[This was written on February 13, 2014 for The Nation of February 16, 2014. Mahinda Algama will not read this piece. He passed away on the 15th of February.]
Talk of lyricists and there are names that drop off the lips of announcers, presenters and guest speakers, names that drip off the pens of scribes in Sinhala newspapers. Mahinda Algama is a name that’s not hard to pronounce. His presence in the Sinhala music scene is such that he is not easy to forget. And yet, name-droppers rarely mention him. Perhaps this is because there’s a politics to art and art critique, never mind the perennial debate whether art is or should be political or whether it is for art’s sake and nothing else.
The 16th day of February has no significance to a man called Mahinda Algama. It is not his birthday. He hasn’t been honored by some state or other award. And yet, there are many reasons why he should be written about. The important among them is the fact of an absenting that one has to conclude is deliberate considering the man’s work over many decades
He did not write thousands and thousands of songs. Some three hundred over a period of fifty years does not add up to ‘prolific’. And yet, as he himself has observed, only that which is qualitatively superior has the fuel to move from and move generation to generation.
He will be remembered mostly for his contribution to the corpus of children’s songs in Sinhala. Several generations have listened to, learned from and been inspired by his work in the field of broadcasting where his focus was children’s songs and radio plays. ‘Tharumuthu Kumariya’ published in 2010 has a collection of 60 songs, many of which would spark childhood memories.
His lyrics lend themselves to easy and catchy melodies, with word and music blending in ways that made erasure from memory difficult. Perhaps this is because, as Sunandra Mahendra has pointed out, his ability to draw from folk literature and therefore touches the taproots of culture engrained in what might be called genetic signature.
He will not be known, from generation to generation, for his educative role in his field. Saman Athaudahetti has written how ‘Mahindayya’ was always keen on doing something new, something fresh. He also acknowledges that there are dozens of singers, song-writers, actors and actresses whose awakening, so to speak, was the Lama Ranga Peetaya. He obtained help from experienced artists but never forgot to encourage new entrants. This is why Saman says that Mahindayya was a teacher in addition to being a poet and lyricist, a radio program producer etc. He was quiet and this everyone in his field knows. Perhaps it is because he was not one to stamp feet, announce presence and brag that he is ‘passed over’ in the politics of Sinhala lyrics.
Not all students acknowledge the role of those who guided them in their journey towards success in chosen field. Mahindayya, on the other hand, has readily acknowledged that he would have been no one if not for the encouragement of his old elder brother Jayampathi Algama and Madawala S Ratnayake. He also mentions Chandraratne Manawasinghe, Mahagama Sekera, Arisen Ahubudu, Doltan Alwis and Karunaratne Abeysekera as having influenced him greatly in his early days. Interestingly, of the above, Abeysekera and Sekera shares Mahinda Algama’s ‘absenting’ fate.
But that’s politics. It is also a product of envy, ignorance and arrogance. Of the true recipients of Algama’s creativity, not many will know that it was he who penned the lines that echo in their hearts throughout their lives; we tend to identify song with singer, not lyricist or composer of melody. But if you mentioned ‘Chandramadulu vala suranganaavan’ in a room full of people who are keen on Sinhala songs and lyrics, there’s bound to be lots of smiles. The same with ‘Rukkaththana mala mudune’. Timeless.
Were they ‘children’s songs’ though? In a sense, yes. Easy words, vivid imagery and simple lines of thought are what make children enjoy, remember and treasure songs. The power of his creativity however can be measured by the fact that simple as the lines are they speak of profound things.
Even today, for example, one of Nanda Malini’s most loved songs is Algama’s ‘Chandramadulu vala’. Through the fairytale imagery the lyricist offers an important life lessons. He takes the child through known narrative to a state of consciousness that alerts him or her to deceit, all through the voice of the most trusted one, the mother.
චන්ද්රමඩුළු යට සුරංගනාවන්
දූ සනහන්නට ගීත ගයනවලු…
දුවේ එපා ඒ කතා අහන්නට
මේ නැළවිලි ගී මමයි කියන්නේ…
They will tell you, little girl
that beneath the moon’s bright glow
there are angels singing to please…
but don’t listen to them
it is I that sings to you.
රන් තැටියට කිරි පැණි පුරවාගෙන
හදහාමී දූ බලන්න එනවලු…
දුවේ එපා ඒ කතා අහන්නට…
හඳහාමී කෙලෙසද මෙහි එන්නේ
With a golden dish filled to curd and treacle
Uncle Moon will visit you, they’ll say…
But little girl, ask yourself,
How can the moon come here?
කිරි මුට්ටිය නුඹෙ ඟගේ ගියාලූ
ඟගට උඩින් කිරි කොක්කු ගියාලූ…
දුවේ එපා ඒ කතා අහන්නට
මමයි නුඹට ලේ කිරිකර දෙන්නේ…
The gourd of milk floated downstream
And above it flew the flock of storks
But little girl, don’t listen to them,
It is I that turns blood into milk just for you.
දූ අල්ලන්නට හැන්දෑ යාමේ
මල්ලක් අරගෙන බිල්ලෙක් එනවලු…
ධීර දුවේ මා බිය නොම වන්නේ
සිහළ ලෙයයි නුඹ සිරුර දිවෙන්නේ…
The bogeyman will come at dusk
With a big, big bag to catch and take you away,
But little girl do not be afraid
For it is Sinhala blood that runs in your veins.
So Algama says, essentially, ‘do not be swayed by the sweet words of strangers’. He also says, ‘do not bend to threat’. These are things that stand us well in our daily lives, bombarded as they are with the lies that go with commerce. These are things that stand us well in darker times, when enslavement is sought more through threat than its execution.
It is perhaps apt that in these very times of sweet-talk and censure, it so happens that it was the last verse of this very song that was deliberately, brutally and crudely ‘edited out’; most cruelly too because it was Nanda Malini who was executor here. She or those who have used her voice and acted with or without her permission as definers of her political and ideological position.
She is reported to have explained to Algama this slashing thus: ‘There wasn’t time to sing that part’. This is not true. The track was made in anticipation of this edit. There’s a politics to this too. That’s a different article, one supposes.
But it is symptomatic of how Algama has been (made to be) read over the years. His silence, quiet ways, generosity, sense of equanimity and civilized ways have been taken as ‘weakness’. He has therefore been seen as ‘prey’. He has been or has sought to have been ‘subbed out’ of the larger narrative of the Sinhala lyrics; along with Sekera, Sunil Sarath Perera, W.A. Abeysinghe and Karunaratne Abeysekera, one should add.
But we will listen to the songs. Those he nurtured not just in writing, broadcasting etc., but in identifying the most salient elements of the human condition, will continue to add value to that which is best in the human being. And we will still remember Nanda Malini with fondness for lending voice to those lovely lyrics. She will drop verse for reasons best known to her, but we will not. In fact she would do well to remember that her fans stand with the original and not the castrated version. And that, perhaps, is the best testimony to the greatness of a simple Sinhala man, Mahinda Algama.