Posted on November 3rd, 2022

Malinda Seneviratne

පින් කෙත හෙළ රන් දෙරණේ යලි උපදින්නට හේතු වාසනා වේවා

 There are differences in playing to a full and captive audience in a magnificent theatre, engaging in a light rehearsal at home with table and hand-pumped harmonium or a full rehearsal with an entire orchestra and sophisticated sound system, and in responding to a simple request by an admirer.  The place, moment, ambience, sense of occasion and size and character of the audience naturally make for difference in setting and context.  For Pundit W.D. Amaradeva however what matters is music and its appreciation, the opportunity to do what he knows and loves best, to experience and make for appreciation. 

‘Amaradeva: yesterday, today and tomorrow’ was a show held at the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Performing Arts Theater.  It was a grand 85th birthday party for the maestro and his wife who shares his birthday, even though the latter as she always has been was in his shadow.  Before the show, there were rehearsals, light and heavy both.  Years before, I had the honor of interviewing him, once for the Sunday Island and once for the ‘P.O. Box’ a magazine published by Phoenix-Ogilvy Advertising.  On both occasions, he kindly and readily obliged when I requested that he sing. 

Pundit Amaradeva does not require request or invitation.  One talks with him and as he explains or describes he would break into song.  Indeed, his mastery of Sinhala and English, as well as his long and deep association with the classics, was such that his words pour out like music, not one note out of place, not one missing. 

His son, Ranjana, observed during a short break at a light rehearsal at his father’s house, ‘this is what makes him happy; to sing, to have people around him who he can sing to.’  At home, like on stage, in practice as in performance, Amaradeva indulges in a heady narrative mix of song and commentary.  That night, a few days before the performance, he was explaining how he composed the melody for what is known as ‘The Unofficial National Anthem,’  Ratnadeepa Janmabhoomi:

‘When Sekara (that’s Mahagama Sekera his friend and principal lyricist referred to as the ‘Gee potha’ or ‘Book of Songs/Verse’ to which he, Amaradeva, was ‘Mee Vitha’ or wine, following the song-title ‘Gee pothai mee vithai’ or ‘The book of verse and the [glass of] wine’) sent me the lines, I was teaching a raga to some students.  It was perfect.’ 

He mentioned the name of the raag but not being a student of music it did not register.  He was at that point surrounded by family and students, both young and old.  Ranjana played the table, Subhani, his daughter, was by his side prompting him if he missed a line or word.  Sunil Edirisinghe, Rohona Bulegoda and Krishantha Eranda were there to pick him up when necessary.  He didn’t stop smiling. 

It was the same a couple of days before that when he practices with a full orchestra under the gentle direction of that perfectionist, Rohana Weerasinghe.  That was the first practice session in years.  Age takes things away.  There were lines that were missed and verses that got jumbled.  The voice faded on the lower notes.  The nuance of melody, however, was a life-twin and the other beat of a heartbeat.  He had not been abandoned. 

The ‘big day’, therefore, was just another day, just another show, but as always a moment to be happy, to experience fully the exercise of singing and in singing to entertain.  To those in the audience, though, it was not just another show, another day.  This was moment for renewal and rediscovery, not with and of Amaradeva alone, but with being, with history and heritage, forgotten yesterdays and inhabitable tomorrows. 

It was nothing like the ‘Amara Gee Sara’ shows of a different era.  No one expected it to be.  When the curtain was raised, the artist seemed older than I could remember, even though I had seen him just two days before.  When he sang the Sarasvathi Abhinandana Geethaya his age showed.  And yet, imperceptibly, song by song, minute by minute, he warmed to the task, reveling in the moment, each prefaced by Jackson Anthony, at times laboriously and at times with wit and commentary that was less insufferable. 

It was not the typical Amaradeva show, as I said.  It was a national commendation of sorts, the kind reserved for the best teachers and the most exalted of citizens.  He put it best, alluding to the analogy of the fish and water.  He was in his elemental liquid, his rasika kela, the admiring listeners.  He had his students, the best of them in fact, around him, accompanying him now as chorus and paying tribute with voice and word. 

He once said ‘one sings not with vocal chords but with heart’ and said that of all the voices he’s heard, only Nanda Malini’s was heart-made.  She demonstrated, both with Udangu Liyan (Proud Women) and with Galana Gangaki Jeevithe (with Amaradeva).  In all the duets, the younger voices were stronger, naturally, but when it came to ‘feeling’, Amaradeva was without doubt supreme.

Sanath Nandasiri located the Master in the musical firmament: ‘geyuma meyai’ (this is what singing is), he said, was what Amaradeva taught.  True.  He set the standard and he set it high, so high that few reached it even on occasion, so high that aspiring to reach it made everyone better. 

