As an art form, as a means of self-expression and articulation, music is largely self-referential. It has nothing outside itself; the standards and the yardsticks created for it, by various exogenous factors, are subsumed, sometimes eventually, almost always at once.
This is why of all the art forms we are acquainted with now, music is the least easy, and the most difficult, to propagandise. The moving image and the live theatre thrive on the mediation of two levels of consciousness; that of the performer and that of the spectator. As such it’s easy and despicably so to elevate those levels of consciousness by resorting to a message, whether that act of elevation debases rather than elevates the art itself being a topic for another debate. Music, in any case, is purely a product of its milieu, the milieu that manufactures and then consumes it. The act of consumption, in other words, is no different to the act of production; there can be no mediation between the two, only a levelling down of any and every barrier.
Part of the reason for this, of course, is the comparatively frugal economic base that can sustain a song or for that matter an orchestral performance. The movies will always remain the most industrial of all art forms, reliant on technology in ways that no other art form can hope to match, but the advent of digitalisation and web helped liberate music from the opera house and the concert hall in much the same way that the blogosphere and YouTube helped disseminate criticism and the moving image. The dichotomy between production and consumption that you come across in the cinema, television and of course literature is simply not there in the realm of music.
The transformation of our cultural sphere, from a largely esoteric affair reserved for the colonial elite to the more plebeian catalogue of art forms (cinema, theatre, literature, etc) after 1956, and the revolution it wrought, went hand in hand with an explicit need to liberate those art forms
And because such a dichotomy does not exist, the milieu to which the producer – the vocalist, the lyricist, and the composer – belongs is roughly also the milieu to which the audience, despite any personal quirks individual members may have, belongs as well. The 20th and 21st centuries, with its differentiation between production houses and opera houses, with its democratisation of an entire art, helped sharpen this unique quality, which is how in Sri Lanka you can trace the evolution from the high-flown, high-strung rhetoric of the old composers – who derived their inspiration from the Parsee theatre and a mishmash of Hela Sinhala and several Indian languages, in their songs and musical pieces – to the Pop quality, low key to some, of Neville Fernando, Clarence Wijewardena, and closer to our time, Bathiya and Santhush and Sanuka Wickramasinghe. It is this latter pop sensibility that I wish to explore in some detail here, because in their milieu we see an interesting phenomenon being played out.
The transformation of our cultural sphere, from a largely esoteric affair reserved for the colonial elite to the more plebeian catalogue of art forms (cinema, theatre, literature, etc) after 1956, and the revolution it wrought, went hand in hand with an explicit need to liberate those art forms from the straitjacket of verbal and visual profundities (which were really, at the end of the day, shallow and hollow) indulged by, inter alia, the plays of John de Silva and Sirisena Wimalaweera, the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. de Silva, and the cinema of the Minerva Players. Kadawunu Poronduwa begins with a tableau which culminates with the death of the main character Ranjani’s (Rukmani Devi) father; this tableau, in which the individual characters are identified with reference to their race and social position, reflected the verbosities that our filmmakers, playwrights, and writers in general liked to go for. It is with W. D. Amaradeva that we see a much needed toning down of those verbosities, with his attempts at linking the literary with the romantic through his sarala gee canon.
In a retrospective review of Rekava and Maname, written for the Lanka Guardian in 1982, Regi Siriwardena, our foremost critic writing in English, contended that contrary to the belief held at the time, Sarachchandra’s plays (especially Maname) initially appealed, not to the poor, but to a class that had been left out (absented) by every Government until then; the middle class Sinhala speaking bourgeoisie. This was not really a bourgeoisie, rather a petit bourgeoisie aspiring to be the bourgeoisie, who would patronise the moral exhortations, at times chauvinistic, at times explicitly archaic, echoed in not just Sarachchandra’s early plays, but also the work of the Colombo Poets and the moralistic yet romantic films of L. S. Ramachandran (Deiyange Rate, Kurulubedda, Sikuru Tharuwa). Eventually this petit bourgeoisie, alluded to as a distinct social subset by Ajith Samaranayake in a tribute to Camillus Perera, congealed into a class who called the shots in our cultural spheres. Amaradeva was their icon, their manifest destiny. They would have been nothing without him.
Amaradeva was the peak and the grand culmination of a trend that began with Devar Surya Sena, whose attempts at compounding our traditional sivpada and pal kavi with the grandiosity of the opera and the Church service were criticised as imitative by Sarachchandra and warmly reflected on by Tissa Abeysekara (indicating the manifest differences of opinion Sena’s work compelled and continues to compel today).
Those who laid the groundwork for the later masters – including Hubert Rajapakse, whose eloquent recitation of Danno Budunge, misconceived as a Buddhist song by our nationalists, would find its pivot decades later with Kishani Jayasinghe (only this time provoking, not infatuation, but hatred) – were not fully aware of what they were doing.
From these two masters we come to Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha. Rajapakse and Sena were scions of the Anglican elite, who reflected a sensibility different to the more vernacular community from which the latter two hailed. Shantha in particular, who extensively resorted to the piano and organ (a staple of the Catholic Church) in his work (including his tribute to Munidasa, “Kumarathungunge”), did not have a polished voice that could reckon with the past masters, and neither did Samarakoon, but they were truly, deeply connected with the Buddhist ethos which they went to in some form or the other (Samarakoon converted to Buddhism, while Shantha, a fervent Catholic, in his later phase pared down his melodies to invoke the unmusical intonations of the Buddhist faith, particularly with “Po Da Daham Sihile”). The shift from the Anglican elite to the Catholic poor was essential at this juncture because it opened up a crevice that would be filled, after 1956, by the baila and the calypso singer: from Neville Fernando (“Gayana Gayum”) to Paul Fernando (“Golu Hadawatha Vivara Karanna”). Amaradeva was more or less a product of all these.
At the heart of the baila and calypso that preceded Amaradeva was a contradiction, particularly with the two foremost second generation singers, M. S. Fernando and Anton Jones. Their lyrics, which are for the most devoted to their own workings and rhythms and nonsensical shades of meaning, articulate a dichotomy between a life of luxury and ease and enjoyment and the lack of any money or financial security which was needed to maintain such a life.
Clarence pandered to the milieu which, while shirking the proletarian (if one can use that term) and self-indulgent ethic of the second generation baila vocalists, enthralled the milieu which produced them (the petit bourgeoisie, the middle class, the thuppahi) by bringing about a fusion between their low key sensibilities and the sensibility that thrived on a more literary, witty, and meaningful conception of music. For it to work, and for it to ensnare the consumerist, hedonistic middle class (Buddhist or Catholic, located predominantly in the metropolis), however, the songs that Clarence put out had to subsist on a class rift between the householder and the servant. It is this rift, which you come across in ‘Mango Kalu Nande’ and ‘Mame Ape Kalu Mame’, which earned Clarence, the Moonstones, and the Super Golden Chimes their place in the sun. They were poking fun at a way of life they had got out of, a way of life Anton Jones celebrated, a way of life they attributed to their helpers, their maids, their aayas.
In the end, therefore, by parodying them, he parodied the men and women we wanted to be. This curious paradox – between our affections for and repudiation of them – became its own standard, its own yardstick. And our own standard, our own yardstick.