18 May 2023

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

Pic: www.roar.lk

On the 31st of July, 1989, a 42 year old man was dragged out of his house by a group of armed men. His bullet-ridden body was found some 100 m away from the house.

How many men born in the 1960s and early 1970s in the main and how many who were older suffered a similar fate? Sixty thousand is the estimate. Each had a name. Each had a history, a skill-set, a family, hopes and dreams. What if it were possible to gather those skills and those dreams? What if we could extrapolate to the ‘what might have been’? What if we add the 20,000 or so killed in 20,000 and the several hundreds of thousands killed in a thirty year war?

Let’s get back to the 31st of July, 1989. This was a time when there were around 50 killings on average. So he was not alone. No more, no less special as far as the sentiments of loved ones aggrieved are concerned. Still, I remembered him just the other day.

It happened during a casual conversation about the JVP with a stranger in a cafe (‘The Commons’). The stranger was trying to remember the name of an artist killed during that time, the bheeshanaya or, more accurately, the rathu-kola bheeshanaya.

Vijaya Kumaratunga? No, he said. Premakeerthi de Alwis? Yes, him.

‘How could they kill someone like that?’

Well, they could and they did. When a hard line is drawn, when you insist that if someone is not with you he/she must be against you, it’s easy. On a side note I observed the following:

‘It’s easy to say quit your job (as the JVP did), but in difficult times it would mean that the families of those who depend on a monthly salary would suffer great deprivations. The JVP with it’s chit-politics would not compensate. Premakeerthi was threatened. He was murdered.

Had he lived, he would be close to 75 today. He was an iconic lyricist, whose name is mostly unknown to many who loved the songs and the singers he wrote for; hundred of songs that delighted people then and delights people even today, including perhaps his killers, the leaders who ordered the killing and indeed the several hundred thousands who supported and still support that party.

Not one word of remorse though.

That needs to be said. What’s more important, I feel, is a thought that struck me during the aforementioned conversation: ‘How many more songs would Premakeerthi have written had his life not been cut short by hooligans who convinced themselves that they were fighting on behalf of the people?’

Even if he had slowed down (which is doubtful because all the top artists constantly troubled him for lyrics) we would have had the privilege of dozens if not hundreds of songs.

I trembled when that thought struck me. I’m trembling now as I write. I try to push aside the anger and it will go away, I know. I cannot shelve the grief.
Where are those lyrics? What happened to the imagination that translated into words and lines with fidelity to the need to forge rhythm that lends to melody and musical arrangement? Who stole all that? Where were they stashed away? Are they recoverable, ever?

In the long years that followed, new lyricists emerged. His contemporaries continued to write. There were songs. There was music. Music and art are never snuffed out by such gruesome crimes.

But a man named Samaraweera Mudalige Don Premakeerthi de Alwis, by all accounts a gentle and modest human being, is missing. A signature collection of the full corpus of Sinhala lyrics has been erased.

The lost lyrics. I don’t know what words in what arrangement made them. I don’t know their fragrance and flavour. They are raining down on me as I write. They fall upon heart-palms like finely crafted crystals. They stay. They hurt. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart