08 April 2014

Bandula Nanayakkarawasam’s ‘Sekera Moment’

Perhaps it is because of a discernible suppression of Mahagama Sekera in the larger discourse of 20th Century Sinhala literature that people sometimes express the wish that the great man be elevated to his rightful place among literary greats.  It might be for this very reason that some who attended an event at the Light House Galley on April 7, 2014 curiously titled ‘Rae Ira Pana’ with a ‘Sekera Mahima’ tag may have left believing that justice was done.  Sober reflection might yield the following fact: Good literature does not need media boost and a giant doesn’t need a leg-up. 

‘Rae Ira Pana – Sekera Mahima’ is not strange to those who are interested in the Sinhala lyric.  The mahima or wonderment of Mahagama Sekera does not require elaboration but the idea, let’s say, of ‘Sekera’ had a lot to do with ‘Rae Ira Pana’ the radio program and ‘Rae Ira Pana’ the event.  Let’s begin with the program. 

‘Rae Ira Pana’ was a unique radio show.  It ran continuously for 115 weeks.  Bandula Nanayakkarawasam, eminent lyricist and presenter, hosted the show.  He wrote the script, presented the show and had a hand in all creative efforts associated with the program.  He drew extensively from the archive that is his memory, coloring song with anecdote and flavoring it with history.  He re-drew well-known figures of the Sinhala music scene, accentuating already known facets and detailing the lesser known to give depth to face and word. 

Bandula knows that for all the fixations with things commercial, there exists a sizable population that seek a superior creative, a song where there is complementarity between words, composition, music and voice.  It was thus an exercise that instilled in listener the feeling that he/she is not alone.  What began as a peripheral program a fair distance from ‘prime time’ gained so much popularity that it affected a veritable shift in ‘prime time’.  The 7 pm to 9 pm Sunday program was repeated from 8 am to 10 am the following Saturday.  Sri Lankan expatriates made a weekly date with the program via the internet.  ‘Rae Ira Pana’ was adjudged the best music program at the State Music Awards 2013.  

Bandula dabbed his narrative often with literary and musical fact and anecdote outside the island, drawing from other cultures, other literatures and other genres.  It had, therefore, an educational element to it.

The response, he says, was phenomenal.  Appreciation flowed in from all parts of the country and from people belonging to different generations.  And that’s how we got ‘Sekera Mahima’ this evening. 

Among the listeners was Ananda Wickramarachchi, a 64 year old ‘fan’ who was a retired Chemistry teacher at St Joseph’s College.  He had seen an ad about the program and had listened to it.  This was in late September 2011 (‘Rae Ira Pana’ was launched earlier that month).  Since then he hadn’t missed even one ‘show’.  The reason was ‘Sekera’.  Bandula devoted several episodes to the work of Mahagama Sekera.  Wickramarachchi, who had made it his lifework to collect everything written by Sekera and everything written about Sekera, had found a kindred spirit.  Bandula sought him out to obtain hitherto unknown or lesser known knowledge of Sekera’s life and work.  Wickramarachchi, as a mark of appreciation for Bandula’s work, decided to gift the collection to the man behind ‘Rae Ira Pana’.  Bandula had suggested that an event which celebrates the great literary personality would be the appropriate ‘stage’ for such a gift-giving.  That’s how ‘Sekera Mahima’ got tagged to ‘Rae Ira Pana’. 

‘Rae Ira Pana’ was struck down in December 2013 much to the dismay of the considerable fan base it had engendered.  This, then, was a moment to reflect, step back and reassess, and what better way than to do all this in a context where the man who inspired so many, including Bandula, is remembered and celebrated? 

‘Rae Ira Pana’ had already ‘gathered’ a disparate and eclectic crowd.  They gathered around their radios and listened to Bandula. There was togetherness, a community, a solidarity that got built over weeks that stretched into months and more than two years.  They were left hanging by the particular station.  And so Bandula devised a way to bring them together.  That’s the genesis of the show, with the unintended but fortuitous outcome of ‘scrapping’: the launch of a website that gives us all the episodes whenever we want to listen to them, www.rairapaana.com.

And they came.  First and foremost, there was Sekera’s family, his son and daughter and the grandchildren he never saw. There was W.D. Amaradeva whose songs are remembered as much for his incomparable voice as for the lyrics into which that voice was mixed to give the world countless memorable songs. Bandula’s friends and teachers, formal and otherwise, were all there.  There were young people, artists of one kind or another, known to Bandula.  There was Bandula’s family too. There were fellow lyricists, many whom he had revered in his formative years and who consider him not student or ‘junior’ but equal.  There were ‘Rae Ira Pana’ fans.  There were people who loved and revered Mahagama Sekera. 

They came from all parts of the country. They cancelled appointments considered ‘important’.  This, many would have thought, is a must-go.  ‘Must-go’ because they all love Bandula and more than that, they are acutely aware of the massive contribution that Sekera made to Sinhala literature.  No one was disappointed although things got off the ground late.  I didn’t want to miss even a minute, so I got there right on time, dragging a reluctant friend who had time to kill and no one to kill it with. Hafeel Farisz was glad he came along.

There was a script but then again Bandula Nanayakkarawasam is too creative to stick to any script, even his own. He improvised.  He entertained with anecdote. He referred to connections and built and strengthened ‘connectivities’.    He laid out his life and demonstrated what a critical part the community of literary figures, past and present, played in shaping it in particular ways.  Again and again he returned to Sekera. 

