23 February 2014

On the lives and deaths of lyricists

It was the year 1994.  It happened days after the People’s Alliance, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), came to power after 17 long years in the political wilderness.  In one of the first acts of the newly elected Government headed by Chandrika Kumaratunga, a man called Sunil Sarath Perera was removed from the post of Chairman, Rupavahini.  He was replaced by a man called Wasantha Raja whose associations with the LTTE didn’t take long to come to light. 

Immediately afterwards there appeared in the Divaina an article penned by Harith Gunawardena.  It was titled ‘Manakal hada vil thalaye ratata pipunu mala’ (A flower that bloomed upon the resplendent waters of the heart-reservoir for the nation and the nation alone).  It was a play on the unforgettable lines of the theme song  of a children’s program aired by the then Radio Ceylon  every evening. 

මනකල් හදවිල් තලයේ
පිපි නිවහල් මල්
රටට පිපෙන මල්
අපි වෙමු පුංචි කැකුළු මල්

 The unfettered flowers that bloom upon the waters of a heart-reservoir
(these) flowers, tiny blooms all, bloom for the nation and the nation alone.

Sunil Sarath Perera, Harith remembered, was also the person who wrote the lyrics to the Janaraja Geethaya, especially composed to mark the true independence day, May 22, 1972, when this country became a republic.  Ironically, it was this very same man who was hoofed out by a government led by the very same party the moment it returned to power.  Double irony: he was replaced by an agent of an organization hell-bent on dividing the country and which unleashed death and destruction for several decades in trying to achieve that objective. 

Twenty years have passed. Sunil Sarath Perera is one of several lyricists marked for footnoting by the grandmasters of ‘Sinhala Music’ and in particular what could be called ‘The Sinhala Lyric’.  But he remained, as Harith’s title asserts, unfettered. Independent. 

Insult seems to be a badge that the world insists he wears. It happened again on Wednesday evening.  It happened at the launch of an album, ‘Sonduru voo minisa’ (‘The delightful man’), the latest collection of songs by Pundit W.D. Amaradeva.  It happened at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute.  The collection was dubbed ‘Songs voiced for tomorrow’ (Hetata geyoo gee).  Fittingly, the first song the audience got to hear was Manakal hada vilthalaye.  That’s the beginning and end of delight as far as the show went, sad to say.

The announcer, Krishantha Dayananda, said that it was selected as a tribute to the late lyricist Mahinda Algama who had passed on just four days before.  Many in the audience were appalled.  Some actually informed the organizers to put the record straight.  Sunil Sarath Perera, a man used to all kinds of belittling may have wondered what kind of fate awaits his legacy when he is thus butchered while alive and in his very presence. 

Last week The Nation wrote about Mahinda Algama.  It was a tribute too late.  Algama passed away a day before the article appeared in print.  He was, like Sunil Sarath Perera, a self-effacing personality; humble, unperturbed by praise or blame, ignored and footnoted.  The fact of death and the publishing of a tribute that assumed life is enough to inform us all of the importance of saying things that need to be said before it is too late to make any sense. 

Mahinda Algama died on February 15, 2014.  He was murdered on February 19, 2014, along with Sunil Sarath Perera.  In the case of Sunil Sarath Perera, we are in the ‘not too late’ universe and yet, last Wednesday’s monumental insult makes us wonder if it were better to be late, especially with insult.  It hurts all of us whose evening hours were marked by that song.  It hurts again because the collection was marketed as something for our tomorrow.  If this is our today and if this today is made of ignorance, forgetting and deliberate lie, what of tomorrow? 

Here’s the answer.  The song. The words.  We can forget organizer, announcer, critique, grandmasters of lyrical history and worth. We will not forget the words.  And thus will Sunil Sarath Perera live on, long after his detractors are gone and are, as they will be, shown up for being the malicious pedants they are.