‘Spontaneity is my biggest strength’

“It’s important that one evolves gradually because sudden burst of fame is short-lived and it does a huge disservice to a person who in turn becomes very uncertain of one’s image,” says Lakshman Joseph de Saram, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost violinists today. Lakshman Joseph de Saram, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo and twice the recipient of the Signis International Award for outstanding original score for a feature film, identifies himself with what he terms as a ‘new wave’ of artistic expression in the country.
The Nation captured this artiste of spontaneity in his element and his musical mettle…

By Randima Attygalle
Q: What factors in childhood were conducive for you to excel in music?
As children, my siblings (brother Rohan and two sisters) were totally immersed in arts and culture, the diversity of which was stunning.
My father who rubbed shoulders with a stock such as Cassie Wittachchi, Aubrey Collette of Times of Ceylon fame and luminaries such as S W R D Bandaranaike, Doric de Souza and Sir John Kotelawala was a lover of all things ‘classical’.
He was a satirist and wrote under the pseudonym of Sooti Banda.

From pel kavi, was kavi, geta bera to Beethoven, Mozart and Japanese theatre, he exposed us to what he believed was the best the world could offer in terms of art and culture.
The only negative aspect about this may be was the opinion he brought upon himself and his children of what he considered ‘bad’. So much so even today I experience terrible pangs whenever I hear any form of music belonging to the ‘middle’ classification, for instance light classical! My father used to compare such levels of expression to ‘comic books’.
He made us very much aware of levels of expression, music occupying a huge place in it.
My father was a radical Buddhist who only believed in living a true Buddhist and not venerating temples and structures!

He in fact took all of us to kovils and church, not as a means of religious expression but rather as a source of cultural inspiration and the only place we were spared of was the mosque but to compensate for that, at time he got us to observe the fast!
I still remember how my father once showed me the list of classical numbers he played on the day I was brought home as a three-day old infant!

From day one, I was not spared of music! (chuckles)
It was at the age of four that I received the gift of a violin from one of my uncles.
For the next couple of years, this was more akin to a toy for me!
I became a member of the Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12.
People such as Reggie Siriwardene, Doric de Souza were regular visitors at our place and their erudite talk coupled with serving tea for them contributed to my ‘informal education’.
It was Doric de Souza who drilled the passion for chess in me, a game I enjoy to date.
My mother, (Sita de Saram) was a teacher of music at Visaka Vidyalaya and she was a renowned sculptor.
I grew up surrounded by music, culture and sculptors all around me, thus it was natural for me to pursue a career in music.

Q: How do you perceive ‘different levels of expression’ as you put across?
In very simple terms it’s like a hamburger or French fries against a six-course dinner! Much more skill is required for the latter.
Apart from the skill, there is a mammoth difference in quality and shape as well.
If we look at a tune composed for people to dance against Master Khemadasa’s Pirinivan Mangalyaya, we see a huge difference in perception, quality and shape.
Even in a ‘global setting’ we inhabit, I don’t think great levels of expression will ever change – whatever the medium is.
Great art will always have a little marker which appeals even if it’s to a minority.

Q: What about your formative years in the US?
My late brother Rohan who showed great potential in music was trained in the US by some of the world celebrated musicians and it was recommended that I follow his footsteps.
I was studying at Royal College till the age of 16, until I left for the US to enroll at the School of Performing Arts.
It was an elite school sought after by many aspiring artistes.
At that time I was the only student from the sub-continent and it took me almost a year to feel accepted.
The sudden parachuting from all-male Royal College to School of Performing Arts was a tough experience for me, so much so I felt alienated for some time and luckily for me I had two friends who were also misfits and we naturally got together.
My first instrument was violin and the second trombone.
Whilst being at the School of Performing Arts, I attended Julliard School of Music which was a special school for music, where I made a lot of contacts. I was fortunate to have come under veterans such as Erick Friedman and Sergiu Celibidache during my formative years in the States.

Q: What do you consider to be your breakthrough as a musician?
I think my biggest breakthrough was the culmination of a slow, steady and a gradual process.
It was a massive global breakthrough for me to have directed music for a Metro-Goldwyn Pictures’ production which is to be released shortly in the US.
The film involves acclaimed names such as Robert Pattinson and Uma Thurman to name a few.

Q: What yardstick do you employ to assess yourself?
I measure my ‘growth’ by my own journey.
If I illustrate with an example, I see a massive difference between my perception of a Mozart symphony today, to that of a decade ago.
I know that the symphony had not gone anywhere but I certainly have and I appreciate this difference of perception immensely.
My evolution I must say is still very much in process.
I have not experienced this sudden, massive limelight, for me it has been a very slow and steady plodding and I’m very happy about it.
Especially in spheres of art and culture, I think it’s important that one evolve gradually because sudden burst of fame is short-lived and it does a huge disservice to a person who in turn becomes very uncertain of one’s image.

Q: Can you elaborate on your exploration of indigenous music upon your return from the US?
At the time I returned to Sri Lanka in 1990, my brother Rohan was invited by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa to launch and conduct ‘Sri Lanka Philharmonic Orchestra.’
My brother wanted me to return home and be the concert master of it.
I felt like a recently graduated business student being asked to take over a company!
It was a fabulous opportunity and I came home.
The unexpected turn of events with the demise of President Premadasa and funding being exhausted led to the natural death of the orchestra.
After this whirlwind of events, I apprenticed in a big way under Master Khemadasa.
I was exposed to a different genre of music under his tutelage.

Q: How do you identify Master Khemadasa’s genus of music?
When I came to associate his music closely, I realised that Master Khemadasa represented ‘serious music’ in our country.
It’s no exaggeration to say that what we identify as an authentically Sri Lankan music is that which was given life to by Master.
What I find amazing in his work is that without too much intellectualising and too much of theory, he unconsciously touched on something of what we identify as Sri Lankan ethos in music with no parallels.
Many of his contemporaries and may be predecessors as well, no matter what they advocated, were heavily influenced by the Indian Ragadhari music.
Whatever they created essentially came through those filters and why Master Khemadasa emerged unique was because he was free of those filters.
He is certainly the personification of Sri Lankan music.

Q: You bagged the Sarasavi award for your efforts in Mille Soya. Can you shed light upon this endeavour?
Mille Soya occupies a very special place in my life naturally.
When Boodee Keerthisena invited me to direct music in his film, I was taken aback. Apart from classroom learning, I had no practical experience in film music and I flatly refused!
Boodee’s request was nothing short of asking a medical student who has only dissected frogs to perform brain surgery! (chuckles)
With great reluctance I agreed on the understanding that if it failed, we were to seek Master’s help!
Winning the Sarasavi award was simply made me stupefied and I’m grateful to Boodee for that wonderful experience.

Q: You have associated yourself with a new trend of Sri Lankan film-making. How do you view this new school of cinema?
Following the success of Mille Soya, Prasanna Vithanage invited me to direct music for his film Ira Mediyama followed by Machan and Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Between two worlds which was internationally acclaimed.
I would like to define the work of Boodee, Prasanna and Vimukthi as the ‘new wave of Sri Lankan cinema’.
I believe their efforts embody a new vision for a new Sri Lanka and we have this close knit understanding of our vision for this country as artistes because we have all grown up knowing only conflict in this country and no matter how we attempted to express ourselves, this tension was very much prevalent in our work.
In that sense I think, this school of cinema-making strongly projects realistic cinema. This new wave of film-making has also deviated from certain traditional norms of Sri Lankan film-making, especially in the sphere of music.
For instance, as apposed to ‘stand alone songs’ the local audience is so conditioned to, this generation of film-makers has blended it in a way that it comes through a particular channel enriching the context and substance of the movie.
I think all these facets justify the fact that they perceive cinema as a medium of art rather than entertainment.

Q: What are your present engagements in the film industry?
I’m currently involved in an Indian movie titled Mushrooms, directed by Vimukthi Jayasundara.
Today many Indian filmmakers are seeking ‘Sathyajith Ray’ ambiance in their work and Vimukthi has been summoned by one of them to bring back that flavour, in which I take immense in pride in.
Apart from that I’m also working with Boodie on his latest movie.

Q: Can you tell us about your family?
My wife is Anusha.
She is a chartered secretary and I have a 13-year-old daughter Suhanya studying at Ladies’ College and a seven-year-old son Araan attending Asian International School. They are both musically-oriented.
Suhanya is a natural musician involved in many musical endeavours in school.
They are exposed to fine aspects of music as well as culture but we have given them liberty to pursue the passions of their own one day.

Q: What is your biggest strength in life?
I think it’s spontaneity.
I rely a lot on it.
Whatever I have done well in has always being something spontaneous.
I have never really sat down and planned what I want to do and how I want to do.
With my personal and professional life, things have happened beside myself and so far they have turned out well!
I think I’m a conscript in nature’s war!


Stroke of insight

Pala Pothupitiya: Katugaha and mythical landscapes

Text and pix by Shabna Cader
What is so great about art that makes it exceptional and one of a kind?
Is it the traces or perfection or the use of multiple hues?
Is it the diagrams and the figures or the texture of paint or ink?
What is so great about art is the artist himself and their ability to recreate an emotion, a moment and an idea onto a blank sheet of paper or white canvas.

Contemporary artists have a gift that should not be ignored; their potential and ability in bringing to life and binding together the past and the present through their work is astounding.

