Photos by Upul Devapriya
Every budding poet, at some point in his or life, tries to love on love. Experience is their biggest trump card and if they lack experience, they try to make up for that through words. The truth however is that there’s no guarantee that the experienced lover (jilted or requited) can be an experienced poet on romance, just as much as there’s no guarantee that the poet who writes on love though he or she hasn’t encountered it will turn out to be a dabbler. Keats, Shelley, and Mahagama Sekara wrote on the subject, after all, and none of them (they all died relatively young, let’s not forget) could be said to have indulged in what they wrote of considerably.
It’s a different matter when you write for others to sing, though. Sekara did that. He had Amaradeva. But Sekara was not alone. He lived at a time when people wrote on different themes and when lyricists didn’t stay fixated on one in particular for too long. Premakeerthi de Alwis, for instance, is reported to have written over 5,000 songs. Sunil Ariyaratne has written almost as much. They could have easily set themselves up on top of that forever insurmountable terrain called love and carved their careers there. They did not. Neither did Sekara.
And neither did Ajantha Ranasinghe, who like Premakeerthi, Ariyaratne, and their contemporaries was bequeathed to our literary and music fields after the revolt that transpired in 1956.
Ranasinghe came to us in the seventies and eighties, each decade special for different reasons: the seventies, because of the veritable stream of indigenous artistes who superseded and got rid of the foreign domination our performing arts industries had been subjected to until then, and the eighties because of the freedom granted to every budding artiste to come into those industries thanks to liberalised economic, cultural, and social policies.
True, the man was there before all that, but he came to the forefront when he began versifying for some vocalists and when he entered our cinema (both of which and whom blossomed in the transition from one decade to the other). In his own special way (and this is probably why I took to him) he turned love into verses, lines, and veritable wordplay. He wrote of love in so many ways that it was difficult to keep up. Perhaps that was meant to be, perhaps not. For the truth of the matter is, he entranced an entire generation.
Ajantha Ranasinghe was born in Thalammahara in the Kurunegala district. It was there that he received his first education, a point he drove home rather emphatically when I interviewed him about two years ago. “We revelled in the village. In fact you can say and assume that most of my songs owe their legitimacy and feel of life to what I encountered in my childhood,” he explained, adding quite cogently, “Only someone who has moved intimately with rural life could have written what I wrote.” Today’s generation, he observed, were not fortunate.
He was educated firstly at the Pannala Government School, again in Kurunegala. After some time his family decided to educate him in English, so they sent him to St John’s College in Nugegoda. Given the fidelity that artistes exhibit towards their schools, I naturally asked him to elaborate on how his education in Colombo helped.
To my surprise, he was not nostalgic. “Unlike in the game iskole, we didn’t come across our culture. I’m not finding fault with such schools, but you must remember that missionary establishments were there to spread their faith first and only then embrace our culture. Apart from the Sinhala and Literature periods, I didn’t encounter that culture in Nugegoda.” For that reason perhaps, after he completed his GCE Ordinary Levels, he left St John’s.
He did not idle, however. By the time he left school, he had established himself among a group of like-minded lovers of the arts, led by Sunanda Mahendra. They would all buy books together, read them, and critically appraise Sri Lankan and world literature. They would also meet every fortnight for various discussions. “We were interested in language, in culture, in literature, in religion, and not just what textbooks provided.” No doubt all these helped his later career, in particular owing to the link between the written word and the articulate lyric. That was what provoked him to comment: “We found time to dabble in fruitful conversations on the arts. You just don’t see that kind of interest among youngsters today.”
Stints at Radio Ceylon, where he joined the Lama Mandapaya program, and at Lake House, where he was not only a cub reporter and local news editor but also a short-story and lyricist, would follow. It was during this time that 1956 “happened” and spilt over: Ranasinghe would feel its impact almost immediately, in how aspiring artistes like himself were being perceived by his countrymen. Eventually, he found himself working under the formidable Karunaratne Abeysekara at the SLBC, where he met one of his most frequent collaborators, H. R. Jothipala.
Jothipala had heard of Ranasinghe through his sister. He had come to meet the man to make a request: “He wanted me to write the ‘world’s most beautiful lullaby’ for his newborn daughter. I asked him how. He gave no reply. Instead, he told me to meet and talk with Mohamed Sali, who was to direct me. I felt helpless at the time. It seemed impossible in every sense of that term.” Nevertheless, the challenge was accepted, and Ranasinghe came up with the lyrics for a lullaby. The song, “Mage Wasanavam”, marked the first time he and Jothipala got together.
From then on, every other song, dirge, and lament that Jothipala sang, Ranasinghe wrote.
We cherish them even today, as original and as transcribed melodies, which opened him to a torrent of composers: from Sarath Dassanayake to Premasiri Khemadasa. Khemadasa entered the cinema through the films of K. A. W. Perera, who paved the way for Ranasinghe to write on songs that were as cherished as the plots of those same films: who doesn’t remember “Mey Gee Eda” from Janaka saha Manju, or “Pokuru Pokuru Mal Sanakeli” from Wasana, or “Manamalai Manaharai” from Hingana Kolla? For these he wrote down a torrent of lyrics that were seeped in love and romance, the themes that Perera went for in his stories. No wonder we took to them. Anyone would.
Khemadasa in particular occupied a cherished spot in his memory. I doubt he had a favourite he could pick from the 50 plus songs he wrote for films, but if I were to pick, I would pick on “Mala Gira.” I didn’t mention this to him but I mentioned the song, and he lightened up at once. He reflected: “That reminds me of how much our childhood encounters shape our later careers, particularly in the arts. As I told you before, only a person who has gone through village life could have written the songs I have: lines like ‘gomara pethi male’ are not easy to come up with, but they were all there, in ‘Mala Gira’.”
He was, however, no pedant. “When we think of the Sinhala lyric we think of high-flown rhetoric. That is not always the case. You can’t remain fixated on the classics forever. You can’t be writing down ‘gal lena bindala / len dora arala’ all the time, and if you do, you will court the risk of alienating your audience.” Not that he absolved the practice of most modernists to discard the past altogether: “There must be a balance between fidelity to tradition and flexibility. I have come across so many instances where the composer or the vocalist or even I had to compromise on rigid linguistic rules for the sake of the melody.”
He believed strongly in the coexistence of quantity and quality in his field. In the case of most singers (and songwriters) today, however, and as a final point in our conversation, he contended that quantity had more or less superseded quality. “Name one really popular song from today,” he challenged me. Needless to say, I couldn’t. Earnestly, he went on: “Look at the singers we had then: Amaradeva, Victor, Latha, Jothipala. People still go after them. Why? Not just because they were popular in their time, or because they were giants, however true that may have been, but because no one is there now to continue from where they left off.”
He could have been talking about himself. When he died last February (suddenly and tragically), he left behind a void. Who’s there to fill that void? No one, we can contend. We will continue to think of him as we listen to what he wrote: we will croon “Suwada Danee” as we watch Kamal Addarachchi and Sangeetha Weeraratne courting each other in Saptha Kanya, “Sanda Pem Yahanen” as we watch the two lovers in “Wasanthaye Dawasaka” steal away at night, and “Sili Sili Seethala Alle” (which to me represents a near-perfect fusion of romance and silliness in a Sinhala song) as we remember Raj Seneviratne featured in probably one of the first music videos produced in this country.
Yes, we will remember. And as we remember, we will regret.
By Uditha Devapriya