Amara Sara Arana
A Tribute to Pandith Amaradeva

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Amaradeva: Art and humility unite in deathlessness  

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Pandith Visharada  Amaradeva

A lecture delivered at Amara Sathsara, Birchmount Park Collegiate, Toronto, Cananda, on June 25 by Prof. Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri President, Toronto College of Buddhist Studies, and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College, University of Toronto

Some 50 years ago, as a student at Ananda College, I remember reading a bold headline in the newspapers: "The Sinhalese have no music" or something to that effect. That had been the conclusion of Professor Ratanjanker, who had been invited to study Sinhala music. Ratanjanker, of course was the renowned maestro of Indian Classical Music from the Bhatkhande University, one of the two centres of classical music in India.

But would anyone say that here's no Sinhala music today? So who, then, is this magician who created something out of nothing? Who created a vibrant Sinhala music tradition when none existed 50 years ago? Who is that member of the Gandharva Sabha of the gods who abandoned his post to be with us? It is none other than Pandith Visharada Amaradeva.

So how did Visharada Amaradeva achieve the impossible? Ratanjanker's conclusion enraged nationalists, but resulted in a lively debate. And a healthy development. Even though there had not emerged a strong Sinhala music tradition in the country, Ratanjanker had identified the sources which held promise. The most obvious to him was 'pirit' (or 'paritta' to those who prefer the scholarly Pali term), which every Sinhala Buddhist has heard since a baby. Music in pirit? If you have doubts, run through your mind the Karaneeya Metta sutta. Karaneeya metta kusalena, yantan santan padam abhisamecca, sakko ujuuca suujuca, suvaco c'assa mudu anatimaanii... Now if you are honest, you'll admit to falling asleep when you were at one or another of those all-night affairs. But if you have any feelings of guilt, you can put them aside. It was not that you were less religious, or less Buddhist.

It was that you had been lulled, and overpowered, by the tenderness of the cascading sounds, the rising and the falling cadences. There was another source: the Sinhalese folksongs, of the carter (Karatta kavi), farmer (pel kavi, kamat kavi), miner (patal kavi), boatman (paaru kavi) and the fisherman (dhivara kavi). You remember: tandale, denna depole dakkanawaa, katukele.... Notice the cadences - the rise and the fall of the sounds? Then there were others - I don't quite know whether or not they were specifically identified by Professor Ratanjanker. These were the bali, tovil, yaadini, pideni and the like. And, of course, the pasanga-turu nada: our five-fold instruments: aatata, vitata, vitataatata, ghana, susira: one-hand drum, two-hand drum, one-hand-two-hand-alternating drum, wind instruments, etc. Examples would be the geta bera dawula, tammatta, surappattuwa, udekkiya, yak bere and hornewa. Though imported from South India, the now famous maddala drum is now part of the Sinhala tradition If you have danced to it as I have, you begin to feel the power of the rhythmic vibrations: jemikita taka don in the slow beat (dhrta laya), or the faste beat (vilamba laya):

raad diin rid dad diin ///

don don tan tan gatita gatam /

jenki jenki gata gundatta jemikita taa.

Then there were the vannam and sural dance steps: all based in the fourfold schemata, tat-dit-ton-nam. Finally, of course, were the nurti and nadagam, the folk drama.

So, if the Sinhala people were inheritors of such a vast resource, why is it that there had not evolved a sophisticated Sinhalese music tradition? Because there had been no one who had the training, insight or musical talent to exploit the rich resource.

Our Visharada Amaradeva had them all! And more!

Once Amaradeva returned to Sri Lanka for his father's death, there was no looking back. Appointed Leader of the Sinhala Orchestra at Radio Ceylon, he presented a series of experimental programs.

This is when his special genius came to be cultivated. While he respected the Sinhala folk music contained in pirit, kavi, nadagam and vannam, he was fully aware that it was limited in its notational spectrum.... Thus began his experimentation.

He would sing a Sinhala folk tune "without unduly disturbing or changing its original character," in the words of the late H.H. Bandara (whose compositions entranced us in Sinhabahu), but then would add "a second section (the antaraa....) based on a relevant and carefully chosen raga."

