|A self-taught maestro
Udumbara hinehenawa… sulang kurullo hemin igille… sumudu
sayane sinidu ethirille…chamara selunawe…
If one man could bemoan over unrequited love, avenge those who
have wronged and reach the depths of human passion through sheer
manna of music, it is Premasiri Khemadasa. The Maestro who
laboured to give birth to authentic Sri Lankan music, nurtured
by best of both worlds- Western and Oriental, sheds light on his
mettle with The Nation this week.
Randima Attygalle (Pix by Nissanka Wijerathne)
Q: You are essentially a rebel who wanted to create a genre of
authentically Sri Lankan music? What made you search for it?
A: My radical beginnings date back to the school days at St.
John’s College, Panadura. I was summoned for the selection
interview for the Radio Ceylon Orchestra on the same day I was
to sit my Senior School Certificate examination. I finished the
paper within an hour, jumped over the school wall never to
return to school life. I think that was a blow to the entire
system of education that had no place and still has no place for
the aesthetic development of a child. I escaped from the
monotony of school life in search of music. It was such an irony
when the same man who broke away from the education system was
appointed the Additional Director General of NIE! (National
Institute of Education). During my term of two years, I
introduced all aspects of music to the school syllabus,
including symphonies and even opera. I never wanted to be
identified as a man belonging to just one extreme- Eastern or
Western. I was frustrated to see local music and even cinema
gripped by Indian flavour. In a country where people didn’t want
to change, rebels should be born and I was one of them and I
succeeded. People embraced uniquely Sri Lankan music.
Q: You are venerated as the ‘Master’. Describe your journey to
A: I am indeed a happy man to live in the hearts of many
generations. In appreciation of my work, the University of
Ruhuna recently conferred an honorary Doctorate (D.Litt) on me.
Despite all this, I never consider myself to be the master or
the authority! (Chuckles)
It was no easy journey for me. Nothing was offered to me on a
I explored the music scene at a time where the word ‘technology’
itself was alien. From those Spartan beginnings of Rodi Kella I
have walked up to the digital know-how of Guerilla Marketing. If
I am considered to be a success, it is mainly because I adapted
myself to the changing tempos of the common people.
Q: With the ‘master’s touch’ Sinhala cinema was revolutionalised.
If you could brief us on that?
A: My maiden cinematic contribution was to Sirisena
Wimalaweera’s Rodi Kella which unfortunately could not be
screened due to the demise of Mr. Wimalaweera. I was only in my
late twenties when I contributed to Senasuma Kothenada and Golu
Hadawatha which are landmarks in Sinhala cinema. Senasuma
Kothenada entered the annals of local cinematic history as the
first film to have been backed-up by the Symphony Orchestra
which comprised musical greats such as Prof. Earl de Fonseka and
Douglas Ferdinands. The duet Sulang Kurullo given life by Harun
Lanthra and Angeline Gunathileke is still hummed after so many
years. This was a breakthrough and people were mesmerised by the
new wave of music. Then in 1968, Golu Hadawatha became a hit
with its theme song becoming so popular. The theme song was in
unison with the tune of the flute which is a fusion of so many
emotions- happiness, nostalgia, sorrow and much more. Times of
India commented on the music of Golu Hadawatha as a ‘guideline
to all Indian musicians’.
In 1972, Nidhanaya marked a milestone in Sinhala cinema. The
last scene of the film where Willie Abeynayake, played by Gamini
Fonseka is to make Irene (Malini Fonseka) the billa to get the
nidhanaya is still deeply etched in the minds of many viewers. I
used a pahatharata beraya for the first time in this film to
harmonise with the chaotic mind of the man full of avarice and
the atmosphere of mystery and suspense.
Q: Whether it is Udumbara hinehenewa (in Bambaru Evith) or
kolmura beats in Jayantha Chandrasiri’s tele drama
Dandubasnamanaya, your trade mark in music is easily
identifiable. How is this ground-breaking musical-magic created?
A: (Smiling) I myself cannot fathom how I do it, but the
fundamental principle in all my creations is the grasp of the
‘heart of the creation’. I am where the audience is, the
juncture which will pull the heart-strings of the viewer. I
catch the place that has the best expression, turn it all over
till I hear what I want to hear, what the moment demands, what
the audience wants to hear - and till then this man is very very
For instance in Bambaru Evith, the lovers speak of love in a
crude environment but their inner souls are not so rough. The
actual words do not speak the real heart and only music could
bring out that deepest corner of the heart. Lovers in the
backdrop of a rough sea- this combination can be elevated into
something magical only through music, a rhythm like the waves of
I can travel back to the Kandyan kingdom, days of kolmura gee
and return to the age of Guerilla Marketing because I can hear
rhythms that marked each era of history. If any one is to become
a musician who can leave a mark, he should be gifted with this
ability to hear age-old music. You may not have recordings of
these, but your imagination should be a record room of all that.
