The trouble with vilifying revolutionists is that those who vilify them happen to be those who’d themselves think twice of sticking to a particular cause or ideal. Malinda Seneviratne never belonged to this crowd, which is why his pieces on Nanda Malini and Sunil Ariyaratne deserve more than a cursory comment.
However, where Malinda is wrong and where those of us who think differently about these two musical sensibilities are not, is that humanity isn’t predicated on the act of reflecting on sorrow and oppression and exploitation; it’s not predicated on anything definitive, come to think of it. The “larger humanity” he wrote of in his critique of Pawana comes out, if we are to take his criteria of aesthetic values, in the poetry of Sekera and much of the work of the lyricists who followed him, the early Ariyaratne included.
The main dividing line between the Old Left (the Communist Party, the LSSP, the NSSP) and the New Left (the JVP) was the fact that the former were theoreticians and the latter were, for the most part, proactive agitators. (I am talking about the eighties.) Theoreticians tend to mumble and distort. They also tend to compromise. The splits between the Trotskyites and the Communists had been, naturally, ideological, but the split between the Old and the New was more potent, more emotive.
Nanda Malini has that rare, enviable ability to convey both infatuation and irony through her voice, as I pointed out last week.
Ariyaratne and Malini (were) identified with this split. They were no longer aesthetes composing the poetry of love. They had become direct, provocative, and at times raw pamphleteers. The reason why they hit so many people was simply that those people were tired of theoreticians and elites and compromisers. They wanted someone, anyone, to transform rebellion into poetry. That’s what Ariyaratne did.
So by being direct, raw, and provocative, these two salvaged their political statements from the fogginess of the poetry their forbearers had dipped them in. Ranbanda Seneviratne compared the 1971 insurrectionists to the ula lena; Kularatne Ariyawansa compared the socially conscious protagonist of Sumitra Peries’ Yahalu Yeheli, Mudithalatha, to a woman of many mothers (“Eka Mawakage Duwa”); Sekera affirmed the act of dying alone, and uncared for, frequently. Such lyrics are at best obscurantist to those who want them to be more naked. It’s that form of nakedness one comes across in Wordsworth’s early work, even when he reflected on it later on:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways,
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once,
The attraction of a country in romance, I can identify strongly with Ariyaratne and Malini today because, like Wordsworth, they celebrated a country in romance (bloodied though it was), and because, unlike Wordsworth, they were not romantics when they chose to celebrate it. They knew what they were in for; their act of renouncing their earlier phase, in which they had celebrated different “facts of life” (so to speak), was conscious, willed, confirmed.
It’s not the kind of youthful exuberance which Wordsworth, Coleridge, Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis embraced, certainly not the kind of privileged status these men enjoyed even when they were writing against the same institutions which helped them lead their privileged lives. For that reason alone, I think, their later self-exile to India, brief though it was, was not, as Malinda implies, a choice two turncoats would have made, but an eventuality they had to force themselves into. In one sense the critics are right, though: while she renounced her earlier avatar, which I suppose every artist does at some point in his or her life, Malini downright spurned it. Writing seven years ago, Dr. Ruwan Jayathunga noted the following:
“... she was unable to give leadership and make her music a powerful social force that could be a strong voice for social justice, since she did not believe in what she sang. Her music was dependent on the people’s requests. When they appealed for nationalism, she fulfilled the request with songs like ‘Me Sinhala Apage Ratai’. When the trend changed, she refused to perform it. When the trend was ‘anti open economic system’, her music changed accordingly despite the fact that she enjoyed the benefits of the market economy selling her music albums.”
Malinda summed up that last point rather acerbically, seven years before the doctor:
“During those ‘I-can’t-sing-the-saundarya (aesthetic)’ days, when she thundered revolution from the many ‘Pawana’ concerts, she sold the ‘saundarya’ cassettes of her previous avatar on the side. So much for integrity and revolutionary ethics.”
