Kularatne Ariyawansa and the scent of dew

How and where do lyricists get their ideas? What is it that propels them to cross the thin line between the written word and the verse? What do they have, which we do not, that makes it easy for them to transform the most mundane, everyday experience into potent drops of poetry?

The best lyricists, the way I see it ensure that what they write survive the ravages of time. Their songs, simply put, become timeless and remain as freshly scented as they were on the day they were authored. Because the Sinhala lyric as such has deteriorated today, we feel this most discernibly in the verses of the masters, the veterans of the pasts, for whom writing a song was more than just transforming a hackneyed theme into a series of even more hackneyed words.

Kularatne Ariyawansa belongs to a generation of lyricists that emerged during the seventies, when our music industry got away from the imitativeness it had been steeped in until then. The eighties, as I pointed out in my article on the late Ajantha Ranasinghe, was different in that with the dismantling of the regulatory structures instituted by the Bandaranaike government, artistes were empowered to experiment, though as time went by that deteriorated to the same imitativeness the industry saw before the seventies. Ariyawansa, who witnessed all this firsthand, has ample reason to regret, but does not: he prefers instead to reflect, to remember, and to recount. This is his story.

He was born in the Southern village of Benthara, although his family had been domiciled in Colombo. While he attended the game iskole until his O Levels, he entered Ananda College for his A Levels. Ananda was back then rife with aspiring artistes and poets, and this culture had appealed to young Kularatne. Among those he met and befriended, Premakeerthi de Alwis (who was his senior) and more pertinently A. D. Ranjith Kumara figure in. It would be through the latter that he was initiated into the music industry.

Kularatne had taken to poetry and music from an early age. While at his earlier school, during his O Levels, he had dabbled in poetry. When he shifted to Ananda, he shifted to songs. “Back then our music industry had been invaded by those stopped us from imitating Indian music. Among my influences, I can name Chandraratne Manawasinghe, Madawala Ratnayake, Karunaratne Abeysekera, and Mahagama Sekara. Through Sekara, I heard Amaradeva. Through Amaradeva, I realised how subtle the link between the word and the verse was. That was why, whenever I listened to a song, I made it a habit to write down its lyrics.”

Meanwhile, Ranjith Kumara (who can in one sense be considered his first figure of destiny) managed to hook up young Kularatne with a horde of artistes from that time, firstly through the magazine they edited at Ananda, “Sevana”, then through Arthur Amarasena’s arts tabloid “Visithuru.” Because of the latter especially, he got acquainted with some of the leading writers and poets in his time, which helped him even more when (again, through Kumara) he was invited to take part in several radio programs, including the “Sarasvathi Mandapaya” and “Yowun Samajaya”.

Through all this, the man had managed to meet up with Abeywardena Balasooriya, back then a promising performer who, together with Sarath Dasanayake, teamed up with Kularatne for his first song, “Adarayen Ma Hadavatha.” His second song “Pinibara Malak” proved so popular for Victor Ratnayake that the latter continued to highlight it in his SA prasangaya. “I have written about 10 songs for Victor. Needless to say, all of them have become immensely successful,” he informs me, with a gleam in his eye.

We are as young or old as we work and Kularatne hasn’t been an exception to that rule. Because he, like his contemporaries (including Ajantha Ranasinghe), made love (requited or otherwise) his main subject and theme, that naturally attracted a horde of composers and singers who transformed our deepest impulses into veritable drops of poetry. His third song, which is my personal favourite, got him working with Amaradeva and Khemadasa to give out what I personally consider as the most heartfelt act of collaboration between the latter two: “Sanda Horen Horen”, written for Amaradeva’s 50th birthday in 1978.

That year proved pivotal for him for another reason. The cassette trade, which had already made its mark in other music industries elsewhere, arrived. Kularatne, by then a mere government servant, would figure considerably in the revolution this wrought, when he first joined Tharanga as a lyricist and production coordinator at the invitation of his friend Vijaya Ramanayake and then, in 1980, left government service completely to join Singlanka at the invitation of another acquaintance, Ananda Ganegoda. While Tharanga continues to sell, Singlanka has languished thanks to the internet.

