The Khemadasa Touch


Premasiri Khemadasa [Pic by]

Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa probably has the most poignant love song featured in any Sinhala film. “Sara Sonduru”, a duet between Victor Ratnayake and Nanda Malini (the lyrics to which were written by Yapa and Mahagama Sekara), reflects on the beauty of falling in love and the sorrow of losing it. It’s incorporated in a sequence of the protagonists (played by Tony Ranasinghe and Swarna Mallawarachchi) walking along the grounds of Peradeniya University, and moves on to the two of them by a small lake, the one looking into the other’s eyes, ending with these ominous lines:

කුණාටු මැද බොල් අහසේ
එබී බලන හඳ පලුවයි
පුරා හඳට ඉඩ සලසන
අනාගතය ඔබ පමණයි
සැලේ ම හද සැලේ සැලේ…

And yet, it’s not just the lyrics. There’s something about that song, which goes beyond the written word and which echoes the theme of fragile love. It’s not the conventional plaint or dirge but something else: the entire composition, to the best of my imperfect understanding of music, reverberates with the poignancy of love. When I listen to it today, I am reminded of the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and not just because of the words.

“Sara Sonduru” was composed by Premasiri Khemadasa. Khemadasa made us listen to music. He also helped us understand that it wasn’t merely about songs but could be something more, as he proved in his long, prodigious career. He ventured into unchartered territory, broke some norms, and yet never strayed from the land of his birth. He made us enjoy what he did. More importantly, he taught us a lesson: that to break out from tradition, you must be rooted in tradition.

And how rooted he was! He took in everything he heard – the sound of birds chirping and the waves of the sea and everything else that nature offered in this country – and transformed them into melodies we could listen to. His greatest contribution, for me, was in the realm of film music, for the simple reason that at a time when composers thought that the cinema and music could interact through the conventional three-minute song, he dared to think of an alternative. Sure, we had films that had themes of their own (variations of which were used to evoke emotion in whatever sequence), but it is Khemadasa who made us realise how music could be used to explain the many moods, gestures, nuances of feeling, and philosophical dimensions embedded in a work of art.

The cinema, Lenin is reported to have said, is the most important of the arts. Music, however, is the most universal. Khemadasa understood that. In his best work (from his first phase) – for the films of K. A. W. Perera and Lester James Peries – he employed it to lend meaning to a scene or sequence. He did not go for standalone songs for the simple reason that he would have found nothing useful in them: for him, a medium of art could be weaved into another only IF both related to each other.

That is why, when you listen such classics like M. S. Fernando’s Ron Rasa Berena (in Rana Giraw) or Eran Kanda Pem Handa (in Nedeyo) you get the feeling that while the hero and heroine are crooning at each other, what they’re singing contributes meaningfully to the larger narrative. That is also why he was more successful when he went beyond composing songs.

He first entered the cinema with Ariyadasa Peiris’ Sobana Sitha (in 1964), which was followed by a film which introduced him more properly to the industry, K. A. W. Perera’s Senasuma Kothanada (in 1966). He followed it up with T. Bhawanandan’s Manamalayo three years later, itself followed by two seminal milestones, one minor and the other a watershed.

Tissa Liyanasuriya’s Narilatha, arguably the first attempt by a filmmaker here to thematise adultery, was the first. It begins with a rarely heard classic: Lassana Thaleta, performed by Victor Ratnayake and synchronised with the rhythm of a moving train (Khemadasa’s ability to hone in on the context of a scene or sequence like this eventually became his signature).

Lester James Peries’ Golu Hadawatha was the second. The other day a TV channel screened it. As the credits rolled and as they announced, “Music by Premasiri Khemadasa,” the channel thought it fit to add its own two cents through a subtitle: “the most famous score from a Sinhala film.” That’s an extrapolation I agree, but it makes sense: Golu Hadawatha goes down as the first Sinhala film which based its entire narrative on a single musical theme, one that employed a flute to convey the idea of unrequited love.

But it’s not just that theme. There’s a sequence in the film where the protagonist (Sugath, played by Wickrema Bogoda) meets his former lover (Dammi, played by Anula Karunatilake) at a school carnival. You get the feeling Sugath goes there to meet her, and you get the feeling that he will. He goes and watches a moving carousel. As expected, he comes across her: laughing with her new found lover, oblivious to everyone around her.

