It was a very pleasant Friday evening. The Chamber Music Society of Colombo, a symphony orchestra was playing film music opposite the World Trade Centre twin towers. Conducted by Lakshman Joseph de Saram, the internationally-known film music composer, (Machan, Bel Ami, Ira Mediyama, Akasa Kusum) the orchestra played in the open air to a mixed audience of seated invitees, standing passers-by and people visiting the restaurants and shopping centres housed in the historic building which was a Dutch hospital back in the 18th century and, in more recent times, the former Fort Police Station.
First, the music. Amplified by a superb sound system, one could have been fooled into believing that a bigger orchestra was playing. Lakshman Joseph’s short but detailed commentaries in between the pieces were both informative and entertaining. The occasion was inspired by the Colombo International Film Festival which concluded on Sunday.
But, as the music progressed, I was left wondering about the title. ‘Film Music’ seemed to be something of a misnomer as Vivaldi was followed by Bach and Mozart. Certainly, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) was magical in those surroundings, as was Bach’s Air on a String, with the sea breezes blowing in over the Galle Face Green. But it’s classical music written at an era when films was just a dream.
In this context, the title should have been ‘classical music as played in films.’ If we talk about film music, it’s a distinct genre and there are countless themes to choose from – from Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, or Dr. Zhivago (Maurice Jarre), The Pink Panther (Henri Mancini), Mission Impossible (Lalo Shiffrin) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Tan Dun) The French Connection (Don Ellis), West Side Story (Bernstein) Seven Samuai (Fumio Hayasaka) or music from the great Westerns – The Magnificent Seven (Bernstein again) and certainly those electrifying themes by Ennio Morricone in the Dollar series. Or, more recently, Morricone’s music in Malena. Then there’s Castaway (Alan Silvestri) and Schindler’s List, and so on. If you think these are too well known, there are others (Sacco and Vinzetti, again by Morricone) or Enter the Dragon (by Lalo Shiffrin) . This is, of course, popular music, with the usual stigmas attached to it. That’s why Morricone, one of the greatest living composers, received so little recognition (except from film producers, directors and fans) till recently. It isn’t beneath a symphony orchestra’s dignity to play this music. Prestigious film orchestras all over the world, from London to Berlin, Prague, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow have done so).
Premasiri Khemadasa’s theme from Lester James Pieris’ Golu Hadawatha was played with terrific feeling. Lakshman Joseph is known to be an admirer of Khemadasa, without dispute the greatest composer in any genre this country has produced. But that was the only instance I recall during that evening of original film music (and why just one Khemadasa piece?) The rest was delightful classical music as used in films.
My guess is that the orchestra’s small size was behind this reasoning. Morricone’s music for the Westerns would require electric guitars and percussion. Dr. Zhivago, too, would need a larger orchestra, including a harp. Others would require piano or electronic organ. But there is much that could have been played with the instruments available. I enjoyed the music, but it was really ‘classical music in the films’ and not film music as such.
While sitting there, other thoughts crossed my turbulent mind. They were related to art, but in a totally different way. As the good feeling sank in, as the music soothed the nerves and as dusk turned quickly into magical night, the surroundings looked genial, modern and cosmopolitan – the well-dressed crowd, the optimistically-lit architecture, and even the traffic which glided in slow motion. It was all so well-ordered and civilised.
But memory is a funny thing. It brings in unwelcome visitors while the party is on. As I watched the solitary frangipani tree behind the seated audience, near the entrance to the shopping and dining places, it occurred to me that, assuming my information is correct, this was where journalist, broadcaster and Shakespearean actor Richard de Zoysa was bludgeoned and shot to death on Feb. 19, 1990. My source is a police intelligence officer, now retired. I don’t think he had any need to make this up. He didn’t name the abductors, but they are known to be a four-man death squad consisting of the very policemen who are supposed to protect us from violent crime (anyone interested can look up Wikipedia and other internet sources). They were carrying out orders from the highest levels of government.
I don’t doubt that those who organized the open air concert, as well as the audience, were unaware of this fact. All anyone knows is that he was killed somewhere and his body dumped in the sea, to be washed ashore at Moratuwa by the currents. I don’t wish to spoil anyone’s fun or sense of well being. It’s just that history, like memory, is weird. We are supposed to remember the hard lessons of life. But this was someone else’s lesson, and easy to forget.
I have no idea where exactly on this lovely courtyard that this ghastly murder took place. According to my source, it was in the open, and Richard de Zoysa’s screams woke up those sleeping on the Green. When people came running to look, they were chased away by the executioners.
I remember Richard de Zoysa as a charming, modest and generous individual. Neither the country’s human rights record, nor its all too small Shakespearean theatre space, have recovered from his death. As I sat there listening to Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, I wondered what Richard must have felt as he was beaten to a pulp with rafters piled up in the courtyard for a repair to the police station.
A decent-looking type who in his forties, old enough to remember that crime, came and sat next to me.
He asked me a question about Lakshman Joseph. He was a film buff and highly taken up with the ongoing film festival.
I couldn’t resist telling him about Richard de Zoysa. It wasn’t the right thing to do, I suppose. But I have seen so many things going wrong, all for the wrong reasons or no reason at all, that I felt I had to tell him. Besides, he looked the ‘Buddhimath’ type, and I wanted to know what his reaction was.
He sat there, staring at me. Then he shook his head, muttered something, and walked away. He walked so fast that he was almost running. This is almost quarter of a century after that murder. Those who ordered it have certainly got their message across. Life must go on, but people should remember. Richard de Zoysa died defending our freedom of expression. Colombo – the entire country, indeed – has undergone considerable physical changes since then. But these are cosmetic. The great socio-political evils that Zoysa fought against have, if anything, increased. The veneer looks and feels civilized. But the machinery to destroy voices like Zoysa’s are in place, ready for action.