The seventh commemoration of Sri Lanka’s foremost film music composer and pioneer of Sinhala opera Premasiri Khemadasa took place at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute on Friday October 1.
The event was managed and hosted by film maker Sugath Mahadiwulweva, and among those present in a packed auditorium were Khemadasa’s family, including daughter Gayathri, fans, former colleagues, academics, and many artistes from spheres ranging from film making, theatre, singing, poetry and song writing.
Khemadasa somehow managed to pack most of these talents into one career and lifetime. He could have become a singer if he wanted to. He could have written songs and poetry. But his motto was, as he expounds in the documentary on his life screened during this marathon four hour session:
“I love music.” Against images of waves breaking on the beach, he says it has to gush forth. Therefore, the poetry, the drama, the dramatis personae, the masks, the contradictions, loves, hates and rituals of his long and prodigiously productive life were all encompassed in his music. His music is nothing more, nothing less.
People spoke on various aspects of his work – opera, film, working methods, moods, friendships – delving into reminiscences and anecdotes. Speakers included Upali Herath, film makers Dharmasena Pathiraja, Dharmasiri Bandaranaike, T. Arjuna, Prasanna Withanage and Nilendra Deshapriya, dramatist Lucien Bulathsinhala, actor-film maker Sanath Gunathilake, Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardane and singer Pradeepa Dharmadasa, and many more.
Upali Herath spoke of Khemadasa’s habit of ‘thinking out of the box.’
Khemadasa became a living monument. His physical features probably favoured this. Like Beethoven’s, his bust lends itself - - thanks to genetics and nature -- to sculpture in the heroic mode.
A parallel can be drawn between the two in other ways. To avoid misunderstanding, though, let’s start by saying that this is not a comparison between the two as musical talents. Khemadasa didn’t write anything which comes even close to Beethoven’s nine symphonies. But, just as no other musical giants followed Beethoven in the German-speaking world (Wagner was a composer of operas) no contemporary Lankan composer can be compared to Khemadasa. Both are giants in their own musical cultures. Both were rebels who hated authority. That’s a comparison of personality and stature, not of compositional talent or their works. Myths surround all legends, but this forum wasn’t in a mood to debunk or analyse myths. It goes without saying that the outspoken Khemadasa made powerful enemies, and they blacklist him to this day, seven years after his death.
" Even those few within the Eastern music lobby, who enjoyed using Western instruments, were still content to work within that rigid framework. Khemadasa used the guitar, the piano and cello to create tantalisingly new harmonies and textures."
Take his famous (or infamous) remark about one of this country’s top female singers. He was openly sarcastic about her ability, based on her limited tonal range. But her commendable achievement within this limitation too, is worthy of consideration and study, a fact which obviously escaped Khemadasa.
In the final analysis, few in the sphere could match up to his high standards. Among the country’s top eastern-trained musicians, only W. D. Amaradeva, a man of broad vision and many parts, has paid tribute to the maestro.
Others have refrained from saying in public what they privately thought of him. That would have started a war continued to this day.
A few years ago, I heard one of the country’s top musicians and singers, one of Khemadasa’s contemporaries, make an obtuse statement during a radio programme.
While talking about Khemadasa’s music and his symphonic works, this musician actually said: “Symphonies are Western and therefore we don’t feel them. That’s why no one listens to Khemadasa’s symphonies today.” Coming from a man who has made a considerable contribution to Sinhala sarala gi and film music, this is an unbelievably stupid remark. But it reflects the general ignorance which exists here about Western music, and the anti-Khemadasa ethos of the Sinhala music lobby. Comfortable within the limitations of Raghadari music, they were appalled by what the eclectic, iconoclastic Khemadasa did, borrowing from Western sources. Even those few within the Eastern music lobby, who enjoyed using Western instruments, were still content to work within that rigid framework. Khemadasa used the guitar, the piano and cello to create tantalisingly new harmonies and textures.