Bandula Nanayakkarawasam: From Galle to the world

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By 2018-02-11

By Uditha Devapriya

In Bandula Nanayakkarawasam's best work – "Mal Pipeyi" and "Katu Akule" and "Akal Maruthe" and even "Ahasai Oba Mata" – he regresses into the romantic that he spurns, somewhat uncomfortably, in his more politically and socially aware work (the best among which, I think, is "Rae Wada Muraya"). His personality – larger-than-life yet contained, witty yet never overly talkative – belies a gentle spirit, the sort that reminds you of the most colourful childhoods. If the man's childhood is anything to go by, therefore, his encounters and experiences have, indeed, coloured his work.

Nanayakkarawasam was born in Galle, about two or three kilometres from the town. His childhood was, in his own words, quite fortunate in terms of the education he received. His first encounter with music had been a large Mullard radio brought by his uncle, a connoisseur of the arts who apparently had been a collector of rare items and instruments. "Since we lived at a time when not even the richest families in our neighbourhood owned a radio, big or small, owning a Mullard was a big deal."

The contraption had entranced young Bandula in more ways than one. "Back then we had only two local services run by one station, Radio Ceylon. It was on this radio that I first received my education in music. I was also the youngest in my family by a wide margin, my podi akka being eight years older than me. Naturally, I was a bit of a loner in my house, and in my free time, which I never lacked even when I was at school, I used to place my ears on it and listen to every song." He jokingly tells me here that he once believed that the singers and announcers who sang and spoke were hidden in the device: "So when I listened to it during a thunderstorm and my loku akka warned me that if lightning struck it would break apart, I honestly thought people would come
out. I was about five at the time."

I ask him here whether he looked for the lyrics in a song. "Not really. We first hear a tune, then a voice, then a name. You must understand that it was in my time that people like Victor Ratnayake and Sanath Nandasiri emerged. Amaradeva was before them. But as a child, I went for Victor aiya's songs because of his voice." I put to him that the likes of Victor emerged as a result of the efforts Amaradeva made, and he agrees. "To be honest, it was after listening to Victor aiya that we realized how poetic Amaradeva's lyrics were. Poetry didn't figure very highly in me then."

His interest in the arts developed beyond music as the years went by. His father (a firm leftist and an avid reader) would give him as much as Rs 100 to buy books. "I used to go to a store owned by a man called Lionel and buy a lot, because back then a book cost about four or five rupees." He would get hooked on to literature, above everything Russian literature, which as he says made him see the world in a different light even through translations. "We also had novels, short story collections and poetry published by Progress Publishers. Naturally, I indulged in them all."

Young Bandula was sent to Richmond College, where his teachers inculcated in him a wider appreciation of what he'd grown to love. "One of my English teachers was a man called W.S. Bandara. He introduced me to the English translations of Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. It was then that I realized how woefully inadequate our translators were. Of course there were exceptions like K. G. Karunathilaka, but apart from them the others didn't feel the text they were working on."

Apparently, the radio figured so much in his life at this point that he couldn't really do without it even when studying. "A man called Jinasena lent me some flexible wires, which I then used on an American speaker which belonged to my uncle. Our house oversaw a wel yaya. When I listened to the radio in my room while studying arithmetic, that wel yaya was always within my sight. That was the kind of childhood and education I had." As he grew up though, it wasn't just songs that he listened to but other programmes as well, among them E. W. Adikaram's Vidya Dahanaya, Mahinda Ranaweera's Sithijaya, Lucien Bulathsinghala's Sandella, H. M. Gunasekera's Irida Sangrahaya, and Tissa Abeysekara's Art Magazine.

Curious as to what his musical tastes are, I then ask whether he differentiated between "low" and "high" art in his day. He says he doesn't think so. "That came later. But back then we read and we exchanged newspapers with our neighbours. So we weren't completely ignorant of the divide between high and low art. For instance, I would come across Jayawilal Wilegoda's articles on the cinema. Wilegoda lambasted Sinhala films which imitated Bollywood. The same went for music. People like him were always asking questions like how a popular verse like 'Jeevithaye kathanthare / Thurunu wiyali walle / Uthura gala yayi adare' made sense, when they didn't. By the time we'd grown up as schoolboys, we knew about this divide. Not that it deterred us from indulging in everything that came our way, of course."

Bandula's reference to films isn't arbitrary: apparently even the cinema had entranced him. To put all his encounters on this count here would be impossible, though. Suffice it to say that he entertained the idea of being a scriptwriter at one point, even getting into the Sri Lanka Television Training Institute (SLTTI) along with Sumitra Rahubadda, K. B. Herath and Douglas Siriwardena. "I was taught by Tissa Abeysekara." Notwithstanding his stints at the SLTTI, though, he didn't get to become a full-time scriptwriter, apart from a television adaptation of T. B. Ilangaratne's Vilambita directed by Lakshman Wijesekara and broadcast on Swarnavahini.

Getting back to his musical career, I ask him whether he has taken a side in the divide between the aesthetic and the political in lyrics. There's a name that obviously crops up here, and needless to say it does crop up."Sunil Ariyaratne wrote "Sakura Mal Pipila" when I was in Grade Four. That song was what first made me realize how abstract music was. In later years, as he and Nanda Malini went on to endeavours like "Sathyaye Geethaya" and "Pavana" I matured. Even now, when you listen to "Perahera Enawa" you feel nothing but admiration for a man who rebelled against tradition and order in what he wrote. The two of them taught me about the potential of a song or for that matter any work of art. I can't really write about the things they explored with such vigour, but that doesn't take away my admiration for them." He adds that his encounters with Russian novelists left a deep impression in this regard. "To this date, I prefer the poetry of Pushkin to that of Wordsworth. That's not to say that Wordsworth doesn't have merit, but the Russians were incomparable in how they observed life and reality."

What about the present? Bandula is noticeably glum here. According to him, the Sinhala lyric is progressively deteriorating in quality. I ask him whether this is because our generation isn't as receptive to the abstract in art as his had been. He says he doesn't think so. "We've commercialized art, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but then we're confused about what a popular song is. Think of it this way: when was the last time you heard a proper, meaningful song when you were travelling by bus?"

I suggest here that things would certainly have been better in his time, but he agrees only half-heartedly. "You implied earlier that we've de-sensitised ourselves so much that we can't appreciate the abstract in art. This isn't something new. In my day, to give you an example, there was a vocalist called Piyasiri Wijeratne. He isn't remembered today because his output wasn't prodigious. The problem was that we had a habit of putting down talent even then, an unfortunate trait in us which persists to this date. In later years, Tissa Abeysekara would publicly observe that Piyasiri had among the best voices in this country. But did we recognize him then?" I see his point at once: blaming some imaginary malaise for the "cultural desert" we seem to find everywhere today, to an extent at least, blinds us to the fact that in each and every epoch our music "industry" as such has faced a huge deficit.

I don't hear Nanayakkarawasam on the bus often. Proves his point.




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