But Amaradeva, of course, was the first to recognize that although linking two distinct traditions was an innovation in itself, it was not to create a new tradition. So he moved to another level. This was to experience, again in the words of Bandara, "synthesis - a fusion - of all the characteristics of Sinhala folk music on a much wider spectrum." In his book Nada Sittam (p. 68), Amaradeva himself gives the example of Pile pedura henata aragena yanava as an example of such "spectrum expansion", from kavi to song.

He used a third technique: "employment of the raga a framework for his compositions". However, even when Amaradeva was influenced by an Indian raga, he would not hesitate to change it where it violated the Sinhala folk music idiom, or did not convey the required aesthetic (rasa) or emotion (bhava). An example would be the song 'Saraswati'. Though based in the bihag raga, not all of it is that, points our Bandara.

Amaradeva (in Nada. p.72) gives the example of ran van karal pasey in imitation of the Turanga vannama. Explains Amaradeva: "Although this has been composed as a song made up of the two parts, sthayi and antara, it was freed from the traditional features of raga techniques in such a way so as not to harm the folk idiom." In other words, Amaradeva was able to free himself from both the limitations of the local tradition and the run-away variations of the imported tradition. It is challenging that he sometimes even totally abandons the ragas (Nada, 72).

But there is something else few critics have noted. When in Amaradeva's 1991 visit to Toronto I saw a keyboard on stage, I was enraged - that even Amaradeva had succumbed to western influences. Would an Indian classicist ever dream of allowing that to happen, I wondered. But then in the Nada (p.71), I found the answer: how he consciously employs western music, both compositionally and instrumentally. He cites the scores done for Chitrasena's ballet, karadiya, and the song 'hoyya hoyya' in particular.

Is this the influence of a mixed Buddhist (father) and Christian (mother) parentage? Or is it the flexibility allowed for by Buddhism? Or both?

Here, then, lies Amaradeva's genius.

Talking of genius, Einstein is known to have 'seen' in his mind's eye the mathematical theorems and equations he was to eventually give the world. Here's how Amaradeva tells us how he saw (ditimi) 'sketches of sound' (nada sittam) in his 'aural eyes' (savan nuvan) (Nada. preface). Here are his words: "As I rested in the shade of the Neralu trees on the white sands as the sun dipped and the moon peeked, and the evening clouds took to a dance of changing shapes, I used to enter a bliss (pahana suva), capturing in my mind corresponding sketches of sound and humming to myself the corresponding notations". (The original Sinhalese lines are even more artistic than I have been able to capture in my translation).

We know that Amaradeva is both a Gayana Visharada and Vadya Visharada. "Music gushes from his throat like water from a fountain" says Sucitra Mitra, one of India's top grade vocalists. A Europeon couple at a recital have commented that while they have watched many brilliant players all over the world, "this was the first time that they saw a player so effectively combine the techniques of the west and the east." An American composer noted that Amaradeva had "one of the fastest musical brains he had ever come across."

To listen to him sing a classical Indian raga and other Bengali, Hindi and Urdu songs at the backroom of the Lionel Wendt theatre over from decades ago, under the dim light of candles, is an experience I shall never forget. But the characteristic I adore most in him has nothing to do with his musical genius. It is his humility, and yes, his humanity that I cherish. And here are the words of Lester James Peiris with whom Amaradeva has worked on four of his films: "I can say in all sincerity that our collaboration has been among the happier experiences in an industry where fractured relationship, smouldering animosities, imaginary conflicts are so common..." And among the most endearing traits of Amaradeva, adds Lester, is his great "unflappable, unruffled equanimity and serenity...".

Daughter Subhani and son Ranjan, wife Amara and daughter Piyanvada (who I'm sure are with us in your thoughts), you are indeed fortunate to have within your everyday experience a deathless canvas of music and humility.

The name Amara-deva, 'god of deathlessness', we know, will linger in the hearts of the Sinhala sahrdaya connoisseurs for ever. Topa dekumen apa pinkala bava denuni. Let me, then, end with a Jana Praarthna, inspired by your own Yasodhara Welapilla:

Lowe pahala kali kalaha mota wewa
Wile jalaya men samaya petirewa
Hele geyum oba sarayen rasa wewa
Mohotin mohota oba ayusa digu wewa!


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