14 January 2013

Mahagama Sekera, alive after all these years

It is not always that one reads forewords and introductions.  We tend to skip what we sometimes take to be necessary frill for author/publisher but eminently skippable for reader.  There is a risk.  A small one, of course.  I have skipped such preambles often for the main text beckoned more urgent perusal.  There’s one I didn’t miss and I am glad: the literary and philosophical gem that is the introduction to Mahagama Sekera’s defining poetic narrative, ‘Prabuddha’.  That essay was commissioned by the poet himself and is a piece of writing that Sekera never got to see, just as he didn’t see the book in print. 

Sekera died on January 14, 1976 at the age of 46.  Eight years ago I asked myself, ‘Would Mahagama Sekera be still alive had he not left us at forty six?’  He did not die in 1976, for he was alive when he first came to me, again in the form of a book that my father brought home later that year, ‘Mahagama Sekarage Geetha (Mahagama Sekarara’s Lyrics)’.  He has been alive since, in all the lyrics to which melody, music and voice were added to give us memorable songs.  He was alive a month ago at the Nelum Pokuna when Pundit Amaradeva sang what is widely held as the people’s national anthem, ‘Ratna Deepa Janma Bhoomi’.  And these days, I see him often as I try my hand at translating ‘Prabuddha’ into English. 
Death was, naturally, the last visitor he entertained on that day.  But before that moment when he breathed his last, we are told that the director of ‘Yasho Geethaya’ had come to his Gampaha residence to discuss a documentary film on ‘Ratna Deepa’.  The shoot had been scheduled for the following day.  Between that visit and death, Sekera is said to have attended to the final edits of his doctoral dissertation.  It was earlier in the day that Sekara had met the man he commissioned to write the foreword to Prabuddha, the late Ven. Dhammavihari, then Prof Jothiya Dheerasekera. 

He had called the professor and asked for a meeting before the arranged day.  The professor had expressed surprise that Sekera, given his vast knowledge on a wide range of subjects and proven excellence across many literary genres was nevertheless not holding a teaching post in a university.  He had pointed out in particular the depth of meaning in Prabuddha and the fine deployment of critical faculties in unlayering a social, political, cultural and philosophical milieu.  Sekera, according to Prof Dheerasekera, displayed innumerable and happy elements of a writer endowed with a poetic disposition filled with generosity, humility and honesty.  Sekera had merely stated, ‘In that case, it would be best that you write the introduction’. 
Dheerasekera’s introduction refers to Sekera’s previous work, including Maknisada Yath (The reason being…), Nomiyemi (I am immortal) and specific lyrics for stage plays.  The way he describes the man mirrors the nature of the main character of the epic poem, Prabuddha.  The story is a veritable exposition of the cultural, literary and musical tastes of the time, the changes therein, the dangers ahead and the possible ways of recovering the humanity that was clearly under threat.  Dheerasekera elevates Prabuddha to an importance of a nature that calls for a replication of the work in all art forms.  Indeed, such an exercise is the responsibility of youth with discerning taste and exceptional creative ability.  

Prabuddha was his last poetic exercise, although his doctoral dissertation, Sinhala Gadya Padya Nirmana Kerehi Ridmaya Balapa Athi Akaraya (Influence of Rhythm on the Sinhala Prose and Poetry)’ can theoretically be read as a similar unfolding.  Sekera may not have anticipated the ‘end’ that Prabuddha clearly marked, but Prabuddha, on account of his passing, marks his, philosophically, politically and literally, in a manner more pronounced than his other work. This is why it is the most frequently quoted and referred to of all his work, none of which can be called ‘lesser’. 
Sekera, in Prabuddha, brings a nation and a collective back to something that was and encourages a journey to a something that can still be (better).  It is a call for a softer engagement drawing from Buddhism but not exclusive from that doctrine.  There is a world he envisaged and which he promised to design, before leaving (dying).  He could not, but he did sketch a blueprint, or rather gathered blueprint from the civilizational ethos which made him who he was and which can be the foundation of a cultural, social and moral edifice that we could all inhabit.

From the silent sky
where the half-moon becomes pronounced
by and by
there drips the milk
for a child’s heart;
the infant son smiles
dreaming of the new world
that will come up tomorrow.
In this motherland
where a nation of giants
who built the thousand reservoirs
are now reborn
new freedoms emerge
in a myriad of color
elegantly polished
by his smile;
I wipe my tears
and see
the little boy reigning
in a debt-free fear-free tomorrow
Little sons all,
who conjure the spring
that wipe weariness
from tired limb,
know this:
when I see you
that labor is pleasure
nothing else;
I cannot leave,
before I craft
that world
I’ve made and shaped
over twenty five hundred years.
And therefore, Siddhartha!
And therefore grant me permission of finality
bless me in the manner of the Buddhas who came before
blessed the Buddhas to be,
now, this moment.
At this very table,
upon this very chair
among these papers,
in a paddy field that knows
tilling, sowing and reaping,
among slogans, strikes and
the teeth of a factory wheel,
in a crowded train
carrying men and women
in their thousands
to work and back,
to secure the ultimate truth
not alone, no
but with those millions
to know together
to reach collectively
the truth

We have as individuals come far.  And we have travelled ‘back’ too.  We cannot really celebrate the former due to the latter.  The ‘why’ of this, perhaps, is contained in the above lines from Prabuddha.  This is why, thirty six years after he died, Mahagama Sekera is still very much with us, as friend, companion on necessary journey, teacher and delighter. 

[Published in the FINE Section of 'The Nation', January 13, 2013.  See also, 'Mahagama Sekera: a vision open to residency'


Rashmi said...

Thank you very much Malinda for this piece on Mahagama Sekera. You are spot on when you say that "Rathna Deepa Janma Boomi" is people's national anthem. When you go through the lyrics, verse by verse, you wonder whether it is written by an ordinary human being or someone with a divine connection. When you hear it from Pundit Amaradeva's voice you get goose bumps. Wherever I go, I carry this song in my phone with Sunil Edirisinghe's "Ran Malak" and Latha Walpola's "Peradiga Muthu etayai mae". Have to thank you again for reminding that the song "Mae Sinhala Apage Ratai" had the verse "sama karuna guna mahime, apa upathin lada urume" too.

Please go to www.mahagamasekera.org to see many talents of this great man, Mahagama Sekera.
See how how beautiful and innocent this cartoon is http://www.mahagamasekera.org/painter/Cartoons/Sekerage_Jaramara/Photos.asp?ImgID=32

Yes. More than anything, Mahagama Sekera was a great humanist.

Renton de Alwis said...

He was my favourite lyricist since late childhood. Thank you Malinda for this beautiful capture of this wonderful soul.