A few days ago I saw a poster announcing a concert. The title was familiar: ‘Piya satahan’. It was the title of one of Gunadasa Kapuge’s songs. Indeed it was the title song of that album. It meant ‘Footprints’. ‘Piya’ of course refers to ‘father’. A slight word twist and appropriate too, for it was a son’s tribute to a father. Gunadasa Kapuge died, tragically, in April 2003. The poster brought back memories. I remember that day very well. I wrote about it back then. This is what I wrote.
Between Bambalapitiya and Colpetty, there is only enough time to listen to one song on the radio. I was on my way to a wedding in a car driven by a man in a hurry. The song was familiar, it spoke of a long ago that time could not erase, as is the way with songs, flavours and fragrances that have touched or have arrived at moments that linger beyond character and event. “Duka haadu dena raye” (translatable as “the night when sorrow showered kisses”) speaks of love, loss, and how these things descend and remain on the surroundings, how the condition of sorrow, of departure and separation is magnified as it is reflected by the environment that receives the troubled gaze. I sang with the singer and thought to myself, “someday, this man will die and I will not have the words to express my sorrow”. This happened on Thursday afternoon. A few hours later, my wife said, “Aney, Gunadasa Kapuge merunane!” I had not heard that he had met with an accident the previous day. There was shock. And silence. I did not have the words then, and I am not sure I can summon the right words to express this emptiness even now.
Gunadasa Kapuge was always “ours”. He came to us first as a voice from the Raja Rata Sevaya. His voice travelled beyond the Raja Rata and most important, the Raja Rata never left his voice. Kapuge was “ours”, is “ours” still, because he sang of us, with us and for us. His voice mirrored the rhythms and rhymes that make up our lives and moreover it took us to places where we could see ourselves and therefore understand where we should go. When he came out with his concert “Kampana” we knew that this man was not only singing of the way in which our world trembled and shattered, but was also healing our senses with a balm that can only be produced by someone who was acutely aware of what had happened and had suffered the same losses, same sorrows. His example, as much or more than his art, made us strong.
“Sitha niva pahan kala” was the song of the generation that had to live through the bheeshanaya,for it spoke of sacrifice, humility, love, hope and forgiveness. It is also the song of everyone who is shaken by injustice and everyone within whom integrity has taken up residence.
He did not wish his song to please the powerful and the rich, but wanted it to soothe the hearts of the victims. He sang therefore of injustice. “Leli thalana doni”, “ahasa usata” and a countless number of other songs taught political economy more gently and infinitely more clearly than any text of Karl Marx. For me, at least.
And it was not just the politics that made him ours. He chose to speak of the full range of human feeling. His love was not reserved for the politically dispossessed, the politically inclined. His sensitivity travelled over the more earthy, more real troubles of the individual. “Ninda nethi raye”like “dam patin la sanda besa yanawa” (with the late Malini Bulathsinghala) sang the sadness of all departures. “Sudu nenda” captured every nuance of discomfort that attends a scene where the nephew is denied the hand of his cousin. “Sumano” weeps the tears of a man who loses his woman forever. “Ula leno” is a lament that pierces the heart as hauntingly as does the cry of the devil bird.”Unmada sithuwam” most eloquently describes the solitude that a broken heart has to suffer.
Then again, it was not all heartache and lament. “Piya satahan” was about the enduring quality of hope associated with love and the charm of remembered yesterdays. “Oba gena mathakaya mada pavanai” affirms love, partnership and the togetherness of marriage and how these someone make up the salve that makes it easier to suffer life’s many blows.
He was soft, this man. He did not want us to be like mountains, trying to reach higher than each other, but to be like a cool spring, distributing life; not to be a nightmare that troubles the child at night, but a dream that awakens the people from their slumber. He taught us the worth of treating things with equanimity, he taught us love, and he taught us how to overcome the greatest obstacles and more than all this, the worth of community. Kapuge was a benevolent stream that slowly but surely made its way into the desert and forced it to bloom. For you, friend, there is an eternal flower in my heart. If it has colour, it is because your life, your song, your example, graced it with the gentlest touch. There can be no goodbyes spoken. With you, for you, there is only an embrace. You made “you and I” meaningless. And that is not a contradiction.
For now, and for always, you are us. You are ours. And for this reasons, I choose to meditate on the flower you watered with your being. And I can smile. For you gave meaning to the word “tomorrow”. Things cannot remain empty, for he reminded us that life can be full. As long as we want it that way.