Kularatne tells me here that while cassette companies have all but completely caved into commercialism today, Singlanka was begun to help both veteran and aspiring artistes. As I browse through his lyrics, I realise that it also paired him with Rohana Weerasinghe, the man who would compose pretty much all his work during and after the eighties. I ask him as to how he’d write a song in the first place, and he replies, “Depends. Some of my songs already had their melodies worked out. I only needed to write. Most of them, however, were first sketched out by me before the composer worked on them.”

He has also worked on quite a number of films, 50 to be exact. He began in 1978 with Anupama, directed by that other exponent of the Sinhala lyric, Sunil Ariyaratne. From Anupama, Ariyaratne opted for the man in his next three films, Vajira (where Kularatne got together with Nanda Malini for the first time with “Deno Dahak”), his landmark work Sarungale, and Jeevithayen Jeevithayak. When H. D. Premaratne let go of Clarence Wijewardena (who scored his first two films) and opted for Khemadasa in Parithyagaya, Kularatne was there (“La Hiru Payala”, which opens that remarkable film). He worked with Premaratne again and again, including for Mangala Thagga (“Thurulaka Hurathal”) and Adara Hasuna (“Sudu Muthu Rala Pela”). In all these, he centred on the theme he usually went for, love.

Because we live in a time where if you switch on the radio, you are guaranteed to hear songs revolving around the same, hackneyed theme of unrequited love, it’s a little difficult to appreciate the enormous range of sensitivity Kularatne brought off in his work. Suffice it to say, then, that of the 100+ lyrics he has sketched out, my personal favourites are the ones which delve into the hopes, wishes, triumphs, and pitfalls of aspiring lovers, which probably makes him an equal to that other lyricist who went for that theme, Premakeerthi de Alwis. “Deno Dahak”, for instance, begins on the following note:

දෙනෝ දාහක්
නුවන් අතරේ
කවුරුදෝ මා
තනි කළේ
තනි කළේ
පාසැල් බිමේ

While the lover in that song croons for the boy who left her amidst a thousand others (“නුවන් අතරේ“), alone, the final lines in “Sudu Muthu Rala Pela” bring out another lover: the sort who endures immeasurable shame before pairing up with the man who truly cherishes her:

පවනැල්ලක්සේ නොම හැර
ආවෙමි ඔබ හද සැදෙන තුරා

It’s not just about those overused lines “I love you girl, why don’t you love me?” that adorn pretty much every song on radio, in other words. I put to Kularatne that while times have certainly changed and while the Sinhala lyric has deteriorated on this count, nevertheless there must be some hope. He agrees, with a caveat: there are poets and reckonable anthologies published by talented youngsters. When it comes to lyricists also, there is talent. The problem, however, is with the TV channels that refuse to recognise this talent: “They have caved into a commercialist mindset so much that they refuse to even consider taking the work of these bright youngsters.” Depending on how you see it, this is reason for either hope or despair. In any case, it does not matter.

Last year the man brought out a collection of lyrics. Fittingly titled Pinibara Malak, the verses in it seem as freshly scented as they would have been when they were first sketched out. What of the man behind them? Soft-spoken and refined to a fault, Kularatne has no reason for complaint. Today he lives a rather comfortable life in Mirihana with his two sons, Vindana and Kalpana (whose film Premaya Nam premiered on Friday, February 17 at the Regal Theatre), and his wife Seetha. He was, characteristically I believe, not very enthusiastic about delving into his biography, which has a lot to do with his modesty and how he views himself.

We first heard of Kularatne Ariyawansa many, many years ago. He has since nourished our sensibilities in a way that does justice to the lover in us all. He has not resorted to hackneyed themes, and if he has, he has tried to steer clear of the bland newsreel format most lyricists go for today. We have much to be thankful for, I silently note as I go through Pinibara Malak. And because he admits at the end that he won’t stop writing, we will remain thankful. For a long, long 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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