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.

By 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 become one?
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 silver platter.
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 impatient!
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 the sea.
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 directors?
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 rich experience.
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 of fire.
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 words.
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.