26 March 2015

A love note to a ferry and ferryman, passenger and passage

Pic courtesy www.redtreetimes.com, a painting by GC Myers inspired by Herman Hesse's 'Siddhartha'
There were two friends from Peradeniya University who filled my heart with music. Nishad Handunpathirana, probably the most accomplished exponent of the israj in South Asia, didn’t teach me anything. I spent days that turned into weeks and months at his house in Sinhapitiya, Gampola, courtesy of the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya.  His father taught music. Nishad played.  They listened to North Indian classical music.  Certain things have to be heard over and over again before they are understood and appreciated, like the words ‘I love you’. 

Thilak Bandara Herath and I had a contractual agreement. I spoke to him in English every morning as we trekked the one and a half miles from our ‘chummery’ in Gunnepana to Dumbara Campus, Polgolla and he sang all the way back.  He writes poetry in English now.  From those unforgettable nights I gathered lyrics and sentiments, images and heartbreak, laughter and tears, all of which have broken me and made me again and again in the decades that swept away life and rained it back on me, hard and soft, now and then. 

They played a game with me, these two.  They would hold auditions.  I was required to sing and they would judge and pass comments.  They would always encourage but would make sure that I entertain no illusions whatsoever about becoming a singer.   I remember a particular night when after singing several songs, Thilak spoke the most encouraging words I had heard up to that point: ‘umbata puluwan machang’ (you can, my friend).  I am, as I write, smiling as broadly as I did back then.  Then came the punch-line: Shelton Pereratath muladi behe’ (even Shelton Perera couldn’t [sing] at the beginning).

That was a back-handed compliment. It was a double insult as well.  I may have deserved it, but Shelton Perera certainly did not.  I saw him only once in my life.  This is how I remembered that moment from 30 years ago when I wrote about Shelton for The Nation some years back:  ‘I was with my father at the Arts Centre Club, following a recital by ‘Ustad’ Podi Appuhamy, arguably the best exponent of the sitar born in this country. The maestro was drunk but this did not take anything away from his performance, as far as I could gather. 

Shelton Perera was accompanying him on the tabla. I didn’t know much about North Indian classical music back then and I can’t claim to have acquired any knowledge since, but I knew that there was tension in the back and forth between sitarist and tablist. I was amazed by both men and the way their respective fingers drew forth sound and (increasingly) fury from their instruments. That tension enveloped the Lionel Wendt auditorium and I gathered from audience response and the expression of resignation (and very apparent disgust) by the ‘Ustad’ that Shelton Perera had bested him.  He was having a drink. He spoke softly. I can’t remember how long we were there, but I remember these words: ‘he asked for it, and I gave it’. ‘

I had heard Shelton Perera before that audition and countless times afterwards as well.  I never detected ‘cannot’ in his voice. It was always ‘can, and how!’ And each time I remember Thilak and Nishad, teasing and thereby humbling me out of exploring a singing career, even in jest.  I heard him a few days ago.  ‘Egodaha Yanno’ (those who want to cross to the other bank) is as much a signature song as any he has sung.  I searched for the song on youtube.  All I found was Udesh Indula’s rendition for ‘Dream Star’.  I don’t watch much TV and am not into these ‘star’ shows. Had never heard of this young boy.  I concurred with one of the commentators, ‘you made me wonder if Shelton had somehow made it to the Dream Star stage’. 

All I understand right now is that a wonderful voice ferried me to another shore and brought me back, only to take me across and thereafter bring me back.  All I know is that we are all ferrymen and we are all passengers and that there are times we are both at once; all ‘beginners’ and ‘virtuosos’, in one thing or another and sometimes both. 

We are all on the banks of a River Anoma. We are all ferrying or being ferried from one shore to the other.   Shelton says, ‘mata hari wehesai’ (I am exhausted).  He urges, gently, ‘come, if you are coming’.  Shelton says ‘I am but going back and forth on this ferry’. He says it is getting late and repeats, gently, ‘come, if you want to go across to the other shore.’  He stopped ferrying people a quarter of a century ago.  The ferry still moves from one shore to the other and back again. 

At some point perhaps ferry, ferryman, imitation, imitator, passenger and passage will all disappear along with music and lyrics.   There are times I feel weary and when voice or its perfect imitation is not substitute enough.  All I know is that I am weary and am not sure if it is on account of ferrying or being ferried.  Maybe it is because, as Thilak said (and Nishad endorsed with nod and half-smile) I am at the beginning. Or perhaps at the end. 

*I heard (a couple of years after writing this article) that Dalton Alwis, the lyricist, had told the vocalist that the song was about an aging Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation'.  He can be contacted at msenevira@gmail.com.  The above article was first published in March 2011 in the 'Daily News' for which paper Malinda once wrote a daily column titled 'The Morning Inspection'.