Childhood encounters have a habit of never wearing off even when we grow up, and this was especially true of Bandula’s childhood, which as he himself tells me was spent oscillating between the demands of his elders and his innate sensibilities. “There was almost always bound to be a clash of some sort. As it turned out, that didn’t really hinder me from exploring the arts, but it did prevent me from studying them in detail.”
Much of the education he received during these formative years came from newspapers. “We were always reading critiques and reviews. We didn’t take this as an excuse to side with one school over another and privilege one set of tastes over another. While reading positive reviews of Lester James Peries’ films, for instance, we would also read articles and essays lambasting them written by Jayawilal Wilegoda.” Wilegoda, it seems, had been an influence in the field of music as well: “He was always asking questions like how a popular verse, transliterated as it was from a Hindi melody, like ‘jeevithaye kanthare / thurunu wiyali walle / uthura gala yayi adare’ made sense when, grammatically, it did not. By the time we grew up, we understood this clash between high and populist art, though we never took sides.
From music and literature, he had graduated to movies. “I was regularly taken to the latest shows in town by my sisters. They considered me a nuisance because of how emotional I would get at what was being screened. I still remember, for instance, how I cried at Dommie Jayawardena when he sang ‘Umba Kiya Kiya’ from Hathara Maha Nidhanaya, particularly at those scenes of cows being rounded up for slaughter. I also reacted, rather funnily as I remember, at Asoka Ponnamperuma crying alone at an ambalama in Suhada Sohoyuro, the first film I saw back when I was Grade Four or Five, funnily because I had never even once entertained the possibility that men could cry.” These anecdotes grew on their own accord, and as he grew up, he went up the ranks to the Russian Centre and the British Centre. These were years of culture and counterculture.
Decades later he got to fulfil that desire by getting himself enrolled at the then newly established Sri Lanka Television Training Institute, along with the likes of Sumitra Rahubadda, K. B. Herath, and Douglas Siriwardena. Apparently Tissa Abeysekara had been a lecturer there.
“It was Tissa who taught us the rudiments of cinema and script-writing. I remember him telling us the importance of noting down subtleties in language and expression when writing dialogues. For example, the sentence ‘The king died. Then the queen died’ wasn’t as powerful as the sentence ‘The king died. Saddened by it, the queen died’. It was a whole new world he opened us to, taking us from Eisenstein and his Odessa Steps to the blockbuster. The first film he had scripted, Welikathara, had been influenced by the West. I am glad I knew him.” Due to fortuitous circumstances, however, Bandula never got to be a full-time scriptwriter like his colleagues.
What these years and decades proved, on the other hand, was that he had a voice and one which was good enough to attract a following. Story after story has already been told of “Rae Ira Paana”, which he narrated, in particular how it was ditched by one radio station only to be resurrected by another, and how the criteria used to judge its popularity was in no way aligned with the following it got. But “Rae Ira Paana” deserves a separate article to itself. “What these ratings agencies miss out is that their ‘analyses’, no matter how complex and comprehensive they may be, are based on extrapolations hardly commensurate with a program’s actual popularity.”
Those are Bandula’s other lives. There are many of them (among them, his career at Commercial Bank, which spanned branch after branch from Galle and Matara to Colombo and which ended after 38 years a few months ago). Too many, in fact, to compress into one article. So I return here to his primary fascination, with the word and more pertinently the lyric.
I still remember, for instance, how I cried at Dommie Jayawardena when he sang ‘Umba Kiya Kiya’ from Hathara Maha Nidhanaya, particularly at those scenes of cows being rounded up for slaughter
“I was in Grade Four when I first saw a film. I was also in Grade Four when Sunil Ariyaratne wrote ‘Sakura Mal Pipila’. That song, which was briefly banned and caused quite a stir, appealed to me at once. It was in its simplest sense abstract. It taught me how music could be both abstract and concrete. There were verses and lines in it that didn’t make sense. They weren’t meant to. They didn’t explain. They didn’t formalise reality. They parodied that reality. In later years, when both Sunil and the lady who performed that song, Nanda Malini, went political, I matured. Back when everyone wanted to be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, I hence wanted to be a Sunil Ariyaratne.”
Whether or not he fulfilled his desire there, one can certainly vouch for the between-the-lines complexity of his own work. Bandula’s lyrics, I feel, stand out in the sense that they are connected to some personal experience, however mundane. “It was that little accident at Mahinda College which inspired me to write ‘Mal Pipeyi’. Likewise, ‘Katu Akule’, the title song of Amba Yahaluwo, was borne out of a request to offer a variation on the ditty ‘Rosa Male Natuwe Katu’. ‘Rae Wada Mura’ came to me when I was driving one night and heard a particularly sad account of a garment worker whose entire life was spent sewing for a pittance.” As these demonstrate, Bandula has not become an ivory tower artiste excluding those who listen to him. On the contrary, his work has been a consequence of experience, the best source for aesthetic endeavours of any sort. “I owe it here to my encounters with Russian literature, since the Russians were incomparable in the way they viewed life and its shifting vicissitudes.”
Self-effacing, sometimes to a fault, Bandula is almost always on the go. So what is he engaged in today, now that he has left his career in banking? “I am attached to NSBM Green Campus at Homagama. In fact you can say that I am a sort of consultant there. What happened was that I wanted to commence a program, a series of seminars which were more than seminars, that would impart the importance of aesthetic studies to students. The officials at NSBM loved it. So we organised ‘Chathurwida Manpetha’, which essentially delves into three other spheres: the proper use of information technology, the responsibilities of teachers in the 21st century, and career guidance.”
Regarding their main sphere, a key challenge has been to convince students to pursue their love for literature and the arts while placating the demands of their parents and elders. “Yes, it is a challenge, but then I myself faced it, and whether I liked it or not, I balanced my interests with my career.”
Education, and creative instincts. For some odd, inscrutable reason, they tend to be misconceived as polar opposites. Reminds me of what Marini Fernando, my English teacher from Grade Eight, once told me: “If doctors studied biology and developed a love for reading and poetry, they would be better human beings and professionals in their field.” Perhaps, above everything else, that’s the message “Chathurwida Manpetha” seeks to deliver. We can’t really be sure. In any case, we can guess. And while guessing, we can wish Bandula, and his team, the very best. All the way.