Amaradeva was asked to speak a few words and then, gently, persuaded to sing ‘Ese Mathuvana’ with Bandula at the maestro’s ear prompting.  Amaradeva, as always, recalled that his creativity and that of Sekera were intertwined, using the line gee pothai mee vithai (the book of verse and the glass of wine), even though Sekera had a life outside of Amaradeva of a magnitude and versatility that Amaradeva’s life outside of Sekera just cannot match.  But there was indulgence of course.  Sekera would have been 85 today.  Amaradeva just passed that mark. 

There were speeches.  Many.  That’s because Bandula is by nature someone who celebrates inclusivity. He wanted a lot of people to ‘say a few words’. They all did. They kept it short and they spoke sense.  There were two ‘special’ speeches, one by Wickramarachchi and the other by W.S. Bandara, Bandula’s disapamok anduru thuma at Richmond. 

Bandara spoke at length. He entertained. He taught.  He spoke about education and educating. He drew examples from Richmond, spoke of the use and abuse of libraries, critiqued education policy and inter alia spoke of values that sustain civilization and the threats engendered by the abandonment of the same.  It was not hard to understand why and how Bandula Nanayakkarawasam does the things he does. 

If that was introduction to ‘beginning’ then Wickramarachchi’s speech described the end (pertaining to the particular moment that was this event). He spoke of his fascination of Sekera and his appreciation of Bandula’s efforts through ‘Rae Ira Pana’.  Fittingly, Sekera’s children gifted him with a printed copy of one of Sekera’s paintings. 

Ravinda Mahagama Sekera later explained, ‘the original of that copy is not with us and no one knows where it is.’ Indeed there many of his paintings are lost.  Ravinda said that there are a few at home but there could be over a hundred others.  Some had been sold at the one and only exhibition Sekera had held.  He had gifted away many to his friends.  Most did not even carry his signature. Ravinda observed that it is possible that those who possess the paintings might not even know they have in their possession a Sekera painting.

He was a giver.  And giving and sharing was what Sekera stood for or represented through his work.  Bandula pointed out that Sekera reminded everyone that nothing is taken away when we go away forever but in the intermediate hours of living sharing is possible and wholesome.

Bandula had lined up songs for the evening and they were slotted in nicely amidst comments and speeches.  They were well-picked.  He’s good at that; this is why ‘Rae Ira Pana’ was so popular after all.  He prefaced each performance with a relevance-note.  All of it was poetic as befitted reciter and occasion.  Most poignant was a rendering of ‘Ese mathuvana’ by M.R. Shah, former President of the Bank Employees’ Union.  Bandula, in introducing Shah, spoke of union politics and things that cut across ideological preferences and political affiliations.  Shah is no Amaradeva of course, but his rendition was nevertheless beautiful. 

Asanka Liyanaarachchi, an undergrad and winner of ‘Kavitha’ the university version of ‘Super Star’ sang ‘Aetha Kandukara’, coincidentally just as Pundit Amaradeva arrived.  The song and the lyric are not the preserve to the recognized and honored, Bandula often says.  This is why he had an employee of the Galle Post Office and friend sing ‘Wasanthaye Mal’.  Nelu Adhikari sang ‘Parasathu Mal’; Sujatha Attanayake would have been proud. Kapila Poogalaarachchi sang ‘Seethala diya piri sunila vilai’ a song that Bandula had picked from Sekera’s unpublished lyrics, thereby foregoing an opportunity to pen a song himself, again very ‘Sekarist’ of him.  There was Gayathri Ekanayake, a teacher at Visakha, who sang ‘Ruwan wala duhul kadin’.  They were all very good.

Bandula is a treasure house of anecdotes.  He has a fantastic memory for seemingly inconsequential things.  He recalled how Kularatne Ariyawansa had indulged in mild browbeating one night and how he, Bandula, had ended up writing a song that ‘Kule Aiya’ had been asked to write, ‘Nim Therak’ (Sunil Edirisinghe).  Kule Aiya had turned up at the studio and had been livid that Bandula had let his, Kule’s name remain as lyricist.  That’s respect, he said.  Kularatne Ariyawansa would have none of it, not least of all because it was beautifully written.  Bandula always acknowledges the influence of the pera parapura, the greats who came before, of whom he claims that Sekera was the foremost.  This is perhaps why he asked a host of guests to offer comments, some many years old, some his contemporaries.  And so we had Buddhadasa Galappaththi, Samantha Herath, Praneeth Abeysundera, Lal Hegoda, Rohana Weerasinghe and Sunil Ariyaratne making brief observations of the event, Bandula, Rae Ira Pana and of course Mahagama Sekera.

‘Listening to all this, doesn’t it give you hope for this country?’ my friend Hafeel asked me.  ‘When was I ever pessimistic?’ I replied.

Optimism apart, the fleshing out of hope or giving it corporeality of some kind requires hard work, tender hearts and the seeking out and strengthening of solidarity.  Bandula, true to form, put it best.  Here is a rough translation:

‘Let all that is best in all of us come together and create another Mahagama Sekera who would then unravel who we are and the world we live in and thereby show us the pathways we ought to choose so we can reach a better, more tender, more knowing world.’

What better tribute to that beautiful human being.