Apart from Nanda Malini and Sanath Nandasiri, there was Victor Ratnayake, whose rendering of ‘Obe Namin Saeya Bandimi’ was probably the most exquisite piece of the evening.  There was also Sunil Edirisinghe, Edward Jayakody, Neela Wickramasinghe, Latha Walpola, Nimal Mendis and Nalin and the Marians, and of course the less visible but as enthusiastic, capable and devoted chorus.  They all spoke of teacher and teaching and he responded with anecdote, affection and humility. 

The father-son and father-daughter items were not usual.  Ranajan, self-effacing, modest and consciously out-of-shadow, did a wonderful rendition of Aradhana, letting the father seal the song with last-line signature.  Subhani’s duet was Chando Ma Bilinde, a lullaby that was apt.  She had the stronger voice-presence that night.                

There were two men missing from the show, one alive and one, sadly, no more.  The first, Bandula Nanayakkarawasam ought to have scripted the program, but the script that played contained a clip of the Master done by ITN.  It was a 4-5 capture-all that he had written. 

Gama amathaka veeda…ohugen vimasanna

Nagaraya maha herunida…ohu soyaa yanna
Rata amathaka veeda…ohu ethi bava adahanna
Gaha-kola, ira-handa, ela-dola, samudura, kurulu-gee
Aee neka diya dam aruma nopenee no-asee giyeda
Ohu esi disi maanaye raendenna…
Me punchi kodevve, ape mau derane
Me siyallama ohuya

‘If you’ve forgotten the village, ask him

If you are lost in a city, go find him
If you forgot the nation, believe that he lives
The trees, the sun and moon, the ocean, bird song…
These and other enchanting things……..should you not see them, should you not hear
Go stand before him, stay within the circle of his gaze.
In this tiny island, in our motherland
He alone is all these things. ‘

Amaradeva, then, is not just marker of singing standard.  He personifies for many reasons and many ways who we are as Sri Lankans, what in this country gives pride, where we stand; he defines the horizons we can aspire to travel to and tells us the geographies we cannot leave behind. 

This is why, quite early in the program, Amaradeva not just sang Sasara Vasana Thuru but affirmed and underlined his personal wish to be re-born again and again in this land, a wish that Jackson correctly pointed out is the quintessential Jathika Pethuma or National Wish of all Sri Lankans who have any root that has sought and obtained nourishment from the deepest and most fertile of the country’s cultural and historical soil.   

The other ‘absentee’ was of course Mahagama Sekara.  He was referred to many times, by many people.  Amaradeva, as he often does, referred to him as the gee potha and himself as the companion, mee vitha, deftly dodging Jackson’s attempt to establish that the reverse was also true.  Sekara was the Book of Verse, Amaradeva the (glass of) wine. 

With song, accompaniment, the forgetfulness at times, with lucidity too and of course anecdote, he would have drawn many a tear to many an eye that night.  It was not a ‘finale’, and perhaps nothing demonstrated this than his forceful interruption or rather voice-add to a Marians’ rendition of Shantha Me Rae Yaame.  He said, without saying it, ‘geyuma meyai!’  To his credit, Nalin acknowledged and expressed regret that they hadn’t met Amaradeva earlier, for had that happened their path may have been different, he said.  But he wished him long life, as did everyone else, who in the gratitude of adoration expressed the hope that their own years be added to what’s left of his. 

At one point he sang the up-tempo Bindu Bindu Ran which ended with the line pirivara soyaa maa thanikara yanna epaa (Don’t abandon me as you go looking for an entourage).  That pirivara never left him, perhaps most of all because he did not leave them, even though he never held them in a vice-like grip. He had, after all, only a voice, but that sufficed, for his is a voice that enters hearts and stays there, a voice that contain the echo of our past and the distinct score of our future, a voice that is undoubtedly the incomparable voice of our nation. 

Bandula ended the script to that short docu-film with the lines from one of Amaradeva’s best loved songs, Nim him sevva maa sasare, favorite of lovers and those seeking love or waiting for love’s ‘someday’ return.  It could be also about the ties and longings of lyricist and singer to listener/fan (and one another) and also to land. 

Nim him sevva maa sasare 

Hamuvee, yugayen baendi yugaye
Lanvee venvee varin vare
Oba ha maa ran huyakini baendune
I’ve searched the limits of this sansaara
We’ve met in lifetimes gone
We’ve embraced and parted again and again
(but) you and I are bound together by a single, golden thread.

There is no beginning and no end to timeless things.  Like the voice of W.D. Amaradeva.  We don’t know where it was born and which territories it has and will enrich.  We can but wish this national icon, this incomparable Voice of our Nation, good health and long life.  Chirang Jayathu….

[Published in ‘The Nation’ (FINE Section), December 9, 2012, pics and page layout by Sandra Mack]

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