When you listen to “Saragaye”, and watch the video, you get enveloped in complete happiness. In some vague, indefinable, magical way, Sanuka Wickramasinghe has given a form to our collective experience of one night stands and crushes and unrequited romances. And yet the elders don’t like him: they lambast him over every little detail.
Even the choice of title, for these puritans, is a gross misdemeanour (“Saragaye”, in case you were wondering, is the apotheosis of ragaya, or passion and lust) which may lead the young astray (as if the elders weren’t doing a despicably good job of that already!). I can’t understand how one music video, and a 24 year old vocalist with around three or four minor hits to his name, could bring about this heightening of an already terse conflict between the elders and their offspring, but there you have it: the former criticise him because he appeals so ineffably and directly to the latter.
While the elders see in it the kind of music that can corrupt our youth, these people see in it a perpetuation of a form of music that does not thrive on words or a literary sensibility.
Many of those I’ve met with, and interviewed or chatted with at length at some point, who are not elderly, see in “Saragaye” a facile novelty that barely transcends its limitations (more on those later) because of the vocalist himself, and the electronic percussive rhythms that we’ve not heard for quite some time. While the elders see in it the kind of music that can corrupt our youth, these people see in it a perpetuation of a form of music that does not thrive on words or a literary sensibility. Even the young, armed with their Sinhala Honours Degrees, offer an excuse for their mixed feelings towards the man: that despite the percussive rhythms and the daring monochrome visuals, “Saragaye” offers nothing by way of summing up the human condition through poetry.
This attitude of rabid scepticism, while not excusable, isn’t without reason. As I pointed out in my article on Bathiya and Santhush before, and last year in my article on Ajantha Ranasinghe, in the Sinhala sarala gee a balance was always kept between the personal and the aesthetic. The narrator became, in the early days of the Amaradevas and Victor Ratnayakes, the embodiment of a collective experience, because that poetic tradition provided a multitude of metaphors and rhetorical devices. This was true of Ranasinghe’s work, and even truer of, on the one hand, K. D. K. Dharmawardhana (whose best lyrics are laden with so much poetry that they are difficult to take in, in one go) and, on the other, Premakeerthi de Alwis (whose rich vocabulary he discarded in favour of a simple, almost verbal form of poetry). We missed out on the word, and substituted for it the glosses of technology.
Because technology, no matter how alluring it is, usually isn’t very interesting or enriching, the older generation fell out. There had been production houses in the seventies and eighties, but they had all been primitive in the way they were operated: if you got your recording wrong, you had to repeat, again and again. That sense of meticulousness gets lost in the blur of money-making processes, and the new production houses, owned by second generation artists and the offspring of the first generation artists – Ranga Dassanayake, Raj Seneviratne, Bathiya and Santhush – unleashed a New Wave. But that New Wave operated on a fatal rift, between technology on the one hand and the profit motive on the other. (Can they ever coexist? I personally don’t think so.) They entranced the millennials, from my generation, and predictably evaded, and alienated, the old.
Youngsters who respond to a song like “Saragaye”, the elders I know keep on telling me, aren’t responding to the words or even the meaning that those words evoke, but instead reflect on and allow themselves to be carried away by what lies on the surface. These elders point at Iraj, and even Bathiya and Santhush, and claim that they began this trend, forgetting that while technology clearly cannot, should not, and will not be a substitute for lyricism, we can’t avoid resorting to it either. The millennials went for this technology-induced music; they were what Pauline Kael referred to decades ago as “brutalists”, who were tired of the “sanctity” of the songs they were being forced to listen to.
After Bathiya and Santhush and Iraj, all three of whom spawned a generation of imitators who never transcended their imitativeness despite the superficiality of their work, we come to Sanuka Wickramasinghe.
Sanuka represents a different kind of facile novelty, not just in terms of the electronic percussiveness and the rhythms of his music, but the themes he goes for in song after song. When you read (into) the answers he has given to those questions asked by interviewers in those countless gossip websites, you are enthralled by the simplicity and naiveté of the way he sees the world. (He’s still a schoolboy, even in the way he croons.) If his songs – and there haven’t been many of them since he started out in 2011 – reflect a vibrant youthfulness, it’s because he’s young and very much so. (One year my senior) Sanuka has gone beyond those earlier imitators before him in taking the young beyond technology, but if he has failed at least a little in this venture, it’s because the old, having responded to this endeavour of his warmly, are instantly repelled by what he thematises in his works.
About a year after he released “Saragaye”, Sanuka released “Perawadanak”, which was manifestly different, especially in terms of the themes it tackled. If “Saragaye” belonged to a young demographic that hailed from an urbane, chic, and school-going milieu, “Perawadanak”, with its vignette of an unfulfilled love, appealed to a considerably elderly population. A schoolboy I know once asked Sanuka why, and his reply was that this shift in the targeted audience was an effort to get his songs beyond the youth; it was an attempt at pleasing the elders who shirked him. (“Saragaye” was about giving into passion; “Perawadanak was about the catharsis of a broken romance, which I think taps into a more elderly mentality.) Did it work? I should think so: many of the elders I know, and talk with, while disdainful of “Saragaye”, reacted less coldly to “Perawadanak.” That Sanuka has not done a song since then speaks volumes, I believe, about the fact that he released it just a year after his first big hit just so to get out his themes to a wider public, since in Sri Lanka, the young, while comprising 25% of the total population, are just not enough for someone of his calibre to reach stardom.
These two songs reflect the kind we’ve been missing out for almost a decade. They are not perfect in any conceivable sense – which begs the question, why should we demand perfection in any art form? But the indictment that there is no meaning in “Saragaye”, that the lyrics lack the requisite complexity for us to elevate it to the status of ART, are, I firmly believe, lopsided at best and wildly inaccurate at worst. “Saragaye”, for instance, opens with these mystical, almost otherworldly, and deliberately fragmented lines:
It’s fragmentary for the simple reason that the love story being described here has no proper structure, or for that matter order: unlike those conventional music videos you see everywhere here, there are no walls to be surmounted or for that matter no lovers bemoaning failed romances. The narrator of “Saragaye” has no standalone voice either, because Sanuka is not the protagonist of his video; he’s observing from the sidelines, reflecting on what he perceives. The fragmented lyrics add depth to this already lopsided romance, and in the end, we don’t really understand what the hero or protagonist sees in the woman he befriends.
Those who argue that contemporary music has become a mishmash are, while not wrong, aren’t entirely correct either. The most common excuse dished out is that the young don’t look out for complexity in the lyrics, that they are entranced by the allure of the surface – in other words, technology – so much that they don’t bother reading into the work. Nothing could be further from the truth. In deceiving themselves about the young this way, the elders, or at least those who aren’t willing to compromise or give their offspring the benefit of the doubt, are forgetting that we are seeing a revival of sorts in our musical sphere. It’s the kind of pop revival Europe underwent in the seventies, with the rise of ABBA and Brotherhood of Man and Lulu, all three of whom won at the Eurovision Song Contest for tunes we remember and treasure and hum for their innocence and simplicity, despite the fact that, yes, the elders of that time derided them.
The elders have spoken. So have the young. We can choose to side with either side, or we can enjoy what’s on the radio. Perhaps we’d better switch on the radio. That’s what I’d do, since for me, that’s the only real option we have.