Karunaratne Abeysekera Made Child and Childhood Cofter Still
‘Karuge Lamaa Gee Potha’ (Karu’s Children’s Songs) by Karunaratne Abeysekera, published by Sarasavi Prakashakayo, illustrated by Sybil Wettasinghe, designed by Sandra Mack, reviewed by Malinda Seneviratne.
I spoke with the renowned Sinhala lyricist Ratna Sri Wijesinghe about six years ago on the subject of children’s literature or rather literature for children. I believe it was for a feature on ‘Children’s Day’. The question put to him was about the status (as in quality) of literature. I remember his answer:
‘Today there are lots of people writing children’s books or at least books which have that “Children” label, but in my opinion most of them write as adults and are but imposing adult themes into children-contexts. This is why Sybil Wettasinghe’s books remain popular. She’s an exception. She understood the child’s world and universe of concern, was fluent in the language of the child and therefore produced timeless stories.’
I have since had many occasions to revisit this observation, especially when it comes to what are called ‘Children’s Films’, usually marketed as ‘Family Films’. They have child characters, yes, but that’s all the ‘child’ in the script. The ‘family’ tag is a convenience to slip away from criticism, but it fools no one. Families include children. Such films are for the most part violent and more suited for adult audiences. The fault is not with producer or director but rather the authorities who issue tags such as ‘Adults Only’, ‘More suitable for adults’ or (as in the USA) ‘PG 13’ (children allowed if they are above 13, but only if accompanied by a parent). ‘Siri Raja Siri’, ‘Ran Kevita’ and to a lesser extent ‘Vidu’ would be the exceptions.
It appears that the malady has bypassed the lyricists. The songs we heard, loved, learnt and sang as children are the songs we sing to our children. They love them too. Last week the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation organized a concert to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the children’s program ‘Handa Mama’. The children who took part in that program in years gone by have now become well known vocalists and successful professionals. Indeed, SLBC has played and continues to play a magnificent role in passing the best of what can be called Sinhala culture and related values from generation to generation. And among the key contributors was Karunaratne Abeysekera.
‘Karuge Lama Gee Potha’ (Karu’s book of children’s songs) is an invaluable collection of lyrics penned by one of the greatest modern poets. The songs in the book take us back to childhood and naturally a time when the universe appeared to be differently ordered. The words and melodies, one finds, have survived the cacophony that is growing up and the natural transformation of our individual worlds in terms of sizes and concerns. When we hear those songs again and in particularly when we notice how our children embrace them with much the same joy as we did, we wonder if anything has really changed.
The foreword by another important lyrical figure who for some reason is constantly ‘absented’ in discussions on the Sinhala lyric, Sunil Sarath Perera, gives context to what can be considered a monumental effort, even if effortlessly executed, of composition, considering the breadth of subject, voluminous output and sensitivity to the child’s world. Perera is just one beneficiary of Abeysekera’s creative largesse. He explains, for example, how lyricists of his generation saw firsthand how the master went about his work and how they honed their skills by just watching him.
Most of the songs were on-the-spot compositions for various children’s programs aired over radio. They were accompanied by on-the-spot music arrangements by the likes of D.D. Danny, Shanthi dissanayake and Thilakasiri Fernando. What value these exercises added to the field of broadcasting is deserving of deeper and doctoral study, one feels.
Perera details Abeysekeras’s contribution to Sinhala literature through these lyrics and how meticulous he was in employing techniques that enhanced the musicality of the words themselves, without once forgetting that it was all about children, with them and for them. He also shows how the lyricist was guided by the need to educate children about the world and about their country, heritage, culture and the values therein.
If an earlier generation learnt these things through exquisite collections such as the sirith mal dama andprathya shathakaya, complemented of course by doses of the lo veda sangaraava and the jathaka katha, in the past 50 years much value was added to such exercised by what people like Abeysekera did on radio. Indeed, if sirith or ‘custom’ (a more powerful and compelling mover than law, one might say) have stood by us in our most difficult hours, then Abeysekera can be called one of the unheralded molders of that bedrock with held firm against all odds. Perera posits that Abeysekera succeeded in shaping an entire social doctrine or philosophy through the simple literary and musical device called ‘Children’s Song’.
These hundred songs are all works of art which speak to who we are, where we came from and the splendid places we can still visit if we put our hearts and minds to it. The book itself has been elegantly designed with ‘child’ painted all over it. That was, one could argue, inevitable since Sybil Wettasinghe herself illustrated some of the songs and her inimitable script has been used for the titles. All that however remains frill to the man who made the pages, or rather wrote the lines that made them possible.
‘Karuge Lamaa Gee Potha’ is but a slice of the man, and for this reason allows us to imagine his true stature. Karunaratne Abeysekera left a legacy, a foundational text. Good enough for any generation, any collective, to return to and draw strength, meaning and answer in the fact of seemingly insurmountable odds.
This book is clearly a ‘must’ for any library frequented by children and should also come with a CD (perhaps another project for the publisher, ‘Sarasavi’, or anyone else who might have been influenced by Karunaratne Abeysekera’s work, knowingly or otherwise. Few, I would argue, can claim to be unfamiliar with the songs. Few would say they did nothing. Few can listen to them and not become child again. SLBC is excellently positioned to undertake such a task. They have the music and, going by a discernible predilection to recovering that which was best in our radio traditions, the heart as well.