Q: How did you adapt yourself to many generations of film
A: Although I am a 69-year-old man, my heart is very young!
Music is a field where body and mind meet but mind cannot allow
the body to play its age. If that happens, the music will be
restricted only to a particular era. I have been with almost all
the leading directors at their debut and I have made all of them
happy. From Lester, Pathiraja, H.D. Premaratne to Prasanna
Vithanage and Jayantha Chandrasiri, I have worked with men of
different materials. What is important is to study their
profiles before you study the script or the theme. I study their
tempos and the final outcome is a blend of these two. Anyone can
identify notes but the challenge is identifying the tempos of
people. In the cinematic world, it is said that ‘the music
director does what the film director could not do’. I have
enjoyed working with many generations, the diversity is truly a
Q: You have also enthralled a nation with the operas such as
Manasa Vila, Sondura Warnadasi and cantatas as Pirinivan
Mangalyaya. How challenging is this effort in music?
A: Operas are much more challenging than cinematic or any other
form of musical efforts. Especially in a country like ours, with
no specialised schools and dearth of gurus, an opera is a dream
come true. It is a strenuous process where vigorous voice
training, breathing exercises, projection and posture, all
should balance. Manasa Vila was a novel experience to Sri
Lankans and each one in the audience had something to take back
home. So was Sondura Warnadasi and Doramandalawa.
The cantata, Pirinivan Mangalyaya made history when it emerged
the first ever singing performance to take place in the
Buddhagaya premises. I felt truly a blessed man to see it come
alive in such a sacred place. Words and kavi which were in usage
500 years ago during the Kandyan kingdom became musically-rich
in Pirinivan Mangalyaya. People who had never heard a word from
an opera before appreciated all these musical efforts. Currently
I am working on my new opera, Agni, which is based on the theme
Recently there was a programme on my work at the University of
Peradeniya which showcased film music, teledramas, operas and
cantatas. I was stunned when a little girl walked up to me and
said that she preferred the second half of the show which
consisted of operas to the first. I felt that the message of
opera has reached the music-loving community when I heard her
Q: You are often referred to as an experimentalist who went in
search of the ‘music of your soul’. How do you attempt to
address the souls of many through your rhythms?
A: Any artistic creation is like giving birth to a child. It
comes through lot of pain but it’ll always remain precious. Even
if you take great classical masters, their work somewhat reveal
their inner personalities, but strange enough it appeals to the
masses and they are honoured and enjoyed over centuries. I feel
that any attempt should bring the best out of me but at the same
time it has to be devoid of selfish motives of pleasing only
myself. The universe has to share it with me. Till these two
extremes meet, I am experimenting. I always think ‘my best is
yet to come’. It is no easy task to take an audience throughout
all your experiments. I am a happy man whose audience had stood
by me in all of it.
Q: Master was bred in the university of life. How did this
education enrich your creations and your life?
A: The human mind has three parts- the bottom is rich with the
experiences gathered through out many bhavas or births. The
middle is what one brings from previous birth and the topmost is
what others or rather gurus fill up with. I am indeed happy that
this part of mine went untouched! Had I restricted myself only
to one forte, I would have been a stagnant man. I have worked
with world renowned musicians and have even contributed to
international films. Wisdom is something I reaped from man
himself and not from any books.
I have come across many talented youth who are not in the least
influenced by school or teachers, but rich in their instinct.
The best interpretation of my own music was by a young boy of
about 15 selling ratakadju. That was the time Dandubasnamanaya
was being shown on TV. He pointed at me at a traffic jam and
told his fellow ratakadju seller – ‘ehenne ekak, penne ekak,
dekama ekathu karama marai bang. Meya thama eka karanne’. (We
hear something, we see something else. When both come together
it is amazing. This is the man who does it). In Dandubasnamanaya,
I used a contrast of music, to make the visual and the music
clash to create something unique. If that youngster could have
felt it in his pulse, I can imagine what he is capable of in the
music world. This is not something that an institution can spoon
feed, you have to be born with it.
I have made thousands of people happy with my creations and
people are the best earnings in my life. Music is my life blood
and I believe that is what gave me sustenance to face three
crucial kidney surgeries at this age. If you can bring a smile
to someone else’s life and touch the heart of that person, no
matter what you are, you will indeed be a blessed man.