There are more avenues than one open to the turncoat, or the mellowed revolutionist: becoming a Wordsworth, who celebrated the jingoism and the impassivity he had repudiated in his younger days; or becoming a Blake, Milton, or Dylan, who persists with so much revolutionary rhetoric that he or she is considered a parvenu, an outsider, a quirk. Nanda Malini had refused to sing of nationalism. Now she was refusing to sing of revolution. The Pawana songs were recorded and released again, yes, but never with the kind of energetic fieriness she breathed into them the first time. As for Ariyaratne, he turned into a different sort of Wordsworth: the sort who celebrated a different kind of impassivity and inertia, which by the way is what makes for much of his lyrics in the nineties and the early 2000s. They had celebrated the otherness of radicalism. Now they were celebrating the otherness of themselves:
And it’s a celebration not of themselves, but of their intertwined poetic sensibilities:
That last song (“Obai Mage”) is a joyful rehash of the opening to the Pawana songs which compare the two of them to earlier, classical poets and their consorts, including, of course, Ranchagoda Lamaya (“Upasakamma”). Obviously, they couldn’t completely evade their political phase. The truth is that we couldn’t either:
Nanda Malini has that rare, enviable ability to convey both infatuation and irony through her voice, as I pointed out last week. It’s that ability which keeps her from giving completely into anger, hate, or sorrow. She and Ariyaratne do criticise the clergy and the laity, but not with the kind of bitter cynicism that someone like, say, Sunil Perera, resorts to off air. The difference between the sarcasm in Perera’s contemporary work (“I Don’t Know Why”, “Lankawe Ape Lankawe”) and that of Ariyaratne’s earlier work is that the latter is creatively AMBIVALENT about it: while he does condemn the clergy for their impassivity when encountering crooks and standing up for them, he also softens the blow by writing about the clergymen who did, in fact, stand up for what was right in an earlier, as cruel, but gentler era:
Ariyaratne and Malini (were) identified with this split. They were no longer aesthetes composing the poetry of love. They had become direct, provocative, and at times raw pamphleteers
Coupled with Malini’s dexterity, Ariyaratne’s lyrics are so roundelay that they don’t mean what we think they do. That’s his single greatest achievement, one which takes us back to our rich poetic tradition of double entendres and metaphors and deliberate confusions of identity and ideology. Decades earlier, Sekera and Amaradeva resorted to this same tradition in their most vibrant work before they gave into more mundane themes. It’s that tradition which crops up in “Etha Gaw Ganan Durin”, which is less a celebration and more a satire of the fashion and the chic-ness the city inspires:
Except that Ariyaratne doesn’t just satirise, he downright stabs:
Much of Ariyaratne’s work after the nineties gives into this directness, but there was a part to him that refused to leave the indirectness, the ambivalence, of his early phase: the phase that gave us Sathyaye Geethaya, not Pawana. It’s a wholly provocative phase that greets us here, though provocative in a different sense: less political, more suggestive, by which I mean bordering on scatological, youthful silliness:
One need not, of course, be a poet to identify what (or who) exactly Ariyaratne was writing about in “Gata Gata Awidin”, or to identify what he wrote about in “Nona”:
The silliness, which these lyrics inspire, is never justified, never rationalised, a point that I think adds to their youthful sense of frivolity. They set off rather lewd speculations, which the lyricist doesn’t rationalise either. In these post-Pawana songs the melody, moreover, is as playful, suggestive, and silly as the words. (Most of them were composed by their Pawana collaborator, Rohana Weerasinghe.)
Sunil Ariyaratne and Nanda Malini took us towards a new musical sensibility in the seventies and the eighties. With their new work, however, which sometimes brings them together and sometimes is worked on separately, the lyricist and the vocalist try to reconcile themselves to the creative indirectness that had inspired their earliest songs, “Sukiri Batillange Geethaya” and “Sakura Mal Pipila” included.
Decades later, having caved into a more political conception of their medium, and having had to flee, they tried, to varying degrees of success, to fit into what they had once been. They couldn’t be political, because that would have invited more censure. Instead they resorted to youthful silliness, turning at least briefly into their younger selves. They had embraced the radical; now they were embracing themselves. They had celebrated the political; now they were celebrating the aesthetic. They had turned into a new musical sensibility; now they were turning away from it. They still are.