That’s where Khemadasa and the editor, Sumitra Peiries, applied their magic. We see close-ups of Dhammi intercut with a slow zoom on Sugath’s pained yet expressionless face. We see Dhammi laughing, indifferent and blissfully so, contrasted with Sugath’s feeling of hurt and the carousel music, bringing out the counterpoint the one has to the other and, in the end, conveying tension and repressed emotion. When Sugath and Dhammi (with her lover) meet and when the latter leaves, the carousel music quickens: Sugath looks on, asks his friend to leave him, and wanders away.

Khemadasa could convey ideas like that. He did the same thing in Peries’ third and final film for Ceylon Theatres, Nidhanaya. He went as far as to compose his own waltz for it, used in the sequence of the two protagonists (Gamini Fonseka and Malini Fonseka) dancing with each other after being reconciled. The waltz conveys an almost otherworldly passion between them, because Gamini isn’t really dancing with Malini: he’s merely imagining it all.

These were certainly bold exercises in music, but the Khemadasa of the sixties and early seventies would soon give way to his next phase: one marked by films that were more direct and more political.

Those films were mostly directed by the foremost exponent of political cinema here, Dharmasena Pathiraja. Emboldened by their subject matter, Khemadasa went on experimenting. He went for opera and used it, extensively at times, in them: in Bambaru Avith, in Para Dige, and later in Pathiraja’s teledramas (especially Ella Laga Walawwa), he became more daring. He contextualised his work to suit the film: in Dharmasiri Bandaranaike’s Hansa Vilak, for instance, his score brings up the narrative’s interplay between fantasy and reality, blurring the line between the two until, in that confusing and unresolved ending, there’s no music at all: because the score made it so evident that it needn’t have been featured there.

In Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama, on the other hand, he refrained from featuring an extensive score: as Regi Siriwardena noted in his review, there probably were no more than 10 minutes of music in the entire film, because the only time it’s used we are deceptively made to think of the narrative in terms of the popular cinema. When the music ends however, we beg to differ: the interplay between imagination and reality tempts us into believing that the story we are watching can be rationalised by the myths and fantasies of popular fiction, when in fact the protagonist gets entrapped, gets confused by her blind devotion to her tormentor, and finally realises that the only way out is to destroy him and herself. Music would have jarred, and this the director and the composer understood all too well.

There were other contributions and films. We remember them all. In Janaka saha Manju, he made us fall in love with the protagonists with “Loke Jeevath Wannata” In Nedeyo, he made us think of life’s many blessings when Vijaya Nandasiri’s blind protagonist “sings” T. M. Jayaratne’s “Jeevithe Amadhara”. In Lester James Peries’ Kaliyugaya, he made us aware of the protagonist Alan, as he grows up and as he battles his family’s eroding moral conscience by detaching himself from his parents (Nanda and Piyal), through a simple yet powerful motif (played out in snatches from beginning to end). In Parakrama Niriella’s Siri Medura, he used Amarasiri Peiris to sing of the raging, unrefined passion in Anoja Weerasinghe’s character with “Minisa Marana Thunak.”

And in the teledramas and films of Jayantha Chandrasiri – in particular, Guerrilla Marketing – he transformed our jana shruti and jana gee into what can only be called exercises in fusion. He juggled East and West. He compromised. For some, that was an unforgivable aberration. For me and for the vast majority of music lovers in this country though, that was a meaningful contribution. In Chandrasiri’s films – idiosyncratic as they are and fuelled by an almost zealous desire to unearth the political – he achieved his zenith. It is in here, more than anywhere else, that he experimented and triumphed.

He would have been 79 this January and 80 the next. He died in 2008. He was 71 at the time. An age, I’d like to believe, at which he would have been able to look back and concede ground to his achievements, triumphs, and moments of glory.

For he gave us a cinema (yes, he did!) which achieved much more with the revolution he wrought in our music. He taught us, in his own special way, that deviations from the norm made sense only if you were rooted in tradition. He showed us, as Godard and Picasso did in their respective fields, that if you did away with convention altogether, what you achieved wasn’t a deviation but a twisted, meaningless contortion of reality.

Here’s what I think about what he did, hence. There’s something about a Khemadasa composition which stands out. It betrays, for a split second even, the idiosyncrasies of a man who went beyond the ragadhari tradition and embraced a more universal (yet no less “national”) form. Legend has it that the man could direct a scene or sequence of a film in line with his score. Legend has it also that he was, like Bernstein, erratic. Like all pioneers, one can add.

I suppose that’s the biggest legacy he can claim to. And I suppose we as a nation and as a people have profited by it. Big time.

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

A freelance writer and a commentator who has written to several publications in Sri Lanka; Ceylon Today, The Nation, The Daily News, and The Sunday Island, particularly on the performing arts.


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