Pala Pothupitiya hails from a family of traditional Sri Lankan dancers and with such inbred culture and heritage also comes great obligation and ritual.

He travelled to Jaffna last October where he presented his work to students of the Faculty of Arts, Jaffna University.

It was on his return that he began working on his current exhibition – ‘Katugaha and Mythical Landscapes’.
In the Sinhalese language, ‘katugaha’ translates to ‘thorny tree’ and the drawings also represent the barren and neglected land between the two cities Vavuniya and Jaffna.

At first glance, the drawings might not directly seem like a representation of the landscape but two over and walking around the Saskia Fernando Gallery, the idea and strong sense of the struggle and pain does wash over.
No figures make entrees in the drawings although there is the use of colour in some of the thorns and the background.

The idea of cruelty and multiple hardships endured by not just the people but also the land in the Northern region can be felt and identified through Pothupitiya’s work.

His technique is clear; he weaves patterns and designs using a simple ballpoint pen and on this occasion, coloured ballpoint pens.

The world he creates is purely imaginative and merely his own interpretation of his travel experience to Jaffna.
With just a mark of a pen, he manages to somehow bring together the past hardships and violence endured.

The traces of colour in the very drawings depict signs of hope and better life for the people as well as the Northern region land.

One can assume that Pothupitiya has fulfilled his obligation of representation and in the process of doing so, begun a never-ending journey of evolution and great transformation.


Building on talent

‘Architecture for All – City + Community’ is theme for national forum

By Shabna Cader
The Sri Lanka Institute of Architects will host the 29th National Conference on Architecture from February 23 to 27 at the BMICH.
“This is an annual celebration of our profession,” said Chandana Edirisuriya, president of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA), “and have been holding this conference for the past 29 years just as successfully as the first even during the war”.

This is one of the foremost exhibitions and conferences of the country.
The inauguration ceremony, national conference, trading division, annual general meeting and the annual general meeting make up of the five components of the entire conference”.
This year’s theme for the national conference is ‘architecture for all – city + community’.
The reason for this theme is that after the war, the government initiated multiple ways to fast-track the development projects and has focussed much on infrastructure of roads and ports.
At the same time, the government is looking into resettling the shanty dwellers, to relocate the proper housing.
The land will be used for further development purposes.

This is where the need for special attention of the architects in the country is needed and comes in handy.
“We felt that it was important to show what we have done to the government in national development efforts and our overall contribution effort. During the Tsunami and the numerous times of when the country has been affected by the floods, there has been a lot of relief effort and huge impact in housing and rebuilding. These things are not communicated much through the government and so this is an opportunity for us to make clear and let the public know what we have been doing, what we’re capable of and what we have to offer,” he added.
The SLIA publishes multiple journals – The Architect (published every three months), The Vastu (first journal published on architecture in Sinhalese), The Built Environment (an internationally referred research journal), The Yearbook (professional dictionary which carries information on the members of the SLIA – architects that work around the country.

In addition, the book also gives details of the architectural practices and history of the SLIA), The Archwatch (a monthly newspaper supplement), and The Sri Lanka Architect (a landmark publication to mark the 50th anniversary of the SLIA. This includes a study of the development of post independence architecture in Sri Lanka and a compilation of members work through the 50 years of the existence of this dynamic body of professional architects).

“We have continuously been holding this conference since 1983 even during good and bad times,” added SLIA secretary Harsha Fernanado.
“We have been successfully supported by our sponsors which is gratifying. There are two sections to this conference – the members section and the trade exhibition. The member’s exhibition is a place where the architects work will be displayed. The members have increased so there will be a large number of exhibits in that sense. The general public can make much use of that and this is the only way we can advertise ourselves since we are governed by a certain code of ethics; this is the only way we can show what we can do,” said Fernando.
There will also be a help desk which will come in handy for the public who have any questions regarding the members and the profession.

The public needs to be aware of how to select architects so this exhibition is an opportunity for the architects to mix with the public and for the public to get to know the architects.
The trade exhibition is slightly different on the other hand, and we have a few awards to give away from the most attractive stall to the best product etc during the exhibition.
There will be 315 stalls, 260 companies and 90 member panels at the exhibition.
Entrance for schoolchildren will be free.

There will also be five international architects present – from Portugal, India (2), Vietnam and Brazil.
The President of Sri Lanka has been invited as the chief guest for the opening and Ruth Reed, from the UK Royal Institute of Architects will be the guest of honour.
The SLIA is the professional institute of all professional architects in the country and was established in 1981 under an act of the Parliament.
Its primary function is to control and regulate the architectural education as well as the architectural practice in the country.

This was established in the year 1950 and is now a matured institute with over 1,000 members.
Under the provisions, there is a architectural registration board has been established where all the professional architects have to register to practice this profession.
This is much like the registries abroad; to show standards and safety.