04 November 2016

Amaradeva: a name for everything that is our little island

Pic by Sandra Mack
There are rain clouds, not too dark and not threatening.  It might rain later.  There was rain last night.  Tomorrow, there will be other clouds of similar shade.  Non-threatening for a while.  There might be rain.  The city pulsated in rhythms acquired over the years.  In some village in the Dry Zone, there are children at play.  The potter is at his wheel.  Someone, somewhere is listening to music.  The country called Sri Lanka in determination and resilience, hope and foreboding, meanders through the hills and vales of joy and sorrow at a pace that suits her people.  Sounds of yesterday are heard now and will be heard tomorrow.  And through it all a silence that is strangely also a song.  A sad song.  Amaradeva is no more.

Pundit W.D. Amaradeva, known in an earlier avatar as Wannakuwatta Waduge Don Albert Perera, born in Moratuwa on the fifth day of December in the year 1927. Don Girinoris Perera and Maggie Veslina Mendis may never have imagined that their sixth and youngest child would, almost 89 years later, make music so silent and so poignant that it matched and in many ways surpassed everything he did with voice. Amaradeva breathed his last a few hours ago.  The nation skipped a heartbeat.  Breaths drawn were held for a moment longer than usual and then released as a collective sigh. 

How can one speak of an incomparable voice that will not sing again?  What do we say of a man who left us speechless with his songs?  Those who want appropriate words to articulate their respective sorrows, their gratitude and sense of loss can of course delve into the lyrics.  Song titles alone would yield enough lines to pick from.  But that’s not him.  That’s his friends, as gifted with word as he was with voice:  Mahagama Sekera, Madawala S Ratnayake, Dalton Alwis, Chandraratne Manawasinghe, Ajantha Ranasinghe, Arisen Ahubudu, K.D.K. Dharmawardena, all of whom have passed on as has Prof Nandadasa Kodagoda (one of several one-lyric contributors), and among the living the highly accomplished but most infrequently recognized Sunil Sarath Perera, not forgetting Ratna Sri Wijesinghe and the more ‘present’ Prof Sunil Ariyaratne.

He will no doubt be remembered for offering his amazing voice to equally amazing lyrics, but what singles him out will always be the voice.  And as he often said, the music was only carried by the voice — it was born and nurtured in heart and mind.  Every word, every syllable and the spaces between were heart-made and mind-nurtured and that what sets him apart.  His heart and mind were made of this nation in all its glory, all its inadequacies, and it held everyone cutting across every conceivable distinction.  Amaradeva cleared the high noted of our multiple histories and held the integrity of the deep foundations of our cultural ethos.  That’s how he became and for a long time will remain the voice of our nation.


Time will pass and his name will pass into the many names among the forgotten in the birth-decay-death of our common human condition, but there will be days, now and for a long time to come, when Amaradeva will be present and ready for renewal and rediscovery, endowed with history and heritage giving us in his own indescribable ways the forgotten yesterdays and inhabitable tomorrows.


There can be no short tribute.  And no long tribute will be long enough.  It is tempting to draw from one of the hundreds of songs that many of us grew up with, many of us were consoled by in times of grief, many of us were lifted by for countless reasons, but that would be disservice to both singer and lyricist.  

For this reason, I choose the words scripted for a TV show on Amaradeva.  They were written by Bandula Nanayakkarawasam who, interestingly, had just one ‘Amaradeva Song’ to his credit, never recorded but sung by the maestro on May 18, 1989 when Amaradeva’s classic book ‘Nada Sittam’ was launched.  

This is what Bandula wrote:

ගම අමතක වීද ඔහුගෙන් විමසන්න 
නගරය මග හැරුනිද ඔහු සොයා යන්න 
රට අමතක වීද ඔහු ඇති බව අදහන්න 
ගහ-කොළ, ඉර-හඳ, ඇළ-දොළ, සමුදුර, කුරුළු-ගී 
ඈ නෙක දියදම් අරුම නොපෙනී නොඇසී ගියේද 
ඔහු ඇසි දිසි මානයේ රැඳෙන්න 
මේ පුංචි කොදෙව්වේ,  මව් දෙරණේ 
මේ සියල්ල ඔහුය  


‘If you’ve forgotten the village, ask him
If you are lost in a city, go find him
If you forgot the nation, believe that he lives
The trees, the sun and moon, the ocean, bird song…
These and other enchanting things……..
should you not see them, should you not hear
Go stand before him, stay within the circle of his gaze.
In this tiny island, in our motherland 
He alone is all these things.”


My friend Nishad Handunpathirana who knows much more about music than those who make knowing-claims and therefore, perhaps, says little, said a few words: 'He was our Tagore'.  Perhaps that's one way of putting it.  Another way is possible, Bandula has shown.  He was Amaradeva. Ours.  

There is silence amid the clutter of sound.  It’s the silence of a singular passing.  The voice of the nation has gone silent.  And strangely, in this world made of transience, it would probably linger. More tenderly.  Yes, softer still.

This article was first published in the 'Daily Mirror' (November 4, 2016).  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene 
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