (perhaps I’m being too optimistic here, but still) sang along.

Victor Ratnayake has that supreme ability of enflaming you, no matter where you are, with his voice. He is the opposite of Amaradeva in that sense, because Amaradeva is didactic even in his most light-hearted songs, while Victor is only didactic off the air, when he’s speaking to people like you and me; on air, he’s a romantic. “Paawe Wala”, however, was not written for him; it was written for Mervyn Perera, whose voice was closer to Victor’s than anyone else’s. The last SA Prasangaya, which I attended two years before despite a fit of depressive anger, unveiled with him remembering the man who graciously conceded that song. “I am a Buddhist, he was a Christian. I wish that he attains the supreme bliss of Nibbana,” he told us after he performed it. If I can’t think of another vocalist who can inspire so much in us that we forget our worries and sing about love in the middle of the road and during the middle of the day without realising how self-consciously young we become, it’s because there isn’t one.

Even at this stage in his life and career, the man reminds you of how young you once were. This has as much to do with his voice as it does with the two lyricists he has resorted to the most frequently: Premakeerthi de Alwis and Sunil Ariyaratne, both of whom wrote copiously on love. He doesn’t really care what “styles” he goes for: jana gee or Karnatic, slow or fast paced, his compositions reverberate with the kind of liveliness which his performances do. “He made me dance through ‘Kundumani’,” Malinda wrote of Premakeerthi. That sense of immediacy comes through the composition, that honest-to-ethnic-origin melody, as well. What Victor’s work leaves behind, for you to savour, is neither aggressive nor didactic, but it isn’t completely romantic either. It’s a different form of romanticism: rather conservative, never completely free. Almost as though he’s afraid of reminding us of our youth. As though we’ll go mad, and depressed, if we are reminded of it in the first place.

Some of his best songs transcend that conservative streak and yield to our deepest impulses. That’s where Victor is at his loveliest, I’d like to think. “Sanda Hiru Tharu” has him sing about the collective, secular, extraordinary joy of samsaric living; “Sara Sonduru” has him and Nanda Malini explore the poignancy of winning and then losing a first love; “Mihiren Ma Dinu” has him reflect on the first impressions of passing beauty, faintly registered, never rationalised. The latter two, incidentally, were composed by Premasiri Khemadasa; Victor never sang Khemadasa’s compositions in the SA Prasangaya, nor did he record them again. He has his reasons, but listening to them today makes one wish that he revisited them. They are some of the most innocently lovely works I have come across in our sarala gee tradition. And not for no reason: if a lesser vocalist had sung them, they would have lost that delicate welter of innocence and set off lewd speculations about who was singing about whom.

It has been said of Elvis and Hendrix that young women wanted to love them and young men wanted to be like them. If I sound blasphemous there, rest assured I didn’t say it: Professor Carlo Fonseka did, five years ago around the time of the last SA. Now Professor Fonseka has a habit of comparing the artist to the most primitive sample of our species. He did that with Malini Fonseka, he did that with Victor Ratnayake. To him, the singer and the actor is first and foremost a man or a woman.

“It is reasonable to suppose that a tribe strongly bonded together by music will have the edge in the struggle for existence over a less musical tribe,” he wrote. Had I written it, with my deplorable understanding of both music and biology, I would have been put down as a heretic. Such heretical thoughts belong to those who have specialised in the fields which produce them. In that sense the Professor is right. Victor Ratnayake is (almost) everything that Elvis and Hendrix were. But that’s not his real achievement. His real achievement has been his ability to be an Elvis, a Hendrix, a Robert Plant, within the confines of our closely knit, repressive, and traditionalist society. Perhaps that’s why he’s so rousingly didactic outside, and so rousingly romantic inside. We all operate on such a dichotomy, after all.

And perhaps that’s why we love him so much, yet still feel uneasy about loving and giving into what we think he stands for (which, incidentally, happens to be what he DOES stand for). We are afraid of expressing our love, forgetting all the while that what we misconceive as love wasn’t what most of our ancestors thought it to be. The at times wildly divergent reactions the man gleaned from us, his single biggest audience, last year and this year, indicates that he is what he sings, and not what he says. Outside he can rabble about the importance of staying true to the past while the contemporary singer bemoans it, but the truth is that he makes us fall in love with our younger selves in far greater ways than that contemporary singer. So when that singer tries to get even with the man in the most imaginative way he THINKS is possible, he is both at the peak of his popularity and at the receiving end of the most intense vitriol he can inspire. He has defiled the deified. Done what he should not have done.

Cary Grant, the most romantic of all romantic screen personalities the world ever knew, once said that even he wanted to be Cary Grant. It took a great many decades for him to become himself. Men were afraid of him and wanted to emulate him; they could never be him. Victor Ratnayake has always been like that. He inspires both infatuation and confusion, on our part and on his own terms. He speaks for what went by, yet sings of what is. He is caught in the past, yet transfixed on the present. It’s tough to come up with another vocalist, another artiste, who thrives and flourishes on such a strange, oxymoronic combination of reverence and daring. People can go on hoping that they are less like him when it comes to being young, being themselves. At the end of the day, however, when they discover that he is, in fact, more of what they want to be, and much more of what they will never be, they will parody him using all sorts of ways: the media, the blogosphere, YouTube. They will fail, not because they haven’t tried, but because in emulating and parodying him, they are emulating and parodying that strange mixture of nostalgia and youth he lives on. The truth is that he’s both nostalgia and youth. The truth is that no parodist is going to change that.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 24 2017